A Symphony in Steam – a steampunk short story

Tilda reached her seat just as the bright flames of the gas lamps turned down to a minute flicker. A moment later, a woman stepped out in front of the curtains, her angular face and elegant dress illuminated by the blaze of the footlights, and the crowd burst into applause for Dame Letitia Glave, the foremost composer of this or any generation. Tilda, swept up in the wave of enthusiasm, clapped so hard that her hands hurt, until Dame Letitia raised her own gloved hands and the crowd fell silent.

“A Most Extraordinary Night,” the handbill promoting the concert had said. It would turn out to be one of the great moments of truth in advertising.

“Tonight, I have a new piece for you.” Dame Letitia’s rich voice filled the concert hall, her words hooking every listener on the point of anticipation. Tilda, who had never been to such a grand recital before, grinned to herself in the darkness. “Not just a new piece, but a new instrument.”

The curtains flew back, revealing something like a gigantic church organ, but with strings as well as pipes, and with a row of drums and gongs along the front. The crowd gasped, then applauded, as crowds were prone to doing. Tilda squinted as she tried to work out what all the pieces were and how they fitted together.

“Now, for the very first time, my Symphony Number Nine, for Glave Organ.”

Dame Letiti took a bow, stepped back, and flung a lever on the device. There was a hiss of steam rushing through pipes, and then the noises began.

It was, the kinder reviewers would later say, a sound like no other. Even the kindest among them faltered after that point, leaving the way clear for those unblinkered by the great Dame’s reputation. “An appalling racket,” wrote Vandermeer of the City Times. “Dying dogs have made sweeter music,” wrote Brooks of the County Express. Atwood of the Daily Light was perhaps the most damning: “I would have torn my own ears off, if not for fear that this so-called music would reach my brain directly through the holes.”

Yet through it all, through the screeching of pipes, the wailing of strings, the flat clatter of percussion, Dame Letitia stood proudly by her machine, head tilted on one side, listening with apparent delight. Tilda watched in shame, then horror, then growing fascination, wondering how this could possibly end.

As the last discordant squeal faded away, Dame Letitia bowed, then looked out expectantly as the house lights rose.

No one clapped.

No one cheered.

As Letitia later wrote in her autobiography, even jeers and flung tomatoes would have been better than that awful silence, as the shocked audience rose from their seats and hurried away.

While the auditorium cleared around her, Tilda stayed in place, peering past the unseemly rush of bodies to the machine on the stage. The sound had been monstrous, like nothing she had ever heard, and yet it had stirred something inside her. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t heroic, but it was real. It was a pain like heartbreak and a pace like running to catch a lost friend. It compelled her.

Stage hands watched nervously from the wings, and the manager clutched at his cravat, trying to find the courage to speak to the humiliated star. But Tilda had no such qualms. Glory had been torn away, and now she saw only a heartbroken woman, standing trembling on a stage. Tilda walked down between the seats until she stood just behind the footlights and looked up at Dame Letitia.

“Excuse me, Madam,” Tilda said.

Dame Letitia’s voice was a tiny, quivering thing, a small echo of her machine. “Yes, my dear?” she managed.

“Could you teach me to play this thing?”

It was the beginning of what critics would later call the most remarkable pairing in music, and while few of those critics meant remarkable as a compliment, Tilda chose to hear it that way.

***

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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.

Spam Today – a historical short story

Lancaster bomber in flight
Image by h s from Pixabay

The windows of the mess hall rattled as a Lancaster bomber rumbled along the landing strip outside, smoke trailing from a damaged engine, the last to return from the previous night’s run over Germany. Behind the serving hatch, Wilf Turner crossed himself and offered up a silent prayer for the ones who wouldn’t come back.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” Flight Lieutenant Halliard asked, late to arrive as usual, expecting the kitchen staff still to be there ready to feed him.

“Spam today, sir.” Wilf deposited a fritter on the lieutenant’s plate, then reached for the mashed potato spoon.

“More bloody spam?” Halliard sighed. “I know there’s a war on, so it’s not going to be duck a l’orange every lunchtime, but can’t you get us a bit of variety? I ate better than this at Eaton, and we all know what that was like.”

Wilf most definitely didn’t, but he wasn’t going to highlight the reasons someone like Halliard looked down on him.

“I’m doing my best sir,” he said, shifting to take the weight off his club foot. It sometimes hurt to spend this long standing at the hatch, but if he couldn’t be up in the air, he could at least help those who were.

“The worst part is, you probably are.” Halliard shook his head, took the plate, and walked away, leaving Wilf to glare after him.

*

Wilf was on the verge of closing the serving hatch when Flight Lieutenant Halliard swaggered in, still wearing his flight suit, grabbed a plate, and walked up with the usual smug look on his face.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” he asked.

“Spam, sir,” Wilf said, reaching for the serving spoon.

“Again? Christ on a bike, Turner, I thought it was your job to feed us as well as you can.”

“I am, sir, but there are limits.”

“Limits to your intelligence.”

Some of the other airmen looked around to see what the fuss was about. They watched with amusement as Halliard pulled a face of pantomime disgust, while Wilf crumpled in on himself in embarrassment.

“What have you made?” Halliard continued. “It looks like someone ran over the commander’s dog and shovelled it onto a plate.”

That got laughter. Wilf’s cheeks burned with shame. He’d worked hard on the meal. He knew it wasn’t brilliant, but he didn’t have brilliant resources.

“It’s a spam hash, sir,” he said. “It’s made with—”

“At this point, I honestly don’t care. No idea why I expected better from a sallow-faced shirker who spends the war in the kitchen, not out there fighting the good fight.”

Wilf felt like an artillery shell was clogging his throat. Everyone was watching, but he wasn’t meant to answer back to officers, and he didn’t even know where he would start. How dare Halliard talk to him like this? If he could have done, he would have been up there with the rest of them. Hell, he would rather have been shot down over Germany than be stuck here all this time.

“My foot,” he mumbled.

Halliard rolled his eyes. “Keep your excuses to yourself. And next time I’m here, there had better not be any bloody spam.”

*

A movement in the doorway of the mess hall made Wilf reach under the counter. Then he saw that it was one of the senior engineers, not Halliard, so he took the lid off his pan and scooped up a ladle full of stew.

“Beef!” the engineer exclaimed as he caught the stew’s scent. “Turner, you’re a legend.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wilf put the lid back on the pot, glanced at his hidden plate of spam, and grinned. Everyone else was so happy with their meals, but wait until Halliard turned up. This time Wilf had been practising what he would say. “Sorry sir, we’ve run out of stew.” Or perhaps “there was some, but you came too late.” Most importantly “here’s what we’ve still got: spam.” Oh yes, he was looking forward to it.

He glanced out the window. The last plane had got back half an hour ago. Halliard really was taking his time.

“Something the matter, Turner?” the engineer asked.

“Just wondering where Flight Lieutenant Halliard has got to, sir. He’s usually the last one here.”

“You haven’t heard?” The engineer shook his head. “Halliard’s plane took a direct hit over Kiel, went down in flames.”

Wilf took a step back onto his club foot. Stew dripped from his ladle onto the floor.

“Sorry, Turner, was he a friend of yours?”

“No, sir,” Wilf said. “I just…”

I just hated him, he wanted to say. I just needed the fight.

“I understand. It’s always tough when we lose a crew.”

The engineer nodded and walked away.

Wilf put the ladle down. The spam stared accusingly at him, a sordid and pointless pile of pink meat.

Serving time was over. Wilf closed the shutters. He picked up a bowl, and was about to fill it with stew, but then the other plate caught his eye. He picked it up and reached for a fork.

“Spam today,” he muttered to himself.

***

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***

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.

Uncle Grigori’s Alien Toe – a science fiction short story

Photo of starkly lit jungle.
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

“Urgh, enough of this crap.” Vlada pushed her plate across the table. “Am I the only one craving meat?”

Jayden, the exploratory team’s token American, gave a rueful chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I’d kill for a burger right now.”

“Not burger. Proper meat. A steak. Some chops. Not endless leaves and vat-grown proteins.”

“You both knew what you were getting yourselves into,” Tatiana said with the calm, reasonable tone that had earned her position as commander. “This is a research mission, not a colonial one. Two years of running tests and only eating what we can grow in the habs. Everything else has to wait until they send settlers from Earth.”

“We know there are animals out there.” Vlada pointed through the window to the alien jungle surrounding their outpost. “And thanks to our tests, we know that their proteins are compatible. Why not eat one?”

“Rules are rules.” Tatiana put her plate in the sink. “You two finish your dinner, then get out there and set the new sensors. I’m heading back into the lab.”

Once she was gone, Vlada set her fork down and looked at Jayden with the intensity she normally saved for games nights.

“You know how to shoot, right?” she said.

“Just because I’m American doesn’t mean—”

“It’s not an insult. I shoot too. The point is, we’ve got guns in the equipment locker, just in case. Getting a proper look at one of those creatures would have scientific value, and if we get to eat the meat afterwards, well…”

“That’s just a bonus.” Jayden grinned. “I like it.”

“Even though the commander won’t?”

“I’m American. We like to play the rebel once in a while.”

*

The body lay amid the large, purple leaves that covered the forest floor. One limb was stretched out past its head, as if grasping for something just out of reach. Blood ran, thick and dark, from the hole in its chest.

“I knew they were bipedal,” Jayden said. “I just hadn’t expected it to look so…”

“Ape-like,” Vlada said firmly.

“Right. Ape.”

Jayden lifted one of the forelegs, with six long toes stretching out from its bald paw. One of those toes was opposable. Better to think of them as forelegs rather than arms, just like it was better to think of the creature, with its bare face and large empty eyes, as being ape-like instead of anything else. It didn’t help that he’d managed to shoot one of the smaller ones, six feet tall and without the scales that sometimes sprouted from their backs.

“Here,” Vlada said, offering Jayden a broad knife. “You killed it. You get to make the first cut.”

“Um…” Jayden ran his gaze over the carcass, trying to work out where the best meat would be. The problem was, the more he looked, the less he thought of it as a carcass and the more it seemed like a corpse.

“You do it,” Jayden said. “You’re more experienced than me.”

“Weak-ass Americans.” Vlada snorted and knelt down in the squeaky purple leaves. She tipped the creature’s head back, exposing the throat. “Those eyes, though.”

She rolled the head, so that they wouldn’t see its face. That only drew attention to the mass of brown hair, the sort of curls a model would have killed for.

“Down here,” Vlada said, moving here attention to the legs. “It will be just like ham.” She pressed the point of the blade against the thigh, then hesitated, staring at the creature’s bare feet. “Look at that. It has a callous on its toe, just like my Uncle Grigori.”

Above their heads, trees swayed. In the distance, a winged creature sang as it soared above the trees.

“You can’t do it, can you?” Jayden asked.

“Of course I can.”

“Go on then.”

“You go on. You killed it.”

“And now that thought makes me sick.”

They both sat back, the knife abandoned, staring at the poor, limp body.

Jayden ran a hand over his face. “Now what do we do?”

*

Tatiana was waiting when they emerged from the airlock into the hab, their shoulders slumped and their gazes downcast. She looked pointedly at the guns and the knife hanging from Vlada’s belt.

“I hope you idiots at least took measurements before you butchered it.”

Vlada tossed her a sensor box full of photos and biological readouts.

“No butchery,” she said. “We buried the corpse.”

“You what?”

“We buried it,” Jayden said. “Had a prayer and put up a cross and everything.”

“You really are idiots,” Tatiana said, then laughed. “And here I was, all ready for a steak.”

***

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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 from all major ebook stores.

War is Hell – a fantasy short story

Image from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The world was an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that Hans Feist shook all the way to his bones. The ground beneath him lurched; the air stank of smoke and blood; everywhere he looked, when he dared to peer from his tiny shelter in the trench wall, he saw earth and sky combine as fountains of dirt spewed from craters gouged out of the hellscape that had been the Somme.

So this was war. Not grand charges, noble duels, or banners flying over a victory parade, but being shelled to death, hungry and haunted, his trousers soaked with mud and piss. He clutched the tiny wooden crucifix his mother had given him and prayed for salvation.

He didn’t even know who was still alive. His brain was so shaken that he couldn’t remember the names of men he had arrived with, never mind the replacements who had come since. He couldn’t remember how long he had been here, just that it was too long.

An officer walked down the trench toward Hans. The man must be insane, to walk so openly through this storm of shells. Hans clenched with dread as he anticipated the moment when that pristine uniform and waxed moustache would be reduced to a cloud of blood. But the man kept coming, somehow untouched, and a worse fear gripped Hans. Was the officer going to order him up to his post, ready to defend the line?

The officer crouched in the mud, which barely touched his polished riding boots, and peered into Han’s tiny shelter.

“Didn’t make it into the tunnels, eh?” the officer said.

Hans shook his head. He probably should have tried. He would have been safer down there than in this muddy hole, but he couldn’t face the moments of exposure it would take to reach the steps. Fear was more powerful than reason.

“I can get you out of here,” the officer said. “For a price.”

Hans had heard about officers like this, ones who would offer a transfer to somewhere safer in return for sating their own needs. He wanted to think that there were lines he wouldn’t cross, but this shaking world made that untrue.

“What do you want?” he asked.

There was an explosion behind the officer. It should have torn him apart, but instead he was framed by the blast, silhouetted against the pale burst of smoke and debris. In that moment, spikes of windblown hair became horns and fire flickered from him.

“Your soul,” he said.

Hans squeezed the crucifix so hard that his hand ached. Now that he saw what the officer was, he could not unsee it. The pointed teeth, the snake-like eyes. The man drew a cigarette, lit it with fire from the tip of his finger, and offered the packet to Hans.

“Well?” the officer said.

Hans screwed his eyes tight shut. He should be better than this. His soul was at stake, something infinitely more valuable than this weak and trembling body. But he had lived in mud and blood and the roar of the guns for so long that he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to be afraid.

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

As he took the officer’s hand, a sense of peace came over Hans. Was this part of the deal, or was it the certainty that came with knowing that, whatever happened from now on, his future had been decided?

The officer pulled Hans to his feet, then led him away, walking through the maze of twisting trenches. They didn’t see another soul, but the shells kept shaking the ground, filling the air with noise and debris. With each step, Hans left a little of his fear behind, shedding a weight that had held him down for so very long. He strode purposefully through the mud, toward a light beyond the clouds of smoke.

He was almost free.

The officer turned to look at Hans and mouthed a single word: “Now.”

There was a crash and a force like a hundred hammer blows flung Hans off his feet, slamming him into the trench wall. He slumped to the ground, half his body blazing with pain. With one working eye, he stared down at the blood and guts sliding from his torn tunic. All the fear flooded back, redoubled by his inner scream of pain.

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

“You said you’d save me,” Hans said. “We had a deal.”

“And I fulfilled it, many years ago.” The officer crouched to look Hans in the eye, and his smile was terrible to see. “Now we are into the payment, and we both know what your idea of Hell would be.”

Through the pain and the fear and the death of hope, Hans felt himself slip toward darkness. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

Hans Feist woke to an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that it shook him to his bones. He didn’t know who was still alive, couldn’t remember how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long.

***

This isn’t the only war story I have out this week. Horror of Hurtgen, my latest issue of Commando, is out on Comixology, in newsagents, and as part of a bundle through DC Thomson’s online store. Set in the late stages of World War Two, it follows an American soldier caught up in the horrifying fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Fighting through a fever to prove himself, he finds himself facing real monsters alongside the Nazis. Are his visions real, and what will they mean when his squad finally reaches the enemy lines?

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Growing Gears – a steampunk short story

Alf pressed the trunk of a felled tree against the spinning saw blade. For a few seconds, the air filled with a grinding noise and the extra squeal of the steam engine straining to do its work, then a slice of the tree fell into the sawdust. It was less than an inch thick, made of solid, hard-wearing wood, and like the trunk itself, it was in the shape of a perfect cog wheel.

Alf kept going, slicing the trunk up until it was just a pile of gears. Then he disengaged the steam drive, pushed up his goggles, and gathered up  what he had produced.

A man in a top hat was standing beside Alf’s old wagon. He held out his hand.

“Are you the man who grows gearwheels?”

“That’s right.” Alf shook the hand. “Alf Cartwright.”

“I’m Nathaniel Black, of Black Industries.”

“And what brings a big man like you down to my little patch of land, Mr. Black?”

“I’ve been hearing good things about your gears. I thought I should learn more.”

People had warned Alf that this would happen, that the rich gents from the cog-making companies would come and try to steal his secrets. He hadn’t expected them to be so brazen about it.

“All it takes is the right tree and the right frame to shape it,” Alf said. And the right fertiliser, the right elevation, the right program of pruning, feeding, and watering, but he wasn’t even going to give a clue to those.

Black laughed. “I understand your caution. Tell me, are your wooden gears cheaper to produce than my brass ones?”

“Not yet, but they will be, and I don’t produce as much slag and smoke in the process.”

“Yes, I hear that people care about that these days.”

Black picked up one of the gears from beside the saw and held it up between thumb and forefinger.

“This is very good. I assume you can grow more than one size and design?”

“I can.” You didn’t just tell a rich man like Black to go away, but Alf was damned if he’d make him at home. “Let me guess, you’ve come to shut me down. You’ll threaten me with legal action or financial ruin or just comment on how flammable this place is.”

Black laughed. “Oh no, Mr. Cartwright. Far from it. I want to buy you out.”

“Pardon?” Alf stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around. “Think I misheard you there.”

“These wooden cogs hold great promise for the future. I want to buy you out, right here, right now. You sign this contract…” He held up a piece of paper. “…I give you this banker’s draft…” He held up another piece of paper. “…and your business becomes mine.”

Alf took the banker’s draft and peered at the figure on it. His fingers trembled.

“With that, you could retire to anywhere in the world,” Black said. “You can spend your time doing whatever makes you happy. No need to work any more. What do you say?”

Alf took the contract and read through it, slowly, carefully, pausing over the meaning of every word. If he signed it, he would walk away now with nothing. Not his tools, not his frames, not his saplings, not even the wagon. In return, he would be richer than his wildest dreams.

“What’s the catch?” he asked.

“No catch, just what it says in there, that you won’t make these things any more. My company doesn’t want the competition.”

“What if I say no or ask for more?”

“Then I might start to observe how flammable this place is.” Black still smiled, like it was a joke, but there was steel in his eyes.

Alf didn’t like to be pushed around, but he knew when he was weaker, and he knew a good thing when he saw it too. He could get into a fight with people more powerful than him, or he could walk away a rich man, knowing that his legacy would leave the world a better place. He pulled out a pen from the pocket of his apron, tested the nib, signed the contract, and pocketed the cheque.

“Well, well, well,” Black said. “I expected more of a struggle.”

Alf shrugged. “I’m going somewhere tropical. Enjoy the gears.”

He headed for the gate. As he went, Black whistled, and workmen came streaming in. They had saws and axes.

“What’s all this?” Alf asked, turning to glare at Black.

“As I said, these wooden cogs have promise for the future. But my company is heavily invested in metal cogs. I can’t have this promise undermining our decades of investment.”

Someone smashed open the steam engine that powered the saw. Hot coals fell out, igniting nearby sawdust.

“You can’t do this!” Alf said.

“I can. I own it now.” Black held up the contract. “Good day.”

With a heavy heart, Alf walked away from the destruction of everything he had built. His shoulders sagged and he thrust his hands into his pockets. One hand closed around the check, a crumpled sign of how he had betrayed his own creation, with its cleaner way of working. His other hand closed around half a dozen seeds he had forgotten.

He could afford to retire anywhere in the world, do anything he wanted with his time. He was willing to bet that, if he travelled far enough, there would be places where Black’s contract and the laws around it meant nothing. Some of those places would have fine, warm climates, even better for growing his trees.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.

His Father’s Sword – a historical short story

Hugh walked into the smithy and slammed a sword down on the anvil.

“Sharpen it for me.”

A warm summer wind blew in through the door, stirring the flames in the fire of the forge. Steam hissed from a bucket as Hugh’s Uncle David plunged a horseshoe into water, then set his work aside.

“Where did you find this, lad?” David picked the sword up with his right hand, then ran the remaining fingers of his left hand down the rust-blotched flat of the blade.

“Hidden in the rafters. It was my father’s.”

“Oh, I know whose it was.” David set the sword down carefully. “I made a matching pair for your father and me, before we went to war.”

It was one of Hugh’s first memories, the two most important men in his life marching away like warrior saints, sunlight gleaming off their spear tips. The return had been bleak, Uncle David alone, crusted bandages around his hand, Hugh’s mother crying while David talked about a battle at a place called Barnet.

“I’m going to fight for Henry Tudor,” Hugh said. “This time we’ll win.”

“Maybe.” David scooped sand from a bucket with a rough cloth. “I’ll clean the rust off first, then get to sharpening. If you’re sure you want to fight.”

“Of course I want to fight! And what do you mean maybe?”

“I mean perhaps you’ll win, perhaps you’ll lose.”

“Why are you fixing my father’s sword, if you don’t believe in me?”

David sighed, but kept working the blade.

“You shouldn’t go to fight because you think you’ll win, lad.”

“You did!”

“No. We went to fight because the cause was just. Wanting to win and expecting it are very different. One drives you to do better, the other blinds you to the truth.”

“Liar! My father thought he would win, otherwise why would he leave us like that?”

“Because we wanted to mend a broken country. And because we were fools.”

Tears welled in the corners of Hugh’s eyes. He snatched the sword from his uncle’s hands. He was going to fight for the true king, like his father had done, and he would come back, like his father had intended.

“You’re a liar and a fool,” he snapped.

“Maybe, but I’ll still sharpen your blade, if you think you should go fight.”

“You don’t deserve to touch this.” Hugh clutched the sword close.

“I don’t deserve…”

A terrible stillness fell across the smithy. No wind blew through the door. The flames in the forge dwindled. Hugh’s uncle stared at him, face set like a carving on the wall of the church.

David held up his hand, both fingers and thumb extended.

“Maybe you don’t deserve that sword, boy, if you can’t face the real world the way your father did. If you can’t accept its pain and cruelty. If the only cause you’ll fight for is a cause that’s already won.

“I fought because the right side might lose, and that doesn’t stop it being right. If you can’t fight that way, then you’re the one who doesn’t deserve the sword I made.”

Hugh trembled. “My father wouldn’t have deserted us.”

David sighed. His shoulders slumped. He stepped around the anvil, and Hugh stepped back, but instead of reaching for the sword, David sat on the anvil, and all the strength seemed to fade out of him.

“Your father thought that it was more important that you grow up in a good country than that you grow up with a father, though he wanted you to have both, and if I’d been quicker with my spear then he might have got part of his way. I’m not saying he made the right choice. I’m saying that, if you’re going to leave your mother all alone, you should do it for a good reason. People die on both sides, and dying because you think you’ll win is dying for no reason at all.”

In his uncle’s face, Hugh saw grief weigh as heavy as the iron chains he forged. Anger, the last bulwark of certainty, shattered in the face of long-held loss. Would he make his mother go through this again, when she was finally smiling?

“I don’t know if we’ll win,” Hugh confessed. “And I don’t know if it’s the right cause. I need to think.” He offered up the sword. “Can you sharpen my father’s sword for me, while I decide?”

“Aye, lad.” David took the weapon with a sad smile. “Let me do that for both of us.”

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, “Brothers in Arms”, and like this story it’s set during the Wars of the Roses. it follows two brothers who end up on opposite sides of the fighting, and their journey to one of the decisive battles of the Middle Ages. You can buy it digitally through Comixology, or as part of a bundle of issues through the publisher’s store.

*

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.

***

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.

The Demon Behind the Throne – a fantasy short story

Picture of a demon.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

As he entered the throne room, Temujin forced himself not to stare at the demon. It was eight feet tall and glowed like fire beneath chains forged from holy steel. Qadan the Terrible had conquered it, as he had conquered every kingdom of the steppes.

Temujin bowed before Qadan and held out a long roll of hide filled with neatly scribed figures.

“My lord, an accounting of this year’s tribute from the provinces,” he said. “A measure of your power.”

“Ha!” Qadan said. “This is the real measure of my power.”

He clicked his fingers, the demon’s eyes glowed, and the accounts burst into flames. Temujin dropped them and leapt back, his heart racing. It didn’t matter how many times his master showed off like this, to courtiers or family members, servants or ambassadors, it still had the power to shock. This was how he held his throne.

“I’m bored,” Qadan said as the accounts crumbled into ash. “Let’s go hunt.”

He strode out of the room, courtiers hurrying after him. A servant scurried in, swept up the ashes, then hurried away.

Temujin stood alone facing the demon. He wiped his hands on his robes, then clutched them together to hide his trembling.

“You should fear me, little man.” The demon’s voice was the rumbling of war drums across the steppes, the crash of city walls falling. “If I were free of these chains, I would crush you like a tick, blood bursting between my fingers.”

“Would you?” Temujin asked. “Or would you have better things to do?”

“Ha! You’re right. You are not important enough. I would lay waste to this empire, make a ruin of everything your warlord has built, show the world how weak he is.”

Temujin drew a key from the sleeve of his robes. It had taken him years to learn where the key was kept, years of working his way up the imperial bureaucracy, of suffering Qadan’s taunts and threats, of hiding everything he thought and felt. Years in which the ghosts of his family faded while their bodies rotted in a province the warlord didn’t remember conquering. Temujin had thought that his fear would fade in that time, seeing the demon every day, but instead it had grown, a cold and spiky presence in his guts.

Some things were more powerful than fear.

Temujin slid the key into the lock that bound the demon’s chains. There was a click, too quiet, without the drama the moment deserved. Then the lock fell open and the chains crashed to the floor.

The fire of the demon blazed and Temujin staggered back. The demon howled with laughter, then sprang into the air. It burst through the ceiling, splintering rafters and scattering tiles, then flew away, raining fire on the city as it went.

There was a rush of footsteps. Qadan burst in, a hunting bow across his back, followed by a herd of courtiers. He stared at the empty chains and his face went blank. He clicked his fingers and nothing happened.

“My lord, the demon broke free,” Temujin said, fighting back a grin of triumph. “It has sworn to tear your empire down.”

“All is lost!” wailed one courtier.

“Ruin and destruction!” shrieked another.

“The horror!” howled a third.

“No,” Qadan said, grim faced. “Gather your weapons. Gather your soldiers. Gather your priests. I will not let my empire go down without a fight.”

The courtiers rushed away, leaving Temujin and Qadan.

“We grow weak in times of rest,” Qadan said. “Our enemies stop fearing us.”

“As you say, my lord.” It was all Temujin could do not to spit out smug words. Revenge was his. Now he just had to get out alive.

“That’s why it’s good to have a threat at the ready.” Qadan prodded the fallen chains with his foot. “Defeating it will reforge our weakened metal.” His grim expression slipped into a predator’s grin. “I have been looking forward to this.”

“But…” Temujin stared, mouth open. He took a shaking breath. “Surely you never meant to…”

“Your robes are burned, Temujin. You must have been very close to the demon.”

Temujin’s blood froze. He could hear his family ghosts calling him to join them.

“Always have a threat ready, Temujin. It keeps you from complacency.” Qadan turned away. “Prepare fresh accounts for my return. I’m going war.”

***

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.

***

Silver and Gold

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Into the Unknown – a historical short story

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The weather in the tropics seemed unhealthily hot, so it didn’t surprise Christopher Weaver to find that the ship’s food supplies were turning bad. Back in London, he would have used his wealth to acquire more food, just as he had bought these supplies for the expedition. But out here on the ocean, halfway between the court of Queen Elizabeth and the Americas, there were no wholesalers.

“I suppose we turn around, then,” he said, peering at the stinking meat and mouldy flour. It was the first time he had been part of such an expedition, out to explore the New World, find trade routes to the orient, perhaps rob a Spanish treasure galley or two, but certain actions seemed self-evident, and turning your face away from disaster was one.

“Don’t be absurd, Kit.” Sir Thomas de Poole, the expedition’s captain, slapped Christopher on the back. “I can call you Kit, can’t I?”

“Well, I—”

“Kit, these things happen all the time. We’ll pick up fresh provisions in the Indies.”

Around them, the ship’s timbers creaked beneath the strain of the ocean and the sails.

“Do we still have enough to get to the Indies?”

“Kit, Kit, Kit.” Sir Thomas shook his head and squeezed Weaver’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, your investment is safe. I will make sure that this voyage is profitable. And why did you come along if not for the glory of overcoming terrible odds?”

When he put it like that, Weaver felt a swelling in his chest, followed by a sense of embarrassment at his previous timidity.

“Of course,” he said. “On we go.”

#

Working as a merchant out of London’s bustling docks, Weaver had seen his share of leaky barrels, but they seemed much more menacing when his only source of drinking water was seeping away.

“Shame we can’t drink the ocean,” he said with a half-hearted attempt at a smile, looking out across the endless blue expanse. A length of rigging was tied off just beside where he stood, and he clung to that taught rope, steadying himself in a dangerously shifting world.

“Kit, Kit, Kit,” Sir Thomas said, shaking his head. “Don’t even joke about such things.”

“Sorry. Will we have to turn back now?”

He felt awkward asking it, but also relieved. The reality of an ocean voyage, the cramped quarters, salty supplies, and blank views, was proving quite unpleasant.

“Ha, good one!” Sir Thomas said. “Of course not. We’ll refill when we strike land.”

“Will that be soon?”

“Soon enough, as long as our charts are correct.”

“What if they aren’t? I really think we should turn back.”

“Remember why you’re here,” Sir Thomas said, wrapping an arm around Weaver’s shoulders. “To experience the wonder of the wide world. Would you turn back from that just because of a few warped barrel staves?”

Weaver hesitated. He had often enthused about the world’s wonders to help sell exotic wares, but he had never seen them himself. Perhaps he should be the sort of person who could speak with confidence about the Americas and the Orient. Someone more like Sir Thomas.

“Of course not,” he said. “On we go.”

#

The storm was still visible on the horizon when Weaver crept out onto the bustling deck. The shattered top of a mast lay in a tangle of rigging, and where the rudder had been there was a splintered stump.

“The lads are building a replacement already,” Sir Thomas said, appearing beside him. “Should see us through until we can get it properly fixed.”

“Should see us through?”

“Exactly.”

“Should see us through?” Weaver stared at Sir Thomas, aghast. “We can’t go on with a broken ship, hoping that a few bits of plank will ‘see us through’.”

“We’ve been through worse, these lads and me.”

Weaver felt sick to his stomach, a gift granted him by physical fear, social anxiety, and the endless, inescapable rocking of the waves.

“I’m really not sure that—”

“Nobody likes a whinger, Kit. What did you come on this expedition for if not the thrill of scraping by on ingenuity, courage, and God-given English luck?”

“The money!” Weaver yelled, turning to face his tormentor. “You promised me trade deals, rare artifacts, a cut of the spoils. Not glory, not wonder, not the thrill of survival, but fat stacks of gold, which I will never see if we starve to death while drifting rudderless around the Spanish Main. Now I must insist, as the prime funder of this expedition, that we turn back for England at once!”

Weaver glared as Sir Thomas, and the knight captain frowned. As the frustration that had given him such unexpected confidence faded, Weaver became terribly aware that only one of them wore a sword, and it wasn’t him.

Then Sir Thomas grinned.

“Oh, Kit, you are an absolute hoot! What a hilarious notion, that we could turn back now, when we’re more than halfway gone and short of supplies. For a moment there, you almost had me going.”

Weaver stared at him, at the splinter remnants of the rudder, at the hatch that hid their depleted stores.

He was going to die, thanks to this lunatic.

No. He was smart. He was capable. He had built his own business from the ground up. Let no man ever say that Kit Weaver gave in when things got tough.

“I’ve done some carpentry in my time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Tell me about what we need for the rudder.”

###

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the 16th century voyages out of Europe, in which adventurers set forth to explore the world in the name of discovery, trade, and profit. Though we mostly talk about the successes, Weaver’s experience reflects the disastrous reality of so many voyages. A lot of ships sank and a lot of men died finding routes around the world, but those who came back were raised up as heroes.

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.

***

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.

God’s Unblinking Eye – a science fiction short story

Taylor swaggered past the cheap, staticky holographic greeter and into the coffee shop. She was followed by Boon, the two of them wearing suits cut to hide their military augments. She would have preferred something more practical, in case their target caused trouble, but people asked fewer questions when you wore suits. Her boss had been clear, they needed to raise no questions.

The girl was sitting at a shadow-slicked corner table, her computer rolled out in front of her. It had no screen or projection. She wore mirror shades and a scarf patterned in staticky black and white abstraction, an affectation too far.

“Caz Crystal?” Taylor asked.

“What?” The kid didn’t look up, just kept typing.

“You’re coming with us.”

“Why would I do that?”

Taylor held out her ID. Boon opened his jacket just wide enough to flash the butt of his pistol.

“Use your fucking words,” Caz said, still typing.

“Fine. My name is Taylor Grant. I run security for Neon Blue Holdings. Ring a bell?”

Caz stopped typing for a moment, then started again. “Nope.”

It was easier to lie from behind a pair of shades, so Taylor snatched them off Caz’s face. In place of eyes were two gleaming silver orbs pierced by the dead black holes of inoperative camera lenses. Taylor glanced down at the computer and registered the braille on the haptic interface.

“Hey!” A barista said, pointing angrily at the shades. “Not cool. Give her those back.”

Taylor tossed the glasses onto the table.

“Neon Blue security. We have a policing licence.”

“Didn’t you bust up the living wage protest last month?”

“You want us to bust you up?” Boon squared up to the barista, who took a nervous step back, then scurried behind the counter and pulled out his phone.

“You’re coming now,” Taylor said to the kid. “And if we have to arrest you, then we’ll confiscate your fancy shades and your fancier computer.”

“Bitch,” Caz spat, but she rolled the computer up and followed them out.

#

Taylor leaned against the interrogation room wall, reading a copy of Caz’s file projected by a subdermal chip. The kid sat with her arms crossed, the shades back over her eyes, the lower half of her face buried in her scarf. From the corners of the room, security cameras watched them, the unblinking eyes of a corporate god.

“Second time you’ve hacked Neon Blue property,” Taylor said.

“You stopped providing tech support for my eyes. How was I meant to see without jailbreaking them?”

“Buy the upgrade, like anyone else.”

“You know the price of that upgrade?”

“I know the law, and I know you broke it.”

For the second time in as many hours, Taylor removed Caz’s shades. This time she took the scarf off too and dropped it in a crumpled heap.

“That’s better,” she said. “I like to see who I’m talking to.”

“So would I, but your employers took that from me.” Caz felt about on the floor until her fingers closed around her scarf. She laid it on the table and flattened it out, while her empty gaze settled on a space in the air past Taylor’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t drop other people’s possessions in the dirt.”

“And you shouldn’t hack other people’s drones.”

“It worked then?” Caz’s smile was knife blade thin. Her fingers stretched out across the table like they were feeling for an interface, a way to interact with a world she couldn’t see.

“As far as the press and our corporate partners are concerned, it’s just minor disruption at a depot.” Taylor leaned across the table into Caz’s space. The kid didn’t flinch. “But between you and me, you trashed shipments worth millions, and that’s not the kind of cost my employers can ignore.”

“You fuckers deserved it. You bankrupted me and left me blind.”

“You did that to yourself.”

“Really? So what am I doing to myself this time? Private prison perhaps, assembling your microchips for no wage, one more corporate slave?”

“Eventually.” Taylor cracked her knuckles, pulled out her phone, and brought up the controls for the security cameras. “But first, you need to learn a lesson.”

She tapped the icon to kill the camera feeds.

Nothing happened. She frowned, looked up, and saw the cameras pointing straight at her. A lock clicked and the door of the interrogation room swung open. A drone flew in and laid a rolled-up computer on the table.

“What the hell?”

Caz picked up her scarf and held it out to show the staticky pattern.

“Got this printed specially for today,” she said. “Read by the right sort of camera, the pattern turns into a code, which gets into your system and triggers another code planted by my last hack. One that couldn’t get past your firewall until you walked me in.”

She wrapped the scar back around the lower half of her face, ran a hand across the table, and found her shades.

Taylor fought the urge to hit the kid. She knew how this went, how bad it must be to have earned the big reveal. Suddenly, she was the powerless one.

“Ransomware,” she said. “Only unlockable by you, only from the outside, and only once a large crypto payment has triggered some digital switch.”

“Exactly.” Caz’s smile wasn’t a knife blade anymore. It was a banner announcing her victory. She unrolled the computer and ran her fingers across the raised symbols of its keys, which were lifting up and down, telling her what her program had found.  “Now, let’s talk about how you’re going to fix my eyes.”

***

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.

Serious Sabotage – a steampunk short story

“You should take this arrest as a compliment, Professor Greenspoke,” the agent from the Ministry of Political Hygiene said. “We don’t listen in on people we don’t take seriously.”

“I imagine not.” Greenspoke glanced at her manacles, idly considering the six most likely mechanisms to secure their lock. “It takes a lot of resources to build secret pipes in a person’s walls, to run the tubes all the way to a listening station, to man it twenty-four hours a day.”

“We don’t need to be there all day.”

The MPH agent opened his briefcase, took out a wax cylinder the size of his forearm, and laid it on the table. It was bone white, with a surface that gleamed in the light of the gas lamps like the sweaty skin of a fever patient.

“You’ve been recording as well as listening.” Greenspoke leaned forward, trying to deduce the model of gramophone based on the width of the grooves. “This is me incriminating myself?”

The agent chuckled. It wasn’t a funny sound.

“Of course not. This is to make a point. I wouldn’t put the evidence of your anti-patriotic plotting where you can damage it.”

“Then there was no need for this.” She pressed a finger against the cylinder. It didn’t immediately soften beneath the warmth of her body. This was no fragile candle wax. “My laboratory is next to the factory that makes them. I know what they look like.”

The agent leaned back in his seat, arms folded across his uniform jacket.

“Where is the incendiary powder, Professor Greenspoke?”

“What powder?”

“The one we heard you discussing with known dissidents. It wasn’t in your laboratory when we took possession this morning. That means it’s been shipped out already. Is it going to be used for a jailbreak, an assassination, perhaps another pointless attack on a statue?”

Greenspoke sighed. This man was unimaginative, so crude in his conclusions. She had hoped for a more insightful interrogator, when the time inevitably came.

“Your ignorance is showing,” she said. “You entirely misunderstand what I was talking about.”

The agent gave a derisive snort.

“I heard what you said about the Empress, about the lords, about the penal code. You expect me to believe that you’re not a dissident?”

“I’m not foolish enough to think you need proof to arrest me for that. The value in your recordings lies in listening over and over, comparing, finding clues, following the trail to others who resist this tyrannical regime.”

“You think you’re so smart, but whatever you think I missed, you’re wrong.”

“Really? Then how does the powder work?”

“Put enough in one place and it heats up. As the heat spreads, it reaches a critical mass, then bursts into flame. That works even if it’s spread out through other chemicals. You could hide it in samples of engine oil or soap, transport them separately, then pile them up together and walk away. A heap of innocent objects becomes an inferno.”

“The objects don’t have to be innocent.”

The agent frowned, which made Greenspoke smile. That comment had caught him. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was making the connection, thoughts heading toward their own critical mass. He just hadn’t realized it yet.

Greenspoke’s pocket watch chimed. She took her hand off the wax cylinder, leaving behind a melted palm print. Manoeuvring awkwardly in her manacles, she took the timepiece from her pocket and opened the lid.

“Midday,” she said. “If my calculations are correct, you should be receiving a message soon.”

Something snapped in the agent. He strode to the wall, tore the lid of a communication tube, and barked into it.

“Somebody fetch me the Greenspoke recordings. We’re missing something important.”

He fixed the lid back on, ignoring muffled protests from the other end of the line, and stood glaring at Greenspoke.

“Whatever it is, I’ll find it,” he said. “You’re not as smart as you think.”

The door opened and a junior agent hurried in. Her gaze darted between captive and interrogator.

“Sir, we can’t get you the recording,” she said.

“Why not?” His hand clenched around the edge of the table.

“The cylinders. They started melting an hour ago. By the time anyone noticed, they were too soft to pick up without destroying them. Then one of them burst into flames and the whole archive building went up.”

The senior agent stared at Greenspoke. His expression had the stiff stillness of a memorial statue, a calm carved from professionalism, not real emotion.

“You put the powder in the cylinder wax,” he said, his voice tight.

“They made it right next door.”

“This won’t set you free. I can lock you up forever just by whispering the word dissent.”

“I’m sure you will. But all those recordings, all those overheard words, all those pieces you could have puzzled together to find others like me…” Greenspoke shrugged and smiled. “You should take this as a compliment. I don’t sabotage people I don’t take seriously.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.