Making History – a science fiction short story

Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Chrissy turned slowly on the spot, taking in the sights of ancient Pompeii. It was hard to embrace its awe and beauty while smoke streamed from Vesuvius in the background, especially knowing what would happen on this day in history, but she kept reassuring herself that everything was fine, the time tether would snatch her and Domingo back to the 22nd century before the destruction hit, she just had to keep her head and make the most of this unique opportunity.

In a sense, it didn’t really matter what she saw. What mattered was the camera and other sensors in the amphora she was carrying, part of her disguise as one more slave running errands for her master. Her recordings would be pored over by historians for decades, turned into books and papers, imitated in games and entertainment streams. But for her personally, knowing that she could only ever visit this time once, it was an opportunity she shouldn’t waste.

“Got everything you need?” Domingo asked quietly as she finished a complete rotation, filming all the buildings around the square. The two of them had enough Latin to get by here, but communication was clearer if they kept their voices low and spoke in English.

“Finished,” she said.

“Then let’s move on to the next location.”

They didn’t need to discuss where it was. They had spent months planning for this, memorising routes carefully planned to maximise evidence gathering, in line with a funding application that had been years in the making.

A passing slave caught Chrissy’s eye. On the surface, he looked just like the rest, his skin weathered, his tunic made from authentic period cloth to an authentic period cut. But he smiled for a moment, revealing teeth that were whiter than any others she had seen since they arrived.

“Wait.” Balancing the amphora in one arm, she grabbed Domingo by the wrist and hissed in his ear. “Look, another time traveller.”

Domingo shrugged.

“Looters. You always get them in places like this, snatching antiquities before they get lost in the disaster.”

“He’s stealing from these people?”

“Probably, yeah.”

“And removing evidence future archaeologists could find?”

“Evidence future archaeologists didn’t find, because it’s gone.” Domingo started walking. “Come on, we’ve got a schedule.”
Chrissy nodded in the other direction, after the looter.

“We have to stop him!”

“Why?”

“Because he’s a thief. Because he’s ruining the evidence. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Domingo gave the weary sigh of a veteran, which only aggravated Chrissy’s temper. He had only done two of these expeditions before, it wasn’t like he had some huge wealth of experience she lacked.

“Our job is to record this place for posterity.”

“Screw the job. We can’t let people like him go unpunished.”

Red-faced, she shoved her amphora into Domingo’s hands and strode after the looter.

“Chrissy, wait!” Domingo called out.

Chrissy froze. Around them, people turned to look at the slave shouting strange words in an unfamiliar accent.

“Sorry,” he said in loud, overly clumsy Latin. He pointed at himself. “From Gaul.”

People nodded and rolled their eyes, then went on about their business.

“What the hell?” Chrissy hissed as he caught up with her. “You know we have to be careful.”

“Which do you think will make more difference to our understanding of the world, catching that looter or completing our research?”

Chrissy stood with feet planted firmly, fists bunched at her sides, unwilling to concede the point. “Completing our research. But that doesn’t mean-”

“And which will do more to improve the world, having a rich, detailed record of this lost city, or stopping one guy nicking jewellery from people who will be dead in six hours?”

“If he gets away with this then he might do it again.”

“You’re right, and that’s not fair. But the question is, do you want to punish him more than you want to help all those historians and school kids and history lovers? Does your anger matter more than their understanding?”

Chrissy glared at him. Time was ticking away, either to do their research or to catch the looter. She trembled with frustration as her own calculations dragged her away from the answer she wanted to choose.

“Fine.” She grabbed the amphora from Domingo and stomped away up the street. “Let’s go make some history.”

***

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.

The Power Plant Paradox – a flash scifi story

By the light of a small torch, Claudine set her explosives against the base of the generator. She glanced around but there was no sign of the power plant’s guards, only Philippe staring vacantly at the machines.

She shook her head and pulled out a fuse. If they relied on Philippe, then France would be occupied by the Nazis forever. But the British agents who supplied their explosives expected to talk to a man, and so…

A light flickered and she looked up in alarm. A man in denim trousers and a t-shirt stood beside her, behind him a bearded figure wearing chainmail and carrying an axe. The one in the t-shirt touched her shoulder, there was a flash, and the world spun away.

Suddenly, it was daylight. The three of them were in a jungle clearing, the air thick with the smell of flowers and the calls of birds. Claudine dropped her fuse and leapt to her feet.

“What the hell?” she asked, staring at the two men.

“Hi.” The one in the t-shirt waved a hand. “My name’s Joel. I’m from the future. This is Durwin. I borrowed him from Kent in 1064.”

Durwin’s mouth hung open as he watched a pair of parrots fly past.

“Take me back,” Claudine demanded. “I have a mission.”

“It’s OK,” Joel said. He looked down at a gadget in his hand and started playing with its dials. “I just need you for a few hours for my art installation. Once I’m done, I’ll take you back to the moment I borrowed you from. You won’t even remember any of this.”

“My country has been occupied by the Nazis.” Claudine grabbed Joel by the scruff of his neck. “I don’t have time for your damned art project.”

“It’s OK.” Joel smiled and put on a calming voice, like he was trying to sooth a toddler. “I couldn’t have picked you out of the time stream if your actions mattered. All the records show that Philippe Blanc destroys the power plant at Grandville.”

“The only thing that pretty boy could destroy is a baguette. Now take me back!”

“I just need to pick up one more-”

Durwin tapped Joel on the shoulder and said something Claudine couldn’t understand.

“Seriously,” Joel said, looking back and forth between them. “Neither of you matters to history. This is your chance to contribute to the world of art.”

“To hell with art.”

Claudine snatched the device out of Joel’s hands. It had clearly been adapted, with electronic components spilling out of its original casing. Joel stared at her aghast.

“Give that back.” He grabbed the device but Claudine wouldn’t let go. They tussled over it while Durwin’s protests grew in volume. Joel twisted, jerked, and wrenched the device from Claudine’s grip, leaving her with a handful of loose components.

“Oh fu-” Joel began, staring in horror at the dangling wires.

The world seemed to ripple around them. One minute they were standing in the jungle, the next on a snowy mountainside overlooking a herd of mammoths. More ripples and they were in a city of glass and chrome, a sandstone fortress, a cluster of tents in a desert oasis. Claudine’s stomach churned. Durwin stared, mouth hanging open again.

“Shit shit shit.” Joel worked frantically at the device, twisting wires together, clipping components onto each other, prodding at buttons. At last the world went still, leaving them on a hillside at night, listening to the rumble of traffic on a multi-lane road below.

Claudine wanted to scream for a dozen different reasons. Instead, she held her wonder and her frustration inside, as she always had to.

“Send me home,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Fine.” Joel rolled his eyes. “But you could have been part of something special.”

“I already am.”

Durwin spoke, the sounds low and guttural.

“Yes yes, you’re part of something special too,” Joel said, patting the baffled looking warrior on his shoulder.

Joel pulled a card from his pocket, slid it into the side of the device, and turned a dial. Suddenly they were back in the factory, right where Claudine had been planting her bomb.

She glanced around. Still no guards or soldiers. Down the machine hall, Philippe was frowning as he pushed too many wires into his bomb.

“Happy now?” Joel whispered.

“Piss of now,” Claudine replied. “I have work to do.”

“Your loss,” Joel said. “Not that you’ll remember.”

The world rippled and Joel and Durwin were gone.

Claudine looked down at the bomb she had been planting. Why was she standing up? And why hadn’t she put the fuse in yet? Time was of the essence. If the Nazis caught them it would mean disaster.

She opened her hand, revealing a fistful of electrical components she didn’t recognise. No fuse.

Well, she would just have to improvise. With a few of these wires, her watch, and the batteries from the torch, she could make something work. There was still time before the guards came round again. Just enough time.

* * *

Over on Twitter, I often talk about what I’m writing today. Sometimes this leads to weird combinations that leave you wondering what sort of story they’d make, and sometimes friends challenge me to write that story. Which is how I ended up with a time travel story involving a Saxon warrior, a 20th-century saboteur, and a jungle trek (alright, I left out most of the trekking, but I think this still counts). I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with friends and maybe sign up to my mailing list to receive weekly bursts of fiction.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – Time Travel as Our Voice in Historical Fiction

The hardest thing about writing historical fiction is presenting the past in an understandable way.

It’s easy to describe and explain the past in historical non-fiction. You can say whatever you want, as long as you believe it’s true. The results may be dry, and they certainly won’t be as evocative as great fiction, but there’s no need to explain why you’re explaining.

In fiction it’s different. Especially in modern fiction, where the most common points of view are third person limited and first person, there are limits on what you can explain. A viewpoint character will take their period in time for granted. They won’t wonder why things are how they are, comment on it, or explain it to themselves.

Getting Around the Voice Problem

Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book neatly gets around this.

In its marketing and the framing of the story, this is science fiction. An academic travels back in time to the 14th century. After the transport goes wrong, her colleagues are left trying to retrieve her while facing a modern epidemic. The novel alternates between distant past and near future.

But while this hefty book spends a lot of time in its near future, that never feels like the most important part. What makes it distinctive is the experienced of medieval England. The period is brilliantly evoked, not through great historical events but through everyday life. How people work, live, laugh, love, and sometimes suffer is all shown. Because the viewpoint character comes from the future, she observes details that are important to readers, not those important to the people of the time. She becomes our intermediary, explaining the past and bringing it to life.

Parallels

The sci-fi construct also helps bring the issues of the 14th century alive through parallels. The challenges and heartbreaks of the epidemic in the 21st century happen in a setting closer to readers’ own lives. That makes them more immediately comprehensible, driving home the point of how people experience such crises. They hit you in the feels.

Those thoughts and feelings are then carried over to the medieval parts, as disease strikes in a very different setting. Differences and similarities are shown by the parallel lives.

Great Historical Fiction

Only half of this book is historical fiction, and even that half is compromised in its accuracy by the presence of the time traveller. Yet once you accept her presence as necessary to enhance our experience, the rest comes vividly to life. This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read – engaging and evocative without needing to use big names or big action to keep readers interested.

As a student of 14th century history, I can get very picky about how the period’s depicted. At first glance, it seems strange that a sci-fi story has become my favourite depiction of the era. But that story does a breathtaking job of bringing a period I’m passionate about to life, without ever breaking the believability of a viewpoint. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

If you’re passionate about the medieval past, you like time travel stories, or you enjoy slow, rich work like that of Guy Gavriel Kay, then I totally recommend Doomsday Book.

 

Oh, but try not to read the back cover blurb. My copy contained a massive spoiler there. It didn’t stop me enjoying the book, but it robbed me of a great reveal.

Me and My Time Machine

As someone who writes about history, the question comes up from time to time – if you had the chance, when in the past would you travel back to? For me, it depends on my time machine.

I'm British, of course I choose this one.
I’m British, of course I choose this one.

If I could travel back as an invisible observer, safe from the consequences of what was happening around me, then I’d probably travel back to the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. I’ve spent a lot of time studying that battle, and I’d be fascinated to see it, but there’s no way I’d want to participate in such a pointless waste of life.

Look, another guy got disembowelled!
Look, another guy got disembowelled!

If I could travel back and take part but not change time then I’d want to go somewhere interesting but not too uncomfortable. Maybe Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop, a coffee house in enlightenment London, or the Paris student quarter in the leadup to the protests of 1968.

I bet Leonardo had a plan for a time machine.
I bet Leonardo had a plan for a time machine.

If I could change the past… That feels too big. What if I went back and changed something that stopped me and my friends from existing? What if I trod on a butterfly and as a result George R R Martin never wrote Game of Thrones? What if I accidentally burned down the police box that inspired Doctor Who?

animal-1299573_640

Some risks are too big to take.

Fifty-Seven Reasons Not to Travel in Time – a flash fantasy story

Picture by Parker Knight via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Parker Knight via Flickr Creative Commons

“He’s only a doctoral student,” Doctor Reemark said. “Can’t we just, you know, leave him there?”

The air in the History Department attic glowed as Reemark ran a knife over the back of his hand, blood dribbling onto the chalk sigils, bringing their power to life.

“Of course not,” Professor Avery snapped, staring at the timer on her smartphone. “If we start leaving postgraduates scattered across the time stream then people will notice their absence. Then the physics department will find out about time travel. You’ve seen them. Can you imagine the trouble they would cause?”

Reemark nodded, counting physicists in his head.

“Fifty-seven physicists poking and prodding at causality,” he said. “That’s fifty-seven reasons not to let people travel in time.”

At last the air rippled. Reality tore open in front of Reemark and the smell of the sixteenth century drifted through – less polluted than the present, but far heavier with pig shit.

Together they stepped through the portal into an alley overhung by timber frame buildings. Reemark tried not to consider what he was standing in, instead focusing on the silver needle hanging from spider silk that was their temporal compass.

The needle twitched and they followed it. Reemark pulled the felt hat down over his brow. It was all very well dressing in period appropriate clothes, but good skin could make them stand out as strangers.

After a few minutes, the compass led them into an inn. It stank of tallow candles, cheap ale, and sweat. Two young men sat nursing clay cups at a table in the corner. Reemark was relieved to see that one of them was Sam Jones. Rushes crackled beneath his feet as they hurried over.

“Master Jones,” he said. “Might I have a word?”

“It’s alright,” Jones said, gesturing to the man next to him. “Terry here is one of us.”

“Terry Neville.” The other man held out his hand. “Northumbria University.”

“Northumbria?” Avery sat down. “Isn’t that a poly?”

“They’re all universities now, you know,” Neville said through gritted teeth.

“Well, yes, but still…” Avery’s look of disdain said it all. In her view – and Reemark’s too for that matter – only proper universities should have time travel.

“Never mind that,” Reemark said. “Come on, Jones, we’re here to fetch you back.”

“No thanks,” Jones said, setting down his cup. “I thought I’d stick around for a while. It’s quite fun exploring with a fellow traveller.”

“This isn’t a debate, Mister Jones,” Avery snapped. “You will come with us.”

The innkeeper looked around at the raised voice. Avery, embarrassed, huddled down in her cloak.

“You lot with tenure treat doctoral students like crap.” Jones sat back, arms folded. “Here you have no authority over me. I can do my research in peace. So leave me alone.”

“Very well.” Reemark pulled a straw figure from his pocket, a pre-made paralysis charm. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but-”

He pressed the figure into the wound on the back of his hand and both doctoral candidates froze, eyes wide as they stared at him.

“Good work,” Avery said. “We’ll take them both back. Words will have to be had with Northumbria.”

The air crackled behind them. The innkeeper yelped and leapt back as a woman stepped through a rent in reality. Underneath her sixteenth century cloak she wore a scarf in the colours of Northumbria University.

“What are you doing to my student?” she snapped.

“What is your student doing here?” Avery replied. “We put in our research request for this period months ago.”

“So did we, and I see no reason why-”

The inn’s inhabitants were running, screaming, into the street. Reemark heard yells of “witchcraft” and “Papists”. There was no way he could carry a frozen student through a gathering mob, so he snapped the straw doll, releasing his spell.

The students leapt to their feet. As Avery stood bickering with the Northumbrian professor, Reemark followed the younger men out the door, past a sea of confused faces. They headed toward the alley where he had first arrived, the same place where he and Avery always opened their portals.

“That’s them!” The innkeeper pointed.

“Get the witches!” someone else cried.

“Burn them!”

A mob chased them through the streets, mud flying, pitchforks waving, the light of burning brands flickering off wooden walls. Reemark had never been fit, even when he was a student. Jones and Nevill raced ahead of him, while the crowd quickly gained ground.

As he turned into the alley, he saw the two students leap through the portal and into the modern attic beyond. Jones glanced back at the mob on Reemark’s heels, then bent and started scrubbing out the chalk sigils.

“Sorry, Doctor Reemark,” he called out as the portal closed and he faded from view. “Can’t risk them getting through.”

All hope left Reemark. He had no survival skills. He barely had people skills. He was out of breath and his sides hurt.
Stumbling to a halt, he let the mob grab hold of him. He was smart, he knew the period, perhaps he could talk his way out of this.

As he was dragged toward the town square, he thought of the physics department. They would have made a terrible mess, trying to work out how the magic of time travel worked. Fifty-seven reasons not to travel in time.

As someone piled up kindling by a post in the centre of the square, dread clenched at his guts.

Now he had fifty-eight reasons.

* * *

 

As part of the panel I was on at Fantasy Con last weekend, the idea of academics scattered across the timestream came up. Never one to waste a moment of inspiration, I thought I’d see where that led me, and hte answer was this story.

If you’d like to read more short stories from me then please consider signing up to my mailing list – you’ll get a free ebook and a new story every Friday – link here.

Building a Better Time Machine – a flash science fiction story

abraham-lincoln-436582_1280From our fourth floor window in the physics department, we could see the riots in the streets. Only September and this was the fifth outbreak this year.

“He can do it,” Kate said, looking at the picture of Abraham Lincoln we had pinned up between the quantum accelerator and the fridge. “If anyone can make society better, it’s Honest Abe.”

“Do you think we’ll remember?” I turned back to our work, a mass of wires and tubes inside a large crate. “Once we change the past, will we know what we did?”

“We might not even exist, John.” Kate attached the last coupling to the temporal buffer. “But won’t it be worth it, to save Lincoln and so save America?”

As the time machine warmed up, we got out of our overalls and into our costumes, carefully constructed to be authentic for the 1860s. It took a lot of manoeuvring to get Kate into the box with all her skirts, but at last we were inside. I closed the lid and she hit the starter.

I felt nauseous as reality shifted around us. Then the world became still.

In the darkness of the crate, Kate read the atomic calendar.

“April fourteenth, 1865,” she said. “Here we are.”

We climbed out of the machine and looked around the backstage of the theatre. A man in a suit was walking past.

“Excuse me,” I said, reaching out. My hand went straight through his shoulder and he didn’t respond to my words. “Excuse me!”

Even shouting I couldn’t be heard.

“Dammit,” Kate said. “We’re just observers, ghosts in the machine of history. We have to do better.”

“If we can,” I said, dispirited.

We got back into the crate and headed home.

*

“This is taking too long.” I threw the soldering iron away in frustration. Outside the physics department, the riots were getting worse.

“I’ve got it!” Kate exclaimed. “I know how to do make a better machine quicker.”

“How?” I asked, looking up hopefully.

“By coming back to tell ourselves how,” Kate said. “As soon as we make a better machine, we come back to this moment and give ourselves the instructions. Then we build the machine, come back to this moment, and voila.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “That sounds a bit paradoxical.”

“Trust me,” Kate said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll keep that space clear for our arrival.”

As she pointed to a corner of the room, the air there began to shimmer. Two ethereal figures appeared, the space around them hazy and crackling. Sparks jumped from the surrounding equipment and the air smelled like hot iron.

The figures became more solid, revealing themselves as me and Kate. Future Kate held out a bundle of papers towards us. But as she did so the air grew angrier, a storm emerging around them.

“Quick,” her crackling voice said. “Read. Now.”

Kate leapt forward, but it was too late. With a flash like lightning, the paradox imploded upon itself. The two figures vanished and their work with them.

“So much for that,” I muttered, staring at a blackened smear on the floor. I really, really hoped that future me survived the blast. “Now we’ll never finish the machine.”

There was a thoughtful look on Kate’s face. She pulled a text book out from under her desk and started flicking through the pages.

“An effect like that only fits two models of time,” she said. “If we can narrow it down then… Yes!”

She pointedly excitedly at a diagram in the book.

“This!” she exclaimed. “This is how we do it!”

*

The first thing I did as I stepped out of the crate was to touch one of the scenery ropes. It was rough beneath my hand and moved as I tugged on it.

“It worked!” I said. “We can touch the past. We can change things.”

“We can save Lincoln.” Kate beamed as she straightened her hat and adjusted the bustle of her skirt. “By the time we travel home, we’ll be living in a better world.”

Following our map of the theatre, we rushed through the wings in the direction of Lincoln’s box.

A door slammed open as we hurried down the corridor. A figure staggered out of a broom closet. She wore a skirt like Kate’s, but torn and stained. As she pulled back her blood-matted hair, revealing a face covered with burn scars, I realised in horror that it was indeed Kate. Behind her was a crate like ours, but with more wires and bullet holes.

“Don’t do it,” future Kate gasped as she slumped against the doorway. “Making a better time machine didn’t make a better world. It destroyed it.”

* * *

 

This weekend I’m at FantasyCon, where I’m talking on a panel titled “Building a Better Time Machine”. Under the circumstances, I thought I should give it a go, in story form at least. If you’re at the convention then please come and say hello, and check out the panel at 1pm on Sunday.

 

My Groundhog Day – remembering Harold Ramis

The death of film maker Harold Ramis is a moment of deep sadness. For people of my generation, now living on the generous side of thirty, the Ghostbusters films were huge cultural touchstones, up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the pantheon of fun, exciting stories that grew in meaning as we grew in age.

But for my money the most notable of Ramis’s works, the one that touches my heartstrings and tickles my funny bone, will always be Groundhog Day.

The day that just keeps giving

I first saw Groundhog Day in the cinema on my fifteenth birthday. The story of a grumpy TV weatherman stuck living the same day again and again, it didn’t make my teenage friends laugh as much as they’d wanted. But for me it was a perfect combination of sweet and funny. Watching Bill Murray’s character grow, remake himself, face despair, hope and ultimately transformation, there was something very relatable about it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSVeDx9fk60&w=420&h=315]

What I realise now is that Ramis did a fabulous job of reinventing the oldest writer’s maxim – write what you know. He might not have known what it was like to be stuck in a time loop (if he did then good for him), but he knew about human desire. He knew what it was to fall in love, to dream of being a better person, to long for the chance to re-do a significant day and make sure that you get it right.

Ramis turned ‘write what you know’ into ‘write what we all wish for’.

If I had a Groundhog Day

I suspect that we all have a Groundhog Day, a day we would like to live again, whether to put right our mistakes or to relish a treasured moment.

A year after seeing Groundhog Day I fell out with a group of close friends. It was largely my fault. Few teenagers know how to deal with their feelings, and I was worse than most. My cataclysmic blow-out – the first time I ever yelled at anyone in public – ended my first set of really close friendships. I didn’t know how to fix the damage any more than I could go back and avoid it. But I dwelt on that day for years, running over in my mind how I could have got it right.

If I could have a Groundhog Day, one day that went round over and over until I fixed it, it would be that day. I would save those friendships and in the process learn to deal with emotions that even now, as an adult, I get horribly tangled on.

All our Groundhog Days

Ramis achieved something amazing with Groundhog Day, making a common human feeling magical, showing something we all feel. It’s why I’ll always love his work, and is one of the many, many reasons why his loss is such a tragedy.

How about the rest of you? What were your favourite Harold Ramis moments? And what would your Groundhog Days be?