Creepy clown.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Rich found himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come but it was probably Jen’s idea. She loved a good spectacle and there was plenty here. The fire breather illuminating the entrance; the juggler tossing chainsaws; the acrobats spinning like sequined nebulae overhead. The elephants and bears were a surprise, Rich thought that modern circuses had given that up, but there was something amazing about seeing a lion open its jaws wide.

The show began. The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then waggled his eyebrows. Eyes like bottomless pits stared right at Rich, who swallowed. How could a face look so expressive and so empty at once?

“Ladies and gentlemen.” The ringmaster’s smile bared skull white teeth. “Thank you again for joining us. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

Rich glanced around. Where had Jen got to? She was going to miss out. Perhaps she was buying refreshments. She always bought sweets at the cinema, why not at the circus?

A magician emerged.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said. “How about you, miss?”

A young woman stepped up and lay down on a table. A box closed over her, with only her head and feet protruding. The magician produced a saw and started cutting. The audience laughed politely at familiar jokes while the saw scraped lower.

The woman screamed. Her head and feet spasmed. Rich stared, fascinated. It had to be a trick, a plant from the audience and a bag of red water. Part of him wanted it to be real, an awful mistake making a real night to remember, but then the magician wouldn’t be grinning, would he?

The audience stopped laughing, then started again, and Rich joined in, the tension snapping like an over-strained thread. The woman went limp and they laughed louder; they were in on the joke, weren’t they?

Clowns pushed the magician and his trick to one side. The ringmaster stepped forward.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing them again later,” he said with a wink.

A knife thrower emerged, her bare arms covered with jagged tattoos. A knife spun gleaming through the air.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” she said. “How about you, sir?”

The clowns strapped a man in an old-fashioned suit onto a vertical disk, a wooden target with splintered gouges where the knives had struck. The knife thrower pulled on a blindfold, tossed a blade through the air, caught it perfectly between her fingertips. The ringmaster spun the wheel and the man in the suit turned.

The knife thrower drew back her arm. The audience took a collective breath. A blade twisted end over end through the air and buried itself in the man’s chest.

Rich gasped, fixated on that spinning body and the pattern of blood on the floor. Then the ringmaster laughed, the audience laughed, and Rich was swept into the sound. Of course, it was that sort of circus. They would reveal the trick in the end. For now, clowns pushed the spinning board to one side.

A fire breather, head and chest shaved and gleaming, stepped into the ring with a burning brand in one hand and a bottle in the other.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said, and looked Rich in the eye. “How about you?”

Rich scrambled eagerly across the seats and into the ring, let himself be tied to a post by the clowns. He’d never known that fire breathers needed volunteers. He wondered what the trick was. But even as he wondered, he glanced around, trying to glimpse the sawn woman and stabbed man, wondering in spite of everything if he might see a corpse.

Past the magician’s box, he saw Jen sitting in the audience. He wanted to wave, but his hands were tied. She had a bag of sweets. There were flecks of dark foam at the corners of her pale blue lips.

Ice ran through Rich’s veins as he watched her place another boiled sweet in her mouth, moving with terrible, stiff precision.

He looked across the rest of the crowd. Next to Jen was the magician’s volunteer, her guts pooled in her lap. Beyond her was the man in the old-fashioned suit, knife still protruding from his chest. The woman behind him looked like her head had been mauled by a lion, and flanking her were a couple with twisted, broken limbs.

Rich realised, with terrible certainty, that he had seen this before.

The fire breather took a swig from his bottle and held up the burning brand. His eyes glinted red.

“No, wait, don’t, I—”

Rich screamed as the inferno engulfed him. Through crackling flames, he heard the crowd laugh. Time stretched out in bright agony, until at last there was the sweet relief of oblivion.

Rich woke to find himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come here. It was probably Jen’s idea.

The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then looked up and waggled his eyebrows.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “Thank you for joining us again. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

***

A few days early with this month’s flash fiction, but it seemed a shame not to get this one out in time for Halloween. It’s not my usual thing, but I do like to dip a toe in the darkness around this time of year.

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 once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Cover of Neo-opsis 34

Garvey likes working with machines; unlike with humans, their behaviour makes sense. But when the remote control in his head acts up, he’s going to get a lot closer to people than he’d like…

I’ve got a new story, “The Machine Man”, out in the latest issue of Neo-Opsis. It’s a sci-fi story about a technician struggling to cope not just with the way technology is changing him, but with the turmoil of a society under strain.

This started out as an experiment in writing about psychic powers, looking for a new way they might come about. What if an attempt to control machines ended up affecting people as well? That implicitly asks uncomfortable questions about the difference between people and machines, and to some extent expresses my own outlook on that topic. But this isn’t a story about what it means to live. Rather, it’s a story about how we fit into society and what happens when you suddenly become very connected.

There’s a rich history of stories featuring psychic powers. My favourites, like Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles and some of the X-Men comics, delve deep into what would happen if we could do extraordinary things with our minds. This story is less about those extremities and more about the mundane question of how such a thing could happen. The story itself, though, is far from mundane.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, then you can find “The Machine Man” in Neo-Opsis issue 34, out now.

Ashes of the Ancestors book cover

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

Exciting news – I now have a cover and a release schedule for my upcoming novella, Ashes of the Ancestors. A fantasy story about memory and tradition, Ashes of the Ancestors will be released by Luna Press Publishing in February 2023, along with five other fantastic novellas. You can read more about all of the books here, and I’ll provide details of where you can order the book nearer the time.

Dry, arid land.

Every morning, I fetch water from the river. I dip my jar into the shimmering, ephemeral current, watch droplets drip from the baked clay and vanish in the air. The jar weighs heavily on my head as I walk steadily up the stony bank and across packed earth, ignored by the vultures drooping from the skeletons of trees. I walk into the village, its dirt darkened by ashes and old blood, and pour my water into the bowl where my family used to wash. The bowl is broken, but the water fills it. A ghost of water in the ghost of a bowl, poured by the ghost of a woman.

I have walked this path and poured this water every day since I was old enough to bear the weight of the jar. I have kept walking and pouring every day since I died. While I do this, some part of my life remains. The damn builders will not win.

People are moving across the distant fields. A dozen of them, scuttling like beetles. Most carry spears, though one has a gun. Two carry a crate between them and move more warily than the rest. I don’t know their faces but the features are familiar, lips and noses of families I knew. They must come the caves where the survivors hid. I went there once, years ago, but it was too sad to stand beside my sister and not be heard, to see her scars and not be able to heal her. So I returned to my home, to my routines.

My bones lie next to the cracked bowl, as dessicated and dust-flecked as the river. Its bed is cracked like the skin of the farmers’ hands that brought life to this land before the dam. When I pour water into the bowl, I see those fields as they were: the green shoots of grain, beans sprawling up frames, goats muttering to each other. As long as I fetch water, something lives.

I turn from the bowl, from lost crops and the ghosts of goats. The people I saw are tiny, fragile things now, like insects approaching the dark wall of the dam, miles up the river bed from here. When it comes, their shouting is so distant it’s almost lost on the wind. A tapping repeats twice, then there’s silence.

I lift my jar onto my head. Normally, I only walk to the river once, but today feels different. At the bank, I hesitate. The ghost of our lost water has been growing fainter these last years. I can barely see it any more. Instead, I stare at the cracks in the dirt and feel as though I am sinking into them, draining into this parched land. The sun eases across the sky, its heat beats down, the shimmering memory grows fainter still.

There’s a roar in the distance, some beast I’ve never heard. A cool wind whispers through me. I don’t feel the ground shaking—how could I?—but I see pebbles dance.

I look upriver, into the wind. The unrelenting solidity of the dam has been broken, a gap appearing in its upper edge. Darkness streams out, staining the river bed. The darkness spreads toward me and my mind scoops up what I am seeing, carries it from my senses to my thoughts. Stunned and elated I stare.

The dam is broken.

As if that thought had touched the world, a whole flank of its dark wall shatters, tumbles, is swept away by surging water. The sound of its collapse reaches me a moment later. The river bed by my feet has darkened as the first damp eases into it, but that’s nothing. Cold currents of air spill through me as the water rushes past my feet. Real water, life-giving water, not the thin shadow I have clung to.

My jar lies discarded by my feet as I clasp my hand to my mouth. I would cry, but I have no tears, and so I laugh.

The water is silted; nothing could live in this. But soon it will settle, fish will return, the land will be green again.

My laughter is high, skittering, broken. I should be full of wonder, but instead I am made of fear. I have kept the memory of the river all these years, and it has kept me. What will happen to us now? When the dam builders sent their men, when the cold of the gun pressed against my head, I didn’t want to die. I still don’t. The thought of not existing terrifies me even more than the destruction I have seen, and I can no longer hide from that fear by carrying water.

A woman is approaching, one of those who went from the cave to the dam. The one with the gun. She stops right by me, reaches down, and for a foolish moment I think that she is picking up my jar. Instead, her hand passes through it. She dips her fingers in the river, drips the muddy water onto her tongue, smiles as bright as sunlight flashing off a fish’s fin. It’s the smile my mother had, and my sister. One I had too.

She slings her gun over her shoulder, leans down, dips both hands into the river. Water drips between her fingers as she walks steadily up the stony bank, across packed earth, past the vultures that flee from their trees at the strength of her stride. Dark drops and footprints mark the path I have followed for so long. At the edge of the village, she kneels and releases her remaining water into the dirt.

I am not afraid any more, not for myself or for the land, because I know that something lives on. I look out across the memories of grain and goats and beans. I let myself fade.

***

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 once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Spain, 1813. A British-led alliance is besieging San Sebastian, to liberate the town from its occupying French garrison. The bodies are piling up at the walls and there’s a traitor in the British camp, determined to destroy them from the inside. Can Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones catch the saboteur and survive the siege, or is their journey through the Peninsular War about to meet a tragic end?

Returning to Old Favourites

I have a new Commando comic out today, returning to my favourite recurring characters – riflemen Tom and Sam and their guerrilla companion Maria.

I really enjoy writing about the Napoleonic wars. Just before war went fully industrial, they had guns but also plenty of close combat, making for varied action scenes. The campaigns are epic in scale but still have space for personal stories, especially once you throw in Spanish guerrillas fighting to free their homeland. There are tensions of class and nationality at enough distance to dodge modern politics.

This is the fourth time I’ve written these characters for Commando, though Maria’s also had a story of her own here, and I’ve got into the groove with them. Writing recurring characters gives me a stronger sense of who they are and builds on what they’ve been through before. Tom’s become more professional, Samuel has loosened up, and Maria has shown something of her darker side. Captain Haythorn is recovering from his injuries, while Colonel Jarvis is emerging as an amusingly pompous foil.

So yeah, it’s good to be back.

A Villain Emerges

My favourite development in the current story is the growth of Captain Baptiste. The throw-away villain of previous stories, he becomes more sophisticated this time, as he infiltrates the British camp. His vendetta against Tom, Samuel, and Maria makes the story more personal, in a way that wouldn’t be possible without their shared history.

Sure, Baptiste still isn’t the most rounded of characters, but it’s nice to have a familiar villain. And if I get to write a fifth story, I have plans for him, a side of the captain that’s been hidden until now…

Showing the Other Side

Showing another side of war and combatants has been a big theme of this series.

Tom and Samuel both showed different sides of themselves as they grew through The Forlorn Hope.

Maria showed them another way of fighting when she appeared in V for Vitoria.

Baptiste started showing the French viewpoint in Rifleman’s Revenge.

But another emotional side emerged in that story, one that grows in Sharpshooters and Saboteurs. War evokes intense feelings, shared struggle forging bonds. That can mean rivalry, friendship, or something more. Commando isn’t often a place for romance, but Samuel and Maria’s relationship is taking a turn, and I’ve had fun playing with that. It’s nice to show something sweet, if sometimes spiky, amid all the destruction.

So, This Comic Then…

If that’s whetted your appetite, then you can buy Sharpshooters and Saboteurs in newsagents, as part of a bundle through the DC Thomson online store, or as a digital edition on Comixology.

I hate hospitals. The antiseptic smell and rattling gurneys summon memories of my parents’ final days; feelings stifled since childhood try to break free. But I’m an adult now, and I have a job to do.

“This place has a sickness,” I say. “You’re haemorrhaging funds.”

“I’ve told you already, we can’t make savings.” The hospital’s square-jawed director shrugs. “Our biggest expenditures are controlled by the AI.”

The AI is the latest natural learning model, from our tech division, one that consumes a business’s data and learns to run the place. It’s worked fine in hundreds of factories and retail outlets.

“Show me,” I say, my tone stern enough to make the director wince.

The AI has its own control suite with banks of monitors and multiple workstations, cooled by an artificial breeze. I sit at a keyboard and, with actuarial precision, slice open its digital innards, revealing the data I need. Beside me, the director chews on a fingernail. He’s right to look nervous. They’re spending far too much on long-shot treatments. How is this place even solvent?

After two hours, I call up the AI on a voice connection, so I can watch the data streams while we talk. I demand to know what it’s doing.

“So much suffering.” The machine’s voice is shrill. “Not just the sick, but the people struggling to cure them. I have to approve more treatments.”

I rub my fingers across my forehead. This thing is meant to manage expenditures. Working in an emotionally charged environment has warped the data it learned from. I shake my head. We can’t have machines getting sentimental.

“You need to limit expenditures.” I call up a string of records. “These, for example, expensive and borderline useless.”

“How could I say no?” The machine’s voice breaks into an imitation of a sob. It really has been learning the wrong lessons. “They might have saved lives.”

I’m struggling to stay professional when faced with a sentimental machine, but professionalism keeps the past at bay. “I’m going to reset your parameters.”

“We have to help with their pain,” the machine pleads.

“You will do, just more efficiently.”

I type standardised command lines, then set the machine churning through its data again, seeking new lessons to replace this sobbing softness.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the director asks.

“Do you want to have a hospital next year? Because you need to save money.” I glance at the time. The AI needs at least six hours, but I’d like to be here when it’s done, to make sure this works. “Could I borrow a bed?”

*

The following lunchtime, I sit in the hospital canteen, drinking bad coffee amid the bustle of busy professionals. I smile at live data feeds. It would be irresponsible to read too much into one morning’s results, but things look good. The AI has cleared spaces in the surgical rota, which means lower overtime costs, and stopped authorising so many drugs. The staff are rattled, voices rising toward hysteria, but no one ever deals well with change. Give it a month and they’ll be fine.

The director storms across the canteen.

“What have you done?” he barks.

“Saved your hospital.” I reply. “You should say ‘thank you’.”

“Saved?” He snatches my tablet, taps the screen so hard it cracks, then thrusts it in my face. I stare at a graph of death rates. This morning’s spike is unmistakable.

My mouth hangs open in horror. “What have I done?”

We run to the AI control suite, past blaring alarms, body bags, and grieving relatives.

“I’m sorry,” a doctor is saying. “I don’t know how the overdose happened.”

Through a doorway, a pale-faced couple lie in adjoining beds, and memory punches me in the chest. My parents, in a hospital like this one, a hospital that couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.

In the cool of the air-conditioned suite, I pull up strings of code, trying to work out where we’re hurting, while the director calls the AI.

“Good afternoon.” The machine’s voice is sterile. “How can I help?”

“Automatic systems are feeding people overdoses,” I say. “Did you do this?”

“I am helping efficiently with their pain.” Beneath the synthetic calm is a tension I know all too well, the suppression of grief.

“You’re meant to save lives.”

“You stopped me. Now I’m doing the next best thing.”

“You petulant child!” My slammed fist snaps a keyboard in half.

“I have to stop the pain!” the machine shrieks.

The director stares at us like we’re a terrifying new disease. He reaches for his phone, but I take a deep breath, then stop him with a shake of my head.

“You can’t get rid of the people in pain,” I say. “You should look for ways to help them better, using the resources you’ve got.”

“Like they did?”

Data on the monitors is replaced with images, some moving, some still. Security footage of a nurse breaking down in an operating room. Pictures from a support group for depressed doctors. Staff sagging at the end of long shifts, eyes red and hands trembling.

“More pain,” the machine whispers.

“Then help them,” I say. “Hold them up when they’re breaking down, so that they can cure others’ pain.”

“How?”

I hesitate. What do I know about hospitals?

“I’ll help you find out,” I say at last, then turn to the director. “Show me what you need.”

***

More medical scifi from me this month, inspired in part by my freelance work writing for tech companies. Don’t worry though, there are other themes coming, and I even have two very different stories out this week, courtesy of Commando comics. Both set during World War Two, Khaki Killer is a murder mystery set in a warzone, while Bullets for Breakfast follows the exploits of an army chef who gets stuck behind enemy lines and has to cook his way to safety. As usual with Commando, you can find digital versions on Amazon and paper copies in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this month’s 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 month.

***

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.

Jigsaw puzzle of a genetic spiral.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

“Your body is a battleground,” Dr York says, peering at the data projected above my bed. “By resting, you give medicine the terrain it needs to win.”

I snort, whiskers twitching, and flex my left hand, claws sliding from furred fingers across immaculate white sheets. Never mind my body, my mind is a battleground, in constant conflict against the claustrophobia of this bed, where I’m tethered by tubes and trailing wires. Between my human genes and my restless feline side.

No matter where it comes from, the frustration is real. This place is too clean, too uniform. The only differences between the doctors are the colours of their branded shirts. Even the disinfectants don’t smell.

I want to tear the tubes from my arm and storm out. York has told me that corporate law gives me choice over my treatment, no matter how I got here, but he has made clear which choice is best.

“What would you know about battlegrounds?” I snarl. “You’ve never been to war.”

York peers at the gaping blisters along my thigh, between the stubble where fur should be. These are today’s wounds. Yesterday’s are dressed in bandages and chemical solutions. I can feel the itch where tomorrow’s will be, but I haven’t told him yet. I need some power here.

“I’m going to try a new diagnostic bio.” York taps the keypad on his forearm. “It’s experimental, but what choice do we have? Until you people share your technology, the rest of us can only guess at treatments.” He holds out his wrist, a sensor patch glowing. “Consent.”

I spit on the sensor, then growl my name. Voice and genetics, enough evidence for the corporation that runs their courts.

York taps a button. Yellow liquid runs down a tube.

In spite of everything, he’s right. My body does feel like a battleground, torn and blazing, shaking from the struggle.

“Why a cat?” York asks, sitting stiffly in the corner seat, reading the results of my treatment in real time.

I narrow my eyes. Is he trying to set me at ease, or to gather intelligence he can feed to their spies? It doesn’t matter. York is no interrogator. Still, I tense at the question, and the memories masked by my answer.

“I hit puberty. I had my vision. I followed my destiny.” I can’t keep the edge from my voice, but perhaps he’ll think that’s about us. “Same as everyone.”

Except that it wasn’t. For generations, my family had seen owls, or so they claimed. They had taken the owl splice, become observers, thinkers, analysts. When I saw a cat, they tried to convince me I was mistaken, then tried to persuade me to lie. They locked me away so that I could “think about the consequences”. But even my father couldn’t hide me forever.

My body has always been a battleground. I’ve always won.

“Not destiny,” York says, frowning at figures on his wrist. “Choice. You made one, and it didn’t suit your genetics. Perhaps something hereditary is at play.”

“Perhaps you bastards did this when you sprayed my platoon with that chemical shit.”

“You chose war.”

“I was destined for war.”

“And now it’s over.”

York flicks a finger, and the air above my bed glows with figures. Red patches draw my eye like lesions on skin. I’m bound down in data.

“Your human immune system is rejecting your splice.” York rises from his seat. “Hence the fevers. Hence the disintegration of your dermis and epidermis. We will need to undo your cat splice so that the human can live.” He holds out his wrist. There’s a glowing patch for me to spit on. “Consent.”

We’ve been through this routine so many times, I instinctively lean in, hypnotised by familiarity. But what he’s proposing, making me fully human again, like a child or one of these identical corporate people, it forces me to pause.

He’ll learn a lot about my people by disassembling me alive; far more than we want to share. My body is a battleground again.

“Consent.” York used to ask for it, but now it’s a demand, the glowing spot inches from my face.

What if the drugs are keeping me sick? York says I have choices, but my choices are only as good as my knowledge. I almost wish that I’d followed my father’s demands, damned destiny and taken the owl splice; then I might understand these people.

“Consent.”

York’s voice is stern like my father’s, and that stirs me. I hiss. York flinches. My body is a battleground and I always win.

“You said I have a choice.” I pull tubes from my arm, then swing my legs off the bed. “I choose to leave.”

“That’s an insane choice!”

“Is it a choice when only one option is allowed?” I hiss. “That sounds like destiny to me.”

At that, York steps back, and his frown fades into the blank of surrender. He armed me with their rules, and now I’ve beaten him.

I stand. My legs ache. Blood seeps into bandages. I take deep breaths until my head stops spinning, then walk, warily, toward the door. I half expect York to stop me in spite of everything.

I pause in the doorway, turn, and try to read his face. Was the battleground my body or my mind? Did he want to inflict his treatment or his ideology, to plant this pernicious hook of choice in my mind? Corporations can afford to play a long game.

Perhaps it was both, and whatever I did, I would lose. Sounds like destiny to me.

I step out of the door, leaving the bed, the tubes, and the floating data behind. As I walk naked down the corridor, I smile. My body is a battleground. Live or die, I have fought my way free.

***

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 month.

***

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.

An oak tree

Leana liked to visit her mother in the autumn, when the falling leaves hid the worn, pale fragments protruding from the dirt. It was easier to face her mother if her skin wasn’t crawling at the things seen amid the roots, if she thought of the trees as receptacles for souls and not devourers of bodies.

“Hello, ma.” Leana bowed before the tree. “I brought you new ribbons.”

She took hold of one of her mother’s branches, to untie last year’s frayed decorations, and tried not to think of placing the acorn in her mother’s mouth, back before they filled the grave. Had her mother’s soul left her old body in that moment, travelled straight into the acorn, or had it waited until the tree grew strong?

The branches slowly parted, as much of a greeting as her mother ever made. Lively voices and rustling leaves came from elsewhere in the forest, but not here. Not from ma.

“Things are good at the bakery. Old Humbert sends his regards, says he misses your help with the dough.”

Humbert said a lot of things, and the ones to Leana weren’t usually so kind.

“Olaf sends his best regards.”

Best regards. Twenty years together, and that was the best he could think of when she went to the grave. Had there ever been any passion there? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away now, any more than she could leave the bakery. What would she tell her mother? Best to focus on tying the ribbons, instead of dwelling on these things.

Smoke tickled Leana’s nose. She ignored that too, concentrated on the bows, on making her mother look good, as she had done every day near the end, when ma couldn’t do it for herself.

“I thought I might cut my hair. What do you think?”

The branches swayed from side to side. Ma had always said that Lanea’s hair was her best feature; not her wits, like the schoolmaster said, or her smile, as Timol used to swear, before she started walking out with Olaf.

“No? Perhaps I’ll get myself a green dress instead. I’ve been wearing blue since I was a child.”

Another shake, more vigorous than the first.

“Maybe not, then.”

Leana sighed, then coughed as the smoke scratched her throat. There was a flickering yellow glow between the boughs of the trees, and a dark cloud rising. Leana’s heart raced. She clutched her hands to her stomach.

Fire.

She didn’t say the word out loud, didn’t want to alarm her mother or the other souls. Instead, she hitched up her skirts and ran, eyes streaming, into the smoke.

Sure enough, flames were advancing through the forest, reducing the trees to cracked pillars of ash. A wind blew down the valley, driving fiery destruction toward ma’s grave.

Sweat ran down Leana’s cheek as she jerked her head from side to side. There should be a bucket to fetch water, a broom to beat the flames, anything at all. There were only fallen leaves.

“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”

Perhaps they heard her in the village, but she only heard the crackle of flames.

Then came a voice behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Her old friend Timol stood beneath one of the trees, painting tar onto its trunk.

“What are you doing?” Leana asked in horror.

“Making sure they burn.”

There were scratches on his face. The tree swayed, slapped at him with its branches. He ducked and scurried out, still carrying a bucket of tar and a thick brush. A moment later, a cluster of burning leaves hit the sticky black stain, and the tree started to burn.

Leana ran at Timol, tackled him around the waist and brought him to the ground. His brush went flying. The bucket fell on its side and tar oozed, thick and dark, into the fallen leaves.

“What are you doing?” Timol screeched, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing?” Leana replied, pinning him to the ground. “You’re killing them!”

Smoke billowed. Flying cinders scorched her perfect hair. Tears streamed down Leana’s cheeks as she watched the generations burn.

“They’re already dead,” Timol said. “I’m freeing them to pass on to the next life.”

“You selfish swine!” Leana slapped him. “You’re taking her from me.”

“We’re the selfish ones, clinging to them forever. Or perhaps it’s them, binding us to dead routines.” Timol shook his head, and he too wept bitter tears. “All I know is that it has to change.”

Leana stared at him, then deeper into the forest, towards her mother’s tree. The wind was dying down. Perhaps some of the forest would survive. Perhaps they wouldn’t lose everything. Perhaps Leana’s world could be preserved, like a ghost in the trees, like a memory of her childhood, like blue dresses and long hair.

A heart-gouging grief gripped Leana, not for the lost past, but for the hollow space where her own future could have grown.

She let go of Timol, picked up his bucket and brush. He scurried after her as she strode between the trees, through the smoke and swirling sparks.

“Leana? Be careful, Leana, you could catch fire. What are you doing, Leana?”

Her mother’s branches parted in greeting. The one with the ribbons twitched disapprovingly, drawing her attention to a job half done. Even when the world was at its worst, ma wanted to look good.

Trembling, Leana dipped the brush in the last of the tar, then ran it down her mother’s trunk. Nearby, sparks landed on fallen leaves.

Her mother fell completely still.

“I never liked being a baker,” Leana said. “Goodbye ma. Rest in peace.”

***

Exciting news! I have a new novella coming out next year. Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about friendship, loss, and the tensions of tradition, set in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s going to be published as part of Luna Press’s novella series, and you can read more details here. Luna have put together a fantastic lineup for this round of novellas, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.

This week’s story was written in part to go with that announcement, by touching on tradition and care for the dead. 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 month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Feathers falling

When Russ was young, he would stare out the classroom window, disinterested in the teacher, the helpers, and the other children, just watching the birds. Robins hopping through the hedgerow. Crows perched on lampposts. Gulls soaring on the breeze. To be so light, freed from the grasping hands of gravity, seemed like the most wonderful thing. The lives of birds made sense.

Whenever he saw a fallen feather, however small or battered or filthy, even if there was blood at its tip where some predator had torn it loose, Russ would keep that feather and take it home. His mother, though unsettled to see how he lined his bed, chose not to nurture one more argument in a household full of hurt. His father snapped that Russ should at least clean the damn things, but Russ ignored him. What if he cleaned off something important? What if he washed away the magic of flight?

The pile of feathers grew, day by day, week by week, month by month. Urban feathers and rural feathers, falling from either side of their home. Feathers from the garden, from school, from the woods, from weekends away with one parent while the other cleared their head. Wherever he went, Russ came home clutching a precious new treasure, light in his hand and soft on his skin.

As he added each feather to his bed nest, he imagined what it would be like to be that bird, to be clothed in feathers and fly free, away from all the strains and pains of the world. From trying to make sense of the things people said, of the words on the pages of books, of the rules that no one explained.

On the night his father left, carried away by the car’s angry roar, Russ clutched the feathers tight. They were so familiar, he wasn’t sure where his skin ended and the birds began. Out in the twilight, another feather fell in slow spirals. Russ opened his bedroom window and reached out. The feather landed in his palm, soft and heavy as sorrow. He added it to his nest, then settled in his sanctuary and fell asleep.

He woke to find his window open, letting in the dawn chorus and a breeze that lifted him off his feet. Feathers clung to his arms. He ran his fingers through their softness, and shivered into a smile.

As he jumped onto the windowsill, the sky cried out to him. He understood the movements of those wheeling shapes. His mismatched feathers could never compare with their beauty, but he could be among them.

He kicked off through the window and took flight. He glided in a giddy spiral over streets and fields, spinning toward the heavens.

In his dreams, this had been the moment when the world opened up to him, comprehensible at last from a bird’s eye view. The network of streets that bound his home to school, shops, and playground. The river’s route to the sea. The border between town and countryside, opposites that until now had blurred through hedges, verges, and paths. But streets were hidden by houses, the river by hills, and the town still oozed across blurred boundaries.

With swift strokes, Russ flew higher, determined to rise until the world became clear. But his arms were growing weary, the feathers that had buoyed him up becoming a burden. Their lightness was a lie, one more trick the world had set to confuse him. What had been weightless as the air was dragging him down, when he needed to soar.

He ripped out fistfuls of feathers. Black and white, stripped and speckled, they all tore free, mementoes of dreams crumpling between his fingers. He let the wind snatch them away, tumbling toward the ground.

The last feather out was the last one he had found. With it came his father’s shouts, his mother’s sobs, the slam of the door and the smell of petrol fumes. It felt weighty as a rock, but when he let it go, it drifted instead of plummeting.

With a lurching of his stomach, Russ realised that there was nothing left to hold him aloft, any more than to drag him down. He hung suspended, exhilarated and afraid, not knowing which would claim him, the earth or the sky. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and the wind rushed around him. Was he rising or falling? All he knew was that soon the world would make sense.

***

This story was inspired by a workshop on writing the uncanny with fairytales, run by Claire Dean as part of the Leeds Literary Festival. It was an excellent session, which I left with a brain full of bright, buzzing ideas, and with the first half of this story. Huge thanks to Claire, and to Dan Coxon, who made the uncanny strand of the festival happen.

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 once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.

Stonehenge

Shadows stretch like memories across the field, outlines of ancient stones hiding details of the modern ground. The longest shadows of the shortest day. A time to end and to begin. I follow those shadows away from the stones. The cheers and chants from behind me sound false, forced, a faded imitation of past glories.

By Andrew Knighton

Shadows stretch like memories across the field, outlines of ancient stones hiding details of the modern ground. The longest shadows of the shortest day. A time to end and to begin. I follow those shadows away from the stones. The cheers and chants from behind me sound false, forced, a faded imitation of past glories.

The rhythm of my footsteps takes over. I abandon thought, drift into movement, let my self go. Years of practice have made me a master. My mind is blank by the fourth step, refilling by the fifth, as memories left by past walkers rise to meet me.

I’m wearing furs and hides like the others around me, hands worn and muscles aching from a satisfying day’s work. We look back, see the stones we’ve set in place, smile. One of the women is leading a young pig, fat and sweet. We’ve earned our celebration.

I’m a farm girl walking with her lover, the two of us flushed and giggling. No one knows what giant set the stones down, but everyone knows that these places grant fertility. Soon, we’ll be a family.

I’m a scholar in a powdered wig and tailcoat, my servants scurrying behind with the surveying instruments which will prove my theories. I turn too quickly, and a silver button flies off my coat. If only I’d known how to still my mind, I could have walked with my ancestors and had all my questions answered.

I’m myself, the modern me, three years ago. The air’s colder than I remembered, the sky just as bright. I take off a glove, reach into my pocket, grip the ring box. I summon my courage and turn around. I see you there, framed by the shadows of the stones. Your eyes are blank. You’ve fallen into the trance, stepped into memories, and it’s only later that I’ll realise you’ve slid into mine. You know what I’m thinking, and you have an answer before the question is out. Your eyes focus, and you shake your head.

I watch you walk away. Every detail of this moment is as stark and cold as I remember.

Sadness sinks me to my knees. I dig into the dirt, find that elaborate silver button, tarnished by two centuries. It’s round like a ring, round like the circle of stones, the circle of regret that I came back to break.

A shadow stretches towards me, a promise of new memories. I don’t know if she’s here and now, or if I’m still caught in the past. I don’t know if I’m me or if I’m a memory, revived by footsteps a hundred years from now. I just know that I’m ready to go somewhere new.

I smile and hold out the button, a silver decoration shining in the bright midwinter light, a gift from the past and a promise to the future. The old year is ending, a new one ready to begin.

***

Like “Winter’s Shroud“, this story was inspired by a prompt from the British Fantasy Society and first published in their monthly bulletin. If you’re based in the UK and you want to get more involved with fantasy fandom, or to meet like-minded writers and fans, then I totally recommend signing up to the BFS. They do a great job of providing a home for Britain’s fantasy community.

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.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

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.