Christmas Past is Free Until Saturday!

christmaspastHey guys, if you haven’t read Christmas Past yet, it’s free today until Saturday. It’s a time-travel thriller set in the middle of a Victorian winter. It was the first story I published myself, and it started my Timewasters series. The story is pretty special to me, so I’d love it if you checked out out, and let me know what you thought.

You can read it on your kindle, or the free kindle app on your tablet or smartphone. Download it from Amazon.

More details below!

Time travel is easy, getting home is the hard part.

Annie and her friends are used to harsh conditions, but a Victorian winter still comes as a shock. They have a job to do, but it isn’t long before they stumble upon a corpse buried in the snow, and a new mystery to solve.

Endangered – A Short Story

Epping_Forest_Centenary_Walk_2_-_Sept_2008Hey guys, a few updates before story time.

Just to let you know, the free promo for Two Cephalopods Walk Into a Bar is over now. Sorry if you missed, but there’ll be other freebie days soon if you just keep checking. (Or subscribe via the button on the left and WordPress.com’s high-tech robots will keep checking for you.)

We’re getting towards the end of another cycle of short stories. This is the seventh, just one more and I’ll start getting them ready for publication and they disappear from the blog completely. If you’d like to read some of the older stories, just nip over to Amazon and check them out.

In other news, Those Aren’t Biscuits hit a grand total of TEN episodes last week and we’re all very proud. Episode 11 records tomorrow night, so stick around for that. Now I’ll just leave you with the story.

– Owen

***

Endangered

Aaron ran until his chest ached, and when he could run no more he ducked down and braced himself against one of the ancient trees until he caught his breath. Fliss didn’t need to stop as often, and when Aaron stopped she didn’t wait, but slowed and kept an eye on him. They had been running together every night for nearly two weeks through the forest. There had been three at the start, and they weren’t about the lose each other again. Aaron felt the energy coming back to his legs, he couldn’t hear the creature just yet. If he heard nothing for a little longer, he would signal Fliss and they’d take a rest break. Ten, twenty minutes at most. Sometimes they would lose it for as long as an hour, but it would always pick up the scent in the end. It was best to stay ahead if you could.

He waved at her, she’d slowed to a jog now. When she looked back and saw him, she circled around, hurdling over a collapsed log. It was dark, the middle of the night. The moonlight barely broke through the treetops. Aaron guessed his eyesight had adjusted in the weeks since they entered, on the first few nights it had been as if they were entirely coated in darkness whenever the sun set. Now he could pick out more details. When they were close he could see the light glint in her eyes. She did not speak much, but he knew her desire to survive was as strong as his. After all, she ran. She never fell back like Carter had, and while he was sure she would not leave him willingly, he knew she would not hesitate to run if she had no choice. That had been their life for fifteen nights.

They had not seen the creature. Not in the light, and barely in the dark, but it was always stalking them. They knew nothing about it except that it was enormous, it ran fast and made its way through the trees like a ghost. They knew nothing about its intentions except that it killed. It had killed Carter. From that night on, they camped during the day and ran during the night.

The pain in Aaron’s lungs was started to subside. Fliss tossed him a water bottle and he drank, he thought about eating, but the rest didn’t last long. The creatures low whine started to travel through the trees and the slight shake of the earth began. Aaron didn’t know how many more nights he could run, but he knew he could not stop, and so they set off again through the trees.

As they ran, the creature came closer, Aaron didn’t dare look back but he could feel its size, he could feel the force of the air on his back as the massive thing made its way through the forest. As the sun finally broke through the treetops, he heard it scream and retreat. They had made it to another day.

The energy drained from him, he stumbled until he came to a hard stop of the forest’s mossy floor. Fliss stumbled through a couple more steps before heading back to him and they sat on the ground. They fell back, and like every morning they laughed and congratulated each other on surviving another night.

“I don’t know how long I can keep running,” she said. And he knew how she felt. Each night it became harder. They already slept most of the day, but before they made a bed from whatever they could find, they planned their route. Fliss kept the map she had been plotting in her back pocket. It was sketched out on the back page of an old textbook, in mud, pencil, and whatever else she could make stick. In the corner she had doodled a spiral, she traced over it in pencil every time, like it helped her think. He liked watching little details like that. She traced a line, the best estimate they had of the route they had taken through the forest so far. They guessed at its size, but there was only so much they could learn in the dark, and the creature could come from any side. Leading them off in any direction. It was hard, keeping the head clear on so little sleep, to plot it out, but they worked out the best direction to head. The way they would try to run the next night. Then, with a vicious sunlight burning their eyes, they tried to sleep.

It wasn’t easy. Aaron was starting to adjust to the night light, but Fliss found it harder. She would have bad dreams, shake herself awake and pull Aaron with her by her screams. He tried to comfort her, but he didn’t know how. They weren’t close before the forest, he didn’t know her that well still, and so he focused on trying to go back to sleep and leaving her in peace.

That night was different, his sleep started peaceful, but this time he had a dream. A dream of noise and blood, and he wanted wake up and escape it, but his mind couldn’t win the fight. His body was exhausted and even when he was semi-conscious, his legs wouldn’t move. Every muscle resisted until he fell back into a deep, enrapturing sleep.

When Aaron woke it was dark. He panicked, threw himself out of the bed with a shout. Then he remembered the creature, cursed himself for making so much noise. But there was so much to be afraid of, sleeping in was not a good sign, he was pushed as far as he could go. He could sleep no longer. If he slept in again, he would be dead. He didn’t hear the creature yet, but it could not be far off. He stood, and in the dark, he tried to find Fliss to wake her. He was sure he found the spot where she had made her bed, but he couldn’t see her. He kneeled, but his hands touched only grass. It felt wet but his bed was dry. He held his hands to the moonlight and saw blood.

Aaron ran. He ran before he could stop to think about why he was running and when he finally came to his senses he let the words travel across his mind. “Fliss is dead.” And he knew it was true. It had been the same with Carter, they had slept in the night. Not knowing that was when it hunted, and it had picked one of them off. Now it had done the same, and there was just him left. Panic took over, and he ran again, but Fliss’s voice rang in his head.

“I think we’re ok.” She had said after Carter died. “We haven’t heard it again, it might not hunt after it kills.” Carter’s death had bought them a day. The loss of Fliss might do the same. He might not have a day, but even if he didn’t, could he carry on running? All he had left was the hope that somehow it was sated. And he stopped running. He sat on the ground and really felt the pain in his muscles. He was sure the creature was nearby, even if it wasn’t hungry. He slept, and somewhere deep down, he hoped the thing would pick him off in the night too.

In the morning, Aaron felt better. He tried not to think of Fliss, hard as it was, but it had been twenty four hours since he really had to run. His body ached, but for the first time in two weeks it felt like it was mending. And he could travel during the day. They had talked about that, if they could just make good time in the daylight, maybe they could see signs of something beyond the forest. Find shelter, or even find where the thing slept and kill it. That was Fliss’s ambition, Aaron just wanted to go home, and he was sure they could. However big the forest was, they had run every night since they arrived. It couldn’t be much further.

He set off in the direction the had planned, and kept his eyes open for anything unusual. He found it around noon. A campsite. Signs of a fire, beds for three people. In his desperation he nearly cried. The hope of finally seeing someone else was too much. But there was something wrong, he recognised the site. The three had slept there the night Carter died. They had been travelling in circles. He was walking back the way they came, and it was much too far back to their starting point. He picked up Fliss’s map, rescued from the campsite. In the corner she had drawn the spiral, he’d taken it for a doodle. She had known all along. Everything, the map. The entire thing. A waste of time, a distraction just to keep them going. And she hadn’t said a thing. He sat in the camp, he was going in the shock. Time passed so fast it was becoming dark again. And he waited in the bed he had made weeks ago, and wondered if the creature was hungry yet.

Curfew – A Short Story

Hey guys, just a few updates before the story. We’re recording another Those Aren’t Biscuits tomorrow so it should be up on Thursday as usual. I’m also waiting for the first issue of the new Judge Dredd Mega Collection to arrive in the post, it’s a reprint of the 1990 story America, and I’m planning on reviewing it when it arrives, so watch this space. 

This story started out a little more sci-fi when I planned it out, but as I was rewriting, I thought it worked better if I just pared it back to the characters and kept it a little more relatable. Let me know what you think. 

* * *

CityBlackout

Curfew

Domino waited. She watched the nearest clocktower, saw the digits count down. Her heart beat faster with every minute. It was dark now, they were right in the middle of winter. The weatherman even said something about snow, but it wasn’t until 9 so she probably wouldn’t see it. Cars were honking and engines grinding on the roads, everyone trying to get home at once. An announcement piped up over the city’s speakers and reminded her she only had ten minutes left. As if she needed reminding. As if anybody did.

It was Jackson’s fault. He was usually there first; of all the dealer’s she knew, he was usually the most reliable. He took the rail in to the city centre past the sec-checks, and could make it to most neighbourhoods pretty quickly. How he knew all the tricks, she didn’t know, but he knew them and made good use of them too. But curfew was rolling out earlier and earlier these days and if he got caught, she didn’t know what she’d do.

She heard footsteps and ducked back into the recess of the wall and peeped out. An older woman. Well dressed, probably worked for the city. She peered back at her and smiled. “Curfew soon, dear.” Domino looked up at the clock and pretended to be surprised. “Do you need a ride?” She waved over to the corner where her car was parked up with the door open. The woman must have spotted her a mile off. “I have quick clearance, I can take you anywhere you need to go.”

“Oh no,” Domino was flustered, she tried not to babble. “My sister’s supposed to be picking me up.” The woman eyed the clock, she wasn’t convinced. “I mean, I’d love to go with you, but if she gets here and I’m not waiting, then she might wait for me and then she’ll miss curfew, and I don’t want to get her into trouble.” That sealed the deal, well-dressed-and-nosy gave another little smile and walked off to the car.

They were pretty high up on the overpass, she hadn’t expected anyone else to come along. The streetlights were still on, but if Jackson didn’t turn up soon she’d be stood out here in the dark. Then the questions would be even harder to answer. She watched the lights go out section by section across the city. Curfew was any minute now, but she had a good ten minutes before all the lights dropped completely and the streets were filled with cops. She slipped her hands into her pockets, tried to look non-threatening and impatient. Best to start the lies early, she thought. Look believable. She heard a car pull up behind her and she ducked back into the recess. The door opened, few people would bet out on the street now the traffic was clearing. She pressed her back against the cold bricks and did her best not to be seen. If you can’t act cool, better to hide and hope for the best.

“Dom?” A voice hissed. “You around?”

It was Jackson, she poked a hand out of the shadows and waved him in.

“You’re late.”

He stepped in alongside her and she caught a look at his face in the dark. It looked bruised.

“What happened?”

“Shh!” He crouched down, she copied him. A cop car crawled past and then moved off. There was almost no traffic now.

“I know, I’m sorry.” He pushed back his greasy hair and she could see that his usual cocky grin was gone. “I got stopped by the early patrol.” He started pulling papers out of his jacket pocket, then thrust her a pale green slip.

“A fine?” She laughed. “You got away with just a fine?”

“Barely,” he snatched back the paper. “A bloody huge fine.”

“How?”

“I got off the rail early, heard they were doing checks. I thought it couldn’t hurt to be careful, so I jumped off ahead and figured I’d walk. I had plenty of time but turns out they were doing foot checks too.”

“Unlucky.” She stood but he shook his head and pulled her back down.

“I think they followed me, don’t know how many. They know I don’t live in this sector, so I spun them a line about my Granny’s blackout being on the fritz. Said I needed to go be with her this curfew, make sure everything went ok and she knew how to call tech if it didn’t work. I don’t think they believe me, but what could they do?”

“So they let you go?” Domino couldn’t believe it, she trusted Jackson, but this was just the kind of setup her friends fell for.

“No,” Jackson pulled up his jacket and shirt, the bruises to his ribs were clearly visible even in the dark. “This was just incase I was being less than truthful.”

When no cars had passed for a couple of minutes, they stood again and swapped glances.

“Look, Dom. I have to get to a safehouse without any problems. If I’m caught with barter on me, I’ll be in serious trouble.”

Domino pushed him against the wall. “Shit, Jackson. I’m putting my neck out here too. I need it.”

“I know,” Jackson’s grin returned. He fished in his pocket and pulled out the little flashlight. “Take it tonight, pay me in the daylight sometime.” Domino couldn’t believe it, she rushed into a hug before remembering his wounded ribs.

“You really trust me?”

“Of course,” Jackson laughed. “That thing runs on batteries, who else can hook you up with those.”

Domino slipped it in her pocket, she said her thanks with a nod, and stepped out into the street.

She wasn’t in as much danger as Jackson. She was only three blocks from her flat. The curfew was rolled out in the next few blocks, but she could probably reach her door before things really got dark in her building. Hopefully she’d have it unlocked before then and she wouldn’t have to fumble around in the dark. She crossed the road without thinking, there was no traffic at this time, despite the jams only a few minutes earlier. When things got really bad, people just parked up on the streets and ran.

She picked up speed herself, her building was in sight now, but she just heard the voice behind her.

“Stop!” And she did, like a conditioned response. Even if she’d had time to the think, the fear of a bullet in her back wouldn’t soon be forgotten. She turned and saw the police officer who had shouted her. His uniform was black and yellow, with two strips on the shoulder. A captain then. But she couldn’t make out a face under the helmet. He walked towards her and then the exposed lips smiled and he lifted the helmet off. She didn’t know his name, but the face was familiar. He lived in her building. He was nice. Outside the uniform, they always seemed nice.

“Working late?”

It was a trick question, the first thing they taught you in the underground. Employers had to get to curfew too, nobody worked late.

“I’m sorry officer,” that was the right answer. This was going smoothly, if she could just get past without a search she’d be fine. “I got caught behind a protest on 5th, and I didn’t want to seem associated so I had to take a longer walk home.”

His smile dropped, but it had the right effect. There was always a protest somewhere during the curfew, if it wasn’t on fifth it would be on 6th or 7th. He did just what she expected. He nodded and then returned to his vehicle, driving off in the direction of a protest she sincerely hoped he would find when he got there.

And now she was at the front door of her building, Curfew was any second. She made it through the door, reminded herself not to take the lift so close to the power switch off and sprinted up the steps. The power went just as she pushed her key in the lock. Not bad, Domino, she thought. She pushed her way into the flat and locked the door behind her. It was pitch black inside, she had to make her way to the bathroom feeling her way with her hands. The blackouts had dropped before the power cut and now all light was sealed off in the tiny flat. She felt her way to the bathroom cupboard, finding towels and blankets. There she stuffed up the cracks at the bottom of the bathroom door, then made a soft bed in the corner. She kicked off her shoes and pulled a blanket over her head.

Domino took the tiny flashlight from her pocket and twisted the top. A ring of LEDs sprung to life, illuminating the entire room. She quickly pulled the blanket over her head. It would only take the tiniest crack for light to seep through to her neighbours and she would be caught. Then she felt around for the prize she had concealed in there earlier, the book. She opened the pages gingerly, old books like this were antiques. No scrolling, no screen. She pointed the flashlight at the page and didn’t stop reading until she heard the blackouts lifting the next day.

Against the Wall – A Short Story

hubble_large_04Hey guys, it’s short story time again. This story came about because I was processing an idea for a longer story and I wanted to get a feel for the setting so I wrote this up as a quick idea then fleshed it out. Let me know what you think. 

***

Beckett gripped the ladder, and through a fog of booze, made an attempt at a controlled descent. His knee cracked with every rung, but he wasn’t far from the ground. He still put his footing wrong at the last step and came down a bit too heavy, but he’d done a pretty good job. He checked his surroundings, one of the old Cavalier 2-26s. There was a time when they’d made up most of the Hive’s skin, the place had a little class in those days. Long before he arrived. Still, the Cavs were big ships, high quality, not the like the slums they built around them. By the time he worked the skin, the slums were mostly old cargo haulers surrounded by a network of sealing tubes and snub fighters. God knows what the shell was made of now.

He missed his cosy office, almost wished he’d never taken the job. No, he didn’t.

“How’d you like to nail Dylan for good?” She’d asked. She leaned in, asked him to keep this in her strictest confidence. She was shy, held back on the information until she knew she could trust him. And she could, he’d been working on putting Governor Dylan behind bars most of his life. The Hive was corrupt, everyone knew that. Even in the centre, where the ships still looked new and there were no blackouts, a good coin got you further than a decent job. Dylan was a special kind of corrupt though.

No, he didn’t regret taking the job. What he regretted was taking such a cushy place when he got the chance; it was making him soft. He found the 2-26’s exit without bumping into anyone, but had to squeeze through the old maintenance hatch into a communal hall that looked like a derelict freighter. He had to suck his gut in to get through, desk job was making him a little wider too. A few people milled about the old market stalls, mostly selling food that looked scraped together from vending machine overs. The map on the wall that reassured him; the route was a pretty straight line from here to the shell.

Of all his regrets, moving to The Hive wasn’t one of them. He arrived when he was twenty-three, he’d wanted to see it all his life. For some people, The Hive was the galaxy’s biggest folly; for others, a symbol of human ingenuity. For Beckett, it was just a place to find a good job. It started off as a small cargo fleet that settled a little out of the solar system. Deregulation of the shipping lanes made it more dangerous to travel alone, four or five ships were trading so often they started leaving the docking clamps together and stayed in a loose Orbit around the nearest star. That was ancient history now, for all Beckett’s life, the Hive consisted of tens of thousands of ships. Some big, some small. Some intact, the others broken down and harvested for resources. The up and coming’s in the academy liked to call it a free-form space station, but most of the traders called it Bric-a-Brac Moon.

Beckett was nearly there now. The outer layers of The Hive, the shell, contained the newest ships. Little more than single accommodation craft, wired in for power and emergency propulsion. Things were risky, but there was always work to be done. Truth was a nightmare but Beckett looked at it with all the admiration of a home town. If the little sun glider he’d lived in when he first arrived was still around, it would probably be carved to pieces by now. Hell, he reminded himself, it wouldn’t even be the shell anymore. The place had added twenty or thirty layers since then. He climbed through another sealing tube, breaking through into an observation deck. Crowded as always. The only place the rich bothered to visit in the shell, and they went with an escort. A chance to look out at the stars. And while they stared out, Beckett stared back the way he had travelled.

It had taken him days on foot. The last ten layers were suffering intermittent blackouts as the ships became smaller. There were no elevators, just hatches, doors, small empty cabins, and locked habitation centres to traverse. That had taken a day all by itself, but he had reached the skin. The outer layer of The Hive. Travelling this far was hard work. About the only thing harder was travelling to a specific spot on the skin. Going deep was easy, the centre was almost impossible to miss, but the outer shell of the hive was the size of a small planet. Beckett had been careful to plan his route, and to take his time. Not too much time, if he wanted to meet his contact he could not be late, but people who were careless often didn’t return. He held on to the image of the woman who hired him. No names, be discreet, meet the contact. One of Dylan’s rejects, banished to the shell for knowing too much. And that made sense too, the shell was full of people who had pissed someone off.

After six days of travel, Beckett had arrived. The skin was a thin but busy layer, usually full of engineers and new arrivals sealing their ships into the infrastructure before assessing the resources for harvesting, but the meeting place was empty. He walked the corridors for a bit, getting a feel for the place. He could see the workers through a viewing window, hard at work on the latest member of the hive, a small cargo vessel that was nearly broken down now. The meeting place was in the opposite direction; a small, beaten Nebula Yacht that looked empty. Becket climbed aboard. There was nobody there. He checked his watch. He was early, less than an hour, but better than he expected. He hoped his contact appreciated it.

He examined the ship, he had arrived in a ship like it. It had been his Fathers. He hadn’t thought about the old man in a while, he never appreciated Beckett joining the Hive. Old fool, half the solar system was on board now. Probably living in some slum somewhere, and never even bothered to get in touch. Beckett found an old overturned chair, one of the last bits of furniture left in the craft, and made himself comfortable. Everything had been taken, the slums were so bad these days, the poor sods living there had probably stripped it before the engineers arrived.

After two hours, Beckett gave up. Whoever his contact was, they weren’t coming. He had a feeling he’d been set up, no doubt Dylan had something planned in the city and wanted him out of the way. He felt a fool, before consoling himself. He had, at least, been willing to head out for it. Better than most would do. He lifted himself up and walked to hatch, which slammed shut when he was inches away. A radio crackled behind him, he spun around but he was alone on the ship. It was the craft’s internal radio, but the signal was broken, low powered. A source nearby.

“I’m sorry to mislead you, Mr Beckett.”

“Dylan?” His chest felt tight, this was bad.

“You know, I almost changed my mind.” The radio fizzed again, filling the silence. “But you were so dedicated, who else would have climbed all the way out here.” There was a grinding metal noise above and beneath him.

Beckett closed his eyes. “Oh no.”

“Goodbye, Mr Beckett.” He turned and stared at the stars outside, and felt his heart sink to see the ship was moving. He ran to the dash, looked for controls for the engines, the radio, anything to get control but it was all gone. “Don’t worry, Mr Beckett.” Dylan’s voice was already breaking up. “I’m sure someone will find you before the air runs out.” Beckett’s eyes traced the corners of the ship, trying to measure up the size. He wasn’t so convinced.

***

Nostalgia Time: The Demon Headmaster

 

This entry in Nostalgia Time is a little bit different. The Demon Headmaster was a long running children’s show, based on a popular series of books by Gillian Cross. The series followed the exploits of Dinah Glass, a foster child who comes up against the sinister headmaster of her new school. She soon discovers that The Headmaster is a supernatural hypnotist, running the school perfectly and scoring the best test results by hypnotising the entire student body at once during assemblies. However, it’s not just Ofsted The Headmaster is trying to win over, as Dinah begins to suspect the school is just a testing ground for something far more ambitious. 

Terrence Hardiman terrified my generation with his terrifying portrayal of The Headmaster, and while the plots became goofier as the series wore on, the show was always well cast and performed. Child actors aren’t known for bringing out the best of the material, but the story worked and kids were believable enough in it. So effective was it that much of the show’s visuals are still burned into my brain. The hypnotised kids waiting patiently in lines to start the school day, and later the creepy testing facility hidden in the woods. The use of something familiar, a typical british school, to create fear and suspense would later be revisited in Series 2 of the rebooted Doctor Who with Toby Whithouse’s School Reunion. Both featuring brainwashed children and a dark patriarch at the top. 

The Demon Headmaster has been gone for a long time now. The last book was in 2002, the TV show finished in 1998, and Children’s TV has moved away from strong narrative drama anyway. Still, it’s nice to remember a time when Children’s TV was so imaginative and so motivated by encouraging independence, free thought and intelligence. 

Timewasters: Time-Eater

Hey Guys, for the last year I’ve been writing flash fiction stories and posting them to the blog before I bundle them up for publication. This has been a really fun exercise for me, and the results have been really positive. Often increasing sales of eBook and giving me a lot of valuable feedback before I publish. With that in mind, I’m extending the model to include longer Short Fiction works and projects. It gives me a chance to really share my work with people and see what people think. So, I’m posting my latest Timewasters story below, this is a follow up to Christmas Past and Time Trial that are both available on the kindle store. 

First, all three stories are standalone entries, but some background knowledge is useful. Timewasters follows three reluctant Time Travelers; Annie, Mark and Graham. Accidentally separated from their own time, they travel through time and space via a network of “Time Tunnels,” equipped only with The Detector, a portable computer that can predict where the next time tunnel will open. Enjoy the story!

* * * 

 

Timewasters: Time-Eater

 

Time Eater crouched on his perch like a gargoyle watching over the ruins. The gaps between meals were getting longer, they had to. Not much left now. He opened his eyes, even through the red tint of the goggles the light stung. Clouds covered the sky and the sun was dark, there should not have been light left, but his eyes weren’t what they were; even residual photons burned.  Around him there was nothing but wasteland, nothing to eat but Maybes and Perhaps. The bones of time. 

It had been lush when he arrived, a world with a long future, but he got greedy. He sniffed the air, checking if it was time to feed, and caught something in the wind. Just a tickle at the back of his nose. He placed his hands on his knees and inhaled deeply, a long breath to take it all in. It was far away, further than he had been in a long time, and it was wrong. The sweetest meat of all, something far from home. Something taken from its own time and cast adrift. And he knew where it was. He forced himself to stand and stretch his limbs. The skin on his arms was pale and sagging, how long had he crouched there? He was not sure. He walked back to his nest and pulled on his gear. A puddle was forming in the recess that was his bed. He caught a glimpse of his reflection before dashing the water with his foot. It was now or never. He had worn nothing for so long, the gear felt heavy on his back. He pushed his arms through the gloves, strapped on the belt and hit the power. Behind him was the beating of four metal wings. Ahead there was a ripping sound, like a knife through canvas, and a gap appeared in the air. The drain was too much for this world, he could see the surface turning to dust. The building beneath him was new, but it would not last much longer. He sprung forward and in a second, he had never been there. A moment later and the planet was gone too. 

***

“Look, how much for the food?” Graham pointed at the unlabelled tins. The stall owner grasped one between his fingers and held it to his ear. He spoke from behind a layer of bandages.

“Is Good!” He shook the can. “Fruit. Earth Fruit. Very rare, yes?”

“Yes,” Graham nodded. “Very good, how much.” He was growing impatient. He had money, spare change from everywhere they stopped. Odds are something was worth something, but nothing caught the little man’s interest. He had been there all morning, and nobody came through the city gate, outside the walls there was nothing but sand. That was the problem with the tunnels, no way of knowing when you’d landed. Or where. The tin cans ruled out the distant past, the pink hue in the sky ruled out Earth. Everything else was a guess.

“This is what I have.” He started emptying his pockets. The merchant turned his nose up at a few glittering coins, but his eyes glinted when he saw the keys to Graham’s old Volvo.

“Keys?” He held them up by the weathered AA keyring. “Opens what?” He said. Graham seized his chance.

“Who knows?” He leaned in close to the man and lowered his voice. “I got them from a trader on the coast.” He really hoped this planet had a coast. The merchant blinked somewhere deep inside the bandages. “He said they would lead me to good fortune.” The merchant stared back into his eyes and then knocked his head back with a wheezing laugh.

“I like you, crooked old man. I will give you special for…” He dropped the keys into the pocket of his dirty shirt. “…Magic keys.”

“No need,” said Graham, not wanting to push his look. “Just the food please.”

The merchant pushed the tins towards him, “You take.” Graham started loading his rucksack. He could finally stop hunting, they would eat well tonight. The merchant dipped under the table before coming back up with something.

“But take special too,” He smiled. “For making another crooked man laugh.”

The item was wrapped in thick fabric and roughly the size of a football. Graham pulled back the cloth and saw a glass sphere made of thick, uneven glass. It  was a dirty green like old bottles and lighter than he expected. He quite liked it, but as pleasing as it was, he could see no purpose to it. He guessed the little man was trying to shift some of his more useless stock. They really didn’t have room for extra weight.

“No thank you,” he pushed the ball back to the merchant. The bandaged man seemed a little hurt.

“No, no.” He lifted the ball. “Is good for traveller.” He shook it and the ball started to glow. Pale at first but it built until the merchant was holding a ball of brilliant green fire in his hands. He shook it again and the light went off. Now that might be useful.

“Is clever,” said the man. He placed it back on the stall and started wrapping the fabric up again. “But not much barter on world with no night.”

Graham took the ball and placed it in his bag. The rucksack was getting full now, but it still sat comfortably on his back. His knees, on the other hand, were struggling to carry him now. Time to head back. He was getting too old to be going on adventures.The others would probably have made a deal for shelter by then, and he could use the rest. He nodded a thank you to the stall owner who had already started fiddling with the old keys, and set off back to the rendezvous.

***

Time-Eater pushed his arms back. He felt the vibrations from his metal wings down at his fingertips. He gritted his teeth and forced himself through the gap between moments until he came out the other side. The brightness forced his eyes closed, he lost control of his wings and dropped to the ground. He thought he would fall forever until he fell until he felt hot sand on his feet. He had felt it before but he could not remember when. There were noises around him but he couldn’t decipher them, still the light burned him through his eyelids. He twisted the dial on his goggles, an ancient mechanical aperture tightened until only a sliver of light came through. He sniffed the air here, the scent of his prey was thick and heavy. It would not take long. 

***

The market was well populated, but small. The people filled every gap and he couldn’t even see the stall he’d just been stood at. The wind had picked up and those stood by the market walls were starting to close the gates and pull up windbreakers on the walls. Some were still shopping, but those that had finished were making their way to the building in the centre, so Graham walked there too. From the outside it looked like a small pillbox in the sand, barely enough room for few families, but he’d seen plenty of people carrying all their belongings inside. He guessed it went further down, under the surface. The people were hurried, but not panicked. That suited Graham, his new life was wearing on him, a little. He didn’t dare tell the others, but it was only a matter of time before he’d have to. And then? He chewed his lip. What choice did they have besides leaving him behind?

When he reached the pillbox, he got a better look at its construction. Made of old carved beams and finished in some sort of heavy varnish, it looked sturdy enough. Rivet heads the size of his fist were in place around the joints. It was obviously the oldest building there, and the only structure inside the walls with any permanence to it. The others should have been there already; he decided to walk the circumference and see if he could find them. He found Mark first, absorbed in conversation with an elderly local who seemed to be trying to sell him a watch. Mark was more interested in the history of the place. He watched them for a little. For every morsel of information the old man provided, Mark gave him another trinket from his pocket.

“Mercenary lot, aren’t they?” Said Graham.

Mark grinned. “Yes.” He nodded a thank you to the old man. “But it’s nice, in it’s own way. No games, no needling people for information. Everything for the right price.”

“Handy,” said Graham. “Until you run out of money.”

“Mm,” Mark wasn’t listening. “Did you get food?”

“A few tins,” He didn’t mention the lantern, he wanted to show them that in person.

“Of what,” asked Mark.

“You tell me,” Graham tossed him a tin. “No labels.”

Mark stared at the can as if he could see through the metal. He held it up to his ear as the trader had and tapped the top with his other hand.

“Stewed steak,” he said, tossing back the can.

“Oh you can’t be serious,” Graham snorted.

“Want to bet on it?”

“No,” said Graham. “Besides, I remember the flavour packets incident.”

“That doesn’t count.” Mark looked hurt. “Who ever heard of Raspberry Soup?”

“Where’s Annie,” Graham asked, changing the subject.

“Inside, sorting out a room.” Mark grabbed his bags and headed for the entrance. “Wait until you see this place.”

***

The first floor inside was empty. A bare, circular room with a railing that ran around the centre. It didn’t seem so special, thought Graham, but when he approached the railing, he saw a staircase inside the rails. He gripped the rails and leaned over. Beneath was a chasm that dropped so far, he couldn’t see the bottom. A cylinder carved straight down into the rock, with staircases, ladders, ropes and pulleys all netter across the side. Chambers were carved into the side, pinpricks of light at the bottom and constructions of steel and glass jutting from the rock. An entire city tunnelling into the ground.

“Most of the people live down there,” said Mark. “Quite advanced apparently, the market is just the porch. The traders travel out, collect debris from derelicts and space waste, and harvest the best stuff for barter.”

“How do they produce food?” Asked Graham, unable to look away.

“Don’t know,” said Mark. “Hadn’t got that far, maybe they harvest lichen or something from the cave walls, on Earth there are thousands of types of… oh hang on. I see her.”

Across the room Annie was negotiating with a local woman. He couldn’t be sure, but Graham guessed she was the leader, she was tall and dressed in clothes more colourful and lighter than the merchants outside.

The two headed over, as they arrived Annie was handing over a few of their collected trinkets. A long dead Robot Insect from a stop Graham hoped to forget, some pressed dandelion heads and a few of the less useful books they had raided from Bright’s library. Annie could be mercenary too, and was doing her best to get a good price.

“The last chapter has a good process for purifying water, not much use to us but you might make something of it.” Their host was gracious and, apparently, grateful. After the trade was complete, the two women bowed to each other and their host went to help put up the shelters outside.

“How did you do?” asked Mark.

Annie laughed, “I definitely won this time.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Graham, going for his bag.

She held up her hand. “Wait your turn. No tunnels out of here for three days, right?”

Mark pulled back his sleeve and examined the computer on his wrist, the screen was a jumble of colours and numbers that made no sense to Graham. “Three days approximately, could be as high as four.”

“Well,” said Annie, beaming. “I got us a week, with food and supplies for when we leave.”

“Sorry Graham,” Mark pulled a face of false concern. “She’s wins.”

“You haven’t even seen mine yet,” Graham opened his bag and froze. Cut off by the sound of a screech outside.

***

When they returned to the square, the creature was in the centre with its back to them. It looked like a man but it stood a little under five feet with a hunch. Its arms and legs were bare, but its body was wrapped in what looked like armour and equipment. Wires from a backpack led down to boots and gloves that looked heavy and weathered and two pairs of metal wings sprouted from its back like a dragonfly. As it turned, Graham noticed he was holding its breath. It’s head was covered by by a face mask that showed nothing of beneath and in place of its eyes were a pair of thick goggles coated in a layer of dust. Even in the bright sunlight, Graham could see the trace of a red glow beneath the lenses.

The image was so stark against the sand, that it distracted from the crumpled mass it held in its hand. A small boy. Graham guessed he was the source of the shriek. At first he thought the boy was dead, but then he let out a strained whimper. Graham wasn’t sure if he was relieved. Nobody dare go near the thing, save one woman being held back by the crowd. The boy’s mother, Graham guessed. Whatever had happened to start this, whatever he missed, it had frightened the people so much that they would not intervene to save the child. He wanted to change that, to move in and try to rescue the boy, but his feet would not move. Something in the thing’s covered face, the dead tone of his skin, overpowered everything he knew was right. Further back, the workers who had been raising the shelters stopped. They had protection from the worst of the storm, but the wind was still bringing sand through the gap in the main gate.

The thing dropped the boy. He landed in the sand with a bump and then scrambled to his feet, dashing back into the crowd. The thing sniffed the air and then with a voice like breaking glass, it made its demands.

“Food.” It barked. A woman from one of the fruit stalls scurried out with a covered basket. The thing ignored her until the basket was immediately under its face. “No.” It knocked her back with a swipe of its hand. The people stayed stuck, even as precious food rolled in the dirt. The thing reach to its mouth and pulled apart a section of its mask. Beneath was a lipless gap in its jaw that moved as it spoke.

“Food here,” it spread its arms and inhaled a lengthy breath. “Far from home, out of time. Rich.” It bared a set of perfect teeth in its wasting face. “Sweet.”

Graham glanced to the others, they all thought the same. It was in one of their stolen books, move a pea two seconds into the past and you create enough energy to light every home in Europe. He was selfish at first, he hoped they hadn’t been noticed by the locals, but that wasn’t the case. He could see them staring less at the creature and more and the strangers that had brought it there. The three didn’t need to discuss it, they stepped out of the crowd and made their way towards the thing. Graham’s boots felt heavier with every step, and as he watched the creature, it didn’t move, didn’t react to them. He listened to his feet, their noise drowned out by the storm. And then the creature reached, it grasped for thin air where the child had been. It looked confused and Graham understood.

“It’s blind,” he whispered. The thing snapped its head in his direction, the wings on its back buzzed and thrust it forward until it was nose to nose with Graham.

“Can’t see,” it grinned. “But can hear.” It took another sniff. “Can smell.”

“Back Off,” Annie stepped between them. The creature flitted back and traced its hands across her face. “I’m the one you want, I’m the time traveller.”  Mark grabbed her shoulders to stop her, but she pulled out. The creature brought its face closer to her and then shook its head like a wet dog.

“No, no, no!” It pushed Annie back with its fingertips until she fell back into the sand. “Too young, too fresh, too close.” It went back to Graham, did it want him because he was old? Couldn’t fight back, or just smelled right, but the creature’s nose led it to the rucksack. With a single movement it ripped the straps from him and emptied the contents onto the ground.

The lantern lay in the sand, inert. The creature was drawn to it, but sniffed around it on the ground as if the lantern were hiding itself. The thing pulled apart the rucksack and ran its fingers through the sand, but never touch the orb. Graham was fascinated by the display, sure now that this was what the creature had sensed. The others had seen it too, Mark had started to shuffle around the side, to get between it and the orb shuffled. Without hesitation, the figure swung an emaciated around and grabbed Mark by the throat.

“Noisy feet,” it barked. “Will eat you last, noisy feet. Will eat this whole world. Eat every day there will ever be, and you will watch.” It threw him to the ground on carried on searching.

Graham got as close to Annie as he could. “Distract it.” She nodded and slipped her bag off her shoulder. Graham squeezed her hand, she looked back at him and he felt safer.

“Hey!” She shouted as loud as she could, her voice broke through the wind and the thing twisted unnaturally to face her. “I’ve got what you’re looking for,” she started running across the market. “If you can catch me!” The sand was getting deeper now, and the storm carried it in circles and whipped it into her body. She kept ahead by leaping across the empty stall. It could only keep up in flight, but the storm buffeted its fragile body about.

Graham didn’t have long. “Forgive me, knees” He grabbed the orb and began his own run.

He passed Mark, relieved to see he was still conscious, and he sprinted for the gate. He didn’t know how long he could last, his running days were long behind him, but he trusted his friend. If he needed the time, she would get it. The gate was getting nearer, still further than he needed it to be, but he couldn’t push his body much further. He stole a glance back, Annie had lead the thing to the other side of the shelter but it was closing in on her. His chest ached; he couldn’t keep going. This would have to be close enough. Graham held the lantern in both hands and hoped his theory panned out. He shook the lantern and brought the green light to life.

The creature screamed. It was a high pitched wrenching noise that settled unpleasantly on the eardrum. It could feel the green light, and it knew it has been tricked. It launched itself up into the air, Graham told himself to be patient. It started to drop, to flit and spiral through the currents of air, becoming faster until Graham doubted it could stop in time and when he could see the red tint in its eyes, Graham kicked the lantern as hard as he could. Pain shot through his knee. The glass cracked, but there was enough force to send the orb flying through the city gate. It spewed a bright green liquid as it went and the creature followed it in a frenzy. It navigated the winds like a trapped wasp until it crashed through the gap in the gate and disappeared into the storm. Graham told himself nothing could survive out in the storm, and he almost believed it.

The people in the market stood and listened to the storm, forever seemed to drift past until someone yelled to close the gates. A group of grease covered workers dashed past Graham and started closing the gates. He took a few steps and then stopped, and let himself fall back into the sand. Everything hurt, his heart pounded and he thought each beat would be his last. He closed his eyes and felt the heat of the sand on his face. His heart beat calmed, slowly, and he felt somebody taking his pulse.

“He’ll be fine,” somebody said. And he believed them.

***

“That was a quiet one,” said Mark, as they walked to the next tunnel. He checked the co-ordinates on the computer.

“What!?” Annie laughed. “Did you forget the flying goblin that wanted to eat us?”

“Except for that bit.”

Graham smiled to himself. He didn’t want to admit just how much he had to drag his leg, didn’t want to worry the others. Besides, he told himself, Mark was right. After the creature had gone, it had been a couple of days of good food and rest. Not many stops were like that.

“Any idea where the next tunnel takes us, Mark?” He shouted. Mark shrugged his shoulders.

“We haven’t hopped around here much,” he showed Graham the screen but it was still incomprehensible to him. “Not much frame of reference.”

“Anyway, we’re here,” said Annie. It was a small tunnel, just a swirling distortion in the air the size of a manhole, but they’d. Mark stepped through first, leaving just Annie and himself. She draped her hand over his shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re ok, old timer?” He laughed her off.

“I just need to catch my breath.” She looked concerned. “Hey, just go on through and I’ll be right behind you.” Annie stepped into the entrance, when he couldn’t see her at all, he sat back. Felt the sand as he had when he’d passed out. It was a cooler day, less inviting, but it was better than standing. He had a good ten minutes before the entrance closed, but he could feel something uncomfortable underneath him. He forced himself to his feet and felt around in the sand. It didn’t take him long to find, a shard of thick, ancient glass. Probably from some crash or derelict, but he couldn’t help thinking it was from the orb. He shouldn’t be surprised, he thought, something had to survive after all, but it was time to leave.

Pilot – A Short Story

Electronic BrainHey guys, it’s story time again. I know other updates have been a bit thin on the ground, but besides writing there hasn’t been much to report. Besides, I can usually tag any other updates on to the beginning here. I’m working hard to get enough stories together for a follow up to last year’s collection, but I enjoy writing these bitesize pieces so much that I think I’ll probably have enough ideas for another eight after that. 

I’ve been exploring Science Fiction again for this story. I haven’t written much about robots in the past, all the best ideas have usually been done, and I’m sure this one is no exception, but I have always wondered when a robot’s brain stops becoming a computer and turns into a mind. This story is about just that. 

* * *

EDIT: Unfortunately, as this story has been published elsewhere, I’ve had to remove it temporarily. Sorry – Owen.

Detritus – A Short Story

Hey Guys, updates were a bit sparse last week, but I’m kicking off this week with a new story for you to make up for it. This is a tense little sci-fi horror idea that I quite enjoyed. I’ve been wanting to write a time travel story for a while, but I wanted to do something a bit different with it. I was lucky as the entire plot basically jumped into my head fully formed and I just had to go through the process of getting words on the page. As usual, check it out below.

In other news, the Big Book Freebie I did the other week went really well. A lot of free copies were distributed, and I have had some nice feedback from readers. I was hoping it would translate into a few extra Amazon reviews, but that’s one of the toughest hurdles to achieve. 

Lastly, I finally traded in the very unreliable old laptop that came with my phone contract for a very swish Macbook. This means that it will be a lot easier to get writing and blogging done hassle free. Expect more updates and stories in the future. 

– Owen

* * *

EDIT: Unfortunately, as this story has been published elsewhere, I’ve had to remove it temporarily. Sorry – Owen.

The Octopus of Suspense is Available Now!

The Cephalopod Arrives

The Octopus of Suspense CoverMy new book, The Octopus of Suspense, is available to buy on the Kindle story now. It costs $1.99 / £1.31 and anyone with a kindle or kindle app on their phone/iPad/android/PC can download from the links below.

Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk

For more information, read on.

 

About the Book

From the blurb:

The Octopus of Suspense is a collection of eight little stories that will take you somewhere new. Exploring a range of genres, each story enters the world of a unique character. From the desk of troubled pulp writer, to a starship in the distant future, The Octopus of Suspense offers a surprise at every turn. Originally written for weekly release online, they have been revisited and expanded for this new collection. Each story is between 1000 and 1500 words long.

Owen Adams is a writer and blogger with a love for short fiction. He is the author of the Time Travel stories; Christmas Past and Time Trial.

The book collects stories that were previously part of my Fiction Friday project, but they’ve since been revised and smartened up a lot. I’m really proud of these stories, and I think they really work well together.

 

The Stories

The collection contains eight stories:

 

Customs:

Visitors to must first path through immigration; smugglers included.

The Confession:

Nobody’s a saint in prison, but sometimes the worst crimes go undiscovered.

Dark Thoughts:

Doctor White has a reputation as a healer, but his treatment can be a little unconventional.

The Cat:

One predator watches another from the safety of his bedroom window.

Hope:

In the depths of space there is a warship, far from home, but its mission is made uncertain when an unexpected message arrives.

Identity Theft:

No lock is perfect, even the best needs a key.

The Box:

Tim wants nothing more than the box in the window, now it is within his reach.

Motivation:

A troubled pulp writer struggles with an elusive story that feels a little too close to home.

 

Why the Late News?

If you’re reading this now, you might be a little surprised. After all, Octopus has actually been on sale since the wee hours of this morning. So, why am I only getting around to announcing it now?

Honestly, I forgot that KDP didn’t have a scheduling feature. It was originally planned to start selling on Friday, then I could spend today promoting the freebies, and tomorrow focusing on the new book. When I uploaded Christmas Past, I had a couple of days hold up for KDP’s review phase, so the plan with Octopus was to upload on Wednesday night but schedule it to go on sale Friday morning. But you can’t do that, and so I ended up just giving myself a very busy Thursday.

 

Don’t Forget the Free Books

A new book isn’t the only thing happening today, you can also get two short stories from Amazon FREE until Saturday. These are Sci-Fi / Time Travel stories in the spirit of Sliders or Stargate and they’re a lot of fun.

Check them out here!

Five Great Science Fiction eBooks.

I have always loved a good science fiction yarn, and if you’re reading this blog then you probably feel the same way. The eBook revolution is upon us, but it can be difficult to sort through the dross. With that in mind, I present you with my list of five excellent Sci-Fi stories available on the kindle store. If any of these take your fancy, I’ve provided links straight through to Amazon.

5) Lacuna: Demons of the Void – David Adams

Lacuna Demons of the Void book coverLacuna is a novel that feels classic and brand new at the same time. It belongs very much to the Star Trek mould, following the exploits of a starship captain in Earth’s future. When Lacuna sets itself apart is in a more nuanced interpretation of that future. After the planet is attacked by a mysterious enemy, mankind sets out into the stars to strike back, but this is a humanity far from united. Back home, the planet is divided into massive power blocks that have enough problems without alien invaders.

The Lacuna story does not end here, and Adams’ follow up novels are even better, but this is a great opening chapter and really worth picking up.

4) The Time Machine – H.G Wells

H.G Wells The Time Machine CoverH.G Wells classic story of a lone time traveler. This novella is absolutely one of the finest time travel stories ever written. It features all the classics of the genre; a fish out of water protagonist, a troubling future, commentary on the human condition, and even a couple of good plot twists along the way. For a writer of his time, Wells remains unbelievable readable, and this is one of his best stories. An absolute must for any Time Travel lover.

As a bonus, the Enriched Classics version (linked above) is currently free!

3) Yesterday’s Gone: Season One – Sean Platt and David Wright

Yesterday's Gone Season One Book CoverThe eBook market is a great place to try out serialised fiction. With Yesterday’s Gone, Sean Platt and David Wright have really owned the format. A thrilling story that owes a lot to Stephen King and Left Behind (without the crazy religious element), Yesterday’s Gone is one of my favourite books in ages. Originally released in a series of short parts, the collected Season One ebook is definitely the best way to start experiencing this story. It begins when the majority of the world’s population suddenly vanished. From there, an eclectic group of characters all over America are gradually drawn together. The story doesn’t end with Season One, but there’s a lot in this eBook and you’ll definitely be left wanting more. There are a lot of great books on this list, but this is the one that most exploits the eBook format to tell a great story.

2) Dune – Frank Herbert

Dune Kindle Edition CoverI should probably apologise for putting Dune on this list. After all, it’s a classic that you can probably find cheaper in any second hand bookstore in the english speaking world. However, it’s a decision I stick by. Dune is one of my favourite books, but it’s hardly an easy read, and it’s a weighty tome that doesn’t lend itself well to reading on the train. Since picking up the kindle, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading Dune for the first time in a very long time.

Most people will have some familiarity with Dune by now, but unless you’ve read the book then you haven’t really experience it. Set on the hostile desert world of Arrakis, Dune follows the messianic path of Paul Atreides. The son of a noble household, Paul is cast out into the sands of Arrakis and must lead the savage Fremen who live there in order to save the planet from the vicious Harkonnen family. It sounds complicated, and it is, but it has a lot in common with the complex mythic worlds of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

1) Wool – Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey CoverWool doesn’t need much promotion these days. What started off as a self published short story has become a smash hit since then, with talk of a movie adaptation on the horizon. I’m going to promote it anyway, because from the first page until the last, I enjoyed Wool. In the future, the last of the human race lives in the Silo. This vast bomb shelter is little more than a pill box on the surface, but descends deep under the surface. Within this vault lives an entire society with a single giant staircase the only route from the bottom to the top. The law is harsh, but there is one crime more serious than any other, wanting to leave.

The book is actually comprised of a series of smaller books the become longer until the fifth and final. We open with a great little short story that would have made Philip K. Dick proud, from there Howey builds on his initial story and creates a truly great fictional world. This is the kind of science fiction that just isn’t being written anymore, and I hope Wool leads to a comeback.

That’s all folks. These are the five eBooks that I think every Sci-Fi fan should have on their eReaders. If you’d like to make your own suggestions or just disagree with me, you can leave a comment.