Snippet–Para Bellum

20 Aug

Prologue I

From: Admiral Kathy Lauder, UK BIOPREP

To: Admiral Sir John Naiser, First Space Lord

Classification: Top Secret, Eyes-Only FSL

John.

My official conclusions are in the report forwarded to your office, which you can read at your leisure. My unofficial conclusion is that I’m bloody terrified. Bioweapons have been a constant threat since every kid with a modified chemistry set could start brewing up something nasty in his parents basement, and we saw a whole string of nasty outbreaks during the Age of Unrest, but this is an order of magnitude more dangerous than anything we’ve seen. The concept of a virus that could pass from one species to another was the stuff of low-budget fiction, until now. A sentient alien virus, capable of infecting humans as easily as the common cold, must be reckoned a serious threat. We may find it very difficult to defend ourselves.

We can and we will take precautions. The virus does not appear to cope well with ultraviolet light, allowing us to ensure it doesn’t spread through the air. We have had some success with experimental counter-viral treatments, when those treatments are carried out within a few short hours of infection. We can be fairly sure of catching an infected person within a few hours, through the use of a simple blood test. However, once the virus starts to infect the body’s organs and build control structures, we have been unable to do more than slow it down. Enthasusia may be the only logical response, particularly once the virus reaches the brain. It isn’t clear – yet – if the virus is capable of masquerading as the infected person, but I think we have to assume that it can and it will. Our people may be subverted and turned against us. It is vitally important that we perform regular blood tests within all sensitive installations.

Worse, there is no reason to assume that the infections will be limited only to humanity – and our alien allies. We believe the virus can spread into animals too, presenting us with a unique threat. The prospect of dogs – or smaller animals, like rats – being used to carry the virus into human settlements cannot be overlooked. In the event of a major outbreak on Earth, Admiral, we must assume our own ecosystem will be turned against us. The absolute worst case scenario suggests that the virus can even infect our entire ecology. It is vitally important that we don’t let the virus gain a foothold on Earth. If necessary, we will need to destroy any infection with nuclear weapons.

My team has not, as yet, been able to put together a coherent scenario for the virus’s evolution. However, given its aggressive nature and ability to cross the species barrier, it seems likely that the virus is not remotely natural. Someone designed it, Admiral; someone designed it as a weapon. I don’t know if the creators unleashed it as a final shot at enemies they couldn’t defeat by any normal means, or if it broke loose and destroyed its own creators before starting to ravage the rest of the galaxy, but I don’t believe its natural. It’s just too effective a killing machine. If we can find its creators, we may be able to convince them to stop their virus before it destroys us and every other known sentient race. If not …

Of course, some people might consider that whistling in the dark.

Prologue II

It was very quiet in the underground chamber.

President Aleksandr Sergeyevich Nekrasov lifted his head from the report and looked at the other two men – and one woman – sitting at the table. Their faces were carefully blank, the result of a lifetime spent struggling for power and security. None of them dared betray their thoughts too openly. The slightest hint of weakness might prove disastrous. It might cost them their lives. And yet, Aleksandr could tell they were scared. They were the most powerful people in Russia, but were they powerful enough to stand against the latest interstellar menace? He had a feeling that they were about to find out?

He spoke, with heavy irony. “Your comments, gentlemen?”

Admiral Svetlana Zadornov smiled, humourlessly. “We made a serious mistake, Mr. President.”

Aleksandr studied her for a long moment, knowing that she was almost certainly the most ambitious – and dangerous – person in the room. Women in Russia were expected to marry and have at least four children by the time they reached their mid-twenties, not go into the navy and fight their way up the ladder to flag rank. Svetlana had faced a whole string of challenges, from lecherous instructors to alien battleships, and she’d overcome them all. She was good. She had to be good. The only thing keeping her from being an even greater threat was her sex … and that might not matter, if she laid the groundwork properly. She was a national hero as well as a naval star.

He cocked his eyebrow. “How so?”

Svetlana had no patience for political bullshit. “We assumed that we were dealing with another alien race, one akin to the Tadpoles or the Foxes. We believed that we could make contact – covert contact – and manipulate events to our advantage. Instead, we have betrayed the human race to an … to an alien virus. We must assume that Dezhnev was taken and her crew … assimilated. The Great Powers will be furious.”

“If they find out,” Director Igor Ivanovich Zaitsev said, smoothly. The FSB Director leaned forward, his cold eyes moving from face to face. “The ship’s captain had orders to destroy his vessel rather than let her fall into enemy hands, did he not?”

“Yes,” Svetlana said. “But we have no guarantee he was able to carry out those orders. He might have been lured into talks, while the virus steadily overcame his crew. There’s no sense, from the British reports, that our vaccinations will be enough to stop the virus in its tracks. The ship might well have been taken with datacores intact.”

“And if the virus can take control of the crew, they’ll happily unlock the datacores for their new masters,” General Stepan Viktorovich Dyakov rumbled. “They’ll be turned into willing traitors.”

“Yes, General,” Svetlana said. “Dezhnev did not carry a full database, a sensible precaution when the ship intended to make contact with an unknown alien race, but she still carried enough information to make life very difficult. The virus, assuming it took the ship intact, now knows the layout of human space.”

Aleksandr kept his face impassive, somehow. The Solar Treaty – rewritten after the Tadpoles had taught humanity that it wasn’t alone in the universe – had made it clear that no new alien races were to learn anything of the human sphere’s inner workings until contact had been established and humanity was sure it wasn’t about to be attacked again. A hostile alien race would have to spend a great deal of time surveying the tramlines before they found the ones that led to the more densely-populated worlds – and Earth itself. Humanity could use that time to set up defensive lines and prepare for war. But if the virus had captured an intact navigational datacore, the virus would already know where to attack. His bid to break Russia free of its shackles might have led to disaster for the entire human race.

He wanted to shout his fury and frustration to the stars. The other Great Powers had never forgiven, let alone forgotten, how Aleksandr’s predecessor had tried to use bioweapons on the Tadpoles during peace negotiations. Russia had seen no choice – it was the only way to recover their principle colony and its population – but it had been a disastrous failure. Nothing had been said publicly, there had been no angry denunciations of Russia … yet, trade and investment had almost dried up. The country had been badly weakened. It had practically had to mortgage its future to remain a Great Power. Aleksandr was all too aware that keeping up with the latest military technology was costing his country dearly. And yet, they had to keep up. The rising powers would not hesitate to displace Russia if they thought they could get away with it.

The Indians already tried to displace the British, Aleksandr thought. And the British were in a far stronger position than ourselves.

He looked down at the report for a long moment, trying not to think about the people on the streets outside. They’d made huge sacrifices, they’d allowed the state to dictate to them … and yet, they were trapped in an austere nightmare. Mother Russia could feed her children – that was no longer a problem, thanks to modern technology – but they had little in the way of luxury or hope. Aleksandr knew there were grumblers, people complaining that their lives were drab and empty. The FSB had it under control, he’d been assured, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Life in Russia was steadily becoming worse. How long would it be until Moscow exploded into revolution, once again.

Svetlana cleared her throat. “There is nothing to be gained from recriminations,” she said, dryly. “We have to decide how to proceed.”

How generous, Aleksandr thought. Svetlana was sneakily making it clear that she wasn’t going to call their attention to the fact that she was the one who’d argued against sending a covert contact team – and, in doing so, was quietly rubbing their noses in it. And how do you intend to use this to unseat me?

“We have to assume the worst,” Svetlana continued. “The virus knows that we intended to betray our fellow humans. It may seek to use that against us. If it truly understands human psychology, it will see it as a gamble worth taking. It can certainly present enough proof to overcome doubt and suspicion from the other Great Powers.”

“Great,” Zaitsev said, sarcastically.

“Therefore, we need to take action,” Svetlana said. “We have to act before it can take advantage of its newfound knowledge. And I know how we should proceed.”

Chapter One

The chamber, Captain Sir Stephen Shields thought as he faced his judges, had cost the Royal Navy a great deal of money. No expense had been spared in a bid to make it clear that justice would be done, from the magnificent wooden boxes for the judges to the smaller chair and table for himself and his lawyer. He couldn’t help thinking that the giant painting of the king hanging from the far wall was worth a few million pounds. The entire courtroom had probably cost as much as a cruiser. He wondered, rather sardonically, how they intended to explain the expense during the next audit. The Royal Navy had been having problems funding the latest generation of ships even before Invincible had stumbled across a whole new threat.

He kept his face as impassive as possible, despite a growing headache, as his judges hurled question after question at him. It was hard, so hard, to keep from snapping at them as they asked the same question time and time again, sometimes rephrasing the words in a bid to catch him out. They weren’t interested in the truth, he felt. The five flag officers facing him were more interested in politics than the threat facing the entire human race. He wondered, sourly, just who’d smoothed their path through the navy. His family had enemies. They’d have worked overtime to make sure that their people were in place to push for a court-martial.

“No, sir,” he said, in response to a particularly irritating question. “I feel that my ship and crew performed adequately.”

An admiral leaned forward. “Captain, some of our analysts believe that you didn’t make enough of an attempt at opening communications,” he said. “What do you say to that?”

Some of our analysts, Stephen thought. The ones who give the answers they know their masters want?

He braced himself. “As you can see from my records, Admiral, we did attempt to open communications. However, we came under enemy fire. Further attempts at opening communications were unsuccessful – and, when we realised what we were facing, we understood why. There is little hope of opening a dialogue when someone simply won’t talk to you.”

“But you should have tried,” the Admiral said.

Stephen felt his temper start to snap. He ignored the warning nudge from his lawyer. “With all due respect, Admiral, firing on someone is also a form of communication. The aliens – the virus – wanted us dead.”

Another admiral chuckled. “He’s got you there, Fred.”

The first admiral glowered. “Captain Shields, you used classified technology to make your escape. In doing so, you revealed its existence to the enemy. How do you justify that?”

Stephen felt a hot flash of anger. They’d been over that three times already. He was tempted to suggest they simply refer to the written record, but he knew they wouldn’t listen. They wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Again.

Invincible needed to return home safely, carrying her cargo of precious knowledge,” Stephen said, flatly. “We had lost contact with the Russians and we had no way to be sure that any previous messages would reach Falkirk, let alone Earth. Accordingly, I saw no option but to deploy every weapon in our arsenal to ensure that my ship made it safely through the tramline and escaped.”

He allowed his voice to harden. “I understand the importance of keeping secret weapons secret until they are actually used, Admiral, but we had no choice. I had to do everything in my power to maximise our chances of escape. Deploying classified technology was, in my judgement, the only thing to do. What would you do in my place?”

There was a long silence. Stephen waited, wondering what the admiral would say? He’d bet half his salary that his questioners had never commanded starships, even during peacetime. No, they’d stayed home and nitpicked from the comfort of their armchairs … he shook his head in exasperation. He knew that, sometimes, officers made mistakes. But they rarely had anything like enough time to think of the perfect solution.

The chairman cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve gone as far as we can for the day,” he said, making a show of checking his watch. “Captain Shields, thank you for your time. You’ll have our decision by the end of the week.”

Unless you want to call me back for some worthless questioning, Stephen thought. You’ve heard everything I can tell you – twice, perhaps – and you still want to waste my time.

He kept that thought off his face. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” he said. It was hard not to allow sarcasm to slip into his voice. “I am at your disposal.”

His lawyer walked next to him as they headed for the hatch. “They’re unsure how to proceed,” he muttered. “As long as they’re asking questions, they don’t have to take any decisions.”

“No wonder they’re not on command decks,” Stephen muttered back. A starship captain had to make a decision and stick to it, even if that mean putting his neck on the line, not waffle endlessly until his ship was blown into dust and plasma. “Seriously, what’s our chances.”

The lawyer said nothing until they walked through the hatch and into the corridor. “I’d say sixty-forty they recommend that all charges be dropped,” he said. “There’s no moment of egregious misconduct from you, Captain, and without that they’ll have some problems justifying putting you in front of a court-martial board. I think they’ll be happier not trying to try a national hero.”

Stephen shrugged. One half of the country had considered him a hero when he and his ship had returned, bringing warning of a new interstellar war; the other half had seen him as a villain, the bearer of bad news. That half would believe – they’d want to believe – that Stephen had fucked up First Contact so badly that a multispecies alien confederation had declared war on Earth. And, because of his family connections, his fate wouldn’t be decided by the navy. Parliament would become involved. The final decision wouldn’t be based on anything he’d actually done, but on what was politically acceptable.

And my superiors will throw me under the shuttlecraft, he thought, sourly. The First Space Load had signalled his support, but Stephen had no illusions. If the politicians wanted him punished, he’d be punished. Perhaps I should have gone into law instead, or sought an easy seat in Parliament.

He shook his head. He loved the navy. He loved command. And the situation was not hopeless. His family’s enemies would have to find a figleaf of justification before they could hang him – perhaps literally – and, so far, no such justification had materialised. He had to keep fighting if he wanted to return to his ship. Invincible was currently being repaired, under his XO’s command. He was damned if he was just letting go of command after how hard he’d had to work to get it.

A young midshipwoman ran up and saluted. “Captain Shields?”

Stephen returned her salute. “Yes?”

“Sir, a car has arrived for you,” the midshipwoman said. “Its waiting at the main gate.”

Stephen dismissed his lawyer and hurried down the stairs to the main gate. A large black limousine, with tinted windows, was waiting for him. A uniformed chauffeur stepped out of the front door as Stephen approached, saluted him, and opened the rear door. Stephen was not remotely surprised to see his brother sitting in the vehicle. It was the sort of thing his brother would do.

“Duncan,” he said, stiffly. “What are you doing here?”

“Get in,” Duncan said. “We don’t have much time.”

Stephen hesitated, then climbed into the limousine. The chauffeur closed the door behind him. Silence fell, abruptly. Duncan gestured to a seat; Stephen looked around, noting the silent maid sitting at the back of the vehicle, then sat down. The vehicle hummed into life a moment later. There was barely any sense of motion.

“Our latest car,” Duncan said. He sounded as if he’d built the limo himself. “What do you think?”

Stephen snorted. “How much of the family fortune did you waste on this … this white elephant?”

“I assure you that this vehicle isn’t useless,” Duncan said. “We have a minibar, a small portable cooker, desks and chairs and, of course, secure links to the datanet. I can conduct my business while travelling around the country.”

“You could also get from one end of the country to the other in less than an hour,” Stephen pointed out, although he knew it was a waste of time. Duncan had always believed an aristocrat had to look wealthy as well as be wealthy. The family name demanded a show of conspicuous consumption. Stephen had never believed that, but then he’d gone into the navy, where efficiency was prized over everything else. “I assume you have a reason for meeting me?”

Duncan smiled. “Do I need a reason to speak to my little brother?”

“You never said a word to me at school,” Stephen said. “Ever.”

“You know as well as I do that older kids are not supposed to talk to the younger kids,” Duncan said. That was unfortunately true. “I’m sure I said a word or two to you during the holidays. And did I not speak to you after we both left school?”

Stephen shrugged. “And now?”

Duncan met his eyes. “The Leader of the Opposition has been trying to figure out a way to use your court martial to bring down the government,” he said. “However, it doesn’t look as though you gave them enough rope to hang the Prime Minister. I doubt a vote of no confidence could be passed right now.”

“That’s something,” Stephen said. He’d always disliked politics, even though he’d been brought up in an aristocratic family. The navy life was far simpler. “What now?”

“They’ll try and find some kind of face-saving solution, I suppose,” Duncan said. “They staked too much on you. Now, they need to find a way to let you go without making it look as though they were tormenting you for fun and games. I imagine they’d redefine the whole courtroom session as a fact-finding mission.”

“They certainly found a great many facts,” Stephen said, dryly. “When can I go back to my ship?”

“When they figure out a way to save face.” Duncan shrugged. “We’re not going to hammer them too hard over the issue – the government’s majority is too thin – but they won’t take that for granted. They’ll assume we’ll take full advantage of their mistake.”

“Perhaps you should,” Stephen said. “Really try and put the boot in.”

“We wouldn’t be able to do enough damage to matter,” Duncan said. “And we don’t want a political catfight right now. The country is unsettled enough.”

He tapped a switch. The tinted windows became transparent. Stephen frowned as he realised where they were. The limo was crossing Admiralty Bridge, heading towards Whitehall, driving past a steady stream of protesters. Many of them were carrying signs, protesting against the new war. He sucked in his breath, sharply. They were walking so closely together that the virus would have a field day, if one of the protesters was infected. They’d all be infected soon enough.

“I thought large gatherings were going to be banned,” he said, as he spotted a handful of policemen. They were watching the crowd, but making no attempt to break it up. “What happened?”

Duncan gave him a sharp look. “Political realities,” he said, curtly. He tapped the switch again. The windows darkened. “Shutting down the schools is one thing, but shutting down everything else is quite another. And there’s no reason to believe the virus has reached Earth.”

Stephen gritted his teeth. There had been a number of starships at Wensleydale that hadn’t known to take extensive precautions against biological contamination, even though they were dealing with a previously-unknown alien race. And some of those ships had disappeared. It was tempting to believe that their crews had managed to hit the self-destruct before they’d been overwhelmed, but he didn’t dare believe it. Planetary defence networks had orders to destroy the ships on sight, yet … it would be easy to sneak a shuttle down to the surface and begin the infection. Earth might already have been infected.

“Those idiots are going to get themselves killed,” he snarled. “And they’ll get a lot of innocent people killed with them.”

“Perhaps,” Duncan said. “But they also don’t want war.”

Stephen laughed, harshly. “Do you suppose the universe cares what they want?”

“No,” Duncan said. He sounded as though he understood. “But they do have good reasons for wanting it.”

“I know,” Stephen said.

He shook his head. He understood too. Of course he understood. Twenty years ago, the First Interstellar War had brought the human race to the brink of defeat. The Tadpoles had bombarded Earth, killing millions of humans and destroying the work of hundreds of years. And then Britain had skirmished with India, shortly before the Second Interstellar War had pitted humanity and its enemies-turned-allies against a pair of alien races that had made common cause and set out to conquer the galaxy together. The human race had seen too much change in the past few years, too many reminders that the universe was red in tooth and claw. He was uneasily aware that Britain – and the remainder of the Great Powers – had lost so much that something was going to break. And now …

And now, we have a whole new war, against an extremely dangerous and deadly race, he thought. I’d vote against it too if I thought it would make a difference.

“We’re switching to a full war footing now, aren’t we?” Stephen met his brother’s eyes, hoping to see confirmation. “Aren’t we?”

“We are,” Stephen confirmed. “The Opposition’s grown-ups realise that the threat exists, even though their backbenchers want to use the crisis to demand concessions. We’re preparing for war at breakneck speed.”

Stephen nodded, relieved. The Royal Navy had been taken unawares by the new threat, but a great many lessons had been learnt during the First Interstellar War. This time, procedures were in place to call up the reserves, draw weapons and spare parts from stockpiles that had been extensively built up during peacetime and prepare to go on the offensive. Starships were probably already being dispatched to Falkirk, the point of contact, in hopes of blunting an alien offensive before it could reach the more populated parts of the human sphere. He was fairly sure the Admiralty was already considering ways to go on the offensive. No one ever won a war by sitting still and waiting to be hit.

But we have no idea of just how much territory they control, he reminded himself. They might be expecting us to launch an offensive; hell, they may intend to destroy the invasion fleet and then follow up with a full-scale offensive of their own.

“There is a cost, of course,” Duncan added. “Do you know how many people are reservists?”

“No,” Stephen said.

“There’s always been a push to favour reservists when it comes to selecting candidates for a job,” Duncan said. “The family industries have done their part. But if the reservists are called up to go to war, there’s going to be a problem replacing them. Losing one reservist isn’t a bad thing, but losing all of them at once … there is no way replacements for everyone can be invited to apply, be interviewed and accepted before the losses start to bite.”

He shook his head. “And that problem is affecting the entire country,” he said. “I dare say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Probably,” Stephen said. “But think how much worse it will be if we lose.”

“I know that,” Duncan snapped. “But how many people don’t grasp the sheer scale of the threat? There were all sorts of problems during the Second Interstellar War. They’ll be worse here.”

“Probably,” Stephen said, again. Civilians didn’t understand the realities of interstellar warfare. A threat might be a few hundred light-years away, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t touch Earth. “I can’t wait to go back to space.”

“I don’t blame you,” Duncan told him. There was an oddly wistful tone in his voice. “I wish I could go to space too.”

The limo came to a halt. Stephen looked up as the door opened, revealing the chauffeur and a darkening sky. He glanced at his watch as Duncan rose and climbed out of the vehicle. It was seven o’clock. And yet, it was strikingly quiet. He frowned as he followed his brother onto the streets. London was a city that never slept. Normally, the streets would be filled with tourists making their way to the theatres or the city’s diverse selection of cafes and restaurants. There was nowhere else in the entire world that had so many diversions for the educated palate. And yet, the city was quiet. Even the hum of traffic was dulled.

“The club’s still open,” Duncan said. “I thought I’d treat you to dinner.”

Stephen glowered at his retreating back. “And the rest of the city?”

“Martial law has been declared,” Duncan reminded him. “The city is shutting down for the night.”

Good, Stephen thought. He snorted, rudely, as they walked past the bowing doorman and headed up the stairs. Naturally, the aristocracy had ensured that their spaces were spared the attention of the law. But the population will not be pleased.

He shook his head as they passed a cluster of UV lights. The public would not be pleased, if they realised what was happening. There was nothing to be gained by shutting down the city’s nightlife if a handful of select clubs were allowed to remain open. And yet, it would help keep them alive, if the virus reached Earth …

… And that, as far as he was concerned, was all that mattered.

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Quick Update

17 Aug

It’s not been a good week.

The good news is that I finished the first draft of The Broken Throne on Saturday 11th. The bad news is that my health went downhill spectacularly on Sunday 12th, not helped by extremely unpleasant medical tests on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ve been promised a proper dioganis in a week or so, until then …

Things have been a bit stalled, as you might have realised. I’d hoped to complete the edits for Debt of Honour/The Embers of War, but I’ve bogged down somewhere around chapter 14. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of task that can be passed on to someone else. I seem to have one good week followed by one bad week, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that next week and then make a start on Para Bellum. But we have too many other things to do over the next two weeks …

Thoughts and prayers would be appreciated, if you have time.

Chris

I Ain’t Dead

28 Jul

I ain’t dead <grin>

Actually, I got a pair of PMs asking if I was alright. My health has been something of a mix these days. I wrote for four day, then had to take three days off and then wrote for another five days. Right now, I feel reasonably fine. It’s starting to look as though I get two-three weeks of relative health, followed by a few days of poor health. I’m due to visit the clinic on Tuesday, so hopefully we’ll get some answers.

The good news is that I’ve managed to write 25 chapters of The Broken Throne. It’s a curiously challenging book, all the more so as Emily cannot be involved in most of the action. But there will still be plenty for her to do. I’m hoping to have the first draft completed by the 4th, although no promises. My health may complicate matters.

Para_Bellum

After that, I’m not sure. Para Bellum is the clear favourite, but I need to work a little more on the plot. We shall see …

Chris

Snippet–The Broken Throne (Schooled In Magic 16)

16 Jul

Prologue I

The dead stretched as far as the eye could see.

Sir Roger stood at the edge of the field and watched as his men, the victors in the savage engagement, looted the bodies of the dead. Weapons, tunics, money … all belonged to the victors. Here and there, a wounded man was put out of his misery by a quick stroke of a sword or the cut of a knife. The medical tents were overflowing with friendly casualties. No one was going to waste time and resources saving enemy lives. It wasn’t as if common-born prisoners could be ransomed.

He heard a man shout as he held up a dead body wearing silver armour and a purple cloak, both stained with blood. Sir Roger’s eyes narrowed as he recognised the dead body: Lord Redford, a man who’d once been nothing more than a penniless nobleman at King Randor’s court. He’d clutched his title, Sir Roger recalled, and sneered at his inferiors because it was all he really had. There had been lesser-ranked men – and women too – who’d wielded true power. Perhaps that had been why Redford had thrown his lot in with the Noblest. It had been his only hope of regaining wealth and power that had been frittered away long ago.

And he died on the field, Sir Roger thought, as he watched the dead man’s body being stripped bare. He was too brave or stupid to run when we sprang our trap.

He couldn’t find it in him to enjoy his rival’s death, or the humiliation his body had suffered in the aftermath. It lay on the ground now, as naked as the day it was born, while the men who’d found him hurried towards the rear. The armour alone would bring a pretty penny to the men, if they sold it to the merchants who hovered around the army like flies on shit. They probably wouldn’t keep it for themselves. The Sumptuary Laws forbade common soldiers to wear silver armour. Sir Roger had his doubts about the wisdom of that. A skilled archer could put a bolt through a man from right across the battlefield … and silver armour merely told the archer who to target. The conventions of war hinted strongly that aristocrats should be left alone – they could be captured and ransomed – but cold practicalities suggested otherwise. An army might come to pieces if its commander was killed.

It was a sobering thought. He’d walked amongst the dead, after the fighting had ended, in hopes of finding familiar faces. But there had been no sign of any of the senior Noblest, not even Hedrick or Simon Harkness. The former was no surprise – Hedrick Harkness was a coward in a world that frowned on the slightest hint of cowardice – but the latter was odd. Simon Harkness was a man’s man. The thought of him running from the battlefield was … unthinkable, somehow. Sir Roger had met the younger man. Simon had always looked as if he had something to prove. The question marks over his parentage had ensured it.

They probably planned for defeat as well as victory, Sir Roger thought, ruefully. The Noblest had gambled by striking directly at Alexis, but they hadn’t risked everything on one throw of the dice. That had been smart of them, Sir Roger admitted, yet … they might have won if they’d thrown everything they had at him. We came closer to defeat than I want to admit.

He heard trumpets blare and turned, just in time to see a golden horse appear at the edge of the battlefield. Ice ran down his spine as he realised that King Randor himself had come to see the dead … he hastily bushed his armour down, trying to look as presentable as possible as his monarch rode towards him. His personal bodyguard followed, looking more than a little uneasy. Sir Roger didn’t blame them. The enemy army had been shattered and put to slight, and Sir Roger had deployed cavalry to chase down and slaughter the survivors before they could regroup, but a single man with a crossbow could change the situation in an instant if he took a shot at the king. Or one of the newer rifles, if one was to be found. Lady Emily had talked about snipers eventually being able to target a man from miles away.

“Your Majesty,” he said, going down on one knee. “The field is ours.”

“So I see,” the king grunted. He surveyed the battlefield for a long moment, then slowly clambered off his horse. “You may rise.”

Sir Roger did so, careful not to look up too blatantly. The king was the king, even on a battlefield. He had to be shown proper deference at all times. And yet, something was nagging at the back of his head. Something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t an imposter, he thought, but something else. He couldn’t put his finger on it.

“The enemy army has been smashed, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “We captured forty-seven prisoners.”

The king smiled, cruelly. “Aristocratic prisoners, of course.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. No one bothered to take commoners as prisoners. The mercenaries might switch sides, if given a chance, but half-trained peasants were useless. It was easier to put them to flight, or execute them, than keep them prisoner. “I believe the highest-ranking prisoner is Lord Galashiels. He was taken prisoner by …”

“Execute him,” King Randor ordered.

Sir Roger felt his mouth drop open. “Your Majesty?”

“Execute him,” King Randor repeated, steel in his voice. “Execute them all.”

“Your Majesty …”

“Do I have to repeat myself?” King Randor’s eyes flashed with rage – and, for a moment, something else. But it was gone before Sir Roger could see it clearly. “Execute them!”

Sir Roger braced himself, wondering if the next words he said would be the ones that got him sent to the block. The king was clearly in a vile mood. Whatever had happened in Alexis – and Sir Roger had only heard whispered rumours – had been indisputably bad. Lady Emily had been meant to face the headsman for the first and last time … had she escaped? Or had something else happened? He didn’t dare ask.

But he had to argue for his men. “Your Majesty, the prisoners were captured by my subordinates,” he said. It would be more accurate to say that the prisoners were largely captured by common soldiers, who’d then been forced to surrender them to higher-ranking officers, but the king wouldn’t concern himself with such trivia. “They have a right to claim the ransom.”

“The prisoners will have nothing to pay the ransom with,” King Randor growled. His fists clenched. “Their families will be wiped from the rolls.”

Sir Roger paled. “Yes, Your Majesty. But …”

The king snorted. “Inform the captors that they will be paid a reasonable amount for their captives,” he ordered. “But execute them all, at once. Their heads are to be prominently displayed on Traitor’s Gate.”

“It will be done, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. He summoned a messenger with a nod. “If that is your command, it will be done.”

He swallowed, hard, as he turned away to issue the orders. Aristocrats might die on the battlefield, but to execute them after they’d been captured for ransom … it wasn’t done! Who knew what would happen if a loyalist fell into enemy hands? Sir Roger shivered at the thought, knowing that the Noblest would certainly retaliate in kind. Any loyalist who was captured would be lucky if he was only beheaded on the spot. It wouldn’t be long before both sides were locked in a competition of horror that ran all the way down to the bottom.

And how many loyalists will remain loyal, he asked himself, when the king puts us all in danger?

“A good start,” the king said, once the orders were issued. He was surveying the battlefield, pausing here and there to exchange brief words with his men. Sir Roger could see, at times, the fighting prince the king had once been behind his permanent scowl. “How badly did we hurt them?”

“We broke their advance force, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said, after a moment. He knew better than to depend upon estimates. One scout had reported an enemy army of over a million men and promptly been scourged for exaggeration. “Between here and the other two battlefields, I believe we killed around five thousand men. It is hard to be sure.”

“But we broke them,” King Randor said.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger assured him. “Their army showed us their backsides and ran. I already have horsemen hunting them down.”

“And it will take them a long time to regroup, particularly if they have no contingency plans for defeat,” King Randor mused. “Very well. I want you to deploy half your cavalry to secure the roads into the Harkness Lands. We’ll relieve Castle Blackstone, then move against Harkness itself. We will not give them any time to regroup.”

“As you command, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. “But cavalry alone will not be …”

“Your musketmen and cannoneers will follow, once the bridges are secure,” King Randor added. “We will not give them time to regroup and obtain more weapons. I want Baroness Harkness crushed before my treacherous daughter has a chance to rally her own forces.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Sir Roger said. Behind him, he heard a shout of protest. “It will take her some time to muster the strength to challenge you …”

“But the Noblest” – the king spat – “and I will weaken each other, if our fight goes on for too long. She will have the time she needs, unless we end it now. Pass the word, Sir Roger; this is total war. Those who do not submit themselves will be destroyed.”

He turned, remounted his horse and cantered away, his bodyguards following him. Sir Roger stared after his king for a long moment, then turned … just in time to see the last prisoner be beheaded. Sir Roger had seen death before – he’d seen men die jousting as well as on the battlefield – but the sight still chilled him. It represented a new kind of warfare, a warfare that was – in its own way – as merciless as the muskets and cannons Lady Emily had introduced to the battlefield. This was no mere skirmish, no test of strength between the king and his barons; this was total war. Randor would be the undisputed master of his kingdom or nothing.

Sir Roger shivered as the bodies were left to rot on the muddy ground. He couldn’t help thinking that it boded ill for the future.

And when this is done, he asked himself bleakly, will any of us have a future?

Prologue II

It wasn’t her throne room.

Alassa sat on the chair, which she resolutely refused to call a throne, and studied the map without really seeing it. It wasn’t her chair either. It had belonged to either Lord Hans or Lady Regina of Swanhaven and Jade, when he’d been appointed Baron Swanhaven, had never bothered to replace it. Alassa was tempted to wonder if it had belonged to one of the earlier barons – it was uncomfortably hard, particularly for a pregnant woman – but she didn’t care enough to ask. The staff were skittish around her. Jade hadn’t made enough of an impression to banish memories of Lord Hans and Lady Regina. Merely asking might cause a panic.

She stroked her growing abdomen, wondering when she’d feel the baby kick. The healers had assured her that it was a normal pregnancy, so far, but Alassa wouldn’t feel truly secure until the baby was pushed into the world. Male or female, it would be proof that she was fertile, that she could carry on the dynasty. It was odd to realise that one of the few things she had in common with her father, the few things she’d actually acknowledge, included a determination to have a heir, but it was easier for him. Her father had had hundreds of mistresses, desperately hoping that one of them would bear him a son. Alassa needed to bear a son of her body. It didn’t seem fair, somehow.

I could have killed Father, she thought, remembering the moment – three weeks ago – when she’d had her father in her sights. If she’d pulled the trigger, she could have put a bullet right through his head. And who knows what would have happened then?

In truth, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t pulled the trigger. Her father and her had never been particularly close, even before he’d locked her up in the Tower of Alexis and thrown away the key. She wanted, she needed, to take the throne that had been her birthright from the moment it became clear that her father would not have a legitimate male child. And she knew her father’s reign would be bad for the kingdom. He’d already tried his hardest to execute Alassa’s closest friends.

I was weak, she told herself, although she wasn’t sure if that was actually true. Could a daughter kill her father? Could a daughter take the throne after she killed her father? She’d hardly be the first monarch to inherit after her predecessor died under dubious circumstances that no one dared look at too closely. If I’d killed him …

The thought was like a stab to the gut. She knew, deep inside, that she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A daughter should not kill her father. She’d always assumed that her father would die and she would succeed him, not that she’d kill him. She had spent too much of her life looking for his approval to want to kill him. A dead man couldn’t smile at her when she did something clever and give her his blessing. She’d always envied Imaiqah’s easy relationship with her father, even though that had nearly got Imaiqah killed. King Randor had never had time for his daughter.

She touched her abdomen again, gritting her teeth. There was no choice, not now. She had to kill her father, directly or indirectly, or he’d take her child. Alassa had no doubt, not now, that her father would have had her killed, after the baby was born. Killed … or banished to some desolate castle in the badlands where no one would think to look for her, while he raised her child in his own image. She had to kill her father for the sake of the child. She had no choice …

… But she didn’t like it.

The wards quivered, just slightly, as Jade passed through the outer layers and stepped through the door. Alassa rose, then threw dignity to the winds and ran towards him. Jade was hot and sweaty and smelt of mud, but she didn’t care. She pressed her lips to his and kissed him as hard as she could, enjoying the brief sensation. She’d been lucky in Jade. Other husbands would have tried to take power for themselves. That would not have meant a happy marriage.

“You should be taking more care of yourself,” Jade said, touching her abdomen gently. “Really …”

“I have to be active,” Alassa reminded him. She understood his concern – and she even shared his fears for the baby – but there were other considerations. “The people have to see me on the throne.”

It was an odd thought. Her father had never worried about the good opinions of anyone who didn’t have a title. They were less than nothing to him, unless they did something that merited ennoblement. But Alassa … most of her friends were commoners. Neither Emily nor Imaiqah – nor Jade, for that matter – had been born noble. It was hard to understand, sometimes, why commoners couldn’t do as they were told, but she thought she could use it. She’d just have to remember not to repeat her father’s mistake once she was secure on her throne.

And I have to seek popularity, she thought. What choice do I have?

“I suppose,” Jade said. She knew him well enough to know that it wasn’t the end of the argument, but there were too many listening ears near the throne room. “You’ll be pleased to know that the first regiments are marching out now. If your father does decide on a lightning strike at Swanhaven, we will be ready for him.”

Alassa nodded. She understood little of military strategy – she’d certainly never been allowed to lead troops into combat – but Jade could fill in the gaps. Her father had only a handful of options if he wanted to crush the rebels before it was too late. A direct stab at Swanhaven was perhaps his best bet. He’d be a fool to target Cockatrice before Swanhaven was neutralised.

“And if he doesn’t, we can take the offensive,” she added. “It will take him months to crush the barons.”

“Let us hope so,” Jade said. He wasn’t as confident as herself that the Barons would manage to delay the king for long. The Noblest were a pack of traitors. They’d come apart if the king managed to land a few solid blows. “We probably need to start planning to move against Winter Flower.”

Alassa frowned. A month ago, the thought of ravaging Winter Flower from one end to the other would have been very satisfactory. Alicia, Baroness Winter Flower, had had the nerve to bear King Randor a son. Babe in arms or not, Alexis was a deadly threat to Alassa’s position. But Alicia had risked her life – and worse – to help Jade and his friends spring Alassa from the Tower. Alassa honestly wasn’t sure how she should react to Alicia now. Her emotions were a mess.

“Yeah,” she said. She reached out and held him, tightly. “But we can do that later.”

Jade smiled. “As you command, Your Highness.”

Alassa elbowed him. “We’re alone,” she said. “You don’t have to be formal.”

And she kissed him again.

Chapter One

The night was warm, uncomfortably warm.

Emily lay on the hillside and peered down towards the castle below. It wasn’t much of a castle – it was really nothing more than an oversized blockhouse – but it blocked the bridge crossing the River Swanhaven and prevented traffic from moving between Swanhaven and Winter Flower. Emily didn’t need to be Alexander the Great to understand the strategic significance of the otherwise unimportant castle. As long as it remained in the king’s hands, it made it impossible for Alassa to move an army into East Swanhaven and secure her borders with Winter Flower. Worse, perhaps, it prevented the river trade that countless communities depended upon to survive. The economic damage would cause all sorts of problems on both sides of the divide.

Her eyes narrowed as she studied the building. She was no expert in castle design – she’d never had the chance to study the mechanics at Whitehall – but she had to admit that it would be difficult to take by conventional assault. It was positioned neatly in the middle of a river, forcing any would-be attackers to advance along the bridge if they wanted to reach the gates. They’d be exposed to archers, perhaps even musketmen, along the way, even if they were protected by siege engines. And getting a catapult – or a cannon – into position to bombard the castle would be tricky. Emily silently admired the designers. They’d taken a small building that should be impossible to defend and turned it into an impregnable fortress.

And we can’t even starve them out, she thought. She’d seen the manifests. The castle had enough supplies to keep a company of soldiers fed for months. Somehow, she doubted King Randor had skimped on the supplies. We simply don’t have the time.

And yet, there was no choice. The castle – and the bridge – had to be taken. Fording the river was supposed to be impossible, at least in large numbers. Alassa had teams of engineers working on pontoon bridges, but they thought it would be several weeks before the bridges were ready. By then, King Randor could have moved an entire army up to the border, blocking his rebel daughter from driving on the capital. Emily shuddered to think of just how many people would die if Alassa had to force her way across the river. The waters would turn red with blood.

She turned to look at Cat, lying next to her. He looked odd in the darkness, the night-vision spell washing his face of colour. She wondered, absently, how she looked to him. She’d donned a pair of dark trousers and a shirt – and concealed her hair under a cap – but she wasn’t hidden from his gaze. She hoped she was hidden from the castle’s guards, if they were watching the hillside. They’d set up protective wards, of course, as soon as they’d crawled into view, but a single charmed arrow would be more than enough to ruin the mission. King Randor had encouraged his archers to develop their skills, handing out rewards to any who proved able to hit a target at over two hundred metres. Emily was all too aware that they were far closer to the castle.

The king won’t have sent his best archers up here, she told herself, although she wasn’t sure she believed it. King Randor had a lot of archers. He needs them down south in Harkness.

“There’s no way we’re going to get close to the castle without being seen,” she muttered, trusting in the spell to hide her words. Sergeant Miles had taught her just how far sound could travel in the night air. “What do you think?”

“Agreed,” Cat said. “We don’t even dare try to swim to the castle.”

Emily nodded. She was a confident swimmer – Sergeant Miles had taught her – but the river was too dangerous to take lightly. They might be able to make it to the castle walls, if they were lucky, yet there was no way they could take any supplies with them. Their magic might be enough, but it might not be. She reached out with her senses, feeling – gingerly – for protective wards. The castle had two, both very limited. It suggested there was no sorcerer in residence.

“King Randor doesn’t have enough sorcerers to risk one here,” Cat said, when she pointed it out. “He’ll be keeping them close to home.”

“Let’s hope so,” Emily said, doubtfully. King Randor might not have many first-rank sorcerers, but he could have hired a dozen magicians and put them to work. He’d need someone to help keep his disparate forces connected, if nothing else. A communications sorcerer could make good money during wartime. “Do you really want to risk flying to the castle?”

Cat glanced at her. “Do you see any other option?”

Sergeant Miles would kill the pair of us if we suggested flying to him, Emily thought. In theory, the plan was perfect; in practice, if there was even a fifth or sixth-rank magician in the castle, the plan was suicide. It wouldn’t take much magic to disrupt their spells and send them plunging to their deaths. But it would give us a chance to take them by surprise.

She shook her head, trying to conceal her nervousness. Flying to the castle was exactly the sort of plan Cat would devise, despite the dangers. Hell, the dangers were one good reason why no one would expect them to try to fly. But she wasn’t anything like so confident that the plan was a good idea. And yet … she couldn’t think of anything better. They simply didn’t have the time.

“I’ll alert Sergeant Rotherham,” Cat said. “You wait here and watch for signs of trouble.”

Emily nodded and turned her attention back to the castle. It was a dark brooding mass, barely visible even though the night-vision spell. No lights shone from its arrow slits, the better to ensure its occupants remained accustomed to the dark. Emily wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. King Randor would have wanted to show off his strength as much as possible, particularly if he was running a bluff. The castle might be undermanned, given the circumstances. Randor had had no reason to expect trouble from Swanhaven or Cockatrice – he’d had Alassa and Imaiqah imprisoned until they’d been broken out – and he might have withdrawn the troops to the south.

But they were patrolling during the daytime, Emily reminded herself. The locals had been very clear on that point. And they’ve been interrogating and searching everyone who wants to cross the bridge.

Cat scrambled back to her. “The sergeant’s putting his men in position now,” he said, as he stood. “Are you ready?”

No, Emily thought. “Yes,” she said, quietly. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Cat said. He winked at her, a brief flashing expression in the darkness, then cast the first spell. “Try and stay over the river. It might save your life if you lose control of the spell.”

Or get blasted out of the sky, Emily thought, as she cast her own spell. She felt her body slowly rise into the air, gusts of wind pushing at her as she slowly levitated her way towards the castle. What are the odds of surviving if we crash into the waters?

She tried not to think about it as they glided over the river and headed up towards the castle, her eyes probing for signs of watchmen on the tiny battlements. There would be someone on watch, she was sure, even if the castle’s wardens thought themselves impregnable. She dreaded to think what the king would do to any of his people who allowed themselves to be surrounded during the night. She’d watched a man get beaten to within an inch of his life merely for falling asleep when he was meant to be on watch.

A flicker of motion caught her eye. She tensed as she saw the lone watchmen, leaning against the battlements as he surveyed the darkness. His face was a pale shape against the shadows, peering constantly from side to side … he never looked up. Emily wasn’t really surprised. The odds of being attacked from the air were very low. There were people in Cockatrice who were experimenting with hot air balloons and gliders, but so far results had been mixed. It would be years before the Nameless World’s armies deployed parachutists against their foes.

Cat dropped down towards the battlements and landed neatly, one hand snapping up in a casting pose. The guard whirled around, then froze as Cat hit him with a freeze hex. Emily landed beside him, feeling a flicker of sympathy for the guard. If they won, he’d be spending the rest of the war in a POW camp; if they lost, he’d be in deep shit with his superiors when the spell wore off. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t simply carried to the battlements and thrown into the rushing waters below.

“Got him,” Cat muttered. He stopped in front of the door and muttered a charm. The lock clicked open without resistance. “Shall we go?”

Emily let Cat take the lead as they slipped into the castle. The stairwell was strikingly narrow, tight enough to make her feel claustrophobic and dark enough to make her acutely unsure of what was waiting at the bottom. Cat had to bow his head to avoid cracking it against the stone roof. Emily felt her hair brush against the roof as they reached the bottom and opened another door. It led into a small guardroom. Four men were sitting at the table, drinking and playing cards. They looked up and stared in horror as Cat froze the first two …

“Intruders,” a third shouted. “Intruders …”

Emily froze him, then swore as the fourth grabbed an earthen mug and threw it at them. She sidestepped it neatly and froze the guard a second later. It was too late. She could hear clattering in the distance as the rest of the guards realised that the castle was under attack and scrambled to its defence. Cat shoved the guards to one side and walked to the nearest doorway. The sound of clattering was growing louder.

“They’re in their armour,” he muttered. “It might be charmed armour.”

Emily nodded and readied her spells. Charmed armour could absorb or deflect a handful of curses, but a series of spells would be more than enough to overwhelm the protections someone had worked into the metal. She wondered, as the sound grew louder, if Randor had assigned charmed armour to the guards. If there was anywhere he should have sent the armour, save for Alexis itself, it was here … but charmed armour was expensive. Randor might have hesitated to send the armour anywhere outside the capital.

The first three men appeared, wearing conventional armour. They should have been weighed down by the sheer weight of metal, but they moved with surprising speed. Emily had long-since ceased to marvel at just how fast the knights and guards could move, or how strong they were. Knights had to work hard to earn their spurs, training for years before they were deemed ready to wear their lord’s colours. They couldn’t simply pick up a gun and start shooting.

Cat threw the first spell, freezing the first guardsman in place. Emily joined him, but the guards kept coming. They were using their frozen companions as human shields. Emily was almost impressed at the concept. Whoever was in charge on the other side had clearly thought fast. Worse, they’d realised that the freeze spells would protect their victims from anything else hurled in their direction. They were better than standard wooden or metal shields.

Clever, Emily thought. And futile.

She gathered her magic, then summoned a wind and blew it down the corridor. The guards wobbled, then tumbled over backwards, thrown downwards by the sheer force of the wind. Cat snapped out spells, freezing every soldier who came into view; they crashed, hard, against the stone walls and fell to the ground. Emily allowed herself a moment of relief, then ran forward. A handful of guards were moaning in pain and she froze them on the spot. It would give the poor bastards some relief until the spells wore off or were removed.

“We have to get down to the gates,” Cat snapped, as he moved past her and down the corridor. “Once the sergeant is in, we can search the castle properly.”

Emily nodded and followed him as he found another stairwell leading down to the ground floor. The stench of horseshit rose up to greet them. Emily forced herself to breathe through her mouth as they reached the bottom and looked around, hunting for the gatehouse. The horses were an unexpected bonus – Alassa’s cavalry would be delighted to have more horses – but she’d never liked the mangy beasts. Despite Alassa’s best efforts, Emily knew she would never be anything more than a marginal horsewoman.

A hand grabbed her cap, yanking her backwards. It came loose, allowing her hair to tumble down. Emily heard someone gasp behind her – clearly, her assailant hadn’t realised he’d caught a woman – and then threw a hex over her shoulder. Her attacker flew backwards, still holding onto her hair. Emily hit the ground hard enough to hurt, but rolled over and stunned her assailant before he had a chance to stick a knife in her. The stable boy – she thought he was a stable boy – looked disconcertingly young. She rather doubted he was even in his teens.

Poor kid, she thought. It was far from uncommon for children to be given adult responsibilities – the stable boy might well have been fostered to one of the men upstairs – but it never ceased to surprise her. And he’ll be going into the camps too.

She heard the sound of a fireball behind her and spun around. Cat was standing by the door, trading hexes with a pair of men in armour. Emily thought they were sorcerers, at first, but then she saw the wands. It was unlikely they had any real magic, then. A person with a spark of power – but very little else – would probably not be able to use a wand, not in the way Alassa had used hers six years ago. No, someone else had charged the wands and issued them to the soldiers.

And issued them with charmed armour too, Emily thought. It was a neat little trap. Cat could take out one soldier, but the other would get him. But whoever had planned the ambush hadn’t realised that there were two attackers. I can get the other one …

“You take the one on the left,” Cat said, as the two armoured men started to advance. A fireball struck Cat’s wards and exploded, the heat of the flames scorching the stone walls. “I’ll take the one on the right …”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Emily said. “Hang on.”

She stepped forward, shaping a spell with her mind. The guardsmen didn’t have any idea how their wands worked. They were merely jabbing them at their targets, trying to force them back before they ran out of magic. Emily wondered, as she finished the spell, just how much magic had been invested in the wands. It couldn’t be that much. Apart from her batteries, anything used to store magic leaked with terrifying speed. The wands might already be on the verge of dying.

A fireball slammed into her wards and detonated with a loud bang. Emily ignored it, concentrating on her magic. She cast the spell a moment later, ignoring Cat’s puzzled frown. The guards seemed to hesitate, then jabbed the wands at her again … and stumbled backwards as the wands exploded with terrifying force. Emily smiled as the guards hit the floor, their armour ruined by the blasts. She’d turned the air surrounding them into pure oxygen. Their own fireballs had exploded the moment they’d been cast.

Cat ran forward and froze both of the guards, muttering spells to put out the fire. “Emily,” he called back. “What did you do?”

“I’ll explain later,” Emily said. She was surprised the technique hadn’t been reverse-engineered three years ago, when she’d used it against Master Grey, but it was quite possible that no one had been able to figure out what she’d done. The Nameless World hadn’t realised that air was a combination of gases, one of which was explosive in sufficient quantities. “We have to get to the gates.”

“Down here,” Cat said. “Watch my back.”

Emily nodded as Cat hurried down the corridor and into the gatehouse. It was remarkably simple for a castle’s portcullis, although she supposed the designers hadn’t been able to make it as secure as they would have liked. The building wasn’t big enough for a proper gatehouse.

It’s still pretty secure, she thought, as Cat used magic to force the cogs to move. It must take at least four strong men to open the gates without magic.

The portcullis opened with a rattling sound. Emily tensed, glancing back the way they’d come. If there was anyone in the castle still able to walk, they knew where Emily and Cat were. She moved to the corridor and listened carefully, but she heard nothing. A moment later, Sergeant Rotherham and his men flowed into the castle. They looked around admiringly, their eyes lingering on Emily. She felt herself flush. They admired Cat, both as a combat sorcerer and a soldier, but they practically worshipped her. She didn’t feel very comfortable with it. There was no way she could live up to the legend.

“Search the building, then bring the prisoners outside,” Cat ordered. “And if you find any papers, I want to see them.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Sergeant Rotherham said. He looked at Emily. “My Lady?”

Emily sighed, inwardly. “Do as he says,” she said. “We need to have this building secured before dawn.”

OUT NOW–The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V)

10 Jul

The Long Distance War Edit 3

The gloves have finally come off …

The Tokomak, the unquestioned masters of the galaxy, have dispatched a massive fleet to crush the Solar Union – and the fledgling Galactic Alliance – before the human race and its alien allies can tear the galactic order asunder. Hundreds of thousands of starships under the command of an alien tactical genius, bent on exterminating the entire human race … the darkest hour is truly at hand.

Admiral Hoshiko Stuart has a plan. The Solar Union will dispatch a fleet of its own, with the objective of smashing the alien fleet before it reaches Sol. But, as human technology clashes with alien treachery, experience and sheer numbers, it becomes clear that there can be only one victor …

… And whoever loses will lose everything.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon here: US, UK, CAN, AUS

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

9 Jul

Hi, everyone

The good news is that I finished the first draft of The Long-Range War (A Learning Experience V) and, after an extensive edit, it is currently working its way through Amazon Kindle. Hopefully, it will be available from tomorrow. I’ll put up a sample and suchlike on the website when its actually up. The Broken Throne will be coming next.

The Long Distance War Edit 3

The bad news is that my health is still veering backwards and forwards. I was able to write for eight or so days after returning from Amsterdam, then my health decided to collapse again on Wednesday afternoon and get much worse on Friday. The NHS has been very little help: none of the treatments they have suggested have been more than briefly effective, while its boroucractic inefficiency has slowed any further investigations, either public or private. I tried to go to a private clinic for more detailed investigations, at my own expense, but apparently I need a letter of referral from my GP first. I had to wait a week for an appointment with the GP to get the letter, which was apparently dispatched last Monday … and still hasn’t reached its destination. You’d think a private clinic would be happy to take anyone willing to pay.

And, for that matter, you’d think the cash-strapped NHS would be delighted to shovel a patient onto a private clinic at the patient’s own expense. <rolls eyes>.

Ah, the joys of socialised medicine. The NHS is good at some things, but others … not so good.

Anyway, we’re off on a small break to celebrate our anniversary. And then it’s back to the grindstone.

Chris

Why Politics Are A Mess

4 Jul

Why Politics Are A Mess

This came out of a discussion with a friend of mine about modern-day politics.

The Right-Left axis of politics is deeply flawed, for any number of reasons, but it will do for the moment. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that a person sits somewhere along this axis:

· Far-Left

· Middle-Left

· Near-Left

· Centre

· Near-Right

· Middle-Right

· Far-Right

Now, the interesting point here is that a person will have a number of different opinions, some of which belong to different points. Bob, for example, might believe in unrestricted abortion rights (Far-Left) but also a complete ban on immigration (Middle-Right). He will be understandably annoyed if you catalogue him as belonging completely to the Far-Left or the Middle-Right, because he doesn’t.

Let me use a contentious example, immigration:

· Far-Left (everyone is welcome, we can pay for it)

· Middle-Left (everyone is welcome, except those who pose a threat)

· Near-Left (everyone is welcome, provided they contribute to society)

· Centre (don’t care)

· Near-Right (immigrants are allowed, provided they contribute to society)

· Middle-Right (strict restrictions on immigration)

· Far-Right (complete ban, plus deporting immigrants who are already here)

You can do this for just about every political issue, if you have the time to waste. <grin>

What you have to bear in mind about this axis is that the middle sections are more ‘reasonable,’ for a given value of ‘reasonable,’ than the extremists at both ends. The Near-Left and Near-Right are practically identical, although they’d deny it furiously if asked; the extremists are so fixated on getting their way, whatever the cost, that they alienate the middle to the point where it moves in the other direction. If you have an argument that boils down to ‘anyone who does not support a borderless society is a racist fascist bigot,’ you shouldn’t be surprised when everyone who isn’t a true believer moves away from you.

But what does this have to do with politics? And Trump? And BREXIT?

Imagine a car driving along an icy road. Visibility is poor. Every so often, there is a brief struggle between the driver and someone else over who actually gets to drive, while the people in the back shout advice and complain (without actually having any real responsibility for the driving). The driver feels constantly on edge, afraid of losing control (either of the wheel or the car as a whole.) And then the car hits a patch of ice and starts to skid to the right.

The instinctive response is to turn to the left, away from the skid. But, counter-intuitively, you actually have to turn into the skid to regain traction and thus control. (I concede, having driving in awful weather, that this isn’t easy.) Once you regain control, you can turn back to the middle of the road. If you don’t regain control, either because you don’t realise the problem or you make the problem worse by doing the wrong thing, you are likely to crash. And the driver will get the blame.

If you see this as a metaphor for politics, you can see that the right way to deal with voter dissatisfaction is to give them what they want. You have to understand why they’re upset, then do something – actually do something – about it. In short, you have to turn into the skid and regain control. If you don’t, you crash; voters desert your party in droves and go to the people who promise to actually do something. Why should they not? Would you want to sit in a car driven by someone who doesn’t recognise a skid before it’s too late?

Instead, politicians and pressure groups and suchlike have tried to declare open discussion of immigration (and other such matters) verboten. And, in doing so, they have made matters worse. Suppressing speech only gives it credence, because it makes it look as though the people doing the suppressing don’t have any good counter-arguments. And this fuels an indiscriminate fear, suspicion and ultimately hatred of immigrants.

Or, going back to the axis, one side drove the other’s near and middle towards the extremists. In fact, depending on who you believe, they manage to drive their own near and middle to the other side.

Looking at the 2016 election, and the BREXIT Referendum, one thing becomes clear. The RNC chose to ignore legitimate concerns raised by their ‘near’ and ‘middle.’ This created a vast number of dissatisfied Republicans who were promptly scooped up by Donald Trump – and put him in office. If the RNC had found a reasonable candidate – and enacted policies to meet the reasonable concerns of their voters – they would not have had to watch helplessly as Donald Trump ‘stole’ the nomination they believed was rightfully theirs. The same could easily be said of the DNC, who rigged the nomination to ensure that Hillary Clinton would win, only to watch as she lost the election.

And this is also true of the European Union and BREXIT. By refusing to recognise legitimate concerns, by refusing to make reasonable concessions, the EU ensured that the voters who were only mildly irked by the EU would vote for BREXIT. And so Leave won the election.

I think this is true of just about every political and social issue, from abortion to transgender bathrooms and everything else. The people with legitimate concerns get ignored, so they side with the extremists because the extremists are the only ones who are taking their concerns seriously. The ‘them or us’ attitude now pervades most of modern-day society because no one understands where the lines are to be drawn. (This is also why Al Qaeda made so many inroads in Iraq, during the war. On one hand, Al Qaeda were a bunch of murdering terrorists and everyone knew it; on the other, they were the only ones offending to defend Sunni communities against their enemies.)

And this is why politics are such a mess today.