Archive | February, 2012

First Strike–Snippet 2

28 Feb

Chapter One

“It’s confirmed, then?”

“I believe so, Ambassador,” the young official said. He’d been allowed access to the Debating Chamber, a honour that had carefully not been granted to Earth’s Ambassador to the Association of Worlds. An insult, or an admission of shame? “The Hegemony and its allies will get the concessions they seek.”

Ambassador Li Shan kept her face impassive, even as her mind raced frantically. The Association had claimed the space surrounding Earth – and Earth itself – for thousands of years. Seeing no need to actually occupy Earth, they’d simply left the planet and its solar system alone to develop in peace – a peace that had been broken fifteen scant years ago. The Association was weakening and the wolves were at the door. It could still have saved itself, or at least saved Earth long enough for the human race to grow into a galactic superpower, but its population no longer had the drive to impose their will on the universe. Their birth rate was down to almost nothing, while the biological immortality they had gifted themselves with stole their willingness to risk their lives.

“It may be some time before we get the official note,” the young man said. He was almost painfully young, the American representative to Earth’s first off-world embassy. Shan sometimes wondered if he was as naive as he seemed, even though Americans were painfully bad at learning from history. “They’re going to have to come up with some way to salvage their pride…”

“It doubt it will include anything like Earth’s continued independence,” Shan said, flatly. To the Galactics, humanity was a minor upstart power, only in space because a rogue Association Oligarch had given them the technology to escape Earth’s gravity well. The idea of taking humanity seriously…well, the Association was thousands of years old, while the Hegemony and its allies didn’t want another competitor. Humanity would be enslaved or exterminated, like several other races who had had the misfortune to be discovered by the Hegemony before they could defend themselves. “Go speak to the Communications officer. I will require a secure line to Luna in one hour.”

The young man nodded and left, leaving Shan alone with her thoughts. Fifteen years of intensive effort, building a space-based industry and then a small fleet…would it be enough to protect Earth when the Hegemony came calling? She doubted it. The Hegemony had been bloodied in a dozen minor conflicts with its allies, gaining a reputation for brutality that allowed it to even cow the Association. Shan couldn’t understand how any so-called interstellar superpower could allow itself to be bullied by the younger races, but in the end it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the Hegemony and its allies now had a clear line to Earth. They’d taken Terra Nova five years ago. Now they’d come for the rest of humanity.

She looked up through the forcefield and into an alien sky. Great cities drifted above the landscape, casting dark shadows on the fields below. The Association had mastered the technology of food production long ago, allowing them to return their world to the wild while they clustered in giant floating cities. It was a minor feat compared to some of their early technological projects, ones that awed humanity and many of the Galactics. But they’d lost their drive and now they did nothing, beyond maintaining their technology. One day, they might even forget how to do that.

There were millions of contact labourers working within the Association, she knew. Many of them were human, desperately studying their technology and society while doing the work that their masters were no longer prepared to do for themselves. Others came from the Hegemony or a dozen other interstellar races, carving out their own enslaves within the once-proud Association. The secrets behind the Association’s technology had slowly leaked out to the rest of the galaxy, societies that had had more lead time than humanity. One day, the Association would wake up to discover that the Hegemony or one of the other Galactics had developed more advanced technology – and that would be the end of the Association. They wouldn’t see it coming. The Association had been the masters of the known galaxy for so long that any change in the balance of power was inconceivable.

Maybe they’d change, she told herself, but she knew it was futile. The Mandarins of China hadn’t changed in time to prevent the Western barbarians from stamping all over the country, or to avoid a long and bitter civil war between Nationalists and Communists. And whatever happened to the Association, it would come too late to save Earth.

***

Admiral Tobias Sampson, Chief of Naval Operations, studied the message in front of him thoughtfully. A weaker man would have cursed, or shouted at the universe, but Tobias had long since grown accustomed to the disparity between Earth and the Galactics. The Federation Navy was working desperately to remedy that disparity, and many of the advanced weapons programs were showing some considerable promise, yet they might have come too late. Ambassador Li’s message made that clear.

The Association had expanded outwards at astonishing speed once they’d mastered interstellar travel, but its population had actually started to contract once they’d discovered how to make themselves immortal. They’d claimed hundreds of light years worth of space that they no longer had the inclination to settle, a region of space including Earth. The Association had watched Earth – their historical records had settled many of humanity’s questions about its own past – but they had never bothered to make contact openly. Why should they? Humanity was a primitive race. What could it offer the Association beyond slave labour and a few trinkets?

Tobias scowled. He’d been a young Lieutenant in the United States Navy when Mentor – a rogue Oligarch – had made contact with Earth. Mentor’s warning about more advanced societies inhabiting the galaxy had scared hell out of humanity’s leaders, with good reason. His gifts of technology had solved many of humanity’s problems, all the while making Earth a more tempting target to the barbarians who prowled the borders of the Association looking for victims. Tobias had transferred into the Federation Navy – Earth’s new space-based defence force – as soon as it had been possible. He’d always wanted to fly in space. Fifteen years of climbing through the ranks – and sound political manoeuvring – had left him as the senior uniformed officer in the Federation Navy. Right now, he was more inclined to wonder if he’d taken a poisoned chalice.

Humanity had worked hard ever since Earth had entered the galactic scene. There were hundreds of thousands of humans living and working outside the solar system, sending back reports to Federation Intelligence. They knew more about their possible – hell, their probable – opponents than their enemies probably realised. And yet every last piece of information seemed to confirm the simple fact that humanity was badly outgunned by the Hegemony alone. The Federation Navy simply couldn’t stand up to their juggernaut if they came after Earth.

His gaze slipped to a single photograph on the otherwise-drab bulkhead. His daughter and her husband had gone to settle Terra Nova, the first world humanity had discovered that didn’t require extensive terraforming before it became habitable. They’d looked forward to the promise of creating a new society away from Earth. But then the Hegemony had bullied the Association into granting them Terra Nova – it was in Association-claimed space – and occupied the colony. There had been nothing that the human race could do to prevent the Hegemony from enslaving the population. Tobias hadn’t heard anything from his daughter for the last five years.

Carefully, he walked over to the safe set in the bulkhead and pressed his hand against the sensor. It read his fingerprints – and the implant concealed in his palm – and activated the retina scanner, which scanned his eye quickly, matching it against the pattern stored within its secure database. Only three people had been granted access to the safe and the techs swore that no one, even with the very best of Association technology, would be able to break in without triggering security protocols that would reduce the contents to atoms. Tobias hoped that they were right. The operational plans concealed within the safe would be disastrous if they became public knowledge. He had no confidence in the media’s patriotism if they somehow learned of the plans. They’d be more likely to tell the entire universe.

He removed one set of papers and closed the safe behind him, carrying the papers back to his desk. The operation plan had been updated ever since it had first been devised, after the occupation of Terra Nova. Back then, Tobias’s predecessor had vetoed the plan, pointing out that humanity didn’t have the military power to carry it out successfully. Now…

It was a gamble, Tobias admitted. They would be literally betting everything on one throw of the dice. Yet what choice did they have? The Hegemony was winning permission from the Association to take the sector of space that included Earth – and Tobias knew better than to think they would leave Earth alone. Humanity’s network of industrial stations and gas giant mining platforms – one of humanity’s few interstellar exports – were a tempting prize. Why would the Hegemony bother to leave Earth alone when they could just take everything humanity had built at minimal risk? And if they had time to mass their firepower against Earth, the Federation Navy would lose.

He keyed a switch on his desk. “Lieutenant Chamfers,” he ordered, “have my shuttle prepared to leave in one hour.”

“Certainly, sir,” the Lieutenant said. “What should I give as the destination?”

Tobias smiled. “Iceland,” he said.

***

The Federation was the result of a series of political compromises that – typically – pleased almost no one. Unlike the United Nations, it was dominated by the nations that paid the bills, each nation being granted a percentage of votes that matched the amount of the total operating budget they paid. Officially, the Federation Assembly was based in Geneva, but it was little more than a debating chamber. Representatives voted as they were told to vote by their governments, with little regard for global feelings. It put a great many noses out of joint, yet there was little they could do about it. With access to the boundless resources of outer space, there was no need to court Third World states any longer.

For meetings and conferences that couldn’t be allowed to become public, there was a secondary base in Iceland. World leaders would board shuttles in their capital cities and proceed directly to the base, bypassing all of the tedious diplomatic formalities. As the Federation’s CNO, Tobias had the acknowledged right to summon such a meeting at will – although he wasn’t fool enough to think that his position would survive if he summoned them to Iceland on a whim. There were enough issues with gathering the most important world leaders in one place to turn any security officer’s hair white.

The shuttle grounded on the landing pad and he disembarked, ruefully aware of the invisible security sensors scanning him for weapons and other surprises. Tiny nanomachines floated in the air, ready to invade his body and paralyse him if he made one false move. There was no way he could feel their presence, yet he always felt a shiver as he walked through their position and down into the waiting hanger. The base had little on the surface to attract attention. All of the conference facilities were deep underground, protected by layers of rock from orbital and nuclear strikes. There were similar bunkers being prepared for the civilian population in a dozen different countries, but Tobias had often wondered how useful they would actually be. The population would emerge into a world devastated by alien kinetic strikes and antimatter bombs.

He walked into the conference room, paused long enough to salute the small cluster of flags at one corner of the compartment, and then stopped behind his chair. Earth’s leaders looked back at him, almost certainly aware of what he had come to discuss. They would have their own sources within the Federation Navy, or its diplomatic service. Ambassador Li’s report would probably be common knowledge by now. Earth’s struggle for independence was about to begin.

The Japanese Prime Minister, who was the current chairman, spoke into the silence. “Thank you for coming, Admiral,” he said, as if Tobias hadn’t been the one who had called the meeting. “We understand that you have matters you wish to discuss with us.”

Tobias nodded. “Thank you, Prime Minister,” he said. He cleared his throat. “We have been informed by Ambassador Li that the Hegemony’s quest to be granted supremacy in our sector of space is about to be completed. The Association had shown no signs of being willing to stand up to their constant pressure. We must assume that the Hegemony will lay its own claim to this sector within the next six months.

“We have also learned, through a source I am not at liberty to discuss, that the Hegemony’s Emperor and his Court have already started dividing up our territory between them. Earth itself will be put under the control of the Crown Prince and our colonies will be distributed among his cronies. Exactly how they intend to assert their control over Earth is unclear, but given that they have a habit of using demonstration nuclear strikes against civilian targets…”

He allowed his voice to trail off, giving them a moment to grasp the implications. One law of interstellar warfare had been deduced long before humanity had made its way into space. Whoever controlled the orbital space around a planet controlled that planet. They could drop rocks on the inhabitants at will and there was nothing the inhabitants could do to stop it.

“But we have to do something,” the President of France protested. “Can’t the Navy stop them?”

“If they have time to concentrate their forces against us,” Tobias said, evenly, “we will be badly outgunned.”

“There’s no diplomatic angle we can follow?” The German Chancellor asked. “No way we can convince the other interstellar powers to intervene?”

“They’re too scared of the Hegemony,” the President of Russia snarled. “It looks like it’s us against the universe. And we can’t even surrender unless we want to be treated like those colonists on Terra Nova.”

“There is one possibility,” Tobias admitted. This was the difficult part. He had to convince them to gamble with the lives of everyone on Earth. “We strike first.”

There was a long pause. “Explain yourself,” the Chinese Premier said. “How do you believe we can win a war if we start it ourselves?”

Tobias smiled. “The Hegemony’s supply lines are actually quite long,” he said. “Apart from their squadron at Terra Nova and their base at Teflon, most of their forces are watching their borders with their rivals. Over the next few months, we are expecting them to start moving additional battleships down to Terra Nova and use them to drive on Earth – assuming we don’t roll over for them like good little primitives. We have a window of opportunity to break their control over Terra Nova, smash a large part of their fleet and then go on the offensive. They would have to choose between shifting their forces to smash us, which would risk weakening their borders with their rivals, or accepting our liberation of Terra Nova.”

“It’s a hell of a gamble,” the President of the United States observed. “We might be giving them a Pearl Harbour of their own to rally around. In the long run, we’d be obliterated.”

“Japan has had its own experiences with launching first strikes,” the Japanese Prime Minister agreed. “I cannot advise the tactic against an alien force that outguns us…”

“But it wouldn’t if we smashed their battle squadron at Terra Nova,” the Russian President pointed out. “They wouldn’t exactly be looking at parity, but they’d have to strip their borders bare to concentrate a superior force against us. And it isn’t as if Terra Nova is that important to them.”

“Except as a symbol of pride,” the French President said. “But the other option is surrender…”

The British Prime Minister looked at Tobias. “I assume your staff have run war games and simulations,” he said. “How do they play out?”

“It depends on a number of different factors,” Tobias admitted. Some aliens thought like humans, others were very…well, alien. The psychologists thought that the key to beating the Hegemony was to undermine their faith in themselves. “Assuming we win the first battles, we have a fifty-fifty chance of ultimate victory – victory being defined as survival as an independent power. It is possible that the Hegemony will find itself attacked along its other borders, which will give us time to build an impregnable position we can hold indefinitely. On the other hand, the Hegemony’s enemies may choose to refrain from pressing them while they crush the upstart human race.”

“Or the Association might intervene,” the French President mused.

“Perhaps,” Tobias agreed. It didn’t seem too likely. “Or perhaps the horse will learn to sing.”

“It seems that we have a choice between fighting now or fighting in a year, under much worse conditions,” the American President said. He didn’t look comfortable with the decision. Tobias could hardly blame him. Americans liked the wars to be honourable – but there was nothing honourable in what the Hegemony was planning to do. “I call for a vote.”

Tobias watched the votes mount up, an overwhelming majority in favour of launching a strike on Terra Nova before the Hegemony had time to prepare. They believed they could digest humanity at will. The Federation Navy would show them differently. Humanity had a vast heritage of science-fiction books and movies to use for inspiration. The aliens tended to view them as little more than comedies.

“Thank you,” he said, as the vote concluded. There would be war. “The Navy won’t let you down.”

Bookworm–Snippet Two

27 Feb

Comments?

Chapter One

The sun rose above the Watchtower, scattering rays of light down towards the Golden City below. As the light glittered off the shining temples, the voices of the priests rose in greeting to the morning light. The bells, each one a representation of a different god, rang out, sending a glistening crescendo across the city. It seemed to hang in the air, echoing off the five mountains that surrounded the city, before slowly fading away into a deafening silence. In its wake, the sound of the city coming to life seemed dull and faded. Nothing could complete with the morning chorus.

Elaine cursed the morning as she tried to close her eyes and go back to sleep. The tiny apartment seemed too warm, even in the mornings, but it was all that they were able to afford. She tossed and turned as she pulled the blanket back over her head, knowing that it was futile. It was already too late to go back to sleep. The sound of Daria getting up from her bed on the other side of the room only reminded her that she had to get up herself.

“Get up, you lazy thing,” Daria called, as she tugged at Elaine’s blanket. “I don’t think you dare be late again, do you?”

“No,” Elaine said. She’d been reprimanded twice for being late, even though it hadn’t really been her fault. But no one was interested in excuses, not in the Golden City. There was no shortage of trained, but untalented magicians to do the work their betters chose to ignore. “I don’t want to be late at all.”

Daria snorted as Elaine released the blankets. She was already standing in front of the mirror, studying her reflection as she donned her enchanted earrings and necklace. Elaine felt a hot flash of envy – her friend’s redheaded looks brought no shortage of admirers – before swinging her legs off the bed and standing up. There was no time to waste admiring Daria, or cursing her own mundane appearance. She walked out of the bedroom and into the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face to wash away the last traces of drowsiness. There were spells to wake oneself up, without ill effects, but she’d never been able to master them.

And besides, the voice of one of her tutors whispered in her ear, magic has a price

Elaine shrugged off the memory as she walked back and stood in front of the mirror, glaring at herself. She saw a mousy girl with light brown hair, dark eyes and a slightly oversized nose, one large enough to suggest that one of her parents – whoever they’d been – had been an aristocrat. It had certainly been suggested by the other children at the orphanage, and later by her classmates at the Peerless School. They’d taunted her for being motherless since the day they’d realised that no one was interested in adopting her. In truth, Elaine wasn’t entirely sure why she’d been accepted to the Peerless School. Her magical talent was very limited, barely more than any hedge witch. A hedge witch would probably be more useful than her.

She pulled off her nightdress and reached for her tunic and shirt. As a graduate of the Peerless School, she was entitled to wear black, but she’d never felt the urge to show off her very limited talent. Instead, she wore subdued brown that matched her hair. It was strictly functional. She didn’t have the money to waste adorning herself.

“I may be home late tonight,” Daria said. “Jade was talking about going to the Arena, and then to one of his favourite eateries. And after that…who knows?”

Elaine felt herself flush. An upbringing in the orphanage hadn’t prepared her for the life of a free woman in the Golden City, although she didn’t really want to go out dancing and enjoying herself with young men. Or so she told herself; in truth, part of her would have loved to go out and just lose all of her inhabitations. She looked over at Daria, who was donning a red dress that showed off enough of her legs and chest to make Elaine flush. Her friend seemed to have a knack for meeting people and making friends that Elaine lacked.

“Have fun,” she said, automatically. Daria didn’t notice, but then she never did. She was a good friend, perhaps the best friend Elaine had, yet she never seemed to notice when anything was wrong. “Try not to catch anything you don’t want to catch.”

Daria chuckled as she headed into the small kitchen. “I’ll keep myself safe,” she promised. “And you’d better be off. Miss Prim will have you transfigured into something more useful if you’re late again.”

Elaine nodded, picking up her wand and placing it into the small holster hidden within her sleeve. Most magicians hid their wands in dimensional pockets, where they could be retrieved at a moment’s notice, but Elaine had never had the skill or patience for such complex spells. Besides, it sometimes came in handy not to have to cast a spell to recover her wand. Without it, she was barely capable of any magic at all.

“Have fun,” she said, again. Daria was her friend, after all. “I’ll try not to wait up for you.”

The hex on the door hissed at her as she placed her hand on the knob, reluctantly recognising her signature and allowing her to exit. Even combining their resources, they hadn’t been able to afford an apartment in the better parts of the city, not when the entire population of the Empire seemed determined to move to the Golden City. The landlord charged incredibly high rates, too high for her to afford if she lost her job. She silently cursed him as she walked down the stairs and out onto the streets. Whatever he did with the money he collected from his tenants, it didn’t include renovating the apartments. There was no security hex on the outer door.

As always, the streets were crowded with people trying to get to their workplaces or merely wandering the city, enjoying their chance to see the Empire’s capital. Elaine had to smile at the expressions on some of their faces as they gawked around, looking up at the Watchtower or down towards the Imperial Palace. History had been made in the Golden City, from the First Necromantic War to the disappearance of the Lost Prince. On every corner, a statue of some nobleman from the wars or particularly legendary wizard seemed to gaze down disapprovingly at the tourists infesting the city. In their days, Elaine was certain, the Golden City had been truly golden.

She walked along the streets, careful to ignore the horses and carts as the aristocracy headed towards the Imperial Palace to start playing politics with the Regency Council and the Grand Sorcerer. There had been a time when she’d wondered if her magical talent would be enough to win her a place among the rich and powerful, but like all of her dreams it had come crashing down into dust. She simply didn’t have the talent to serve as a Court Wizard, helping to maintain the fragile peace in the Empire, or as an Alchemist working to push back the boundaries of magical knowledge. All she was…was a librarian.

It wasn’t a bad job, really. Books had always fascinated her, even as a child. The orphanage had had quite a few books and her guardians had insisted that she learn to read, believing that it would be easier for her to attract a family who might adopt her. That had never happened, even as she grew older, but she’d never lost the fascination for books. And if she couldn’t afford her own library – even the new-fangled printed books were expensive – at least she could work with them in the Great Library. It was a position of great responsibility. Miss Prim had told her time and time again.

“Read all about it,” one of the broadsheet criers shouted, breaking into her thoughts. “Duke of Tara to visit the Golden City! May be engaged to Princess Lorraine! Read all about it!”

Elaine ignored the proffered paper and strode past the crier. She wasn’t entirely sure that she approved of demeaning the printing press by publishing stories about the rich and famous, but she had to admit that it was encouraging people to read. Not that they always printed the truth, of course. Even in her position, she knew the underlying reason why the Duke of Tara would be visiting the Golden City – and it didn’t have anything to do with asking the Regency Council’s permission to wed anyone. The Grand Sorcerer, the supreme authority in the Empire, was dying. And if the Duke happened to be in the Golden City when the Grand Sorcerer died, he’d be in a position to influence the outcome of the contest to select the next Grand Sorcerer.

The thought made her look up, towards the Imperial Palace, a dark building of towering, brooding stone. No Emperor resided there now, not after the Second Necromantic War. Officially, the royal bloodline had died out when the Witch-King made his desperate grab for supreme power before unleashing a nightmare across the entire world. Unofficially, there was supposed to be a missing heir – but no one had come forward and claimed the Throne. A vast number of pretenders had tried to claim the Throne over the years. They’d sat on the Golden Throne and had never been seen again. The Throne, it was said, knew the true royal bloodline. No substitutions were accepted.

She halted as she turned the corner, just long enough for a line of soldiers to march past and down towards the Watchtower, positioned on the North Peak. Elaine had read enough history to know that the Watchtower had saved the city during the First Necromantic War, but had been destroyed and rebuilt during the Second War – after which it had been maintained by the Regency Council. There was no threat to the Empire, at least as far as she knew, but doubtless they had their reasons. It was also a none too subtle reminder of their power, of the mailed fist within the velvet glove. The Golden City was the Empire’s capital. No disturbance could be tolerated within its walls.

The last of the soldiers tramped off into the distance, followed by a small number of young boys with dreams of becoming soldiers themselves. Elaine shook her head in wry amusement at their antics, before glancing up at the position of the sun. She was running late and she really needed to move quicker. Miss Prim would definitely not be happy if she was late. Thanking the gods for her decision to wear her tunic, rather than a long skirt, she started to move as quickly as she dared. The crowds pressed in around her, seeming to grow thicker as she approached the centre of the city. They’d been joined by small children on their way to school, escorted by their mothers or, in some cases, the family slaves. Elaine shivered when she saw them, remembering her tutors at the orphanage. They’d threatened to sell her into slavery if she didn’t behave herself.

She allowed herself a small pause for breath as the Great Library came into view. It was a towering building, although not as tall as the Imperial Palace, surrounded by statues of famous Alchemists. The statues were still as long as people were watching them, but they seemed to move slightly when they were unobserved. They were part of the Great Library’s defences against unwanted intruders, but they had always given her the creeps. The statues seemed to hate her somehow, even though she couldn’t have explained why. It was probably a reflection of her own limited sensitivity to magic.

The massive stone doors opened for her as she approached, recognising her magical signature as one who was allowed access. Successive Grand Sorcerers hadn’t been inclined to place all their faith in the statues, no matter how many enchantments had been used to make them obedient and invincible guardians. The Great Library was layered with layer after layer of defensive spells, some bluntly obvious to even the merest of magicians, some so subtle and deadly that any would-be thief would have no opportunity to realise that they were there until it was far too late. Even the Peerless School, a building designed to contain magician accidents caused by trainee sorcerers, was less well defended than the library. But then, the magical knowledge stored within the stone walls was the source of the Empire’s power. It could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

Inside, the cool dry air left her feeling uncomfortably sweaty as she ran through the corridors, feeling them twisting and turning around her. The interior of the building lay within a pocket dimension, making it literally bigger on the inside than on the outside. Elaine had been told that the Great Library was actually alive, at least on some level, but she’d never been able to sense any governing presence. Perhaps it was just too subtle for her senses to detect, or perhaps it didn’t talk to mere humans. The Great Library had outlasted both of the Necromantic Wars and many other conflicts besides.

The corridors straightened out suddenly and she found herself in the foyer. It was a luxuriously decorated room, covered with paintings of librarians through the ages, but there was no mistaking its purpose. Not everyone could be allowed access to the Great Library, or all of the collections housed within its walls. Students from the Peerless School, Senior Wizards, the Regency Council…they had access. Everyone else had to apply to the Head Librarian and convince her that they deserved to enter the Great Library. One day, Elaine told herself, she’d be in that position of power. It was an oddly cheerless thought.

“Elaine,” a stern voice said. Elaine froze, and then tried to calm herself. “What have I told you about being late?”

Elaine bit down several different answers and did her best to look contrite. “I’m sorry, Miss Prim,” she said. “The roads were crowded today.”

Miss Prim glowered at her. She was a tall woman, old enough to be Elaine’s grandmother – and a slave, bound to the Great Library. From the rumours Elaine had heard, Miss Prim – not her real name, but one fostered on her by the Grand Sorcerer – had been one of the more successful would-be thieves who tried to steal books from the library. After she’d been caught red-handed, she’d been enslaved – and, as punishment, assigned to the library she’d tried to rob. The spell binding her wouldn’t allow her to leave, or to do a bad job.

“We are going to have to do something about your lateness, my girl,” Miss Prim said, severely. Her voice had a knack for cutting through to the heart of any issue. “It really is quite unacceptable. The demand on our services has been rising over the last few months…”

As the Grand Sorcerer prepares to meet the gods, Elaine thought, sourly. Every Senior Wizard in the world would be considering their own bid to become Grand Sorcerer. They’d be studying, brushing up on their spells – and making contacts with other wizards and even the mundane community. Power was a drug to many wizards and the position of Grand Sorcerer was the most powerful position in the world.

“…And so I expect better from you,” Miss Prim concluded. “Consider yourself lucky that we are no longer in the habit of beating our inferiors. I suggest that you go get yourself suitably presentable for doing your job. You’re going to be assisting some of the very best wizards in the city.”

Elaine nodded as she walked through the foyer and into the small office behind the desk. The Great Library had a dozen reading rooms and a hundred different open collections, but few of the visitors would be interested in books they could buy for themselves. No, they’d be interested in the restricted volumes, the ones kept firmly under lock and key. Some of them would even try to convince her to retrieve books from the Black Vault, despite the Grand Sorcerer’s edict forbidding access without permission from the Regency Council. Elaine found herself silently praying that none of them would be foolish enough to turn nasty if she had to refuse their demands. The Great Library itself took care of any troublemakers, but the effects had a nasty tendency to spill over onto unsuspecting bystanders.

She donned the grey smock worn by library staff and took a moment to check her hair. There were a dozen other assistants in the library at any one time, scattered through the reading rooms and helpdesks. Despite herself, Elaine knew that the job was important – and it required a special class of person, someone who could be trusted not to abuse the access granted to them by the library. In her case, it hardly mattered how many forbidden tomes she read, whatever the rules said. She simply didn’t have the power to utilize many of the spells other wizards used daily, let alone dark spells that hadn’t been used since the Necromantic Wars.

“Room Thirteen,” Miss Prim said, when Elaine emerged from the office. “Daphne’s on the desk, but she needs help finding material. Too many wizards up there and they’re getting impatient.”

“Yes, Miss Prim,” Elaine said. She turned and walked down the corridor. Sometimes, the corridors shifted, seemingly at random, but this time the library seemed inclined to remain still. Room Thirteen was larger than the foyer, with a handful of desks manned by grumpy wizards reading older books and making notes. A small line of wizards stood in front of the main desk, waiting impatiently for their turn. Elaine walked around the desk and looked up at the first in line – and realised, too late, that it was someone she already knew.

“Frogeye,” a delighted voice said. “How nice to see you again.”

Elaine wanted to sink into the floor. Of all the people who had to visit the Great Library – and who she had to serve personally – it just had to be Millicent. The one person she’d met whom she never wanted to see again.

Wonderful, she thought, bitterly. This day just keeps getting better and better.

First Strike–Snippet

23 Feb

Prologue

It was a clear day over North America.

The President of the United States stared down at his country and felt despair. He’d felt little else since the first message had intruded its way into the United States Secure Communications Network, a network that hundreds of experts had claimed to be completely secure. The message had reached him and four of his peers, inviting them to come to a remote location and meet with representatives from another world. He’d decided to go, even though the Secret Service had been horrified at the thought. The President of the United States would be going alone into the alien landing craft and flying to orbit.

He closed his eyes, trying to block out the sight. Earth was beautiful from orbit, a blue-green globe; if he stared, he fancied that he could make out the New Jersey coastline. And yet it seemed so vulnerable, a vulnerability that their host had demonstrated by his mere presence. The alien craft – one of their freighters, apparently – had remained undetected until its owner had chosen to make his presence known. It spoke volumes about humanity’s vulnerability to an alien threat.

“My civilisation is in decline,” their host had said. He’d called himself Mentor, which suggested to the President – a keen science-fiction reader in his teens – that the aliens had spent literally years studying Earth. The thought of alien anthropologists watching humanity was horrifying – God alone knew what the aliens had made of humanity’s inhumanity to its own kind – but if their host was to be believed, there were people out among the stars with less friendly motives. “The barbarians are at the gates. Your people do not have long to prepare.”

The President, away from the network of analysts and briefers who prepared him for diplomatic meetings on Earth, wasn’t sure that he had followed the explanation. Their host, who looked rather like a humanoid canary, complete with feathers, had apparently broken the rules of his own society by coming to Earth. He’d offered humanity technology that would solve many of Earth’s problems, if they had time to put it into production. And if they didn’t, he’d warned, Earth was in the way of at least one expanding civilisation. The kindest outcome would be humanity being locked out of space forever. He didn’t want to think about the other possibilities.

He looked over at his counterparts, the leaders of Britain, France, Russia and China. They shared the same stunned expression he knew dominated his own face. A week ago, they’d been confident that they knew their place in the world; now, the entire universe had turned upside down. There was a deadly threat out there and they had to prepare, but none of them really trusted the others, not when there was so much at stake. The nation that first put the alien technology to use would have an unbeatable advantage. For all of the idealism the President allowed himself in the privacy of his own thoughts, he knew that the idea of toppling the United States from the position of global superpower would be very attractive to his peers.

And as long as we’re scrabbling like children who have been thrown a handful of dollars, he thought sourly, the millionaires will draw their plans against us.

He cleared his throat. “I think that we have to face facts,” he said. But in truth he didn’t know what the facts really were. Was their alien friend telling the truth? There was no independent verification of everything he’d said. The President had looked into Roswell and other reported UFO contact when he’d taken office, but the Air Force had assured him that the stories were nothing, but fabrications. Earth’s first contact with alien life was standing right in front of him. “Our petty conflicts mean nothing in the face of what is bearing down on us.”

There was no argument. A different issue, less momentous, would have caused bitter – if polite – scrabbling. “We have to make use of this gift,” the President continued. Mentor had demanded nothing in return, but the President was too experienced a politician to take that at face value. “We have to prepare for more formal contact.”

Years ago, he recalled from a history briefing he’d had before a diplomatic trip abroad, an American officer called Commodore Perry had forced the isolated state of Japan to open up and establish unequal treaties with the West. The British and other Europeans had done the same to China, but where the Japanese had managed to defend themselves and stave off Western aggression – and indulged some aggression of their own – the Chinese had never managed to adapt before they were overwhelmed. And the Native Americans had never stood a chance. The political and military disparity had simply been insurmountable.

“You have ten of your years at most,” Mentor informed the small group. “By then, Earth will certainly be noticed by the expanding powers. If you cannot defend yourselves by then, you will be lost.”

“Well,” the President said, finally. “It’s time to begin.”

The Universe of First Strike

22 Feb

Just another vague idea.

The Universe of First Strike

Although humanity had been largely unaware of it, for the past few thousand years Earth had been within the space claimed by the Association, an alliance of three races (the Jul’Kek/Canaries, Yaje/Rabbits and Tamanas/Dogs) that had joined together to develop their technology. The Association, believing that early contact between primitive races and far more advanced interstellar powers was disastrous for the primitive races, kept an eye on Earth, but forbade open contact. Earth would be invited to join the Association when its inhabitants managed to develop FTL drive. Given humanity’s alarming rate of technological advancement, there were some in the Association who believed that humanity would destroy itself before it ever got into space. It had certainly happened before.

The Association, however, was entering a long period of decline. Odd as it might seem, the Association’s real problem was that it had advanced too far too fast and was unprepared to deal with the social upheaval caused by advanced technology. In particular, the discover of an immortality treatment for the Canaries led to the Canaries effectively coming to dominate the Association. This was not a deliberate racially-based plan to seize supreme power, but it hardly mattered. As the effective leaders of the Association grew older, they became more set in their ways and attempted to freeze technological and political change. This in turn led to massive racial and economic strife within the Association.

Given time, the Association might have overcome this problem and recovered. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the time. As stagnation began to set in, they encountered several other races on the far edge of Association space. Unlike the Association, which had always worked towards peaceful co-existence between different races, the newcomers were young, vigorous and intent on carving out space for themselves. As they started to realise just how far the Association had fallen from the glory days where its superdreadnaughts could dominate the local region, they started to push harder. The Association’s ability to respond to this crisis was very limited. By the time they faced the newcomers in open combat and lost badly, the Association Navy was dominated by officers whose naval experience was literally centuries out of date. Worst of all, some of the once-loyal naval officers were seduced by dreams of power for themselves, often from the best possible motives.

This pushed the Association further down the slippery slope to destruction. As a society, the citizens had had very little contact with the military; indeed, the whole idea of going out and dying for one’s homeworld was considered rather outdated. What this meant, practically speaking, was that the Association Navy was constantly undermanned, while officers who showed a spark of initiative found themselves suspected of plotting a military coup (on the grounds that removing the government and imposing military rule could hardly be worse) and under constant suspicion. The result was inevitable. Over three hundred years prior to First Contact, the Association found its borders being eroded, with the newcomers held back by desperate fighting or their own competing ambitions.

One particular Association Oligarch (by then, business and government had effectively merged together) saw the writing on the wall. There was no hope of stirring the government to demand the kind of sacrifices it would take to save the Association from falling apart, even if the invading powers were satisfied to leave the original homeworlds alone. He looked around for a new solution and finally settled on Earth. Humanity lacked the FTL drive that would have qualified them for membership in the Association (if that had meant anything any longer), but humans were good fighters and had a knack for imagination that the Association’s Oligarchs had lost many years ago. Putting together a mission to Earth, with a small fleet of starships and technological goodies to offer to the human race, he led the mission in person. The Association’s observers, who had spent hundreds of years gathering data on the planet, would have objected strongly to his plan to contact the planet, so he had them arrested and held on his ship before making open contact. Even for a being richer than the entire planet Earth, that sort of action wouldn’t be allowed to pass unpunished. He had just burned his bridges behind him.

Making covert contact with Earth’s major governments (originally, the UN Security Council’s permanent members) in 2020, he explained his mission. The situation was dire. Earth had been protected from contact and exploitation by the Association, but within twenty years at the most starships from other powers would start prowling around Earth’s general region. And they wouldn’t let the primitives develop at their own pace. Indeed, given that humanity’s advancement was alarmingly fast, it was quite possible that one or more of the Galactics would see Earth as a threat to be squashed before it was far too late.

The UNSC argued for hours, trying to decide what to do. On one hand, the promised alien technology – samples had already been handed over – would help humanity make its own way into space. On the other hand, the Association looked to be on the verge of coming apart – and humanity didn’t want to end up on the losing side of an interstellar war. Complicating matters was the presence of the Association monitoring post on the Moon (with new observers expected in five years) and the fact that none of the ships the businessman had been able to bring were warships. Earth was in no state to stand off even a single warship from any of the Galactics

After several days of heavy negotiation (eventually bringing in most of the other major nations) they managed to cobble together a working agreement. The UN would be discarded as no longer being suited for purpose. Instead, the major governments would collaborate to produce the Terran Federation, which would have overall responsibility for preparing the Earth for the coming storm, creating the Earth Defence Force and settling the rest of the Solar System. Voting rights in the Federation Assembly were allocated based on the percentage of the Federation’s overall operating costs paid by each country (which meant that, in practice, the wealthier countries ran it to suit themselves). The Federation would also oversee the introduction of alien technology into Earth’s economy, providing additional funds for its operations.

Matters went reasonably smoothly, although the introduction of fusion power and other technology caused considerable political upheaval, until the arrival of a Drans battlecruiser at Son. They’d been scouting along the Association’s border and homed in on Earth’s radio transmissions. Unsure of Earth’s relationship with the Association (the Drans, who reassembled humanoid fish, were a very new power on the galactic stage), they settled for establishing a cloudscoop in orbit around Jupiter (to be maintained by human techs, although owned by the aliens), rather than trying to claim Earth itself. Over the next four years, humanity established cloudscoops around the remaining gas giants, as well as settlements on all of the planets and moons. Terraforming a planet had been pioneered by the Association and their records helped jump Mars towards becoming inhabitable within one hundred years of the first comet and biological seeds dumped into the atmosphere. Venus would take much longer.

The first crisis came when an Association starship arrived to resupply the Observation Post on the Moon (which had now been joined by human bases and settlements.) Humanity didn’t have any warship worthy of the title and the Federation was grimly aware that the Association, even in its weakened state, would be able to squash Earth with ease. The Oligarch stepped forward, however, and confessed his role in the affair. Facing the prospect of yet another political crisis, the Association settled for arresting the Oligarch and removing most of his people from Earth. They did, however, open up diplomatic relationships with the Federation. Humans were willing to work for less than Association citizens and many of them intended to learn all they could about alien technology.

Earth’s first extra-solar colony lay in a system that had been regarded as second-rate by the Association, but humanity was less easily deterred. It had no gas giant to provide fuel, yet it did have a Mars-like world (for terraforming) and literally millions of asteroids that could be used as raw materials. The discovery of several other similar worlds near Earth allowed for much greater colonisation efforts, particularly with the help of massive colonist-carrier starships leased from the Association. Unfortunately, the discovery of an Earth-like world caused two political crises in quick succession.

The first one took place on Earth, in 2035. Some parts of the planet had benefited hugely from the expansion into space. Other parts had not, particularly the Middle East and Africa. The sudden fall in demand for oil had destroyed the basis of the economy and there had been no compensation from ET technology. With a world that required minimal adaption to colonise up for grabs, the Third World was determined to have a full share of the colony world. The Federation found itself in something of a bind. All of the previous worlds had been doled out to nations that contributed, yet this was definitely different. It was a prize everyone wanted a piece of. After much negotiation , it was decided that the planet – Terra Nova – would be settled under Federation authority, but there would be quotas from each nation on Earth.

Five years later, with upwards of a million humans settled on Earth, disaster struck. A starship from the Ruthen Hegemony arrived at Terra Nova and announced that the world had been claimed by the Hegemony in 2020. The Hegemony had been one of the powers that had been eroding the borders of the Association and they weren’t disposed to care about the far more miniscule human race. When the colonists on the planet demurred, the Hegemony starship dropped kinetic weapons on their main city. With the Association unwilling to push the Hegemony, the Federation had no choice, but to surrender Terra Nova, along with its remaining colonists. However, the Association did insist that the Hegemony paid Earth compensation for the lost venture. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, the Hegemony paid up.

The lost colony galvanised Earth like nothing else. Political debates about the exact division of power and quotas for settlement vanished, replaced by a public demand for revenge. The compensation was promptly invested in new ships and technological data from the Association and some of the smaller Galactics. Perversely, the Hegemony’s unwilling gift helped to push Earth forward – and assisted the human race in covertly advancing its own weaponry. Thousands of young human students wound up studying in the Association, while hundreds of thousands of workers started to drift through space. Many of them were ordered to keep their eyes open and learn all they could about the Galactics.

Terra Nova itself rapidly became a military base for the Hegemony, which was eagerly awaiting the break-up of the Association. This worried Earth’s strategists as the Hegemony would be able to maintain a sizeable force near Earth. The humans still on the planet provided what information they could about their new overlords, as did diplomatic missions to the various alien worlds.

Time was rapidly running out for Earth, unfortunately. On the other side of Association space, alliances were being drawn up to finish the job of destroying the Association and sharing out the booty between the participants. And one of those pieces of booty was Earth…

The Russo-Japanese War…IN SPACE

21 Feb

I was glancing at books about the Russo-Japanese War today and it gave me an idea for a future setting…

One version would be humanity playing the role of the Japanese, perhaps as a follow-up to Their Darkest Hour. Humanity would use new weapons and tactics to hammer an overconfident alien empire (one of several) that thought that Earth’s tiny empire would be ripe for the plucking. Depending on how Earth was opened up to the galaxy, there might be a semi-unified Earth, perhaps under a reformed UN. Maybe something not unlike the Earth Alliance of Babylon 5, but without the habit of biting off much more than it can chew.

An alternate version would be humanity playing the role of the Russians, with the main characters forced to watch as the over-mighty empire takes on more than it can chew and end up revolting against the corrupt leadership…

(I might have that as part of the Pompey In Space universe…)

Chris

Bookworm–Snippet

19 Feb

Prologue

Alone in the darkness, he waited.

He had long since become accustomed to the gloom, even though he cursed it with every breath he took through his ravaged throat. The power that had once raised him high – which had made him among the strongest of sorcerers, the masters of the world – was all that kept him alive. It was a bitter irony that all of his power, all of the secrets he had won through dangerous research into the limits of magic, was all that kept him alive. The final curse from his enemy or an unexpected gift from his own patrons, there was no way to know. All that mattered was that he could not die.

Time moved quickly in the unchanging darkness. It had been years as mortals reckoned time since his final, catastrophic defeat, yet he could not help playing and replaying the struggle for power over and over again in his mind. If he’d done this, if he’d done that…but the one thought he never allowed himself to have was what would have happened if he’d chosen to avoid the temptations magic promised. To be someone happy, but small; never to have involved himself with the destiny of the entire world…it was a fate worse than death, worse than facing the ten million devils baying for his soul. He could not have avoided his reach for power, even knowing his possible fate. Power was all that had driven him for a very long time.

It had driven him to ruin. He had long since overcome the pangs of hunger or thirst; his magic kept him alive, against all reason. His soul remained chained in a body permanently on the verge of death. Madness had threatened more than once, assailing his mind and offering permanent release from torment, yet he refused to take the final step and plunge into the abyss. He didn’t want to die, or to lose himself. It was all that kept him together.

And there was the plan.

It had started life as a fantasy, one of many of the dreams of revenge that tormented him as he lay still and unmoving in the dark hall. He had returned to it again and again, until it had finally penetrated his mind that the plan was no fantasy. His power to influence the outside world was limited, subtle rather than the vast magical acts he had performed before his fall from grace, but it existed. Slowly, wary of signs that his enemies were waiting for him to reveal himself before destroying him, he reached out with his mind. Putting the pieces into play had required great care and the plan had come close to disaster more than once, but he was patient. His immortality, once a curse, allowed him to work slowly where mortal minds would have demanded speed.

A seed, planted in fertile soil. Promises made to those unable to see the long game. The slow corruption of those who believed themselves immune to vice. A hint of power here, an offer of wealth there…piece by piece, the tools came together. His influence reached back towards the home of his enemies and slowly intruded into their sphere. No one saw his hand behind a series of coincidences. They would never have believed in his existence if they hadn’t seen him, and no one had laid eyes on him for hundreds of years.

And slowly, but surely, the endgame came into view.

It was time to knock over the first domino…

And then a mighty empire would come tumbling down.

The Vamps

18 Feb

Just a short snippet of a planned work.  I loathe people thinking that Vampires are romantic.  Can you tell?  <wink>

Prologue

The official report from the NYPD said that four teenage girls were having a sleepover when there was a home invasion; a criminal (clearly not a mastermind, or deaf) attempted to break into the house. Stumbling into their room, the girls screamed – summoning the house owner, who was horrified to discover that his daughter was under threat. The criminal fled the house and made his escape into the darkness. Although the girls were more than a little shocked by the experience – and two of them attended counselling sessions for months afterwards – they were not actually physically harmed.

Everything I wrote above is a lie. A tissue of untruths designed to conceal what actually took place, to keep the general public from realising that some monsters are all too real. And it is believed. No other version of the story will ever gain credence.

I was there. This is what really happened.

There were four girls present in the room. Bobbi, the oldest, was just two months shy of sixteen; blonde, beautiful and with a string of admirers longer than my arm. Jill was younger, with dark skin and darker hair; Bobbi and her had effectively grown up together and were almost sisters from different parents. Sally was fourteen, with light brown hair and an infectious smile; Jade, the youngest, was just shy of thirteen, a girl poised on the brink of becoming a woman. Old enough to go through puberty, young enough to be terrified by the whole experience.

They weren’t supposed to have been drinking, but Bobbi had brought the alcohol and all of them were slightly tipsy. I wasn’t too surprised, when I found out. They’d been nerving themselves up for weeks, ever since they’d stumbled into a corner of the shadow world. Like I said, they were young – too young and foolish to know the dangers of what they were doing, too young to know better. But the seducers of the young have always been good at presenting their case – and there are far more dangerous things out there than paedophiles.

“I think we should do it now,” Bobbi said. They looked up to her as the oldest, and the one who had already done everything. Later investigation revealed that she’d gone all the way with at least two different boys, something that had become public shortly afterwards. She didn’t really care. “I think it’s time.”

Jade was nervous. “But what if it hurts?”

“It’ll only hurt for a moment,” Bobbie assured her. “And then there will be no pain, ever again.”

She smiled, rubbing her face. “I’ll be young and gorgeous forever,” she added. “And so will you! We will live on while the jerks and losers at school grow old and die.”

They were teenagers, too young to understand that teenage pains faded and recede. A mature adult would have known better. All the little hurts – the boys who made fun of Jade’s flat chest, the girls who whispered that Bobbi was a slut who put out for all the guys – still had knives to cut into their souls. God help us – our kids know the worst too young. And he had been very clever, allowing them to talk themselves into it. There’s no delusion harder to escape than one you create for yourself.

“I’ll call him,” Bobbie said, as she opened the window. “Dad won’t wake up until it is far too late.”

She leaned outside and whispered a single name. A moment later, a long trail of smoke wafted into the room and slowly solidified into a human form. But not human. Whatever you may read in teenage fiction, vampires are not human. And those that master their new form and hunger are among the most dangerous beings to walk the Earth. I have no idea why people think that vampires are romantic. I would sooner go to bed with a tabloid reporter.

They couldn’t see his face, apart from his red eyes. That’s part of their magic, the glamour that surrounds them. It’s quite possible to look directly at a vampire and not see him, not until the moment you feel his fangs in your throat. And then it’s far too late.

“My children,” the vampire said. His voice was seductive, laced with the magic that keeps vampires alive and well. Very few people are strong-willed enough to resist their spell. The girls didn’t stand a chance. “Are you ready to join us in the twilight world?”

“Yes,” Bobbi said. She would have hated it if she’d been able to hear herself, but the vampire had captured her mind and wouldn’t let her go. He could have told her to jump out of the window and kill herself and she would have done so with a smile on her face. “We are ready for you, master.”

The vampire hadn’t told them everything. You see, most vampires are animals – driven by their constant need for blood. They make mistakes, they leave trails – and they get staked easily. But one who has lived long enough to master himself…he has power beyond their most fevered imaginations. The vampires he sires become his slaves, bound to him until they are destroyed or the master is scattered to ashes. They don’t become animals. A small group of vampires in a High School…we’d have a whole epidemic on our hands by the end of the week.

It was then that I made my appearance. “Enough,” I said. The vampire turned to look at me, bright red eyes boring into my soul. “Let them go!”

I pushed out enough magic to counteract the glamour – and the girls started to scream, shocked by the realisation that I was there, perhaps also by a grim awareness of how close they’d come to eternal slavery and damnation. The vampire reached for Bobbi, only to jump back as I produced a water pistol and sprayed him with holy water. Master vampires don’t burn when exposed to sunlight, or holy water, but it is a shock. It lasted just long enough for me to draw my sword-stick and plunge it into the vampire’s chest. For a second, I thought I’d missed his heart, and then his body exploded into a pile of ashes.

The girls were still screaming – and I could hear footsteps running up the stairs. There wasn’t any time to explain. I threw myself out of the window, wrapping magic around me, and fell down to the garden below. By the time the man of the house had reached the window, I was already lost within the darkness.

He called the police, of course. Two officers reached his house in five minutes, both aware of the…special circumstances. The ash was cleaned away and the house owner’s story was accepted without question. If the girls started to talk about vampires…well, no one would believe them. They’d been in shock. And they’d watched far too many twee vampire movies. I don’t know how the producers sleep at night.

All in a day’s work, I told myself, as I walked home.

And tomorrow was going to be a fine new day.