Archive | August, 2012

Boxer Rebellion in SPACE?

28 Aug

Another funny little idea.

Basically, ‘five years in the future’ (or whenever) an alien race stumbles across Earth. The aliens are not hostile; they’re quite happy to trade ‘some’ technology to humanity, a list that doesn’t include (for example) FTL drives. Worse (from humanity’s point of view) they are happy to dicker with any major power, so there’s a bidding war underway between humans to earn alien favour. There’s also a desperate competition to get up into space, partly because of what the aliens did to Venezuela when Chavaz tried to hold a group of them hostage. The aliens dropped rocks on his capital city from orbit.

Obviously, this is not optimum for humanity. Some alien tech is beyond immediate duplication. The aliens have happily sold outdated (non-FTL) ships to human militaries, ships that are very difficult to duplicate. Humanity is at a major disadvantage.

Consequently, the Boxers – a human underground group intent on breaking the trade monopoly and removing alien influence from Earth. They have different motives for different people, as well as shadowy connections to world governments. This group comes up with a scheme to assassinate an alien on Earth, in the belief that his successor would be more inclined to relax the restrictions on trade. Not such a bad idea, perhaps, but it goes horribly wrong and an alien fleet arrives, intent on a punitive strike against Earth.



Trapped on a Hostile World

16 Aug

Story concept idea…

It is the year 2201 (or whenever; my working concept puts this in the early days of the Vendetta universe, but that may change.) Jimmy Caesar, crime lord of New Washington, has finally been arrested and put in front of a reasonably honest jury. Poor Jimmy, guilty of running a crime ring that wrecked the lives of thousands of people, has been sentenced to permanent exile to Alcatraz, a godforsaken marginally habitable world that serves as a UN penal colony. Instead of being executed, condemned criminals are dumped on the planet and left to live or die there without further interference. Some of them would probably have preferred to be executed.

(Or I could do it as an Imperium story. How does that sound?)

As Jimmy and his goons have considerable influence from even inside a jail cell, the judge makes the decision to exile them as quickly as possible, which means transporting them on the Paris, a luxury liner used to travel between Earth and the various colony worlds. Unlike normal operations, the criminals will be shuttled down to the surface and their escorting guards will make sure they’re down before leaving them behind.

Jimmy has plans, though. One of his operatives, still on the outside, blackmails a senior officer on the Paris. Instead of jumping into near-orbital space, the Paris arrives within the planet’s gravity well. The liner basically falls into the atmosphere and crash-lands on the surface, with the best the crew can do slowing their fall enough to ensure that most of the ship survives. There is absolutely no hope of lifting up again from the surface. The Captain and crew do what they can, but the bottom line is that 2000+ passengers and crew are stuck on a very hostile world.

Naturally, Jimmy and his men take this opportunity to escape, taking some of the passengers as hostages. His grand plan is forging a new empire on Alcatraz, eventually linking up with his allies on the outside to create the first rogue world. If he can take control of society, such as it is, on Alcatraz, he will be King – and the liner’s stocks will be the stuff of legends to the unlucky inhabitants.

The crew have to fight to save themselves, knowing that it may be years before the UN sends another ship to Alcatraz.



Words of Power–Snippet

15 Aug

Comments would be very nice for this one.

Chapter One

“Are you sure you want to be abandoned here, Sir?”

Richard Swift had to shake himself before he answered. The sail from the nearest town on the mainland – the Kyle of Lochalsh – had been thoroughly uncomfortable. He disliked boats intensely and preferred to avoid them where possible, but his orders had been clear. The trip from Scotland to the Isle of Skye was to be accomplished by mundane means, whatever he thought about them. There was too much chance of attracting the wrong sort of attention.

“Yes, thank you,” he said, producing a coin from his pocket. It was more money than the fishermen would see for several months of fishing. “I should be fine just here.”

He pretended he didn’t hear the fisherman’s snort as the boat drifted in to the hidden jetty, really little more than crude steps carved into the stone. The landing wasn’t really an island – it was linked to the Isle of Skye – but one glance at the map had told him that walking overland wasn’t really an option. Cold winds blew across the desolate island, cold winds backed by misdirection spells and other tricks intended to dissuade casual visitors from visiting the castle. The mundane world had forgotten that it existed and the current owners intended to keep it that way.

The fisherman couldn’t really be blamed, he told himself, as the boat came to a halt beside the jetty. They saw nothing more than a desolate wasteland, barely touched by the works of man, fit only for grazing sheep and perhaps fishing, when the weather was good. Richard nodded to the fisherman and scrambled up the jetty, peering up towards the sheer cliff face and craggy mountains. He’d once heard that the castle’s owners used the cliff face to practice abseiling, when they weren’t pushing back the boundaries of magic. There didn’t seem to be anyone out enjoying themselves today.

He leaned on his cane as the fisherman sailed away, no doubt wondering what manner of beastie would have the rich Englishman for dinner. Everyone knew that Skye was haunted, just as they knew that there was a giant monster in Loch Ness; if they’d known the real truth, they would have fled the Highlands and never returned. Richard shrugged as he started to walk towards the river, where it was flowing down into the loch. He hated to risk damaging a good suit, but there was no choice. The absence of any messages from the Newton Cabal had alarmed his superiors. It had been deemed prudent to approach the castle by stealth.

“Richard,” a voice said, from behind him. “You’re slipping, my dear.”

Richard cursed himself as he turned around, just in time to see thin air shiver and reveal the presence of a tall, slender woman with long dark hair and a devilish smile. Like many of her sisters in the Ladies of Hecate, she wore a dark dress that matched her hair, cut low to reveal the tops of her breasts. The Sisterhood had heard of decency, good taste and elegance, but preferred to have little to do with them. Besides, their enemies tended to be men and men could be distracted by a little cleavage waved under their eyes at the right moment.

“Magpie,” he said, doffing his bowler hat. Unlike her, he looked respectable, just another civil servant making his way through the British Empire, helping to keep the Empire on an even kneel as it girded itself for war with Germany. Prime Minister Chamberlain – a mundane if ever there was one – had claimed that there would be peace in his time. The magical community knew better. “How…pleasant to find you here.”

“You’re definitely slipping,” Magpie said, her smile brightening the day. “I could have turned you into a toad before you warded yourself, Richard.”

Richard ignored the implied threat. “I must say that you’re a long way away from home, Magpie,” he said. “Is there a reason you’re here at this time?”

Magpie’s smile grew even brighter. “Is there a reason you’re here at this time?”

“I think you know why I’m here,” Richard said, sharply. “Am I to assume that you’re here fr the same reason?”

Magpie sobered suddenly, her smile fading away. “One of the visionaries saw something that suggested it would be in our interest to investigate the silence that fell over the Newton Cabal,” she said, grimly. Richard could understand her feelings. Visionaries were always granted visions of important future events, but very few visions made sense until long after they’d come to pass. “They decided that I should be send up here to find out what had happened to them.”

Her face lit up again. “And to think that dear Richard is here to help me,” she added. “I’m sure between the pair of us we will have the mystery solved within the hour.”

Richard scowled at her, feeling the impulse to lift his cane and throw a spell at her that would wipe the smile off her face. But Magpie was a capable sorceress in her own right, skilled enough to fight him to a standstill the last time they’d matched wit and wisdom under the streets of Edinburgh. It would take too long to beat her, if he did manage to beat her. She might win the fight herself and then the authorities would have no way of knowing what had happened to the castle.

“I’m glad to have you with me,” he lied, smoothly. Magpie’s smile suggested that she wasn’t even remotely fooled by his casual air. “Would you like to lead the way, or would you rather be at my back?”

Magpie motioned for him to take the lead. “I’d pay money to watch your back,” she said, dryly. Richard found himself flustered, just long enough for her to see and grin at his embarrassment. She was so unlike the prim and proper society girls presented before the King every season, a woman so bright and full of life – and dangerous. The Ladies of Hecate flaunted convention and fed off the outrage they generated. “Please, lead the way.”

Up close, the river looked dangerously unsafe, the water running down fast enough to sweep almost anyone off their feet. Under the choppy waters, Richard knew that there were sharp rocks and other nasty surprises, many blurring the line between mundane nature and the magic that was in the heart of the world. He glanced at Magpie, unwilling to admit to any fear in front of her, and lifted his cane, shaping a single Word of Power within his mind. The waters started to boil, slowly disgorging a simple metal bridge that looked as if it dated back to the days before human settlements on Skye. It took only a casual glance to spy the bite marks on the iron, where a monstrous creature had chewed it into a bridge. Richard walked slowly across the metal, expecting to see the creator at any moment, but he reached the far side without harm. Magpie followed him, glancing around nervously. She’d seen the Troll-bites too.

“I thought they had to come and eat us,” she said, more to herself than to him. “If we hadn’t known the keywords to gain admittance…”

“True,” Richard agreed. The Newton Cabal had found the Troll – one of the few left within the British Isles – and bound him to their service. Nothing could have freed him, save Words known only to the Cabal’s Master, someone who would never have freed their valuable guard. The Troll’s departure meant trouble. He glanced at Magpie and saw that she’d realised it herself. Anything that could break through the defences around the long-lost Castle of Skye was deadly dangerous. “You could go back, you know.”

Magpie shot him a deadly look and walked past him, heading up the path towards the castle in the distance. No one knew who had built the castle – it dated back to the days before Robert the Bruce, before Scotland had ever really been a unified country – but history had forgotten it, long ago. It’s original stone had long since been infused with magical wards to keep out unwanted guests, or spying magic from afar. The Newton Cabal had been theoretical magicians, ready to risk their lives to push the boundaries of ignorance just a little further back. No one wanted them anywhere near a population centre, mundane or magical.

No wards shimmered in the air to block their path; no summoned entities demanded passwords before allowing them to proceed. The castle seemed as…mundane as a castle left to the careless hands of the mundane community, rather than a place where magic had burned brightly in a world that barely cared. Richard sucked in a breath as he saw the great wooden doors, carved from wood brought back from Faerie centuries ago. They had been shattered open by a powerful force, leaving debris scattered in front of the castle. Richard doubted that the Newton Cabal had been any less paranoid than the Windsor Cabal. The magicians would have warded their sanctuary with every ward known to exist. It hadn’t done them much good.

His training as an investigator took over and he studied the debris, pushing his emotions to one side. “The doors were forced open from the inside,” he said, slowly. Magpie frowned, and then nodded. Most of the debris was outside the castle. “Something hellishly powerful was trying to break out.”

Magpie lifted her hand, casting a complex hex pattern into the air. “I’m not sensing anything,” she said, slowly. “Whatever came here is long gone.”

“I hope you’re right,” Richard said. He lifted his cane again as he stepped through the doors, peering into the castle’s interior. “I really hope you’re right.”

Like most magical dwellings, the Castle of Skye was much larger on the inside than on the outside. It had once played host to dozens of the most curious sorcerers in the world. Now, it felt as cold and silent as the grave. He risked a small charm to summon a glowing ball of light and directed it ahead of them as they walked down the corridor, pausing briefly to glance at the portraits on the walls. Each of the black-rimmed paintings depicted a man in the prime of life, just after he pledged himself to the Cabal. Many of them hadn’t survived the results of their investigations into the mysteries underlying magic.

“Someone tried to make a fight here,” Magpie said. Richard followed her gaze into a room that had once been a dining hall, large enough to seat three hundred men and women comfortably. Broken chairs and tables lay everywhere, with weapons both mundane and magical scattered on the floor. “But where are the bodies?”

Richard had had the same thought. There were spells that demanded vast qualities of human blood and bone, none of them intended for peaceful purposes. The absence of bodies was deeply troubling, not least because many of the missing magicians had blood ties with the other Cabals. Their blood and bones could be used to work dark magic against their living relatives.

“I’m not picking up any emotional imprint at all,” Magpie added, after a moment. “Whatever did this came and killed without fear or hate.”

“If it killed at all,” Richard said, although he knew that it was unlikely that they would find any of the Cabalists alive. “What sort of creature was it?”

He hesitated, and then led the way down towards the stairwell that led down to the dungeons, half-expecting Magpie not to follow. Instead, she walked after him, picking up a couple of books from the floor and glancing down at them. Their titles were disappointingly mundane; whatever the older folks in the communities thought, there was no way to escape the mundane community completely. Not unless one was prepared to go all the way to the ends of the Earth.

“They should have had their most powerful wards here,” he said, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. The original builders had intended to use the dungeons to keep prisoners; the Cabalists had turned the underground chamber into a Summoning Room. Even the merest notice in demonology knew to set wards, and more wards, until you reached the point where magic was muffled and demons couldn’t find a weak spot to exploit. “What could just cut through them so easily?”

“I heard tell that you investigators got some kind of special training,” Magpie said. Her voice was teasing, but he heard the curiosity behind her smile. The Cabals guarded their secrets jealously and rarely shared them with outsiders for free. “Could you cut through them like that?”

“I doubt it,” Richard admitted. Breaking through a ward, particularly one embedded in solid stone, was never easy. Whatever had broken loose in the Castle of Skye had simply sliced through them as though they weren’t there. “I think that…”

He broke off. “Oh,” Magpie said. “Call me crazy, but I think we’ve just found our missing magicians.”

The Summoning Room was massive, easily the size of a large playing field while still buried beneath the ground. There should have been all kinds of engraved symbols on the floor, each one designed to capture and channel magical power to summon and bind demons from the worlds below. Instead, the floor was covered in blood, washing endlessly from side to side as if it were pushed by an unseen breeze. The stench of blood – and worse – rose up to his nostrils and he stepped back, involuntarily. Magpie, he was relieved to see, did the same.

“Someone – or something – took apart all of the bodies,” Magpie said. She was casting other signs in the air, summoning her magic. “They were rendered down to blood and bone, and then the bones were taken. I cannot see who took their lives.”

Her next words revealed just how nervous she felt. “Do you think they were trying to perform a Grand Summoning?”

“I very much hope not,” Richard said. The three superior sprits who dominated Hell, second only to Lucifer Morningstar in sheer power and depravity, could only be summoned through a Grand Summoning, a coordinated process requiring a dozen magicians and a living sacrifice. A single mistake could set them loose on Earth to pillage and destroy as the fancy took them. “They couldn’t have been that stupid, could they?”

Magpie snorted. “Have you ever known a theoretical magician who actually had a sense of self-preservation?”

“Good point,” Richard agreed. “I think we’d better leave this place and call in reinforcements.”

Magpie didn’t say anything until they reached the library. It was empty; every book in the room had simply vanished. The Newton Cabal had had hundreds of thousands of volumes, Richard knew, including several that were unique. But why would a demon take books of magical knowledge when he would already have access to far greater knowledge and understanding than any mere human?

“A mortal did this,” Magpie said, flatly. “I don’t know how, but they he killed the entire Cabal and just vanished, taking the books with him.”

Richard couldn’t disagree with her assessment, not after they’d searched the rest of the castle. The vast stockpiles of potions materials – everything from eye of newt to blood samples from Faerie – were gone. So were the weapons that the Newton Cabal had devised over the years, designs that had been the envy of the magical world. Someone had broken into their stronghold, cut through their wards and then killed them all…

…Or perhaps the killer had been one of them, after all.

“I have to report back to London,” he said, finally. This time, there would be no need to take a passing boat to the mainland and then spend most of a day travelling south. He could walk the Faerie Roads now that he’d confirmed that there was nothing dangerous just waiting for the Roads before springing into action. “And I assume that you won’t be coming with me?”

Magpie leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Not tonight, handsome,” she said, mischievously. “The thought of entering the Tower with handcuffs on my wrists os not a pretty one.”

There was a flash of light and she vanished, taking the news back to the Ladies. The word would spread rapidly around the globe, probably being twisted out of all recognition in the process. He took one last look towards the stairwell leading down to the Summoning Room – and the bloodstained stone floor – before walking back towards the main door. The Master could see to have the castle cleaned and claimed by another Cabal, or perhaps it would be just left to rot in the mundane world.

For a moment, there was a very brief, but powerful sense that he was being watched. He lifted his club, ready to strike down anyone who threatened him, before the sense of unseen eyes slowly faded away. But he didn’t stop glancing back into the shadows, wondering what was lurking there. He was almost relieved when he stepped into the bright sunlight and the sense of being watched simply faded away.

Shaking his head, he mouthed the correct Word of Power and the gateway to the Faerie Roads opened up in front of him. Taking one last look at the castle, he stepped inside and let the door slam closed behind him. The castle could rot for all he cared…

…But the Newton Cabal had been pushing the limits on magical research for years. What, if anything, had they let into the world? All he knew was that they had to hunt it down before it killed and killed again. Even the mundanes couldn’t help it if their civilians died off in job lots. And how long would it be before the mundanes realised – really realised – that the world was a much stranger place than they really understood?

The Faerie Road twisted in front of him and he stepped out of thin air, near the Tower of London. His boss would be waiting for him there.

The Words of Power–Background

15 Aug

The Words of Power

Magic is real. Magic is also very ill-understood. Bear that in mind.

Magic generally comes in two flavours; internal and external magic. Internal magic refers to a specific attribute, such as Lycanthropy, Vampirism or Glamour. In those cases, the magic is instinctive and the average ‘Kindred’ (as magicians call those blessed or cursed with internal magic) has little real control over their powers.

External magic is a talent; you must have the knack for magic to use it. Most magicians come into their powers without knowing what they’re actually doing, generally by using magic to help themselves, at which point they can be detected by any nearby magical cabal with the ability and inclination to search for potential recruits. However, very few magicians can master their powers without help – and an introduction to the Words of Power. There are no doubt thousands of magicians who never really realise what they are because they are never discovered and invited to join a cabal.

People who are not sensitive, even slightly, to magic are rarely capable of acknowledging its existence. While there is no major attempt to hide magic from the mundane population, there is no large-scale awareness of its existence – certainly not of the cabals, who have long memories and historical reasons to fear mundanes who know of the existence of magic.

The exact nature of the Words of Power is hotly debated by theoretical magicians. Simply put, a person with external magic who speaks one or more of the Words can use them to work magic. The Words somehow focus the magic into a proper spell, bypassing the difficulty of working magic in one’s mind. However, the more complex the spell, the more magical talent it requires to actually power the spell. Some magicians can cast very powerful spells, or multiple spells very quickly; others can barely manage the least complex spells. Spells are classed as first-order to tenth-order, although not all the cabals use the same system.

[In our terms, the Words of Power are a way of interfacing with the computer language underpinning our reality – cheat codes for the universe. In theory, a magician with enough power would be God, able to do literally anything.]

There is no consensus on the origin of the Words of Power, either. The most commonly accepted theory, among the cabals, is that God granted some humans the talents to use magic in order to provide a defence against magical creatures. Others (particularly the White Order of Christ) believe that Satan introduced the Words of Power to mankind as yet another corruption, not least because some Words of Power (and the accompanying rituals) provide the means for summoning and bargaining with demons (and angels).

What is accepted is that each cabal has its own set of Words of Power, passed down from member to member and closely guarded from outsiders. No single magician knows every Word of Power, let alone the combinations that allow different effects to be combined into a single spell. That doesn’t stop them from spying on each other and sometimes waging a quiet war in the hopes of capturing other knowledge for their own ends. Or, sometimes, they do trade knowledge.

Cabals tend to be very different from one another. The White Order is composed of specially-selected Catholic monks, chosen by the Vatican to defend the human race against demons and other magical creatures; the Muslim Dervishes consider themselves to have the same mission, although there are several separate Dervish cabals hidden within the larger Dervish community. The Learned Men of Letters are specifically British and consider themselves to be charged with protecting Britain; they are rivals to Dee’s men, who claim to have been around ever since Queen Elizabeth I.

There are darker cabals. The Black Easter and the Ladies of Hecate are both aimed at gathering power for themselves; the Black Easter because they want to rule the magical community, the Ladies because they believe that male crimes against women have to be avenged.

Theoretical magicians are treated with a mixture of awe and fear by the rest of the community, as they try to expand their knowledge of the Words of Power. Some rituals, such as spells to summon specific demons, have been hedged around with ritual since they were first discovered, with no real way of knowing what is actually essential and what isn’t. (For example, does a spell to summon the Lord of the Flies actually need a virgin blade soaked in the blood of a newborn child, or is it just a piece of nonsense that the original discover of the spell added to confuse people?) Sadly for the theorists (if not for everyone else) experimenting to discover the limits tends not to lead to a long life.

The Words of Power are intrinsically bound up in ritual. Some cabals have developed a tradition of herbal medicine and potions that invoke magical properties belonging to specific plants, animals and minerals. It isn’t actually clear if these potions are really magic, or if they’re just a form of placebo. The darker cabals have ways to pervert these rituals; possession of blood from a victim can be used to strike them with a curse, or send a demon after them. However, these forms of magic are ill-understood (just like the rest of the magic) and results tend to be mixed.

[The important detail, from our point of view, is that the Words of Power are magic words. Imagine the magicians as someone who has memorised a few words and phrases in a foreign language – “turn Jack into a toad now” – without really grasping the underlying nature of that language, or even the concept of letters. They may know ‘teleport,’ but they don’t realise that it is spelled ‘T-E-L-E-P-O-R-T’ or that one could produce ‘teleporter’ out of ‘teleport.’ Accordingly, the only way they have to make new Words of Power is hit-or-miss experimentation, when a single mistake can cause death or worse.]

Outside the human (and Kindred) community, there are four major types of entities.

Elementals can be summed up as the natural sprits bound to the mundane world. These can be as minor as nymphs and dryads to outright river gods. They tend to be bound to one specific location and rarely have much to do with humanity, although some have been moving against humans who cut down too many trees or hunt down too many animals. These beings have their own rules and rituals; bargaining with them is possible, but they don’t always want what most humans can offer in exchange. Their worldview tends to be very blunt, quite brutal in human terms.

One particularly interesting class of elemental are ghosts. Ghosts can be seen by humans with magical sensitivity, but very few of them are actually intelligent. Generally, they are echoes of human presence permanently imprinted onto certain locations, often replaying moments of intense suffering – or death. Certain ghosts are nothing more than revenge-seeking entities – but that doesn’t mean that they should be taken lightly. They tend to be indiscriminate in seeking revenge, often killing others who were not involved with the original crime.

Faerie is a catch-all term for entities that live in the Summerland, an alternate dimension that brushes against our own at various weak points. They range from brownies (friendly) and goblins (anything, but) to beings who are effectively gods. The Summerland is a reflection of our own world, ruled by the gods – for example, the area that corresponds to Britain is ruled by the Tuatha Dé Danann, the area corresponding to Rome is ruled by the Roman gods, etc. It is generally speculated that the territories ruled by the gods changed as their human worshippers waxed and waned (the Romans, for example, had rituals to invite gods to change sides) but no one knows for sure. The gods aren’t talking.

Quite why the gods went to the Summerland is unknown. The White Order believes that Christ banished them; oddly, the Dervishes share this belief, citing the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was the first and last Prophet to be truly human. Others, more thoughtful, believe that the gods were never as involved as humans believed them to be, or that humanity brought the gods into existence rather than the other way around. The truth is out there.

The gods rarely intervene in the mortal world, but they can and do play with those who wander into their territory. Seeking their favour is dicey. They tend to stack the decks in their favour.

Demons are both simpler and trickier. As legend has it, they are the original fallen angels, cast out of Heaven after Lucifer’s failed revolt. Souls are currency in hell and so they will often bargain quite intensely for a person’s soul, particularly that of a black magician. Most cabals are wise enough not to try to bargain with demons, fearing the effects of learning more about magic from such an intensely corrupt source, let alone tasking the demon with accomplishing a task in the mundane world. Those that are foolish – or corrupt – attempt to keep their demons firmly under control. This is not easy. Demons must honour the letter of the contracts they make with the magicians, but will happily take advantage of any loophole left behind by an unwary magician.

There are some limits on demonic power, at least on the mortal plane. They can claim souls, and attempt to manipulate events so that souls fall to them earlier than expected, but they cannot simply take souls that have not been pledged to them. When directed against a target, they can be defeated by holy rituals of protection – and if their target is a genuine good soul, one of the unnoticed saints, they may be chased away by an angel. However, they can give knowledge to magicians who bargain with them – the fool who summoned them just needs to be very careful that there isn’t a sting hidden in the tail.

Angels are God’s stormtroopers, put bluntly. Most cabals approach the issue of summoning angels with a single word – don’t. Unlike demons, they have no limits while in the mortal world and the mere sight of them can kill a tainted soul. Others look at angels and see all their mortal flaws reflected back at them, an experience that can break minds and – sometimes – heal souls. The only ones who summon angels on a regular basis are the White Order and even they have problems dealing with them.

Crossroads: Planetary Background

11 Aug

For Quagmire…

Crossroads: Planetary Background

The planet the human race would eventually call Crossroads occupies a central position in the Templar Sector, but was not originally considered for direct settlement by the Imperium. Accordingly, two interstellar corporations established bases on the planet in 4325IE (Imperium Era) and formally annexed the planet a year later. It was not, however, until the highly-classified Templar Incident of 4331IE that the Wormhole Engineering Corps established the Templar Junction within the Crossroads System, too late for the Imperium to nationalise the planet without provoking heavy corporate resistance. Crossroads remains the only wormhole junction not fully under Imperium control.

Unusually for a G2 star, Crossroads-P (Primary) has only four planets; Kali, Crossroads, Minnie (named for the wife of the survey ship’s commander) and Sprat. Kali is a rocky world orbiting so close to the star that its surface is permanently molten, uninhabited and largely uninhabitable. Minnie is a gas giant, complete with two moons and a handful of captured comets and asteroids. Sprat follows a highly-eccentric orbit that takes it from the very verge of interstellar space to inside the orbit of Crossroads itself, raising the possibility that the two worlds will collide in several million years. (The Crossroads Development Corporation has seriously considered blowing Sprat into asteroids for mining purposes, but the project has been mooted as the one asteroid cloud in the system is capable of supplying the system’s projected needs for several thousand years.)

Although there is no asteroid belt, there is a large cloud of asteroids orbiting the star outwards from Crossroads. The general belief is that these asteroids were gathered by random chance, but some of the Jazzes (see below) think that this was the remains of their original homeworld, destroyed long ago by a freak accident. However, considerable study of the cloud by miners has revealed nothing more extraordinary than standard asteroids. These asteroids are now host to a small mining community supplying Crossroad’s industrial facilities with raw materials.

Crossroads is a fairly standard human-compatible world, with its own active biosphere; indeed, the one glitch, from a human point of view, is the presence of an airborne disease that is omnipresent on the planet’s surface. This disease is not lethal to humans (indeed, even baseline humans cannot be infected by it), but is known to cause itching (the Crossroads Crud) when it contacts human skins. Humans who settle on Crossroads permanently are advised to sequence a slight modification into their genetic code that prevents the Crossroads Crud from causing irritation. Standard medical nanites are also capable of countering its effects.

Geographically, Crossroads has four major continents, named Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma. Alpha, the most heavily populated continent, is actually a very strange landmass, essentially a ring of land wrapping around most of the planet, above the equator. Beta and Delta both exist in the southern hemisphere, with Delta actually turning to an icy landmass near the south pole. Gamma was heavily bombarded during the occupation of the planet and is currently radioactive in a number of places as dirty weapons were deployed by the CDC. (An investigation by the Imperium Senate concluded, after seventy years of legal wrangling, that the natives resisted purely to inflict additional casualties upon police and military units involved in pacifying the planet, rather than out of any hope of victory. Accordingly, the CDC was legally permitted to use extreme means to suppress them.) However, parts of Gamma are liveable provided that one is willing to take the risk of living there; clearing the entire continent would be a nightmare.

As is standard in systems that contain a wormhole junction, the Imperial Navy has prime responsibility for governing the star system. However, owing to the curious series of events that led to Crossroads hosting the wormhole junction, there is no overall government for the planet’s surface. There is a Planetary Council (elected by humans of class-three and above), but large strips of the planet are effectively controlled by the corporations, collaborator alien leaders – and some sections, mainly Gamma, are completely lawless. Accordingly, there is little real cooperation between the Civil Guard, corporate military and police units and what few alien policing units exist.

Crossroads is currently occupied by an estimated four billion intelligent life-forms, mainly composed of Kazak, Jazzes, Krait and humans. As is standard on Imperium worlds, the only population of political importance is the human population, but Crossroads has an alarmingly high percentage of class-four indents. The CDC manipulated the tax laws on Crossroads to lure settlers into debt, which rapidly became permanent and hereditary. Put simply, very few citizens who fall into debt can ever hope to pay off the original debt, let alone the interest acuminated since then. (The debtor laws also allow for indebted persons to be effectively enslaved if they complain too loudly.)

The Kazak are the original natives of Crossroads, but the Jazzes were already on Crossroads when the Imperium discovered the world. Quite how the Jazzes (who are not related to any other form of life on the planet) reached Crossroads is an open question; surveys of the Templar Sector have not revealed any other Jazzes, nor has any world been located that might have been their original homeworld. The Jazzes themselves have claimed that they were placed on Crossroads by their own Empire, perhaps the equivalent of a human pastoral world, but all such tales are considered myths as the Imperium hasn’t encountered any alien empire of even remotely comparable size. Nonetheless, the Jazzes hold strongly to a belief that their cousins from the stars will one day return and liberate them from the Imperium.

Surprisingly, there was apparently no major fighting between the Kazak and the Jazzes when the two races first encountered each other. (Human researchers have concluded that the Jazzes were actually seeded on Gamma, but the radioactivity left behind by the bombardment makes it hard to actually be sure.) This may not have been too surprising; the Kazak are a principally inland race, with little willingness to travel over water, while the Jazzes live for sailing and have an affinity with the water shared with many humans. It is believed that the Jazzes traded with the Kazak, then took settlers from Alpha to Beta and Delta.

The Kazak, apart from a few minor incidents, seem to have largely accepted humanity’s control of their world. (Their race is very communal; rogues are almost unknown.) However, the Jazzes did not; outmatched through they were, they fought the human invaders with a desperation born of futility. They have also been the main source of resistance ever since the humans arrived, often using their sailing ships to smuggle goods from one part of the planet to another. It is generally believed by the human settlers that the Jazzes had subdued the Kazak before the Imperium arrived, but objective studies have suggested that the relationship between the two races is more complex than that.

When humanity arrived, they brought the Krait with them. The Krait are almost completely pacifistic, to the point where very few of them will fight even to save their lives, although they will fight to protect their community. When they were discovered by the Imperium, the Krait realised that resistance would merely result in widespread devastation and surrendered en masse, asking only that they were permitted to expand into space as junior settlers on human-controlled worlds (thus protecting their community.) The Krait are widespread throughout the Imperium, serving as everything from cleaners to janitors; indeed, there is a sentiment among humans that the Krait are too stupid to be anything else. This is not so; they Krait share the same basic intelligence as most races, but are content merely to work and survive for the community. They simply do not possess the personal ambition that leads humans to attempt to rise above their station.

Apart from its location, Crossroads provides many other important benefits for the Templar Sector. It is a major producer of food for nearby colonies, asteroid settlements and passing starships. (Minnie has a cloudscoop for mining HE3, controlled by the Imperial Navy.) However, the political situation on Crossroads has been turning actively dangerous for years and may be on the verge of exploding into open violence. This has merely been made worse by the arrival of various outside political groups.

The Secessionists, although based mainly along the Rim, have been active on Crossroads for at least twenty years. Put simply, the Secessionists want to leave the Imperium and form their own political unit, casting aside the laws that bind the Imperium together. While not all Secessionists are alien-lovers, several subgroups have been reaching out to alien communities to offer them an equal place in a post-Imperium entity. They have certainly been involved in shipping advanced weapons down to the planetary surface.

The League of Alien Allies is unashamedly a pro-alien organisation. They believe that aliens and humans were created equal and, accordingly, the virtual enslavement of aliens by the Imperium is wrong. The LAA is actually split between the pro-Imperium faction, which believes that humans should grant aliens equality within the Imperium, and the pro-Secessionist faction, which believes that alien homeworlds (at least) should be granted independence. Both factions are believed to be active on Crossroads.

Opposing the LAA is the Humanity League, aka Pure Humanity. The Humanity League (which is actually a quasi-legal organisation) believes that humanity’s virility is sapped by association with alien races, therefore the best course of action (depending on which wing of the League is asked) is either to outright enslave the aliens, restrict them to their homeworlds or outright exterminate them. (Rumour has it that several undiscovered races have been exterminated by the League’s adherents in the Imperial Navy.) On Crossroads, the League is very involved in drumming up hatred against alien communities, urging the human population to push the aliens away from human communities. They are known to be supporting the creation of militia forces for the coming war against the aliens.

Finally, the Nihilists are also believed to be present on Crossroads. The Nihilists are not a political organisation in the normal sense; their core beliefs state that existence is worthless and death the one sure thing in the universe. As such, Nihilists seek to kill as many people as possible in grand gestures, often through suicide bombings and attacks launched without any expectation of a safe escape. There are relatively few Nihilists in existence, but those who make it into the organisation are fanatics, devoted to their art. It is impossible to bargain with the Nihilists and those who try often end up dead.

The CDC was largely unaware that it was sitting on a powder keg until 5482, when a series of violent incidents occurred all over the planet. Unsurprisingly, local military forces (mainly police) were outmatched by the ‘terrorists,’ resulting in a number of deaths. Since then, the CDC has been pressing for the Imperium to send in heavy military units to safeguard the human settlers and crush the insurgency. However, this suggestion has met heavy opposition in the Grand Senate, for various reasons.

A counter-proposal is for Crossroads to be effectively annexed directly to the Imperium, bringing it in line with the other junction systems. This is supported by large elements of the Imperium’s military – particularly the Marines, who would have to take the lead on counter-insurgency operations – and many settlers, who believe (correctly) that they would have more say in their own affairs as an annexed world. The CDC opposes this measure, as they would have to pay their investors compensation for the nationalised planet (and their lost investments.) Their senior management is prepared to deal if those expenses are met by the Imperium’s treasury, a suggestion that has – naturally – met considerable resistance. A deal will eventually be worked out, it is believed, but quite how far the situation will degrade before then is uncertain.

The Tree of Liberty–Snippet

10 Aug

I just had this scene running through my head.  Comments?

Chapter One

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Captain Yates said, “I give you the United States of America and President Andover.”

Zachary Lynn raised his glass, but didn’t drink. He had loved the concept of America, of a state controlled by the people, for the people, yet six months on Earth had convinced him that the United States was now nothing more than an empty shell. In those six months, he hadn’t spoken to – or seen – a single ordinary citizen. He’d seen corporate executives, greedy politicians and media personalities who read crap written for them by drunken scriptwriters, without bothering to think for themselves, but he had never met an ordinary citizen. It hadn’t taken him long to realise that he was being kept away from them deliberately.

He’d failed New Washington. Of that, he had absolutely no doubt. The Colonial Alliance had sent him to Earth, at some considerable expense, to take their words to the United States, to represent them to people who had never visited one of the colony worlds. But none of the people he’d spoken to had really cared what he had to say. In the end, money spoke louder than his words and the corporations that ruled the colonies, in the name of the government, of course, had enough money to ensure that the politicians did what they said.

There was a brief rumble as the stewards pushed in trolleys laded with food, the diners looking up in delight. Normally, even the wealthiest passengers on a starship could look forward to nothing more than reconstituted food, produced from matter grown in the hydroponic gardens, but the final night before arrival was always special. Foodstuffs that had been frozen for the three months it took to travel between Earth and New Washington were brought out of the storage holds and cooked by the chef, producing what looked like a feast, certainly after three months of little more than flavoured gruel. One of his small pleasures on the return voyage had been telling an administrator’s wife just what happened to their piss and shit after they went to the toilet. The woman hadn’t been able to touch a thing for several days!

Captain Yates stood up as the trolley stopped in front of him and began to carve up the turkey with practiced skill. Behind him, other stewards distributed potatoes and vegetables to the passengers, taking orders for wine as they loaded plates with good things to eat. Zach rolled his eyes at some of the orders, wondering – again – just how the political class could be so stupid. Lincoln might have been one of the largest starships in existence, at five kilometres from bow to stern, but even she didn’t have the storage space to carry all of their wines. They would just have to get used to drinking the beer produced on New Washington. It’s quality tended to vary sharply, yet some beers were really very good.

A finger nudged him and he glanced over at Professor Leo Cassius, a short balding man with white hair and a face that hadn’t – quite – been marked by the traumas he’d suffered over the last two years. From what Zach had heard, Cassius had made the mistake of questioning the official dogma put forward in the schools, claiming that it produced armies of obedient and unquestioning ants. As punishment, he and his family had been exiled to New Washington.

“Most of these people had proper schooling,” the Professor muttered. Zach had honestly never realised that there were different grades of schooling on Earth, let alone that most citizens never realised that there were better schools out there. “You’d wonder why they think they can bend the universe to their will.”

Zach nodded, sourly. It was hard to escape the impression that Earth was stupid or evil or insane – or an combination of all three. The last two years before he departed New Washington had seen the government – at one remove – trying to issue orders to the colonists, reshaping them into the properly obedient citizens they had on Earth. But the sheep on Earth had the luxury of a society that could take care of them from cradle to grave, one where independent thought was not only rare, but also actively discouraged. The colonists had no such luxury.

He looked over at Governor Hastings and shivered, inwardly. Hastings wasn’t a stupid man; he’d certainly been willing to play chess with Zach while chatting to him about the colonies, but he had shown no willingness to meet the colonists halfway. His mission was to continue developing the colonies as a source of wealth and resources for the homeland – and to hell with whatever the colonists might have thought about it. Legally, the homeland was in the right; morally, Zach saw trouble in the future. What would happen if – when – the colonies finally resisted. Hastings didn’t take the Colonial Alliance as anything other than a private group; how could he, when al such political bodies were hedged around with rules to prevent them actually becoming a threat?

The steward placed his meat in front of him and he started to cut it up with a knife, listening to the chatter between two other corporate representatives. They’d been sent out to maximise profit for their patrons; they didn’t care that the colonists might object to being bled to death by the corporations, as long as their term in office showed a hefty profit. Beyond them, General Williams held court in front of his officers, reassuring them that duty on New Washington would open up their chances of advancement to ranks beyond their dreams. It was impossible to look at Williams and feel that the government simply didn’t care. Williams hadn’t seen a battlefield for nearly thirty years, his career propelled forward by strict adherence to the rules and plenty of ass-kissing. And his troopers were down in steerage, eating gruel while their commander hobnobbed with the governor and his staff. He didn’t even have the basic devotion to his men that the great generals of the past had shown.

But that had been another era, a long time ago.

He took a bite of his turkey and chewed it thoughtfully. It was stringy, almost oily, the taste masked by chemical compounds laden on by the chef to disguise the meat’s true flavour , just like the entertainment pap on Earth that helped keep the masses content with their lot. Zach had eaten turkeys raised on New Washington, fed proper food by farmers who cared, and they had been truly flavoursome. This turkey was a disgrace.

And, he told himself grimly, it was a metaphor for the current state of America.


Governor George Hastings had grown up as corporate aristocracy before making the shift into politics, but it had taken every one of his contacts to secure the post of Governor on New Washington. Indeed, the deals he’d made might well come back to haunt him in the future, particularly when he returned to Earth and made the climb up into Congress. He had five years to turn New Washington into a success story or his career would hit a solid stone wall and come to a halt. Failure was not an option.

America had enjoyed nearly two hundred years of dominance in outer space – particularly interstellar space – but that dominance was coming to an end. The wars that had raged across the rest of the world, against terrorists, religious fanatics and people who didn’t want to sell their resources to international corporations – had kept the rest of the world nicely occupied for years, yet now they were probing their own way into space. Perhaps they should have been blocked – George’s family had been one of those demanding military action – but it had proven impossible. The future lay in space and the world knew it; they’d threatened to go to war if America refused to allow them their own colonies in space. And the Americans had backed down.

There hadn’t been any choice, the government had claimed; nuclear war would devastate the entire planet. Perhaps, George was prepared to consider, they might have been right. But now that the rest of the human race was exploding into space, it was threatening the underlying foundations of American dominance. Sure, every piece of good real estate for nearly a hundred light years had been claimed by the United States, but that wasn’t stopping the foreigners from expanding outwards. And what would happen if they made common cause with the American colonists on New Washington – and a dozen other planets?

That was the true nightmare. The colonials were dependent on Earth for everything from advanced technology to fuel. It enabled Earth to keep control over the colonies without needing to invest heavily in military force, but it was heavily resented by the colonials, who saw it as nothing more than an attempt to restrain their own economic expansion. The damned colonials were so uppity! Their cousins on Earth had been steered into gentle docility, unthinking obedience, over generations, but the colonials had been shaped by their environment, growing up into a population that mistrusted Earth and was barely loyal to America. What would happen if – no, when – the colonies started buying their technology and fuel from outside powers?

George scowled as he took another bite of his potato. Naturally, the food served to the first class passengers was excellent, but the taste couldn’t disguise the reality of the problem confronting the Navy – and its political masters. It took three months to travel between Earth and New Washington, which meant that it would take six months – if not longer – to send a message to New Washington and receive a reply. Controlling the colonies directly had proven impossible, so the colonists had been forced to develop their own political structures, even though it was technically illegal. They no longer needed the current Governor, the man that George had been sent to replace; hell, they no longer needed much of anything from Earth. Their new assertiveness had started alarm bells ringing in meeting rooms right across the homeworld, as politicians and corporate executives wondered if the colonists had already made contact with outside powers. It was illegal – the law said, quite clearly, that certain items were to be purchased from America alone – but why would the colonists care?

But their masters did care, he knew. Corporations that had grown wealthy exploiting the colonists, having used the politicians to create laws granting them effective monopolies, were not going to stand aside and simply see the source of their profits draining away into nothingness. George had his orders and he had little leeway. He was to assume control, ensure that the monopolies were not broken, and make damned sure that the colonies remained firmly within the United States. Failure was not an option. His career would be utterly destroyed by those who had backed him if he failed.

He looked over at Zachary Lynn and scowled. The colonial was one of their success stories, a fourth-generation colonial whose great-grandparents had emigrated from Earth and purchased land on New Washington. There was no mistaking his intelligence, or his genuine love for his homeworld – and his disdain for Earth. And there had been no mistaking his calm certainty that the colonies would continue to chart their own course, whatever Earth had to say about the matter. George had barely been able to refrain from asking a simple question; have you already been in contact with foreign powers?

But in the end, it didn’t matter. George had his orders – and if Lynn and his fellow colonials objected, they would be crushed by overwhelming force.


“And there is no mistaking the fact that the colonials have no stomach to fight,” General Williams proclaimed, loudly. “Why, they even begged us for help when the damned indents rose up against them!”

Seated five chairs away from the General, Colonel Graham Woods wanted to roll his eyes as the General chatted to the corporate executives. His ass-kissing would have been disgusting at the best of times, but Williams had his own agenda for trying to find corporate patrons. He had risen about as high as he could hope in the military and he wanted to make the switch to the corporate world, perhaps jumping into a position as a hired gun. Not that he would see it that way, of course. The corporations had to protect their interests and he – Williams – had plenty of experience in making uppity locals stop their resistance to corporate interests.

Graham wasn’t too sure why he’d been assigned to Williams anyway. Most Generals got to chose their own aides, but Williams had apparently had Graham forced on him by his superiors – and it was very rare for a three-star General to have to accept any such order without a fight. In his optimistic moments, he thought that his real mission was to protect the troops from Williams; in his darker moments, he suspected that he’d mortally offended someone very high up the chain of command. Williams had been so long out of the field – whatever he claimed – that he knew almost nothing about command. Graham had to somehow translate his vague and bombastic statements into actual orders that the military could follow, never an easy task at the best of times. And he had to do that while enduring the brunt of the General’s tongue.

But there was no other choice. It had been decided – at levels far higher than Williams, if his angry ranting could be trusted – to assign a major military force to the colonies, officially to protect them against renegades. The policy of transporting criminals from Earth to the various colonies to force them to actually contribute something useful to society had worked, by and large, but there were rebel groups in the hinterland composed of escape criminals, trying to survive by preying on the colonials. Williams hadn’t bothered to conceal the real reason from him; high command thought that the colonials were growing too independent-minded and intended to remind them of who had the power. Five hundred soldiers, armed to the teeth, made one hell of a statement.

Graham scowled inwardly as the corporate drones minced around the General, ignoring the glances of contempt they shot in his direction when they thought he wasn’t looking. What did they make of a man with his hair shaved, who wore his borrowed tuxedo like it was a uniform? None of them had ever seen combat, not outside of the movies and television shows that boasted of the glories of war, shows where no friendly soldiers died. Graham had watched one such show a year after leaving Boot Camp and he’d been revolted. The movie-soldiers had just walked across the battlefield, miraculously untouched by bullets, and killed their enemies while pumping out one-liners that the scriptwriters had pulled out of their assholes. And then they’d been greeted by kidnapped female hostages who’d promptly started to make love to them…never mind that early scenes had shown the depravity of America’s enemies by having the girls be brutally raped. The movie had shown that scene to the watchers in detail, pushing the limits so far that they no longer existed. Graham had been disgusted, both at the producers and at the civilians who had lapped it up with spoons. He’d heard that there was a disconnect between military and civilian society, but he’d never really understood until then.

“My troopers have the firepower to cow any colonials,” Williams said, loudly enough to break into Graham’s thoughts. “Is that not right, Colonel?”

“Absolutely, sir,” Graham said, reminding himself of why he had to stay in position. Someone had to protect the troops from their superior officer. “They have nothing to match us.”

On the face of it, he knew, the colonials wouldn’t stand a chance if it did come down to a fight. Williams had five hundred fighting men, armed with the latest weapons produced on Earth and trained to deal with anything from an insurgency to stand-up fighting. The colonials shouldn’t have anything to match them. But…New Washington was a planet, roughly the size of Earth. Five hundred men wouldn’t have been able to dominate a city, let alone an entire planet. The colonials could simply melt away whenever the soldiers advanced against their positions, forcing them to spread their deployments thinner and thinner…until at last there was no pretence that they were in control.

He looked away as Williams, losing interest in him, returned to his boasting. For a moment, his eyes met Lynn’s eyes and they shared an understanding. Lynn, the one colonial he’d met, had impressed him – and had told him enough about the colonial society to convince him that any fighting would be far more dangerous than punitive operations in Kashmir or riot-suppression operations in Hispania. And they needed the colonies reasonably intact. The heavy firepower they’d been able to call down on mud villages in Africa or poison gas they’d deployed against terrorist camps in Central Asia was simply unavailable on New Washington. There was no point in destroying the colonies while trying to save them.

Lynn had told him that the colonials had tried to meet Earth halfway, but that Earth had been uninterested in compromise. That didn’t surprise Graham at all; the government on Earth was used to getting whatever it wanted, even if it had to exterminate locals whose only crime had been refusing to cooperate with their own destruction. But fighting on the colonies would be very different to fighting on Earth. The army’s unbroken record of success on Earth would have convinced them that they could win on the colonies, if necessary. All they had was a hammer, so every problem looked like a nail.

He tried to be optimistic, but he knew better than to believe the crap that Williams was sprouting. One way or another, it was impossible to escape the feeling that trouble was in store. And what would happen if it really came to war?

World-Building: Tintagel

9 Aug

I’ve had a very busy day; apart from this background, there are two snippets posted below.  Enjoy – and please comment!


Tintagel was discovered by the Asimov deep-space telescope in 2343, when the seedship program was well underway. Settlement rights were purchased by the Camelot Society the following year and a seedship – the Lady of the Lake – was launched in 2354. It reached Tintagel in 2567, confirmed that the planet was Earth-compatible (several seedships had reached promising worlds only to discover that they were not actually habitable) and started seeding the planet with life. By Year 10, it was ready to start producing living humans from its stored genetic banks.

Like many other seedship programs, the society produced for the new children of the seedship was shaped by a socio-political matrix created by the colony’s founders. The Camelot Society believed that mankind had been dehumanised by technology and had lost the true happiness that came with being one with nature. A fairly common delusion among those who didn’t have to live in a pre-industrial society, it would have tragic results when the Lady of the Lake started laying the groundwork for a human society.

The society devised by the Camelot Society was based on King-Baron-Knight-Commoner model and deliberately deprived of any high technology beyond windmills, printing and certain metal-working techniques. In particular, there were no foundations for the development of a scientific method, which should – the founders believed – prevent the rediscovery of high technology. To underline their society, they created an ethos that drew from the ancient myths of chivalric behaviour. The aristocrats were supposed to be granted unconditional obedience by the commoners, but the aristocrats were equally supposed to be governed with justice and fairness to all. These rules were supposed to be backed by the Knights, who owed allegiance to the King, whose power was kept in check by the Barons.

At the bottom of all this was the Church. The founders believed that a strong Church would create unacceptable social strains and devised a matrix to keep it fairly weak. People with religious vocations would train in the priesthood, but would be largely independent from then onwards, although expected to maintain their duties. The priests existed to bring the word of God to the people, yet they were not allowed to actually interpret God’s word as they saw fit. There was no reason why anyone could not come up with their own interpretation; indeed, the Church was obliged to accept all such interpretations, unless they clashed openly with other interpretations.

With a system so deceptively simple, it is not surprising that the planned social development (or lack thereof) fell off the rails. What went wrong, basically, was human nature. The founders had a faith in basic human decency and goodness that was sadly lacking in the basic human stock – and no genetic improvements had been able to hardwire a sense of altruism, for example, into humanity. This was to prove disastrous for Tintagel.

Over the first two hundred years of development, everything seemed to work as planned. The settlement grew, developed techniques for producing houses, metals and ships, eventually weaning themselves off the assistance of the seedship. New settlements were established; trading ships moved from port to port, setting up trade lines. However, cracks were already forming in the social matrix, too slowly to be easily noticed. Put simply, more and more power was being concentrated in the hands of the Barons, who controlled Guardsmen who were effectively soldiers.

What the founders had missed, put bluntly, was that power tended to corrupt. Granted vast power, the Barons and their heirs made use of the power to benefit themselves. As local powers, they tended to act against dissent, suppress ‘democratic’ upswings (the founders had believed that democracy had a hand in creating what they saw as a technological nightmare) and take control of the priesthood. Ironically, measures intended to prevent the Church from developing a theocratic state prevented the Church from organising any form of mass resistance to the Barons. The local priests were already under aristocratic control.

King Lancelot IV was the first to realise that the Barons were amassing power at a dangerous rate and attempt to do something about it. Unfortunately for his heirs, he had neglected his duty to keep a reserve of Knights to deal with little problems like uppity Barons. Worse, many Barons who were not directly involved with the rebellious Barons were reluctant to see the King develop the power to compel the Barons, for fear that it might be used against them. The net result was that an uneasy stalemate, with the rebellious Barons growing increasingly aware of their own independence and contemplating plans to take supreme power. It was into this world that Prince Adam was born.


Geographically, Tintagel has four major continents; Arthur, Camelot, Galahad and Incognita, so called because it is largely unknown to Tintagel’s citizens. First Landing, the capital city, is situated to the north of Arthur, based around the now-defunct seedship (which used to serve as the Royal Palace before it was moved to the Mound.) Most of Arthur can be considered fairly loyal, but Camelot is wavering between loyalists and rebels, while Galahad is almost completely lost to the rebels. The main exception is Narnia, an island Barony protected by dangerous currents.

Technologically, most of the limitations engineered into the social matrix have held true, although they have slipped in many ways. The general level of technology is roughly on the same level as the Roman Empire; gunpowder exists, but (so far) it has not been used for warfare, or indeed anything more complex than fireworks. (In each town, there’s a man who produces fire-dust and fireworks, called Gandalf Wizards.) One major exception is the printing press, which is increasingly banned or controlled in the rebellious territories. A second exception is general sailing technology, which is roughly on the same level as Elizabethan England. (Logically, they will discover Incognita within the next 50 years, although they do not have the motive for world-crossing voyages that drove European explorers to America.)

Medicine is more advanced than might be expected, owing to carefully-written medical texts that were made available to the colonists. The measures for preventing infection or survey are sound, but the underlying science is non-existent. For example, the colonists know that anyone who is ill has been attacked by a demon, which can be driven out with the proper religious rites. The apothecaries who produce drugs know how to make them from well-known plants that can be found anywhere, but again they don’t really understand what they’re doing. Experimentation is strongly discouraged.

The written alphabet is basic English, although – naturally – a number of concepts are missing. This holds true all over the known world, although there are local dialects; the written word is the same everywhere and this helps to keep the linguistic scatter (the process by which two languages can separate out of one common language) down to a bare minimum. Communications systems in this world are limited to messengers on horseback.

Unsurprisingly, slavery has been reinvented in this society. Some slaves are essentially house slaves, treated almost as one of the family. Others are chattel slaves, growing crops or digging mines for their masters. A person may be enslaved though debt, criminal activity or simple whim on the part of the aristocracy. Once enslaved, they can only hope to be freed by their master or earn their freedom. Children born to slaves are slaves themselves. Slaves who run away can expect anything from a public whipping to being sold to the mines. They have no rights, save one. A slave who is given money (as a gift or payment) is permitted to keep it.

Equally unsurprisingly, women are very much second-class citizens at all levels of society. The average aristocratic woman may enjoy a lifestyle beyond the dreams of her less-fortunate sisters, but her primary purpose is to serve as a broodmare for the male bloodlines. Aristocratic titles with actual power can never be passed to a woman; except in very rare cases, they are subject to their fathers and then to their husbands in all matters. A handful of women can inherit money, if not power, and use it to carve out a niche for herself (or use it to lure a more powerful man into her arms.) Quite a few trading interests have wealthy women hidden behind the scenes, pulling the strings.

The same pattern exists in the lower levels of society. A woman is expected to be little more than a daughter, a wife and a mother. Openly intelligent women are often regarded with fear and suspicion by men; certain professions, open to women alone, are shrouded in mystery. Midwives, for example, are both respected and feared. While an aristocratic woman can be quite highly educated, commoner women are rarely given formal education. This does not, of course, make them stupid.

Education can vary widely from region to region. Some states have a policy that mandates that all male children be educated. (Female children often learn from their brothers, something which is officially frowned up.) Other states restrict education to the upper classes, believing that educated commoners make poor servants.


9 Aug

For those who enjoyed ‘On The Imperium’s Secret Service,’  this is a semi-sequel set in the same universe.

Chapter One

They approached from the west, hidden in the night sky, floating down towards the towering CityBlock. No eyes looking up saw them; no sensor system picked up their silent passage as they glided through the sky. The gliders were almost transparent and the shapes of the men under the wings were so small as to be almost invisible. They closed in on their target and no one saw them coming.

Captain Edward Stalker, Imperial Marines, braced himself as their destination came into view. Landing a tiny force of Marines on top of the giant CityBlock was a gamble, but there was little alternative. The Nihilists who had overwhelmed the Civil Guard and taken the entire block hostage wanted nothing, apart from the chance to embarrass the Imperium and demonstrate their willingness to die for their beliefs – taking upwards of eight thousand hostages with them. Rowdy Yates CityBlock had played host to forty thousand registered citizens, mainly class-two and class-three. The Nihilists had forced all, but the children to flee for their lives. Given time, they’d rig the CityBlock to explode, murdering all the children in a single grotesque act of rage against the universe. It could not be allowed.

“Steady,” he subvocalised, as the Marines started their final approach. The winds buffeted them, forcing two of the Marines to fall back as they struggled to compensate. Homeworld had long since lost whatever natural features it had once possessed, buried under the endless cities piled upon cities, creating a weather system unmatched anywhere else within the Imperium. “Link into the UAV and locate the rooftop guards.”

The UAV was a tiny aircraft, barely larger than Ed’s fist. Hovering over the CityBlock, it downloaded its images in short compressed microbursts, allowing the Marines to pick out the handful of terrorists positioned on the roof. Only five of them, Ed noted; the Nihilists had to be more concerned about the Civil Guard battalions outside the CityBlock than they were about the possibility of someone landing on their heads. Not that they were that far wrong, he had to admit. They’d only been able to scrape up twenty gliders before the operation had to be launched, limiting their ability to hit the Nihilists before they detonated their explosives and killed everyone inside the CityBlock. A single mistake could doom the entire operation.

“Go,” he ordered.

Seventeen Marines twisted free of the gliders and dropped out of the sky, falling down towards the rooftop. Antigravity units cut in a microsecond before they hit the solid metal covering the CityBlock, cancelling their velocity and allowing them to land gently. The five guards saw a flicker of movement, if anything, before the Marines took them out with swift savage blows. Ed had worried that some of them might be enhanced, with augmentation that might even the odds against the Marines, but they all seemed to be baseline humans. They certainly died quickly enough.

The Nihilists were the worst of the terrorist groups to plague the Imperium in recent years. Unlike the Secessionists, who wanted to cut the outer worlds free of the Imperium, or the League of Alien Allies, who wanted equal rights for non-humans, the Nihilists simply wanted to kill. But not just simple acts of murder; the Nihilists wanted to kill as many people as they could in public, daring the Imperium to stop them. Psychologists claimed that the Nihilists were merely another sign of the social decay that had been spreading through the Imperium over the last hundred years; paranoids claimed that they were backed by the Secessionists, or even an outside alien power like the Snakes. Ed found it hard to care. The Nihilists were fanatics who had reprogrammed themselves to ensure that they could never be taken into custody, let alone interrogated by the Marines. All that mattered was killing them before they could complete their plans and slaughter thousands of children.

He motioned towards the hatches leading down into the CityBlock and allowed the hard-entry specialists to lead the way. Two more Nihilists had taken up position inside the building, but they hadn’t been in position to realise that anything had happened to their guards. No Marine unit – and only a handful of Civil Guard units – would allow themselves to be caught so easily, but the Nihilists really didn’t care. If they were going to die soon enough, at their own hands, taking basic precautions probably didn’t matter.

“Deploy nanoprobes,” he ordered, as the Marines slipped into the CityBlock. He’d made the call earlier not to risk probing the building, assuming that the Nihilists would have deployed counter-nanotech systems of their own. Now, the Nihilists would realise that they were under attack soon enough, rendering the advantages of restricting intelligence-gathering systems moot. “Red Platoon, follow me; Gold Platoon, follow Sergei.”

The interior of any CityBlock was a maze, filled with thousands of tiny box-like apartments, shopping malls, entertainment zones and eateries, and the internal life support utilities that kept the population fed, watered and in reasonably good health. No force could hope to seal all of the possible routes from the roof down to where the Nihilists had to be hiding, or so Ed hoped; there was little hard data on just how many Nihilists were taking part in the operation. The nanoprobes raced ahead of the Marines, scanning for enemy positions and noting a handful of booby-traps, damage caused by the first strikes and far too many bodies scattered around. A red icon blinked up in his internal retina display as the nanoprobes located a sizable enemy position. Nine Nihilists, gathered in a point that would allow them to deter anyone coming at them from up or down.

“Someone’s been doing some thinking,” Rifleman Lewis commented. “You think the bastards know we’re here?”

“Confirmed,” Specialist Martin Prince snapped. Unlike the rest of the Marines, Prince was outside, watching through the nanoprobes as they spread further down into the CityBlock. “I just lost a handful of probes to countermeasures. They know we’re here.”

Ed nodded, rapidly motioning for the Marines to force their way into the elevator shaft. The Nihilists had probably thought that they were clever, shutting down the elevators so that no one could use them. Not too bad thinking, except there was no reason why the Marines couldn’t simply climb down the tubes and use it to take the Nihilists in the rear. Of course, they might have thought of that and rigged the doors…it was what Ed would have done in their position. He allowed himself a grin as Lewis led the way down into the shaft. This was what he lived for.

“Order the surrounding units to move in,” he ordered. Outside, there were upwards of twenty thousand Civil Guardsmen, backed by three armoured Marine companies and a regiment from the Grenadier Guards. Spearheaded by the Marines, Ed had no doubt that they would clear the lower levels very quickly, providing one hell of a distraction. Even if the Nihilists knew that his team was above them, they were still going to have to divert most of their forces to deal with the loudest threat. “Try and locate the children.”

He glanced at the update from the nanoprobes as he lowered himself down the shaft. A small war had broken out inside the sports stadium at the heart of the CityBlock, fought out between different groups of nanomachines, each so tiny that the naked eye could never have picked them up. Simple process of elimination suggested that the main body of the Nihilists – and their hostages – had to be grouped inside the blind spot, where they could maintain control of the kids. They’d driven out the adults to make it harder for their hostages to fight back.

“Putting the debonder on the doors now,” Lewis said. “Activation in three…two…one…now!”

The debonder activated, dispelling the energy field holding atoms together over a radius of two metres. A solid elevator door, armed and armoured to withstand explosions, fire and atmospheric changes simply collapsed into dust. The Marines charged through the hole, their weapons already swinging round to target the Nihilists at the far end of the corridor. There was a brief burst of firing and the Nihilists were wiped out. None of them had time to bring their own weapons around to deal with the sudden threat from behind them.

“Gold reports success, sir,” Sergei reported. “The Point Men are pressing up from below.”

Ed nodded. Ignoring the handful of holdouts on the lower levels, the Marines were securing chokepoints while trapping the Nihilists and pushing the reinforcements up as fast as they could. Ideally, his platoon would wait for reinforcements before proceeding, but that might give the Nihilists a chance to redeploy to face the unexpected threat. They had to move ahead as quickly as possible.

“Continue the attack,” he ordered. “They know we’re here; I say again, they know we’re here.”

The Marines advanced rapidly down the corridors towards the sports centre. A handful of improvised booby-traps exploded in their path, wounding a couple of Marines, but the remainder kept going. Several Nihilists set up firing positions, blazing plasma fire down towards the Marines and forcing them back, at least until the Marines brought up their own HVM launchers. There was no longer any point in trying to conceal their presence; the high-explosive HVMs wiped out the Nihilists defenders before they could retreat.

“See if you can get eyes into the stadium,” Ed ordered, as the Marines pushed onwards. The Nihilists had hostages, so where were they? The stadium could seat ten thousand, according to the infodump they’d pulled from Homeworld’s population monitoring department; had they simply packed the kids in like sardines and left them there? “Where are the bloody hostages.”

“I found some of them” Sergei called. Ed could hear the sound of firing behind his voice. “They’ve got the kids serving as fucking human shields.”

The calculating part of Ed’s mind noted that that was atypical behaviour for the Nihilists. They were more interested in dying for their cause than taking and using human shields, unless their cause had finally started to evolve. The rest of his mind winced at the thought of children dying in the crossfire, a thought he pushed away as savagely as possible. There simply wasn’t time for sentiment.

“I’m moving up behind them,” he said, leading four Marines down a side corridor. The live feed from Sergei’s implants showed terrified children, their hands bound together with plastic ties, cowering in front of the Nihilist positions. Behind them, the Nihilists poured plasma fire from a pair of heavy plasma cannons towards the Marines, forcing Sergei and his men to keep their distance. Marine armour was good, but nothing short of hullmetal could stop a plasma cannon that had been rigged to overload. The kids were already showing signs of sunburn. “Just try and keep the bastards pinned down.”

Orders were rapidly exchanged between the Marines as they slipped into the rear of the stadium. Children were lying everywhere, some clearly knocked around by the Nihilists for daring to object to their role in their grand plans. A pair of Nihilists saw the Marines coming in and reached for their weapons, only to be cut down before they could fire. The team with the heavy plasma cannons started to swing them around, too late. Ed killed four of them personally.

A high-pitched whine blew through the air as one of the plasma cannons started to overload. Ed swore and bellowed orders to the children. “GET UP, GET BACK,” he yelled. The Marines were already moving to clear the way for the children, who were staggering to their feet and starting to run. One of the Marines started to examine the cannon, before cursing out loud and diving for cover. “RUN, JUST RUN, YOU DAMN FOOLS…”

The plasma cannon exploded into a tearing white sheet of flame. Three Marines, trying to cover the children, took the full brunt of the blast and died as their armour overloaded. The force of the blast slammed others against solid walls, breaking bones and cracking armour; a number of kids, utterly without protection, died in a heartbeat as the superhot plasma surge flashed over them. Ed picked himself up and shuddered, cursing the Nihilists out loud. Hostage rescue was always chancy, with the potential to do everything right and still lose, yet it hurt to lose even one.

“Get the medics up here, now,” he barked. The solid metal in the walls had channelled the blast, directing it against kids and Marines with equal abandon. Even the children far away enough not to be killed instantly had been burned. “Red platoon; follow me.”

The Nihilists had to realise that they’d lost any chance of holding the CityBlock for much longer, he knew. Prince’s nanoprobes were pushing slowly into the stadium, revealing kids – unsurprisingly – and a Nihilist team working desperately on what looked like explosives. Bringing down the entire City Block would be damn near impossible, even with a competent military-trained demolitions expert, but they could certainly tear up the interior, as well as slaughtering all the kids and most of the rescue force. Red platoon followed him as the nanoprobes finally defeated their opponents, providing clear imagery of the stadium. At least the Nihilists weren’t slaughtering kids right, left and centre. They preferred to kill hundreds of people – if not thousands, or millions – in one go.

And they’d set up barricades around all the possible ways into the stadium…

“Follow me,” he snapped, skimming through the CityBlock plans. They were hundreds of years old and probably outdated, but the basic structure couldn’t be changed very easily, if at all. There were rooms they could break into and use the debonder to cut their way into the stadium, outflanking their guardposts. Unless the Nihilists had figured that out for themselves. “Lewis; start cutting through the walls.”

“I think they’re completing the work on their bomb,” Prince said, through the datanet. “The bloody thing has its own swarm of nanites defending it.”

The Marines sliced through the first wall and found themselves almost bowled over by a sudden tidal wave of basketballs. Ed kicked them aside as they reached the second wall and reduced it to atoms, breaking into what looked like a girls changing room. A pair of bodies lay on the ground, both naked, with their throats cut. It didn’t take much imagination to work out what the Nihilists had done to them before they’d been killed. Rape wasn’t a usual part of their operations, but the scrum they hired from the undercity knew no limits, or simple human decency. Ed had grown up in the undercity himself, one of the lucky few to climb out of the gutter and into a decent position, and he had no sympathy for those who chose to stay behind.

“This is the final wall,” Lewis said. The Marines took up position, linking their augmentations into the live feed from Prince’s nanoprobes. “Ready…now!”

The wall fell into dust. A second later, the Marines opened fire, targeting the Nihilists before they could react. Ed was already moving forward, motioning for the Marines to target the Nihilist guardposts before they could start sending people back to trigger the bomb. Ignoring the firing, Lewis checked the Nihilist explosive and smiled, thinly.

“Chemical explosive, linked to a makeshift FAE,” he reported. He held the debonder against the detonator system and reduced it to atoms, along with most of the chemical explosive. A bomb built by a Marine would have a secondary detonation system, but the Nihilists didn’t seem to have had time to set one up. “Very basic design, sir.”

Ed nodded as the firing died away. Homeworld had the strictest gun control laws in the Imperium, but they had never stopped criminals, terrorists and fearful citizens from obtaining weapons on the black market. Even explosives could be found if one had the right connections. Luckily, the Nihilists wouldn’t have been able to move the bomb into the CityBlock in one single operation, or there would have been no stopping them.

“There are more children in this room,” he said, quietly. Most of the kids were crying openly, even the ones who looked almost old enough to start producing children of his own. Ed had known girls who were grandmothers at twenty, back in the undercity. “Get the medics up here and then order the Civil Guardsmen to make sure that the entire block is searched thoroughly. God only knows what other surprises the Nihilists have left behind for us.”

He removed his helmet and ran his hand through his crew-cut hair as the medical teams rushed into the stadium, followed by the investigators. Ed doubted that Imperial Intelligence would be able to find anything that might lead them to the Nihilists who led the movement – whatever else could be said about them, their devotion to operational security was impressive – but it had to be tried. Besides, they might get lucky.

“Seventeen dead, Captain,” Master Sergeant Gwen Patterson reported. Ed winced. He’d feel all of those deaths later, when the combat surge had worn off and he felt human again. His Marines had worked together for long enough to make them a family. “Plus thirty-seven in the Blackshirts.”

“Understood,” Ed said. There was little love lost between the Marines and the black-uniformed Civil Guardsmen. “And how many civilians did we lose?”

“We don’t have a count yet,” Gwen said. “Captain, we could have lost them all.”

Ed knew that, but it was small consolation. The Nihilists had succeeded in at least one of their goals; they’d shocked Homeworld, again. Their next atrocity might kill thousands, or millions. God knew that there were plenty of ways to kill millions of humans in one go.

“Yeah,” he said. He cleared his throat as he stood up. “That’s enough of feeling sorry for myself. Let’s make sure that the Blackshirts are ready to take over this mess.”

“You’d better leave that to Sergei,” Gwen informed him. “We just received a message. The Commandant wants to see you, immediately.”

“Understood,” Ed said. It felt like desertion, but the Commandant’s word was law. Besides, now that the fighting was over, the Marines would be put back into barracks until they were needed again. “Sergei; you have command. I’ll contact you as soon as the Commandant has finished with me.”

Schooled in Magic–Snippet

8 Aug

Comments would be welcome, naturally.

Chapter One

The wave of dizziness struck without warning. Emily screwed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her, wondering if she’d drunk something she shouldn’t have during the role-playing session with the nerds and geeks at her high school. She would have thought that they were too shy to ever try to spike her drink, but perhaps one of them had brought in alcohol and she’d drunk it by mistake. The sound of giggling – faint, but unmistakable – echoed in the air as her senses swam, followed by an abrupt sensation of falling. And then the strange sensation simply faded away.

When her eyes opened, she was standing in a very different place.

Emily recoiled in shock, glancing around in horror. She was standing in the middle of a stone-walled cell, staring at a door that seemed to be made of solid iron. Half-convinced she was hallucinating – perhaps it hadn’t been alcohol that she’d drunk, after all – she stumbled forward until her fingers were pressed against the door. It felt cold and alarmingly real to her senses. There was no handle in the door for her to open, no place for her to try to prise the door open and escape. The room felt depressingly like a prison cell.

Swallowing hard, Emily ran her fingers over the stonework, feeling faint tingles as her fingertips touched the mortar binding the wall together. It felt like the castles she’d visited on a trip to Scotland, the buildings that had been constructed long before concrete or other modern building materials had enabled the artists to use their imagination properly. There was a faint sense of age pervading through the stone, as if it was hundreds of years old. It certainly felt hundreds of years old.

Where was she? Desperately, Emily looked from wall to wall, seeking a way out of the cell. But there was nothing, not even a window; the only source of light was a tiny lantern hanging from the ceiling. There was no bed, no place for her to lay her head; not even a pallet of straw like she’d seen in the historical recreations she’d attended with her drama group. And how had she come to be in the cell? Had she been arrested? Impatiently, she dismissed the thought as silly. The Police wouldn’t have put her in a stone cell – and they wouldn’t have had to spike her drink to arrest her. A hundred scenarios her mother had warned her about ran though her mind; her captor could be a rapist, or a serial killer, or a kidnapper intent on using her to extort money from her parents. Emily would have laughed at the thought a day ago – her stepfather wouldn’t have paid anything to recover her from a kidnapper – but it wasn’t so funny now. What would a kidnapper do when he discovered that he’d kidnapped a worthless girl?

A clatter rang through the cell, coming from outside the door, and she looked up sharply. Emily would have sworn that the iron door was solid, but all of a sudden a tiny hatch had appeared in the metal and a pair of gleaming red eyes were peering in at her. There was something so utterly inhuman about them that Emily recoiled, convinced that they belonged to a monster – or a devil. There was a second rattle at the door and it seemed to blur, before it was replaced by a set of iron bars revealing a hooded figure standing outside the cell. His eyes, half-hidden under his hood, seemed to glow with an eerie red light. The rest of his face was obscured in darkness.

Behind him, there were more stone walls – and a pair of skeletons, standing against the wall as if they’d been left there to rot. Something about them caught Emily’s attention before she saw the first skeleton begin to move, walking forward as if it were still flesh and blood. The second skeleton turned its head until it was looking directly at Emily, the sightless eye-sockets seeming to peer deep into her soul. Emily felt her blood running cold, suddenly convinced, right to the very core of her being, that this was no ordinary kidnapping. She was a very long way from home.

“Welcome,” the hooded figure said. There was something cracked and broken about his voice, almost as if he hadn’t spoken for a very long time and had lost the knack. “You may call me Shadye.”

He spoke his name as if Emily should know it, but it meant nothing to her. She tried to speak, but discovered that her mouth was so dry that speaking was impossible. Shadye stepped forward, up against the bars, and studied her thoughtfully. His red eyes seemed to flicker over her body, before meeting her eyes and holding them for a long chilling second.

Emily forced herself to speak. All the novels she’d read about kidnapped heroines suggested that she should try to get the kidnapper to see her as a human being – although she was far from convinced that Shadye himself was a human being. The fantasy books she’d devoured in an attempt to hide from her father’s departure and her mother’s desperate search for a second husband seemed to be mocking her inside her skull. It could be a trick, perhaps a reality TV show, but something in her mind was convinced that it was real. Besides, she couldn’t see any TV cameras anywhere.

“How…” She broke into coughs and had to swallow, again. “How did you bring me here?”

Shadye seemed oddly pleased by the question. “They said that there would be a Child of Destiny who would lead the forces of light against the Harrowing,” he said. Emily realised suddenly that he wanted to gloat, to show off his own cleverness. “But I knew that every prophecy has a loophole. I knew that if I could catch that Child of Destiny before it was her time, I could use her against the cursed Alliance and defeat them utterly.”

Emily felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. “But I am not that person…”

“No Child of Destiny knows who she is until their time has come,” Shadye informed her. “But the Faerie know, oh yes they know. And I called for them to bring me the Child of Destiny and they have brought me you.”

He rubbed his hands together in glee. “And now I have you in my hands,” he said. “The Harrowing will be pleased.”

“Right,” Emily said. Her, a Child of Destiny? Only in the literal sense…and she doubted that Shadye would believe her if she tried to explain it. “And I guess I’m not in Kansas any longer?”

“You are in the Blighted Lands of the Dead, on the southern face of the Craggy Mountains,” Shadye said. “Where is this…Kansas place you speak of?”

Emily started to answer, and then stopped herself. “If you don’t know that,” she said, trying to keep her growing fear under control, “I really am no longer in Kansas.”

Shadye shrugged, the motion stirring his robe. Emily frowned inwardly as she saw the way the cloth moved over his body, disturbed in a manner she found almost impossible to comprehend. It was impossible to see what lay beneath his robe, but there was something about the way he moved that suggested that he was no longer entirely human. A very faint shimmer of light seemed to surround him, half-seen forms flickering in and out of existence – and, as half-seen, all the more disturbing to her imagination.

This is real, Emily told herself. It was no longer possible to believe that she was standing in the middle of a TV studio, with hidden cameras recording everything she said and did. There was something so real about the scene that it terrified her. Shadye believed that she was the person he’d been searching for and nothing she could say, or do, could convince him otherwise. She thought of all the fictional heroes she’d known and loved, asking herself what they would do. But they had the writer on their side. She had nothing, but her own wits.

Shadye snapped his fingers and the iron bars melted away into dust. Before Emily could do anything, the skeletons stepped forward and marched into the cell, their eye-less sockets firmly locked on Emily’s face. She cringed back as the bony hands, so eerie without flesh and blood, caught her shoulders and propelled her forward, no matter how she struggled. The sorcerer’s servants didn’t seem to notice, or care, as she kicked out at them. Their bones seemed held together with magic.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said, as she was marched out of the cell. “I…”

Shadye cackled, a high-pitched sound that chilled her to the bone. “Your death will bring me all the power I could use,” he said. Emily redoubled her struggles, but the skeletons never loosened their grip. “Why should I let you live when I would remain like this?”

He pulled his hood away from his face in one convulsive motion. Emily stared, horrified; Shadye’s skin was pulled so tightly around his skull that she could see the bones underneath, his nose cut away, replaced by a melted mass of burned flesh. His eyes were burning coals of red light, shining in the darkened chamber, utterly inhuman. She saw his hand as he lifted it to stroke his hairless chin and winced at the cuts that criss-crossed his flesh. Emily had seen horror movies, ones where the directors strived to outdo themselves in creating new horrors, but this was different. This was real. She took a deep breath and smelled dead flesh in the atmosphere surrounding him. It was easy to believe that his body was dying, animated only by his will – and magic.

“There is always a price for power,” Shadye said. His voice darkened, unpleasantly. “But there are always ways to escape the price. And when I offer you to the Harrowing…oh, they will rebuild my burned frame and grant me power eternal.”

He turned and strode off down the corridor, pulling his hood back up to cover his head. Emily stared after him, just before the skeletons started to push her down the corridor after him. Resistance seemed utterly futile, but she struggled anyway, feeling panic giving her extra strength. Just for a moment, she broke free of their grip and turned to run, before there was a flash of blue light and her muscles locked, sending her falling to the floor. No matter how she struggled, she couldn’t move anything below the neck; the skeletons picked her up and carried her after Shadye.

The sorcerer started to laugh. “I told you where you are,” he said, mockingly. “Even if you had escaped my dungeons, where would you have gone?”

He was right, Emily realised. She’d never heard of the Craggy Mountains, let alone the Blighted Land of the Dead. And he had never heard of Kansas. No matter how she wanted to avoid it, she had to accept the fact that she had been – somehow – transported from her own world to one where magic worked, where skeletons could be used as servants and an evil sorcerer could sacrifice her for power. She was utterly alone, ignorant of even something as basic as local geography. Shadye was right; even if she did escape, where would she go?

They reached a stairwell leading upwards into the darkness. Shadye seemed unbothered by the lack of illumination, as did the skeletons, but Emily found it hard to restrain her panic as they climbed upwards and onwards, while she was unable to see the stone walls. Her legs bumped against the walls from time to time, the spell binding her holding her body as firmly as ever, just before they finally walked out into the open air. The ground below their feet was mud…no, she realised suddenly; it was ash. She sniffed and shuddered at the stench of burned flesh in the air. In the distance, she caught sight of what had once been a forest. Now, it looked as if something had killed the trees, leaving their dead remains standing in the midst of the darkness.

“The Necromancer Kings faced the assembled might of the Empire not too far from here,” Shadye said, with heavy satisfaction. “They say that the skies were black with dragons and terrible lizards as they fought for forty days and forty nights. In the end, so much magic was released that the land was permanently warped by chaos. Those who stray into these lands without protection find themselves twisted and transformed into horrors. Few dare to visit my fortress, even though they believe that they have powers that can match my own.”

Emily found her voice. “Why did they fight?”

“The Necromancer Kings wished to enjoy their powers without restraint, to create a world where their whims and wishes would be the whole of the law,” Shadye said. “But the Empire and their wizards believed the necromancers to be an abomination. They believed that they had won, yet the Harrowing can never be stopped. All they could do was delay it, for a time.”

He stopped and muttered a series of words under his breath. There was a brilliant flash of light, bright enough to make Emily screw her eyes closed against the glare. When she reopened her eyes, she saw a large building made out of dark stone right in front of them, as if it had been there all along. Perhaps it had been invisible, she told herself, taking some measure of comfort from the thought. If Shadye had had to hide his dark temple, or whatever it was, it suggested that someone was watching for him. Maybe he’d been lying when he’d claimed that no one came into the Blighted Lands of the Dead.

The skeletons carried her forward and into an opening that seemed to appear out of nowhere, an instant before her head would have slammed into the stone. Inside, there was a sense of overpowering vastness, as if the building was much larger than she could comprehend. The smell of blood assailed her nostrils; a moment later, she saw great waves of red blood washing down the walls and pooling on the ground. Shadye seemed unbothered by walking through the blood, bowing from time to time towards statues that seemed to appear out of nowhere, only to vanish again when they’d walked past. They were disturbing; oddly, the ones that seemed most human were the most disturbing. One of them, a stone carving of a handsome man with sharp pointy ears, was impossible to look at directly. Another, an eldritch horror out of nightmares, seemed almost friendly by contrast.

“There,” Shadye said. He reached into his robe and produced a sharp black knife, carved from stone. “Place her on the altar.”

Emily opened her mouth to protest, but it was futile. The altar was a simple stone block, easily large enough to accommodate her; the skeletons placed her on the stone and stepped backwards, almost as if they were admiring their work. Somehow, the simple lack of carvings on the altar was even more terrifying than the horrors she could see in the distance; it struck her, suddenly, that there was no doubt to whom the altar was dedicated. She tried to recall the prayers she’d learned as a child, but nothing came to mind. This was a place beyond the sight of God.

“We begin,” Shadye said. He started to chant as he waved the knife in the air. Emily couldn’t understand a single word, but she felt the gathering power in the chamber, as if someone – or something – was slowly pressing itself into existence. Brilliant tingles of light seemed to dance over her head, slowly fading into a darkness so complete that it sucked up the light that seemed to come from all around her. In the last moments of gloom, she saw new statues – savage-faced angels – that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

Shadye stopped chanting. Absolute silence fell, as if the unseen watchers were waiting for the final command. The summoned presence hung on the air, its mere existence twisting reality around it. Emily saw something within the darkness, a hidden movement that seemed to be only present within the corner of her eye. Shadye stepped forward, one hand holding the knife as he raised it up and over Emily’s heart…

…And then there was a brilliant flash of light. The summoned presence simply vanished. Shadye bit out a word that Emily was sure was a curse and ducked as a bolt of lightning sliced through the air, over Emily’s prone position, and over his head. She twisted her head as another flash of light lit up the chamber, revealing another dark-clad form standing at the far end of the room. Darkness fell for a second; the third flash of light showed the figure much closer, followed by the monstrous angel statues. They moved when she wasn’t looking.

“No,” Shadye snapped. He lifted his hand, plucked a fireball out of empty air and threw it at the newcomer, who lifted a staff and deflected it away into the darkened reaches of the chamber. “You will not cheat me!”

A second later, the newcomer tossed a spell of his own and Shadye vanished in a flash of light. The spell holding Emily to the altar snapped at the same instant, allowing her to move again. She sat up, just in time to see the newcomer racing towards her, his face hidden behind a wooden mask, illuminated by a ball of light that floated into the air. He reached for her and she drew back, suddenly unsure of what he wanted. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her; what would the newcomer want?

“Take my hand if you want to live,” the newcomer said. The darkness was flooding in from all sides, pushing in around them as if it were a living thing. “Come with me or die!”

Emily didn’t hesitate. She took his hand and the dark chamber vanished in a final blinding flash of white light.

The Universe of The Great Interstellar War

7 Aug

Humanity’s expansion into space was made significantly easier by the discovery of the Hawking Gravity Points along the edge of the solar system. The Gravity Points – named after the professor who first theorised their existence – allowed a starship to slip from the solar system to another solar system, cutting down the time it took to reach another star significantly enough to make interstellar travel feasible. Unfortunately for the human race, however, the Gravity Points were treacherous. They opened and closed, seemingly at random; a starship could hop through to a virgin solar system and then discover that the pathway back home was closed.

This did not deter any number of groups who wanted to set up colonies far from the increasingly suffocating reach of Earth. They built starships, waited for a suitable Gravity Point to open and then dived through, leaving Earth behind forever. Some were lucky and discovered worlds they could colonise. Some wound up trapped in star systems that didn’t have an Earth-like world, dooming them to eventual extinction unless they could establish asteroid colonies or find a pathway back to Earth (or another settled world). Countless colony worlds were established; a great many grew into settled civilisations, even though they had often altered the ideals of their founding fathers. Some ideas proved to be impractical. Others were simply impossible to maintain as well as survive.

The period from 2200 to 3045 saw slow, but steady expansion. A number of the more reliable Gravity Points were mapped, although spacers soon learned that the points were perverse and sometimes seemed to take a delight in vanishing at the worst possible moment; a number of colony worlds received fresh colonists from Earth, people who were not always welcomed by the previous settlers. However, real expansion had to wait until the discovery of the ‘fixed’ gravity points orbiting Sol, far closer to Earth than the previously discovered gravity points. These points – which were almost undetectable save for very faint gravitational fluxes against the star’s gravity field – seemed permanent, no matter how many starships passed through the nexus and into the new star systems.

A second breakthrough came out of research into the space-warping effects of a gravity point. Scientists discovered that starships could ‘fold’ space around them, providing – for the first time – an effective means of travelling faster than light. Although the phase drive was far slower than any gravity point, it was much more reliable and allowed the formation of true interstellar political entities for the first time. Unfortunately, humans being humans, it also allowed the outbreak of genuine interstellar wars.

As the major power in space, Earth – now ruled by the Federation – sought to establish control over the nearest and most dependent colonies. The motives for this were mixed; some believed that the colonies genuinely needed involvement from Earth, others saw the colonies as both a dumping ground for Earth’s unwanted and new terrain for corporate exploitation. The Federation’s rapid expansion – 3057-3098 – took most of the colony worlds by surprise. They had been founded in an era where interstellar political entities had been impossible and they found it hard to grasp that anyone would attempt to build an interstellar state. Once they did, however, they took rapid and decisive action.

The Colonial League, headed by the Duel Monarchy of Athens and Sparta, stood up to the Federation in 3098, warning Earth’s masters that they possessed warships, advanced weapons and the willingness to use them. A handful of skirmishes along the consolidating frontier eventually convinced the Federation that further warfare would be impractical, at least for the time being. The twin driving urges of Federation policy, however, would not fade away and no one expected the truce to last more than a handful of years.

With a state of cold war between Earth and its colonies, it is unsurprising that military technology advanced rapidly as both sides consolidated their positions and prepared for the next round. Other political units also formed out of the planets settled during Earth’s expansion, some genuinely united by a common purpose and some openly established by force, often driven by a more advanced world. Surprisingly, the peace held until 3178, when a skirmish in the Verge Republic would accidentally trigger the fires of interstellar war…

As of 3178, the major polities are as followed:

Terran Federation.

Officially, the Terran Federation is a democratic state centred on Old Earth. In reality, it is a cross between a communist and corporate nightmare, dominated by what is – to all intents and purposes – a hereditary aristocracy. The system is heavily rigged and has been so for centuries, with new blood being absorbed into the system or exclude from power. In the name of unity, the Federation has been absorbing worlds through a mixture of social infiltration and outright military conquest.

Many of the families that dominate the Federation are aware that one day it will run out of economies to absorb to support its colossal military machine and feed the insatiable lust of its citizens for free services (all of which are very poor compared to many non-Federation systems) and some of them believe that war will provide the impetus to ram through changes that need to be made if the entire edifice isn’t to one day collapse into chaos. It may already be too late to save the Federation, but its death agonies may destroy half the galaxy…

The Federation controls over 170 worlds, some of which are increasingly rebellious despite the Federation’s willingness to use extreme force to keep the peons in line.

The Dual Monarchy of Athens and Sparta.

Centred on the Athens/Sparta binary system, the Dual Monarchy is a far more complex system than the Federation. There are two Royal Families, each of which produces a King; together they comprise the Heads of State. Tradition states that one King must have served in the Navy and the other in the Marines. Below them, there is a Senate (elected on a federal service system) and Congress (elected by all citizens).

The Dual Monarchy led the Colonial Alliance when it stood up to the United Nations (which became the Federation) at Haven. It is therefore very aware that there will be a reckoning one day between the Federation and the independent states and has been preparing for war ever since. Accordingly, the Duel Monarchy stands at the head of an alliance that includes 80 full star systems and an uncounted number of smaller settlements. Unlike the Federation, membership in the Dual Monarchy is voluntarily and worlds may withdraw if they wish.

The Verge Republic

The Verge is very much the sick man of the galaxy, kept together by a strongman (President-for-Life Lance) and support from the Federation. Comprised of some fifty worlds, it is the poorest of the galactic powers and staggeringly corrupt (and far less efficient than the Federation, which takes some doing). Lance is unpopular among his people; the only thing keeping him alive is a relatively loyal army, his son (who is a fairly competent naval commander) and the existence of Sanctuary as a refugee for rebels who might otherwise turn on him.

Lance isn’t exactly a Federation puppet, but if the Federation were to withdraw its support the Verge would collapse in short order. Militarily speaking, the Verge is outmatched by all of the other multi-system powers and many of the single-system states, a result of Lance’s attempts to coup-proof his regime.

The Verge has been a flashpoint between the Dual Monarchy and the Federation ever since 3050, when the Dual Monarchy established a protectorate over Sanctuary and refused to permit Lance to obliterate fleeing rebels on the planet. Sanctuary is effectively an independent system, although the Dual Monarchy provides its security – something that the Federation has tacitly accepted, partly out of exasperation with Lance and his regime.

Union of Sovereign Republics.

Like a number of other systems, the founding planets of the Union of Sovereign Republics were ethno-preservationist colonies (colonies intended to preserve a national ideal against the crushing sameness of the Federation). Svoboda was/is Russian with a little Ukrainian, Ensenada is Cuban/Chicano, and Highside is Welsh/Canadian. When the phase drive was invented, the three worlds rapidly came under threat from the ethnically Italian/Sicilian Principality of Salerno, where the Mafiosi among the colonists quickly subsumed the original political arrangements and made itself the ruling aristocracy. By the time the resulting war was over – Salerno is now a member of the Union in good standing – the Union had firmly established itself, a good thing as the Federation was brushing against its borders.

The Union’s founding members used social and genetic engineering techniques to ‘fix’ their planetary identities/phenotypes within certain ‘true’ ranges, but the prolonged external threat helped weld those three ethnicities/planetary identities into a single ‘broad-strokes’ common self-image, and internal mobility and intermarriage mean the phenotypes have started to break down as well. As of now, the Union can best be described as comparable to a pre-Civil War America, with a federal government that is tightly controlled by the individual member planets.

It was a member of the Colonial Alliance, but those ties have faded in the years since the Colonial Alliance forced the Federation to stand down. Despite the common threat of the Federation, there are some disputes between the two political entities that make it hard for them to concentrate on a common threat.

The Kingston Empire.

Andrew Kingston was a man with a vision; he intended to found an interstellar community based on his ideas for a strong monarch ruling over his people. Being wealthy enough to build his own colony ship, Kingston and his followers plunged into an uncharted Gravity Point in 2345 and were never seen again, at least until an exploration ship from Earth located the missing colony. Somewhat to their surprise, the Empire had prospered and – armed with the Phase Drive – set out to conquer a number of nearby stars. Kingston’s successors were generally capable men, who picked targets that had good reason to welcome conquest by a more powerful interstellar power, and the Empire expanded rapidly until it came up against the Federation’s expanding borders.

Politically, the Kingston Empire is ruled by the Emperor, an absolute monarch, who is advised by his Council of State. Younger sons of the dynasty are assigned to various world and star systems as absolute rulers in their own right (second only to the current Emperor) or put into high positions in the Empire’s military. Royal children are trained from birth in how to rule, with techniques used to teach them everything they might need to know for their eventual station in the Empire. Rumour has it that their seniors are not above arranging accidents for kids who fail to come up to scratch. Other kids leave rather than accept the heavy discipline that comes with their hereditary rights.

The Kingston Empire is quite prepared to manoeuvre for the benefit of the Kingston Empire, rather than the rest of the galaxy. Accordingly, it is a member of the Colonial Alliance – but is quite happy to sell out the other states if it received a good enough offer from the Federation. However, this is believed to be unlikely. The Federation has been quietly funding separatist and antimonarchical groups in the Empire for the last 50 years and may be hoping to cause the Empire to fragment.

The Vega Consortium.

The founding worlds of the Vega Consortium were founded by a number of corporate interests during the latest years of the first expansion era, several of whom believed that the Federation would eventually absorb all of the corporations in the solar system. These worlds were not intended to eventually produce their own self-government; the corporate leadership intended to make sure that they – and their descendents – continued to rule in their own private kingdoms. Politically, everything in the Consortium is ruled by the corporations, right down to ordinary life. It is extremely difficult for anyone to advance without money, connections or extreme talent. Unsurprisingly, there are rebel groups all across the Consortium.

They are closely-linked to the Federation as the Consortium – whatever its other faults – is a front-line producer of advanced technology. (It is generally believed that the other reason the Consortium has nothing to do with the Colonial Alliance is that the Colonial Alliance finds them unmentionably evil.) About the only thing that stands in their favour is that they are not inclined to hypocrisy. Unlike the Federation, the Consortium makes no attempt to disguise its true nature.

Other powers.

Apart from the six major powers, there are any number of minor powers in existence, mostly in the borderlands between the major powers. These include Zion, Deseret and New Zurich – powers too large for any other minor state, but too weak to stand up to the stronger entities.