Archive | October, 2012

Updates–and Promo Offer

25 Oct

Hi everyone.

I’m off to Edinburgh with my wife today, so there won’t be any major updates until I get back, when I will be starting No Worse Enemy.  For the moment:

I’ve created a facebook fan page, which I will use for updates – you can find it here.

I have also added some of my older books to Smashwords.

And the offer for Outside Context Problem is still open.  Pick it up before Saturday for a free copy!

See you all soon.


New Snippet–No Worse Enemy (The Empire’s Corps2)

24 Oct

The sequel to The Empire’s Corps

Chapter One

It should not be surprising that involuntary settlers from Earth often ended up as either slaves or bandits. The lucky ones endured education that taught them more about their rights than about their responsibilities – or about vital living skills – while the unlucky ones grew up in the undercity, little more than feral animals. Put bluntly, the Empire lost the ability to socialise its children.

Indeed, by the time I was exiled from Earth, almost all of the Empire’s military and much of its civil service were reporting massive recruiting shortfalls. The educated students they needed simply didn’t exist.

– Professor Leo Caesius, The Perilous Dawn (unpublished).

“It’s quiet,” Rifleman Blake Coleman said, over the communications link. “Too quiet.”

“Shut up,” Lieutenant Jasmine Yamane said, lightly. “We are meant to be quiet.”

She smiled inwardly as they crept closer to the bandit camp, hidden in the Badlands. The bandit leader had been smart – his camp was very well hidden – but he’d reckoned without the Marines. No one would deny that the Badlands were damn near impassable in places, yet they weren’t as bad as the Slaughterhouse. Jasmine and her comrades had all graduated from the harshest training camp in the Empire.

The geologists had yet to come up with a good explanation for why the Badlands existed. They were a tangled nightmare of forests, river and lava pools, as well as enough minerals to confuse sensors hunting for targets. There were even places where lava bubbled up from the planet’s underground. The best guess was that the badlands had been the site of an asteroid impact thousands of years before the planet had been settled; the alternative was a botched terraforming project, which was unlikely. There had been no need to improve Avalon when the planet had been settled, not when it was already perfect for human habitation.

“There,” Joe Buckley said. He inclined his head towards an outcropping that looked like a tuff of land. The bandits hadn’t done a bad job of disguising their lookout; it would have been almost invisible if the Marines hadn’t been looking for it. “You see the guy behind it?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine answered, studying the position. The bandits wouldn’t have based themselves in a place with only one exit; stupid bandits wouldn’t have lasted long, even before the Marines had arrived on Avalon. “I’ll deal with him. You stay here and watch my back.”

She crawled forward, trusting in her camouflage to keep her from being spotted. Up close, it was obvious that the bandits had put some thought into their position; anyone sitting in the lookout should have been able to spot oncoming enemies from a distance. Or they would have been able to see them, if they’d cleared away the foliage. But that would have betrayed them to the orbiting satellites used by the Marines. Quite a few bandit camps had been eliminated since the Battle of Camelot because their occupants had made careless mistakes.

The bandit sitting in the lookout didn’t look very competent, but Jasmine checked around carefully anyway before she closed in for the kill. Appearances could be deceiving, as Jasmine herself demonstrated; very few people would have realised that she was a Marine if they saw her out of uniform, or armour. Up close, there was a faint stench surrounding the lookout, suggesting that the bandits didn’t give a shit about basic hygiene. Jasmine wasn’t too surprised. Unlike the Crackers, who had been offered amnesty after the Battle of Camelot, the bandits had no long-term political objective. They just wanted to have fun. Jasmine pushed her irritation aside as she rose silently to her feet and moved forward. The bandit didn’t even realise she was there until she’d cut his throat.

“Got him,” she subvocalised into her implant. There had been no time for a battlefield interrogation – and the bandit would have been hanged if she’d dragged him back to Camelot. “I’m going onwards to the camp.”

The bandits had built their camp in the middle of the forest, half-hidden in a hollow that would make it harder for orbital observation to pick up on their activities. Jasmine studied it as they crept closer and scowled; the bandits had clearly kidnapped at least one person who actually knew how to build basic huts out of wood and clay. They were rare skills on Earth, which had long since become an entire planet of city-blocks, but quite common on newly-settled worlds. Wood was simply too efficient a building material to ignore.

“I have eyes on hostages,” Blake said, suddenly. Jasmine scowled. If the bandits had been alone, she would have called in an airstrike and then cleaned up the mess. “At least five, all young girls. And they’re limping”

Jasmine muttered a curse under her breath. The bandits raided the local farms regularly, carrying off food, drink, weapons and women. It wasn’t uncommon for them to cripple the girls, just to make sure that they couldn’t run away after they’d been dumped in the camp; one camp they’d destroyed had had two girls who’d had their legs amputated by their masters. The girls she could see didn’t look as if they’d been treated that badly, but they had broken expressions on their faces that made Jasmine wince. They’d had the fire beaten out of them ever since they’d been kidnapped and trapped in a living nightmare.

“Those sick fuckers,” Joe breathed. He cleared his throat. “Orders, Lieutenant?”

Jasmine pushed her anger to one side, activating her communicator. “Bring up the rest of the platoon,” she ordered. “And then prepare to engage.”

She scanned the camp quickly as the remainder of 1st Platoon closed in on the bandit camp, considering options. If they’d been wearing heavy armour, she would have been sorely tempted just to stand up and walk into the enemy camp, secure in the knowledge that they didn’t have any weapons that could touch them. But instead they only wore light armour – and she didn’t want to risk causing harm to the prisoners. If they ordered the bandits to surrender and the bandits started firing instead, the prisoners might be caught up in the crossfire. And they would open fire. They knew better than to expect mercy from the new government. Why not fight?

Jasmine smiled, humourlessly. Everything had seemed simpler when she’d been a mere Rifleman.

“Sound off,” she muttered, as the platoon got into firing position. She listened briefly to the responses, confirming that her ten subordinates were all in position. “And engage on my command.”

There was a shout from the bandit camp. They’d seen something, perhaps one of the Marines as they crawled into position. Jasmine didn’t hesitate; she barked the command to open fire as she squeezed the trigger of her own rifle. The bandit she’d targeted, shot through the head, collapsed in a crumpled heap on the ground. Jasmine was already searching for new targets as the Marines wiped out every bandit in sight. The hostages were clinging to each other, panicking.

Jasmine keyed her mike as the Marines inched forward. “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND,” she ordered, praying that the hostages would obey. A handful of bandits were trying to fight back, or flee westwards away from the Marines. “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN.”

One muddy hut seemed to be held by at least four bandits, who were shooting wildly towards where they thought the Marines were. It hadn’t been designed as a blockhouse, Jasmine noted absently, but it would suffice, as long as the Marines kept the gloves on. She used hand signals to order Blake and Joe towards it, while the other Marines provided covering fire to force the bandits to keep their heads down. Blake used a shaped charge to smash in the wooden door, while Joe charged in, weapon at the ready.

“Two down,” Blake reported. “Two others surrendered.”

Jasmine nodded. “Secure them,” she ordered, as she rose to her feet and headed down into the bandit camp. “And secure the hostages as well.”

The girls might have been pretty once, but that had been before they’d spent several months in a bandit camp, where they’d spent the days cooking and cleaning and the nights being raped by their captors. Jasmine’s heart went out to them, yet she knew better than to trust them; people did odd things when they were held captive for so long and it was possible that the women had actually fallen in love with their rapists. The human mind was good at twisting itself and inventing excuses to make suffering bearable.

She switched channels as the handful of prisoners were dragged out, searched and then secured, left to wait on the ground while the Marines searched the remainder of the camp. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing particularly interesting about the camp, nor was there a large stash of weapons. The Civil Guard had lost several consignments of weapons before the Marines had arrived, some of which remained unaccounted for, but the mystery wouldn’t be solved today. Jasmine, who shared the general feeling that some of the Crackers had hidden the weapons in case the provisional government turned out to be a trick of some kind, was privately relieved. The bandits could have been more than a nuisance if they’d had some heavy weapons.

“Bring in the helicopters,” she ordered. The bandits hadn’t been fool enough to build their camp right next to a clearing, but they’d spotted a potential LZ not too far away. Jasmine had had it checked out before they’d started sneaking up on the camp. If someone needed emergency transport back to the medical clinic on Castle Rock, they would need an LZ. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”

The former hostages were being helped to their feet by the Marines. They looked badly shocked, even though they were being rescued. Jasmine couldn’t blame them; the Marines looked intimidating as hell – and they’d secured the girls with plastic ties, just in case. The Marines would have to carry the girls to the LZ, she realised; they’d never be able to walk that far without assistance. Jasmine was used to horror – she’d seen too much of man’s inhumanity to man even in her relatively short career – but it never failed to sicken her. How could anyone do that to their fellows?

They wanted slaves and sex objects, she thought, answering her own question. The really sickening part was that the bandits had been amateurs. Some members of the former Planetary Council of Avalon had been truly sadistic little shits, raping children and other helpless victims. And she’d seen much worse in the Empire, back during the nightmare that had enveloped Han, or in the Undercity on Earth.

Blake buzzed her. “The WARCAT team wishes permission to approach,” he said. “And the Knights wish to take over the scene.”

Jasmine had to smile. The Knights – the newly-raised Army of Avalon – weren’t as well-trained as the Marines, but they were learning fast as the former Civil Guardsmen were integrated into their ranks. Captain – no, Colonel – Stalker had decided, as Avalon was no longer part of the Empire, to merge the two, knowing that the Civil Guard had a poor reputation. Jasmine had a feeling that the Colonel had some other plan for his Marines, even though a good third of the company had been parcelled out to help the locals. Who knew what they could do once they got the tech base set up?

“Tell them they’re welcome,” she said, finally. They had asked for a joint attack on the bandit camp, but Jasmine had vetoed it, pointing out that slipping eleven men close to the camp would be hard enough. Colonel Stalker hadn’t overruled her – but then, that wasn’t the Marine way. She was the officer on the spot, charged with accomplishing her mission. Success – or failure – would be her responsibility. “Let the WARCAT team take samples from the prisoners before we get them back to Camelot.”

“Understood,” Blake said. “You think they’re going to be hung that quickly?”

Jasmine rolled her eyes as she started to walk to where the prisoners were being mustered. The new government hated bandits, for plenty of very good reasons. Every single bandit who was caught alive was either hung, or sent to work in a very isolated prison camp. It discouraged surrenders, she knew, but she found it hard to blame the new government. They’d suffered too much when the bandits had been allowed to run rampant over the countryside.

“Probably,” she said. High overhead, she heard the sound of helicopters. They were nosier than Marine Corps Raptors, but they’d been produced on Avalon, allowing them to save their handful of remaining Raptors. There would be no replacements until their tech base was developed properly. “Prepare the prisoners for their walk.”

The WARCAT team acted with practiced efficiency, taking blood samples from the prisoners and uploading them to the planetary datanet for comparison to the records. It seemed a little pointless, but Jasmine had learned long ago that there was no such thing as useless information. Knowing who the bandits were might be useful in the future, or allow them to identify gang members who hadn’t been killed or captured during the raid. It also gave them time for the medics to check the girls, verify that none of them were in immediate danger and check their identities too. Their families, if they were still alive, would be very relieved.

“All done,” the medic reported, finally. “You can carry them safely.”

Jasmine detailed seven Marines to carry the girls, with the remaining five to take point and watch for other bandits, and then led the way back into the badlands. It never struck her until after an operation that the badlands were really quite beautiful, if one liked untamed wildernesses. She reminded herself sharply that they were still in bandit country, that they might be attacked at any moment, even though cold logic told her that it was unlikely. The bandits were rarely brave enough to attack Marines. They preferred targets that couldn’t fire back.

“If I’m carrying the girl,” Blake asked, as they walked away from the remains of the camp, “does that mean I have to marry her?”

Joe snickered. “I would have thought you’d learned your lesson by now,” he said. “Women are Bad News.”

“Not all of them,” Blake said. “They didn’t actually kill me.”

Jasmine rolled her eyes. Blake had missed the Battle of Camelot because the Crackers had managed to kidnap him two weeks prior to the fighting. One of their female operatives had seduced him, then drugged him, and then somehow transported him out of the city to a hidey-hole where he’d been hidden until after the battle. Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson, the company’s senior NCO, had been incredibly scathing about the whole affair, pointing out that Blake had shown very bad judgement. Jasmine was his junior, by seniority alone, but she’d been promoted over his head. At least Blake didn’t seem to bear a grudge.

But then, Lieutenant wasn’t a permanent rank in the Terran Marine Corps. If she fucked up, Jasmine knew, she could be returned to the ranks without any formalities. Ideally, every Rifleman would have a chance at holding the rank for a few months, just to see who would make a good Captain. On Avalon, with only a relative handful of Marines, it wasn’t possible to rotate ranks as often as it was on other planets. They’d already started to bend the rules by integrating Auxiliaries into their ranks.

“That makes you damn lucky,” Joe said. “Were you borrowing my lucky red shirt?”

“I was too sexy to kill,” Blake countered, quickly. “That’s why they couldn’t kill me.”

The other Marines started to chuckle, rather sarcastically. Blake had been lucky; it was rare for a Marine prisoner to be left alive for long. Marines had been treated to make it impossible to torture them for information and their implants could be tracked, given time, by their allies. Most kidnappers would have killed their prisoner and then vanished.”

“Quiet,” Jasmine ordered, as they approached the LZ. “2nd Platoon is waiting.”

Three helicopters were sitting in the clearing, with two more orbiting overhead, weapons at the ready. Few bandits would dare to tangle with an attack helicopter, but 2nd Platoon was patrolling around the edge of the LZ, just in case. Precautions, her instructors had hammered into her head time and time again, cost very little, certainly less than a helicopter. There was a brief exchange of signals before they stepped into the LZ itself, confirming their identity, and passed the girls over to the first transport helicopter. Twenty minutes later, they were up in the air, heading back to Camelot and Castle Rock. And debriefing.

Jasmine removed her helmet and ran her hands through her dark hair, cropped close to her skull. Debriefing wasn’t going to be fun; being a Lieutenant carried extra responsibilities and few rewards, apart from the credit – and the blame. The rank was supposed to be paid more than a Rifleman, but payment these days was a little skewed. Imperial Credits were worthless on Avalon now and the replacement banking system was still struggling to establish itself. There were places where they used bartering instead of money.

“You’ll be fine,” Blake assured her. He’d deduced her train of thought, easily. She was hardly the first new Lieutenant to face her commanding officer after an operation. “And then we can go drinking.”

“I would have thought you’d learned your lesson about that too,” Jasmine said, dryly. The first few months they’d spent on Avalon had included a number of bar fights, before many of the former street gangsters had been either inducted into the Knights or sent to work on the farms. “Besides, I don’t feel like drinking right now.”

She looked down at Camelot as the tiny city came into view. From high overhead, it looked to be thriving – and indeed, there had been any number of improvements since the former Council had been defeated. The damage caused by the Battle of Camelot had been repaired, apart from the ruins of the former Government House, which had been left as a monument to the war. It was easy to forget that the Empire had withdrawn from the sector, abandoning them…

…And that they were completely on their own.


And remember – Free Book Offer!

New Kindle Book–And Promotion!

23 Oct

New Kindle Book–And Promotion!.

New Kindle Book–And Promotion!

21 Oct

Hi everyone

In a shameless attempt to gain new readers (and reviews) I will be offering a free copy of my latest Kindle book, Outside Context Problem, for download from Amazon. This promotion will run from Tuesday 23rd October to Saturday 27th October. Please consider downloading a copy and posting a review.

When a UFO crashes near a top secret military base, the American Government realises that aliens have been spying on the human race for years. But even as they rush to unlock the technological secrets in the alien craft, the aliens launch the first step in their plan to invade the Earth and enslave the human race. With a giant mothership approaching the planet and the inhabitants promising peace and plenty, humanity must defeat an vastly superior foe with uncertain motives or lose its freedom forever.

On one side, a powerful alien force…

On the other side, a divided humanity…

The battle for Earth has begun.

As a matter of principle, none of my self-published Kindle books use DRM. Feel free to download them and convert them into whatever file suits you best.

A free sample can be downloaded from my site, along with many other free samples and complete stories.

If you like my writing, please help me to promote and share this as widely as possible.

Thank You


The Royal Sorceress

14 Oct

As you know (I hope) The Royal Sorceress was released last week as an electronic book, with a paperback coming in February.  A free sample is currently available from my site here.  Elsewhen Press has also set up a forum for discussing the book here – all welcome.

In other news, sales of The Empire’s Corps have been very high from Amazon Kindle.  I am therefore resolved to write the sequel, which I hope will be out by December.  Watch this space for more news.

On a third note, I received an email today from someone who bought me something from my wish list.  Sadly, I’m not going to be in Edinburgh for two more weeks, so I’ll pick those items up and send proper thank you notes then.  I wasn’t being ungrateful, honest.<wink>


The Great Game (The Royal Sorceress 2)–Snippet

8 Oct

Chapter One

“It’s a shame you can’t hide your chin,” Olivia said, as Gwen studied her own reflection in the mirror. “Without it, you’d fool even a sharp-eye.”

Gwen snorted. Her adopted daughter had grown up on the streets. Physically, she was somewhere around ten years old – it was impossible to be sure – but mentally she was well over forty. Children grew up quickly on the streets and those unlucky enough to be born female tended to suffer more than most. Gwen had railed against her own upbringing, but she’d been lucky – very lucky – compared to Olivia. A few more years and she would no longer have been able to pass for a boy.

“True,” she agreed. “But I might not be able to fool a Sensitive.”

She studied herself thoughtfully. The black jacket and white shirt she wore – the very latest in male fashion – had been carefully designed to hide the swell of her breasts, while the top hat disguised her short blonde hair. She’d had to cut it short while she’d been training under Master Thomas, but she’d kept it short even after she’d succeeded him as Royal Sorceress. It was short enough to pass for a slightly-effeminate male hairstyle, or so she hoped. Elaborate wigs, which would have hidden everything, were currently out of fashion. Even her mother, who would have fainted if she’d realised that Gwen was dressing up as a man, hadn’t been able to see when wearing wigs would be fashionable once again.

Most importantly of all, she looked nothing like Lady Gwen Crichton, Royal Sorceress.

“You’ll certainly fool those toffs you’re going to see,” Olivia assured her, with the certainty of one who knew. “That lot never look very closely at someone wearing the right clothes. I know conmen who profited simply by dressing the part.”

Gwen took one final look in the mirror and then turned, picking up the cane that had been passed down to her from Master Thomas. The elderly magician had left her almost everything he’d owned, including money, property and a set of notebooks that were written in a scrawled hand that was almost impossible to decipher. Looking down at it, Gwen felt herself feeling the same ambience she always felt towards the memory of her mentor. Master Thomas had plucked her from her boring life and trained her as a sorceress – and she would always be grateful – but he’d also been responsible for unleashing a nightmare on London to defeat the Swing. Gwen was one of the very few people who knew the truth, even though it was something she would have preferred to forget.

There was a knock at the door. “Begging your pardon, My Lady, but Inspector Jude is downstairs,” the maid said. “He awaits your pleasure.”

Gwen nodded to Olivia and walked to the door. Cavendish Hall was massive, with several entrances that allowed her to leave unseen. She might have been the Royal Sorceress, with the formal power to deal with all legal and military matters involving magic, but the remainder of the Sorcerers Corps was unsure of how to deal with her. If they’d had another Master Magician, Gwen knew, she would have been expected to stand aside for him. But they didn’t. Some of the traditionalists were even making noises about appointing a committee of magicians to take Master Thomas’s place. Only the newcomers supported her without reservation.

Inspector Jude stepped out of the carriage and nodded politely to Gwen. Like her, he’d dressed up in the garments of a young nobleman, one of the many who were born and bred outside London and gravitated to the capital city when they came of age. She had to admit that he wore the clothes better than her, complete with a hint of stubble that gave him a daringly rakish look. No one would have taken him for a Bow Street Runner, at least not on first sight.

“They’re definitely having a meeting tonight,” he said, as she climbed into the carriage and sat down. “We saw the Worshipful Master heading for the hall barely an hour ago.”

“Good,” Gwen said, tightly. She always felt nervous before walking into trouble, even though she was fine once the trouble actually began. “Let’s hope that it isn’t just another false alarm.”

The Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom had seemed, at first, like just another craze spreading through legions of aristocratic men who refused to do anything useful with their lives. Most of them were second or third sons who wouldn’t inherit either land or property, leaving them living in considerable luxury without any real goals in life. Those who had the inclination joined the army, or the navy, or even the Colonial Service. The remainder just idled around London, enjoying an endless series of parties, hunts and other diversions. It wouldn’t be the first time that they’d started trying to play around with magic.

But there were rumours about the Worshipful Order, disturbing rumours, and it was Gwen’s task to investigate. They’d become more blatant in the six months since the Swing, since Master Thomas had died, as if they didn’t expect Gwen to hold them to account. She’d known that they would have to do something the moment she’d read the file. But punishing young aristocrats required a far higher level of proof than punishing common people.

The carriage rattled noisily as it crossed the bridge and headed into Pall Mall. Once, it had been the most expensive part of London, but that had been before the Swing, before rebels had held the capital city long enough to destroy many of the hated symbols of wealth. Now, several dozen buildings were being rebuilt, yet the richer part of the population had started to gravitate outside the city. Gwen’s brother had informed her that flats in Pall Mall were actually going surprisingly cheaply these days.

Inspector Jude didn’t bother with small talk as the carriage turned the corner and headed down towards the Worshipful Order’s hall. Gwen felt her stomach clench as she checked both the cane – which concealed a sword – and the hidden revolver she carried in her jacket. There would be policemen, and a Talker, waiting near the building, but she’d had enough experience by now to know how quickly a situation could get out of hand.

“Here we are, My Lord,” Inspector Jude said. “Remember to swagger as you jump out of the carriage.”

Gwen smiled as the carriage lurched to a halt, a moment before one of the doormen opened the door and waited for the occupants to step outside. She jumped down, silently relieved that she no longer had to wear skirts at all, no matter how scandalous her mother and her friends found it, and strode up to the door with all the confidence she could muster. Lord McAlister, her alter ego, wouldn’t allow anything to stand in her path. Gwen kept walking and the doormen simply melted away. They knew that the Worshipful Master loved inviting the other aristocrats to his little coven. Anyone who knew about it, they assumed, had been invited. Gwen had no intention of correcting them just yet.

“Ah, Laird McAlister,” the Worshipful Master said. Gwen braced herself as his gaze flickered over her, but he looked away without seeing anything suspicious. The smell of brandy suggested that he’d been fortifying himself before the meeting actually began, unsurprisingly. Some of the party set could drink all night and never notice any ill-effects in the morning. “Welcome, welcome; please, take a place in the hall.”

Gwen nodded and headed into the main room. It had been heavily altered to suit the Order’s needs, complete with two stone tables in the centre of the room, one much larger than the other, and five heavy chandeliers of lights hanging high overhead. They spun slowly, casting odd shadows over the spectators – and the robed members of the Order. Apart from the Worshipful Master himself, they all wore masks to conceal their identities. It was another sign that they were pushing the limits, even for men with fine aristocratic families. They really didn’t want to be caught.

The room filled up slowly. As Gwen had expected, there were twelve members of the Order openly decked out in their ropes, and around forty unrobed men who seemed to be nothing more than spectators, all instantly recognisable to someone who had grown up in the aristocracy. The unrobed men were drinking heavily, served by maids who walked from person to person carrying glasses and bottles while doing their best to avoid groping fingers. There didn’t seem to be any aristocratic women in the room, for which Gwen was grateful, knowing that one of them might have been able to see through her disguise. Besides, aristocratic women were prone to a different sort of silliness than the men.

“Welcome, one and all,” the Worshipful Master said. The doors slammed closed with a heavy thud. “Today, we will crack open the secrets that lead to magic and invest ourselves with the power of sorcerers!”

He produced a book and placed it down on the smaller table. Gwen recognised it at once and had to fight to keep her face calm. The volume, written by a mad Arab, was well known in the occult world, but it was all nonsense. Certainly, none of the spells within the volume had worked when the Royal College had tried them, back during the early days of magic. And none of the known forms of magic had been listed in the book.

“We shall summon an entity from the ninth plane of hell,” the Worshipful Master said. He certainly sounded as though he believed what he was saying, although Olivia had once told Gwen that sounding sincere and honest was a vital requirement for being a conman. “To prepare the room, we will chant a summoning rite. Join us, once you pick up the words.”

He clicked his fingers, and then started to chant in a language Gwen didn’t recognise. A moment later, the other brothers joined in, creating a sonorous, almost hypnotic effect. It was nonsense – magic simply didn’t work that way, as Gwen knew better than anyone – and yet it was captivating. The rhythms were easy to learn and follow; one by one, the audience slowly joined in with the brothers. She exchanged a brief look with Inspector Jude and started to mutter the words herself, wondering which language they were using. Or maybe the Worshipful Master had made them up. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a few dozen nonsense syllables and recite them with apparent sincerity.

The chant seemed to change once everyone had picked up the words. Gwen listened as the Worshipful Master added his own words, his voice echoing out over the background, while the brothers kept repeating the same mantras. He would have made a good singer, she considered, if he’d been able to go on stage, but it would have been a major scandal. It wouldn’t do for the scion of an aristocratic family to stand up and sing like a common music hall jockey.

Finally, a bell rang and the Worshipful Master fell silent. The chant slowly died away, leaving them standing silently in the midst of the room.

“We have been heard,” the Worshipful Master said. “He hears us. He is coming.”

A dull thump echoed through the hall. Despite herself, Gwen tensed. There was so much they didn’t know about magic; it might just be possible that the Worshipful Master and his Order had stumbled into something new. But all of her instincts told her otherwise, despite the shiver running down her spine as another thump shook the building. And then a door opened at the far end of the room and two more brothers, robed and masked, walked in, carrying a girl between their shoulders. She was naked, but didn’t seem aware of it. One look and Gwen knew that she had been drugged. The dull expression in her eyes was proof of that.

“We will offer this life to the dark one,” the Worshipful Master said quietly, as the Brothers helped the girl onto the larger stone table. “She will die and we will be rewarded with power beyond imagination.”

Gwen glanced at Inspector Jude, who nodded, one hand reaching into his jacket for his concealed revolver. Nodding back, she closed her eyes and sent a single thought to the Talker outside the building. Come.

“With this blade,” the Worshipful Master said, “we will send her to the afterlife and…”

Gwen stepped forward and reached out with her magic, yanking the knife out of the Worshipful Master’s hand. He stared at it, and then at Gwen, his face twisted with disbelief and shock. Gwen caught the knife in one hand – one glance at it told her that it came from John Wells, a well-known fake magician – and slammed it to the floor. It shattered into a spray of stone fragments.

“You are all under arrest,” she said, drawing on her magic to illuminate her form. They’d see through her disguise now, so she pushed as much Charm into her voice as she could. “Sit down and wait quietly until the police get here.”

Some of the aristocrats, too weak-minded or stupid to shake of the Charm, complied at once. The others, already panicking, kept running, heading for the doors that led to the outside world and freedom. None of them could afford to be caught. A handful produced weapons and hesitated, unsure if they should be pointing them at Gwen or at the Worshipful Master. Gwen had no doubt that they were wondering if they could convince their families that they were actually spying for the government…

The Worshipful Master snarled and produced another knife, throwing it at Gwen with lethal force. Gwen caught it effortlessly and threw it back, angling it right between his legs. He let out a yelp as the knife sliced through his robes and fell over backwards, just as two other bystanders opened fire on Gwen. The bullets bounced off her shields and ricocheted around the hall. One of the Charmed aristocrats on the floor let out a yell as a bullet grazed his shoulder.

“You are under arrest,” Gwen repeated, as Inspector Jude produced a pair of handcuffs and cuffed the Worshipful Master. Down below, policemen were flooding into the building, rounding up everyone inside. No doubt most of them would claim to have nothing to do with the Order; some of them might even be telling the truth. But Gwen found that rather unlikely. “Tell me; just what did you expect would happen when you killed the poor girl?”

The Worshipful Master glared at her. “I would have been granted power far superior to yours,” he snarled, finally. Gwen couldn’t tell if he was serious, or if he was still trying to con her. He really should have known better. “And then I would have ruled the world.”

Gwen shook her head as two burly policemen arrived. “Have him taken to the cells, somewhere separate from the rest of his Order,” she said. The remaining members of the Order had surrendered without a fight and, once they’d been cuffed, their masks had been removed. Gwen recognised all, but one of them as scions of powerful families. Their arrest was likely to lead to a power struggle between the King’s Government and their relatives, all of whom would be outraged at their children being arrested. “And keep them separate as well.”

“Certainly, My Lady,” Inspector Jude said. The policeman beside him gave Gwen a sharp look, as if he hadn’t realised that she was female until Jude had pointed it out. “I trust that you will be taking the case directly to the Minister of Justice?”

“I will,” Gwen said. Master Thomas could have dealt with everything on his own authority – but he’d had sixty years of experience and knew where most of the bodies were buried. Gwen had much less latitude…and far more political enemies. The ones who didn’t consider her a foolish female – never mind the fact that Queens tended to be better for the country than Kings – believed that she was too young to do her job. “And see where they found her.”

A police doctor was already looking at the intended sacrifice. “She’s been drugged, probably with a light doze of chloroform,” he said. “It would probably be better to let her recover here and then transfer her to one of the hospitals, where she can be interviewed.”

“See to it,” Gwen ordered. “I can write a chit for a Healer’s services, if necessary.”

She took one last look at the Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom and then walked out of the door, back onto the streets. A small army of policemen were identifying, booking and finally marching off the aristocratic witnesses, using kid gloves. Gwen found it hard to blame them; even a very junior aristocrat could file a complaint that would ruin a constable’s career. The Bow Street Runners might have been purged of the worst of the corruption after the Swing, when they had failed to keep the streets under control, but there were still bad apples within the bunch.

Taking a copy of the arrest list from Inspector Lestrade, who could never have passed for an aristocrat, she walked off in the direction of the Houses of Parliament. If she knew Lord Mycroft, he’d still be working on papers in his office until midnight and he’d need to see the arrest list as soon as possible. The Worshipful Order of Ancient Wisdom would create a political nightmare as soon as they were released from custody.

But there had been no choice. Sacrificing a human being was very definitely crossing the line, even though Gwen had known that it would be futile. They’d had to be stopped, even if it meant risking the stability of the government, even if it meant risking her own position.

Because if she couldn’t stop well-connected men from murdering members of the lower orders, what had Jack died for anyway?

The Royal Sorceress–Ebook Online Now!

7 Oct
The Royal Sorceress can be purchased in a digital edition from these links and will be published in paperback on 4th February 2013. Reviews welcome!

New Snippet–Magic Words

2 Oct

Chapter One

Elyria could not contain her excitement as she waited in the virtual room. She was young, barely a mature student in the field of pre-singularity civilisations, hardly any more than her first century old. To be invited to attend a meeting of the Confederation Security Council was a singular honour, one she had never heard extended to anyone outside Government or Peacekeeper circles. Indeed, she couldn’t think of any reason why they had invited her.

She had been born into the greatest civilisation ever to exist, a society that ensured that almost every demand of its hundred trillion inhabitants could be met easily, without undue delay. Her formative years had been spent absorbing an educational stream that had made it clear exactly how lucky she and her generation were, compared to humanity’s past generations. She lived in a world her ancestors would have considered a paradise. The lessons must have stuck, for when she had come to choose her first career path she’d started to study primitive civilisations, those that existed without any real knowledge of the stars.

There was no shortage of primitive civilisations in the galaxy, she knew. The Confederation intervened on human worlds that had been cut off from the galactic mainstream for thousands of years, helping them to overcome the limitations forced on them by limited technology and uplifting them to join the Confederation as beings who could make their own choices for the first time in their entire lives. She’d even joined the faction that wanted to intervene on alien worlds too, although they hadn’t been successful in convincing the Confederation as a whole to support intervention. Meddling with humans was simple, at least for the Confederation; aliens tended to take it a little hard.

But what sort of primitive world would demand a full meeting of the Confederation Security Council?

She could not be in trouble. Nothing had gone wrong on her last two excursions into pre-singularity societies. Even if she had intervened more than the Confederation considered acceptable, she would have been called to account by her peers, not the full CSC. The worst that could have happened would have happened by now.

A flicker of light marked the arrival of the President, the elected figurehead who gave the other races who had diplomatic relations with the Confederation someone to meet. Behind her, the Grand Admiral of the Peacekeepers appeared, followed rapidly by the heads of all four major factions and the strange, endlessly shifting figure that represented the MassMind. Right at the end, a blonde woman appeared, the averter the AIs used when they were talking to their human creators, whom they had long since surpassed.

“The chamber is secure,” the AIs announced. “The meeting may now proceed.”

“I believe you called it,” the President said. The AIs had a seat on the Council; unlike the other members, who came and went, they held it in perpetuity. Only the MassMind came close to their level of awareness. “We are at your disposal.”

The AI representative stepped forward. “Two weeks ago, a scout ship operating along the Rim stumbled across a human colony world,” she said. Elyria leaned forward with some interest. Lost colonies were hardly unknown; indeed, most of her case histories came from worlds that had lost contact with the rest of humanity. “The ship’s commander performed a basic scan of the planet, determined that the general level of technology seemed to be mid First Age, and then prepared to depart orbit, leaving it for a future intervention team from the Confederation. It was then that his sensors picked up a thoroughly weird image from the planet’s surface.”

A viewscreen appeared in front of them, displaying a man…riding on a flying carpet? Elyria stared in disbelief. It was easy to produce flying objects – the Confederation did it all the time – but even a late First Age society couldn’t produce anything more complex than a simple glider. And as the flying carpet twisted and turned in the air, clearly under the command of its flyer, it was obvious that it was far more than a glider.

“The Captain’s first thought was that he had stumbled across a world that chose not to use technology to any great extent,” the AIs explained, “but when a full hail refused to provoke any reaction, he made the decision to send remote probes down into the planetary atmosphere. They picked up considerably more data, some of it remarkably disturbing. It seems that the laws of science simply do not apply on Darius. We have scanned the records and observed manipulation of local space that is well beyond anything outside a virtual environment. Further investigation revealed that the locals consider such manipulation to be magic.”

Elyria stared at the blonde woman. Every primitive society believed in magic, and gods – and, to be fair, there were gods, the elder races. But very few societies had actually encountered the Ancients, as far as anyone had been able to determine. The transcendent races kept themselves to themselves. Magic was a superstition that, eventually, a society grew out of as it started to advance.

The President saw it first. “You’re talking about manipulation of the quantum foam.”

“Yes,” the AI representative said. “We have been unable to think of any other explanation for their abilities. They, or someone from one of the Elder Races, are somehow manipulating the quantum foam.”

Everyone who took a basic science course in the Confederation learned about the quantum foam, the underlying bedrock of reality, even though very few people truly understood it. If pressed, Elyria would have had to admit that she was one of the many who didn’t; as she understood it, the quantum foam determined the nature of reality itself. Learn to hack into the quantum foam and one would be able to hack reality itself. Manipulating it served as the basis for the Elder Races demonstrated omnipotence; mastering it had been one of the human race’s goals since the discovery that there were entities out there so powerful that they could snap their fingers and wipe out the entire Confederation.

The Confederation had researched the whole issue thoroughly for years, but most research had either come up blank or produced results that didn’t make sense. Certain artefacts appeared to be capable of manipulating local space around them, as if they were designed to influence the quantum foam, often to the point of allowing frankly impossible events to occur. The Dead Zone, a region of space where modern technology simply refused to function, encompassed at least thirty stars, completely unaffected by a force that should have snuffed them out like candles.

And if someone could manipulate it on a very small scale…

“I find it hard to believe that humans can do this,” the Grand Admiral said, finally. “Are you sure that there isn’t a trick involved?”

“We have refrained from making actual contact, but we have deployed literally millions of snoops all over Darius,” the AI representative said. “If there is a trick, as you put it, we are unable to identify it. Furthermore, the communications links report…glitches comparable to recorded glitches on both Ancient worlds and Essence. As you are well aware, there is no known theory for explaining disruptions to QCC communications links. It should be impossible.”

Elyria swallowed, hard. She had never studied the Ancients – she had a theory that any real discoveries about the race that had vanished six billion years ago would have been made by now, given the vast amount of resources poured into investigating their worlds – but she knew enough to show her just how weird their worlds were. Modern technology didn’t fail, not like the Dead Zone, yet it did suffer glitches. The AIs couldn’t function on the strange worlds and it drove them insane with curiosity. No wonder they were so interested in Darius.

“I think I see where this is going,” the President said. “You want to research Darius thoroughly.”

“Yes,” the AI representative said.

The representative from the Isolation Faction smiled. “Is this really something we should be messing with?”

“We believe that we have been granted a priceless opportunity,” the AI representative countered. “It would be foolish not to make the most of it.”

“Except that by intervening, we may destroy what makes them so special,” the Darwinist representative pointed out. “Do we really want to open ourselves to them?”

“We believe that we should study them first, before intervening,” the AI representative admitted. “This situation is unique.”

Elyria made a face. There was no reason to deny humans the benefits of human civilisation, no matter what warlords, kings, emperors and even elected politicians thought about it. A society so primitive that it used gold as a means of exchange and practiced the slave trade didn’t deserved to exist, and the shock of discovering that there were humans out among the stars who were practically gods tended to destroy any fond feelings about the former government. Maybe, if Darius’ population all shared the same abilities, they would be loosely democratic, but she doubted it. A democratic First Age society was a rare thing and almost unprecedented among human experience.

“If they can manipulate the quantum foam,” the Grand Admiral said, quietly, “they pose a danger to the entire Confederation.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that they can manipulate it outside a certain range,” the AI representative pointed out, “and certainly no evidence that they can reach outside their own atmosphere. There doesn’t even seem to be any awareness that they live in a solar system, although they have managed to grasp that the world is a sphere.”

The President smiled. “We do have a duty to our fellow humans,” she said, seriously. The Confederation didn’t object to people living in primitive conditions if they wanted to live in primitive conditions. Making sure that humans had that choice was one of the Confederation’s prime reasons for existing. “On the other hand, this world might be able to bite back.”

Elyria caught herself nodding. A warlord whose principle weapons consisted of men on horseback armed with spears would be utterly helpless against force fields capable of picking his army up and depositing them somewhere safe for re-education. Removing the yoke of local tyrants was often little more than the work of an afternoon, even if it took years afterwards to help their victims realise that they no longer needed to bow and scrape to their so-called betters.

But a society capable of manipulating the quantum foam? They might very well be able to defend themselves against the Confederation, certainly to the point where more extreme measures would have to be taken. And if their powers got really out of hand, they might even start threatening the structure of local space. The results would be disastrous. No, the AIs were right. They had to know more about Darius before they stepped in to help its population achieve its full potential.

And, she considered silently, studying Darius might unlock the mysteries behind manipulating the quantum foam.

“We believe that Professor Elyria will be more than suitable as the head of the overall study group,” the AI representative said. All eyes turned to Elyria, who flushed. Her society didn’t really believe in hierarchies, but those who had reached high rank did so because of very genuine achievements. What would they make of her? “She is already experienced at dealing with First Age societies and young enough not to be shocked by the impossible.”

The President nodded. “I certainly have no objections,” she said, after a moment in which she no doubt reviewed Elyria’s complete file. “I assume, however, that the study team will include representatives versed in security matters?”

“Of course,” the AI representative said. “We welcome all input from the Peacekeepers.”

“I disagree,” the Isolation representative said, quickly. “This calls for a very careful research effort carried out over years, not a hasty study before yet another intervention.”

There was a brief debate, followed by a quick vote. Elyria was surprised to discover that everyone seemed to have an equal vote, all but one of them in favour of her appointment.

“As yet, this has remained unnoticed by the media,” the AIs said. “I think it behoves us to keep it that way as long as possible.”

“See to it,” the President said, “but make sure you keep us informed.”

One by one, the representatives vanished from the secure chamber, until only the Grand Admiral and the AI representative stood with Elyria. She couldn’t help feeling a little nervous, despite the various modifications her bloodline had undergone in the years since the foundation of the Confederation; she’d never operated at this level in her entire life. And the AIs had brought her in without getting her selected first…either they’d been certain of the outcome, or she was missing something. Probably the latter.

“You want the secret behind manipulating the quantum foam,” the Grand Admiral said, flatly.

“Of course,” the AI representative said. “Don’t you?”

“I am responsible for the physical security of the Confederation,” the Grand Admiral said. “As nice as it is to discover a shortcut to unlocking the greatest mystery in the universe, I must view it, first and foremost, as a possible threat. These people can do the inexplicable and that alone makes them dangerous.”

“They have no idea that we even exist,” the AIs pointed out. “How can they be dangerous?”

“I’m sure that the Essence Entities had no idea we existed either,” the Grand Admiral said. “That didn’t stop them being incredibly dangerous.”

He nodded to Elyria, and then looked back at the AIs. “I’m going to have to insist on complete security,” he said. “A planetoid and supporting elements will be placed within five light years of Darius, with additional ships on alert if necessary. The research vessel will be a Peacekeeper-controlled science vessel, not a standard one from the Intervention Group. In the event of Darius posing any threat, we will withdraw from the system and quarantine it until we can decide what to do next.”

The AI representative smiled. “One Peacekeeper cruiser can go toe-to-toe with an entire battlefleet from the 5th Interstellar War and emerge victorious,” they said. “What do you expect to encounter that requires an entire planetoid to fight?”

“I do not know,” the Grand Admiral said, firmly, “but I do know that this is going to be dangerous. And if it gets out of hand, I want resources on hand to combat it.”

He looked over at Elyria. “You’ll have command of the mission, but there will be a Peacekeeper in command of the science vessel,” he added. “Don’t let the AIs push you into moving too quickly. And if the Peacekeepers issue the order to evacuate the surface, don’t argue with it.”

“Understood,” Elyria said. No intervention mission had failed completely, ever. But this was a research mission into possibly hostile territory. Maybe the Peacekeepers had a point, whatever the AIs said. Any kind of quantum foam manipulation was potentially deadly dangerous. “What about the other races?”

The Grand Admiral scowled. Relatively few races matched humanity’s technological prowess and none of them possessed anything as many ships as the Peacekeepers, who had over two million starships. But many of them thought that the Confederation was simply too big and powerful already, and they all wanted to know how to manipulate the quantum foam. If any other race worked out that Darius existed, they’d either demand access or bombard the planet into radioactive plasma. The results would not be pleasant.

“There should be no other advanced civilisation within two thousand light years,” he said, finally. “However, we will be taking security precautions. If worst comes to worst, we will claim the system outright and let the pieces fall where they may.”

He nodded politely to Elyria and flickered out of the chamber.

“He’s serious,” Elyria said, quietly. Understanding clicked. “You wanted all that, didn’t you?”

“It is only logical to be paranoid,” the AI representative said. “And besides, the Grand Admiral is right. We could allow our lust to understand the quantum foam to blind us to the dangerous.”

Elyria had to smile. “He didn’t say that out loud,” she said.

“No, but it is a logical surmise,” the AIs said. “You should start preparing the basic list of team members already. Some will not wish to deal with security precautions, so you may have to invite your second or third choices to the team. The Grand Admiral has already assigned you a Peacekeeper liaison officer. We suggest that you treat him as part of the team.”

There was a long pause. “We have already prepared you a full data download for your neural implant of everything we have recorded and surmised about Darius,” they added. “You will, of course, be able to use it as a guide to planning your investigation of the planet. It is hoped that you can devise a way to insert agents into the population to gather data.”

“I should hope so,” Elyria said. That was easy, given enough data. Darius clearly had trading networks, so any strangeness could be explained away by claiming that the strangers were from out of town. On the other hand, they’d have to check how much knowledge the locals had of other cultures before they make too many claims. It wouldn’t do to allow the locals to spot a blatant lie. “I’ll start studying the download at once.”

“Make sure that you are under observation,” the AIs warned. Elyria gave their representative a sharp look. Privacy was one of the most highly valued luxuries in the Confederation, not least because there was so little of it. “The data is somewhat startling, almost unbelievable.”

Elyria didn’t doubt it for a second. Linking out of the virtual communications network, she checked her data store and discovered a new data packet marked DARIUS. Activating it, she accessed the file…and plunged into a whole new world.