Archive | April, 2013

Signed Copies of The Royal Sorceress and Bookworm

25 Apr

Hi, everyone

I’ve just confirmed that I will be going back to the UK in July for a short visit with the British half of my family. I’m actually looking forward to it – I can’t wait to see my family again.

However, it also offers me a chance to sign copies of both The Royal Sorceress and Bookworm for my fans.

It will cost £11 to receive a signed copy if you live in the UK (including postage and packing.) I don’t (yet) know the cost to ship to the US or Europe, but I suspect that the total cost will be at least £15.

What I would like to do is collect the money (through PayPal. ideally) by mid-June, have copies sent to my UK address by early July, allowing me to sign and send out the books by the 12th July. I may be able to make alternate arrangements through Amazon payments if necessary, but I’m reluctant to do that because it might easily cause confusion.

If you’re interested, drop me an email to and I’ll get back in touch with you when I’m organised (hopefully by the end of May.) Please write the postage address carefully, particularly if you live outside the UK. (I’ve already been stung once.)



Reflections Upon Defeat: The Disaster in Iraq

17 Apr

[My second political post. Comments welcome.]

It is now more than a decade since American and British forces surged across the Iraq-Kuwait border and invaded Iraq. American forces advanced on Baghdad, capturing the city within three weeks, while British forces concentrated on securing Southern Iraq and Basra. It was a spectacularly successful military campaign that laid the groundwork for the disaster the occupation would become. There was no plan, a colossal shortage of manpower and resources – and a general lack of awareness of Iraqi realities.

The United States staggered under the early disasters – and adapted, reacted and overcame. President Bush held his nerve, dispatched reinforcements (in what became known as the ‘Surge) and allowed the US to leave with honour. It was a far from perfect victory, but it was a victory. Iraq now has hope, which is more than could be said of the country while Saddam held power.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of British forces.

As a British citizen, I shall be blunt. We were lied to.

I’m not talking about the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the other intelligence mistakes made prior to the invasion. Given Saddam’s history, there was little ground for believing his assertions that he had disposed of all his WMD; Bush and Blair cannot be faulted for refusing to believe a man who had denied having weapons so many times before. Those mistakes were understandable.

What was less understandable – or acceptable – was the spin used by the British Government and senior military officers to convince us that all was well in Basra, Iraq.

At the dawn of the century, there was good reason to be proud of our military accomplishments. We had fought and won the only successful counter-insurgency campaign of the Cold War (France and America won on the battlefield, but lost at the negotiating table; the USSR couldn’t even claim that much of a victory) and we had also fought and won the most successful small war (the Falklands). We told ourselves that we had a mastery that more than made up for the sheer preponderance of firepower that the Americans or the Soviet Union brought to the battlefield.

Iraq proved that belief to be nothing more than conceit.

Let me be clear on this. Throughout the civilised world – and the Middle East – British military prestige has fallen to an all-time low. And the reason for this is our outright failure in Iraq. Right now, it would be difficult to uphold our military commitments, let alone take part in another coalition war. This is a disaster of the first magnitude.

Iraq was a British defeat on a scale unseen since Yorktown or Saratoga – or even Singapore. Like those pivotal battles, Iraq was fought by officers more intent on politics than common sense, by politicians more concerned about their legacy than about the practicalities of the campaign. Just because we no longer have an empire to defend is no reason not to worry about the consequences of such a disaster. Instead, the British Government seems intent on sweeping it all under the rug.

No one is fooled – except, perhaps, the British population.

But why did this happen?

The principle answer, I fear, lies in the character of Tony Blair (and, to some extent, Gordon Brown.) Blair liked to be liked; more than that, he wanted to strut his stuff on a worldwide scale. He was possessed by a narcissistic belief that how you look is more important than what you actually do – and, to some extent, such a belief prepared him well for politics. The real world, however, is much less easy to impress. Merely decreeing that something must be done is not the same as actually doing it.

[Americans may wish to note – and worry – that Barrack Obama shares many of Blair’s personality traits.]

This leads to another problem shared by those with narcissistic tendencies; a lack of focus, concentration and long-term thinking. The narcissists pick up something, play with it for a little while and then put it down again, forgetting why they were interested in the first place as soon as it is no longer useful to them. This is a dangerous belief in any circumstances, but worst of all when fighting a war. When the war made Blair look bad, he did his best to spin it in his favour or simply pretend that it was not happening. In essence, Blair was perhaps the worst war leader Britain had had since Lord North, who lost the American colonies. He certainly failed to live up to the standards of Churchill, Thatcher or even Chamberlain.

9/11 was a godsend to Blair (and to some of his administration) as it allowed him to push himself into the spotlight. He was the first world leader to visit Washington and the first to pledge his support. When Bush planned to invade Iraq, Blair effectively wrote him a black cheque, obtaining – in return – a pledge to go to the UN first. This might have seemed good press, but it was lousy politics; anyone with a reasonable background in geopolitics should have known better than to expect the UN to provide any actual support for the invasion. In short, Blair failed to get anything concrete in return for his support.

The political storm this provoked led directly to the second major error of the campaign; the shortage of actual planning. There was no clear plan (American or British) for the occupation of Iraq (matters were complicated by the fact that the original invasion plans called for the British to attack south from Turkey and occupy the Iraqi north) and no realisation that the plans would actually be necessary. In effect, British troops jumped into terra incognita. This was a preventable mistake which would cast baleful shadows over the entire campaign.

Geography dictates the course of wars. When considering an insurgency (or even a peaceful occupation) that geography includes the population of the combat zone. Their attitudes are paramount, particularly when one isn’t hell-bent on exterminating the locals. In this case, there were three major strikes against the occupation forces from day zero. Basra had been abandoned by the allies in 1991 (they rose up against Saddam, believing the promises that they would receive support from the West, but no support materialised and they were crushed) and there was a long, difficult-to-patrol border between Iraq and Iran. Oh, and perhaps most importantly of all, Iran’s population were Shia … just like most of the population of Basra.

What this meant, in practical terms, was simple. Iran had considerable advantages when it came to manipulating the locals, who were disinclined to trust the West … and wanted to claim their democratic right, the rule of Iraq. Any occupation force should have taken this into account from the start.

We boasted endlessly about our successes in Ireland and Malaya. What we ignored was the fundamental building blocks of our successes, building blocks that didn’t exist in Iraq. In both Ireland and Malaya, we had access to thousands of supporters, a working Civil Service and much else that gave us an advantage. In Iraq, there were few supporters (a problem that became worse as it became clear that we couldn’t protect them) and no working bureaucracy we could use to our advantage. The shortage of interpreters alone was disastrous.

You may note that one trait of the narcissistic personality is to endlessly boast about his past accomplishments. We boasted about our successes without actually bothering to learn from them. I suppose it was easier to do that than actually think.

The next major error came directly from the shortage of understanding of just what Iraq was actually like. The troop levels in Basra were never enough to dominate the area and provide security for the population. British troops were expected to patrol the cities, the nearby towns and the border, all the while helping the locals to reconstruct their country. There were, quite simply, nowhere near enough troops on the ground to do all that, even in a relatively peaceful country. And Iraq was nowhere near peaceful. What peace there was in Basra came because British troops didn’t control it in reality.

Put bluntly, when inserting yourself into any problem, there is a process we may as well call the ‘buy-in.’ If you share a flat with someone, to use a simple example, you have no say in what goes on unless you pay the rent. The British (and American, to some extent) buy-in to Iraq was nowhere near great enough to shape events on the ground to our satisfaction. What actually happened was the creation of a shadow government that was opposed to us, backed by Iran and eventually bent on taking control of the entire country. Our attempts to create civil government in Iraq merely added to this government’s power.

This problem was further complicated by the political dimension. Iraq’s provisional government needed the support of the Shia in the south. This meant that any British attempt to curb the growth of ‘rogue’ militia units would be curtailed by the provisional government or the US. The British might prune back a militia that stuck its head out too far, but other than that they were allowed to grow almost unopposed. In effect, the city was handed over to a gang of murderers who could give lessons to the Taliban in brutality.

British Generals failed their troops. Despite countless examples of stunning bravery from British forces, there was no concentrated attempt to demand additional troops and resources from Britain. British equipment was not up to acceptable standards for large parts of the campaign, British manpower was nowhere near enough to handle the tasks it was expected to do and there was absolutely no trust (with good reason) between British troops and their Iraqi counterparts.

Why did this happen? In short, the Generals had become uniformed politicians, telling political leaders what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed to hear. They were content to accept a series of increasingly disastrous politically-motivated decisions rather than stand up for the men and women under their command. Maybe this isn’t surprising – opposing one’s boss is never good for the career – but in warfare it costs lives. I have no doubt that the Generals could have earned a living by writing books on the war. And maybe then they could have held their heads high.

Churchill had Brooke, who had no hesitation in telling the PM when one of his ideas was dotty. Who did Blair have?

A decisive politician would have accepted that there were two choices. The British could ante up, send more troops to Basra, tell the provisional government to go to hell and do whatever was necessary to take control of the city. Or the British could accept defeat and withdraw, cutting their losses. Blair chose a third option; he temporised, allowing British policy to drift without any steering at all. The net result was that Britain ended up with the worst of both worlds; a failure to solve any of the major problems which would, eventually, explode in the country’s face. Blair’s refusal to admit defeat meant that British heroism was effectively wasted.

The crowning moment in the ‘victorious’ war came when the Iraqi Government finally made the decision that they could no longer tolerate the situation in Basra. It was the New Iraqi Army, aided by the Americans, that crushed the militias in Basra, not the British Army. We knew little about it until the operation was underway, which left the spin-doctors struggling to work the event to our advantage. By then, the pretence had worn thin. No one outside the UK was inclined to believe that we hadn’t been defeated. It should not have surprised anyone that we were ordered out of the country in 2008. Why should they have been grateful for our efforts?

President Bush, by ordering the Surge, showed that he was willing to pay a high price to shape Iraq’s future. The American military engaged in brutal self-criticism and emerged capable of taking on the insurgents and besting them at their own game. American industry produced new vehicles and weapons designed for urban combat.

We did none of those things.

Indeed, having failed to learn and apply the lessons from our counter-insurgency past, we have failed to learn and apply the lessons from Iraq. Most of the mistakes we made there have been repeated in Afghanistan. They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing time and time again, expecting a different result each time. What, then, is rotten in the state of Britain?

The failure in Iraq was a political and military failure, caused by the shortcomings of our political and military leaders. If we are to avoid yet another military disaster, we must examine the underlying factors that caused our defeat and deal with them. The blunt truth is simple – we defeated ourselves in Iraq. Now, we have to pick up the pieces and learn.

I had hoped that the Coalition government would do better than Labour at managing our military. Instead, we have a series of even higher cuts – and still more commitments to foreign wars. We have cut troops, we have cut aircraft, we have cut ships … this position is unsustainable. Don’t they know there’s a war on?

It is typical to blame Tony Blair for getting us involved with the war on terror. That is absolute nonsense, even for those of us who detest the man. The terrorists are motivated by hatred and fear of the West – hatred for the freedoms we consider our due, fear for the fact that their fellows will be attracted to the West. We could have stayed out of the war entirely and refused to lift a finger to aid the US after 9/11 and we would still be targets. There is no way we can appease such a foe. We have to fight.

But we have worn down the forces we need to fight.

Something is going to break. And it is going to cost lives.

Additional Reading

A War of Choice: Honour, Hubris and Sacrifice: The British in Iraq – Jack Fairweather

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan – Frank Ledwidge

Ministry of Defeat: The British War in Iraq 2003-2009 – Richard North

Background: Knife Edge`

12 Apr

I started writing this out as background.  Comments welcome.

Course of the War


Mekong forces invade Epsilon, a colony world at the edge of human space. The large majority of the colonists are killed and the remainder taken prisoner. A human long-range scout jumps into the system, realises what is wrong and jumps out again before the aliens can stop it. The war has begun.


Mekong forces obliterate the Thyme asteroid mining colony. There are no known survivors.


Mekong forces bombard Ruth’s World, cracking the atmospheric domes. There are no known survivors.


The scout ship from Epsilon reaches Earth and reports to the UN. A state of emergency is declared by all major powers; the UN Emergency Committee is summoned and ordered to lay plans for joint human operations against this new foe. Almost all human powers agree to join the new alliance. Admiral Yang (China) is placed in command of the Multinational Force. Unsurprisingly, this process doesn’t go very smoothly.


The news gets out on Earth, causing major panic. Luckily, world governments have had time to lay plans for civil unrest and are able to maintain control. Many countries call for an emergency draft, as well as keeping military forces in the solar system.

The Multinational Strategy Board hears from the scoutships that were dispatched to other colonies along the edge of human space. They conclude that the aliens are slicing inward, aiming directly at humanity’s older settlements. New Russia, the main Russian-ethnic world, is determined to be the most likely target. Once New Russia has fallen, the aliens (as yet unidentified) will be in a good position to attack Earth itself and fragment the human race.

Several voices within the UN call for peace talks with the aliens. The MNF CO reluctantly agrees to dispatch diplomatic ships in the hopes of finding a peaceful settlement. However, he cautions that the aliens have shown no interest in talks.


After prolonged diplomatic wrangling, it is decided to dispatch several squadrons from the MNF (mainly American, European and Russian) to New Russia to bolster the defences. In addition, recon ships are also deployed; there is little hard data on the capabilities of the new threat. The Russians insist on naming the CO for the fleet, pointing out that it is their territory,

Reluctantly, they also assert to sending several media representatives along too.


The news has spread across human space, causing considerable panic – and grim resolve. On New Russia, a handful of civilians are evacuated, but the remainder are given weapons and told to hide as best as possible. The Russians move in several additional divisions of troops, reluctantly accepting some SF forces from other powers.

Russian asteroid miners detect hints of alien warships scouting the system. Analysts conclude that the aliens captured a star database from one of the destroyed colonies. The MNF goes on full alert, assuming the worst.


A UN starship enters the Epsilon system, carrying diplomats. The aliens blow her out of space. Unknown to the aliens, a second stealth ship was following the first – and reports that the aliens are clearly landing colonists on Epsilon. There is no contact with the human settlers. The worst is assumed.


News of the response to humanity’s diplomatic probe stiffens resolve at New Russia, as the alien probes grow more blatant.


Alien starships jump into the New Russia system, beginning the Battle of New Russia. Human analysts are relieved, at first, as the aliens do not appear to be that much more advanced than humanity (although they have clearly mastered the art of jumping through flux space in formation, something no human military can boast.) The alien starfighters seem little more advanced than humanity’s best … an illusion that lasts until the aliens lure most of humanity’s CSP out of position. At that point, several new wings of alien starfighters jump through flux space (human starfighters have no jump capability) and savage the MNF.

Caught by surprise, the combined fleet fights as best as it can, but the outcome is inevitable. After losing four carriers, the CO gives the order for the remaining jump-capable ships to retreat, while the damaged ships hold the line as best as they can. The aliens let the surviving human carriers go; without their fighter wings, they’re far less dangerous. Instead, they destroy the remaining fleet and fall on New Russia, wiping out the planet’s defences from orbit. They then start landing troops.


News of the disaster at New Russia reaches Earth – and Admiral Yang is sacked, even though it wasn’t his fault. While Russia calls for an immediate counter-offensive, saner heads prevail, pointing out that the MNF is ill-prepared for launching any sort of offensive. Indeed, the crippling starfighter losses have to be replaced by raw, newly-graduated fliers. Worse, there are suspicions and that not everyone in the MNF fought with equal vigour.

There is panic on the streets, with the population expecting the aliens to be approaching Sol at any moment. Most analysts agree; Earth still possesses most of humanity’s industrial base and its loss would be disastrous. Indeed, fleet units are hastily recalled from other colonies to bolster the defence of Earth, while refitted ships are pressed into service with scratch crews.


After an inexplicable delay, alien forces finally launch their long-dreaded assault on Earth. This time, humanity is ready for their jumping fighters – and has some countermeasures, in the form of jury-rigged antistarfighter frigates. Even so, the aliens come close to breaking up the defence fleet when human reinforcements jump into the combat zone and tip the balance against the aliens. Eventually, the aliens pull back and jump out of the system, conceding defeat.


In the aftermath of the battle, the analysts warn that it may be months, at least, before Earth is ready to launch a full-scale counteroffensive – and besides, very little is actually known about the aliens. They propose a series of raids on alien-held colonies and a set of probe flights out beyond the known galaxy. At least they have a general idea of just which direction the aliens come from.

There is better news; the post-battle assessment teams have located dozens of fragments of alien warships within the Sol System. Once analysied, they believe that humanity may be able to crack the secrets of alien technology.

On New Russia, however, the underground war against the aliens is only heating up. Both sides are turning savage …


USS Enterprise launches a surprise raid on the alien positions over New Russia. The aliens are taken by surprise, allowing the carrier’s strike wing to take out two monitors before the aliens rally and drive the carrier back into interstellar space. However, in the confusion, a network of listening posts was established in the system. Humanity can now start to make contact with the insurgents.

28/05/2238 – 20/06/2238

The war enters a lull as both sides lick their wounds.


Bypassing New Russia – which they believe to be too strongly held to liberate – elements of the MNF launch Operation Reunion, aimed at Epsilon colony. The alien picket force is caught by surprise and swept aside, allowing human forces to land on the planet and recover it from the aliens. Though a combination of orbital bombardment and improved human tactics, a large number of aliens are captured and placed in POW camps. Human sociologists start the long task of trying to understand them.


Irked by the attack on Epsilon, the aliens launch a second attack on Earth. The fighting turns into a meatgrinder, with both sides taking heavy losses, before the aliens retreat for a second time.

Human researchers studying the remains of an alien jump drive start outlining the basics of an in-system FTL communicator (a holy grail, as far as human tech is concerned – and for the aliens too.) Once deployed, humanity should have a significant advantage over the aliens.


Once the alien language was cracked, humans started interrogating the alien POWs intensely. The aliens claim that Epsilon was theirs and that the human settlers landed on the planet without permission. Not all of the analysts believe them, pointing out that the alien leaders might well have lied to their people. However, the UN authorises another peace mission to New Russia.


The diplomatic ship sent to New Russia is fired upon by the aliens – and very lucky to escape with only carbon scoring.


Alien forces return to Epsilon in force, driving the human occupation force away from the planet. Long-range sensors, however, reveal that the aliens butchered their own colonies, rather than trying to free them from the POW camps. Humans watching are shocked – what did the aliens fear?


Human scoutships discover a major alien settlement, just twenty light years from Epsilon. Plans are immediately drawn up to attack it, as it seems likely that it is the staging base for attacks on human space. The world is designated Alien-1.


The reformed MNF jumps out, heading towards Alien-1.


Scoutships reveal that Alien-1 has received additional reinforcements from somewhere else in unexplored space. However, the CO in command of Operation Retribution decides to continue the attack, pointing out that humanity has to knock the aliens back or risk losing the initiative.


Human forces attack Alien-1. After savage fighting, the high orbitals are taken and the planet is deemed secure. However, apart from a handful of KEW strikes, the decision is taken not to attempt to land on Alien-1 itself. Instead, the MNF attacks and captures (or destroys) much of the system’s industrial base.

However, the aliens have settled the system heavily and a prolonged period of space-based insurgency begins.


Word of the battle’s outcome reaches Earth. Humanity is relieved, but the ship losses are deemed alarmingly high. Instead of trying to probe further into alien space, the MNF is ordered to hold position and wait for reinforcements.

21/08/2238 – 27/11/2238

The war stalemates, although human sociologists make progress on unlocking the secrets of the alien society. Their conclusion is that the alien government is rigid, unwilling to accept change – an idea that is mocked by human military officers, who have seen the aliens adapt and innovate under pressure.

In the Sol System, the first FTL communicator net is deployed. Although it has no interstellar range, it offers humanity a definite advantage for in-system fighting.

Furthermore, having learned from the early battles of the war, the MNF starts constructing a whole new series of carriers, starfighters and support craft.


Alien forces surprise humanity by attacking Kennedy, an American-settled world some distance from their angle of attack towards Earth. Eventually, the aliens are beaten off.

29/11/2239 – 03/01/2240

Aliens raid several human worlds, trying to pin and destroy human defences before withdrawing from the system. The UN has political problems dealing with the aftermath of the raids.


Using reports from human scoutships, the MNF hits four alien worlds in quick succession in hopes of knocking the aliens back.


Human researchers hit the jackpot when they finally decipher an alien stellar database, recovered from Alien-1. The aliens are discovered to have a sphere of space nearly twice the size of humanity’s, but with odd internal political divisions. Combined with earlier discoveries, the researchers conclude that the aliens are divided up into nations – or clans. The clans have not properly united to fight the war against Earth. However, this may change.


A large alien fleet jumps into the Britannia System and engages the defenders. This time, analysts are able to identify ships belonging to different alien clans and concentrate their fire accordingly. Eventually, the aliens break off and retreat.


Bolstered by the success at Britannia, the UN authorises yet another peace mission to the newly-located alien homeworld.


Alien forces return to Alien-1, where they discover that human forces have spent the last few months digging into the system. Although the MNF pulls out, the aliens are unable to prevent human ships from rendering the system useless before leaving.


The MNF escorts a peace mission to Alien Prime (their homeworld). The aliens agree to talks, starting with a six-month armistice.

10/04/2240 – 10/08/2240

Human diplomats meet aliens at a neutral system along the border, near Epsilon. The cause of the war is confirmed to be an error; humans settled a system claimed by one of the alien clans, who had been preparing a colony fleet when the humans landed. They assumed that the settlers were their fellow aliens and attacked, only to discover their mistake after they had well and truly started an interstellar war. Most of the human diplomats don’t believe what they’re being told.

However, the UN has been pressured by the demands of war. Most human navies have managed to unite, while much of the bureaucracy has been removed, turning the UN into more of a supranational government than anyone expected. The powers without interstellar colonies fear permanent subordination to powers that do have interstellar colonies and starships making up the MNF. They propose a peace settlement, surrendering Epsilon to the aliens while swapping back the other captured worlds.

This does not please the interstellar powers, who want the aliens to know that they lost the war. (Unknown to the humans, most of the alien clans are happy to surrender Epsilon – after all, it doesn’t belong to them.) They want to keep Epsilon and have a precisely delineated border between the two powers. They present the aliens with an ultimatum – surrender Epsilon or restart the war.


Intent on restarting the war and escaping disgrace, the clan that started the war attacks the peace negotiators in the neutral zone. Surprisingly, the two carriers (one human, one alien) on defence duty manage to work together to beat off the attack, ending the war.


The Treaty of Epsilon is signed, ending the war.

The Slightest Hope of Victory–Snippet!

12 Apr

The Slightest Hope of Victory is Book 3 in the Outside Context Problem trilogy. Books one and two have free samples on my site and then can be purchased from Amazon at the links on their pages.


Alien Command Ship #2

Day 83 (One Day after Second Washington)

Space. The final frontier.

Captain Philip Carlson had lived by those words from a very early age. It had become his dream to travel into space, a dream he had achieved when he had won one of the handful of coveted astronaut slots for himself. The dream had even kept him going when NASA turned further and further away from actual space observation, cutting missions and cancelling next-generation programs that should have put the United States in space permanently. But instead of reaching for the stars, mankind had decided to stay on Earth.

The universe hadn’t left them alone.

Philip stared down at the blue-green orb of Earth and knew despair. He and the rest of his crew were prisoners on an alien spacecraft larger than many cities, a construction so vast as to be utterly beyond the combined efforts of every human space organisation on Earth. Not that any human space agency deserved the title, really, compared to what the aliens had built. Philip had a suspicion that the aliens, far from respecting humanity’s achievements, were actually laughing at them. The space shuttle, compared to the monstrous alien ship, was nothing more than a toy.

And now Earth was occupied. From his vantage point, he could see an endless stream of alien craft – each one far more capable than anything humans had built – heading to and from the planet, carrying alien colonists to their new homeworld. Humanity’s resistance had been brushed aside, almost casually, once the mothership had arrived in orbit. The aliens weren’t gods, but they were powerful. Humanity had inflicted just enough damage to convince them that they had a chance, before the hammer was finally lowered. Earth no longer belonged to the human race.

He scowled at the thought. The aliens having taken his crew prisoner, hadn’t seemed to have any real idea what to do with them – or perhaps they simply didn’t care. There were no anal probes, no interrogation to discover what they knew about Earth’s defences … they hadn’t even been locked up! They’d practically been allowed to wander the ship freely, apart from certain sealed areas. Philip had explored, along with the rest of his crew, but they’d found nothing that they could use against the aliens. He would have sold his soul for a nuke.

But even that wouldn’t have done more than slow the aliens down. The massive city-sized ship that held them was one of four, while there was still the mothership itself and the hundreds of smaller craft. Losing one large craft would have to hurt – they weren’t that powerful that they could afford to lose one without wincing – but it wouldn’t stop them. They’d just keep going … and his crew would have thrown away their lives for nothing.

He gritted his teeth as he stared out into space. Under other circumstances, the observatory – or so he had dubbed it – would have been an endless source of wonder. It was far larger than anything the ISS had possessed, allowing him to stare into space and down towards the planet below. In the distance, he could even see the moon, where NASA had landed a handful of men before it had given up on the space dream. The aliens had crossed at least ten light years to reach Earth. No wonder they weren’t impressed by anything they saw from humanity.

There was a faint rustling sound behind him and he spun around to see one of the alien leadership caste standing behind him. Philip sucked in his breath sharply as he met the dark alien eyes, so dark that there were no pupils or anything else remotely human. The alien stood taller than the average human, with an inhumanly thin body and oversized head. It was easy, now, to see the resemblance between the alien abduction reports and real aliens. Philip had no doubt that humanity had been watched for a long time before the aliens had decided to make their presence known.

He wanted to lash out, to snap the thin alien neck, but he knew that it would do no good. Alien Warriors would come for the human prisoners and that would be the end. If all he could do was watch and wait for an opportunity to strike the aliens, he’d wait. Flying for NASA taught one patience, if little else.

The alien voice was thin, almost completely atonal. “There have been developments,” he said. Or at least Philip thought of the alien as male. It was impossible to tell gender with any certainty. “Your people destroyed a Command Ship over Washington, your nation’s capital. We did not believe that you were capable of such a feat.”

Philip said nothing. The reports they’d intercepted from the ISS had been clear. The USAF had taken a terrible pounding in the war and had been on the verge of coming apart under the strain. The aliens had launched wave after wave of attacks, systematically degrading America’s ability to defend itself against further attacks before the mothership arrived in orbit. Philip had no way of knowing what had happened since the command ship had scooped up and abducted the entire ISS, along with the wreckage of Atlantis – but with thousands upon thousands of aliens heading to their new home, he doubted that it was anything good. The aliens claimed that they’d brought a billion of their people along on their colonisation mission. If that were true, they had enough manpower to subdue the entire planet.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. There wasn’t much alien invasion literature that dealt with a world the aliens had successfully occupied, but what little there was didn’t make pleasant reading. There would be mass starvation, the collapse of human society and disease and deprivation would be rife, while the aliens built their cities and slowly crushed all resistance out of the human race. Human history would come to an abrupt halt. It would truly be the end of days.

“It opens up new opportunities,” the alien said. He turned to look down towards the planet, his dark eyes inscrutable. “We may be able to work together.”

Philip’s flash of anger overrode common sense. If someone down on the planet had managed to destroy an alien craft the size of a city, it was clear that the fight was far from hopeless. Perhaps the human race would wear down the aliens with constant insurgent attacks. He’d heard rumours about preparations before the ISS had been abducted.

“Why?” He demanded. “So we can roll over and surrender our planet to you?”

“No,” the alien replied. “There is more at stake here than you understand. If we work together, we can save both of our races from mutual destruction.”

Semper Fi–Now Available!

10 Apr

Dear Readers

Semper Fi, the fourth book in The Empire’s Corps, is now available from Amazon. Download a free sample and then buy it from Amazon here! And if you like it, please share this post and review.

Two years after the Empire abandoned them on Avalon, Colonel Edward Stalker and his Marines have established the Commonwealth, a union of worlds intended to take the place of the vanished Empire. But now contact has been made with a remnant of the Empire, a successor state controlled by a ruthless dictator bent on crushing the Commonwealth and expanding her rule over the entire galaxy.

While the Commonwealth frantically prepares for war, a small team of Marines is dispatched to the enemy homeworld with orders to bring down the dictator – by any means necessary …

[As a matter of principle, all of my self-published books are DRM-free. You may treat it as you may treat any normal paperback book.]


Margaret Thatcher – We Need More Like Her

9 Apr

Margaret Thatcher was never one for bending, which is partly why she arouses such intense feelings from both the left and the right. No other Prime Minister, with the possible exception of Blair, left such a mixed legacy. It is no surprise to me that far too many people have been celebrating her death, accusing her of wrecking Britain, doing harm to Ireland and causing the Falklands War. Such claims are, at best, exaggerated.

When Thatcher came to power, Britain was in serious trouble. The economy was slowly being strangled by socialist policies, the military was in decline and the country was slowly starting to collapse. Thatcher took on the Unions, something that no previous PM had dared to do, and broke their stranglehold over industrial disputes. Unions are, like so many other problems, great ideas that need to be carefully controlled. The Unions that made up a large part of Britain’s industrial workforce in Thatcher’s time had grown out of control.

That is not to say that Thatcher was perfect, or that she was always right. The Poll Tax might have sounded like a great idea on paper, but when applied in real life it was disastrous. Like other politicians, Thatcher had the vices of her virtues; she might have saved the Conservative Party serious trouble if she’d backed down after the plan received such intense opposition. As it was, she did a great deal of harm to Scots-English relationships and made, for the first time, independence seem a viable and desirable goal in Scotland.

Internationally, Thatcher played a vitally important role, although she was not always successful. She opposed German reunification, fearing (correctly) that a reunified Germany would grow to dominate Europe. She pushed Bush not to back down when facing Saddam, although outside observers may question how instrumental Thatcher was in the US decision to fight the Gulf War. It is tempting to wonder if Thatcher remaining in power for another six months would have led to an early end to Saddam’s regime, but we must deal with the world as it is.

The idea of blaming Thatcher for the Falklands War is so utterly absurd that I have difficulty in believing that anyone seriously accepts it. Thatcher did not invite the military, anti-democratic, fascist government of Argentina to invade the islands; to reason that she somehow caused the war is to follow the same line of logic that states that terrorist and bully victims deserve to be picked on and die. Thatcher’s choice was between fighting or surrendering British citizens to the tender mercies of a junta not known for being tender to its own civilians, let alone anyone else. She had little choice – and, in choosing to fight, not only freed the islands, but helped ensure that the junta (which had been lying to its own people while terminally mismanaging the war) collapsed soon afterwards, giving Argentina another chance at freedom and prosperity.

Thatcher was not the driving force behind the war, nor was she a warmonger. Indeed, she had every legitimate right to sink Argentina’s aircraft carrier as well as her heavy cruiser and chose not to do so, hoping to end the war diplomatically. Indeed, this caused her problems at times, particularly when she lied to Parliament about the direction the cruiser was heading when it was sunk. This was not only pointless, but unnecessary; the ship was a legitimate target and Thatcher might have done better if she’d just rammed that point home over and over again.

There is a line from an issue of The Sandman where President Nixon claims that the worst occupant of the Oval Office ever is the incumbent, no matter who he may be. And then, when the next person comes along, everyone will remember the previous incumbent fondly. That is true of Margaret Thatcher’s career as PM. Although often underrated, John Major was never able to match her successes (and had to deal with the fallout from the Poll Tax affair), while Blair was a fop who committed Britain to two vitally important wars and then failed to support the troops or make an actual contribution to success.

Thatcher was in life (and in death too, I suspect) a hugely controversial figure. However, on the whole, I think that Britain has good cause to be grateful to her – and to wish that we had more like her waiting in the wings.

The Very Ugly Duckling (Bookworm II)–Snippet

9 Apr

Chapter One

The Witch-King, Elaine thought, must have been out of his mind.

She lifted her eyes from the small book on the table, resisting the urge to rub them in the hopes that certain memories would fade from her mind. She’d always had a good memory, even before the entire contents of the Great Library had been dumped into her head, but the Witch-King’s spellbook was too horrifying to remember. Somehow, reading it naturally – rather than having the knowledge stored in her mind – made it worse. It was far too easy to see just how twisted he’d become by necromancy.

There were laws against reading such books, unless one happened to be the Grand Sorcerer. Elaine knew that many young magicians had chafed against such restrictions, assuming that the Grand Sorcerers had wanted to keep certain types of knowledge to themselves, but she understood perfectly. There were spells and forms of magic that were inherently corrupting, so much so that even using one of them once would taint a person for the rest of his or her life. If Elaine had had the power to make some of them work, she had a feeling that Lady Light Spinner would, with the greatest of regret, have ordered her execution. Even so, she was effectively a prisoner in the Great Library.

It wasn’t something she resented, most of the time. She was, after all, one of the most important people in the empire – and she had a seat on the Privy Council, which controlled the empire, as well as the ear of the Grand Sorceress. But there were times when it gnawed at her, such as when she’d been asked to read the Witch-King’s book and see if there were any hints as to his current location. Somehow, against all logic and common sense, the Witch-King was still alive. The gods alone knew where he might be hiding.

Elaine shivered, remembering the brief moment of mental contact when she’d been trying to stop the maddened Kane from destroying the Golden City. The Witch-King was still alive, trapped as a lich – and quite insane. He was effectively immortal; he had literally hundreds of years to prepare his plans, while remaining hidden from even the most intensive probes. If he couldn’t be found, Elaine suspected, he would simply start another plan that would take generations to come to fruitarian. How did one fight an enemy who could take hundreds of years to prepare his offensive? They might well miss the clues until it was far too late.

She looked back at the book and scowled. All magicians of real power – Elaine had very little, despite the knowledge in her head – kept a private spellbook, a tradition the Witch-King had honoured. Unsurprisingly, the spells had grown darker and darker the more she’d read, showing her how to control an army with her mind, corrupt a child or even create a horde of monsters from dead human flesh. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would dare risk using any of those spells, but not everyone had her unique insight into how magic worked. Besides, corruption rarely set in immediately. Someone might use a mildly dark spell, then a slightly darker spell … and, before they knew it, they were corrupted, thinking nothing of using the darkest of spells.

The book should be destroyed, she thought, although training and inclination mediated against it. The Black Vault existed for books that were judged too dangerous to be allowed to be copied and shared everywhere; surely, she had been told, the book would be safe there. But Elaine’s very existence proved otherwise. If the Witch-King’s book had been in the Black Vault, its knowledge would have been dumped into her head along with the rest of the Great Library.

She closed the book, placed it back in the box and concentrated for a long moment, muttering homemade charms under her breath. Standard lock spells were one thing, but the spells she had devised herself were almost impossible to detect – or to open, without the right code. Even the most powerful of magicians should have had problems opening the box – and if he managed to crack through one spell by brute force, the second would incinerate the book. It was better that the book be reduced to ash, Elaine had told herself, than risk it falling into enemy hands. She hadn’t told either Lady Light Spinner, the Grand Sorceress, or Inquisitor Dread about the precaution. It would only have upset them.

Standing up, she picked up the box and placed it within a stack of others, each one completely indistinguishable from the rest. Only the Head Librarian could find anything within the Black Vault; even the most powerful magician in the world would have had problems, at least until he managed to bend the magic shaping and maintaining the pocket dimension to his will. Elaine could have done it, she thought, but few others could have managed such a feat. They would always be tempted to use raw power rather than subtle magic.

Shaking her head, she took a long look around the compartment. Massive bookshelves, bursting with books, ran for as far as the eye could see, each tome forbidden to the vast majority of the population. There were chests of papers belonging to the Grand Sorcerers, sealed away too so that their heirs could keep it to themselves, as well as books and artefacts that had been offered to the Grand Sorcerer by other magicians. The magic that shaped the Black Vault would keep everything preserved, Elaine knew. Generations could pass outside and the books would remain safe.

And hopefully unread, she told herself, as she stepped through the mirror and out into the more normal stacks. Mirrors served as gateways between the normal world and the pocket dimensions used to store the library’s vast collection of books, but only one person could use them to access the Black Vault. Elaine smiled to herself as she felt the library’s magic pulsing around her, closing the gateway, then started to walk towards her office. Moments later, she realised that she had a visitor. Inquisitor Dread.

“Inquisitor,” she said, as she stepped into her office. “Make yourself at home.”

She had to smile as she sat down facing the hooded man. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have dared joke with an Inquisitor, when she wouldn’t have wanted to face one … but Dread was a friend, of sorts. And one of the very few who knew what had happened during the selection process for the Grand Sorcerer. Most of the world believed that the battle between contenders had gotten out of control, wrecking large parts of the city. Elaine knew better.

“Elaine,” Dread said. As always, his voice was near toneless. “I trust that you are prepared?”

Elaine blinked in surprise … and then remembered. They had been scheduled to run a specific security check on the Great Library. And she’d almost been late! No one could have contacted her in the Black Vault, save for the Grand Sorceress.

“I think so,” Elaine said. “Are you ready?”

Dread shrugged, one hand touching the burns on his face. “It wouldn’t matter if I was bleeding out and dying,” he said, flatly. “I’d still have a job to do.”

Elaine nodded, closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. As always, the wards of the Great Library answered her, recognising their mistress. Elaine found the experience slightly disturbing; the Great Library’s wards were old enough to have developed a certain intelligence of their own, something that gave them an odd sense of humour. Anyone who linked into the wards felt as if they were becoming part of the building itself.

No wonder Miss Prim fled the moment she could, Elaine thought, ruefully. She must have hated being convinced that she had birds nesting in her hair.

Pushing the disconcerting sensations aside, Elaine studied the wards carefully. Hundreds of sorcerers had created them, piece by piece; few of them had really understood what they were creating. The Witch-King, before his fall from grace, had been one of them. No wonder he had been able to slip a booby trap through the wards – and no wonder no one had expected anything of the sort! They’d thought that all the magicians who might have built themselves a secret password that would have allowed them to get through the wards were dead.

Elaine shivered at the memory. Bare months ago, she had been a normal librarian, one of many who worked in the Great Library. And then she’d picked up the book that had been carefully steered to her, the book that had been primed to channel all of the knowledge in the library into her mind. And then things had really become complicated.

She smiled to herself as the wards flickered and danced around her. One thing the spell had done – something she doubted the Witch-King had meant it to do – was show her precisely how spells really worked. Most magicians used their raw power to cover up the gaps in their knowledge, doing it so naturally that they never really realised what they were doing. Elaine, on the other hand, had little power, but by dissembling spells and putting them back together again she was able to do much more than she should have been able to do.

Carefully, she began to study how the Great Library’s wards went together … and swallowed a curse as she realised that there were more holes in the library’s security than anyone had ever discovered. Most of them were countered by other wards, but someone with real knowledge might have been able to exploit them. She couldn’t help wondering if there had been more thefts from the library than had ever been officially acknowledged. The librarians would be reluctant to admit failure when every ambitious magician would try to take advantage of the library’s weakness.

All right, she told herself. Here we go.

Piece by piece, she shaped tiny spells in her mind and uploaded them into the library’s wards, mapping them out thoroughly. By now, it would be impossible to dissemble the wards and recast them, no matter how much better they could have become with some careful fiddling and other improvements. They had simply become part of the library. But she could still make some improvements …

She pulled herself out of the wards and opened her eyes, feeling drained. Unlike Miss Prim, her inherent magic wasn’t strong enough to sustain the contact indefinitely, not when the wards drew on her as savagely as any other spell she knew. Dread would probably have been able to hold the contact for hours – the Inquisitors were chosen for magical strength as well as skill and bloody-mindedness – but the wards would have rejected him. The only other person who could have manipulated them was the Grand Sorceress.

“Ready,” she said, as she sagged. Sweat was pouring down her back, despite the cool air. “Are you ready?”

Dread nodded, one hand on his staff. “Can you do it now or wait until later?”

Elaine hesitated. On one hand, she was exhausted – and really needed to get some sleep in her office to allow her magic to recharge. But on the other hand, she didn’t want to have to do the whole process over again – and she would have to, if they delayed too long. The new spells she’d added to the wards wouldn’t last indefinitely.

“I think so,” she said. “Ready?”

Dread bowed his head in acknowledgement.

Elaine allowed herself a tired smile, then linked with the wards again, sending a final command into the network. She felt the wards shift as she fell out of the connection, her magic depleted so badly that she wouldn’t have been able to light a candle, even with the newer lighting spells she’d developed in her own mind. Not that it mattered; now that she’d given the order, the wards could do the rest on their own, sweeping the entire library for signs of unwanted dark magic – or other surprises. Light magic was associated with goodness, naturally, but there were plenty of ways light spells could be used to cause trouble.

“It’s done,” she said, as she collapsed into her seat. “The spells are searching now.”

Dread put out a hand and squeezed hers, an odd gesture of affection from the Inquisitor. “I thank you,” he said. “Now … relax.”

Elaine nodded, torn between watching as the wards searched the library and closing her eyes and trying to sleep. Standard search spells could locate an object within range very quickly, assuming they knew what they were actually looking for. The task she’d assigned to the library’s wards was far harder. They were to locate and catalogue any magic that wasn’t actually part of the library’s protections and filing system, then report back to Elaine. There would probably be plenty of reports of various cheating spells used by students desperate to pass their exams, but she wasn’t too worried about those. The real danger came from darker magic.

She had almost dozed off completely when the wards twitched against her mind. A moment later, a glowing image of the library appeared in front of them, showing the location of every spell and magical artefact that hadn’t been cleared to enter the library. Elaine sucked in her breath when she saw the vast number of cheating spells and charmed note-takers. The Peerless School had always encouraged creative thinking and rule-bending, but surely there were limits.

“I shouldn’t worry about it,” Dread said. “Magic is all about looking for ways to cheat.”

Elaine blinked in surprise. “You’re advocating cheating?”

“Drawing information out of a book isn’t cheating,” Dread pointed out, dryly. “Neither is the use of memory potions to enhance one’s recall. They are taught, after all, because someone might want to use them. Cheating is getting someone else to do the work and most of those spells won’t help with that.”

“I suppose,” Elaine muttered, remembering her own schooling. There had been times when she’d been tempted to cheat, if it had been possible to cheat her way into a greater level of inherent magic. But that had been impossible – then. Now, she knew a thousand ways to boost her power … and the terrible price they demanded. Sanity, for starters. “And that …?”

Dread followed her pointing finger. “That isn’t a standard method of cheating at all,” he said. “That’s a damned compulsion spell.”

Elaine pressed her hands against the glowing image, trying to get it to focus in on the user. It turned out to be a seventeen-year-old girl preparing for her exams. Charity Conidian, Elaine recalled; one of the daughters of a Privy Councillor. Why would she want to cheat when it would reflect badly on her father? But the charm might not be her work at all.

“I’ll ask Vane to bring her into my office,” Elaine said, as she staggered to her feet. “You can interview her there without disturbing the other students.”

Vane obeyed without question. Elaine’s deputy wasn’t a good librarian – she certainly lacked the obsession with books that had driven Elaine when she was younger – but she was good at dealing with people, a quality that Elaine lacked. Her smile, undoubted power and family connections allowed her to handle the library’s staff and visitors, leaving Elaine to work on managing the library’s collection and writing her own spellbook.

“Draw some energy from the wards,” Dread advised. “You might need it.”

Elaine shook her head. The library’s wards simply didn’t work that way.

Charity Conidian proved to be the sort of girl that Elaine had hated, back when she’d been in school. Beautiful, rich, well-connected … and actually good at her studies. Long blonde hair framed a heart-shaped face that was probably the result of endless cosmetic charms – or so Elaine told herself. Charity reminded her of Millicent, before Kane had almost destroyed her mind. Six months later, Millicent still hadn’t recovered completely.

“Good afternoon,” Dread said, lifting his wand. The girl’s eyes went wide, but he had the compulsion spell off her before it could force her to do anything drastic. “Who put that spell on you?”

“My father,” Charity said. Very few people would be stupid enough to lie to an Inquisitor. “I asked him to do it.”

Elaine stared at her. Compulsion spells were not exactly illegal, but using one on someone without a very good reason was likely to get someone in hot water. And using one on one’s own daughter? The books in Elaine’s head told her that it had happened before, in far more detail than she’d ever wanted to know. None of the reasons were very good.

“Your father, the Conidian, put a basic compulsion spell on you,” Dread said. He didn’t sound as if he believed her either. “Why?”

Charity sagged. “I was having problems keeping up with my studies,” she admitted, “and father promised me an establishment of my own if I graduated in the top ten. But I just couldn’t concentrate! So I went to him and asked him for the charm.”

Elaine and Dread shared a glance. As far as she knew – and thanks to the Witch-King her memory went back as far as the foundation of the empire itself – that was unprecedented.

She found herself giving the girl a look of mild respect. Actually going to someone and asking them to use such a charm, just to help them study? Elaine couldn’t decide if it was a stroke of genius or absolute madness.

“Compulsion charms can be dangerous,” Dread said, “particularly if someone accepted them voluntarily. I suggest that you learn to master the art of studying without such help.”

He scowled at her. “And your father will hear from me about it,” he added. “He should know better than to use such charms on his daughter.”

Charity bowed her head, then retreated from the office.

“Well,” Dread said, once the door was closed. “That was a fine waste of time.”

“Maybe,” Elaine said. The Conidian served on the Privy Council, after all. She had a feeling that she hadn’t heard the last of the whole affair. “But at least we know the monitoring system works now.”

“Yes,” Dread said. “Until someone else finds a new way to break in.”

A Study in Slaughter (Schooled In Magic III)–Snippet!

9 Apr

Chapter One

The castle was hers.

Emily stood in the chamber underneath Cockatrice Castle and closed her eyes. She’d never had a real home before, not one where she’d felt safe and welcome. Even Whitehall wasn’t hers, not in the sense that she could stay there permanently. Here, however, there was a home. It might be a cold castle, incredibly hard to heat save through magic, but it was hers.

The hearthstone lay in front of her, glowing faintly as energy hummed through the wards protecting the castle from magical attack. Emily could sense, without even touching it, the power that was securely anchored in the stone – and the override King Randor had used to secure Cockatrice Castle. It no longer belonged to the treacherous Baron who had plotted against the King – a man whose very name had been stricken from the books – but Emily, who had saved the King and his family from assassination. And it would belong to her heirs in perpetuity.

She felt a curious mix of emotions as she stepped forward and held her hand over the stone. Part of her wondered what her mother the drunkard would have said, if she’d known what her daughter had become; part of her wondered if there were unexpected surprises waiting for the Baroness Cockatrice in the future. The castle wasn’t free; being a Baroness, one of the highest-ranking nobles in the Kingdom of Zangaria, brought obligations of its own. King Randor had set out to reward her, but he had also had an agenda of his own. Emily had no doubt of it. The man who had set out to ride the whirlwind of political and social change Emily had started needed to think at least two steps ahead.

No time to worry about that now, she thought, as she reached into her belt and produced the silver knife. Holding her hand over the stone, she cut her palm, allowing blood to drip down and merge with the wards. The pain vanished almost as soon as it appeared – the knife was charmed to heal its wounds – allowing her to focus on the wards. Magic billowed forward, waiting for her. Closing her eyes, Emily reached out and put her hand on top of the hearthstone.

Her mind reached out, accessing the wards. It was a very different experience to touching the wards protecting Whitehall; here, the wards were crude, anchored within the hearthstone and in need of constant renewal. There was no sense that they were alive or adapting to new situations – or watching for young magicians pushing their luck too far. There was a long moment when she felt that the wards were about to reject her, before they recognised their new mistress and opened up for her. If she wanted, she could make them do anything. She was, to all intents and purposes, the administrator of the castle’s security network.

Someone did a very crude job, she thought, as her mind flashed through the network. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Deprived of the raw power that allowed Whitehall’s wards to exist, the original creators had had to limit the reach and power of their creations. There wasn’t even a ward intended to track magic used within the castle! Making a mental note to change that as quickly as possible, Emily found the administrative centre and issued a handful of instructions, then pulled her mind out of the wards. There was, as always, a brief feeling of disorientation as her mind returned to her body. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if something happened to her body while her mind was drifting around in the wars.

She stepped back from the hearthstone, which was glowing with heavy satisfaction, and walked over to the door. Outside, Bryon of House Cheam was waiting for her, as per her instructions. The young man didn’t look that impressive – he was thin, with short brown hair and soft brown eyes – but he came highly recommended by Imaiqah, one of Emily’s best friends. Reading between the lines, Emily suspected that her friend was sweet on Bryon, even though romance would be difficult now that Imaiqah’s father had been raised to the peerage. Her friend’s marriage would be a political tool, rather than a romantic affair.

“My Lady,” Bryon said.

“Come in,” Emily said, impatiently. There were times when the formalities annoyed her, even though she understood that they were part and parcel of Zangaria’s society, the lubricant that kept it running smoothly. “The wards are waiting for you.”

There was no way that Emily could remain in Zangaria, even though she knew that King Randor would be delighted if she did. She had to go back to Whitehall for her second year of study, leaving Cockatrice Castle and the surrounding lands under the control of a steward. Bryon was young and inexperienced, but he did understand what Emily wanted him to do, as much as anyone born in Zangaria could understand. She’d made a start by reforming the laws the previous Baron had propagated – the man was a scumbag, even if he hadn’t tried to overthrow his King – but there was much else to do. Bryon would just have to make a start on her work.

“Hold your hand over the stone,” Emily directed, as she cleaned the knife. The charms placed on the blade should have removed all traces of her blood, but she knew better than to take it for granted. Besides, taking care of one’s tools and weapons had been hammered into her head at Whitehall. “I’m giving you complete authority over the castle, so be careful. If I have to come home to sort out a mess, I will not be pleased.”

Bryon winced – and Emily cursed herself, inwardly. As Baroness, she held the power of Middle and Low justice in Cockatrice – and High too, if King Randor didn’t wish to deal with it personally. She was effectively judge, jury and executioner … if she’d wanted to lop off Bryon’s head, it was unlikely that anyone would care enough to stop her. Save perhaps Imaiqah, of course, and that wasn’t something that most of the locals would take into account, not when their friendships were often nothing more than political expediency.

She took his hand in hers and cut his palm, just enough to allow the blood to drip onto the stone. The wards hummed loudly enough to be heard for a long moment, before falling back into the background magic pervading the castle. Bryon would have near-complete authority over them, save for a handful of areas that Emily had reserved for herself. For one, he wouldn’t be able to use spell-controlled slaves in the castle itself. The practice might be very secure, although Emily knew how easy it was for the spells to be rewritten by a competent sorcerer, but it still disgusted her. There was no way that she was going to allow anyone under her command to use them.

“I can feel them,” Bryon said, in shock. “I … I don’t think they like me.”

Emily smiled. Bryon came from a merchant family, one step above peasants grubbing in the soil, at least according to the previous Baron. The wards had probably picked up a great deal of their owners personality, even though he hadn’t been the one who had built the castle or forged the wards. They respected Emily because she was now their lord, but it would take them time to grow used to Bryon.

“They’ll come around,” she said, dryly. “Until then, do you think you can control them?”

Now that Bryon’s blood had been linked to the wards, he should be able to control them mentally, no matter where he was in the castle itself. It had taken Emily nearly a week to master it, although she’d had a considerable disadvantage. The time she’d touched the living wards protecting Whitehall had spoiled her, giving her preconceptions that the wards of Cockatrice Castle hadn’t been able to meet. Bryon should find it easier to control the wards, even though he wasn’t a very powerful magician. He had less to unlearn.

Besides, Emily thought, the last Baron wasn’t a magician either.

She led the way up to the Baron’s chambers, shaking her head at how the previous Baron had decorated his castle. He had been a great hunting enthusiast; there was scarcely a room that didn’t have a handful of mounted animal heads placed on the wall, all carefully posed so they looked as savage as possible. There were hundreds of paintings too, each one showing the Baron and his family in heroic poses – and a single painting of the Royal Family, which hung in the Baron’s Reception Room. In hindsight, anyone who looked at the man’s castle would have known that he had dreams of kingship. Nothing else made sense.

He’d also had a staff largely composed of young and pretty girls. Emily had told them that they were free to go, if they wished, but most of them had refused to leave, even though it was clear that the previous Baron had abused them. The pay was better … and besides, young women were less useful on farms than their brothers, particularly if they were no longer virgin. Emily found that sickening and hoped that she would always find it sickening. The day she didn’t, she’d told herself, was the day she’d been in Zangaria long enough to go native.

Emily’s own quarters would be off-limits to everyone while she was away, naturally; the castle’s wards wouldn’t permit entry. She’d put Bryon in the next set of chambers, which had belonged to the previous Baron’s Castellan. The man had vanished after his master had been killed; no one quite knew what had happened to him, but Emily had taken the precaution of erasing all of his access permissions from the wards, just in case. Inside, the room was hot and stuffy; the maids had lit a fire in the grate to warm it.

“Thank you, Milady,” Bryon said, once the door was closed. “I won’t let you down.”

“Good,” Emily said. “I look forward to reading your regular reports.”

She had to smile at Bryon’s expression. Unlike most locals, he had actually been able to read and write before Emily had arrived and taught everyone Arabic numerals and Latin letters, but writing out regular reports would still have been difficult. The Scribes Guild had made itself fantastically wealthy by providing a reading and writing service before Emily had inadvertently destroyed them. Now, over half the Kingdom could read and write using the system she had imported from Earth … but there was still room for scribes. Besides, Imaiqah had assured Emily that Bryon wasn’t as bad as some of the others.

“I’ll send them weekly,” he assured her.

Emily thanked him, then walked back to her own quarters and stepped inside. The rooms still struck her as insanely big – the bed alone was big enough for five people to share – but they gave her privacy, as well as plenty of space to work. She picked up a set of opened letters, dropped them into her borrowed trunk – her previous trunk was on its way to Whitehall, containing a very angry Cockatrice – and then glanced around to be sure that she hadn’t left anything behind. Unlike Alassa, the Crown Princess of Zangaria, Emily always travelled light. She’d never had the opportunity to develop bad habits.

She shook her head as she rang the bell for the maids. It bothered her that she hadn’t heard anything from Jade; he hadn’t written to her once since she’d been raised to the peerage. Had he decided that she was too good for him now, even though her reputation as the Necromancer’s Bane made her more dangerous and forbidding than the average Royal Princess? Or was he busy with his new master? His last message had spoken of new lessons, although he’d been very vague. Vows of secrecy were taken seriously by the magical community. Someone who broke a vow would almost certainly be killed or lose their magic permanently.

The maids appeared and curtseyed to her, something that still made Emily feel rather silly, even though she was their Baroness. She directed them to take the luggage down to the coach, then followed at a rather more sedate pace. There had seemed little point in holding a grand farewell ceremony, not when she would be back in nine months to take a full accounting from Bryon of what had happened in her absence. Besides, she might have been rich, but she didn’t feel rich. Her early life hadn’t prepared her for sudden wealth.

She checked the wards on the carriage before she climbed in, then issued orders to the driver. The carriage lurched into life a moment later, the horses pulling it out of the courtyard and onto the badly-maintained road outside the castle. If it hadn’t been for the spells on the carriage, Emily knew that she would probably have felt seasick within five minutes – and besides, she certainly wouldn’t be able to get any reading done. Still, she pushed the book aside and stared out of the window. The land surrounding the castle were all hers too.

The previous Baron had been a dominating guy, she’d come to realise; he’d rarely allowed his peasants a chance to buy their own land and start growing whatever they wanted to grow. Emily had changed that, to some extent, but making so many changes so quickly would have almost certainly unhinged the local economy. Luckily, the influx of people into the nearby city – taking advantage of Emily’s looser laws – had balanced the increase in food production quite nicely. She hadn’t been so lucky with other matters …

It still struck her as absurd that she was the mistress of all she surveyed. Back on Earth, she would have been trying to scrape up the marks to go to college on a scholarship, hoping that it would give her the background she needed to escape her mother and stepfather once and for all. Here, she was the Baroness … and a single word from her could change the lives of thousands of people. She’d learned that the hard way.

Settling back in her seat, she opened a book and started to read. The previous Baron had been a collector of expensive books, although Emily had a private suspicion that it had been more for the pleasure of ownership than out of any intellectual habits. He’d probably felt that intellectual was a dirty word. Some of the books were on magic, including several that made Emily’s skin crawl whenever she touched them. She’d placed them all in her trunk for Lady Aylia to examine, once she reached Whitehall. The librarian might be able to tell her more about their history.

It was nearly two hours before they reached the outskirts of Alexis, the capital city of Zangaria. Unlike Emily, Alassa couldn’t hope to leave without a major send-off, even though she was only riding to the portal outside the city, where she would step through and reach Whitehall. Emily waited until her coach had come to a stop, then jumped out and pointed the coachman towards the portal. After what had happened the last time she’d used one, she would have preferred to be with her friends when they went through the next. At least Alassa already knew how badly portals affected her.

“Lady Emily,” someone shouted, as Emily walked towards the Royal Carriage. “Are you going back to Whitehall?”

Emily did her best to ignore them. The combination of the new printing presses and the relaxation of most censorship laws had created a flourishing newspaper industry. Most of the newspapers would be gone within six months, she suspected – the economy probably couldn’t support over six hundred new publications within Alexis alone – but that didn’t stop them being annoying. The society pages alone seemed to be ruder than anything she recalled from Earth.

She placed her hand against the wards surrounding the Royal Carriage, waited for them to recognise her and then climbed up, into the cool interior. Alassa, as perfectly poised as ever, gave her a smile; Imaiqah, who seemed a little overwhelmed by all the attention, looked relieved to see Emily. Given how badly the two girls had gotten on before Emily had arrived, at Whitehall, she wasn’t entirely surprised. Now, after Imaiqah had helped save Alassa’s life and kingdom, she was nobility too. It was depressing to realise that made the girls get on better.

“It’s good to see you,” Alassa said, once the door was closed. “I hope that everything is prepared in Cockatrice?”

“I hope so,” Emily said, unsurprised by her discretion. This world offered all sorts of ways to spy on someone – and the new newspapers printed whatever their snoops found out. She had a private suspicion that King Randor already regretted giving the editors so much freedom. “And yourself?”

“They spend most of their time complaining that I didn’t choose a husband,” Alassa said, ruefully. “But after everything that happened …”

Emily nodded in understanding. Alassa’s planned engagement had been pushed to one side by an attempted coup – and, after that, most of her suitors had been recalled home so that their parents could consider the new situation in Zangaria. Alassa hadn’t been too upset, although she’d made a show of moping whenever she’d known she was being watched. She hadn’t really wanted to get married so quickly, even if she was the Crown Princess.

“Don’t worry about it,” Emily advised. “You have plenty of time before you take the throne.”

She braced herself as the carriage lurched forward, approaching the portal. The nexus of magic seemed to reach out for them, pulling the vehicle onwards … and then Emily gasped in pain as the magic threatened to overwhelm her. There was a long moment when she felt she was about to die, or have her soul sucked out of her body, and then the feeling was gone.

“Welcome to Whitehall,” Alassa said, quietly. “And it’s snowing.”

Emily nodded, peering out of the window as the spires of Whitehall came into view.

Somehow, she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was coming home.

The Succubus Who Fell In Love–Snippet

8 Apr

Another Snippet for you!

Chapter One

I suppose you could call this my origin story.

I don’t want to write it, but my superiors insist. They want others to learn from my mistakes, to learn what to avoid … personally, I’m not convinced. Anyone determined enough to learn how to use magic, to work the art, in our godless world isn’t going to listen to cautionary tales. But they think otherwise … and besides, writing the whole story down might be good for me. I just hope that someone learns from the experience.

You can call me John Smith.

And this is how I came to work for Department 42.


The first time I saw Grantchester College, Cambridge, I almost turned around and went home. Those of you born in the current era can have little understanding of what a university was like in that era. Grantchester was a massive building, surrounded by a brick wall topped with iron spikes. It looked rather like a prison, rather than a place of learning. I later learned that the architect had been mad and several builders had died in suspicious accidents while the main body of the College was being built. Given everything that had happened there over the years, I wasn’t at all surprised.

I have no idea just what was going through his mind while he was making the plans. Most of the building was blocky and ugly, but there were faint hints of something greater that puzzled me, a mixture of different styles that blurred together into one outrageous mass. There was a church-like steeple, a minaret, a Japanese rooftop … it was all rather confusing, really. I stopped at the gate and hesitated. Surely, it wouldn’t be too bad to go home and forget my dreams.

“Don’t be a fool,” Hamish said. “Get in there.”

I scowled at my elder – adopted – brother. We had met while we were both at the orphanage, before Uncle Rupert returned from the war and took me into his home. Hamish and I had become close friends and I’d insisted that Uncle Rupert adopt him as well, an easy task in the years following the end of the Second World War. Like me, his parents had been killed by jerry bombers when they hit Liverpool. It was strange to realise, sometimes, that he got on better with my uncle than I did.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was clever – and that wasn’t always a good thing, particularly when one happened to be born to a solidly working-class family. My parents had been workers, Uncle Rupert was a worker – well, he had been until he had marched off to war – and they expected me to carry on as a worker. Hamish, at least, had found an acceptable out in the army. I … was just too clever for them. When I won the scholarship, Uncle Rupert had been worried. He’d feared that I would come back with airs and graces, if I came back at all.

I picked up my trunk and walked towards the gates. “Good luck,” Hamish called after me. “Don’t forget to write.”

The gates seemed solidly imposing as I stopped in front of a gatehouse, where a dark-skinned fellow with sharp blue eyes glared at me. “And you are?”

“John Smith, sir,” I said, digging my letter out of my pockets. “I’m here for the new term.”

“A new bug,” the gatekeeper said. I was told later that his name was Handyman, descended from a long line of Handymen. Apparently, his family had worked for the college since it had been founded. “Welcome.”

The gate clicked open and I stepped inside, then turned to look at Hamish. He waved at me, then strode off down the street, leaving me behind. I shivered as the gatekeeper pointed me towards a huge entrance, large enough to drive a tank through into the main hall. It was impossible to escape the feeling that I didn’t belong here.

I sucked in my breath as I saw other students heading into the college. Like me, they were wearing absurd outfits; purple blazers, black trousers, white shirts and a straw hat. I hadn’t been willing to wear mine until after I’d climbed on the train; I’d just known that everyone back home would have pointed and laughed as I walked to the station. Now, seeing everyone else wearing the same garb, I felt a little better. This lasted until I stepped into the building.

Inside, there was a darkened chamber, illuminated only by candles, a display of conspicuous consumption that made me scowl. A number of older students, wearing white blazers with a large P – for Prefect – were directing the newcomers around the college, pointing them to their rooms. One of them caught my eye and strode over to me, glaring down as he caught my eye. He looked big and nasty enough to pass for a gorilla on a bad day.

“Papers,” he snapped.

“Here,” I said, passing him my letter.

“You will address any Prefect as Sir,” he said, his glare growing even darker. “Ah. One of the Scholarship boys.”

His glare became a leer. “Welcome to Grantchester, bug,” he said. “My name is Granby, Prefect Granby. Don’t mess with me and you might just get out of here alive.”

I swallowed, hard.

He laughed. “Take your trunk and follow me,” he ordered. I reached for my trunk. “Now!”

I kept my feelings hidden as he led me up a flight of stairs – naturally, he didn’t offer to help me with my trunk – and through a series of winding corridors, all barely-lit by gas lamps. The whole building was a maze, I realised slowly, designed to make it hard for outsiders to find their place from room to room. By the time we reached my room, I was thoroughly confused – and grimly aware that any mistake would be costly.

“This is your room, Smith,” Granby said. He flung open the door with considerable force. “You and your roommate are responsible for its upkeep. Inspections are every Saturday morning, after breakfast. Should you fail to keep it neat and tidy, according to our standards, you will be spending the rest of the day cleaning it with your own toothbrush. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, nervously.

Granby snickered. “Dinner is at five,” he added. “As it is your first day, the tutors will give you some latitude in when you arrive. After that, failing to arrive precisely on time will mean that you miss dinner. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I was getting sick of that question. “When do we start classes?”

“On Monday,” Granby said. “Oh, and don’t leave anything valuable out where people can see it. Playing jokes on one another is an old and hallowed tradition here.”

I watched him walking off down the darkened corridor and then stepped into my room. It was small, barely larger than the bedroom I’d had back in Liverpool, with two beds somehow crammed into the space. Both of them were made up impressively neatly, seemingly to the same standard Uncle Rudolf used after his discharge from the army. I found a drawer under the bed, piled my clothes into the space and then sat down, shaking my head. What sort of college had I entered?

There was a grunt from the open door. I looked up to see a handsome and muscular young man standing there, staring at me.

“Hello,” I said, nervously. “I’m John.”

“Madge,” the young man said, as he pulled a much larger trunk into the room. Somehow, it was hard to imagine that we might both fit inside for seven months. “And you are …?”

“John,” I said, puzzled. “John Smith.”

His eyes narrowed. “They told me that they would be putting me in with a scholarship boy,” he said, darkly. “What a wonderful time to discover that my father was actually telling the truth.”

I blinked. “What’s wrong with having a scholarship?”

Madge laughed, unpleasantly. “You’re a swot, Smith,” he said. “Everyone else comes from a good family, where they don’t have to earn scholarships to go to a good college and then go on to gainful employment. I bet your family had to root in the gutters for food so that you could come here.”

I flushed. I’d known that Uncle Rudolf wasn’t the wealthiest man in the world, but we hadn’t gone hungry – and besides, the scholarship paid for everything.

“My family is good enough,” I said, tartly. “I …”

“Oh,” Madge said. “And how big is your allowance?”

I winced. The scholarship covered accommodation, lessons, books, food and drink, nothing else. Madge must have seen it on my face, because he laughed again.

“Every boy from a good family will think nothing of spending hundreds of pounds on drinking,” he said. “You won’t be able to do that, will you?”

I gritted my teeth. In 1955, a few hundred pounds was a small fortune. I’d never held so much money in my life.

“No, you won’t,” Madge said. He leaned forward and smiled at me. “I’ll give you a piece of friendly advice, Smith. Never talk to me about actual schooling and we’ll get on just fine.”

I stared at him. “Actual schooling?”

Madge leaned backwards and stretched. “My father seems to have the impression that I come here to learn,” he said. “I actually come here to play sports; I have ambitions to be on the racing team and I am already on the football team. You’re here because my father insisted that I be paired with someone who might manage to get me higher marks.”

His face twisted into a rude smile. “I don’t care what pressure they bring to bear on you, scholarship boy,” he added. “Just stay away from me and we’ll get on just fine.”

“Oh,” I said. “No one told me that I would have to tutor …”

“Of course they didn’t,” Madge assured me. “They wanted you to come.”

He started to unpack his trunk – he seemed to have far more clothing and equipment than I had – as he talked. “You’ll have noticed that there are twelve prefects in the hall, but just about everyone in their fourth year has power over new bugs such as yourself,” he said, changing the subject. “If you’re very unlucky, you’ll end up fagging for one of them directly – that isn’t something to enjoy. Can you believe that one person used to line up three of four fags, bend them over and use them as a toast rack?”

I should insert a note here to point out that ‘fag’ was a term for a schoolboy or student who did chores for superior students, a practice known as ‘fagging’ – and has absolutely nothing (probably) to do with homosexuality.

“Whatever they tell you to do, it’s probably a good idea to obey,” Madge added. “Try to stay away from Barrenly; he’s a dab hand with the cane and likes to make students bleed. Travis isn’t too bad as long as you happen to like sports as much as he does; Granby is fine as long as you don’t slip up and call him anything other than Sir. But believe me; you are much better off dealing with the Prefects than the masters. They can assign far worse punishments than six strokes of the cane.”

He reached into his bag and produced a small pile of books. “You may as well keep these,” he added, as he dropped them on my bed. “I won’t be using them.”

I stared at him. Buying my books had been costly, even though the scholarship paid for everything. Madge … was just giving his books to me? I stared at them, noting a number of titles I’d been warned we would be using in later years, and shuddered. There was no way that I could afford to just pass on my books to someone else, no matter how dedicated they were to their studies.

“Enjoy,” Madge said. “But remember what I told you.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of Madge, but I was still glad that he was there when the bell rang and we made our way down to the dining hall. It would have been impossible for me to pick my way through the winding corridors without getting hopelessly lost. The dining hall itself was massive, with nine huge tables, one raised above the rest. It wasn’t hard to realise that it belonged to the masters, the people who would be teaching me … I looked at them and felt my blood run cold. None of them looked very intellectual.

“You can sit anywhere tonight,” Madge said, pointing to the table at the far end of the room. “As long as you don’t sit with the masters, of course.”

He snickered as we sat down. “That’s Yeller there,” he said, pointing to one of the tutors. “He used to be a sergeant in the war; you’d believe it too, the way he shouts at us when we’re on the field. He’s a good person to his favourites – and he won’t care that you have a scholarship, as long as you’re good at sports.”

I scowled. Sports was Hamish’s field, not mine. I’d certainly never enjoyed running around on the playing fields, not even as a little child. Maybe it would have been different if I hadn’t spent my early years in an orphanage … I pushed the thought aside as servants came out with the first dishes of the meal. It was impossible to grasp just how much food they were putting down in front of the students. Back home, we had to work hard to earn enough to live.

“That’s Barrette,” Madge said, pointing towards a grim-faced man. “He teaches Latin and Law, so you’ll probably be seeing a lot of him. Don’t make a mistake in his class; he is quite happy to flog someone right in front of everyone else. Fatty – the man sitting next to him -teaches maths, but he spends most of his time sucking up to the boys from good families.”

“Oh,” I said. All of the names were starting to blur into one. “I’m confused.”

“You’ll get your first class schedule tomorrow,” Madge assured me. “I suggest that you don’t skive off any of the classes, no matter how boring they become. You’re not in a position to take bad marks in your stride.”

The servants reached our table and placed two giant platters of food in front of us. I stared in disbelief at the slices of roast beef and chicken, both extremely expensive in Liverpool, certainly for our family. The potatoes and other vegetables smelt heavenly; Uncle Rudolf had always made me eat plenty of vegetables, telling me that it was good for my health. I had never really believed him, but refusing hadn’t been an option.

I couldn’t believe how some of the other students were acting. Most of them were stuffing their faces until the gravy ran down their chins, but others were pushing the food aside after taking a few bites or leaving the vegetables completely alone. It was just … didn’t they know how much the food cost? But then I remembered what Madge had told me and shuddered. No doubt the richer pupils had no idea how much the food cost … or, perhaps, the food was just cheap for them.

“That’s Tom,” Madge said, pointing to a thin-faced student who had just entered the dining hall. “He’s the oddest of the Prefects; there are times when he is gentle, almost kind, and times when he is a raving monster. Don’t get on his bad side.”

I followed his gaze. Tom looked too thin to be real, as if a strong breeze would just blow him over. His face was pallid, almost albino; his hands were long and thin. Not a sportsman, I realised, unlike most of the hearty fellows quaffing food and drink as though it was going out of fashion. Tom wore a silver ring on one finger – and, looking around, I saw several other students wearing different rings.

“They’re society rings,” Madge said, when I asked. “I don’t think you’ll be asked to join, I’m afraid. The dues are quite expensive.”

He proved to be right, I discovered as the evening wore on. Students would come up to me, make a few enquiries about my family and finances, then leave. Madge pointed out, rather sarcastically, that I should be grateful. I was a scholarship boy and shouldn’t be spending time enjoying myself when I should be studying. The food and drink on my plate was a good reason, I realised, to stay. Uncle Rudolf wouldn’t have to feed me as long as I stayed in the college.

We suffered through a long welcoming speech made by the Master of Grantchester, a short fat man who had been eating chicken legs and tossing the remains over the back of his chair into the wall, and then made our way back to our rooms. Quite a few of the students looked unsteady, even though no alcohol had been served. I learned later that many of them had brought their own drinks and the Prefects had turned a blind eye. And, for that matter, so had the masters.

I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of apprehension as I climbed into the uncomfortable bed. Tomorrow, I’d been told, I would meet my housemaster – and then try out for the sports teams. I already knew that I would fail to meet their standards … and, from what Madge had said, that would isolate me, just as badly as the mere shortage of wealth had isolated me. Part of me, desperately homesick, just wanted to leave. But I couldn’t bear the thought of Hamish’s disappointment and Uncle Rudolf’s sneers …

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have left without a second thought.

Knight’s Move–Snippet

8 Apr

This character isn’t meant to be sympathetic, at least not at first.

Chapter One

It started with a girl. But then, everything important in my life started with a girl.

A week after I was promoted to Captain, before I took command of my first starship, I was fool enough to accept an invite to Lady Rockton’s ball. The Rockton Family was junior to the Knights – of which I am the youngest scion – and my presence at the ball would be a great honour to them. Or so I was assured, when she called me to issue the invite personally. It would be a great chance to meet and network – and besides, like all those who want to impress, the Rockton Family would lay out a great spread for their guests. And I was getting sick of eating alone.

So I went.

I should have known better. The Lady of the Family was intent on social climbing and, naturally, she had invited everyone who thought they were anyone, or anyone who she thought was anyone, which wasn’t entirely the same thing. One hour of being walked around the ball room, being introduced to deeply boring people I already knew and I was ready to commit murder. Every single conversation went along the same lines;

“Captain Knight; congratulations on your new command,” he or she said.

“Thank you,” I said, already deeply bored. “I look forward to deep space.”

“My son, nephew, niece or whatever is graduating from the Academy in June,” he or she said. “I was wondering if you would consider taking them onboard …”

It went on and on like that until I could have crewed a superdreadnaught with scions of the aristocracy, had I commanded a superdreadnaught. Not that it should have been surprising, to be fair; everyone wanted to ensure that their little brats (and their friend’s little brats) got the best possible start to their formal careers. A posting under a sympathetic commanding officer would go a long way towards establishing themselves in the Britannic Navy. I nodded and made vague promises and made my escape as quickly as I could. Crewing is the XO’s responsibility and I wasn’t going to nag her too much. It wouldn’t have been fair.

I escaped from the latest granny who wanted to ensure that her grandson received a particular post – I don’t know why she asked me; I couldn’t have ensured a position on the fleet flagship, no matter my family connections – and fled towards the buffet tables. Lady Rockton had laid on a colossal spread, I had to admit; the tables were absolutely covered in meat, salad and bread. Standing on the other side of the table was a young woman wearing a black uniform and no rank insignia. I saw her and my heart started to beat faster. She was spectacular.

Judging from her appearance, she was an immigrant or a recent descent of immigrants from Hindustan or Delhi. Long black hair framed a heart-shaped face, with soft dark eyes and lips the colour of cherries. I stared at her, drinking in her appearance, and then asked her to dance. She gave me a long considering look – unlike her, I had worn my ranking stars to show off my promotion – and then accepted. I took her onto the dance floor and led her through a series of very basic steps. She didn’t quite seem to know what she was doing, but I didn’t mind. It was a different sort of dancing I had in mind.

After the third or fourth dance, I invited her to come into the next room with me. Lady Rockton, like all good socialites, had provided rooms for intimate relations between guests. Quite a few marriages had been contracted at balls, after all, and besides it was good politics. Not that I much cared. A few dances with the young woman and I just wanted to find a place to kiss her before I had to go back to the dance hall. Lady Rockton would be quite offended if I didn’t listen to the long wittering speech her fool of a husband was bound to make.

The girl hesitated as soon as we entered a private room. I was too excited to care about her sudden reluctance; she had danced without any hesitation, so why shouldn’t she do much more with me? It was easy to pull her to me and kiss her, even though she didn’t respond. The lack of response angered me and I pulled her harder, tugging her towards the bed.

“No,” she said, clearly. “I don’t want to make love on the first date.”

My anger snapped. “You little bitch,” I said, angrily. “You led me on and now …”

I yanked her forward and thrust her over the bed. It isn’t my preferred position, by any means, but any port in a storm. I heard her yelp in surprise as she landed face down on the blankets, then kicked out at me as I started to stroke her bottom. She twisted, rolled over and sat upright, one hand holding a stubby-nosed weapon. I stared in disbelief; where the hell had she gotten a stunner? It was the last thing I remember from that night. A moment later … well, she must have pulled the trigger. I found myself lying in a different bed.

Stunners are far from perfect, no matter what the designers say. I felt sick the moment I opened my eyes, so I sat upright and looked around for a basin. The room was almost completely barren, apart from a toilet in the far corner. I stumbled upright, staggered over to the toilet and threw up, before looking around in some confusion. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said that I was in a prison cell.

Coming to think of it, I asked myself, how did I know better? I was in a prison cell.

I was still mulling over this disaster, trying to remember just what had happened last night, when the door opened, revealing two guards. Both of them, I couldn’t help noticing, had removed their rank badges and nametags, a fairly common precaution when dealing with aristocratic prisoners. One of them caught me, made a face at the smell, and dragged me out of the cell into the next room. The other followed behind, making snide comments I choose not to recall. I said nothing as I was thrust into a shower, unceremoniously washed and then given a uniform to wear. It didn’t seem to include rank badges either.

“Come,” the first guard ordered, once I was dressed. “Follow me.”

“You know, I’d really like to thank you for your care,” I said, artlessly. “Why don’t you give me your name, so I can see to it that you are rewarded properly.”

The guard gave me a sardonic expression. “I’m sure that would be a good idea, sir,” he said, “but we’re not allowed to give out our names to prisoners.”

I scowled. I was a prisoner? Just what had happened last night?”

They shoved me into an elevator and took me up, and up, and up … until I was fairly sure that I knew where I was. Naval HQ is part of Orbital Tower One, a massive construction that reaches up from the planet’s surface to orbit. If I was in HQ … well, at least I wasn’t in prison, at least not permanently. But God alone knew what was going to happen to me next.

I was still mulling it over when the elevator came to a halt and I was thrust out into a brightly-lit lobby. There was no one else around, thankfully, to witness my humiliation as I was pushed down a corridor and into a familiar antechamber. I couldn’t help feeling a little relief as I recognised Uncle Rolf’s secretary seated at her desk. Uncle Rolf, the Chief of Naval Operations, would sort it all out for me. After all, he’d given me my ship.

“Be seated,” the secretary said. I blinked in surprise; she’d always had a warm word and a warmer smile for me, the last few times I had visited Uncle Rolf’s office. “You will be called.”

I would have asked questions, but the presence of the two gorillas, one on either side of me, kept me from saying a word. Instead, I waited, silently counting the seconds. The longer I had to wait, I knew from protocol lessons, the less important I was in the eyes of the host. It was nearly thirty minutes before Uncle Rolf’s door opened and I was thrust inside. He couldn’t have been very pleased with me.

“Jackson Algernon Knight,” he snapped, as the door hissed closed behind me. “What the hell do you think you were doing last night?”

I cringed. Uncle Rolf had always been a powerfully-built man and I’d always been a little afraid of him, even when he’d helped me get my first command. One look into his eyes and all excuses or evasions melted away like snow. He must have noticed my sudden silence, because he pointed to a space in front of his desk – I couldn’t help noticing that there was no chair for me, suggesting that I was in real trouble – and glared at me.

“What’s the matter?” He demanded. “Cat got your tongue?”

He pressed his fingertips together in a manner I had often tried to emulate, but failed miserably to master without looking a fool. “Let me outline it for you,” he said, coldly. “Last night, you attempted to rape Commander Song Mekong.”

I hesitated. “It wasn’t rape, sir,” I said. “It was …”

“You dragged her into a side room, thrust her onto the bed … I don’t like to think about what you would have done if she hadn’t managed to stun you,” Uncle Rolf snapped. I’d heard him angry before, but it had never been directed at me. I felt like I was about to face the firing squad, which was a very real possibility. Sweat ran down my back as I realised that rape was a capital offense – and the little bitch had gotten her side of the story in first. “Did you even realise who she was?”

I shook my head, mutely.

“Commander Mekong is a client of Admiral Bainbridge,” Uncle Rolf said. “You may know the Bainbridge Family; very long line, dating all the way back to First Settlement. And I can assure you, Jack, that they are not taking this matter lightly. You know the duties of a patron to his clients. Protection is the very least of it!”

I suppose I should explain a little here. The first settlers of Britannia became the aristocracy, who own about seventy percent of the empire between them and dominate the political process. In order to ensure that they remain dominate, aristocratic patrons take on commoner clients – and bring the most promising of them into their families through marriage. A young man may not dream of being the monarch, but if he does well his descendents may have a chance to park their butt on the throne.

The duties of a patron to his client are simple; political support, protection and promotion. In exchange, the client is supposed to be completely loyal to his or her patron. It doesn’t always work out, but most of the time it works smoothly. Except, of course, when someone like me manages to call the entire system into question.

“Our system works,” Uncle Rolf snapped, “because the commoners know that we can be counted upon to keep our side of the patron-client bargain. Did you even bother to ask who the girl was before you tried to take her into the bedroom for a quick and unwelcome fuck?”

I blinked in surprise, too shocked by his sudden drop into crudeness to deny it.

“No, it seems,” Uncle Rolf said. He scowled at me so fiercely that I took a step backwards. “You have managed to disgrace the Knight Family and done considerable harm to our entire society. We are not amused. I spent the last four hours negotiating with various interested parties, boy, and let me tell you that I have too much else on my table right now to be pleased about talking to outsiders who want to tell me how to run my navy!

“The Bainbridge Family wants you dishonourably discharged,” he continued, after a long icy moment. “Luckily, your own family was unprepared to countenance such a drastic punishment” – I relaxed in relief- “but other families insisted on having their own say. You will no longer be commander of Lighting.”

I stared at him in horror. Lightning was mine, a heavy cruiser fresh out of the shipyards … I had been looking forward to taking command of her ever since I had been told that my name was being considered for command. I had even called in every favour I was owed to ensure that my name was the only one taken seriously by the Admiralty. And now she was being taken away from me?

“Yes,” Uncle Rolf said, sharply. “You are not fit to command one of our finest ships.”

His eyes glittered with sudden malice. “I thought about giving you a garbage scow, but that would raise too many questions in the media,” he continued. “Instead, I’m doing something worse. I’m giving you Uncanny.”

I blanched. “Uncle Rolf …”

“Don’t Uncle Rolf me, you fucking asshole,” Uncle Rolf snapped. “At the very least, you have shown consistently poor judgement over the last few hours. You attempted to rape a girl when there is no shortage of bright young things willing to put out for a starship commander or a junior aristocrat! If you were so desperate to have sex, why didn’t you just find one or even just go to a brothel? It wouldn’t have been that difficult to find one.”

His gaze sharpened. “I’m giving you Uncanny,” he said, coldly. “And may God have mercy on your soul.”

I tried to glare back at him, but it didn’t work. Uncanny was a legend in the navy for all the wrong reasons. She was a heavy cruiser, not too different from Lightning, yet she seemed to be cursed. Over forty officers and crewmen had died on her over the past two years, from all sorts of glitches in her systems rather than enemy action. She’d even killed her last commanding officer when the oxygen supplies in his cabin became contaminated. I’d heard rumours that other officers had resigned rather than stay on a starship that had become a killer.

Oh, they’d done everything to try to figure out what was wrong. The crew had been switched out and replaced by newcomers, the main computer core had been replaced twice, all of the network subordinate nodes had been replaced … and yet bad luck kept plaguing the ship. And, as spacers are very superstitious, it wasn’t too likely that good crewmen would apply to transfer to the ship, no matter what rewards they were offered. Uncanny – they called her Unlucky – would have a crew composed of the dregs of the service.

Uncle Rolf must have been following my thoughts – I’d always suspected that he could read minds – because he smiled unpleasantly. “Yes,” he said. He reached into a drawer and produced a folder. “These are your mission orders.”

“Mission orders?” I repeated. “Sir?”

“You will not be staying here, of course,” Uncle Rolf said. “Unlucky – I beg your pardon; Uncanny – is going to be dispatched to patrol the Typhoon Sector. As you are no doubt aware” – I was, but only vaguely – “the sector has only recently been admitted to the empire and the locals are not fully reconciled to their role in the greater scheme of things. You will be there to show the flag, provide support to the authorities and generally ensure that everything runs smoothly. Quite a few eyes will be watching you.”

I shuddered. It sounded like real work.

“Uncle Rolf,” I said, carefully, “I’m sorry about the mistake …”

His eyebrows arched upwards. “You’re telling me that attempted rape was a mistake?”

“Yes,” I said. “I was getting mixed signals from her and I …”

He slapped his desk. “I am sick and tired of hearing excuses from your damned generation,” he thundered. “Was there something in the water? Or did we just fail to beat you enough when you were kids? It seems that there is a constant parade of young idiots coming before me and telling me that they made a mistake, that they’re very sorry and that they won’t do it again and I am sick of it!

“You have a choice,” he added, in a voice as cold as ice. “You can accept command of Uncanny and go out into the galaxy to make your fortune – or, at the very least, go somewhere well away from me. Or you can resign from the navy, which will allow Commander Mekong to bring a civil suit against you – assuming, of course, that the Bainbridge Family doesn’t manage to convince the Court to prosecute you. I dare say your family will be unhappy about the possibility of you facing justice …”

I nodded, bitterly. My family has vast influence, but it was a great deal harder to derail a civil suit … and it would make us laughing stocks. I had a feeling that my father would have been more likely to order me to take a long holiday – to the Typhoon Sector, perhaps – than pay for my defence in court. And then I would be away from Britannia without a powerful starship to back me up.

“I will take command,” I said.

“Glad to hear it,” Uncle Rolf said. “My secretary has the documents for your new command, son. I want you out of here in a week.”

His face twitched into a leering smile. “And the best of luck to you.”

Somehow, I was sure I could hear him sniggering as I walked out of his office.