Archive | October, 2013

Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi

27 Oct

-Fred Burton, Samuel M. Katz

Might interest readers of To The Shores.

One of the trends I am not particularly fond of is the rush to get books out on subjects of interest. Every political upheaval or geopolitical incident, it seems, prompts a mad rush to produce a book – which is rarely up to date. Often, by the time it is published, events have moved onwards. There is no time for mature reflection and understanding, let alone distance between us and the event that allows us to look with a cold critical eye. Like most such books, therefore, Under Fire promises more than it actually delivers.

Under Fire purports to be the untold story of the attack in Benghazi, an event that has been shrouded in confusion since it took place. In some ways, the book is actually quite good at putting events into context. In others, it fails. For example, the book cites the claim that the release of the controversial YouTube movie, The Innocence of Muslims, fuelled the attack. Put bluntly, this claim is nonsense. The attack on Benghazi was planned long before the video was released and the attackers simply got lucky. It was a coincidence that allowed them to claim that they were merely defending Islam, a claim picked up by idiot Westerners and used as an excuse for overlooking the death of Ambassador Stevens.

Where Under Fire does well is in exploring the lives of the security officers responsible for guarding diplomats on foreign deployments. Their task is not an easy one, made worse by the typical disconnect between people on the ground and people behind a comfortable desk in Washington. In this case, the experience of officers on the ground were largely ignored by Washington, contributing to the tragedy. The book also notes that no one in Benghazi was unaware of the ‘secret’ CIA base in the city. The attackers had no difficulty in finding their target.

The book also does well in outlining what actually happened. The oddly hesitant nature of the attack on the building only adds to the belief that the attack was planned long before the video was distributed. It also gets across the chaos caused by losing track of people in the confusion, including the Ambassador. By the time they realised he was gone, it was already too late to save him.

However, the authors avoid the question of assigning blame, let alone asking hard questions. For example, why was there no military attempt to intervene? This may not have been possible (I am no expert) but, if so, this should have been explained. It wasn’t. Where were President Obama, Hilary Clinton and the other decision-makers when the attack was underway? Why were there no contingency plans for assisting Americans (and other Westerners) in case Libya descended into anarchy? In fact, the book shies away from any examination of what happened in Washington.

Even the most charitable view of the Administration’s failure raises problems. It takes time to get news up the chain to Washington, time to make a decision and time to implement it … by which time the situation has probably moved on and the original orders are no longer viable. This delay is epidemic through the colossal bureaucracy Washington and most other Western nations have become. Swift response to problems is simply impossible.

Political correctness also proves a major weapon in the arsenal of our enemies. The world is full of things that offend me – and I think that is true for just about everyone. I do not think that gives me an excuse to riot and kill the people responsible. Nor, no matter the offence, does it give me the right to kill people who are utterly unrelated to the offence. The question of ‘guilt by association or country’ was settled long ago. There is no excuse for accepting, let alone repeating, our enemy’s claim that we somehow brought the attack down on ourselves. Or should Libya be randomly bombed on the grounds that the bombed shared a country with the terrorists who attacked American diplomats?

Call me a cynic, but I think that Benghazi represents yet another test of the West’s mettle – a test we flunked. As I noted in my afterword for To The Shores, the failure to respond harshly to the attacks in Tehran, Beirut and now Benghazi made us look weak. Weakness invites attack.

Our enemies did not hesitate to take note.

Snippet–Ark Royal

25 Oct

Chapter One

“Commodore?”

Commodore Sir Theodore Smith opened his eyes and glared at his wristcom, lying where he’d left it on his bedside table. His mouth tasted foul, reminding him that he’d drunk several pints of ship-brewed rotgut before staggering into his bunk and going to bed. The ship’s doctor would probably want a few words with him later; regulations might not frown on officers and crewmen drinking when they weren’t on duty, but ship-brewed alcohol wasn’t always healthy.

“Yes,” he growled, pushing the thought aside. God, he needed a drink. “What is it?”

“There’s a priority-one message from the Admiralty,” Midshipwoman Lopez said. There were times when Ted wondered just who the young woman had pissed off Portsmouth Naval Training Base. Ark Royal was no posting for an ambitious and capable young officer. “They request your immediate presence at Nelson Base.”

Ted blinked in surprise. He’d always had the impression that Nelson Base preferred to forget that Ark Royal – and her drunkard of a commander – existed. They were an embarrassment, a relic of Britain’s first step into interstellar power. If Ark Royal hadn’t been famous, she would probably have been broken up for scrap or sold to a third-rate power by now. And if Ted hadn’t been a drunkard, he might have been promoted to Admiral.

“I’m on my way,” he said, finally. Urgent summons from the Admiralty were almost never good news. “Have my shuttle prepared.”

He stumbled out of bed, then reached into his drawer and removed a stimulant tab, which he pressed against his forearm. Once, it had seemed a wise precaution; now, he honestly didn’t know why he bothered. But it had paid off for him, he had to admit, as he felt the drug working its way through his body. He wouldn’t go into the meeting, whatever it was, suffering from the aftermath of too much drinking.

Biting down a series of curses, he stepped into the washroom and glared at his face in the mirror. His hair had gone white years ago; his face was marred with stubble. He rapidly ran a shaver over his cheekbones and jaw, then stepped into the shower and washed himself rapidly. Outside, he pulled on the dark blue dress uniform favoured by Her Majesty’s Navy, then checked his appearance in the mirror. He might not look as perfect as the men and women on the recruiting posters, he knew, but at least he looked presentable.

He left his cabin and strode through the ship towards the shuttlebay. By now, he could have found his way around his ship blindfold. Ted had spent fifty years in the British Navy and most of them had been spent on Ark Royal, a position that had been intended as a punishment for carelessness as a young Lieutenant. Somehow, he’d been promoted upwards until he reached Captain and then Commodore, although the ranks were partly worthless. Ark Royal wouldn’t see action unless the Navy was desperate.

She was seventy years old, the first true interstellar carrier put into space by the British Navy – and a piece of living history. Civilians found her box-like shape ugly as hell, but Ted loved her for what she was. Over the years, keeping Ark Royal in something resembling fighting trim had become an obsession, one that had consumed his life. He sometimes wondered if the Navy had known what it was doing by assigning him to the carrier, or if it had been sheer luck. He pushed the thought aside as he scrambled into his shuttle and nodded to the pilot to take them to Nelson Base. No doubt the Navy had its reasons for the urgent summons.

Space was filled with activity, he realised, as the shuttle headed towards Nelson Base. There were military starships everywhere; American, Russian, Chinese, European, Japanese and several smaller nations, all frantically preparing for operations. Ted eyed them in surprise, then activated the shuttle’s datanet and scanned for answers. There was nothing, beyond a general alert from the Admiralty. Ted felt his eyes narrow. The First Space Lord might have decided to call an unscheduled exercise, but that wouldn’t have affected the other interstellar powers. Something was definitely up.

Nelson Base was a giant station, hanging in geostationary orbit over Britain. It was actually older than Ark Royal, although it had been extensively modified in the ninety years since it had been constructed and then activated. Ted frowned as there was a series of security checks, all of which had to be cleared before the shuttle was allowed to dock. Inside, a pair of armed Royal Marines escorted him to the First Space Lord’s office. But what was going on?

“Commodore Smith,” the First Space Lord said, as Ted was escorted through the hatch and into the office. “Please, have a seat.”

Ted nodded. The First Space Lord had once been a classmate of his, years ago. They’d gone through Portsmouth together. Now, one of them was the most powerful uniformed officer in the service and the other … was a drunkard in command of a carrier most officers regarded as a national embarrassment. The First Space Lord had put on a little weight, he noted, but his hair was still as red as ever. Ted wondered, in a moment of insight, if his old friend dyed his hair. He’d certainly been vain when they’d been younger.

The hatch opened again, revealing a thin-faced young man wearing a Captain’s uniform, but without a ship name on the jacket. Ted scowled, not liking the implications. By long tradition, the only people allowed to claim the rank of Captain were actual starship commanders. In some ways, it was possible to be both a Commodore and a Captain, although Ted himself was a special case. It didn’t mean he drew two salaries.

“Captain Fitzwilliam,” the First Space Lord said. The newcomer managed a perfect salute; Ted found himself disliking him on sight. “Be seated.”

He waited for the newcomer to seat himself, then continued. “There has been an incident,” he said. “The Vera Cruz colony has been attacked.”

Ted frowned. War seemed the only reasonable explanation for so much military activity in Earth orbit, but Vera Cruz? If he recalled correctly, the world was on the edge of the expanding sphere of human settlement – and not really considered worth fighting over. The Mexicans had won the settlement rights and started to settle the planet. But who would have attacked the planet? There wasn’t anything worth taking.

“To be precise, the attack was carried out by aliens,” the First Space Lord continued. “There have been three more attacks since then, although we only found out about them seven hours ago. News moves slowly along the edge of the sphere.”

“Aliens?” Ted repeated. He would have sooner believed in pirates than aliens. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” the First Space Lord said. “We recovered little useful data from Vera Cruz, but both the Chinese mining colony orbiting IAS-73782 and the independent settlement on Maxwell’s World had small starships that managed to escape the attackers. The starships that attacked the planets were completely unknown. This is the dawn of an interstellar war.”

Ted swallowed. In three hundred years of expansion, ever since the Puller Drive had been invented, humanity hadn’t encountered another intelligent race. The highest form of life outside Earth had been a whale-like creature on an oceanic world. Humanity, once convinced that aliens were everywhere, had slowly come to believe that they were alone in the universe.

“We do not know why the aliens attacked the colonies,” the First Space Lord said. “So far, all attempts to communicate have simply been ignored. We do know that humanity is at war. The Vulcan Protocols have been activated.”

“… Shit,” Ted said.

The Vulcan Protocols had been a theoretical study, nothing more. They harked back to a time when alien contact and interstellar war was seen as a very real possibility. In theory, the human race – or at least the major spacefaring powers – was obliged to unite in defence of humanity, putting all grudges aside. Ted rather suspected that it wouldn’t be that easy to actually make it happen in practice.

“We will, of course, hope for a diplomatic solution,” the First Space Lord said. “However, we are currently preparing for the worst. How long will it take before Ark Royal is ready for deployment, assuming an unlimited budget and workforce?”

That was something Ted had worked on ever since he’d been promoted into the command chair, no matter how meaningless it had seemed. “Two weeks if we cut corners, four if we take it slowly,” he said. “But the crew would have to be experienced.”

Captain Fitzwilliam gaped at him. “Four weeks?”

Ted laughed. “Do you think that I spend my days engaging in rum, sodomy and the lash?”

The First Space Lord nodded. “I am pleased to hear that your time on the vessel has not been wasted,” he said. “However, it is felt that someone new should take command of Ark Royal.”

Ted felt cold ice trickling down his spine as he realised where this was leading. “Captain Fitzwilliam will assume command of Ark Royal,” the First Space Lord informed him. “You will supervise the refitting and then …”

The ice flashed into anger. Ted had served on Ark Royal for forty-four years. He was familiar with every last inch of her decks – and with every new component his skeleton crew had installed over the years. Their surprise at the short time it would need to have the ship prepped for service was quite understandable … but they didn’t realise that he hadn’t spent his time drunk out of his mind. No, he’d been keeping the old girl as close to readiness as possible. They hadn’t even been paying attention to the supplies he’d requisitioned over the years!

“No,” he said, simply.

The First Space Lord lifted his eyebrows. It was a breach of military formality to interrupt one’s superior, unless it was a matter of life and death.

Ted turned to face Captain Fitzwilliam, fighting to keep his voice even. “Are you familiar with the modifications we have made to our Mark-IV normal space drive? Are you aware of the problems in flying Buccaneer bombers off the flight decks? Do you understand the outdated computer cores we have not been able to replace? Do you realise that half our small craft component is actually outdated? Do you understand the limitations of our onboard weapons systems?”

He looked back at the First Space Lord. “I’m sure that Captain Fitzwilliam is a fine officer,” he said, knowing that he would either secure his career or destroy it. “But he hasn’t trained on anything remotely comparable to Ark Royal. There is very little standard about her, sir; her internal systems are a mixture of modern technology and outdated technology that cannot be replaced without tearing up the hull. Are you aware, for example, that we cannot mount a modern sensor node on the hull? When switched to active mode, they will blind her inner systems. We actually have to use sensor probes and outriders to expand our sensor range.”

“That’s absurd,” Captain Fitzwilliam protested. “What sort of system would be designed to blind its carrier?”

“It isn’t,” Ted assured him. “A modern carrier wouldn’t have a problem. Ark Royal, however, was designed as a solid-state entity. She was built to survive. We cannot replace the older systems without tearing the hull wide open, which would take far longer than four weeks. We’d be looking at nine months, at best.”

He smiled at the younger man. “Still feel like you can take command of my ship?”

Captain Fitzwilliam’s face darkened, but he held his temper. Ted was privately impressed. He had no illusions about what navy scuttlebutt said about him; it was unlikely in the extreme that any young officer would look up to him as someone to be emulated. It was rather more likely that they considered his career to be a nightmare. Someone edging towards squadron or fleet command would be horrified at the idea of spending forty-four years on the same ship. It wasn’t the mark of a promising officer.

“You’ve made your point,” the First Space Lord said. “But four weeks is a rather short time for a complete refit.”

“I should have sent you flypaper reports,” Ted said, remembering one of the classes they’d shared at Portsmouth. The whole episode had been used as a warning of the dangers of too much bureaucracy. “Didn’t anyone ever read my reports?”

He shook his head a moment later. The only ship considered less likely to go into battle was Lord Nelson’s Victory, which was – technically – the First Space Lord’s flagship. But as Victory was a sailing ship, it was unlikely the First Space Lord had spent any time on her since the commission. She normally served as a tourist attraction.

“I will take your word for it,” the First Space Lord said. His tone suggested that if it took longer than four weeks to get Ark Royal ready for deployment, Ted could start looking for a new job. “Captain Fitzwilliam will serve as your XO.”

Ted swallowed a curse – and, beside him, Captain Fitzwilliam didn’t look any happier. For one of them, there would be an XO looking for a place to plant the knife; for the other, there was an effective demotion. There was only one Captain on a starship and it wouldn’t be Fitzwilliam. Unless, of course, Ted failed to make good on his boast. Silently, he promised himself that he would read through Captain Fitzwilliam’s file as soon as possible. He didn’t even know the man’s first name!

“Thank you, sir,” he said, finally. “Might I enquire as to deployment plans?”

“The UN Security Council is meeting in emergency session,” the First Space Lord said. he jerked a finger towards the deck – and Earth, far below. “For the moment, the Admiralty is concentrating on protecting Britannia and contributing to the defence of Earth. We assume that we will be making future deployments once the Vulcan Protocols are fully activated, but as yet we don’t have any details.”

Ted nodded. Britannia was Britain’s largest possession, a colony world with over a billion settlers from Earth. The British Commonwealth had worked hard to both settle the planet and build up local industry, taking advantage of the latest UN environmental regulations to encourage corporations and private individuals to move to Britannia. There was no way the Government would leave the planet uncovered, even if it meant drawing ships away from Earth. Indeed, Ted had been surprised that Ark Royal hadn’t been moved to Britannia long ago.

There were other colonies, including a handful of mining settlements and a stake on an Earth-like world that might become a second colony soon enough, but Britannia was too important to lose. The Royal Navy stationed seven of its twelve modern carriers in the system permanently, while the other five were never far away. It seemed unlikely that anyone could break through the defences and take the planet.

He scowled. Humanity hadn’t really fought an interstellar war. Sure, there had been the skirmishes between Edo and Ghandi, or the confrontation between Washington and Confucius over a third system, but nothing that had broken out into general war. Hell, there were even agreements that Earth and the Sol System would remain neutral if war actually did break out. No one really knew how the latest military technology would work in open warfare. There were simulations and exercises, but they were never as useful as the real thing.

And now there was an alien threat. What sort of technology would they have?

“So far, the media has not caught wind of the threat,” the First Space Lord informed him, shortly. “The Prime Minister and other world leaders has ordered a total blackout. However, I do not expect that to last long. Rumours are already flying around the datanet and it won’t be long before someone breaks the blackout. It will certainly be broken when we start calling up reserves and conscripting civilians.

“Go back to your ship, taking your new XO with you,” he continued. “Requisition whatever you need; I’ll do my best to make sure you have it. If we’re lucky, this will all blow over, but I rather doubt it.”

Ted nodded in agreement. The aliens had just attacked. Unprovoked, as far as anyone knew, they’d just attacked – and not one colony, but three. It suggested either unhealthy confidence or careful observation of humanity before opening fire. Ted wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the aliens had surveyed the entire human sphere. There was enough civilian traffic moving through interstellar space to conceal a handful of alien spy ships, if the aliens showed up on sensors at all. Whatever the civilians might think, there was plenty of space between the planets to hide the entire human fleet.

They think they can win, Ted thought. He shivered at the thought. Only a fool would start a war they didn’t think they could win. What do they want?

“Yes, sir,” he said, pushing his thoughts aside. The prospect of actually taking his ship into harm’s way galvanised him. “I won’t let you down.”

He rose to his feet and saluted, as smartly as he could. Captain Fitzwilliam – no, he’d be a Commander now – followed, his face blank and unreadable. Ted sighed, inwardly. Fitzwilliam would have a major chip on his shoulder after being told he would be given command – and then watching as it was snatched away from him. Ted wouldn’t really blame him for being irked, but he couldn’t afford the distraction of a sulking XO. They would have to talk and hash it out, perhaps over a drink …

No, Ted told himself, firmly. A drunkard could not take command of a ship that was going into action. That was plain common sense. You are not going to drink until the war is over.

Work Experience (Schooled In Magic IV)–Snippet

25 Oct

Prologue

The first thing Holly knew, when she opened her eyes, was that she was no longer alone.

The second thing she knew was that the intruder had cast a complex spell on her. She couldn’t move a muscle, apart from her mouth. Even her eyes refused to open.

She refused to panic. At fifty years of age, most of them spent living in her shack, Holly had little fear of death. Besides, the intruder had to be a powerful magician – he’d walked through her wards and protections without triggering any alarms – but it was unlikely that he meant her any real harm. If he had, he could have cut her throat before she ever woke up.

“Good morning,” a cultured voice said. It was male, but otherwise unfamiliar. A spell was probably being used to disguise the speaker. “I apologise for casting a spell on you, but I would prefer to remain unknown.”

“I am sure of it,” Holly said, dryly. “And why exactly have you invaded my home?”

“I came to make you an offer,” the voice said. There was a clink as something was dumped onto the rickety table. “An offer of power.”

Holly snorted. She’d heard such offers before. Hedge Witches lived closer to the untamed wild magic than any of the snooty graduates of Whitehall, Mountaintop or the other magical academies. She’d seen her first demon before she even had her first blood.

And she knew what demons wanted. “And all you want in exchange is my soul?”

“Not at all,” the voice assured her. “I merely wish you to use what I bring you.”

Holly didn’t believe him. In her experience, nothing was ever given for nothing. There was always something desired in exchange, no matter how many pretty words might be used to hide it. And power always came with a price.

The voice became seductive. “Have you never wished for more power?”

Holly would have nodded, if she had been able to move. She’d been born to a poor family, in a poor village. Only a talent for magic had saved her from being sold or married off as soon as she first passed blood. But she had never been powerful enough to go to one of the academies. Instead, she had learned from the local Hedge Witch and, when the elderly woman had died, Holly had taken her place.

But it was a frustrating job. People relied on her and were terrified of her in equal measure. They begged for her help and whispered about her behind her back. And, no matter what she did, she knew she couldn’t help all of them. She had dedicated her life to the folk of the mountains, yet it was never enough. And the demons knew how she felt. It was why they kept coming to her, tempting her with dreams of power.

“Yes,” she said, out loud.

“These are the tools of a magician who garnered power,” the voice said. He tapped something that sounded like wood. “A skull of memories. A book of spells. And a knife of power.”

“I can’t read,” Holly confessed.

There was a chuckle from the darkness. “The New Learning hasn’t spread this far yet, has it?”

He cleared his throat, then pressed on before Holly could ask him what he meant. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. There was an easy confidence in his voice that both puzzled and alarmed her. How long had he been spying on her to have such an accurate idea of her capabilities? “The skull will provide all the guidance you need. All I ask in return is that you help the folk of the mountains.”

Holly clenched her teeth, pressing against the spell. It refused to break. “Why … why are you doing this?”

“Because someone has to,” the voice said. It was a delightfully uninformative answer. “And because the people need help. You know how powerless they are.”

He was right, Holly knew. The mountainfolk scrabbled to make a living from the soil. What little they had was taxed, often heavily, by the Lords of the High Castles. Their sons were pressed into armies, their daughters often forced into effective prostitution; entire families had been broken up because their masters decided that it was necessary. Hedge Witch or no, Holly had never been in a position to stop the aristocrats from bullying the common folk. If she’d tried, she knew the aristocrats would have called for a magician from the academies to deal with her. All she could do was watch.

But if she were offered the power to change it, would she?

She had to admit that she probably would. The only reason the aristocrats held power was that they were powerful. If she had more power, she could make them bend to her will. And then she could ensure that the mountainfolk had a chance to live free.

“Good luck,” the voice said.

The spell unravelled moments later. Holly’s eyes jerked open, but all she saw was the cramped interior of her shack. Her tutor had told her that a Hedge Witch shouldn’t crave luxury; the shack was barren, apart from a pile of blankets, a table, a handful of shelves and a small fireplace. The shelves were crammed with potion ingredients Holly had collected herself. She stumbled to her feet and looked around, sharply. Her vast family of cats seemed to have vanished completely.

Carefully, she tested the wards. As far as she could tell, they were intact. But the intruder had walked right through them.

She looked down at the table and scowled. As the voice had promised, there was a skull, a book … and a knife. The skull glittered with magic of a kind Holly had never seen before – she resolved to be careful when trying to use it – and the book seemed impenetrable. But it was the knife that caught her attention. It was a long dagger, with odd runes carved into the blade …

… And it was made of stone.

Chapter One

The room looked perfectly safe. Emily was suspicious at once.

She stepped into the room, hand raised in a defensive posture. Magic crackled over her fingertips as she glanced around, looking for unexpected surprises. Blackhall was crammed with traps, some magical, some mundane; the merest touch could trigger something that would explode in her face. And, with Emily the only student in the building, the traps could be keyed to her personally.

The room was empty, save for a potted tree that grew out of a pot and reached up through a hole in the ceiling. Emily eyed it doubtfully, then cast a series of magic-detection spells. The tree was completely out of place, so out of place that she suspected that it was part of a trap. And yet it just seemed to be a perfectly normal tree …

Puzzled, she inched over towards the door on the far side of the room and cast another detection spell. The door itself seemed safe, but there was a powerful spell on the doorknob, one keyed to touch. The moment she touched it, she would unleash … what? So far, Blackhall’s defences had included everything from stunning spells to immediate eviction from the building. Emily couldn’t count the number of times she’d touched the wrong thing and triggered a trap.

She glanced behind her and muttered a curse. The door through which she had entered was gone. The only way out was through the sealed door. Absently, she tested the walls – she’d escaped one trap by blasting through the walls – and discovered that they were held firmly in place by magic. Clearly, Sergeant Miles wasn’t about to allow her to use the same trick twice.

There was no time for further reflection. Kneeling down beside the door, she started to work on the spell guarding the doorknob. She expected it to be tricky – the sergeants were brilliant at inventing complex traps – but the spell unravelled almost as soon as she touched it with her magic. Emily blinked in surprise; that had really been too easy. And then she sensed the second spell coming to life. A second spell had been hidden behind the first, waiting for the first spell to be removed. Emily threw up her hands as a wave of magic surged out at her, but it was too late.

She felt the spell strike her, warping her body. The experience wasn’t painful, but it was thoroughly uncomfortable – and interfered with her own magic. She saw hairs sprouting on her palms a moment before her head started to swim, her perspective changing rapidly. Her vision faded, then recovered. The room suddenly seemed a great deal larger …

Dear God, she thought, as she looked down at herself. I’m a cat!

The cattish instincts crashed into her mind a moment later. Prank spells provided their victim with protections against losing their minds, but the sergeants had obviously gone for something nastier. Emily found herself leaping across the room before her mind quite caught up with what she was doing. The tree she’d dismissed as unimportant suddenly looked great fun to climb. She looked up, remembering that the tree led out of the room. If Sergeant Miles hadn’t come to get her, she might not have failed … yet.

She climbed up the tree, marvelling inwardly at how nimble the cat-form was, then slipped into the crack in the roof. Inside, there was a long low passageway, smelling of something that alarmed her cattish side. Emily concentrated – it would be far too easy to lose herself inside the cat’s mind – and forced her way onwards, hoping and praying that the spell wouldn’t wear off while she was in the passageway. If she was lucky, she would end up trapped; if she was unlucky, her human body wouldn’t be able to fit into the passageway …

There was a faint hissing sound – her fur stood on end – and then the snake came into view, sliding towards her with deadly intent. She was probably imagining it, she told herself, but the snake seemed to look malicious. Beady eyes fixed on her as it advanced. Her cat-form shuddered, then went still. Emily remembered The Jungle Book and felt a flash of alarm, realising just how the snake had caught its dinner. She had almost been hypnotised into waiting patiently to be devoured.

She braced herself – and jumped as soon as the snake lunged at her. There was a dull thud as its head struck the stone floor, followed by an angry hiss. Emily felt the cat’s panic as she ran forward, past the writhing tail and out through another crack. The snake’s hisses seemed to grow louder, but it didn’t follow her out into the room. Emily wondered, absently, if the snake was actually part of the tests, before deciding that it probably was. The wards would have kept it out if the sergeants hadn’t wanted it there.

The cat instincts seemed to grow stronger as she looked around the room, threatening to overwhelm her human body. Emily mentally gritted her teeth as she struggled to cast the counter-spell; her mind was starting to merge into the cat’s, which meant that she no longer thought that being a cat was odd. Panic howled at the back of her mind as she fought the spell, but it refused to break. Was she doomed to spend the rest of her life as a cat?

“That’s a nasty spell,” a voice said.

Emily jumped, then skittered towards the far side of the room. She’d been so caught up in the mental struggle that she hadn’t realised that she was no longer alone.

“Let me help,” the voice added.

There was a snapping sound, as if someone had snapped their fingers. Emily closed her eyes hastily as her body twisted, then slowly returned to human form. When she opened them, she found herself kneeling on all-fours. And, standing in the centre of the room, was the sorcerer Void.

He looked older than he had the last time Emily had met him, something that bothered her. For a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, he had a streak of vanity in his character that kept him using rejuvenation spells to appear young. Now, his brown hair was shading to gray and his skin was lined and pitted with wrinkles. He wore a simple black robe, loose enough to cover everything. Emily had the odd impression that he was actually weaker than he looked.

She straightened up, embarrassed. “Void,” she said, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. He was her Guardian – and the closest thing she had to a father. And yet he hadn’t visited Whitehall since the Mimic had been destroyed. The other students had been visited by their parents, who had descended on Whitehall en masse, but Emily had been left alone. Part of her resented it. “It’s good to see you again.”

“And you,” Void said. “I was … gratified to receive your exam results.”

Emily found herself blushing. Back on Earth, no one would have given a damn about her grades. Hearing that Void cared pleased and worried her in equal measure. It was strange to have someone looking out for her welfare, yet it made her feel unsteady. The person who should have looked out for her welfare had climbed into a bottle and never come out.

“Thank you,” she said. She knew she’d done well. Thanks to Mistress Sun and Lady Barb, her charms were head and shoulders above her classmates. The only class she’d actually failed was Martial Magic, where she simply hadn’t been able to keep up with the more experienced students. She would have to repeat most of the class in Year Three. “Were you pleased?”

“Of course,” Void said. “I’m very proud of you.”

Emily’s blush deepened. “Do you … do you want to go back to Whitehall?”

“I’d prefer not to speak with the Grandmaster,” Void said. He looked around the room, contemplatively. “Besides, this place brings back old memories. I ran through the maze myself too, once upon a time.”

When dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Emily thought, snidely. She didn’t say it out loud.

“Besides, I came to talk to you personally,” Void added. “There have been interesting developments. A necromancer is dead.”

Emily blinked. Necromancers were immensely powerful magicians, feeding on the life and magic of their victims to power their spells. Channelling such power through their minds always drove them insane, eventually. Shadye, who had brought Emily into her new world and then been killed by her, had been utterly barking mad when he’d died. Emily still had nightmares about facing him. She suspected she wasn’t the only one.

She forced her mind to work properly. “Poison?”

“Apparently, the necromancer’s throat was slit,” Void said. “Necromancer Harrow lived on the far side of the Desert of Death, ruling the remains of a small kingdom. I … kept an eye on him, worrying about the day he decided to cross the desert and attack the Allied Lands. And then his wards shivered and collapsed. When I investigated, I discovered that he was dead.”

Emily considered it. Necromancers did not die easily – and, from what she’d heard, their deaths brought on massive explosions as their stolen magic erupted from their bodies. The only exception to that rule had been Shadye, whom Emily had trapped in a pocket dimension which had then been snapped out of existence. Harrow’s body should have been utterly destroyed, along with a large part of his enslaved kingdom.

“That’s not bad news,” she said, slowly. “Is it?”

“We do not know how the necromancer was killed,” Void pointed out. “Fingers were pointed in your direction.”

He quirked an eyebrow at Emily. “Was it your work?”

Emily shook her head, hastily. Her method for killing necromancers required a nexus and enough time to set up the trap. She certainly hadn’t left Whitehall to go hunting necromancers.

“The Desert of Death,” she said, slowly. She’d taken an interest in the geography of the Allied Lands, but map-reading had never been her forte. “Isn’t that near where we’re going?”

“Yes,” Void said, tonelessly. “You should be very careful. We do not know what happened to Harrow, which leaves us with a worrying mystery. Whoever killed him may have powers about which we know nothing.”

Emily nodded in understanding. The Allied Lands didn’t know what she’d done to kill Shadye, thanks to the Sorcerer’s Rule. It had given her a reputation that made her feared and admired in equal measure. No one had ever taken on a necromancer in single combat and lived to tell the tale – apart from Emily herself. Some claimed she was naturally powerful, others that she’d cheated in some way … and still others that she was a necromancer herself. Rumours and innuendos would follow her for the rest of her life. If someone else had beaten a necromancer, one on one …

“You think we might encounter the killer?”

“It’s a possibility,” Void said.

“Maybe it was another necromancer,” Emily pointed out. “They’re not exactly friendly …”

“We don’t know,” Void admitted. “Few necromancers would willingly lower their guard when another necromancer was close by. But it is a possibility.”

He cleared his throat. “I want you to be very careful when you’re on your roving patrol,” he added. “Keep a sharp eye out for trouble. Hell, keep a sharp eye out for trouble anyway. I hear that the mountain lords have been plotting trouble for each other ever since the Empire fell. You might wind up in the midst of another coup.”

Emily shook her head. “I very much hope not,” she said, primly. The last attempted coup had been nightmarish, with one of her best friends a prisoner and the other very much at risk. “Lady Barb intends for us to stay out of danger.”

Void smirked. “Danger will find you,” he assured her. “It always does.”

Emily nodded, reluctantly.

“I meant to ask,” she said. She’d actually written several letters, none of which had been returned. That had hurt, but if Void had been spying on a necromancer, he wouldn’t have had time to reply. “What are you planning to do about Lin and Mountaintop?”

“The Grandmaster has requested that he be allowed to handle it,” Void said. His face twisted into a thin smile. “I have agreed to respect his wishes.”

Emily lifted her eyebrows. If there was one thing she had learned about Void, who had saved her life and sent her to Whitehall, it was that he had a habit of riding roughshod over everyone else if he felt it was the right thing to do. Lady Barb disliked him, with reason; the Grandmaster seemed to be wary of him. And non-magicians found the thought of Emily being his bastard daughter worrying. Void had quite a reputation.

“And I understand that you have been corresponding with young Jade again,” Void said, hastily changing the subject. “Have you made up your mind about him?”

Emily flushed. Jade had proposed to her at the end of her first year at Whitehall – and, by his lights, he’d done her a favour. But Emily had been reluctant to commit herself, not after watching how badly her mother had screwed up her life by marrying the wrong men. And then she’d been ennobled and Jade’s letters had dried up for months. Now they were talking again, but there was a barrier between them that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t considered socially acceptable for a commoner, even a combat sorcerer in training, to court a Baroness.

“We’re going to meet soon,” she said. Jade’s letters had talked endlessly about the Great Faire, which was apparently going to be held near Lady Barb’s home. “I think we’ll talk about it.”

“Good luck,” Void said. He smirked. “Would you care to know how many requests for your hand I have received?”

No,” Emily said, quickly.

Void laughed. “I’ll see you again soon,” he said. He gave her a small wave. “Goodbye.”

There was a surge of magic and a flash of light. When it faded, he was gone. Emily felt a flicker of envy – she planned to learn to teleport as soon as possible – and then scowled as the door opened. Ahead of her, she saw a passageway leading out of the building. Sergeant Miles clearly felt that having Void’s help to return to human form was cheating. Gritting her teeth – if the sergeant decided she’d done it deliberately, she wouldn’t be sitting comfortably for a few days – Emily walked through the doors and out into the grounds. Bright sunlight struck her and she lifted a hand to cover her eyes.

“Careful,” Sergeant Miles said. “You never know what you might miss.”

Emily turned to face him. He was a short friendly-looking man, the sort of man anyone could trust on sight. And he was, Emily knew. He took very good care of his students, including Emily, giving them good advice and encouragement when they needed it. But woe betide the person who tried to take advantage of his good nature.

“That was Void,” he said, shortly. “I thought it was him.”

“Yes,” Emily said. “I didn’t call him …”

“I didn’t say you did,” Sergeant Miles pointed out, dryly. “Is it just me or are you being too defensive these days.”

Emily shrugged. Term had ended a week ago; Alassa and Imaiqah had gone home to Zangaria, leaving Emily to wait for Lady Barb. She’d been … encouraged to spend her days practicing with Sergeant Miles, who didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go. But the tests had gotten harder and harder, constantly pushing her to the limit.

“Lady Barb wishes you to meet her in the library,” the Sergeant added. “Good luck on your patrol.”

“Thank you,” Emily said. “And thank you for keeping me busy.”

She turned and walked through the forest, back towards Whitehall. For once, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly warm; she smiled as she caught sight of a flock of butterflies floating through the air, followed by a handful of bees. When Whitehall came into view, she stopped and stared at the castle before resuming her walk. It still struck her as wondrous, even after two years. There was nothing like it on Earth.

Inside, she blinked in surprise as she saw two boys cleaning the Grand Hall. Both of them had been held back after a prank had gone wrong – Emily didn’t know the full details – and had been set to cleaning the castle. Given Whitehall’s multidimensional nature, Emily rather doubted they would be finished before the holidays were over and schooling resumed. There were literally miles of corridor in the building.

She walked past them and headed up the stairs to the library. Whitehall felt strange without most of its students, although at least there wouldn’t be a crowd in the library. Lady Aylia was sitting behind her desk, carefully marking and tagging the new books from various printers. Emily couldn’t help a flicker of pride at seeing books produced by her printing presses. Given a few years, they were likely to revolutionise education in the Allied Lands.

“She said to take a seat and wait,” Lady Aylia said. She barely looked up from her work. “I believe the Grandmaster wished to speak with her.”

Emily nodded, unsurprised. They had planned to leave two days ago, but something had popped up and Emily had been told to stay at Whitehall. The Allied Lands didn’t believe in precise schedules, something that amused and irked her in equal measure. Sitting down at one of the desks, she pulled her notebook out of her pocket and started to write down ideas and thoughts. There were spells she wanted to develop, spells that might help the Allied Lands when the necromancers finally came over the mountains …

She’d faced Shadye and won – by cheating. The next necromancer she faced might be far harder to defeat.

And she knew precisely what they would do to a world she had come to love.

Reality Check – A New Novel of The Empire’s Corps

24 Oct

A New Novel of The Empire’s Corps.

None of them wanted to leave Earth. It might have been nightmarish, but it was all they knew.

Gary wanted to concentrate on his exams, in hopes of leaving the CityBlock and its bullies far behind. Kailee wanted to become an actress. Darrin merely wanted to live. But when the three teenagers win a competition, they find themselves taking the trip of a lifetime, a voyage to a colony world where they can see how the colonists live.

Meridian is very different from the dark and dismal cityblocks, a place where they can make a new beginning. But it also houses dangers, dangers that their education on Earth didn’t even begin to prepare them to face, dangers governed by the cold equations of survival.

And when disaster strikes, they find themselves forced to fight for their lives – or die, alone and unloved, thousands of light years from home.

As always, the book is DRM-free.  Download a Free Sample, read the Afterword … then buy it from Amazon hereReviews welcome!

It’s All About the People

24 Oct

One thing that I have noticed cropping up in a lot of science-fiction, alternate history and libertarian books (to say nothing of online essays, timelines, etc) is an obsession with technology and guns. Technology is, naturally, an important part of any science-fiction novel, but it is quite possible for the technology to override the most important part of the story – the characters. The authors have a habit of detailing the nuts and bolts of their world-building instead of concentrating on the characters.

This is often more pronounced in libertarian fiction. Books such as Unintended Consequences, Enemies Foreign and Domestic and Patriots sometimes read more like gun manuals than actual fiction books. The authors show off their research into guns, gun laws and suchlike, but don’t think much about the people. Unintended Consequences, the best of the three, could lose a third of its material without degrading the story. Enemies Foreign and Domestic wasn’t always good at depicting the people; Patriots suggests strongly that the author knew next to nothing about human nature. The people he describes are not human. They would need a great deal of development before they could be considered one-dimensional.

Alternate history adds another dimension to this. Germany is generally believed to be the most advanced nation in World War Two. This isn’t completely true (it wasn’t the Germans who developed nukes, radar or mulberry harbours) but it is true enough that Germany was constantly pushing the limits of technology. Alternate historians have waxed rhapsodically over the promise of German development, development that was halted by the end of the war. By 1950, they think, Germany would have supersonic jet aircraft, flying wings and intercontinental bombers, missiles and spacecraft. By 1960, Germany would have bases on the moon.

(Studying this can actually lead to a lot of odd little factoids. Guess which nation had the most advanced radar technology during the early years of WW2?)

There is plenty of fodder for arguments over just what Germany would have developed, if it had had the chance. I have watched (and taken part in) online discussions where the merits of German flying wings, rockets and suchlike were debated endlessly. There have been no shortage of posts where writers have evaluated the different systems, often losing track of the true nature Nazi Regime when they consider the prospects for space development in a Nazi Victory Timeline. This becomes so intense that alternate historians have been known to sneer at books where technological development doesn’t suit their preconceptions.

I mention all this because of something I have been both praised for and criticised for. When I devised the universe of The Empire’s Corps, I made a very deliberate decision not to focus intensely on technology. Quite apart from the fact that the setting wouldn’t really allow a Honor Harrington-style arms race (at least not at first), I believed that the technology should not be allowed to overshadow the people who take part in the story. I don’t see any great advantage in knowing the precise details of the weapons deployed (and some writers go into absurd detail); I do see great advantage in knowing just what the people are actually thinking. If they’re heroes, why are they heroes? What are their motivations? What will they do to get what they want?

I made the same decision while writing the alternate history The Invasion of 1950. The true meat of the story, as I see it, is what happens to the people. What do the Germans think as they storm ashore on British soil? What do the British think as they desperately struggle to repel the invasion? What happens to the people trapped in the occupied zone? Who resists, who collaborates, who keeps their head down – and why? The people are important, the technology rather less so.

I once discussed an issue in The Living Will Envy The Dead with a friend of mine. The discussion lasted several days on a forum. It boiled down to a handful of lines in the book.

The people are the meat of the book. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Thoughts?

Christopher G. Nuttall

Updates…

23 Oct

Hi, everyone – just a quick post to catch up with everything.

I’ve finished the first draft of Reality Check (The Empire’s Corps VII) and it should be online by next Monday. It is a stand-alone, but ties into both When The Bough Breaks and the upcoming mainstream Retreat Hell.

I’m still outlining the next few stand-alone books for the universe. I currently have a police-themed story, an immigration-themed story and Ed Stalker’s origin story. What other themes should I explore? I also intend to do one that returns to Belinda (last seen in When The Bough Breaks), but I’m still looking for a plot. Part of the problem is that I want the stand-alones to … well, stand alone and that gets harder the more I draw the disparate elements together.

My plan is to start writing Democracy’s Might next, then a completely new story. I’m caught between several different ideas. For one, I have an interstellar carrier in a universe at war; for another, I have demonic-magic in the modern world. And then there is the Nazi Civil War idea – alternate history did astonishingly well last time, perhaps I should try it again.

After that, I intend to write the fourth book of Schooled in Magic; Work Experience.

Any suggestions and comments are, of course, welcome.

Chris

The Fear of Being Seen To Fail

17 Oct

I was asked by a friend to comment on the US shutdown, which is still underway with the outcome not yet clear. I declined; everything I hear about the shutdown is second- or third-hand at the very least, which makes it difficult to judge just what is actually going on. Certainly, President Obama seems to be struggling desperately, even to the point of damaging the long-term stability of the American Government as a whole. The trust lost by federal agencies such as the National Park Service will not be regained in a hurry, if at all.

But there is one aspect of politics that, I feel, has played a major role in this disaster – and in many others. That is the fear of being seen to fail.

One of the simplest problems with being President, or Prime Minister, or any other world leader is that you are expected to be perfect. Everyone on the outside of your government will carp and criticise and suggest, very loudly, that whatever the current problem is wouldn’t have happened if THEY were in the big chair. No, sir! This is, of course, abject nonsense. It is very rare for a government to shift course totally even after an election replaces the previous party with someone new. The newcomers still have to grapple with the same problem.

What this tends to mean is that governments tend to refuse to admit their mistakes openly.

It is a truism that applies far outside the military that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Things can and do go wrong. The minute you put your plan into operation, you are exposed to the whims of both enemy action and random chance, both of which will work against you. The difference between a successful commander and an unsuccessful one is the ability to react, adapt and overcome the various unexpected challenges that will be placed in your path.

And, no matter what you do, failure is an option.

This is largely ignored by media talking heads and politicians. Whenever something is started, the possibility exists that it will fail, no matter what the person in charge does. I do not set out to lose the endless games of chess I play. But if I assume that I just can’t lose, I will probably lose quite badly. And, even if I do lose, I will learn from the experience.

However, politicians often feel that they don’t have that option. Their enemies will make sure that they bear the blame for any failures that take place on their watch. The slightest setback will be branded a total failure.

When Iraq was invaded, it rapidly became clear to everyone apart from the Bush Administration and Blair’s government that an insurgency was underway. However, the presence of this insurgency proved that pre-war planning (insofar as we can dignify it with that term) was hopelessly optimistic. Naturally, Rumsfeld (who bore a large part of the blame for the US side of this failure) couldn’t admit this openly, with the net result that opportunities to stop the insurgency before it really got going were lost. But then, openly admitting that this had gone wrong would have seriously damaged his career.

What moved President Bush from an acceptable President to a good President was his willingness to try to fix this problem. Tony Blair earned a place in infamy through failing to even admit that there was a problem, at least until it was far too late. Blair, I suspect, reasoned that if he confessed that there was a problem, he would likely be unseated by rebels in the Labour Party. This fear of being seen to fail haunted his thinking and made it impossible for him to try to correct his mistakes.

It is impossible for me to say with any certainty what President Obama is thinking just now. However, I think that Obama is reluctant to admit failure, let alone try to fix the problem.

I simply do not know enough about his healthcare plans to say with any confidence if they are good or bad for America. (The NHS in the UK has been very much a mixed bag and, believe me, anyone who can afford it goes private.) It seems clear, however, that his plan to introduce the system has failed. Nor is this the greatest problem currently facing America and the West.

Instead of conceding defeat, Obama seems bent on brinkmanship that will resonate through the American political system for long after he has left the White House. This is the spawn of a system that makes it impossible to admit that something has gone wrong – and places wishful thinking over sober analysis. Is this the hope and change you were expecting?