Archive | March, 2014

Angel in the Whirlwind Background Notes

31 Mar

Comments would be welcome.


2030-50 – Return to the Moon. Establishment of American, Japanese, European, Chinese and Russian mining bases. Fusion power entered widespread service on Earth. Long-range missions dispatched to Mars, Titan and Jupiter. Collapse of Middle East, Third World as resources start flowing in from space. Development of quasi-fascist governments in US/EU.

2051-53 – NATO-Chinese War over settlements on the moon. War ends with the collapse of China and NATO hegemony in orbit and beyond.

2054-2108 – Large-scale settlement right across the solar system. Hundreds of asteroids settled, some independent, others closely linked to founding corporations, religious bodies or governments. Fascist states evolve, but still see mass emigration of young and smart people who want to live free. UN grows in power, slowly bringing more and more failed states back into the global mainstream.

2109-12 – Professor Anderson develops the first prototype hyperdrive. Exploration starships set out at once, only to discover that navigating hyperspace is far from easy. Eventually, very limited beacons are devised to allow navigation from Earth and an eventual safe transit to a new star,

2113-80 – Discovery of nineteen life-bearing worlds within range of Earth. First Expansion Era begins, with national power blocks claiming and settling worlds. UN creates first large-scale navigational service, constantly monitoring the storms and freak shifts in hyperspace that could make the difference between a successful transit or disaster.

2181-2358 – UN Survey Service locates an additional 500 worlds within months or years of Earth. (Hyperspace travel times are picking up as the monitoring service is expanded and technology for FTL communications is improved.) Worlds are settled by Corporate-backed development corporations, religious groups, artificial societies and ethnic groups keen to preserve some element of their pre-space nature. UN assumes full responsibility for governing Earth and the Sol System, then starts expanding its claims over the first settled worlds.

2250 – Tyre settled by Tyre Development Corporation.

2291 – Tyre Development Corporation folded into the Kingdom of Tyre (actually, a veneer over a state dominated by multiple corporations.) Tyre rapidly establishes its own shipbuilding industry, intending to cash in on the growing demand for colony starships of all shapes and sizes. King Thomas crowned; establishment of House of Lords and House of Commons. The Royal Tyre Navy is founded.

2359-2367 – The Breakaway Wars/Breakdown. The UN attempts to assert control over various more productive colony worlds, claiming an overall right to rule mankind. Unsurprisingly, the colonies do not accept this argument and eight years of increasingly bitter fighting breaks out. In the end, rebel factions bombarded Earth, only to see their homeworlds bombarded in turn. Effective collapse of UN authority; termination of navigational service, either through war damage or as part of the general collapse.

2366 – Tyre formally declares independence from Earth. This is largely a formality, as Tyre was never in serious danger during the Breakaway Wars.

2369 – The Royal Tyre Navy provides assistance to Gamma Orion, a nearby colony world, against raiders. With the concurrence of the Monarchy, the Lords and the Commons, the RTN starts rebuilding parts of the navigational network, patrolling local hyperspace, suppressing raiders and reopening contact with other colony worlds. Local businessmen soon follow, intent on building up new trading networks to replace those destroyed by the war.

2370 – Gamma Orion formally requests annexation by Tyre.

2372 – After a bitter debate, Tyre founds the Commonwealth of Tyre. Gamma Orion is the first out-system member state.

2373-2390 – The Commonwealth expands to claim fifty-seven star systems, most of whom are grateful to join the Commonwealth. Those that aren’t are kept outside the Commonwealth’s Free Trade Zone.

2389 – Hadrian, Prince of Tyre, is born.

2391 – Kat Falcone born on Tyre. She is the youngest daughter of Duke Falcone.

2397 – Cadiz rediscovered by the Commonwealth. It’s rulers choose to decline the offer of membership.

2399 – The Commonwealth’s traders make first contact with Ahura Mazda, another multi-system successor state. Worryingly, it rapidly becomes clear that Ahura Mazda is a theocracy – and expanding rapidly towards the Commonwealth. Worlds are being forced into its grasp without being offered a chance to resist. Prince Hadrian is one of the strongest voices demanding preparations for war.

2402 – After a long debate, the Commonwealth determines that Cadiz is in a position of vital importance for any possible war. The War Hawks insist that Cadiz be annexed by the Commonwealth, even though it is a breach of the Commonwealth’s previous determination never to force anyone into its fold. Eventually, after much horse-trading, Cadiz is formally annexed on a very flimsy basis. Unsurprisingly, despite sincere offers of technical support, an insurgency breaks out on the surface within months.

2408 – Kat Falcone attends Piker’s Peak, the RTN Academy.

2409 – There are a number of ‘incidents’ along the border with Ahura Mazda. Although the diplomats eventually sort out a workable border, intelligence believes that the insurgents on Cadiz are receiving assistance from Ahura Mazda.

2412 – Kat Falcone graduates from Piker’s Peak as a Lieutenant. She is assigned to CL HMS Thomas.

2413 – King Travis dies. Prince Hadrian assumes the throne.

2414 – CL HMS Thomas is attacked by raiders of unknown origin while patrolling the border. Kat Falcone distinguishes herself in combat and is promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

2415 – The Putney Debates. King Hadrian remains firm in his support of the War Hawks, but the Leader of the Opposition – Israel Harrison – is moving against the ongoing occupation of Cadiz, pointing out that the locals are still resisting the Commonwealth, despite all the benefits of Commonwealth membership. Eventually, after much point-scoring on both sides, the government remains in control and Cadiz remains occupied. However, the King becomes more determined to press the issue of war as soon as possible, particularly as the stream of refugees crossing the border has become a major problem.

2416 – Kat Falcone is promoted to Commander and assigned to HMS BC Thunderous as XO.

2418 – Admiral Smith is assigned to Cadiz Fleet Base, following the assassination of his predecessor by a local insurgent. Readiness reports start to sink alarmingly.

2420 – Kat Falcone is assigned to command HMS CA Lightning.

The Kingdom/Commonwealth of Tyre

The Tyre Development Corporation was originally created by fourteen large interstellar corporations based on Earth. Their directors predicted (correctly) that the UN would grow increasingly hostile to free enterprise (taxes were already rising sharply) and wanted a place to establish themselves, their families and their workers. The settlement rights for Tyre were purchased in 2250 and large-scale colonisation began the following year.

As the planet was purchased outright, Tyre never had to contend with debt that gave the UN an excuse to intervene at will. Unsurprisingly, this attracted other corporations and smaller businesses to establish facilities in the star system. Tyre was well on the way to matching the older, better established worlds when the UN was destroyed.

Put simply, the corporate families assumed the aristocratic ranks of an earlier age and nominated the most powerful of them to serve as the Monarch. By the time the UN collapsed, the Monarch owned roughly half of the system’s industrial production facilities, the remainder of which were distributed among the other CEOs. The thirteen most powerful CEOs became the Dukes; the smaller CEOs and their families assumed lower ranks.

Aristocrats are generally created through applying for a Patent of Nobility, which is usually granted if the applicant meets the criteria (specifically, they must have earned a substantial sum of money through their own work.) Alternatively, a promising young person may be invited to marry into an aristocratic family. The precise title they assume is based on the percentage of the planet’s economy under their control.

A born aristocrat is entitled to be called ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady,’ but may not inherit any actual power.

The House of Commons is elected by citizens who pay the Voting Tax – 2% of their earnings. (Significantly, this is actually the only tax levelled on citizens, as opposed to corporations.) MPs may not be aristocrats and there are considerable other limitations on their positions. However, as a body, the House of Commons has the power to delay legislation passed by the House of Lords, thus making them more powerful than it may seem on the surface.

In theory, the military is controlled by the Monarch. In practice, real power is vested in the Commonwealth Defence Committee, which has representatives from both the Lords and the Commons. In addition, the Lords have a considerable amount of influence over promotions, ensuring that nepotism is alive and well. It is often harder for a common-born officer to be promoted past Captain.

Each of the Commonwealth member states has its own local government and internal autonomy. However, the Tyre aristocracy is working hard to integrate potential aristocrats from the more affluent worlds into their numbers.

The Theocracy of Ahura Mazda

The settlers of Ahura Mazda, who called themselves simply the Believers, drew their inspiration from a merger of the best traits (as they saw them) of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This was, naturally, regarded as blasphemous by all three religions and the Believers were … encouraged to leave Earth by the United Nations. Although they had started life as a pacifist sect, the humiliation fired a desire for revenge – and to make sure they were never humiliated again.

There is no room here for a detailed discussion of their beliefs. The important details are that they are only prepared to compromise with other faiths when those faiths are firmly under their thumb – and that they will reward anyone who chooses to join them. A world occupied by them becomes a satrapy, with local collaborators working for a government imported from Ahura Mazda itself.

In some ways, they are very definitely throwbacks to an earlier age. On one hand, he protection of women and children is firmly engrained in their religion. In addition, they have no particular dislike of homosexuality. But, on the other hand, they keep their women under firm control, separating out the male and female spheres of life as much as possible. A man may have as many wives as he can support; a woman may have, but one husband. Indeed, a woman is expected to be her father’s (and then her husband’s) obedient servant at all times, with obedience enforced by force if necessary. Women cannot own property, sign contracts without a male backer or leave the city without their man.

Perversely, women make up the vast majority of the Theocracy’s theoretical scientists. The Theocracy sees itself as permanently engaged in trying to unlock the marvels of God’s created universe. Pure science is, in fact, seen as one of the few acceptable career paths for a woman that doesn’t involve pregnancy, childcare or supporting the men.

The Theocracy is led by the Rightly Guided Lord, the Theocrat, who is supported by his children and the Theocratic Conclave, the assembly of high-ranking priests. (Notably, almost every senior person, military or civilian, holds a religious rank as well as a secular one.) As long as the Theocracy manages to continue to expand, the Rightly Guided Lord and his family will be considered to enjoy the backing of God Himself. If they run into trouble, however, it will almost certainly be regarded as a sign of moral failings and lead to unrest.

Unsurprisingly, their society is firmly stratified between Believers and Infidels. Infidels are expected to know their place at all times – and, if there is a dispute between a Believer and an Infidel, the Believer will always be assumed to be in the right. There are so many legal disadvantages to being an Infidel in a Believer-run society that it is not surprising that the conversion rate is terrifyingly high. Once converted, the newborn Believer is accepted without question, but forced to study his new faith intensively.

Occupation by the Theocracy means the complete destruction of the prior society. Those who collaborate will be rewarded, but they will be expected to convert and work to encourage others to convert. Formal instruction in all other religions will be no longer permitted, harsh restrictions on Infidels will be signed into law (and enforced) and existence as the Infidels knew it will come to an end.

The Theocracy is quite prepared to talk to outside powers. However, it is unwilling to surrender anything, particularly the advantage. After all, if there’s one thing their history tells them, it is that it is better to knife someone before they knife you.

FTL Travel and Communication

Starships travel through FTL by opening gateways into hyperspace, which allow effective speeds of multiple times the speed of light. However, as hyperspace is a very high-energy dimension, storms can disrupt passage through hyperspace very easily. Storms are monitored by the Interstellar Navigational Network, a collaborative project of several interstellar powers that replaced the UN’s old network of beacons.

These beacons also send signals from star to star at many times the speed of light. However, these signal chains can be broken quite easily, simply by taking out one or more of the stations.

The Theocracy of Ahura Mazda is not a signatory to any interstellar agreements on sharing navigational data.

Treaties of Note

Navigational Treaty – charges states to share navigational data.

Survey Treaty – charges states to register claims on newly-discovered worlds within six months of discovery.

Albion Treaty – charges states to treat POWs with respect and decency.

Antimatter Treaty – forbids the use of antimatter on civilian worlds.

Starship Weapons

Gravimetric Missiles (capable of reaching 60% of light speed in normal space.)

-Contact nukes


-Drive Disruptors (cause fluctuations in enemy drive fields, damaging their drive nodes.)

Beam weapons

-Antiproton Beams

-Fission Beams

-Plasma Bolts

-Plasma Cannons

Commonwealth Military Organisation

Royal Tyre Navy

Royal Marines

Fortress Command

Local Defence Forces

Commonwealth Army (consists of various units raised from member planets.)

The Royal Sorceress III: Necropolis

30 Mar

Coming soon!


Written for publication in The Times, London, 1831. Article suppressed at the request of His Majesty’s Government.

It is with great dismay that we report an attack on Cavendish Hall, home of His Majesty’s Royal Sorcerers Corps. The incident was spearheaded by an explosion in one of the training compartments, which apparently served as a diversion to allow the actual attack to take place without interruption. As far as can be determined, the aim of the attack was the kidnap of OLIVIA CRICHTON, the adopted daughter of LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON, the Royal Sorceress. The kidnappers succeeded in removing OLIVIA CRICHTON from Cavendish Hall and, as of writing, she has not been recovered.

Large parts of OLIVIA CRICHTON’S past are a mystery. We know she was adopted after the Swing, with several people suggesting that she is the daughter of either Master Thomas or Master Jack, but there are no records of her existence prior to then. Nor is there any clear reason why LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON chose to adopt her, despite being barely of marriageable age herself. The only reasonable assumption seems to be that she possesses powerful magic of her own. If she is indeed the daughter of a Master Magician, she may well be a Master herself.

LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON flatly refused to comment on the affair. However, her father, LORD RUDOLF CRICHTON stated that OLIVIA CRICHTON had been accepted into the family, suggesting that she may well have an aristocratic birth, even if the records are sealed.

Speaking in the House of Commons, HIS MAJESTY’S PRIME MINISTER, THE DUKE OF INDIA, stated that the attack would not be allowed to hamper His Majesty’s Government’s preparations for war with France, which is expected at any moment. The Royal Sorcerers Corps, in common with the other military arms of this great nation, will stand shoulder to shoulder against any threat. However, with an attack that apparently caused a considerable amount of damage, the reputation of the Royal Sorcerers Corps has been badly dented at the worst possible time.

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard was unwilling to comment, but sources within the government have suggested that the kidnapping was intended to put pressure on LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON, who would be expected to lead the Royal Sorcerers Corps into battle, despite being a woman. Colonel Sebastian, who has rejoined his old unit, was unavailable for comment, but other disgruntled magicians warned of the dangers of female emotions interfering with military operations. If LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON is threatened with her daughter being killed or otherwise hurt, how will she react under such pressure?

The timing of the incident seems dire. With war against France seemingly days or even hours away, and the Russians apparently reluctant to commit to either side, we can only pray that OLIVIA CRICHTON is recovered as soon as possible. The fate of Great Britain and her Empire might depend on it.

Chapter One

Olivia Crichton fought her way back to wakefulness through a haze of pain.

Her memories made no sense. She’d been in the library, studying – again – with her tutor, trying to master boring Latin grammar she knew she’d never use outside Cavendish Hall. Apparently, educated ladies were supposed to know Latin; privately, she figured that she’d forget it as soon as she impressed her tutor and he moved on to something more interesting. And he’d given her a drink. And …

She swallowed hard, cursing her own carelessness. Six months off the streets and she’d lowered her guard long enough to take a drink from a near-stranger, a man who hadn’t tried to hide his disdain for the street child Lady Gwen had adopted. There had to have been something in the water, she realised slowly, something to knock her out. And then she’d been transported somewhere else.

Carefully, without opening her eyes, she felt out her surroundings. She was lying facedown on something soft, her hands were firmly tied behind her back. The environment felt as if it were rocking slightly, reminding her of the first time she’d sailed on a boat up the Thames with Jack, before the Swing. She could hear nothing, apart from a thrumming sound that seemed to come from below her. And, as far as she could tell, she was alone. Bracing herself, she opened her eyes.

She was in a cabin, she realised at once. It was barren, apart from a mattress and a tiny porthole that shone bright light into the room. The walls were solid metal; the door seemed strong enough to resist an army. But she knew better than to stay where she’d been put. A childhood in the Rookery had taught her that being helpless was never a good idea. She twisted slightly, testing her bonds, then started to press against the knots. It didn’t feel as though she was bound tightly enough to prevent her from carefully working her way free.

The other girls at the Hall would be helpless by now, she thought, with a flicker of contempt and bitter amusement. Their perfumes and social graces wouldn’t get them out of this mess.

She smiled, darkly, as she managed to loosen the ropes enough to pull her hands free. In theory, she was an aristocrat herself, the adopted daughter of the Royal Sorceress. But in practice, no one took her seriously, apart from Lady Gwen and the senior magicians, some of whom viewed her and her magic with barely concealed horror. She simply didn’t have the noble blood of the other women at Cavendish Hall, let alone the endless lessons in etiquette that had been drilled into their heads since they were old enough to tell the difference between a knife and a fork. There was no one at the hall she could really talk to, not as friends. But then, in the Rookery, friendship was often secondary to bare survival. A friend could hurt you more effectively than a stranger.

Her hands came free. She let out a sigh of relief, remembering the first time she’d been captured and tied up by an older man who hadn’t realised she was a girl. Not that that would have saved her, she knew; his tastes might have run to young boys, but there were plenty of others on the streets who preferred young girls. She might well have been sold to one of the brothels and never been seen again, or simply wound up with her throat cut in an alleyway. But she’d escaped the bastard and she would escape this new prison too.

She undid the bonds on her legs, then stood up, gingerly. Her legs felt weak, as if the drug hadn’t worked its way completely out of her body. She shuddered, then staggered over to the porthole and looked outside. There was a seemingly endless stretch of water outside but, in the distance, she could see land. She pulled at the porthole, trying to open it up, but rapidly discovered it was impossible. It was firmly sealed against escape.

Gritting her teeth, she walked over to the door and tested it. It was hard to open, but it wasn’t locked. Olivia blinked in surprise, then decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and crept outside. In the distance, she could hear someone talking in a language she didn’t recognise, but there was no one outside. They must have thought that the bonds were enough to secure her, she thought with another flicker of contempt. If she’d been a born noblewoman, she reminded herself, they would probably have been right.

The floor – the deck, she told herself – was silvered, reflecting her own face back at her. She scowled darkly as she saw her torn dress and long blonde hair, knowing that there was no way she could still hope to pass for a young boy. She’d filled out alarmingly ever since coming to Cavendish Hall and feeding regularly, growing breasts and enough hair that it took far too long to prepare every morning. If it hadn’t been for the maids, Olivia would have cut her hair as short as Lady Gwen. But they’d been insistent and Olivia hadn’t wanted to defy them, even though she was technically their social superior. They’d helped save her from all manner of social embarrassments in the time she’d been at the Hall.

She brushed her hair out of her face, looking down at her dress. It still bothered her to know that it had cost enough money to feed a dozen families in the Rookery for six months, both because of the expense and because it made her a target. Wearing something expensive in the Rookery was just asking to be robbed, unless one happened to be so well known and fearsome that everyone else was scared instead. And to think it was one of the cheaper dresses in Cavendish Hall! She should have worn trousers instead, she told herself tartly, even if Gwen would have disapproved. It would have been far more practical than the damned dress …

Olivia froze as she heard someone coming down the corridor towards her. She glanced around hastily, looking for somewhere to hide, but saw nothing apart from solid metal. There was no time to get back to her cabin-prison before he came into view … she braced herself, then ran forward, cursing the dress under her breath. The man gaped at her as she charged him, then raised his hands, too late. Olivia rammed her fist into his chest with all of her strength, then chopped out at his throat. He dropped to the deck, choking and gasping for breath.

Idiot, Olivia thought, with a certain amusement. Growing up in the Rookery had taught her how to fight – and fight properly, not like the aristocrats and their obsession with fair fights with stupid rules. And most of the girls she had to study with at Cavendish Hall would have refused to fight, even if they’d been threatened with rape and murder. The very thought of being without male protection would have shocked them, even as half of the silly cows railed against being taken for weak and feeble women. They wouldn’t have lasted a day in the Rookery.

She tore at her dress, abandoning modesty in favour of movement, then started to run towards a ladder leading up to the deck. Another man was coming down the latter, carrying a large metal box in one hand; Olivia ran forward and punched him, as hard as she could, in the groin. He staggered, then fell, screaming in pain. Olivia cursed her own mistake – the entire boat would hear the racket – and then scrambled up the ladder as quickly as she could. Outside, sea air slapped at her face; she heard the sound of gulls calling as she came out of the hatch and ran towards the railing. But when she saw the water, she froze. Land was so far away that it was barely a strip of green on the horizon.

Ladies weren’t normally taught to swim. Gwen had insisted she learn, and she’d taken to her lessons far better than any of the aristocratic girls, but she’d only ever swum in the large pool at Cavendish Hall, wearing one of the absurd bathing costumes that covered almost everything, apart from her face and hair. The idea of swimming in the sea made her hesitate a moment too long, just long enough for someone to wrap their arms around her and yank her backwards. Olivia gasped in pain as he squeezed, then lifted her foot and kicked him in the leg as hard as she could. He grunted, but ignored it. She screamed and he clamped a hand over her mouth, precisely as she hoped. Opening her mouth, she bit him as hard as she could, biting down until she drew blood. He gasped, his grip on her loosening. Taking advantage of his distraction, she pulled herself free and started to run.

But where could she go? She’d seen a handful of boats, but this one didn’t look large enough for her to hide long enough to be rescued, if anyone knew where she was. Gwen would look for her – Olivia had no doubt of that – but how would Gwen knew where to start looking? And could she even catch up with the boat in time to save Olivia? The kidnappers, whoever they were, might well take their humiliation out on their captive, who had dared to try to escape. Olivia had heard enough stories from the Rookery to know she didn’t dare let herself be recaptured.

She reached the stern of the boat, stared down at the choppy water, and started to scramble over the railing. It would be a long swim; probably a very dangerous swim, but at least she would take her destiny in her own hands. She was midway over her railing when she heard a voice behind her.

“Stop,” it ordered.

Olivia’s body froze before her mind quite caught up with what was happening. For a long moment, she teetered on the railing, as if she were about to fall over the edge and plummet into the water, then strong hands gripped her and pulled her back onto the boat. She was rolled over and found herself looking up into the eyes of a tall thin man with short dark hair an incredibly pale face. Even if she hadn’t felt his magic, she liked to think she would have deduced what he was from the expression alone. There was a hint of superiority in his face that all such magicians seemed to have in common, the belief that they were superior to their fellow men, even their fellow magicians.

A Charmer, she realised, numbly. Wonderful.

“That was unwise,” the Charmer said, evenly. “There are dangerous currents in these waters, young lady. You would have been very lucky if your body was ever recovered.”

There was no longer any magic in his voice, but Olivia cringed inwardly anyway. She hated Charmers. Very few people actually liked having magicians who could influence their thoughts or compel someone to obey anywhere near them. And some of the Charmers in training at Cavendish Hall loved playing tricks on their fellow students. All magicians seemed to have a sense of playfulness in common, but Charmers were often nasty rather than playful.

“Now, listen,” he added. Magic ran through his voice, demanding her complete attention. “You will obey all orders I give you. You will remain calm at all times. You will remain in your cabin unless escorted by myself or one of my crew. You will not attempt to jump into the water again or to escape as long as you are on this vessel.”

Olivia cursed inwardly as she felt the commands sinking into her mind. Ropes and chains were one thing – she had already escaped one set of ropes – but mental commands were quite another. There was no attempt to be subtle, no attempt to influence her thoughts without her being aware of the influence, yet it hardly mattered. The commands would last for days, perhaps weeks, before she finally managed to break free. And he would presumably renew them every few days. She was trapped, bound by her own mind, far more solidly than she would be by handcuffs or shackles.

The Charmer leaned down until his dark eyes held hers firmly. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Olivia said. She felt helpless and weak, a feeling she hated … but the anger was curiously muted, dampened by his magic. He knew that strong emotion would help her to break the spell and had taken steps to prevent her from getting angry. “I understand.”

“Very good,” the Charmer said. He stood upright and smiled down at her, a glint of amusement in his cold eyes. “Stand.”

Olivia felt her body obey at once. She tried to glare at him as she rose to her feet, but the numbness seemed to press down on her emotions, making it harder for her to do anything more than stand there like a damnable opium addict. The thought was terrifying; she’d seen men and women venture into the opium dens and slowly fade away into nothingness, hooked on the drug that was slowly destroying their lives. Even if she’d had the money, she liked to think she wouldn’t have walked into a den willingly …

But that wasn’t the worst of it, she knew. A Charmer’s influence could be almost as addictive as any drug. At some point, their victims moved from hating the compulsion to loving it and demanding to surrender their minds to the magician controlling them. She swore to herself that she would never let it happen, yet she knew it wouldn’t be easy to resist. Unscrupulous Charmers were among the worst of magicians. Their victims often ended up in Bedlams, unable even to care for themselves. And he would want her to be completely under his control.

She found her voice. “What do you want from me?”

The Charmer smiled. “What do you think?”

Olivia swallowed. She had two things that were largely unique, as far as anyone knew. She was Lady Gwen’s daughter … and she was a necromancer. But anyone who wanted to kidnap her purely for the ransom wouldn’t have taken her out of Britain. No, they would have preferred to keep her somewhere she could be traded quickly for whatever ransom they demanded. Lady Gwen was a wealthy woman in her own right. They could have demanded a vast sum of money with the reasonable certainty they would be paid.

But if they wanted her because she was a necromancer …

She felt sick as she remembered the final moments of the Battle of London. The shambling hordes of undead monsters advancing towards her, the eerie whispering running through her mind that had grown louder and louder as the undead had grown in strength … and the moment she’d finally managed to stop their advance. They would have destroyed London, then the entire country if they hadn’t been stopped. She had saved Britain from a doom unleashed by one of her foremost defenders. And even that hadn’t been enough to save her from a death sentence, purely for being what she was. It had taken Gwen’s adoption of Olivia to convince the government to let her live.

“You must never use your powers again, unless ordered to do so,” Gwen had said. Olivia hadn’t needed much convincing. Unlike the other forms of magic, even Charm, necromancy was impossible to use for any decent purpose. “And you must not even tell people what you are.”

Olivia shuddered. Someone had clearly found out anyway – and kidnapped her.

“You know,” the Charmer said. “Don’t you?”

Her words came unwillingly to her lips. “You want me to raise the dead.”

“Something like that,” the Charmer said. “Follow me.”

He stood and strode back towards the hatch. Olivia followed him, unwillingly. She tried to struggle against the mental commands, but they were too strong to break. And yet, she knew that if she didn’t struggle, the commands would only sink further and further into her head until she would no longer be able to separate them from her own thoughts. He’d have her completely in his power when she thought she was serving him willingly.

The cabin looked as unprepossessing as before, but this time she felt herself trapped the moment she stepped back inside. The Charmer nodded to the mattress, then smiled at her mischievously. Olivia glowered at him, then sat down with all the dignity she could muster in her underclothes. She should definitely have worn trousers.

“You will be fed, of course,” the Charmer said. “You will eat and drink each day. You will not attempt to harm or kill yourself – or anyone else onboard this vessel.”

He smirked at her expression. She hadn’t considered suicide, at least not as a serious possibility, but he was clearly moving ahead of her. Olivia knew the potential consequences of an outbreak of undead monsters far better than anyone who hadn’t witnessed one such outbreak – and the knowledge she could cause one was terrifying. Suicide might have seemed the only reasonable solution if escape wasn’t a possibility. But he’d already ensured she couldn’t end her own life.

“Thank you,” she said, sourly.

The Charmer nodded, then walked over to the door and stepped outside. He paused, then turned to face her. “I suggest you sleep,” he added. “We have quite a long journey ahead of us.”

It wasn’t a command, but her mind insisted on interpreting it as one. Olivia felt her eyelids suddenly grow heavier. It was all she could do to lie down before her eyes closed and she plunged into darkness …

…And, when she dreamed, she dreamed of the horror she knew to come.

The Russian Way of War

29 Mar

Ever since the Korean War, the Western Ideal War has been short, simple and ideally very low in casualties. The footprint must be minimal, the objective must be achieved at once and withdrawal should soon follow. From this point of view, the Falklands was pretty much an ideal war, while Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria were not. This view of the ideal war has slipped so much into our mindset that we assume all other nation-states share the same ideal. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Indeed, it is a dangerous weakness to assume that other states will let us call the tune.

Russia is in the news these days, so it’s probably worth taking a look at what the Russians consider an ideal war. Like many other states, Russia has both chosen war and had war forced upon it. The former have several things in common.

-The Russians have always picked on someone smaller than themselves. On the face of it, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Georgia and Afghanistan should not have been able to pose much resistance to the Russians. Indeed, even Finland was eventually forced to submit to Russia, after a gallant defence that thrilled the world. This makes them look like bullies, to which they would probably sneer. What sort of idiot picks a fight with someone bigger than him?

-The Russians have not held back. There was no attempt to pussy-foot around when they rolled into the targeted country. They sought to destroy the enemy’s ability to resist as rapidly as possible, which resulted in countless casualties the West might have tried to avoid.

-The Russians will use commando strikes, local dissidents and unconventional weapons to wreck havoc in the enemy’s rear. Expect them to launch cyber-attacks, ‘terrorist’ attacks, etc to cause chaos. They will also try to time offenses so they take place when the target nation (or the rest of the world) is on holiday.

-The Russians try to win quickly. Short wars are excellent for Moscow; they look good, they make the current ruler look strong and they make everyone else take notice of Russia’s views. (It was a Russian who coined the phrase ‘a short victorious war.’ Long wars tend to be very bad for Russia. Discontent mounts, the public starts to protest and, in some cases, the state comes crashing down. It is unlikely that Russia would have become a communist state if the Tsar hadn’t fought a losing war with Germany.

-At the same time, the Russians have always used war to impose a satisfactory political solution. Finland lost territory the Russians wanted to shield Leningrad. Czechoslovakia returned firmly to communist rule, as dictated by Moscow. Georgia lost territory and grew less willing to confront the Russians. Even the early stages of Afghanistan were a great political success.

-The Russians will lie to everyone. Expect Moscow to try to come up with a suitable cause for war (in 1939, for example, they faked a shooting incident to justify their invasion of Finland.) Foreign media will be carefully guided so they present the Russian-approved viewpoint. There is no true independent reporting from inside Russia. Foreign media will be rewarded for toeing the Russian line and punished for not doing so.

-Above all, the Russians never lose sight of their political goals. They do not talk about ‘nation-building,’ at least not with any great seriousness. Instead, they consider the long-term security of Russia above all else. It may seem utterly indecent of the Russians to impose an unwelcome government on Eastern Europe after World War Two, but they needed it for their own security. Don’t expect the Russians to tamely put civilian lives ahead of their own interests. The Russians have never been cowed by the thought of enemy civilians being killed.

And we seem to be heading towards a major confrontation with the Russians over the Ukraine. Are our leaders actually taking the issue seriously?

The Free City of Beneficence

24 Mar

A new setting for Schooled in Magic.

The Free City of Beneficence


Beneficence is located along the coastline of the Kingdom of Zangaria, bordering the Barony of Cockatrice. Unusually, the city is largely based on an island carved out by rivers (not unlike Manhattan), with no real land borders. The Tribune River thus makes it incredibly difficult for the various Kings or Barons of Zangaria to assert their authority over the city, as the city – a home for sailors and sailing – is easily able to import food to feed its population. As such, the city maintains a political independence from Zangaria that is rarely challenged by the kingdom’s monarchs.

There are four bridges into the city; the Holyoake Bridge, the North Bridge, the Water Bridge and the Castle Bridge. The North and Water bridges are designed to be raised (like a castle drawbridge) if danger threatens, while the other two are heavily guarded and charmed against intruders.

It is theoretically possible for someone to sneak into the city by swimming the gorge and climbing the rocky walls, but few take the possibility seriously.

Beneficence is divided up into twenty-one districts. These range from Beneficence Castle (the area surrounding the castle), through Fishing Plaice (not a misspelling; this is what passes for humour in the city) and finally to the Lower Depths, where most of the poorer people live.

The richest men and women in the city tend to live in moderate houses, as land space is a premium in Beneficence. Middle-class men and women have smaller houses, often shared between one whole family. At the Lower Depths, the poor live crammed into huge apartment blocks, where crime and social deprivation is rife.


The city is governed by the Guilds (every freeborn man must join a guild, either through being born into it or apprenticeship). Each Guildmaster meets his fellows in Beneficence Castle – located to the edge of the city – to hash out common understandings and modify the code of law.

Each guild has a different method of appointing its Guildmaster.

Recently, a growing movement has been agitating for democratic reform and the creation of a city council, rather than the Guild-dominated government. This movement, however, has failed to impress the guilds.

The Population

Like most Free Cities, Beneficence’s population is largely composed of freemen from all over the Allied Lands. Roughly 10% of the population, however, consists of slaves, either sold into slavery to pay their debts (or their parents’ debts) or brought in from Zangaria. Freeing slaves, however, is considered a good deed; slaveholders are encouraged to give their slaves a day or two to earn money for themselves, so they may eventually buy their way out of slavery. (A handful of slaves are enslaved as punishment for crimes, which is magically-enforced; such slaves cannot be released until they have served their term.) Children born to slaves are automatically considered free and, if sired by the slave-owner, are rated as his children.

Freeborn Women are regarded as legal equals to men and enjoy the same basic rights as Freeborn Men. (Female slaves have no rights, any more than their male counterparts.) They can sign contracts, accept or reject marriage as they choose, hold money and property in their own name and generally act as men. There are, however, harsh laws against infidelity (both male and female), which mandate that anyone who commits adultery can expect harsh punishment. In certain cases, these can include mandatory enslavement. These laws were originally signed to ensure that family ties between merchant clans were honoured, yet still remain on the books.

Although children have few rights until they reach the age of maturity (second blood for girls, roughly fifteen for boys) there are strong legal protections written into the laws for them. In particular, children may not be entered into marriage or betrothal contracts and their parents are required to ensure that they are suitably educated and prepared for adult life. (It is a legal gray area if a child can be sold into slavery, see below.) Once they reach the age of maturity, there is a formal ceremony for them, followed by their induction into their guild.

One problem, however, is that debts are passed down through the family tree. If a parent should die with his/her debts unpaid, they are passed down to the children. This means that the children find themselves liable for the debts, which they may not even have known existed. (By a quirk in the law, the husband or wife of the debtor is not considered liable, although he or she may pay the debts anyway.) Under such circumstances, a child could legally be seized and sold into slavery to cover debts. Attempts to reform this law have failed owing to various vested interests.

It is generally estimated that the population of Beneficence, both free and slave, totals roughly two million. This is, however, an estimate.


The city has no formal religion. There are temples for seven major gods scattered through the Holy Street, with smaller shrines for religions that aren’t generally popular throughout the city. As always, most of the population worships their household gods too.

In recent years, the Followers of Justice have been growing considerably stronger, particularly in the wake of changes caused by the New Learning.

(‘Justice’ is a generalised name. It is generally believed that the God of Justice is known by many names, but he is always the same person. (On Earth, Mars and Ares would be considered the same entity, with differing religious practices accepted and tolerated.)


The Magician’s Guild reports that over 500 magicians live in the city, most of them considered middle-rank at best. These tend to include alchemists, healers and a handful of combat sorcerers. No full sorcerer is believed to live near Beneficence.

A number of magical families have houses within Beneficence. However, they do not have formal political power within the city itself.

There are no formal magical academies within the city.


Like the rest of the Allied Lands, Beneficence uses gold, silver and bronze coins of variable value. Shops keep assessing equipment on hand to inspect the currency.

Law and Order

Beneficence is protected by the City Watch, which consists of the Watchmen, the Guardians and the Reserve. The Watchmen serve as constables, the Guardians as detectives and the Reserve provides additional manpower if necessary. In theory, every able-bodied Freeman is liable to serve in the Reserve; in practice, this tends to fall on the upper and middle classes, if there is a need for assistance.

Beneficence’s laws are split into two sections; City Law and Guild Law. City Law covers general law and order (i.e. mugging would be a breach of City Law) while Guild Law covers offences against a specific guild. For example, if someone cheated while the guild was electing an official, the guild would have the right to punish him without recourse to outside authority.

Conflicts between City Law and Guild Law are far from unknown. Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by City Law (provided you can back up your words, if necessary). However, certain levels of speech are banned by Guild Law and someone can get into hot water by saying the wrong thing. Unsurprisingly, reform-minded people within the guilds have been campaigning to have guild laws struck down or rewritten.

If condemned, prisoners can be whipped, enslaved, exiled or executed. (The city has no long-term jail.) The first two consist of public punishments, intended to deter as well as to punish; the latter two are for more serious crimes. An exile is strictly forbidden to return to the city, own property within the city or communicate with anyone inside the city; anyone who attempts to keep in contact with the exile can face the same punishment for himself. If the exile owned property, it is either passed to his family or seized and sold to the highest bidder. The exile’s family name is also wiped, with the result that neither he nor his heirs can be considered legitimate by the city’s authorities.


In the event of the city coming under attack, the City Watch is expected to provide the core of the defences, while the Reserves man the walls. However, owing to the formidable natural barriers and the presence of a large number of magicians, the city hasn’t been seriously tested after Alexis II of Zangaria attempted to take Beneficence and failed.

The city also plays host to a large number of mercenaries. Under the agreement with the Guildmasters, the mercenaries are obliged to join the defence if necessary.

The city’s navy provides ships for sea defence, commerce protection and transporting food into the city, in the event of a siege.

Outside Diplomacy

By the Treaty with Zangaria, Beneficence is formally barred from having any formal treaty relationships with any other part of the Allied Lands. Beneficence sends representatives to the White City, but nowhere else.

Politically, the city is neutral. This doesn’t stop it becoming a hotbed of intrigue.


Beneficence draws most of its wealth from shipping; the city serves as a trading hub both for the allied lands and the other continents. Further sources of wealth come from small industries within the city itself, applied knowledge and guild-specific education.

The city does not tax its inhabitants. Each guild pays 10% of its earnings to the Community Chest, which is distributed by the Guild Council. (There’s no legal reason why two separate guilds can’t exist even if they cover the same area, provided they both pay.) There is also a small charge for use of the harbour facilities (generally waived for city residents) and other facilities within the city.

Food and Drink

The average person in the city eats fish – the city fishermen regularly bring in a colossal haul from the oceans. (This raises problems of eventually depleting the reserves, but for the moment Beneficence simply doesn’t have the appetite of a modern city.) Small rooftop gardens provide a small amount of fresh fruit and vegetables for the inhabitants, but most such supplies are shipped into the city, either from Zangaria or nearby states. There is a long-standing agreement with the Barony of Holyoake (now Cockatrice) that may have been undermined by events within Zangaria.

Thirty-Two Years Old …

23 Mar

Today is my birthday. I’m 32 years old.

(Several people were kind enough to send me edits for some of my older work, so I spent the morning editing and re-uploading the books. After that, we went out for lunch.)

I wanted to write a long rambling post about my life, but most of what I want to say isn’t really suitable for public consumption. All I can really say is that I’ve achieved some of my dreams and others look to be within reach. And I’ve returned to the UK for a few more months, which is quite a good thing (even if I have gone mad in the bookshops, as Malaysia really doesn’t have very many decent bookshops.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the books I’ve posted over the last year. There will be many more to come, starting with The Nelson Touch (Ark Royal II), which can be downloaded from Amazon now. Next up, I intend to write the third Royal Sorceress book and then probably the final Democracy book. I also have to write the fifth Schooled in Magic book, which is going to be quite different – I hope. And to think I have seven books planned for the first arc of the series!

I’m also developing ideas for new series – either trilogies or open ended books. Watch this space for more details. As always, comments, suggestions and thoughtful criticism are always welcome.

Thank you to everyone who sent in birthday wishes – I really appreciated them.

Chris (one year older, still no wiser despite his wife’s best efforts.)

The Nelson Touch (Ark Royal II–available now!)

22 Mar

Just in time for my birthday!

Ark Royal – the Royal Navy’s outdated space carrier – has won a smashing victory against the enigmatic aliens, capturing one of their starships and returning to Earth. Now, Admiral Theodore Smith and his crew are assigned to command a fleet charged with making a deep-penetration raid into alien territory, a fleet made up of carriers from four different nations.

But with a crewman who isn’t what he seems, untested pilots and international friction – and a new and dangerous alien plan – can Ted and his crew survive their mission … or will they die, alone and unremarked, hundreds of light years from home?

[Like my other self-published Kindle books, The Nelson Touch is DRM-free. You may reformat it as you choose. Download a Free Sample, then buy it from Amazon here.]

Minor Updates

16 Mar

Hi, everyone – just some minor updates.

First, The Nelson Touch (Ark Royal II) is at 34 chapters and I hope to complete the first draft on Tuesday or Wednesday. I have also been lucky enough to be contacted by an artist who did a cool picture for the cover, rather than something owned by several other authors (see below.)

Second, I’ve decided to write The Royal Sorceress III: Necropolis as my next project. I’ve done three SF books in a row and I need a change of pace. I’ve written a draft plot for the book, so if anyone would be interested in reviewing it, please let me know.

Third, A Learning Experience doesn’t seem to have suffered from the whole kerfuffle over cover design. The review has been removed, sales have gone upwards and I’ve heard nothing from the reviewer. Probably for the best, I think.

Fourth, Schooled in Magic is doing very well on Amazon, but I’m still looking for new ways to promote the book. If you have time, please write a review.

Fifth, Lessons in Etiquette (Schooled in Magic II) has had its final edit. All my normal grumbles about the editing process aside, it keeps horrifying me just how much slips through my gaze. Thanks, once again, to everyone who keeps sending in corrections.

And finally, my wife and I are going to London Thursday-Saturday. Bookshops, here I come!


On Stock Images and Multiple Owners

10 Mar

One of the major weaknesses of self-published books is that they often have very poor covers. This shouldn’t really be surprising. Artwork produced by artists like Brad Fraunfelter, who did the cover for Schooled in Magic can be quite expensive, particularly for the struggling young author.  (As in 3/4 figures.)  So the aspiring Kindle author is forced to either depend on someone who might not be a professional or reliable artist or take a stock image and turn it into a cover.

Stock images are, simply put, images that can be purchased for private use at a small (once-off) fee. The author buys the image, adds a title (either through MS PAINT or a dedicated cover designer) and then uploads it as the cover design for his book. Unsurprisingly, finding the right cover can be tricky; some of the cover images I’ve used over the years have fit the book perfectly, while others look faintly odd. There’s no way to get a specialised image made for you without shelling out a lot more money.

The other downside to using these images is that you don’t have exclusive rights to them, just the right to use them. My publisher could make a terrible fuss if Random Kindle Author No.1 took the Schooled in Magic cover, replaced the title with his own and uploaded it to Amazon. A Kindle author might be irked to discover that someone else had used the same cover image, but he or she would not be in any position to do anything more than stamp their feet in irritation.

I mention all this because yesterday (9th March 2013) I looked at the reviews and discovered – horror of horrors – a one-star review for A Learning Experience. I gulped, reminded myself that I’m a big boy with a thick skin and opened the review. Much to my horror, the entire review consisted of a screed from an author I hadn’t heard of, claiming I’d stolen his cover (and that my reviews were all fake). He ended up with threats to report me to Amazon and implied that no one else would know about it if I took my cover down ASAP. I couldn’t help sniggering at the last part, despite my horror. If he’d posted the comments on a review – and people like me read reviews before buying – everyone who looked at it would see it.

 So, in the best tradition of internet detectives, I started poking around and discovered the following facts.

-I purchased the rights to use the stock image in June 2013. (To be fair to the guy, I didn’t actually publish the image until this year.)

-I didn’t purchase any exclusive rights (which I knew already) and nor did he. In fact, the image was still available from source.

-His cover designer (who, in her own words, was absolutely mortified to hear about this from him) didn’t have the exclusive rights, let alone sell them to him. (As a side note, the implication she did could have legal issues for her too.)

-At least two other books used the same cover image. As of writing, at least one of them hasn’t received this guy’s attention.

-Finally, his cover designer included a reddish hue missing from both my work and the other books with the same cover.

In short, the author does not have a leg to stand on – and, furthermore, he has committed libel against me by making claims that are demonstrably false.

Now, I’ve seen ‘my’ cover image used by another author before. I won’t deny that it was a shock to see the cover I picked out on someone else’s book, but there were no grounds for legal complaints. I didn’t own all rights to the image, merely the right to use it. To be honest, once I got over the horror and then the irritation, I would be inclined to view it as nothing more than a coincidence. If the author had contacted me via email – my email can be located through my site – I would have explained all this to him in a more peaceable manner. (His cover designer has apparently tried to explain it too.)

Instead, he acted in a manner that is, put bluntly, staggeringly rude. And, perhaps worse, threatens to harm my reputation.

Given the timing, I don’t think this is an attempt to extort anything from me. But it’s not the best way to deal with a sensitive situation.

<Rolls eyes>


ETA – The review is gone.  Whew.

A Lesson from the Ukraine

5 Mar

… Or keep your powder dry.

Londo Mollari: Mass drivers? They have been outlawed by every civilized planet!

Lord Refa: These are uncivilized times.

Londo Mollari: We have treaties!

Lord Refa: Ink on a page!

-Babylon 5: The Long, Twilight Struggle

There are quite a few interesting points about the whole affair in the Ukraine, but one point that we should pay close attention to is the existence of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. To sum up a long story, the post-USSR Ukraine gave up its stockpile of nuclear weapons (the third-largest in the world at the time) in exchange for a guarantee that their borders would be respected. Russia was one of those signatories, along with the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

So Ukraine gave up its nukes.

And what is happening now? Ukraine is being victimized by Russia. And no one is doing anything effective to help.

There are plenty of justifications for Putin’s actions, some valid and some not so valid, but the crucial point is that the Ukraine, alone, is no match for Russia. Russia outnumbers them, has a vast fifth column and the chances of anyone actually doing more than verbally protesting are pretty much nil. And, without nukes, there’s no way the Ukraine can even the odds.  In short, Putin can bully them safely.

In other words, the Ukraine gave up the ultimate guarantee of their independence in exchange for worthless ink on paper.

This is a serious point. Nukes have their limitations, a nuclear power can be defeated, but a nuclear power can never be crushed. If the Russians were to threaten to invade France, for example, the French can threaten a nuclear exchange that will cripple Russia, even if they win the war. The French can be curtailed, but they cannot lose completely. And, to some extent, the same can be said of just about every other major nuclear power. The existence of nuclear weapons automatically puts limits on war.

The world changes. Maybe Russia intended to keep its word in 1994, when the Budapest Memorandum was signed. Maybe Britain and America actually intended to assist the Ukraine if Russia got stroppy. But the world changed; right now, help is unlikely to be forthcoming and the Ukraine has no nukes. They will lose if it comes down to a serious fight.

This is why we need to keep nukes. As long as we have them, we can lose battles, but we can never be truly defeated.  And that alone makes keeping them worthwhile.

The Nelson Touch (Ark Royal II)–Snippet

5 Mar

Cry havoc, and unleash the pens of war.


From: Commodore Timothy O’Neal

To: Admiral Sir Thomas Hanover, First Space Lord


It has been eleven months since the attack on Vera Cruz both introduced the human race to the existence of aliens and started the First Interstellar War. Since then, we have learned a great deal about our enemy and how he responds to our weapons and tactics. In particular, the capture of an alien battlecruiser by Ark Royal was very helpful.

Most of my study group’s recommendations are included in the detailed report, but there are certain issues I wished to bring to your attention personally. In particular, I must caution you against assuming anything about our foe. We are still faced with an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle; we know nothing about his internal command structure, internal politics or – most importantly of all – just why he chose to start the war. Our attempts to crack the captured computer system have yielded no data that might allow us to build up a picture of how our foe thinks. All we have are deductions from his actions.

They clearly took some time to study us and gear their forces to take advantages of our weaknesses. The plasma cannon system alone devastated our formations, allowing them to score a major victory over New Russia that came alarmingly close to shortening the war. If we hadn’t possessed Ark Royal, with armour that made her largely immune to alien weapons, we might well have lost the war within six months. However, we still lack any insights as to why they actually started the war in the first place.

My team has speculated wildly, using human history as a baseline. Their government may well be expansionist, bent on conquering or exterminating all other forms of intelligent life. Or they may view us as a potential threat and see advantages in curbing our own expansion. Or they may believe that we started the war. The discovery of artefacts from the long-lost Heinlein on Alien-1 raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Did the Heinlein Colony mission accidentally start a war with the aliens?

But all of this leads to yet another mystery. Why don’t they talk to us? They have not even attempted to demand unconditional surrender, even though it could shorten the war, let alone open up diplomatic channels. And, so far, every attempt to establish communications with the aliens has ended in failure.

We accept that the aliens have physical problems speaking in human tongues; indeed, that we will have similar problems in trying to pronounce their words. However, given their obvious skill at technology, it is unlikely that they have any real problems producing equipment that will allow them to bridge the gap. For that matter, we have no difficulty in doing the same – and yet the alien POWs steadfastly refuse to talk to us. I have had to dismiss two operatives from the research team for allowing their frustration to impede their professionalism.

In short, we have no way of ending this war, save by outright victory.

Towards that end, sir, I have a few suggestions …

Chapter One


Admiral Sir Theodore Smith jerked awake in his seat. Lieutenant Janelle Lopez, his Flag Lieutenant, was looking down at him, an expression of worry crossing her beautiful dark face. Ted couldn’t tell if she was worried about him or the effects on her career of awakening her Admiral from an unsound sleep, but it hardly mattered. A glance out the porthole showed their destination coming into view.

“I’m awake,” he said, crossly. His mouth felt like sandpaper and he swallowed, hard. There were water supplies on the shuttle, but he hadn’t bothered to take a drink since they’d departed from Nelson Base. “Were there any further updates?”

Janelle shook her head, pushing her hair back into her ponytail. She looked absurdly young for her position, but Ted had insisted on having her assigned to him as a reward for believing in Ark Royal when the Old Lady had been nothing more than a drifting hulk orbiting Earth, nothing more than a reserve for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. Now, with Ark Royal the most important ship in the fleet, the competition for postings to her – and her Admiral’s flag staff – was intense. But Ted was determined that those who had shown faith would have first choice of slots behind her massive sheets of armour.

He smiled at her tiredly, then turned to peer out of the porthole. Ark Royal was lit up from prow to stern, shining out in the inky darkness of space like a beacon of hope. She was ugly – even her fiercest defenders would never call her beautiful – yet there was a quiet elegance to her stubby lines that caught his eye and fired his imagination. As they came closer, he saw the makeshift sensor blisters, point defence cannons and missile tubes mounted on her hull, ready to defend her from all enemies. It was ironic, he knew, that the Old Lady had once been considered obsolete. But with alien starfighters armed with plasma cannons out there, hunting for targets, the only real defence was layers of solid-state armour. The loss of ten modern carriers in the First Battle of New Russia had proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Preparing to land,” the pilot called from the cockpit. “I believe they’re putting together a ceremony for you, sir.”

Ted groaned, so quietly that only Janelle heard him. Ceremonies were a very important part of the Royal Navy’s traditions, but they hadn’t featured in his life until Ark Royal had received a new lease on life. Since his promotion to Admiral, he’d been forced to endure more ceremonies, speeches and formal dinners than he’d had to attend in his entire life, prior to the war. The thought of returning to the Old Lady with such elaborate formality seemed absurd. And yet he knew there was no choice. Ark Royal was no longer his command, even though he was her Admiral. He would be a guest on the ship he still considered to be his own.

He leaned back in his seat as the shuttle entered the landing bay and settled down on the deck. A faint queasiness ran through his body as the shuttle’s gravity field faded away, only to be replaced by the carrier’s own gravity field. Bracing himself, he stood and started to walk towards the hatch. Outside, he knew, the landing bay would already be closed, with a breathable atmosphere being pumped into the massive compartment. It was a necessity for the Royal Navy’s ceremonies.

Wouldn’t do to have the admiralty step out into cold vacuum, he thought, snidely. And until someone invents a forcefield to keep the atmosphere inside the ship, that’s precisely what they would do.

He sucked in a breath as he caught sight of his own reflection. Somewhere along the way, he’d picked up more than a few white hairs, although his body was as healthy as years of naval food and a forced program of exercise could make it. The perfectly-tailored Admiral’s uniform still seemed odd on him, after being a starship commander for so long. His blue eyes looked tired, but bright. The thought of returning to action was galvanising in a way endless meetings could never be.

There was a faint ding from the airlock controller as it registered the presence of a breathable atmosphere outside, but there was a long pause before it opened. Ted had to fight down the urge to open the airlock himself and step out into the starship, even though he knew it would ruin the ceremony. It would be petty and childish, but part of him just wanted to set foot on Ark Royal again, even though she was no longer his command.

The airlock clicked, then hissed open. Ted took a breath, tasting the indefinable mixture of elements that made up the old carrier’s atmosphere, then stepped out onto the deck. Outside, the landing bay looked shiner than he remembered, suggesting that Captain Fitzwilliam had made good use of the legions of technicians assigned to Ark Royal in the wake of their return to Earth. He paused, long enough to salute the Union Jack painted on the far bulkhead, then turned to meet his former XO and current Flag Captain, Captain James Fitzwilliam.

“Admiral Smith,” Captain Fitzwilliam said, as they exchanged salutes. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you, James,” Ted said, and meant it. The first time they’d met, Captain Fitzwilliam – a young aristocratic officer – had tried to take command of the carrier out from under Ted’s nose. Instead, he’d wound up serving as Ted’s XO as Ark Royal went to war. After a somewhat bumpy start, they’d wound up trusting one another … and Fitzwilliam had saved both Ted’s life and career. “It’s good to be back.”

“This is my XO, Commander Amelia Williams,” Fitzwilliam said, nodding to a tall redheaded woman with a stern, almost patrician face. “She joined us from Victorious.”

Ted nodded, keeping his expression blank. He’d argued that his former tactical officer should be moved up into the XO slot, but the Admiralty had disagreed. With the new push to construct armoured carriers and battleships that might be able to stand up to the aliens in combat, they wanted as many officers as possible to develop experience with the old-new starships. He had nothing personal against Commander Williams, but seeing her in place was a reminder that he hadn’t won all of the political battles.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “You have some big shoes to fill.”

He pasted a smile on his face. Whatever else could be said about her, Commander Williams was definitely one of the Royal Navy’s rising stars. Her career path would probably have led her to carrier command within a couple of years anyway, although command of any other carrier was something of a poisoned chalice under the circumstances. During the Battle of New Russia, the aliens had gone through modern carriers like knives through butter.

“Thank you, sir,” Fitzwilliam said. “I believe you know my senior crew?”

Ted smiled, more openly this time, as he nodded to his old subordinates. Most of them had been dedicated lifers, spending their time in an endless struggle to keep the old carrier up and running when the Admiralty didn’t give a damn what happened to her. They’d learnt more about splicing together components and systems from a dozen separate interstellar powers than anyone else, which had helped when the time came to capture an alien starship and press it into service. A quarter of his former engineering crew, he knew, had been reassigned to either work on the captured ship or assist the joint defence effort. It would have been more if he hadn’t put his foot down on the matter. The Old Lady needed her unique engineering crew to remain functional.

“It’s a pleasure to see you all again,” he said. “And I hope that fame hasn’t gone entirely to your heads.”

They smiled back at him, a little ruefully. No one had paid attention to them when they’d been drifting in orbit, part of the naval reserve no one ever expected to be called into action. Now, they were not only famous, but rich. The combined world governments had poured out reward money for the captured alien ship, enough to give even the lowliest crew a sizable bonus. And the fame had made them heroes. Not all of them had handled it very well.

He paused long enough to exchange a few words with men who were friends, even if he outranked them, then Fitzwilliam dismissed the greeting party and escorted Ted up through the starship’s long passageways towards the bridge. As before, Ted couldn’t help noticing that the decks looked cleaner than ever before, although the telltale signs of constant maintenance were everywhere. A number of panels were open, with crewmen working on the starship’s innards or carefully replacing worn components. Every day, Ted knew, a handful of older components failed. The Royal Navy’s response to the problem, back in the days Ark Royal had been a frontline carrier, had been to build a massive amount of redundancy into the system. Modern carriers had fewer maintenance problems …

His lips twitched, humourlessly. Modern carriers were also strikingly vulnerable to alien attack.

“We’ve effectively completed the refit,” Fitzwilliam said, as they stepped through the armoured hatch and into the bridge. Buried towards the prow of the vessel, it was almost impossible to disable without blowing the entire starship apart. “I think I can honestly say that the Old Lady has never been in a better state.”

Ted nodded as he surveyed the bridge. The old consoles had been replaced with gleaming new systems, although they too were already showing signs of wear. He’d kept up with the readiness reports from the carrier and he’d been pleased to note that Fitzwilliam – and Commander Williams – had maintained his draconian training regime, even while the ship was at rest. There was no way of knowing, after all, when the much-dreaded attack on the Sol System would materialise. The Old Lady might have to move from her anchorage and go to war without any real warning.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. The bridge seemed to have something missing. It took him a long moment before he realised that he was missing the bridge. The compartment wasn’t his any longer. He looked towards the massive command chair, then kicked himself mentally. It was Fitzwilliam’s command chair now. “You didn’t change the chair?”

“I thought it was part of history,” Fitzwilliam said. “And I didn’t want to change it.”

Ted nodded, feeling an odd lump in his throat. The command chair hadn’t been replaced since the carrier had last been on active duty. He’d never felt the urge to replace it – and now, it was part of history. One way or another, the Old Lady had definitely earned her place in the history books. But would their writers be humans … or aliens? The war was far from over, even if the aliens had been suspiciously quiet for the last three months. Ted knew the planning staff suspected the aliens were preparing a final offensive. He tended to agree with them.

He followed Fitzwilliam into the ready room – it had once been Ted’s ready room – and sat down on the sofa. Once, he’d slept in the room more than once, catching up on his sleep while remaining close to the bridge. Now, he would have to sleep in the Admiral’s quarters near the CIC … and he would never command the ship in combat again. Indeed, even issuing commands to the crew could be construed as infringing on Fitzwilliam’s authority. His lips twitched, remembering command exercises at the Academy. They’d been warned, more than once, to try to avoid stepping on one another’s toes.

Fitzwilliam poured tea from a china teapot, then passed the cup over to Ted, who examined it with some interest. The fine china was probably expensive enough to swallow half of his paycheck for the month, he decided, if it could be replaced at all. It felt more like an antique than anything mundane – or Royal Navy issue.

“My … one of my ancestors commanded a ship during the Second World War,” Fitzwilliam explained. “His wife, who didn’t have a very practical turn of mind, sent him this as a present, apparently in the expectation that he would find a use for it. After he returned home, it was placed into storage. My uncle thought I might find it useful.”

Ted had to smile. “And what if it was destroyed?”

“I would presumably have other things to worry about,” Fitzwilliam said. The younger – much younger – man leaned forward. “How was Earth?”

“Mostly discussions about the aliens and their technology,” Ted said. It had rapidly turned into a waste of time, at least for him. He might have seen the technology in action, he might have a good idea of just how the aliens used it, but he knew nothing about how it actually worked. The engineers could crack the secrets of the alien battlecruiser, given time, yet Ted himself couldn’t help them. “And speeches to every last part of the world.”

He made a face as he took another sip of tea. The human race had been on an emotional rollercoaster since the dawn of the war – the First Interstellar War, as some wags were already calling it. There had been the shock of first contact, the horror and terror after the Battle of New Russia, the delight when Ark Royal had won the first of her victories against the aliens … the entire population seemed torn between hope and dread. The future no longer seemed quite so full of promise.

“They gave you one of every medal in the world,” Fitzwilliam said. “They must like you.”

Ted snorted. It was an exaggeration, but not by much. Every spacefaring power on Earth had given him a medal, including several that had never been awarded to foreigners beforehand. Each award ceremony had forced him to make another speech, followed by answering questions about the Old Lady and the alien battlecruiser, half of which he couldn’t answer. It had almost been enough to drive him back to drink.

No, he told himself, firmly. Fitzwilliam had risked his career to save Ted from the consequences of his drinking. Ted would not let that go to waste. I will not go back to the bottle.

“I think they just wanted someone to show off,” he said. He placed the cup down on the table, then leaned forward. “I got the basic engineering reports, of course, but I’d like to hear from you. Are we ready to return to war?”

Fitzwilliam paused, contemplating his answer. “I believe so,” he said. “We have repaired the damaged armour, replaced the destroyed weapons and improved our defences. We’ve mounted enemy-level plasma cannons on our hull, loaded new bomb-pumped laser missiles into the tubes … in short, we’re as ready to go as possible. All we really need are replacement flight crews.”

Ted nodded. Half of Ark Royal’s surviving pilots had been reassigned, either to the Academy or other carriers that might soon be going into action. They would be recalled, of course, or replaced, but until they arrived Ark Royal’s striking power would be very limited. But then, compared to the rest of the fleet, she was practically an armoured colossus. Her missiles and mass drivers gave her a striking power no modern carrier could match.

“I believe they will be reassigned here in a week or two,” Ted said. He smiled, rather dryly. “The Admiralty has been holding high-level discussions with the rest of the interstellar powers, considering our best course of action now the aliens seem to have been knocked back and taught to fear human weapons. We may well be going on the offensive.”

Fitzwilliam smiled. “That would be good,” he said. “Better to wage war in their systems than ours.”

Ted nodded in agreement. The aliens had occupied twelve human systems, three of them with large human populations. Reports from the planetary surface suggested that the aliens were largely ignoring the humans, which was interesting. They didn’t seem inclined to either enslave the humans or exterminate them. But they had wiped out the population of smaller mining colonies …

He shrugged. It was tempting to believe that the aliens were merely biding their time … or, perhaps, that they’d realised they might not win the war after all and they’d decided not to commit any atrocities. Or, perhaps, they had their own codes for treating prisoners of war, codes not too different from those followed by humanity. After all, some human enemies had been downright barbaric to their prisoners. It made the aliens look surprisingly civilised.

“There will be a ceremony in one week,” he said, changing the subject slightly. “I believe we will be playing host to the Prime Minister himself, as well as a handful of foreign dignities.”

Fitzwilliam looked worried. Ted didn’t blame him. A serving naval officer would understand that perfection was a hopeless pipe dream, but a politician without any military experience might question an unwashed deck or something else that looked slapdash. It could ruin an officer’s career, no matter how promising it had seemed before the politicians boarded the ship. But it couldn’t be helped. If nothing else, they would finally be briefed on whatever operation the joint command had had in mind since Ark Royal returned to the solar system.

“I’d better get on with preparing for their arrival,” Fitzwilliam said. Politicians couldn’t be fed naval rations, even though the crew had to make do with them. They’d need to get some prepared food from Earth and perhaps hire an extra cook or two. “Wonderful.”

“It could be worse,” Ted reminded him. “We went from a laughing stock to the flagship of the fleet. It’s worth having a dinner with politicians to remind us that we’re no longer a joke.”

Fitzwilliam hesitated, then nodded in agreement.

Ted smiled. “And how is Commander Williams shaping up?”

“I think I understand how you must have felt,” Fitzwilliam confessed. “She’s brilliant, very capable … and ambitious as hell.”

“A common failing,” Ted observed, dryly. “But can she handle the job?”

“I believe so,” Fitzwilliam said. “She isn’t another Farley.”

“Good,” Ted said. Abraham Farley had somehow managed to become XO of a carrier without revealing the soft panicky centre at his core. But when there had been a nasty accident and he’d inherited command, he’d panicked and almost lost the entire starship. “I think you should be fine. But keep an eye on her anyway. No one reveals what they truly are until they are truly tested.”