Archive | May, 2014

Innovate E-Magazine Issue 4

27 May

A friend of mine, the editor of Innovate, recently lost his mother to Pancreatic Cancer. This issue is in memorial of her and 50% of profits will be donated to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund. I contributed a sample from Lessons in Etiquette (I believed Innovate would come out ahead of publication) and many other writers have added contributions of their own.

If you’re interested in assisting the fund, please download a copy from the links below:


EPUB at Smashwords



Out Now–Barbarians At The Gates

26 May

(I wasn’t expecting this out so soon <grin>)

The Federation has endured for hundreds of years, but now it is dying, killed by the corruption and decadence of the Senate and the rising power of military warlords. The shipping lanes are coming apart, the colonists are revolting and outside forces are pressing against undefended borders. Now, as one warlord makes a bid for supreme power, the entire edifice is on the verge of falling apart. Two officers, bearers of a proud military tradition, may be all that stands between the Federation and total destruction.

Admiral Marius Drake has fought for years to defend the Federation against the enigmatic outsiders. Now, he is charged with putting down a rogue warlord who has risen against the Senate and challenged its authority. If he fails, the schism will eventually rip the Federation apart. But with shadowy figures moving in the background, he knows it will not be easy to save the Federation from itself.

Lieutenant Roman Garibaldi, newly-graduated from the Naval Academy, knows no other cause than the Federation. Human unity is a cause worth fighting for. But as he faces the grim reality of interstellar civil war, and the exploitation of humans and aliens underlying the Senate’s vast power, he comes to realise that the price of the Federation’s survival may be more than anyone can pay.

But with the Senate suspicious of any competent commanding officers, purging the navy on the slightest excuse, their success may condemn them to an inglorious death.

Download a free sample, then purchase the ebook from the links on this page.

The Voter is Always Right

24 May

Written in a moment of irritation, after reading the latest batch of political pamphlets.

Well, not always, but he thinks he is.  And therein lies the problem.

If there is one advantage the British political system has over the American system, it is the existence of multiple parties of government. The Americans have the Republicans (centre-right) and the Democrats (centre-left). Both parties have their morons and extremists, people who should be quietly ignored, but their politics tend to blur together into an inoffensive mass. The prevalence of RINOs and DINOs is a symptom of the political dominance of both parties.

Britain, by contrast, allows voters to gravitate towards their natural political parties, at least to some extent. A dissatisfied Labour voter can move to the Liberal Democrats. A Tory who thinks David Cameron has no balls can vote UKIP. To some extent, there are signs of political panic across the corridors of power as UKIP and the other minority parties seem to grow stronger. The recent attack on the UKIP as a so-called racist party is merely another sign of their fears. These days, with the word ‘racist’ used so often for so little cause, it is unlikely it seriously dented the UKIP.

The question that should worry our political lords and masters is why people are gravitating away from the main political parties. This is not a minor concern. There are currently 650 seats in parliament, each one representing a constituency within the UK. If the UKIP was to gain control of a relative handful of seats, the position of the governing party would be seriously threatened. UKIP would be powerless on its own, but by swinging its vote behind the Opposition it could undermine the government.

But there is a secondary concern. Let us assume that there are 100 voters in Swampscott Constituency. 30 of them are Conservatives, 30 are Labour and 30 are Liberal Democrats. The remaining are swing voters. They have no strong commitment to any of the three parties. If, however, they are angry at the Tories, they might vote elsewhere. So might diehard Tory voters. In that case, they will have effectively thrown the election to one of the other two parties.

(Yes, folks; an MP can gain less than 50% of the vote and still win.)

The Tories have noticed this. They’ve asked their voters not to vote UKIP because it will undermine the Tory Party. They are, in one sense, correct. In another, they’re being insulting to their voters. If the Tory Party is not doing what Tory Voters want it to do, why should they keep supporting the Party?

Well … perhaps it has something to do with the Tory Party not supporting them.

There is a problem with politicians that would be better suited to an ISP. They assume that once the deal is done, and someone is convinced to support their party, they will remain supporting their party. The politicians then go to the marginal voters and try their best to woo them, reducing their message accordingly. This annoys the voters who committed themselves … and they don’t remain committed.

This leads neatly to the problems plaguing the EU as a whole. Political elites have been growing more and more apart from their populations over the last 30 years. Decisions that actively harm local citizens – or even the EU as a whole – have been taken in the interests of ideology. “You can’t keep out the country of Plato,” the EU bureaucrats argued, conveniently failing to do due diligence before allowing Greece to join the Euro. The whole single currency was a politically-driven nightmare from the start, rather than any form of sober union between economies on a similar level.

Over Europe, the response is slowly taking shape. People are walking away from mainstream parties and throwing their vote to parties that promise to represent them better. And why not? Mainstream parties have lost touch with the ordinary voters, the ones who see the real problems facing the countries – and the complete failure of the politicians to tackle them.

And what are these problems? The infrastructure of Britain is decaying rapidly through lack of maintenance. Terrorists and their families are supported by the British taxpayer. Benefits are completely out of control. The tax system is completely fouled up. Red tape is strangling the life out of private enterprise. Schools are decaying. Criminals are released early or not jailed at all, even when it is clear they will reoffend. Massive cuts in our military when we’re involved in a war that has yet to be brought to an end. Police forces reduced or used to enforce bureaucratic dictates rather than common sense. These are very real problems that affect the lives of countless British citizens. And what are the politicians doing about it?


They mouth politically-correct platitudes and do nothing.

If I was in a position to give David Cameron some advice, this is what I’d tell him to pledge for the next election.

-Place term limits and recall elections on MPs. In particular, insist that MPs have to have lived in their constituency for at least 5 years before running for election.

-Decentralise decision-making as much as possible. Schools, for instance, would run better if their headmasters were allowed to make decisions for themselves. It would also be important to see which ideas worked better than those that didn’t. Hospitals, also, could be run by their managers, with very clear punishments for major problems.

-Give people a recourse against bureaucratic bullies. Bring back trial by jury for everyone, including local authority fines and suchlike.

-Defend British principles, including free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association.

-Crack down hard on illicit immigration, Islamic extremism and anti-democratic activities.

-An end to foreign aid. We have enough problems of our own here.

-Hold a vote on EU membership. Get the matter settled, one way or the other.

And stop the backbiting. It doesn’t help. People want politicians who say “here is the problem, this is what we are going to do to fix it.”

In truth, I’m not hopeful.

Borstal Boarding School

23 May

One think that might have been missed by my readers is that I went to boarding school – and I hated every last minute of it. The experience pretty much left permanent scars on my soul. This may seem odd, seeing the boarding school in Schooled in Magic is a pretty good place, but it’s true.

So it got me thinking about alternate ideas, including one that might serve as a carathis of sorts.

It’s 2040. The economic crash put a far-right government into power in the United Kingdom. It’s basically a version of the early years of Hitler’s Germany, complete with increasingly mad leader, a police state and death camps for the unwanted. Among other things, the government has set up a series of borstals – boarding schools/jails for young men and women who are apparently too ill-disciplined to be allowed in normal schools.

Our hero does something stupid – I’m torn between playing a prank that goes badly wrong or being caught shoplifting or something equally stupid – and gets sent there in lieu of jail. He thinks it’s a great adventure until he actually gets there, whereupon he discovers it’s a boarding school of horrors, the teachers are sadists, the other kids are worse and they’re basically in prison until they learn to toe the line. It isn’t unknown for kids to die there.

So he eventually starts a revolution against authority that provokes a massive reaction from the government. I’m torn between them having a happy ending or a downer as most of the kids die …


You Ain’t Nobody Until You Have Someone Working For You

22 May

You may recall that I posted an article some time ago about my problems trying to repay my student loan – a problem caused not by the shortage of money, but by the Student Loans Agency being unwilling to actually take the money. I wrote to them and offered to pay. They basically told me to wait (and keep collecting interest) until the end of the year, or jump through a series of hoops to prove I can pay.

At this point, my accountant (in the course of doing battle with the dreaded tax return) told me that this was a tax headache and should be disposed of as quickly as possible. I forwarded the letter I’d been sent and asked for advice. My accountant rang the agency and managed to get them to actually send payment details. Clearly, people who have accountants are important. I never knew I was important before.

Let’s say that again. I needed to get an accountant, who I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t needed assistance with the tax return, to pry some useful payment details out of them.

(To be fair, someone who can afford to pay an accountant can probably afford to pay his debts.)

OK … so I followed the instructions and paid off all, but a tiny portion of my debt. I was told to wait and they would send me the final bill. And I waited. And waited … and nothing happened. Eventually, I checked with my accountant again and asked for details. They explained I had to call the agency myself this time.

So I did. And they told me, after much hemming and hawing and security verification, that I owed the staggeringly preposterously enormously gigantic colossal sum of … £9.87.

And I paid on the spot.

The good news is that I no longer have any student loans.

The middling news is that I have to call them again next week to get a certificate to prove it.

The bad news is that the whole system is designed to make it hard to actually pay.

It seems to be remarkably easy to avoid paying. If you don’t earn over a certain amount, you don’t have to pay at all. If you do and you work for a big company, it gets handled by the same people who arrange for you to pay your taxes. If you pretty much work for yourself, as I do, it’s a lot harder to honour your obligations. Quite frankly, I was tempted to simply forget it. There doesn’t seem to be any enforcement system. (Which, given how few people find a job that can pay quickly, is probably not such a bad thing.)

But here is my point. I don’t like being in debt. If I have to take a loan, I want to pay it back as quickly as possible. And yet … paying a greater sum each month or even paying it off in one lump seems to be made difficult. What is the point of a system that hands out money freely, yet doesn’t even try to collect it?

And then we wonder why we have economic trouble.


But What Do We Do On Our Hols? An Introduction to Lessons In Etiquette

21 May

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is one of those rare books that start a whole genre of British fiction. In its case, it started the Boarding School Story. These stories all tend to fit the same basic pattern; they’d set in a Boarding School and follow the adventures of the children as they grow from immature little brats to grown adults. Classically, these stories tend to range between stories praising wonderful schools (Enid Blyton was fond of those) and schools that are often a foretaste of hell.

[In real life, based on personal experience, I lean to believe more in the latter.]

These stories have many different settings. Malory Towers was set in a girls boarding school; the girls had silly little adventures, played pranks on their teachers and treated sport as serious business. Jennings was set in a similar school for young men. Harry Potter and The Worst Witch were both set in Wizard Schools. There are Finishing Schools, Military Schools and Space Academies. The older the intended audience, the darker the books. Charles Dickens depicted one of the worst boarding schools in fiction in Nicholas Nickleby.

And, I have to confess, Schooled in Magic falls into the same category.

But because these books are about the schools, they tend to ignore a simple question. What do the pupils do on their holidays?

Most boarding school stories rarely address this issue. The very format of the stories – following classes, sports and japes – tells against it. As I see it, the classical boarding school stories don’t focus on what the characters do away from school because it’s simply outside the story’s remit. When such stories do try to follow the characters into adulthood, they tend to have problems because the characters are shaped by the situation at school.

Being in school offers all sorts of room for stories, but it also offers a framework for storytelling that is lacking in the outside world. Authors are often unable to handle their characters outside the school format, so they resort to flashbacks and brief moments of discussion to handle the issue. Why not? The story isn’t about what the pupils did on their holidays?

When I devised the first set of plot arcs for Schooled in Magic, I decided I would try to avoid convention and have a set of books following Emily outside Whitehall School. Emily doesn’t live in our world, a world so familiar that it would be boring; she lives in a whole new universe. The Nameless World offers something stories set in our world can’t match – a whole new world to explore.

And so I came up with the idea of an adventure in Zangaria.

Personally, I would never have visited the homes of my fellow inmates at my boarding school. I saw enough of them during term time. And Emily would probably prefer to stay at Whitehall and spend her holidays in the library. But her closest friends are from Zangaria and so she is (reluctantly) dragged into travelling there for her holidays.

For Emily, this is a step outside the controlled existence she knew at Whitehall – and one hell of a culture shock. She moves from a lower-class existence in America (and then a student lifestyle at Whitehall) to moving among the monarchs, princes and princesses of the Nameless World. Worse, perhaps, one of her friends is going to meet her future husband during the holiday, a husband she won’t have chosen for herself. And yet she thinks this is perfectly normal.

How would an average person react to the blend of staggering wealth and luxury compared to grinding poverty, harsh laws and lives of desperation suffered by the poor? And, of course, there’s a deadly threat lurking in Zangaria, just waiting for Emily and her friends …

And it may be Emily’s fault that the kingdom is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Lessons in Etiquette, Book II of Schooled in Magic, is available now. Download a free sample, then purchase it from the links on this page.

Lessons in Etiquette

OUT NOW–Lessons In Etiquette (Schooled In Magic II)

17 May

After completing her first year of learning magic at Whitehall School, Emily accepts an invitation from Princess Alassa to accompany her on her progress back to her home country of Zangaria, where the Princess may meet her future husband. Alassa, who was a spoiled brat before she met Emily, wants to show off her friend – and impress potential suitors.

For Emily, it is a chance to relax and explore a world very different to Earth, meet new people and come to terms with her reputation in the Nameless World. After her defeat of Shadye, everyone wants to know her, to talk with her, to kill her … or to marry her.  But for Emily, hardly a social butterfly, the experience is disconcerting. She was never seriously courted before, not on Earth.

And yet, as she sees more of the countries surrounding Whitehall, she feels more and more out of place. The locals come from a very different culture, one that is often strange and horrifying to her eyes. Even her friends seem different people in their homes.

But dark forces are at work, plotting to capture the Princess, take power in Zangaria … and undo all of Emily’s work. As all hell breaks loose, Emily may be all that stands between Zangaria and a return to the dark ages of brute force that threatened to lay the kingdom low, once before. And if she fails, her friends will be just the first victims of a war that will rip the Allied Lands apart.

(As always, comments and reviews welcome.)

Download a Free Sample, then purchase it from one of the links here! And read the annotations here!

New Kindle Book–On The Imperium’s Secret Service

15 May

The Imperium; a million worlds, trillions upon trillions of humans and aliens, an empire that dominates half the galaxy…an empire that is falling into chaos, revolution and civil war. Only a handful of people are struggling to keep the Imperium together, knowing that the brutality of its rule is infinitively preferable to the chaos of its fall. This is their story.

Mariko and her sister were independent shippers and ace pilots, until they ran afoul of the law on a minor planet and ended up jailed and enslaved. Their new owner, Lord Fitz, seems to be nothing more than another harmless aristocrat with more money than sense – and besides, at least they can keep flying spacecraft.

But Fitz isn’t all he seems. He works for Imperial Intelligence, attempting to track down and destroy the Secessionist Movement before it launches a plan that threatens the very heart of the Imperium – and Mariko and her sister have just become his latest tools. But as they are drawn deeper into the seedy underside of the Imperium, one question comes to dominate their minds…

Does the Imperium even deserve to survive?

Download a Free Sample, then purchase the full text from Amazon here!

There is more to this than me posting another book <grin>.  I and a few friends intend to use this universe as the setting for a number of separate stories, with each of us writing a different book.  Keep an eye on this blog for details and updates.

Guest Post: A Case of Spontaneous Combustion

15 May

A Case of Spontaneous Combustion: An Excerpt

By Stephanie Osborn

I am pleased to announce the release of book 5 of the Displaced Detective Series, entitled A Case of Spontaneous Combustion!

This book continues the science fiction/mystery adventures of Sherlock Holmes, who has been yanked from an alternate reality in the which he exists, into our modern day reality by Dr. Skye Chadwick, chief scientist of Project: Tesseract. Unable to return to his own place and time, Holmes is forced to adapt, learn, and grow. With Skye’s help, he succeeds admirably.

But when an entire village on the Salisbury Plain is wiped out in an apparent case of mass spontaneous combustion, Her Majesty’s Secret Service contacts The Holmes Agency to investigate. Unfortunately Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Dr. Skye Chadwick-Holmes, have just had their first serious fight, over her abilities and attitudes as an investigator. To make matters worse, he is summoned to England in the middle of the night, and she is not — and due to the invocation of the National Security Act in the summons, he cannot even wake her and tell her.

Once in London, Holmes looks into the horror that is now Stonegrange. His investigations take him into a dangerous undercover assignment in search of a possible terror ring, though he cannot determine how a human agency could have caused the disaster. There, he works hard to pass as a recent immigrant and manual laborer from a certain rogue Mideastern nation as he attempts to uncover signs of the terrorists.

Meanwhile, alone in Colorado, Skye battles raging wildfires and tames a wild mustang stallion, all while believing her husband has abandoned her.

Who ― or what — caused the horror in Stonegrange? Will Holmes find his way safely through the metaphorical minefield that is modern Middle Eastern politics? Will Skye subdue Smoky before she is seriously hurt? Will this predicament seriously damage ― even destroy — the couple’s relationship? And can Holmes stop the terrorists before they unleash their outré weapon again?


Prologue — Changes in Routine

Stonegrange was a little old English hamlet in the County of Wiltshire in the Salisbury Plain of England, much like any other such ancient British village: a tiny central square in the midst of which crouched a hoary, venerated church, surrounded by a few small shops, and residences on the outskirts tapering off into the surrounding farmlands. On Sundays the church was full, and on Thursdays the outlying farmers brought their produce in to market. The occasional lorry carried in other supplies, and the Post Office ran every day but Sunday. So small was the village that the constable wasn’t even full time.

Still and all, it wasn’t very far from a main thoroughfare, the A338, that ran through Salisbury and on down to Bournemouth and Poole, and it wasn’t uncommon for lorry drivers to stop for a bite in the local pub, or even park their rigs in an empty lot just off the square for a good, safe night’s rest. Sometimes they even used the lot to hand off cargo from one freight company to another.

So no one thought twice when a flat-bed trailer showed up overnight in the lot, a large wooden crate lashed firmly to its middle. The locals figured it was either a hand-off, or someone’s tractor rig had broken down and been hauled off for repair, while leaving the cargo in a safe place.

* * *

Dr. Skye Chadwick-Holmes, horse trainer, detective, and one of the foremost hyperspatial physicists on the planet, answered the phone at the ranch near Florissant, Colorado.

“Holmes residence,” she murmured. “Skye speaking.”

“Hi there, Skye, Hank Jones here,” Colonel Henry Jones, head of security for Schriever Air Force Base, greeted the lady of the house from the other end of the line. “If you don’t mind, grab Holmes and then hit the speaker phone.”

“Oh, hi, Hank,” Skye replied warmly. “Good to hear from you, but I’m afraid I can’t oblige. Sherlock’s not here right now. Billy Williams called him down to the Springs to update him on some new MI-5 HazMat techniques; I completed my certification last month, but Sherlock had a nasty little cold and missed out.”

“Oh,” Jones said blankly. “Well, are YOU available?”

“Um, I guess so, for whatever that’s worth,” a hesitant Skye said. “Depends. Whatcha got?”

“Murder in the residential quarters at Peterson,” Jones noted, grim. “Suspects and victim were all Schriever personnel, though, so I get to have fun with it. Joy, joy.”

“And you could use a bit of help?”

“‘Fraid so,” Jones sighed. “As usual, I’m short-handed right now. The Pentagon never seems to get the fact that ‘Security’ means ‘document control,’ ‘police force,’ ‘guard duty,’ ‘investigation,’ and half a million other different jobs all rolled together, on a base like this.” He sighed again. “Listen, is there any chance you could meet me down there in about an hour or so, have a look around the crime scene yourself, then call your husband in when he’s available if you need to? As a favor to me? I need to get rolling on it A.S.A.P.”

“Um, okay,” Skye agreed after a moment’s thought. “Yeah, I can at least get started on it, and collect the initial data for Sherlock. Maybe even come to some basic conclusions and formulate a theory for us to work on. Gimme the address and I’ll buzz on down…”

* * *

The trailer remained where it was, off Stonegrange’s central square, for two days, and still no one thought to question. After all, tractors had mechanical difficulties just like the residents’ own autos and lorries, and sometimes those difficulties took a few days to repair. So no inquiries were made. The trailer was ignored.

Until, at precisely 11:02 p.m. three nights after its arrival, the crate emitted a soft, reverberating hum. No one was near enough to hear it, however—at least, no one curious enough to bother checking it out. Exactly five minutes later, a loud zap! sounded from the box.

Stonegrange was as silent as the tomb the rest of the night.

The next morning, the flat-bed trailer was gone.

~~~End Excerpt~~~

The Trafalgar Gambit–Snippet

15 May

Hopefully, I’ll start writing either on Sunday or Wednesday, depending.


(Heinlein Colony; Two Years Before Vera Cruz.)

“Well,” Ira said. “Aren’t you glad you came all this way?”

Jill Pearlman hesitated, then glanced out over the water. The sun had set hours ago, but the moonlight illuminated a warm lagoon, with water lapping gently against the sandy shore. It was completely isolated from the colony five miles to the south, largely unseen by human eyes. Ira had boasted he was the first person to set eyes on the lagoon.

“Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “But did we have to come all this way?”

Ira grinned at her, his teeth gleaming white against his dark skin. “Yup,” he said. He turned, then moved towards the beach. “Come on!”

Jill watched him run, shedding clothes as he moved, then blinked in surprise as she realised he’d stripped himself completely bare. His ass winked at her as he paused on the very edge of the shore, then splashed into the water. She hesitated, unsure if she wanted to skinny-dip, then ran after him, almost tripping over his trousers and the gun he’d left on the beach.

“It’s warm,” he called. “Come on in!”

“Coming,” Jill said.

She removed her shirt and trousers, then hesitated before adding her bra and panties to the pile of clothing. Ira was fun, and she knew her parents approved of him, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to allow their relationship to get so intense so quickly. And yet … she pushed her doubts to one side and splashed into the water. It was warmer than she’d expected, now the sun had gone down. But it was definitely lovely.

“I told you so,” Ira said, as she swam out to meet him. His eyes flickered to her breasts, then looked back at her face and remained fixed there. “It’s lovely out here.”

Jill let out a sigh as she flipped over and stared up at the rising moon. She’d pitched all sorts of fits when her parents had announced that the Heinlein Society was setting up its own colony world – and that they would be among the first colonists. They’d wanted to leave overpopulated and overregulated Earth, but all Jill had been able to think about was leaving her friends behind. And Earth’s facilities. She’d fought, for nothing.

And I’m glad I lost, she admitted, in the privacy of her own mind. This isn’t Earth.

The colony was only three years old, but the settlers had already created a number of farming settlements, including the homestead Jill and her family worked. Life was slower than it was on Earth, without entertainment movies or VR downloads, yet there was something about it that made her feel content, something she’d never truly felt on humanity’s homeworld. And her relationship with Ira felt better, more wholesome, than anything she’d had on Earth. She didn’t feel any pressure to move faster or to have loveless sex with him …

She turned and smiled at Ira, then dived under the water and swam away from him, daring the young man to follow. Heinlein had few higher forms of life; the settlers had introduced various breeds of fish as well as cows, sheep and pigs, monitoring their progress as they swarmed and multiplied in the endless oceans. Jill had been told that, one day, they would be able to fish as much as they liked, but for the moment they were restricted in what they could take from the waters. Not that she really cared, she had to admit. She preferred lamb or beef to fish.

Ira caught up with her as she stopped and rested her feet on the sandy seabed. Jill turned to reach for him … and froze as the moonlight revealed something in the water. For a moment, she was convinced she was seeing things. Heinlein had no sharks or dolphins, nothing that might be dangerous to human swimmers. And yet … the water ripped where the shape had been, just under the surface. Something was definitely there.

“What?” Ira asked. He was more sensitive than any of the boys she’d known on Earth, more able to read her moods. “Jill …”

“Look,” Jill stammered. The shape seemed to be growing larger. “What is that?”

Ira turned, just in time to see the shape burst through the surface and out into the open air. It looked humanoid, but it clearly wasn’t human. Jill screamed in shock as it faced them, one long leathery hand reaching out towards the humans. Water dripped from its skin as it stared at then, as shocked to see the humans as the humans were to see them. Jill shivered, feeling suddenly cold, then started to back off towards the shore. Heinlein had no higher life forms, she knew. And yet she was staring at evidence of … what?

“Get back to shore,” Ira said, through clenched teeth. “Hurry!”

They’d been stupid, Jill realised, as she splashed through the water. It suddenly seemed very difficult to move. They were so far from the colony homesteads that they couldn’t help to attract attention, no matter how loudly they shouted. Behind her, she heard Ira calling out to the creature, trying to speak to it. Jill reached the shore and turned, just in time to see the creature advancing towards Ira. Panic overcame her and she ran for his clothes, then scooped up the gun in one hand. Her parents had drilled her again and again until she was an excellent shot, cautioning her that she might need to be able to defend herself one day. But they’d never envisaged this

Ira started to back off … and the creature followed him, its leathery hands waving frantically, as if it were trying to say something. But Jill couldn’t hear a sound, apart from a very faint rasp that echoed unpleasantly on the air. She couldn’t understand what she was seeing. Was the creature actually intelligent? Or was it a previously undiscovered form of life? The planet was big, after all. There might be anything outside the colony’s walls.

“Get back to the farm,” Ira ordered. “Tell them about …”

He stumbled and fell backwards into the water. The creature kept advancing towards him, its hands reaching out as if it intended to pick him up and carry him into the deep waters. Jill shouted, but the creature showed no reaction. Desperately, she lifted the gun, snapped off the safety and fired, just once. The creature stumbled as her bullet struck its head …

… And collapsed back into the water.

Chapter One

The devastation stretched as far as the eye could see.

Admiral Sir Theodore Smith stared down as the shuttle made its way towards London, struggling to keep his face and emotions under control. Like all of the officers and crew in the Royal Navy, he had sworn an oath to put himself and his body between his country and war’s desolation. But the scene below the shuttle was proof that he and his fellows had failed to keep Britain safe. The country had been devastated.

He sucked in his breath as he looked down at what had once been towns and cities, fertile countryside and harbours. The aliens hadn’t targeted British soil directly, but it had hardly mattered. They’d landed a massive warhead in the Atlantic Ocean, which had triggered tidal waves that had washed over Britain and Ireland, Spain and Portugal. No one had anticipated an attack on such a scale, not even after Vera Cruz. Uncounted millions were dead, millions more were unaccounted for. The country hadn’t suffered devastation on such a scale in all of living memory, if ever. Not even World War II had come close to slaughtering so many British citizens.

A feeling of horror, mixed with despondency, grew in his breast as he tracked the passage of the tidal waves eastward. Penzance and Cardiff, Bristol and Bournemouth, had been drowned beneath the massive tidal waves. The Brecon Beacon National Park, where the British Army had put its recruits through hell for hundreds of years, had been washed away into nothingness. Only the presence of Ireland, he knew, had kept more of the western coastline from being drowned under the waves. And yet the devastation had still not come to an end. So much water had been vaporised and thrust into the upper atmosphere that it had yet to stop raining over parts of the country. Floods were an ever-present threat.

He’d seen pictures, of course, broadcast over the datanet by reporters eager to claim the first scoops from the devastated zone. There were images of horror, of dead bodies piled up as the tidal waves receded or looters making their way into the devastated areas to loot, yet those images hadn’t seemed quite real. Devastation on such a scale was far beyond his imagination, even though he’d been a serving naval officer for what felt like an eternity. And yet, now, he knew he wasn’t even looking at the worst of it. Far too many countries had lost millions of lives in the wake of the alien attack on Earth. And entire complexes in space had been destroyed with all hands.

Down below, he knew, there were thousands of refugee camps for survivors, policed by the military. There had been nothing like it in Britain since the Troubles – and even the Troubles, at their worst, had been on a much smaller scale. The social fabric that made up the British nation had been badly damaged, perhaps shattered. He’d accessed news sites as the shuttle made its way towards Earth, only to discover a non-stop liturgy of horror. Food riots, protests against refugees … outright defiance of the government’s authority. No matter how he tried to be optimistic, part of him couldn’t help wondering if he was looking at the final days of mankind.

The devastation faded slightly as the shuttle picked up speed, heading towards London, but it wasn’t normal. Floods covered large tracts of land, a small army convoy made its way through devastated fields and a large refugee camp covered what had once been a farm. If the Troubles hadn’t taught the government the wisdom of making sure Britain could feed itself, Ted knew, it would have been a great deal worse. But it was already bad enough …

He sighed as London came into view, then winced in horror as he saw the flooding. London had always been vulnerable to floods, but the safety precautions seemed to have failed in the wake of the alien attack. Or perhaps it was the rain, part of his mind noted. London was on the wrong side of the country to have a tidal wave marching up the river, smashing everything in its past. One of the datanet interviews had been wish a scientist who had claimed the aliens had deliberately set out to melt the icecaps. Ted couldn’t help wondering why the aliens would have bothered.

But they live below the waves, he thought, as the shuttle slowed to a hover over London, then dropped down towards Heathrow Spaceport. They might see advantage in drowning the human race, then taking our world.

Raindrops splashed off the shuttle’s portholes as it touched down, sending shivers running down Ted’s spine. He’d travelled in space, even flying cloudscoop missiles through Jupiter’s atmosphere as a young man, but he’d never been comfortable flying through the rain. He knew it was safe, yet part of him had always been scared. It was funny how he’d never had any problems in space …

He rose, then looked towards his travelling companion. “Lieutenant?”

Lieutenants Janelle Lopez looked up at him, her eyes dead and cold. Ted felt a flicker of pity, despite the certain knowledge there were people outside the shuttle who were far worse off. Janelle had blighted her career through pressing for assignment to Ark Royal, the Royal Navy’s outdated space carrier, when assignment to Ark Royal was normally reserved for officers and crew the Royal Navy couldn’t be bothered to discharge. She might not even have been promoted if Ark Royal hadn’t proved to be the only ship capable of standing up to the aliens in open battle. And yet she’d proved herself under fire …

But it isn’t her service that brings her to London now, Ted thought, as he helped her to her feet. The fire had gone out of her when she’d discovered her lover was dead – and who he’d really been. And I wouldn’t have brought her here at all, if it had been up to me.

“Come on,” he said, gently. “It’s time to face the music.”

The hatch opened, revealing puddles of water gathering around the shuttle. Ted hesitated, then let out a sigh of relief as a pair of armed soldiers appeared, one of them carrying a spare umbrella. Ted took it, then used it to cover both himself and Janelle. The soldiers looked thoroughly wet and miserable as they beckoned Ted to follow them towards the terminal buildings. He couldn’t help noticing that the spaceport was largely disused, despite the urgent need to bring supplies into the city. Two of the terminals seemed to have been converted into makeshift refugee camps.

“There’s a VIP transport for you, sir,” one of the soldiers said, once they’d checked IDs against a central database. He pointed to a large black car, waiting just outside the terminal, with an armed escort on either side. “You’ll be taken directly to Downing Street.”

Ted swallowed as he saw the soldiers. “Is it really that bad out there?”

“It’s worse,” the soldier said. His voice was dead, as if he had been pushed to the limits of his endurance and there was nothing left, but duty. “If the flood levels keep rising, we’re going to have to move millions more people out to London to higher ground. Damned if we know how we’re going to do that, sir. We had a riot in Soho yesterday that saw several thousand people dead. We had to stick the stiffs in a pile and use lasers to burn the bodies to ash.”

Ted nodded, unsurprised. There was no way that millions of dead bodies could be stored for later identification, not now. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people would never be accounted for, their fates utterly unknown. The prospect of never knowing what had happened to his family gnawed at him, yet he knew there was no choice. Thousands of decomposing bodies would spread disease at horrifying speed.

He climbed into the rear of the car, then settled down and watched as the driver started the engine and followed the soldiers out into the streets. London was awash with water, even on streets he would have thought immune to flooding. It had been years since he’d driven in London, but he was fairly sure the driver was taking the long way round. But then, if some streets were impassable he would have no choice.

“My God,” Janelle said. It was the first thing she’d said since boarding the shuttle. “Look at it!”

Ted followed her gaze. It had once been a park, he was sure, a place for young children to play while their parents watched. Now, it was a muddy refugee camp, with prefabricated buildings providing limited shelter against the rain. The refugees themselves were largely older citizens, young women or children. The young men, Ted knew, would have been drafted to help with the floods. Many of the refugees had torn clothing, nothing more than whatever they’d been wearing when the attack began.

“We’ve been having some problems feeding them all,” the driver said, as he drove past the camp and down towards Downing Street. “I believe there are plans to move them all to Scotland, but no one really knows if it will ever happen.”

Ted shuddered, remembering some of the disaster management plans he’d seen during his stint at the Admiralty, after his promotion. None of them had made encouraging reading – and, judging from the scene before him, they’d simply been swept away by the pressure of events. Some of the plans had even talked about triage, about allowing the elderly to die while lavishing what resources were left on the young men and women who would be required to rebuild the world. He couldn’t help wondering if the system was no longer capable of even separating out the younger men and women and sending them out of danger.

But there is nowhere safe these days, he thought, morbidly. The aliens could return at any moment to finish the job.

The thought was a knife in his heart. Operation Nelson had been a success, tactically speaking. Ark Royal and her multinational task force had hammered the aliens, smashing dozens of alien starships and occupying – for a few long days – an alien world. It had been a tactical masterpiece. But they had returned home to discover that Earth had been attacked, millions of humans were dead and that the war might be on the verge of being lost. A second attack on Earth might prove disastrous.

He frowned as the car turned into Downing Street, catching sight of the protestors at the far end of the road. Some of them waved banners demanding more food or supplies for the refugees, others preached genocide and demanded attacks on alien worlds. Ted understood what they were feeling; he had to admit, in the privacy of his own thoughts, that he shared the desire for revenge. But he also knew that mutual destruction would be pointless.

But how can we come to terms, he asked himself, when they don’t even talk to us?

The car came to a halt outside Ten Downing Street. Armed policemen, their faces grim and pale, checked their IDs again before allowing them to exit the car and run up the steps into the very heart of British Government. Inside, it felt curiously musty and abandoned, as if the vast army of civil servants who made the government work had been withdrawn. It was quite possible they had, Ted knew. The contingency plans had insisted on establishing a command and control centre some distance from the disaster zone, even if the Prime Minister and the Monarch remained in London, symbolically sharing the plight of their people. But it wasn’t quite the same.

“Admiral Smith,” a voice said. Ted looked up to see a man in an elegant black suit. “I’m Giles Footswitch. The Prime Minister is waiting for you.”

Ted placed the name as they passed their coats to the equerry, then followed Giles Footswitch through a solid metal door and down a long flight of stairs into the secured bunker that served as the Prime Minister’s command and control centre. Cold air struck him as they reached the bottom of the stairs and passed another pair of armed guards. Inside, the conference room was nearly empty. The Prime Minister sat at one end of the table, staring down at the latest set of reports. His face was so pale that Ted couldn’t help wondering just how long he’d been hiding out in the bunker.

“Prime Minister,” he said, carefully.

“Admiral Smith,” the Prime Minister said. He rose, then stepped slowly towards Ted. “I must apologise for the welcome or lack thereof.”

“I understand,” Ted said. The normal ceremonies when an Admiral visited Downing Street had to be put to one side, under the circumstances. “I …”

“Take a seat,” the Prime Minister interrupted. He turned, then returned to his seat. “The others will be here soon, I think.”

Ted obeyed, motioning for Janelle to take the seat next to him. The Prime Minister’s eyes rested on her for a long moment, then he looked away with a very visible shrug. Ted understood. Normally, the lover of Prince Henry would be a subject of considerable political importance, but now it hardly mattered. Millions were dead, millions more were missing … there was no time to worry about the Prince’s former girlfriend. And the Prince himself was dead.

“I wanted to thank you for your service,” the Prime Minister said, quietly. “It may have been overshadowed, but I still want to thank you.”

“Thank you, Prime Minister,” Ted said. “We did our duty.”

“Others will disagree,” the Prime Minister said. His voice betrayed no trace of emotion, beyond a deadness that was more worrying than outright hatred. “You should be ready for it. Love can turn so quickly to hate.”

Ted nodded. He’d been a complete unknown before the war. After the first battles, he’d become a household name all over Earth. His fame had been great enough for there to be no other prospective commanding officer for Operation Nelson, despite having a reputation as a drunkard. Indeed, he’d beaten alcohol’s grip on his mind. But now … there was no hiding the fact he’d been hundreds of light years from Earth when the planet was attacked. It was quite possible that the men and women who had loved him before the start of Operation Nelson now hated him for not being there.

He looked at the Prime Minister and sighed, inwardly. The man was utterly exhausted, sitting in a bunker, cut off from half of his staff and struggling to cope with a crisis that could bring Britain to her knees. That had already, in many ways, crippled the entire country. Ted was tempted to suggest that the Prime Minister took a nap, perhaps with a sedative pill, but he knew the Prime Minister wouldn’t want to do anything of the sort. He was just far too aware of his role as elected leader of the country.

“The bunker network was badly damaged by the flooding,” the Prime Minister said. It was such a total departure from the previous line of conversation that it made no sense. “We worried that the entire network would be flooded before realising that it was largely safe.”

“Yes, Prime Minister,” Ted said.

“I stay here because of the danger,” the Prime Minister added. He sounded almost as if he were pleading for understanding, or forgiveness. “No one has ever presided over such a disaster, not ever.”

Ted shared a long look with Janelle. The Prime Minister sounded as if he were losing the ability to think clearly under the pressure. It would be hard to blame him, Ted knew, but right now the country needed clear-sighted thinkers, not tired politicians. But there was no way he could say that out loud, not to the Prime Minister.

“Prime Minister, the latest figures are in,” Giles Footswitch said. “I …”

“Leave them,” the Prime Minister ordered, quietly. There was no room for dispute in his tone. “We can go over them later.”

Ted felt the silence grow until it felt truly awkward, but held his peace. The Prime Minister clearly agonised over each and every death, asking himself if there was something he could have done to prevent the slaughter. Even now, more men and women – British citizens – were dying, some though starvation, some through being caught looting. By contrast, Giles Footswitch didn’t seem to understand that each of the figures had a name and story behind it, or maybe he’d just chosen not to think about it. At some point, the numbers became so high that they were just … statistics. It was impossible to truly comprehend the sheer weight of the losses the country had suffered overnight. To try to understand was to court madness.

He looked up as the door opened, revealing the First Space Lord and a man wearing a General’s uniform. Ted didn’t recognise him. Both of the newcomers looked tired; the First Space Lord, in particular, wore an expression of numb shock. Ted couldn’t help fearing for his life, once the immediate crisis had come to an end. It was the Royal Navy that was responsible for protecting Britain from attack and it had failed.

“Gentlemen,” the Prime Minister said. “Please, be seated.”

He sounded more in control of himself now, Ted noted, as a handful of other men and women entered the bunker. The Leader of the Opposition – Deputy Prime Minister, for as long as the War Cabinet remained in session – sat facing the Prime Minister, the others took whatever chairs were available. Janelle shifted uncomfortably beside him, clearly unhappy at being at the same table as so many high-ranking politicians and military officers. But there was no time to move her out of the room.

“General Steward,” the Prime Minister said. “You may begin.”