Archive | June, 2015

More Updates

28 Jun

Being back in Malaysia is definitely odd <grin>

I had forgotten about the heat. No, I hadn’t really forgotten it, but I had gratefully forgotten just how bad it could be, even at night time. Malaysia is the land of overworked air conditioning for a reason, sadly. It’s also Ramadan, which means that getting a table at a decent restaurant after 7pm is very difficult. And, of course, the recent political developments make me a little nervous about staying here for longer than five weeks.

Eric seems to like it, although it’s hot and he’s sweated enough to need two showers a day. He’s been a big hit with this side of the family. He’s also starting to eat, though it isn’t easy. He spat out banana (both on its own and with milk) and took some time to start eating baby glop. On the other hand, I think he’s getting the idea. The first time was very messy, the second time was a mix and he was a great deal happier this time. But I think we need to start offering more kinds of food. He’s been a great deal more demanding recently as he grows bigger.


But on the plus side, he’s mastered the art of turning over and inching forward very slowly. It’s like a Weeping Angel; I watch him and he says still, but when I turn my back he jumps forward or over.

I’ve uploaded First To Fight (The Empire’s Corps XI) and I’ve just started work on Full Circle (Bookworm IV and Finale). Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic VII) is due on the 23rd of July, but may come sooner – there’s another edit and the cover to do. I also need titles for SIM 9 – how does Infinite Regress sound as a title?

I also need a theme for the next side-line Empire’s Corps. Given what’s going on at the moment, I’m leaning towards immigration.

I’ve also been working on plots. I’ve sketched out plots for A Small Colonial War (Warspite III), The Barbarian Bride (The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire), Wedding Hells (Schooled In Magic 8) and Unlucky (Angel In The Whirlwind III). I’m also making notes for The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea Their Darkest Hour II). Hopefully, the next few months should be very exciting …

Well, we’ll see.


Snippet: Bookworm IV (And Final): Full Circle

28 Jun


The Witch-King had thought that time was meaningless.

He was a lich, after all, a dead body held permanently in suspension by magic. He had waited for a thousand years for his plans to come to fruition and he could have happily waited another thousand, if necessary. What did the passage of time mean to him when there were minds to bend, living people to manipulate like pieces on a game board? Indeed, part of him would even miss the sensation of covertly steering events from his lofty vantage, ensuring that matters went the way that best pleased him.

But now … time was moving again.

Deferens – the Emperor, his tool – had taken power and was readying himself to deliver the magic that would end the Witch-King’s long rest and bring him back into the world of men. Other pieces, carefully groomed for their roles, were already playing their parts, spreading chaos across the world. There would be no organised resistance as the Empire slipped into civil war, nothing to stop the Witch-King returning to the Golden City to take power and finish the work he had begun, thousands of years ago. The hour of victory was at hand …

And yet, randomness was the enemy.

He’d always known that randomness might disrupt his plans. His ability to influence even the greatest magicians was limited, while his ability to steer the paths of mundanes was non-existent. Sheer random chance had impeded his plans before … but then, he’d always been able to pull back, secure in the knowledge that his existence, let alone his influence, remained unsuspected. Now, a handful of people did know of him; knew of him, feared him and intended to destroy him. Their prospects of success were laughable, at best, and yet the thought nagged at his mind. He’d seen too many carefully-constructed plans fall apart as randomness took hold to dismiss them entirely …

… And now, he couldn’t pull back and wait for centuries before trying again.

They could destroy me, he thought.

It wasn’t something he wanted to contemplate. He’d gone further than anyone else in his studies of magic, exploring vast vistas that most magicians refused to consider even existed – and he’d succeeded. The simple fact that he’d survived over a thousand years without going mad was proof of his success. But now there was another magician who understood the deeper layers of magic, bonded to a young man who had no idea of the true nature of his powers. The tools to destroy the Witch-King were at hand, if they knew how to use them, and they’d been spared the contamination that would have opened their minds to his influence.

He was vulnerable. He could be destroyed.

Part of him regretted what had to be done. He had never talked to a true equal since he’d hidden himself away, fearing what would happen if the newcomer learned his true nature. It would be nice, perhaps, to bandy words with them before killing them, to talk as equals across a table …

… But not at the cost of his own survival. And he’d lived too long to place his life at risk now.

He reached out with his mind, feeling the threads of magic that linked him to hundreds of magicians. Deferens, his mind permanently on the brink between sanity and madness, was his tool, even though he would never know it. The ambition that burned through him was easy to steer to a new target, feeding an obsession that had no logical cause. His forces would swoop forward and claim Ida, then hold it while the Witch-King rose from the shadows and took power. Nothing would be allowed to get in the way.

And yet, matters were so close …

Standing at the cusp of godhood – or nemesis – the Witch-King waited.

He could do nothing else.

Chapter One

The dragon didn’t like her.

Charity, former Head of House Conidian, quivered as the dragon’s massive eyes turned to follow her. It was an immense beast, easily the size of a small house, with giant bat-like wings and eyes that glowed like embers of coal. It’s teeth were sharp, covered in stains that had to be blood; it’s claws flexed, tearing great holes in the ground. It was hard, so hard, to stand close to the creature and not turn and flee. She was convinced that the only thing saving her from becoming a tasty snack was the iron will of her master, Emperor Vlad.

“Get up,” the Emperor ordered, curtly.

Charity swallowed as the oath she’d sworn to him forced her forward. It grew hotter as she approached the dragon, the warmth a reminder of the fire in its belly, but the scales on its back were surprisingly cool. Somehow, she managed to scramble up onto the dragon’s back and sit there, clinging to the scales for dear life. The Emperor snickered, then turned to his men and glowered at them.

“If a mere woman can do it,” he growled, “so can you.”

Bastard, Charity thought coldly, as snowflakes turned to steam when they touched the dragon. Cursing him in her mind was the only thing she could do to keep herself sane, after everything he’d done to her. Making her wear a harem outfit that was utterly unsuited to the cold weather was the least of it. You don’t have them under obedience charms and oaths.

She looked down at the Emperor, feeling bitter hatred and helplessness curdling in her gut. He was a tall muscular man, wearing a red shirt and kilt; a wand, a sword and a handful of daggers glinted at his belt. His long black hair hung down around his shoulders, wild and unkempt; the neatly-trimmed beard provided an odd contrast, a message Charity didn’t really understand at all. But she knew him too well to feel any attraction; he’d killed the Grand Sorceress, claimed the throne and then offered her a flat choice between serving him or immediate death. In hindsight, death would have been preferable.

The Emperor smirked as his men – the red-robed magicians, the oath-bound Inquisitors and a number of his private guards – climbed onto their dragons, then scrambled up beside Charity and sat in front of her. Charity was almost relieved, even though she would sooner have cuddled up to a man-eating yeti than the Emperor. At least she wouldn’t be riding the dragon alone.

“Up,” the Emperor commanded.

Charity braced herself, just in time. The dragon unfurled its wings, flapped them once and hurled itself into the air. Charity looked down as they rose higher, feeling an unaccustomed sense of vertigo as the Golden City shrank beneath them. The skies echoed with howls from the dragons, a sound unheard for nearly a thousand years. It had been a long time since the very last dragon was exterminated. Now, even though the Emperor was bringing them back into the world, there was no one alive who knew how to stop a dragon. They’d torn through the wards of a dozen Great Houses as though they were made of paper.

The air grew colder, rapidly, as they rose above the Seven Peaks and stared down at the remains of the Watchtower. Once, the Inquisitors had watched over the Golden City, their firm but fair judgements respected by all. Now, the Watchtower was gone – and no one knew how it had been destroyed – while the Inquisitors, oath-bound to serve the Emperor, followed Vlad and did his bidding. They couldn’t break their sworn oaths and live.

Magic crackled around them – the Emperor let out a whoop of pure glee – as the dragons flew over the mountains, heading straight for the nearest city. Knawel Haldane stood only a bare couple of hours from the Golden City – less, if one rode the Iron Dragons – and it had always been loyal to the Empire. But now, with rumours flying everywhere and hundreds of Court Wizards either dead or trapped in the Golden City, the Empire was coming apart. Kings were declaring independence, rogue magicians were carving out states of their own …

… And everyone else was caught in the middle.

Charity shuddered at the thought, helplessly. She’d never really cared about the mundanes, about those unlucky enough to be born without magic. Indeed, she hadn’t cared that much about her Powerless brother … and hadn’t that turned into a joke, now Johan had turned into a dangerously powerful and unstable magician? Who cared about the opinions of people who were helpless against even the mildest compulsion hex? But now, her enslavement – and she was a slave, no matter her official title – showed her just how the mundanes must have felt, when they looked at her powerful family. Helpless, unable to do anything to protect themselves …

Jamal enjoyed wielding his power, she thought, bitterly. It was true; her eldest brother had been a bullying sadist, picking on everyone weaker than him. But was I really that much better?

It was an uncomfortable question. She’d expected to find herself married off to an older magician, not to find herself Head of House Conidian. Jamal would inherit the title, after all; everyone else would be expected to deport themselves to support him. And so she’d spent her days going to parties, shopping and generally having fun. There had been no thought of preparing herself for any other life. But now House Conidian was in ruins, her two younger siblings hostages and she was a slave.

“Knawel Haldane,” the Emperor said. “Burn!”

Charity felt her stomach rebel as the dragon swooped down, opening its mouth to spew out a raging torrent of flame. The guardhouse below exploded into fire, the handful of guards and makeshift defences incinerated before they had a chance to do anything … as if there was anything they could do. She shuddered as the dragon pulled up, then blasted a stream of fire into a line of houses, exploding them one by one. An arrow glanced off the dragon’s scales as someone tried to fight back, only to be vaporised by a blast of fire a second later.

“A real man,” the Emperor said. His deep voice was tinged with heavy satisfaction. “But also a fool.”

Magic flickered around them, again, as a handful of wizards tried to mount a defence, shooting off hexes and curses from their tower. The Emperor snickered as five of the dragons detached themselves from the rest and threw themselves on the tower, ripping it apart with casual ease. A lone figure, standing on top of the tower and waving her arms as she tried to cast a protective ward that might stand against the dragons, fell to her death in the flames. Charity felt a stab of pity, but she knew there was no point in saying anything. The Emperor regarded female magicians as an abomination, a waste of potential when a powerful woman should have been having powerful sons. It made her wonder if he intended her to have children sooner or later, choosing her husband to suit himself. It was a terrifying thought.

The dragon rose, rising up into the air. Charity looked down; half the dragons had taken up positions outside the gates, their human riders raising wards intended to trap the population inside the city, while the remainder flocked over the city, breathing down fire on anyone foolish enough to challenge them. Several large fires were raging through the houses, although many of the wealthier parts of the city looked untouched. Their homes would be warded against flames, Charity knew. They’d be untouched unless the dragons targeted them specifically.

But the poor will be forced out of their homes, she thought. And then they will die.

“We land,” the Emperor said.

The dragon dropped down and landed before the remains of the first gatehouse. Charity gagged as she smelled the burning human flesh, then followed the Emperor as he jumped off the dragon and landed neatly on the remains of the road. His followers bowed to him; he nodded back, then turned his attention to the city. Behind them, Charity could hear the sound of his marching army advancing from the Golden City. It wouldn’t be long before Knawel Haldane was completely surrounded. Resistance would be utterly futile.

She looked up as she saw a handful of people picking their way through the gatehouse and walking towards them. The leader was a middle-aged man wearing a merchant’s outfit; here, away from the Golden City, a man didn’t have to be a magician to rule. Indeed, unless she missed her guess, the man behind the leader was a magician. He was definitely carrying a wand on his belt, although he was careful to show that he wasn’t holding it at the ready. The last three men looked like bureaucrats, probably tax collectors. They never visited House Conidian, of course, but anyone without the power to stand up to them, would find himself plucked like a chicken.

“Well,” the Emperor said. He took a step forward, his red cloak spilling out behind him as he struck a dramatic pose. “Kneel.”

The representatives hesitated, then dropped to their knees. Charity felt another pang of pity, mixed with helpless outrage; they weren’t under any spells and yet they were kneeling in front of the Emperor! But the dragons were a convincing argument in the Emperor’s favour and the representatives had already watched them tear through the city’s puny defences as though they were made of paper. They had to know there was no point in further resistance, not when the city was surrounded. The Empire could burn their city to ash whenever he chose.

“So,” the Emperor said, coldly. “Who comes to speak with me?”

“I am Goodman Chaney,” the leader said. Merchant or not, he couldn’t keep the unease out of his voice. “I speak for the City Fathers.”

“Good,” the Emperor said. “I want your complete and total surrender.”

Chaney blinked. “But sire …”

“You are at my mercy,” the Emperor said. She couldn’t see his face, but Charity was sure he was leering. The Emperor enjoyed watching people squirm. “I have orders for you. If they are not carried out, your city will be burned to the ground and any survivors sold into the most unpleasant slavery.”

He allowed a moment for his words to sink in, then leaned forward. “Every young man between fifteen and twenty is to report to my camp, where they will be conscripted into my army,” he said. “Every magician in the city, from the lowliest hedge witch to the highest sorcerer, is to report to my magicians for induction. Any magical artefacts within the city are to be handed over, regardless of who owns them. Knawel Haldane itself is to provide everything my army might require, including food, military supplies and billets. Your families, in particular, will be handed over to us so we have hostages for your good behaviour.”

Charity winced, inwardly. The Emperor wasn’t doing anything to soften the demands, not even offering Chaney a chance to rise in the new order in exchange for doing what he was told. But then, the Emperor probably held a mere merchant in contempt. He was no magician, no warrior … nothing the Emperor might find admirable, even if he could be useful. And Chaney had no cards to play unless he was willing to countenance the destruction of the entire city.

“It will be done, Your Supremacy,” Chaney said, bowing his head.

“Good,” the Emperor said. “Send a messenger to your families. I expect your wives and children – and those of the other City Fathers – to be here within half an hour. Should they not be here …”

He patted the dragon, affectionately. The dragon’s mouth lolled open, revealing his teeth and inhumanly long tongue. Chaney paled still further, then turned and hurried off, followed by the rest of the representatives.

“You could have given them more time,” Charity said, before she could stop herself.

“They would have had time to plan an escape,” the Emperor said. He looked past her to General Vetch. “General. Organise the troops to occupy the city, once the hostages arrive; billet them on prosperous houses. The dragons will provide support, if necessary.”

Charity followed the Emperor like a stray dog as he moved from group to group, issuing orders, patting the dragons and generally keeping himself on top of what was going on. No one looked at her, not overtly, but she could feel their gazes following her, their eyes mocking her silently. They knew who she’d been, before she’d bent the knee to the Emperor; now, she was little more than a whore and they rejoiced in her fall. No doubt they came up with all sorts of stories about what the Emperor made her do, although he’d never touched her. But how could she blame them? She’d been so far above them that they could only watch her with envy, before the fall.

“The hostages have arrived, Your Supremacy,” General Vetch reported.

“Excellent,” the Emperor said. He strode over to where the hostages were waiting, eying the dragons nervously. Charity followed him, feeling her heart sink. She had a nasty feeling the Emperor had something horrible in mind for the hostages. The little cluster of wives and children standing next to their husbands and fathers almost broke her heart. “Order them to be outfitted with slave collars. We might as well make some use of them.”

Chaney stared in horror. “Your Supremacy …”

The Emperor smiled at him. “Are you defying me?”

He waved a hand dismissively. One of the dragons moved forward with astonishing speed and opened its mouth. Chaney had no time to scream before the dragon swallowed him in a single gulp. A woman fainted – his wife, Charity assumed – while her children started to scream in horror. The Emperor showed nothing, but cold amusement as he surveyed the remaining City Fathers. They looked as if they were torn between mounting a suicidal resistance and complete submission.

“Have them fitted with collars,” the Emperor ordered. He nodded at the woman lying on the ground. “And have her thrown to the men. She’s useless.”

The City Fathers offered no further resistance, even when the slave collars were fitted and the hostages were marched off to an unknown fate. Charity hoped they’d be treated reasonably well – there was something to be gained from treating them as guests – but she knew the experience would be horrific. A compulsion charm could be fought, even broken, by a person of strong will and determination; a slave collar was almost impossible to resist. And if their husbands and fathers chose to resist later, they could simply be ordered to cut their own throats.

“Have the magical artefacts brought to my tent,” the Emperor ordered, curtly. “My aide” – he nodded at Charity – “will inspect them.”

Charity was almost relieved. Poking magical artefacts ran the risk of being hexed or killed, if the owner had placed security charms on it, but at least she’d be away from the Emperor for a few hours. She didn’t trust his temper – or his sense of humour – and she knew, all too well, just how cruel he could be. He was worse than Jamal … who, at least, had never had her helplessly at his beck and call …

But he had the maids at his command, she thought, as she made her way towards the royal tent. The soldiers were putting together a large camp outside the city, although a number of the men would be billeted inside the town. She hoped the civilians would keep their heads down and stay out of trouble. What did he do to them?

She sat down, inside the tent, and waited for the first box of artefacts to arrive. They all looked common, something that didn’t really surprise her. Anything really old or powerful would be hidden, rather than tamely surrendered. She picked her way through a case of old wands, then checked a handful of basic spellbooks. None of them were more complex than anything she’d seen during her first year of schooling, although one of them had a number of scrawled annotations that made her smile. Clearly, whoever had owned the book had been something of a genius. But, if he or she had joined in the battle, probably also dead.

And they might be the lucky ones, she thought. She knew what the Emperor had in mind for the magicians of Knawel Haldane, those who weren’t strong enough to be helpful. They’d be sacrificed, their power fed into storage crystals and used to summon more monsters from the other realms. They won’t have to see what the Emperor does to the rest of the world.

She pushed the thought aside bitterly – she was helpless and enslaved – and turned her attention to the next box. An old Hand of Glory, burned and useless; a Ring of Power, the gem cracked and broken; a Soul Drainer … she shuddered, remembering how her father had insisted on using one on Johan, hoping to spark his magic; a knife that felt oddly familiar …

It was familiar! The Conidian Crest was emblazed on the hilt, while magic – family magic – crackled around the blade. She remembered watching, years ago, as her father had presented it to Jamal, on the day he’d turned sixteen. The blade was charmed; it would be lethal, instantly lethal, to anyone it cut, unless they were a close relation. Charity could hold it safely, she knew, and even cut herself … but anyone else?

And if it’s here, she asked herself slowly, how in all the hells did it get here?

Jamal had carried the blade everywhere, she knew. She was sure it would still work for him, even after he’d lost his magic. The blade was linked to the family’s bloodline, not his magical signature. And that meant … her older brother was somewhere in the city, alive and well. She hesitated, unsure if she wanted to ask the Emperor for permission to look for him, then rose to her feet. Perhaps he’d give her permission to find him …

… And if he did, at least she wouldn’t be alone any longer.

Up NOW – The Empire’s Corps XI – FIRST TO FIGHT!

26 Jun

(Please share this post <grin>)

Edward Stalker’s origin story …

Before Avalon, before the Fall of the Empire, Edward Stalker was a young man growing up in Earth’s Undercity – a nightmarish rabbit warren of tiny apartments dominated by gangs who loot, rape and murder with impunity. When his family is killed in a gang attack, Ed takes the opportunity to run to the one place that will take him; the Terran Marine Corps.

But becoming a Marine isn’t easy and Ed will find himself pushed to the limits, surviving a training program designed to weed out everyone but the best, before he learns what it means to be a Terran Marine …

[As always, my books are DRM-free.  Read a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase the book from Amazon HERE.  And read the Afterword HERE!]

Updates (again)

26 Jun

Hi, everyone

First To Fight is currently working its way through Kindle, but it’s going very slowly. There was a hiccup with the file for some reason, so it may need to be replaced at once. (If you see it online and purchase it, please let me know if there are any problems.)

first to fight cover

Other than that … I plan to start writing Bookworm IV (And Final) on Sunday, all being equal. This will be followed by A Small Colonial War (Warspite III) and The Barbarian Bride (The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire III). I think I’ll follow with The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea (Their Darkest Hour II).

I’m still looking for someone to set up and maintain a web forum for me and a handful of other kindle authors. If you’re interested in the job, please let me know.

I’m also starting the long process of getting some of my stand-alone books onto CreateSpace, so they’re also available in paperback. Do you have any preferences for which one you want to see first?

In other news, we’re in Malaysia (hot, muggy, can’t wait for the rain) and Eric is starting to eat, which is a very messy process. He spat out banana and watermelon before we had some success with baby biscuits and very light baby food.



Book Review: Victoria: A Novel of Fourth Generation Warfare

17 Jun

-Thomas Hobbes

If you like politically correct books, run away!

It is immensely difficult to review this book.

There are bits of it I liked immensely and approved uncritically. But there are also bits I disliked strongly and sections I thought made little or no sense. The main character – the book is written in a memoir style, not unlike The Last Centurion – is a strange mixture of positive and negative trends. He is smart and crafty, thinking up new angles of attack very rapidly when necessary, yet he quite definitely crosses the line into bare-faced hypocrisy more than once. The only thing that redeems him from a charge of being worse than those he fights is a self-awareness that should be recognised, if not admired.

The book is set in the very near American future. The main character, John Rumford, is a marine who is pushed into retirement after taking a stand against the introduction of women into the marine corps. This whole scene grates; I can see his point, but at the same time he is very clearly guilty of at least one offense against military order – and, frankly, his treatment of a fellow marine is appalling. There is nothing to say if she is actually capable of pulling her weight or not, as the narrator doesn’t tell us anything about her. (Later, the narrator takes care to justify his sharp treatment of another, far more idiotic, woman; maybe, just maybe, a piece of fridge brilliance.)

I should probably note, for the record, that this is the precursor to a nasty streak of sexism running through the book that tends to suggest women are better off in the home, instead of the battlefield. Rumford clearly believes that women should not be in the military (or the church) – which is arguable – but that they should also be looked after by men. I don’t think there was a suggestion anywhere in the book that women should be armed, even though a woman with a gun is a proven deterrence against rape. Nor does the book recognise the problems that gave birth to early feminism, problems that will probably reappear within a generation in Victoria.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After he leaves the corps (and discovers that bureaucratic regulations make it impossible to make a living farming), Rumford is drawn into the efforts of a group of people harnessing the power of the people to oppose the ‘Cultural Marxists,’ which might also be known as Social Justice Warriors/Bullies. This is easily the best part of the book, with the main character organising local groups that fight back (non-violently) against the drug dealers and suchlike infesting their neighbourhoods. Rumford goes into considerable detail about how the government, which is supposed to help the poor, actually makes life worse for them – a problem caused, in part, by ‘big picture’ people who put the rights of criminals ahead of the rights of ordinary people. There are many ideas here that can and should be used to take back the streets and revitalise helpless communities, as well as reawakening public participation in democracy.

The downside of this is that the book draws a sharp line between the ‘good’ characters and the ‘bad’ characters. (It is notable that most, if not all, of the ‘bad’ characters are quite incompetent.) One incident explores a protest movement against the insertion of gay councillors into a school. The politician whose idea it was is depicted as the blackmail victim of one of the most radical homosexual rights activists. There is no suggestion that this idea might be born from genuine concern, if ill-expressed. If you view the world in black and white, you will probably applaud the situation; if you view the world in shades of grey, you may find it makes you uncomfortable.

Rightly or wrongly, though, this does touch on one of the most dangerous problems facing the west – the curse of political correctness. A sensible refusal to cause offense has mutated into a flat refusal to hold an open discussion about race, sexuality, abortion and any of the other issues … even though such issues are quite obvious to all with eyes to see. To brand one’s enemies as racist/sexist/etc does not help, it merely makes discussion impossible. If nothing else, this realisation is one that should be borne in mind at all times. Just because someone has a different point of view doesn’t make them an unredeemable scumbag.

Of course not. That’s the kind of thinking that led to the gulags.

The second part of the book covers events in the former United States as the federal government finally overreaches itself and collapses into chaos. Rumford finds himself serving as a military commander in one of the free states (the Northern Confederation, later renamed Victoria), tackling a number of different foes and tactical problems arising from the wreckage of the USA. Some of them are more reasonable than others; on one hand, I have no problems seeing radical regimes rising out of the ashes, but it’s hard to understand how such regimes survive for very long. The international involvement also doesn’t make sense; loaning a navy is, by any reasonable definition, an act of war, while very few current world powers will survive a collapse of the US unscathed. China will probably have a civil war instead of becoming top dog in Asia.

It’s probably better to look at these as a succession of tactical outlines, rather than actual novels. Even so, there are still issues. One of the most striking is the author’s contemptuous attitude to women in both government and the military. A radical feminist faction that actually manages to take and hold power cannot be casually dismissed, no matter how demented it is. The author points out, correctly, just how many flaws there are in the defences they use … but the underlying tactical doctrine, the use of technology instead of boots on the ground, is a male invention. Furthermore, the final solution to that whole issue is absurd. I would not care to be the military officer in training who dared propose it to his superiors!

The third and final part of the book covers the large-scale adoption of ‘retro-culture;’ a regression, of sorts, to the technology used during the Victorian Era. There is something to be said, as the author notes, for living in an idealised community, such as the Shire (from The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings, which the author mentions by name). On the other hand, I simply know too much about the past to consider it a smart move. The Victorian Era was very good for the people on top, but rather less good for everyone else. Little House on the Prairie sounds good; Pioneer Girl makes it clear just how hard life actually was for the settlers. There’s also the additional problem that the Shire was practically defenceless (and perhaps the last major settlement of Hobbits in existence) and did get occupied during the War of the Ring. Victoria is not defenceless, but how long will that last?

(Alternate The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings: Smaug discovers where Bilbo actually comes from and flies off to lay waste to the Shire, instead of Laketown.)

Victoria does avoid the trap of a top-down adoption of retro-culture (unlike almost all the other radical groups in the novel) but it walks headlong into another trap. I don’t see that much difference between dictates from on high and communal pressure to conform. The spread of Radical Islam follows a similar path; it starts with encouraging people to conform and ends with forced compliance. There is an indefinable air of smugness around the book’s founding father character, who on one hand refuses to approve a law to force the imposition of retro-culture while planning a social crusade to force its imposition.

I am a child of the digital age. I know that technology brings problems – hell, every new development brings problems. (The Victorians complained about steam ships, of all things.) Yes, there will be problems with advanced technology being used to build weapons (the author specifically discusses genetically-modified diseases) but advanced technology can also be used to cope with the problems. Many of the moral headaches caused by technology owe their source to older problems, not technology. The failure to provide consistent morale leadership is far more damaging than internet porn.

But it is the failure to understand such leadership that undermines all attempts to renew it, including the solutions depicted in this book. Morale leadership requires adherence to two basic rules; ‘let he who is without sin’ and ‘don’t be a dick.’ Compromising those rules destroys morale leadership; the Catholic Church, for example, completely ignored the first rule when trying to come to terms with abusive priests. Politicians who seek to hammer minority groups (everyone from homosexuals to smokers) for political advantage merely act like dicks, further undermining morale authority. The reason gay marriage is the gift that just keeps on giving, as far as liberals are concerned, is that it is, at base, an issue of freedom. To draw morale lines requires the ability to look beyond the next election and justify, for the ages, the reasons for those lines.

Freedom is important – and yes, sometimes, that includes free-dumb. Adults should be allowed to make their own personal choices – and to deal with the consequences.

The author has several of his female characters declare that they are content to be homemakers, content to leave outside affairs to the men. (And yet, the women are one of the largest forces behind one of the wars of the post-USA era.) They may be happy there – but not all of them will be. To insist that women remain within a very limited sphere, based on their gender, is a direct assault on freedom. It is sickening when Saudi Arabia does it in real life and yes, it is sickening in the book. If someone chooses it of her own free will, that’s fine, but someone else shouldn’t have to pay a social penalty for merely choosing to seek her own path (as long, of course, as non-consenting people are not harmed.)

There is a lot to like in this book. Non-violent grassroots activism may well hold the key to renewing the West. Taking back local government is vital if freedom is to survive. But there are attitudes in this book that grate … and, at the same time, pose a threat to freedom just as dangerous (if less insidious) as those of the Social Justice Warriors.

One of them is worth giving special mention, because it touches on a very important present-day issue: the slow conversion of universities and colleges into indoctrination centres for the young. They preach the evils of western civilisation, while ignoring the far greater evils of all other civilisations. Midway through the book, the main characters – having allowed a bunch of academics to set up yet another indoctrination centre – carry out a massacre, killing them all. Part of me would like to applaud this, but the rest of me is horrified. Ideas are not killed by creating martyrs, but by dismantling them piece by piece. Deprive the SJWs of their tricks and let them compete on equal terms. They will not win.

Nor is there any solid reason why the new college even exists. A major problem in the US today is the need for a college diploma to get anywhere, even though many courses are padded and have little to do with the sought-for job. (See this blog post for details). Why would this happen in Victoria, where the ability to actually do a job is more important than a piece of paper? Why would students go there if they can go straight into a job? And tackling this problem in real life would be simple, given the right amount of political will. Grassroots activists can push for college courses being slimmed down to the bare essentials, or discarded altogether.

This book will make you think. And that, perhaps, is the most important thing of all.

Free Dumb

13 Jun

Over the past couple of weeks or thereabouts, the most important issue in the world – judging by the number of Facebook posts – is Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner. The fact there’s a war on (and earthquakes in Sabah, and financial stalemate in Greece) seems to have been forgotten. There have been times when I have had to skim through dozens of posts (and Facebook ads) just to find anything else.

These posts tend to follow one of three specific lines:

One – Caitlyn Jenner is a REAL WOMAN and anyone who says differently is to be hounded to the depths of internet hell.

Two – Bruce Jenner is NOT A WOMAN and anyone who says differently is deluded/stupid/politically correct/etc.

Three – Bruce Jenner is a mentally disturbed individual who has been exploited by various people pushing a transgender agenda.

None of these, I feel address the important point.

There are certain milestones in a person’s life which mark the slow transition from childhood to adulthood. The age of sexual consent in Britain is 16. The full legal drinking age in Britain is 18. The voting age – which we may as well define as the full slip into adulthood – is also 18.

Bruce Jenner was born in 1949, which makes him 66 years old. I have no idea if it is permissible, within the law, to perform transgender operations on a child, but he’s 50 years over the age of consent in Britain. He is no child. There’s no reason to believe he’s not in full command of his facilities. He’s a grown adult, perfectly capable of making his own decisions …

… And taking the consequences.

That’s what freedom means. Your life is your own; you have the right to do as you please with it and no one has the right to interfere, as long as you aren’t hurting non-consenting people. Maybe everyone else thinks your choices are stupid, but that’s their problem. All that matters is that you take responsibility for your decisions.

Go get drunk, if you like, and no one has any right to object. Get behind a wheel while smashed out of your skull and no one will complain when the police haul you off to jail, because a drunk driver is a public menace. What’s the difference? A drunk in his house harms no one, but himself; a drunk behind the wheel can get someone killed or crippled for life. As far as I can tell, Bruce Jenner poses no threat to anyone but himself.

Maybe it won’t be good for him, in the long run. I have read dozens of articles suggesting that transgendered people are more at risk of suicide than any other group. Or maybe it will make him happy. It is his right to make the choice to become transgender and, as it isn’t hurting anyone else, I don’t see it as a problem. His happiness or not is in his own hands.

Freedom doesn’t mean being allowed to complain about your neighbour, as long as your neighbour isn’t doing something harmful to you. It doesn’t matter if you think your neighbour’s latest idea is stupid; you don’t get to interfere as long as it doesn’t threaten innocent bystanders.

Or, if you do think you’re his keeper, don’t be too surprised when he thinks he’s yours.

Sure, people make dumb decisions. But they’re their decisions to make.

There’s a point that should be added to this. Some people will seek validation and approval from others – and demand it, when it isn’t offered freely. It isn’t part of freedom to demand anything from other people, particularly something they are not obliged to give. If you want someone’s opinion, you have no grounds to complain if you don’t like that opinion. There is certainly nothing to be gained from demanding that everyone worships your choice – or accepts that it is a reasonable thing to do.

People have different opinions. As long as they’re not trying to stop you, it isn’t a problem and you shouldn’t try to shut them down. They, too, are entitled to freedom.

Quick Updates and Notes

13 Jun

Hi, everyone

As I may have mentioned, my wife and I (and Eric, now 5.5 months old) are going to Malaysia for five weeks; I’ll be writing there, of course, but there will be some delays. Eric is learning to crawl very slowly and, at this rate, will be walking first. (He likes standing up, while one of us supports him.) It won’t be long before he starts eating mushy food.


I’ve started to compile a list of people offering services to kindle writers, which you can find here. (It isn’t complete; a couple of people who did stuff for me didn’t reply when I asked for permission to include them, but I’ll add them if they get back to me.) It’s basically a list of people I can vouch for, mainly cover artists and editors.

First To Fight is at 22 chapters; I hope to have it out by the end of the month, if not sooner.

Trial By Fire has had the first set of edits and is currently waiting on a cover. Current ETA is mid-July, but it may be earlier.

Bookworm IV: Full Circle will be the next project, barring the muse having other ideas.


The Economics of Indie Publishing

6 Jun

Might interest a few people <grin>

Find it here, but if you have questions please ask them on this blog.


Snippet: First To Fight (The Empire’s Corps XI)

3 Jun

Hi, everyone

First To Fight is Book 11 (yes, 11) of The Empire’s Corps, but as a sideline novel (and one written in a different format, to boot) it should be readable without any prior knowledge of the universe. FTF is really Captain Stalker’s origin story; his early life, his training in the TMC and his first deployments.

As always, comments, suggestions, continuity mistakes and suchlike are warmly welcomed.



The Empire did not believe in heroes.

This may seem odd to us, but the Grand Senate was very keen to promote the idea that no one – absolutely no one – stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The idea that someone might be deserving of extra praise was alien to it, an attitude that makes no sense unless you realise that a popular hero might serve as a rallying point for resistance to the Grand Senate and the government. Indeed, when someone did become a hero, their positions were quietly undermined; their reputations were called into question, their failures were promoted while their successes were quietly ignored and – if they failed to get the hint – they were often reassigned to somewhere nicely isolated.

The careers of Admiral Stockholm and Admiral Valentine serve, alas, as examples of the vicious jealousy shown by the Grand Senate towards anyone who dared to win unsanctioned admiration. Admiral Stockholm, who saved an entire sector from an insurgency that threatened to drag it out of the Empire’s clutches, was punished for daring to succeed where others failed. Tame reporters were encouraged to ask questions about the disposition of the loot – with the obvious implication the Admiral had been looting himself – while his failure to achieve an impossible degree of perfection was held against him. By the time he resigned from the service, he was a broken man, worn down by fighting against a foe he could neither understand nor defeat.

Admiral Valentine, by contrast, knew very well which side his bread was buttered on. He served the Grand Senate loyally and, despite a lacklustre performance on Han, found himself assigned to Earth just prior to the Empire’s collapse. Valentine was no hero; he may have been promoted as a military genius, but he commanded no loyalty from anyone outside his own family. He posed no threat to the Grand Senate, while Admiral Stockholm, given the right opportunity, could easily have become a rogue warlord, followed by his loyal officers.

Heroes, the Empire claimed, simply did not exist. The stars of stage and screen were not heroes; they were either promoted as figureheads for their staffs or portrayed as fools, cowards or criminals. Heroes from the past were deconstructed until their warts came to overshadow their successes. Captain Ian Macpherson, a noted naval hero during the Unification Wars, fought in seventy-one battles and won sixty-nine of them, a record unmatched before or since. However, most portrayals of Macpherson in the Empire focus on his relationship with his wife, including a strong allegation that he cheated on her. The simple fact that theirs was an arranged marriage, that they both had extra-marital partners, that they knew and understood what they were doing is simply ignored. Macpherson, dead and gone, is branded a villain in the eyes of the Empire’s public.

It is easy, of course, to see why the Grand Senate was so distrusting of heroes. The Grand Senators lacked charisma, let alone the common touch that would allow them to win the love and admiration of the people they ruled. They were so detached from their subjects that they might as well have lived in another universe. A hero, on the other hand, who commanded respect and loyalty from his followers, was a deadly threat. Might Admiral Stockholm have taken his fleet to Earth and overthrown the Grand Senate? The Grand Senate did not command the loyalty it needed to secure its position – how could it? All it could do was systematically undermine anyone who might have posed a threat.

Like so much else, it was a policy that proved disastrous. As the Empire neared the point of final collapse, military officers in high places were paralysed by the fear of showing any independent volition of their own, or so resentful of the lack of appreciation that they were scheming to take advantage of the fall to establish their own empires. The emotional ties between the Empire and its military officers were broken, allowing room for strong-minded officers to forge ties of their own. In many ways, the post-Empire universe was a return to the age of heroes – and villains. A strong man in the right place, at the right time, could make the difference between the survival of civilisation or a collapse into barbarism.

Colonel Edward Stalker is one such hero.

I first met the Colonel when I was exiled from Earth, bare months before the Fall. He was and remains an impressive man, a Captain of Marines exiled himself (along with his marines) for daring to tell the Grand Senate the truth. In short order, Captain Stalker not only reasserted control over Avalon, but forged a lasting peace that laid the groundwork for the Commonwealth. Avalon may have been abandoned by the Empire – the message warning us that we were being left to our own devices arrived long after Earth itself had fallen – but Captain (now Colonel) Stalker never gave up. He led the growing power of Avalon against interstellar pirates, the military dictatorship of Admiral Singh and the threatening empire of Wolfbane. His life was not free of warts – no one is free of warts – but they never overshadow his success.

It took me years to convince Colonel Stalker to write his autobiography. He was not enthusiastic about the project, if only because he didn’t see himself as a hero or anything other than a marine trying to do his duty. I pushed as hard as I dared, reminding him that his story was an inspiration to the children of Avalon, to the men and women who lived in safety because of him and his marines. Even so, it was not until recently that I was able to convince him to put hand to keyboard and start outlining his early life and career.

I have changed none of the essence of this document, beyond inserting a handful of quotes and notes about the final days of the Empire. There are aspects, for various reasons, he chose to gloss over. As many of these aspects are covered in other works, I have not pressed the issue.

This, then, is the story of the forging of a Terran Marine – and a hero, even if he doesn’t want the title. And it is that, I think, that makes him a true hero.

– Professor Leo Caesius, Avalon University, 46PE.

Chapter One

Marines are not born, I was told, but made. They were put through hell in Boot Camp, then a different kind of hell at the Slaughterhouse. Many fall by the wayside, but those who survive become part of a truly unique brotherhood.

-Professor Leo Caesius

When we rolled into the unnamed town – which we rapidly started calling Shithole, because no two factions could agree on a name – we were greeted in the manner we had come to expect. The women and children were hurried off the streets, while the young men glared at us, some of them waving weapons openly, daring us to emulate our predecessors in Shithole and try to confiscate them. Some of them spat, others made rude signs and a couple picked up rocks, as if they intended to hurl them at the AFVs. The machine gun whirred as it turned to point at the men, who stood their ground. I fingered my rifle and watched, feeling sweat running down my spine. It wasn’t my first deployment, but it promised to be the most challenging.

“As you were,” Sergeant Harris ordered. “They’re not a threat.”

I had my doubts. The waves of hatred and rage emitting from the men were practically a tangible force. They didn’t want us anywhere near them, let alone trying to stop them from exterminating their rivals. Shithole had ten separate factions vying for control over the city and all of them, given half a chance, would happily rape, pillage and burn their way through the others. As far as I could tell, none of them were remotely decent people … but then, war does tend to erode human decency. There’s no point in telling people they should behave when war teaches us that nice guys finish last.

Five years of increasingly brutal civil war hadn’t done anything for Shithole, which might have been a decent city once upon a time. The streets were cracked and broken, lined with piles of garbage that no one had bothered to clear up. I could have sworn I saw a handful of dead bodies lying amidst the pile, the remnants of a family that had been unlucky enough to live in a war zone. There was no way to know, now, whose side they’d been on, if they’d had a side in the first place. They might have been innocent victims or they might have been killed in revenge for an atrocity they’d committed. It didn’t matter now, I thought, as I saw rats running away from the pile. Now, they were nothing more than dead bodies.

The buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, their doors and windows heavily barricaded to provide a limited amount of protection for their inhabitants. A number of houses had clearly been knocked down, either deliberately to provide building material or blown up by their enemies. The taller buildings, skyscrapers that would have been impressive if I hadn’t been born in the CityBlocks of Earth, looked deserted. One of them looked as though it had copped an HVM and, by some miracle, stayed upright. I wouldn’t have cared to live there, if I’d had a choice. It looked as though a strong wind would send it crashing into a pile of rubble.

And we might knock it down ourselves, I thought, as the small convoy turned towards the Forward Operating Base. A tall building could hide enemy snipers.

I gritted my teeth as a dull explosion rolled over the city, followed by several gunshots. The Imperial Army detachment charged with securing the city hadn’t done a very good job, according to the briefings; they’d rapidly managed to alienate all of the factions, even the ones that might have been happy to work with an outside force. I blamed it on the Rules of Engagement myself, rules written by people countless light years from Shithole. The soldiers had been ordered to show nothing, but strict neutrality … and to disarm the factions, as if removing weapons would somehow weaken the hatred pulsing through the city. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the soldiers, that no one dared risk being disarmed. The soldiers had promptly made themselves the enemies of everyone.

The Forward Operating Base looked utterly unwelcoming, even though it was – reasonably – safe. It was nothing more than a school that had been taken over by the soldiers, then turned into an armed camp. Strong prefabricated walls, topped with jagged glass and studded with murder holes, surrounded a large building, while a number of soldiers, radars and point-defence weapons were mounted on the roof. If the briefing hadn’t already told me that the enemy had mortars and were willing to use them, I would have guessed from the presence of the point defence. But the soldiers had only made matters worse, thanks to the ROE, by not shooting back at the mortar teams. The planners who’d drawn up the ROE had worried that innocent civilians might be hurt.

I snorted, then disembarked with the rest of the platoon as soon as the convoy rolled through the gate. The soldiers looked tired and thoroughly demoralised, which really shouldn’t have been a surprise. They knew they were being targeted, they knew they were vulnerable … and they knew that doing something to tighten up the defences would only get them in trouble with their superiors. Holding a city is hard enough at the best of times, but deliberately not taking basic precautions for political weapons only makes it impossible. The soldiers controlled only the territory under their guns and, sometimes, not even that. I was surprised the FOB had lasted as long as it had without someone smuggling a vehicle-borne IED through the gates and blowing it to hell.

“Get some rest,” the Sergeant ordered, pointing towards one of the former classrooms. It looked better than the classrooms I’d seen on Earth, even though the tables and chairs were gone and the floor was covered with sleeping mats. “We’re going out on patrol tomorrow.”

The enemy, it seemed, recovered very quickly from the shock of our arrival and started to organise a proper welcome. I snapped awake hours later to the sound of mortar shells screaming towards the FOB, only to be picked off in mid-flight by the point defence. It might have seemed a pointless exercise, but the enemy knew that it wasn’t impossible to overload the tracking radars and land a shell in the middle of the compound. The building itself had been strengthened, yet a lucky shot might kill a couple of us and convince our superiors to leave the factions to their mutual slaughter. And besides, it kept us awake. I might have grown used to only a few hours of sleep in Boot Camp, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed. Tired marines made mistakes.

“Fuck it,” Joker muttered. “This isn’t funny, you know.”

I shrugged. We’d trained for war endlessly, practicing in simulators and training grounds, but this was different. This time, real people could get hurt.

“Wake up, ladies,” Sergeant Harris bellowed, crashing through the door. The rest of the platoon either sat up or jerked awake, depending on how well they’d managed to sleep through the welcoming barrage. “Stuff some crap down your throat, then grab your kit.”

I nodded – salutes were forbidden in combat zones, with harsh punishment for anyone who dared – and reached for the MREs in my pack. The rations tasted better than anything I’d eaten in the Undercity, but I’d been told that complaining about them was an old marine tradition. I honestly hadn’t understood why until I’d gone on leave for the first time. Joker crouched next to me and offered to swap one of his ration bars for one of mine. We made the trade, chewed rapidly, answered the call of nature and finally lined up in front of the sergeant, who eyed us all disapprovingly.

“1st Platoon is on QRF,” he said, crossly. “2nd Platoon will take the first patrol, accompanying the old timers.”

I felt a chill run down my spine. I was in 2nd Platoon.

The old hands met us as we assembled near the gates. There were four of them; Young, Benedict, Hobbes and Green. They looked less spruce than us, unsurprisingly; they’d been assigned to work with the army deployment here, instead of remaining with their regular companies. They had been intended to train the local soldiers, but apparently all attempts to set up a local militia to support the outsiders had floundered on political correctness and local realities, leaving them with little to do.

“Expect the wankers to test your determination as soon as you can,” Young said. Wankers was an old term for enemy combatants, particularly those who didn’t play by the rules. (As if there was any other kind, these days.) “Remember your training, watch your backs and don’t let any of them come close to you. If you have to take prisoners, force them to strip. Better to walk someone through the streets naked than let them bring a bomb to you.”

“Shit,” Joker said.

The sickening feeling in my chest only got worse as we checked our weapons and body armour one final time, then advanced through the gates and out into bandit country. My hands felt sweaty as we slipped down the street, careful to give any piles of rubbish a wide berth. The enemy knew they couldn’t face us – or even the soldiers – in open combat, so they resorted to all sorts of tricks to even the odds. Hiding an IED under a pile of debris and then detonating it when we passed was an old trick. I saw a couple of faces peeping at us from behind a curtain – were they reporting our progress to their superiors? – which vanished the moment I glanced at them. They had looked like kids, but that meant nothing. A kid could easily serve as a spy, his handlers banking on the fact we would be reluctant to shoot at them.

And if we did shoot a kid, I thought grimly, we would only create a new rallying cry for the enemy.

We turned the corner and strode towards a marketplace. I would have preferred to be somewhere – anywhere – else, but doctrine said it was important to convince the locals that we could go anywhere, at will, and there was nothing they could do to stop us. The locals scattered in front of us, the women hurrying out of sight while the menfolk looked ready to fight, if necessary. I didn’t really blame them. They’d endured the attentions of a regiment more known for abusing the locals than fighting the enemy in the past, according to the briefing, and it would be a long time before any of them really trusted us. Stallkeepers eyed us warily as we passed, clearly expecting us to take what we wanted, but we had been warned not to take anything. If we wanted something, we’d been told, we had to pay for it.

The marketplace was a testament to human determination to survive, somehow. Everything was on sale, from meat (probably rat, but there was no way to know) to weapons and supplies smuggled in from outside the city. In a way, it was the only truly neutral ground in the city; I was mildly surprised the soldiers hadn’t set up their base just inside the market. But then, there were weapons on display. We made a show of ignoring them as we reached the end of the market and headed down the next street. It looked cleaner than the others, which surprised me. In hindsight, it should also have worried me.

One of the wankers panicked and opened fire, a second before we walked right into the ambush. We snapped up our rifles and returned fire, putting several rounds through the windows to keep the snipers from continuing their attack, then ducked for cover and advanced, in fire teams, towards the house. It wasn’t a big building, I noted absently as Joker prepared a charge to break down the door, but that wasn’t reassuring. Our advantages were most pronounced in open battle, not close-quarter knife-fights. The enemy had worked hard to create a situation that maximised their advantages and minimised ours. Joker snapped the charge against the door, shouted a warning, then detonated the device. The doorway exploded inwards; I unhooked a grenade from my belt and threw it inside in one smooth motion, then followed up as soon as it detonated. Several wankers who had been lying in wait had been caught in the blast; I glanced at their bodies, then led the way through the house. Four other wankers made the mistake of running downstairs and straight into our waiting guns. We shot them down and advanced upstairs, checking the upper rooms one by one. The sniper who’d started the ambush was dead. There was no way to tell which of us had shot him.

The brief encounter expanded as the QRF arrived, then started setting up barricades to trap the insurgents. Determined to show that we would not be pushed around, we searched through a dozen houses, killing nine insurgents and capturing three more. I knew they’d go into our detention camps, rather than those run by the army or the local government, such as it was. Hopefully, we’d actually get some valuable intelligence out of them. Oddly, I no longer felt nervous. I was doing the job I’d trained to do.

It was nearly an hour before we heard the whimper.

The area was firmly under control, or so we believed. The prisoners had been dumped into an armoured van, the locals were being kept out and we were merely making a final sweep for anything we might have missed. We didn’t – quite – relax, but we weren’t expecting further trouble. The wankers hadn’t expected such a vigorous response and, I thought, they were reconsidering their tactics. We were walking past an alleyway when I heard someone moaning in pain. It could have been a trap, but I couldn’t simply leave it; I called it in, informing the sergeant of what we’d heard, then led the way down the alleyway. Joker followed, watching my back.

I stopped and stared in horror as the alleyway opened into a backyard. A young girl was bent over a dustbin, her long dress raised, while Young stood behind her, unbuttoning his fly and clearly preparing to have some fun. Hobbes held her arms firmly in place, his face consumed with an unholy lust. For seconds – it felt like hours – I just stared. We’d been taught, time and time again, that molesting the locals was not only stupid, but wrong. Marines were held to a higher code of conduct and anything that smacked of mistreating anyone would draw harsh punishment. And yet Young was preparing to commit rape …

“Get away from her,” I snapped, levelling my rifle and aiming at his head. “Now!”

Young turned to look at me, then gave a sickly smile. “No one will miss the bitch,” he said, as the girl’s dress fell back to cover her legs. “You can have a go too, then we can dump her body and no one will ever know.”

Horror and disbelief were rapidly replaced by anger. I knew, all too well, just how my sister had died.

“Keep your fucking hands where I can fucking see them,” I ordered, snapping the laser rangefinder to visual. No one uses them in combat because the beam of light is visible in anything less than bright sunlight, revealing your position to the enemy, but they’re useful for making an unmistakable threat. Beside me, Joker covered Hobbes. “You’re a fucking …”

I got control of my anger, then muttered a command into the intercom. People passing the buck up the chain of command was one of the reasons the Imperial Army was so screwed up, but there were some matters that could only be handled by a superior officer. Captain Bilbo and Sergeant Harris arrived within moments, escorted by an entire fire team. Young and Hobbes were cuffed, stuffed into the van and driven back to the FOB. The girl was taken with them. We were told to join the rest of the QRF for the day, then report to Captain Bilbo when we returned to the FOB. I wasn’t looking forward to the discussion I knew we were going to have, but there was no choice.

“I understand you caught them in the middle of a rape,” the Captain said. I honestly hadn’t had much time to forge an impression of him, save for dedication and determination. “Do you believe we should press charges.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I fought down the bitter wave of emotion that, somehow, I had never managed to suppress. My sister’s death had left scars I had never managed to lose. But that wasn’t something I could say to him. “We have to show the locals that we’re not above the law.”

“Indeed,” the Captain said. He keyed his intercom. “Come in!”

I turned … and blinked in surprise as Young, Hobbes and the girl stepped into the room. The two men were wearing their uniforms … and so was the girl. Hers marked her out as a Field Intelligence Officer.

Joker grabbed for the pistol at his belt. “Sir?”

I understood, suddenly. “It was a test, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Captain Bilbo said. “A test. And you passed with flying colours.”

“Oh,” I said.

I knew what he meant. We weren’t training to become soldiers, any more than we were civil guardsmen or militiamen. We were training to become marines, members of the deadliest brotherhood in history. We had to live up to our own standards … and police those amongst our ranks who failed to keep faith with those who had died, serving as marines. And if that meant enduring a test so realistic that we forgot it was a test, it had to be done. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it.

It would have been easy to fail. We could have told ourselves that keeping faith with our comrades was more important than an innocent girl’s life and covered for them. But that wouldn’t have kept faith with the corps. We’d have been binned – kicked out of training – and we would have deserved it.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Go back to your barracks,” the Captain ordered. “You’re on QRF tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” we said.