Archive | February, 2016

Here We Go Again

27 Feb

There is something very disturbing about the SNP.

On one hand, it’s a single-issue party (Scottish independence) and it views everything through the prism of how it may affect the prospect of actually winning Scottish independence. Thus it is quite happy to meddle in English-only affairs, secure in the knowledge that irritating English MPs will make it harder for pro-union politicians to make their case. On the other hand, it shows a marked lack of respect for the democratic process. The independence referendum had barely taken place before the SNP started trying to manoeuvre towards a second referendum. Clearly, our would-be rulers feel we didn’t vote right the first time around.

This does not bode well for Scotland’s future, should independence become a reality. The SNP has not really had to grapple with the issues that affect something as large and powerful as a nation-state. They have no experience whatsoever in governing on such a scale; dominating Holyrood does not give them experience at handling national issues. Indeed, their financial planning is best described as wishful thinking. Time has shown that their calculations of the economic power of an independent Scotland were either mistaken or flat-out lies.

Furthermore, an independent Scotland would effectively be a single-party state, based around a party that had already accomplished its raison d’être. The best we could reasonably hope for would be the SNP fragmenting into a number of different parties, each one representing a separate faction within the overall party, but history suggests that such fragmentation does not come easily. A far worse scenario would be something akin to the ANC in South Africa, which lost its way after winning the struggle to put an end to Apartheid. The shortage of effective competition allowed corruption to wend its way into the ANC’s heart.

So, why am I saying all this? This piece of muddy political blackmail popped up in front of me a couple of days ago. Apparently, Nicola Sturgeon believes that Britain leaving the EU is sufficient grounds for a second independence referendum.

There’s a great deal of muddy thinking here, but I’ll concentrate on the important matter. Would an independent Scotland be granted entry to the EU?

I’ve commented on this before, but really – I think the realistic answer is no.

The EU is fundamentally a political project – it is not built on sound economic judgement or common sense. (Greece should never have been allowed to join, let alone get away with lying to politicians too keen to expand to do even basic due diligence.) Many of the countries that will be voting on the question have good reason to make life as unpleasant as possible for Scotland, if the Scots separate from the United Kingdom and apply to join the EU. They have their own secessionist movements – they’re not going to want to encourage them. Scotland will have to jump through more hoops than Turkey before its application is even considered.

I’ve heard it suggested that Scotland would inherit Britain’s membership in the EU. Frankly, I doubt that’s possible. Britain is a far more powerful country than an independent Scotland – economically, militarily, politically. Scotland would face immense pressure to adopt the Euro at once – and, lacking the clout Britain brings to the table, would probably have to submit. Think about what the absence of a national currency has done to Greece and a number of other countries over the years. We would be exchanging rule from London (where we have a strong presence) for rule from Brussels, where we will be a very small fish in a very large pond.

And that is assuming we do get membership fairly quickly. What happens if Brussels refuses our application? We might wind up alone, with a resentful London to the south (and all the other problems I touched upon in my earlier writings). Being separated from both Britain and the EU would be very bad for us.

Leaving all this aside, the SNP has not asked the question it should have asked – the question that is in line with its self-proclaimed raison d’être. Is EU membership going to be good for Scotland or not?

And why, having worked so hard to gain independence from London, would the SNP promptly decide to surrender to Brussels?

The root of the problem with Brussels, with the European Union as a whole, is the sheer lack of accountability. We have far more sway in London than we do in Brussels.

But then, the SNP has a lack of accountability too.

Up Now–The Barbarian Bride

24 Feb

The conclusion to the epic series …

The end is nigh…

The Federation has stood for over a thousand years, but it’s time may be at an end. It’s Emperor has gone mad, the economy lies in ruins, entire sectors are slipping out of its grasp, warlords, secessionists and pirates are making their own bids for power and a powerful rebel fleet stands ready to storm the gates of Earth. The end cannot be long delayed.

As Roman Garibaldi, now leading an alliance of former naval officers and rebel outsiders, advances towards Earth, desperate to stop Emperor Marius before he throws the entire Federation into the fire, he has to face the possibility that it may already be too late to save the Federation from itself…

…And, as both sides meet in a final confrontation, the price for saving even a tiny part of the once-proud Federation may be more than anyone is willing to pay.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, read the AFTERWORD and then purchase the complete book from the links on this page.

Odds, Ends and Interviews

23 Feb

As you know, I was interviewed last week by Brady Dale (here). The interview was picked up on Instapundit and The Passive Voice; I also wrote a short follow-up article here. The comments posed a number of questions and points I felt deserved answering, but not in their own blog posts. (Time is not on my side at the moment.) Therefore, I decided to attempt to answer the points in a single article. Unsurprisingly, it’s become something of a ramble.

As always, comments are warmly welcomed.

A couple of readers pointed out that ‘a-list’ authors weren’t the only ones being published by Big Publishing. This is self-evidently true. However, it is also true that b-list and below authors get much less promotion from their publishing house, at least partly because they don’t have the clout of a-list authors. Furthermore, as publishing contracts, there is less money and resources for b-list authors who are forced out of the business. There was a great deal of buzz about the agreement between Tor Books and John Scalzi to pay a colossal advance ($3.4 million) for 13 books, delivered over a 10-year period; that money will not be available for other authors. This places a great deal of pressure on Scalzi to deliver.

This leads to a point I noted earlier. There’s no such thing as an exclusive writing fan. People who read George RR Martin’s books are not going to sit and twiddle their thumbs while waiting for the next doorstopper. They’re going to go looking for other books to read. If Big Publishing isn’t delivering, why should they not look at Indie?

As a reader, I have grown to detest overlong novel series where each book is really just an oversized chapter. The endless wait for a payoff is frustrating. (That’s why I work hard to ensure that each book in a long-running series is effectively a story in its own right.) I think – I can’t prove it – that editors push authors to expand their word count and extend the series as much as possible, if only to milk it for all its worth. But this is actually bad for authors as well as readers – someone who loses interest in an extended series isn’t going to keep following the author, if there’s nothing else for them.

(And, as has been noted by others, The Winds of Winter has been delayed significantly. That’s going to have an effect on Tor Books.)

It is true – as Larry argued – that overheads in Big Publishing are higher than overheads for Indie Publishing. However, this justifies neither the expensive costs of eBooks nor the very low royalties paid to authors. (I have a feeling that someone back at the dawn of Big Publishing took the concept of ‘keep them hungry’ to heart.) Frankly, I suspect there are too many staff involved trying to make themselves useful. Realistically, lowering eBook prices would probably lead to higher sales and greater customer involvement.

Speaking of useless (or harmful) staff, traditional authors often run into gatekeepers who either think they know how to improve a book or refuse to publish it on a minor detail. See CTRL-ALT-REVOLT for details. There’s also the risk of an ‘editor behaving badly’ situation that leads to boycotts, which will harm your career even though you had nothing to do with it. Being an indie author means being able to avoid the gatekeepers and get your work out there.

There are quite a few things that Big Publishers do better than Indie, to be fair. They can afford large print runs that keep prices for mass market paperbacks down (CreateSpace isn’t cheap, even for paperbacks.) In theory, they can also offer promotional campaigns – but again, these are really only for the a-list authors.

Overall, Big Publishing is in trouble – and it won’t save itself by burying its head in the sand and pretending the world hasn’t changed.

A reader asked why indie authors such as myself don’t set up our own servers and keep all the money for ourselves. It sounds ideal, but there’s actually two separate problems with it. Being on Amazon allows plenty of exposure (as another commenter noted) that we wouldn’t have on private servers. (Someone who reads John Ringo might be directed to one of my books.) In addition, there are … issues … with VAT online these days. Letting Amazon do the hard work is probably more efficient in the long run.

I don’t think a private server would work unless the author had something truly unique to sell and a colossal global reach. I recall some gloating about how POTTERMORE had managed to force Amazon to redirect readers to its site for eBooks (a unique deal, as far as I know) rather than selling the books through Amazon itself. And yet, it was really too little, too late. POTTERMORE debuted in 2012, years after pirate sites had uploaded plenty of copies of all of the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling and her publishers, I suspect, simply didn’t understand that Harry Potter was a global story – and what readers couldn’t get by fair means, they’d get by foul. To add to these problems, Harry Potter’s story had come to an end. Driblets of background information aren’t enough to keep the site going indefinitely.

Another reader discussed price and said he would be happy to pay $10 for my books. Selling 10 books at $3 apiece would have the same profits as selling 3 books at $10 apiece. That’s true, on the face of it, but (at best) I would only get three reviews as opposed to ten. (In my experience, only one in ten readers bother to leave a review.) There’s also the problem that each of the three readers, having invested more in the book, would have more reason to give up on me if the next book failed (thus costing me a third of my readers.) Lower prices make it easier to buy in bulk and evade pirates.

(But if you want to pay more, I do have a tip jar <evil grin>)

Brady did ask about writing software, including programs intended to help writers organise their thoughts. I’ve tried a couple, but … well … they don’t do the work for you. Things like computers and suchlike are all very well and good (I couldn’t work without my computer) yet a writer needs a writing mindset to work. I’ve come to think of such programs as largely useless. Even something as basic as a spellchecker can give a writer a false sense of confidence about his ‘clean’ manuscript.’’

I stand by my statement that reviews from ordinary people are worth more than famous endorsements (although, to be fair, I’ve only ever had one famous endorsement.) The problem with literary elites is that they’re jaded, to a very large extent; they look for something new (or something that ticks the right buttons) rather than solid and entertaining stories. I suspect that most of the problems with the Hugo Awards originated with this attitude, rather than the Sad Puppies; the elites looked for different markers than the ordinary readers. A book with hundreds of reviews on Amazon, I suspect, will help boost an author more than anything else.

Realistically, Amazon is the only game in town. And part of the reason it’s the only game in town is because every other attempt to set up an indie-publishing site (or even an eBook site) has been blighted by problems. (Baen Books is the only large-scale exception.) Sites like Smashwords have too many problems to be practical – I’ve experimented with a couple of other publishing services, but I found them awkward. Amazon has chosen to abjure the role of gatekeeper, something that Big Publishing finds incomprehensible.

In reality, those who worry about Amazon extending itself into every last corner of the world – and eliminating its competition – would do better to present Amazon with some genuine competition, instead of complaining. Change is a fact of life …

… And those who can’t adapt go the way of the dinosaurs.

Reshuffling the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

21 Feb

From old and probably unreliable memory, I recall a story from the night the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. The crew, realising the ship was in trouble, started launching lifeboats, but the passengers were largely reluctant to believe that the unsinkable ship could actually be sunk. Accordingly, the first set of lifeboats were largely empty. Unsurprisingly, as the ship continued to sink below the waves, there weren’t enough lifeboats to take the remaining passengers (indeed, IIRC, there weren’t enough lifeboats anyway.)

I mention this because of a response I got to my recent interview with Brady Dale, here. A commenter observed that high (eBook) prices benefited all authors and that selling eBooks through Amazon weakened regular bookstores. Big Publishing feels it’s better, he argued, to lose some eBook sales to maintain a competitive marketplace.

I couldn’t disagree more.

Now, when I read it, my first thought was that I was being asked to take a hit for the team. I can understand the value of working on a team, but – well – this isn’t a team game. Big Publishing does not see me as being on its team, any more than I see myself as working for them. Big Publishing regards Indie authors such as myself as upstarts as best, enemies at worst. Why should I set my prices high, in the certain knowledge I will lose sales, when Big Publishing has shown no interest in supporting authors?

Frankly, this is a suicidal attitude.

I love Brandon Sanderson’s books, to the point where I bought a hardback copy of The Bands of Mourning when it came out. But I didn’t buy the eBook. Right now, the eBook is priced at $14.42 on Amazon and the hardback is priced at $18.79. Apparently, Tor feels it can realistically sell eBooks at $3 more than the paperback. However, anyone who stops to think about it will rapidly come to realise that they’re being gouged. On the face of it, Tor is aiming for a colossal mark-up and – I suspect – is likely to see very low sales. Or piracy. One can understand a high price for a hardback, but not for an eBook.

The thing is, production costs for eBooks are strikingly low. Once you have a manuscript, you can produce unlimited copies at the touch of a button. Customers ask, quite reasonably, why they have to allow themselves to be gorged? And this is bad for Sanderson’s career because he won’t receive any credits for books he doesn’t see (or gets pirated) even without people complaining in reviews about the high price (which isn’t Sanderson’s fault). High prices, in short, do not benefit authors – they harm authors.

Let me insert an example from my own career. Ark Royal, the book that (so far) spawned six sequels, was put up for sale in January 2014 at the princely price of $3. It sold very well, much to my bank manager’s delight. To put this in some perspective, the highest estimate I have of how much it costs Big Publishing to put out a new book is $30’000. (I couldn’t find anyone willing to give me hard numbers.) Ark Royal would have earned itself out within the first month, if it had been published traditionally.

Now, do you think that sales would have been anything like as good if I’d set the price at $6? Or $10? I doubt anyone would buy one of my eBooks at $14.

I’m not saying this to brag, but to prove a point. High book prices harm authors.

Regardless of how selling eBooks harms regular bookstores (which is ironic, as many small bookshops were destroyed by big booksellers, with the enthusiastic collaboration of Big Publishing), it should be noted that most bookstores do not sell eBooks.

Furthermore, the marketplace is not particularly competitive. As I have noted before, Amazon is endlessly searching for new ways to appeal to customers, while Big Publishing is alienating readers while trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. The model of customer service it clings to is outdated, yet it tries desperately to pretend that nothing is wrong. These are not the days when it was largely impossible to copy books (or videos) on a large scale. This is not Amazon’s fault. I don’t believe there is anything particularly unique about their vision that could not be duplicated, if Big Publishing was willing to try. As far as I can tell, they seem to be more inclined to complain about Amazon – and try to get laws passed to restrict its growth – instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.

Big Publishing, in short, has forgotten what it is like to complete. Indeed, it has forgotten that it must compete to survive. And the only way for a business to survive is to accept the old proverb – the customer is always right.

The authors who defend Big Publishing are trying, frantically, to reshuffle the deckchairs on a sinking ship. They simply do not get the level of support from their publishers that they need, while they are bound by ironclad contracts that were written in a different day and age. They are at the mercy of decisions made by men and women who do not understand that the world has changed, or put political hectoring and point-scoring ahead of keeping the customer entertained; they worry, constantly, about not making the sales that will convince the accountants to keep them on for another book.

But the ship is sinking. Why would anyone want to board? And why would anyone want to sign up for a team that bases its entire plan around kicking their own people as hard as they can?

You Can’t Get Blood From A Stone

17 Feb

I wasn’t planning to blog today, but this popped up in my Facebook feed.

If the article is taken at face value, a man was arrested at his home last week for a $1500 federal student loan he received in 1987. The article goes on to say that the US Marshals have 1500-2000 warrants for people who haven’t repaid their loans.

A second article popped up while I was reading the first here. It doesn’t make the situation much better – the Deputy Chief insists that the whole situation could have been avoided if the man had paid his $1500 outstanding student loan from 1987 and cooperated with the first two marshals on the scene. Leaving aside the former (the man insists that the marshals didn’t identify themselves), it does raise a very important question. How exactly is he meant to pay?

In fact, the sheer absurdity of the situation has me raising eyebrows. I am no expert, but a couple of commenters on the net asserted that the cost of the whole affair (so far) is just under $30’000, far in excess of the $1500 he owes. Am I missing something? Or is someone stupid enough to believe that the cost of arresting someone (and imprisoning them) is lesser than writing off the debt? The only explanation that makes sense, as far as I can tell, is that this is intended as a warning shot to every other debtor in the country. Pay up or go to jail.

So I did a net search and discovered this article, which asserted that the story was a little more complex than suggested. The man hadn’t shown up in court, etc, etc. (And he was ordered to pay back costs, though nothing like the extreme figure I mentioned above.) The article concludes by advising students to work out ways of repaying their loans before matters get out of hand.

But this runs into a very simple problem. A newly-graduated student, as I discussed before (here and here) is unlikely to be in a position to pay. I have no idea what the rules are in the US, but in Britain you have to earn above a certain threshold to pay back your debts. I certainly couldn’t pay them back myself when I had a regular job. A newly-graduated student trapped in Starbucks, selling lattes, or serving burgers at McDonalds is not going to be able to repay her loans. Sue her? She probably doesn’t have anything worth the cost of suing her. Put her in jail? Putting her in jail is going to cost the taxpayer a great deal of money, for what? Even if you set up a work camp and put debtors to work (doing what?) I doubt it will repay the loans, let alone the cost of setting up the camp and putting debtors in it.

So what can reasonably be done about this ever-expanding bubble?

Well, for a start, you could stop expanding it by shovelling more and more money into the bottomless pit. Fees have been rising, at least in part, because students can borrow money from lenders to pay the universities. The universities don’t care because they get their money first, but everyone else should be worried. Students may discover that their exam results aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, while lenders may discover that they can’t get their investment back before it’s too late.

Really, if you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. But it might be too late for that.

SNIPPET–They Shall Not Pass

16 Feb

Prologue (I)

From: The Day After: The Post-Empire Universe and its Wars. Professor Leo Caesius. Avalon University Press. 46PE.

Brigadier Jasmine Yamane’s escape for Meridian – and her attack on Wolfbane itself – was a significant tactical and strategic victory for the Commonwealth, in that it both boosted morale and crippled Wolfbane’s ability to regenerate its naval forces and out-produce the Commonwealth. Certainly, the Commonwealth was quick to point to the daring prison escape and subsequent raid of enemy territory as a sign the tide was turning against Wolfbane. However, that was not entirely true.

It was true enough, to be fair, that Wolfbane would have difficulty keeping its fleet supplied with everything from replacement components to reinforcements. But it was also true that Wolfbane significantly outnumbered the Commonwealth in almost every category of starship. Indeed, if the Commonwealth had not enjoyed a significant technological advantage, Wolfbane would probably have crushed the Commonwealth in the first year of open warfare. The shortages would slow Wolfbane’s ability to regenerate its forces, true, but would the crunch come in time to save the Commonwealth?

There was also a further problem that needed to be taken into account. No one, absolutely no one, had any real experience with a long-duration interstellar war. Interstellar conflict was almost unknown during the final years of the Empire, no matter how many planets fell to insurgents or declared independence as the Empire’s grip started to weaken. Even Admiral Singh, one of the most capable officers in the Empire’s final years, didn’t appreciate what it meant to be fighting a long-term war. Why should she? She had no experience in handling anything more complex than brief and violent encounters between the Imperial Navy and a bewildering array of rebel and pirate forces.

It was inevitable, therefore, that both sides would make mistakes. The decision to send the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force to Thule, for example, was one such mistake, even though the logic made sense at the time. But the decision to attempt an over-clever envelopment of the Commonwealth Navy in the opening moves of the war was also a mistake, one less justified by then-current political concerns. In war, as has been noted for centuries, the simplest thing is difficult. Both sides failed to grasp the sheer complexity of what they were attempting to do.

But, despite its recent success, the Commonwealth knew itself to be in trouble. Wolfbane could bring attacks to bear along multiple axis of attack, while the Commonwealth – with far more limited resources – was forced to switch its forces from place to place rapidly, enduring the wear and tear on both equipment and personnel. (If Wolfbane had had access to any form of interstellar FTL communications, the Commonwealth would have lost fairly quickly; as it was, only the inability to coordinate offenses on an interstellar scale saved the Commonwealth from defeat.) The situation did not look good.

It was at that moment that Colonel Edward Stalker decided to gamble.

Prologue II

Admiral Rani Singh, Governor-Admiral of Wolfbane, stood in her private observation blister, staring down at the blue and green planet below. It was hers, thanks to the death of Governor Brown, but she knew it seethed with resentment at how she’d claimed her role. She knew, from her network of spies, that far too many powerful people believed that she had killed the Governor, even though she’d merely managed to take advantage of his death. And some of them were only waiting for her to slip up before trying to take advantage of her weakness.

But they can’t blame the destruction of the shipyards on me, she thought, darkly. No one in their right mind would allow an entire shipyard complex to be destroyed, even if it did propel her into the Governor’s office. But that won’t stop them from trying, if I show weakness.

Rani clenched her fists in irritation as she turned her gaze away from the world and up towards the endless darkness of interstellar space. She was a naval brat, pure and simple; she’d understood the military long before she’d formally signed up for a tour of duty. The navy was organised, people knew their place and did what they were told … not something that was common on Wolfbane. Governor Brown had ruled over a shifting morass of competing interests and power bases, allowing them to bicker amongst themselves while directing their energies towards the ultimate goal of galactic power. She knew how to win a battle or give orders, but managing so many different factions was far harder. And if she slipped, the knives would come out, aimed at her back …

The doorbell chimed. “Come.”

She turned as the hatch opened, watching as Paula Bartholomew stepped into the chamber, the hatch hissing closed behind her. Paula was loyal, she had to be; her betrayal of her former superior would not be forgiven by anyone else. Using her was a risk – a person who betrayed once might betray again – but it had to be endured. Governor Brown had had years to put together his patronage network, the men and women who owed and served him; she’d barely had two weeks since the attack on Wolfbane. There were times when she wondered if it wouldn’t be wiser to loot Wolfbane, then vanish as the world collapsed into chaos …

… But it wasn’t in her to give up.

“Admiral,” Paula said. “I have the final report for you.”

Rani nodded as she turned back to the window. “And it says?”

“In the short run, we can continue to maintain the current operational tempo for the next six months to a year,” Paula said, shortly. “But after that we will run into increasing difficulties in resupplying our forces. We’ll have to slow the operational tempo quite significantly.”

“So I feared,” Rani said.

She shook her head slowly. No one had fought a war on such a scale in living memory; indeed, there had been no large-scale interstellar war for centuries. It was small wonder, she considered, that there had been more than a few hitches along the way. She and her personnel were learning as they went along. The only consolation was that the Commonwealth had the same problem.

“The industrialists did suggest suing for peace,” Paula added, when Rani said nothing. “They argue that we could use a couple of years of peacetime to put the new weapons into production.”

Rani shook her head, again. There were advantages to peace – particularly if she could keep everything she had captured over the last year of hard fighting – but peace would significantly undermine her position. The factions knew there was no other candidate to lead the military, no other candidate who could command the respect of the officers and crewmen. Removing her from power in the middle of a war would be disastrous. But in peacetime, anything could happen.

“The Commonwealth would grow stronger as they put their new weapons into production,” she said, curtly. It was true enough. The Commonwealth had shown a truly distressing ability to innovate, something Wolfbane couldn’t even begin to match. “Give them long enough and they’ll find a silver bullet.”

“There’s no guarantee they will,” Paula reminded her.

“There’s no guarantee they won’t,” Rani snapped. Everyone had known that the Imperial Navy’s technology was the peak of military potential, right up until the moment the Commonwealth had introduced shield generators. Who knew what certainty would be the next to fall? “What happens if they invent a weapon that can wipe out our entire fleet overnight?”

“That’s absurd,” Paula insisted. “Surely …”

Rani snorted, rudely. She would have thought the same, once upon a time. She’d clawed her way to office rank without selling herself to her superiors, even if said superiors had tried to punish her by exiling her to Trafalgar Naval Base. And she’d had the very last laugh when Admiral Bainbridge had been shot trying to escape. But now, the government and naval bureaucracy that had stifled innovation was no longer in existence. Who knew what would become possible in the future?

“We know very little for sure,” Rani said. She turned to face the other woman. “Inform my senior officers that we will be proceeding with Operation Slam.”

Paula bowed, then withdrew. Rani sighed as she turned back to the window. It was a gamble – life itself was a gamble – but there was no choice. Time was not on her side. The dice had to be rolled once again. If she won, she’d have the power and prestige to bring the industrialists and all the other factions to heel. And if she lost … she shook her head. She wasn’t going to lose. Her life had been built on refusing to surrender when the odds seemed massively stacked against her …

And this time the odds are on my side, she thought. Supreme power will finally be mine.

She smirked. Empress Rani. She liked the sound of it.

Chapter One

The real world is a messy place.

– Professor Leo Caesius. The Role of Randomness In War.

Jasmine Yamane gritted her teeth as the wind picked up strength, fighting to hold on to the sheer cliff face. The temperature plummeted rapidly, snowflakes drifting through the air, as she carefully let go with one hand and searched for the next handhold, an inch or two higher up the cliff. Grabbing hold, she tested it carefully before inching upwards, refusing to let the climb beat her. Maybe it had been a mistake, part of her mind noted, to attempt the climb without support, but she’d gone through worse on the Slaughterhouse. She firmly refused to allow something lesser to defeat her.

She inched her way up the cliff as the snow fell faster, cold flakes of ice brushing against her suit. The Mystic Mountains were known for sudden changes in the weather, just like the badlands to the south. She’d checked the forecast before setting out from the hut, but even the military-grade system assigned to monitor the planet’s weather patterns hadn’t been able to offer a reasonable prediction of what she might encounter. A civilian might have turned back, yet Jasmine had no intention of surrendering. Marines on deployment didn’t have the luxury of abandoning a mission when they ran into a little snag.

But this weather might not be a little snag, she thought, as she finally reached the top of the cliff and pulled herself onto the ledge. The wind was growing stronger, so she secured herself to a rock before sitting down and staring at the view before her. How many missions have run into trouble because of bad weather?

She dug a ration bar out of her pocket and chewed it slowly as she took in the view. Giant mountains, rising up to vanish somewhere within the darkening clouds; great waves of snow hiding the rock beneath a layer of whiteness. The air was cold, but fresh and sharp. And nothing within view, save for Jasmine herself, to suggest that there was any human settlement nearby. Avalon really was a beautiful planet, at least in the regions untouched by human settlement. She hardly recognised Camelot these days, let alone some of the cities that had been towns when she’d first arrived on Avalon. The planet’s population had almost quadrupled in the seven years since the marines had arrived, since the Empire had abandoned them, since Avalon had become the hub of a new interstellar civilisation …

And now we are at war again, she reminded herself. The sight before her could be destroyed, easily, if Wolfbane bombarded the planet. No one had deliberately targeted planetary populations from orbit for centuries, but that might change. All the old certainties had died with the Empire. Who knows what will happen in the future?

She looked down at her gloved hands, feeling a twinge of … uncertainty. The Colonel could say what he liked, but Jasmine blamed herself for the surrender on Thule. Even in the clear light of hindsight, it was hard to see what she’d done wrong, yet she was sure she had done something wrong. An entire military unit had surrendered in the opening hours of the war and she had been the one to issue the order. And even successfully escaping a POW camp and wrecking havoc in the enemy rear wasn’t enough to wipe the slate clean. How could it be?

The Colonel said that everyone has a crisis of confidence eventually, she thought. But how did he overcome his?

It was a bitter thought. She’d gone through Boot Camp with flying colours, then survived the Slaughterhouse … only to discover, when she’d been assigned to her first company, just how much she still had to learn. And she’d survived that, only to discover that there was still much more to learn. By the time she’d been tortured on Corinthian, she’d been pushed right to the limits. And yet …

I never gave up, she told herself, firmly. Too many lives were depending on me.

She wished, as she carefully returned the remainder of the ration bar to her pocket, that she’d had a chance to go to OCS. Perhaps it would have made life easier for her, to learn the trade of an officer before taking marines into battle. But she was hardly the only person forced to learn on the job, after Avalon had lost contact with the remains of the Empire. Rumour had it that the Slaughterhouse had been destroyed, along with the infamous Death Zone. Even if she did manage to make it back to the Core Worlds, she would never be able to return to the Slaughterhouse.

You can’t go home again, she thought. And that was literally true, for her. There was no way she could return to her homeworld, even if it had still been a matter of booking a ticket on the next ship. She knew there was no way she would have fitted in. And you can’t just stop either.

She rose to her feet, testing the rope carefully, then took one last look at the white-covered mountains. Part of her was tempted to stay, to carry on exploring. She’d never really been tempted by the Survey Service, long before the Survey Service had been eviscerated by a dozen nasty budget cuts, but she could understand – now – the desire to see what lay on the other side of the hill. There were parts of the Mystic Mountains that had never been explored, even by the Mountain Men. It wasn’t as if anyone wanted to settle in the mountains when there was good farmland to the south or west …

Unless they wanted to be alone, she thought, as she carefully tested the rope before starting to abseil down the cliff. Going down was always harder, she’d found; she preferred to abseil rather than attempt to climb down without precautions. If she injured herself so badly she couldn’t trigger the emergency beacon, she would die up amidst the mountains, her body never to be found unless someone stumbled over her by sheer luck. Being up here would be very far from everyone.

Her lips quirked as she reached the bottom, then jerked the rope free. There had been a settlement on the Slaughterhouse, home to retired marines and their families. She’d often wondered if she’d wind up there, if she survived long enough to retire; now, she knew she would never see it again. But perhaps the handful of survivors might set up a new home in the mountains, miles from anywhere civilian. Merely getting there would provide the kind of challenge retired marines approved of.

Shaking her head, she turned and peered into the distance. A faint plume of smoke could be seen, rising up into the sky, as the snowfall trickled to a halt. She smiled – clearly, she was more resistant to the cold than her boyfriend – and started to walk, allowing the smoke to guide her back to the hut. It was the sort of thing, she noted as the hut came into view, that would never have been allowed on the Slaughterhouse. What sort of idiot expected a holiday hut in the middle of the Crucible?

The same sort of idiot who thinks he can pass the Crucible without a year of intensive training, she thought, wryly. And the same sort of idiot who drinks himself into a stupor the night before entering Boot Camp.

She pushed the thought to one side as she tramped up to the hut, opening the door and stumbling into the antechamber. The heat greeted her at once, sending sweat trickling down her back as she hurried to take off her shoes and remove her outer layer of clothing. She dumped the shoes by the door, then pushed open the inner door and stepped into the hut. A faint smell – she had never been able to identify it – greeted her as Emmanuel Alves rose to his feet, leaving a datapad on the table beside him. Jasmine gave her boyfriend a tight hug, then kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I heated up some soup,” Emmanuel said, as she let him go. “Do you want some now?”

“Yes, please,” Jasmine said. She’d spent the last week pushing her limits by climbing up and down the nearby mountains, but Emmanuel didn’t have anything like the training he needed to accompany her. She didn’t really begrudge it, even though it would have been nice to have the company. “It looks like it’s going to snow again, later in the day.”

“Joy,” Emmanuel said. He walked over to the wood-burning stove and checked the heavy pan on top. “Should we be worried?”

Jasmine shrugged. Truthfully, the prospect of being trapped in the hut, buried under tons of snow, didn’t bother her as much as it should have done. Years of training and experience had removed any tendency she might have had towards claustrophobia, months spent on various starships in cramped sleeping compartments had taught her how to endure even unendurable people. They could dig themselves out, if they wished, or signal for help. But she knew he might feel differently about it.

“Probably not,” she said, finally. The hut’s owners had sited it carefully, according to their brochure. Their guests could enjoy being in the midst of the mountains with minimal risk, although there was no way the risk could be eliminated entirely. “But it’s worth keeping an eye on things if the snow starts to fall faster.”

Emmanuel nodded as he ladled the soup into two bowls, then carried them over to the wooden table. Jasmine followed her, glancing around the hut and silently admiring the effort the original builder had put into his work. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t handmade, even the knives and forks. Even the water came from a stream and had to be heated on the stove, rather than warmed in a boiler. And it was more comfortable than anywhere she’d slept on the Slaughterhouse.

“Thank you,” she said, as she sat down and started to sip the soup. “It’s very good.”

“All my own work,” Emmanuel preened. “I opened those packets and mixed them myself.”

Jasmine laughed. Trying to make military rations taste better had excited the imagination of countless soldiers, but there were limits to how much the addition of hot sauce or other flavours could improve the taste of recycled cardboard. She’d disliked marine ration packs until she’d tasted army ration packs, which were worse, and Civil Guard packs, which were unspeakably vile. It explained a great deal about the Civil Guard, she felt, that their officers couldn’t be bothered attempting to source food from their postings, although they might well have a point. The Civil Guard was so loathed that it was quite possible that anyone selling them food would poison it first.

“You could probably get away with adding more sauce,” she said, as she opened the breadbin. “It would add a little more kick.”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes. “This isn’t a Tabasco-swigging contest.”

“A good thing too,” Jasmine agreed. “I lost the last one.”

She shook her head, feeling a strange mixture of price and grief. Blake Coleman had challenged a trio of Imperial Navy crewmen to see who could eat the most hot sauce, just after the deployment to Han. She had no idea how he’d managed to swallow an entire bottle of Extra-Strong Chilli sauce, but he’d won the contest handily. She’d had to give up after trying to swallow something made of green chillies. And then Blake had died … she missed him, more than she cared to admit. It wasn’t right that he’d died on a shitty little world, ruled by shitty little people who lorded over peasants who were just waiting for a chance to take power for themselves. No doubt the peasants had purged the aristocracy and then started fighting over the scraps of remaining power.

Emmanuel met her eyes. “Are you all right?”

Jasmine shrugged. Death was a fact of life. Blake Coleman had died well, unlike so many others she could mention. She knew he wouldn’t want his friends to mourn him indefinitely, although he would have taken a perverse pride in the number of women who’d appeared, afterwards, to claim they’d been his soulmate. And yet, she missed him …

Maybe I shouldn’t have let the Colonel promote me, she thought. He wouldn’t have counted it against me later on, would he?

She snorted and pushed the thought aside as she finished her soup. Blake wouldn’t have wanted her to be morbid either, she knew; he’d have teased her, endlessly, about taking a reporter to bed. But Emmanuel wasn’t one of the paid shrills who’d blighted military operations from Earth to Han, getting soldiers killed by revealing classified information ahead of time. Indeed, Jasmine had to admit that Emmanuel was a genuine reporter, more interested in ferreting out the truth than spreading lies to push a political agenda. He always put his news in context.

“I think so,” she answered, finally. She made a show of glancing at her watch. “Are you ready to go out this afternoon?”

“I suppose we might just find a decent restaurant somewhere up here,” Emmanuel said, deadpan. “Snow for starter, rocks and ice for the main course, iced snow for pudding …”

“I meant going for a long walk,” Jasmine said. Emmanuel was surprisingly fit, for a civilian, but he couldn’t keep up with her. And yet he was light years ahead of the reporters on Han, who’d eyed her as if she was a dangerous animal permanently on the verge of breaking her leash. “A very long walk.”

Emmanuel groaned, theatrically. “Must we?”

“There’s a big reward on the far side,” Jasmine said. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“I’d be happy to chase you over the mountains,” Emmanuel said. “But catching you might be tricky.”

Jasmine smiled. Her mother had once told her that the secret to catching the right sort of man was to run away, yet not to run very fast. She’d never been quite convinced of the logic, personally, but she’d been a tough little scrapper even before she’d joined the marines. And her homeworld had a thoroughly practical attitude towards both firearms and personal defence. If she was caught by the wrong man, she could castrate him before she shot him …

Her wristcom bleeped, once. Jasmine frowned, then keyed the switch.

“Yamane,” she said. “Go ahead.”

“Brigadier,” a calm female voice said. Jasmine straightened automatically. Technically, she outranked Command Sergeant Gwendolyn Patterson now, but she wouldn’t dare to take liberties with the older woman. “I trust you had a pleasant vacation?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Jasmine said. She had the feeling her vacation had just come to a sudden halt. “The mountains are quite challenging, even in summer.”

“Good, good,” Gwendolyn said. “I’ve dispatched a Hummer to pick you and your boyfriend up for immediate transfer to Castle Rock. The colonel wants you back here ASAP.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said. She felt a flicker of the old excitement, despite her concerns about the past and her fears for the future. This was another deployment, she was sure. It couldn’t be anything else. “ETA?”

“The Hummer should be with you in thirty minutes,” Gwendolyn said. “Be ready to depart when it arrives.”

The connection broke. Jasmine stared at the wristcom for a long moment, then looked up at Emmanuel. “We’re being recalled,” she said. “Both of us.”

“It sounds that way,” Emmanuel agreed. He didn’t sound angry, but she knew he understood the realities of the job. Both of their jobs. “We’d better pack.”

Jasmine nodded and hurried into the bedroom, picking her rucksack off the floor and dumping clothes and equipment into it willy-nilly. A lifetime in military service had taught her to travel light, thankfully. Emmanuel didn’t have the same experience, but he’d learned rapidly. There were strong weight restrictions on what could be counted as personal baggage, at least on Commonwealth Navy starships. The Imperial Navy had been so keen to please the reporters that officers had often classed overweight reporter baggage as essential requirement, even though it was nothing of the sort. A reporter who tried that on the Commonwealth Navy would be lucky if his baggage was shipped home from the terminal, instead of merely being dumped.

“I don’t suppose we have time for anything special,” Emmanuel said, as he finished stuffing items into his bag. “Do we?”

“Not when we have to shut the hut down,” Jasmine said. She’d had the same thought, but duty came first. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Emmanuel said. “You come far too close to breaking my bones.”

Jasmine gave him a one-fingered gesture, then hurried back into the living room and turned off the water pipe, then glanced around to make sure they’d left nothing lying around. It was unlikely they’d have time to return to pick up anything, once the Hummer collected them.

“I thought we had another two days,” Emmanuel added. “What do you think this is about?”

“The colonel said that his staff were working on a plan,” Jasmine said. She’d been surprised when the colonel had agreed to her taking a week’s leave, even if it did suggest he had a mission in mind for her. “It might be something very interesting.”

Emmanuel leaned forward. “And decisive?”

Jasmine frowned. She’d hurt the Wolves badly, she knew, even if it had come at a terrible cost. She still had no idea what had happened to either Carl Watson or Paula Bartholomew – and killing Governor Brown had only elevated Admiral Singh to power. Jasmine had no illusions about the future. They might have won a battle, and embarrassed the Wolves, but the war was far from over.

“We will see,” she said, as she heard the sound of the approaching aircraft. New-build Hummers weren’t quite as fast as Raptors, but they’d be back at Castle Rock in less than thirty minutes. “We will see.”

Idle Updates

14 Feb

It’s been an interesting week.

First, I finished the first draft of Sons of Liberty, The Royal Sorceress IV. It’s been accepted by Elsewhen Press, so hopefully it should be out in eBook format in a couple of months.

Second, I finished the second set of edits on The Barbarian Bride (Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire Finale). There will probably be a third and final set of edits, but I’m hoping to have the eBook out in a month or so.

Third, I wrote out the plots for Fear God and Dread Naught (Vanguard II) and Chosen of the Valkyries (Nazi Civil War II).

My current plan is to write They Shall Not Pass (TEC 12), Infinite Regress (SIM 9), Chosen of the Valkyries and [classified] (SIM 10). I’m not yet sure what’s happening with Unlucky (Angel III) so it may wind up replacing one of those books, although I do intend to write SIM 9 and 10 fairly close together.

I’ve been asked, several times, about the audio edition of Vanguard. The script is with the developers now, but it can take around two months to produce the audiobook. Once it is out, I was obviously update you via this blog and my Facebook page.

I intend to start writing TSNP on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on just what happens on Monday.

Chris