Archive | June, 2016

The Generational Gap?

28 Jun

There’s a joke that goes something like this. When I was 15, my dad knew nothing; when I was 25, it was amazing how smart the old man had become.

And it is true.

I mention this because amidst the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth on Facebook, since the results of the referendum were announced, was the claim that the vote was decided by the older generation and that the younger generation, mainly represented by students in higher education or university, had been screwed. And yes, many of those students voted to REMAIN. I don’t think that anyone can argue otherwise. But – realistically – just how much experience do those students actually have?

Heinlein observed, many years ago, that old age is not an accomplishment and youth is not a sin. And he was right. As Asimov noted, being young is a crime most people are guilty of at some point in their lives. But while the young often have energy and enthusiasm, the old often have more experience and understanding of the world around them. A man in his late sixties, like my father, will have seen and done far more than a youth of eighteen years. My father’s hands-on knowledge of life is still enough to humble me, even though I’m 34. I don’t have a quarter of the experience he has acquired over the years.

I suppose you could say he had a head start. By the time I made the emotional connection between working and wages, he was already well aware of it. My father’s insistence that I work during university holidays didn’t sit well with me, at the time; now, I am thankful that I wasn’t in more debt. My father could, and did, offer advice on many subjects, applying a steadfast common sense that helped him to understand what was going on. He might know nothing about the details of what was going on, but the principles he had learned through life stood him in good stead.

And all of this raises the question. Could it be that the older generation, the one that rejected the EU, might have good reason to do so? Might their experience have taught them to be wary of the EU?

It frightens me, sometimes, when I think about how little I have done until recently – or indeed at all. I was 18 when I held that holiday job – to the best of my knowledge, I was one of the few students who did. (A handful of students I knew did hold part-time jobs during term.) I was 24, I think, when I first held a full-time job. I was 29, I think, when I lost my job and moved away from home to live with my wife in Malaysia. I was 31, I think, when I had to rent a house in the UK. I also had to work my way through the government bureaucracy to get my wife permission to stay in Britain – and, horror of horrors, do battle with the dreaded taxman over how much I should pay.

I could carry on, but why bother?

No amount of theoretical knowledge, I have discovered over the years, can make up for practical experience.

There’s been a truly disturbing trend, in the last couple of decades, for students to be increasingly isolated from reality. Demands for academic independence have morphed into demands for safe spaces and protection from different points of view. Freedom of thought has become demands for censorship and pleas to silence anyone who dares raise a different point of view. Idealism has replaced practicality to a truly insane degree. As each successive generation grows older, they have found life easier and easier – only to discover, perhaps too late, that it is not like that outside the universities. Young people are increasingly unaware of where things come from, at least at an emotional level, and how society works. They are hammering, carelessly, on the very foundations of our society.

Uniting Europe is an ideal. I can acknowledge that – I do acknowledge that. But the part of my mind that has been shaped by experience – mainly after leaving university – tells me that it is staggeringly impractical. Indeed, all my concerns and suspicions proved to be gross underestimations – I never realised, like so many others, just how dangerous the Greek situation had become until it was too late. Idealism must not be allowed to rule over practicality because the idealist will overlook problems until it is too late.

Perhaps I’m doing students an injustice. It has been thirteen years, more or less, since I graduated. But I would be suspicious of someone with no life experience telling me how I should live my life …

… Which explains a great deal about why the referendum went the way it did.

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Wedding Hells Appendix (II)

28 Jun

Hi, everyone

I’ve had a word with the publisher about the missing Wedding Hells appendix (see here). The long and short of it is that Amazon is not going to push the update out, as it isn’t a major change in content. However, you should be able to download the complete version by:

1 – Deleting the downloaded file from your kindle and re-downloading it, which should give you the latest version.

Or.

2 – go to ‘manage your content and devices’ on Amazon and request the update.

I’m sorry about this – I’m not quite sure what happened, as we got our wires crossed.

Chris

Minor Updates

26 Jun

Hi, everyone

A handful of updates here:

One – the first draft of Fear God and Dread Naught has been completed. Once the beta-readers have had their say, I’ll do the final set of edits and upload it to Amazon. Ideally, it’ll be up for purchase somewhere between 1-4 July.

fear god and dread naught cover

Two – I’ve received the first major set of edits for Past Tense from the editor. Ideally, I’ll try to get to them tomorrow or the day afterwards. I’m still hoping for a release date at the end of July, but I suspect there will be a second major edit before then. We shall see …

Third – I intend to start writing Unlucky (Angel in the Whirlwind III) this month, but owing to family and travel commitments writing is likely to proceed in fits and starts.

There will probably be a couple of other articles on BREXIT, but as I have several other commitments they may be delayed.

And, in other news, Malaysia is either hot and humid or hot and wet.

Chris

Dealing With The Consequences Of Your Own Stupidity

25 Jun

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher made a terrible mistake.

She introduced the Poll Tax in Scotland. (She then compounded this mistake by introducing the Poll Tax to the rest of the UK the following year.)

This may seem like a minor matter, but the results were catastrophic.

On the micro scale, Thatcher’s popularity crashed so badly that she was unseated by her own party in 1990. But on the macro scale, it was a slap across Scotland’s face – and an absolute godsend to the SNP. Scotland’s faith in both the Conservative Party and Westminster crumbled – the Conservatives because they were the authors of the Poll Tax and Westminster, because the Scottish MPs were unable or unwilling to stop her. And by isolating Scotland from the rest of the UK, Thatcher galvanised Scottish Nationalism.

It was a terrible mistake. She showed Scotland that Scottish opinions didn’t matter.

Proving, yet again, that politicians and bureaucrats rarely learn from mistakes (theirs and others), the European Union has been cheerfully repeating the same mistake for the last two decades.

The EU has made mistakes. That is inarguable. It isn’t hard to come up with a laundry list of mistakes, from allowing Greece et al to enter the EU without doing anything resembling due diligence to interfering in matters that made it look like a giant waste of time and resources. Ham-handed measures that destroyed the Cyprus banking sector? Ignoring the results of referendums on the EU Constitution and pushing it forward anyway? Encouraging mass migration and then trying to cover up the problems it caused? Absurd energy policies based on Russia – which came back to haunt them when the EU clashed with Russia over the Ukraine? ‘Green’ energy boondoggles that ensured that the price of energy rose when the ‘green’ systems proved unworkable?

One may spend hours detailing all the mistakes the EU has made ever since it started to mutate into something more than a shared economic policy. But the single worst mistake is exactly the same as Thatcher’s – the EU has successfully convinced millions of its own citizens that it doesn’t give a damn about them.

The EU, as it stands today, is a monster that only a bureaucrat, a lawyer or a corporate suit could love. Those who benefit from the EU have done very well indeed. But those who don’t benefit from the EU should not be expected – could not be expected – to embrace it with open arms. Those who suffer because of EU policies – or policies blamed on the EU, which is not entirely the same thing – have no reason to love it. Why should they? People tend to act in a manner that suits their own interests, not those of the common weal. And let’s face it -there is no common weal in Europe.

This alone may not have been a problem, but the contempt the EU elites and their backers have shown for the ‘commoners’ is shocking. A reasoned debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the EU – and a demonstrated willingness to reform a structure badly in need of reform – might have gone a long way. But instead, those who wanted to leave the EU were mocked and belittled. They were called ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘fascists,’ ‘little Englanders,’ and so on.

But they knew, very well, that they were none of these things. And they knew, very well, that they had legitimate concerns. And they knew – there was ample evidence – that the EU elites were not going to listen to them. Why the hell should they not vote to leave?

Even with the possibility of a BREXIT, the EU elites didn’t bend. In one sense, refusing to make concessions wasn’t a bad choice. If the UK left, there would be no point in making concessions that might give other states ideas; if the UK stayed, there would be no need to make concessions. But it was a gratuitous slap across the face to make it clear that there would be no significant concessions – and that what little was offered was not legally binding.

The EU is, very much, the victim of its own stupidity.

The question asked of the elites, time and time again, is this. “You messed up the economy (or whatever other problem you care to raise) and did awesome damage to Europe. Why should we trust you to fix the problem?”

This is not an unreasonable question. But there is no answer. Heads have not rolled in punishment for the EU’s colossal failures. There has been considerable work done on securing the banking sector against another crisis, but there has been no significant reform that might make the EU more trustworthy. Issues and concerns – legitimate issues and concerns – have been ignored. Instead, we were treated to a barrage of propaganda aimed at convincing the masses that anyone who opposes the EU is a BAD PERSON.

Why should anyone trust the elites?

It is important to acknowledge that not all of Britain’s problems are caused by the EU. We have been suffering a prolonged slump since the Major Years, a slump caused – at least in part – by the absence of genuinely smart and sensible politicians. The frustrations faced by countless innocent people will not vanish the moment we leave the EU. Immigration levels are far too high; crime levels are rising; special interest groups and minorities seem to be given a free pass for criminal acts; the media is dangerously untrustworthy; employment is slumping; old certainties are vanishing everywhere …

And so on, and so on.

The elites – and I include British politicians in this – have not been listening. This uprising of frustration, resentment and bitter hatred is fuelled by the belief that no one gives a damn about the common man. That Westminster is inhabited by politicians who are permanently on the gravy train while passing increasingly meaningless laws. That someone who speaks up about the problems facing us – or what he sees as problems – can be silenced, or jailed, or even murdered on the streets, while the police look on impotently. That things are not getting better, no matter what those fat cats in Westminster say …

This might be completely wrong. Of course it might be wrong. But it’s what people are coming to believe …

… And the elites, in their arrogance and contempt, have provided plenty of evidence to confirm them in their beliefs.

Or, as Walter Russell Mead put it:

“Today’s Western elites, in the U.S. as much as in Europe, have never been so self-confident. Products of meritocratic selection who hold key positions in the social machine, the bien-pensant custodians of post-historical ideology—editorial writers at the NY Times, staffers in cultural and educational bureaucracies, Eurocratic functionaries, much of the professoriat, the human rights priesthood and so on—are utterly convinced that they see farther and deeper than the less credentialed, less educated, less tolerant and less sophisticated knuckle-dragging also-rans outside the magic circle of post historical groupthink.

“And while the meritocratic priesthood isn’t wrong about everything—and the knuckle-draggers aren’t right about everything—there are a few big issues on which the priests are dead wrong and the knuckle-draggers know it.”

***

BREXIT cannot be the end.

If we are to save our country, we must first strive for genuine political reform. We must seek to reduce government and bureaucracy as much as possible – and we must devolve power as far as it will go. A centralised government is good for many things, but spreading freedom and encouraging economic growth are rarely included. Placing more power in the hands of everyone from school headmasters to job centre workers would be a good step forward.

And we can start, perhaps, by cleaning up Westminster.

That, I think, will start us off on the right track.

Wedding Hells Appendix II–History Exam

22 Jun

I think that downloading the book from Kindle for a second time would give you the updated version, but I’ll push Amazon this afternoon.

History Exam: A History Of Whitehall

Student Name: Frieda, Daughter of Huckeba

Year: 2nd

Class: History of Magic

Assignment: detail, as best as you are able, the founding of Whitehall School, with reference to both the primary and secondary sources.

The problem with writing any sort of history of Whitehall School is that the principle sources are often in disagreement over even the slightest matters. Life of Whitehall, for example, asserts that Lord Whitehall was the sole founder of the school, with only a handful of others glimpsed, like shadows, through the pages of the work. A History of Magical Schooling, however, states that there were at least five masters who collectively founded Whitehall School; Times Whitehall, written by Bernard De Born, insists that Whitehall was assisted by two others, but he was still the principle founder of the school. Life of Bernard, although not a primary source for the period, states that Bernard was Whitehall’s apprentice and later successor as Grandmaster. He would not want to slur his master in print!

Complicating matters is the simple fact that both Life of Whitehall and Life of Bernard were written in hindsight. The author, who wrote a number of Lives, often gives the subject of his works a central role, stating they were marked out for greatness from a very early age. Bernard, in particular, is considered Whitehall’s designated heir right from the start, if one goes by Life of Bernard, but Times Whitehall gives its writer much less attention. Indeed, Life of Whitehall has Bernard as one of the shadowy figures, while Life of Bernard brings Bernard out, front and centre.

Secondary sources are, if anything, rather more confused. Faerie Tales draws heavily on Times Whitehall, but adds Lord Chamber and Lord Rufus, both of whom are not mentioned elsewhere. Mountaintop discusses the similarities between Whitehall and Mountaintop, yet it makes reference to a number of works that have clearly not survived the ages. Indeed, Castles Codex makes it clear that Whitehall Castle was in existence long before the school itself, while the records in Dragon’s Den insist that the town is only a ‘mere’ three hundred years old. The writer of Castles Codex makes a number of references to other works on the castle and school, but again they have not survived. Finally, the Lay of Lord Alfred is a fictionalised version of the tale, yet it is hard to take it seriously. Alfred, portrayed as a wise old man, is depicted as the power behind the throne, very much the Grand Vizier, while Lord Whitehall is a good-hearted fool. This alone would not be enough to discredit the work, but the Lay makes reference to magics that are well beyond anything else known to be possible, then or ever. Alfred might have been capable of fooling mundanes into believing he could pluck the moon from the sky, yet how could he have hoped to deceive his fellow magicians?

Therefore, try as we might, we are left with few facts about the early years of Whitehall School. We are even left guessing as to the exact date. Life of Whitehall claims that the school was founded seven hundred years ago; Mountaintop asserts that Whitehall is a bare hundred years older than Mountaintop, which would imply an age of four hundred years. Castles Codex states that the building itself is over a thousand years old, but does not say when it became a school.

It is clear, it seems, that Whitehall Castle was established several hundred years prior to the school and later abandoned, for reasons unknown. The builders of the castle remain unknown – even Castles Codex doesn’t offer speculation, beyond the observation that a number of other castles were established around the same time. One story, repeated as fact in the Lay of Lord Alfred, claims that the builders disturbed something nasty sleeping below the school and had to leave in a hurry. An alternate explanation was that their attempts to harness the nexus point under Whitehall failed, triggering an outflow of raw magic that killed or transfigured everyone in the castle. (Given that most period sources report monsters infesting the region around the castle, the second explanation seems quite likely.) All that really matters is that the castle had been abandoned for quite some time before the Whitehall Commune arrived.

Oddly, most of the primary sources agree on the composition of the Whitehall Commune. In the days before proper schooling, a couple of masters would band together and take on a number of apprentices, who in turn would be followed by a handful of camp followers. These apprentices, always male (women were not taught magic in those days), would eventually take on apprentices of their own, after separating from their masters. The Whitehall Commune, however, was odd in that it had only five (or seven, depending on which source we believe) masters and over fifty apprentices (and a small army of camp followers). Life of Whitehall states that Whitehall took in a number of apprentices after their masters were killed and, in the absence of any other evidence, it seems plausible.

Whitehall himself is something of an enigma. He is reputed to have concluded a brilliant apprenticeship in his youth with a figure known as Myrddin the Sane, but frustratingly little else is known of this person or Whitehall’s early life. Life of Whitehall skips over so much detail that his earliest true appearance is his early forties, as leader of the commune. Just how he rose to that point and how many apprentices he accepted, save for Bernard De Born, is lost to time. The only other point known about him, from other sources, is that he was a strong opponent of the DemonMasters and a firm believer that the Black Arts should be unceremoniously banned for the good of all.

Whitehall was, apparently, the key figure in making the decision to head to Whitehall Castle (quite what the castle was known before then has also been lost to time) and did so under quite some opposition. The Lay of Lord Alfred, however, insists that Whitehall had to be talked into moving to Whitehall and taking the deserted castle for his own.

At this point, another mysterious figure enters the picture. The Dark Lady is mentioned in Times Whitehall and Life of Bernard, but is completely absent from both Life of Whitehall and Lay of Lord Alfred. Indeed, some researchers believe her to be mythical. So much about her is uncertain that it is impossible to say anything for sure. Times Whitehall states that she was Whitehall’s apprentice, the first female apprentice known to recorded history, while Life of Bernard insists that she was a fully-trained magician when the commune discovered her at the castle. If so, who trained her? She does appear in several stories passed down the years, mainly as Whitehall’s wife or love interest, but this doesn’t explain why she was schooled in magic. Female magicians, at the time, were expected to have as many children as possible, not spend their days studying magic.

It is generally agreed that Whitehall and his followers entered the castle and took control of the nexus point, giving birth to the Warden. What happened next, which was truly revolutionary, was the development of an actual school. Instead of very limited occupational training, they were given a wide range of lessons, studying the different branches of magic known to exist. This led, very quickly, to the development of early alchemy, attempts to tap the magical properties of the natural world. All sources agree that alchemy was developed at Whitehall; Life of Whitehall credits Whitehall himself with the discovery.

At this point, there was a major dispute within the larger magical community, such as it was in those days. Details are quite scarce. The only point that all of the sources agree upon is that a number of masters, probably including several DemonMasters, believed that Whitehall would create a patronage network of magicians that would rapidly eclipse the previous master-apprenticeship relationships. Life of Bernard, in the meanwhile, asserts that Bernard himself was targeted by envious rivals (notably, this claim is not repeated in Times Whitehall) who feared his growing power. Lay of Lord Alfred speaks ominously of dissent within the castle and several members of the commune who, if they did not turn against Whitehall, stood aside when the castle itself came under attack. Times Whitehall does add the suggestion that the attackers were motivated by misogyny, although, as Bernard was seemingly quite taken with the Dark Lady, it is unclear how reliable this statement actually is.

What is clear is that the castle came under attack and Whitehall defeated them. Precisely how he did this is lost to time; Times Whitehall asserts that he used the wards, far more powerful than any previously raised by human hands, to drive out the attackers. Life of Whitehall claims the attackers were all turned into pigs, which were then eaten at dinner, but such gruesome details are hopefully inaccurate.

Whitehall died shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Bernard De Born, who became the first Grandmaster. Whitehall may or may not have allowed girls to study magic (it isn’t clear just when girls were first permitted to study at the school) but Bernard did allow female students, although their studies were restricted for at least a century after the original decision was made until Healers were able to prevent death in childbirth.

Bernard was determined, in honour of his master, to overcome the need to study the Black Arts and funded hundreds of research programs into strengthening magic. Times Whitehall specifically states that Bernard was responsible for discovering that cross-breeding long-standing magician bloodlines with wild magicians made them stronger (Life of Bernard claims that Bernard himself fathered at least a dozen children on five or six separate mothers) while the first true alchemists developed ways to boost magic, at least for short periods. Lay of Lord Alfred includes long and vague sections that may be a reference to necromancy, but the first true necromancers were not recorded until the Second Faerie War.

It is impossible, in conclusion, to say with any certainty just what happened during the founding and early history of Whitehall School. The dating controversy alone makes it hard to say who was alive at the time, while a number of documents dating back to the founding are either deliberately slanted, make reference to other documents that are now lost or discuss events that, frustratingly, would be common knowledge at the time. However, I believe the above represents the best picture that can be put together at present.

Snippet–Past Tense (SIM 10)

20 Jun

WARNING – Everything here is a major spoiler for Infinite Regress. If you haven’t read that book, you might want to check it out first. (And this is the pre-major-edit version, so feel free to point out problems.)

PastTense_med2

Prologue

They were doomed.

Lord Whitehall knew it, knew it with a sick certainty that could not be denied. The magic swirling around the small gathering of magicians would overwhelm their defences soon enough, no matter how hard they struggled. The brilliant – and sickly – light was burning into their minds, making it hard to think clearly. Their wards were cracking, on the verge of breaking, yet they could not abandon the work and run for their lives. It would have spelled instant death as the tidal wave of magic from the nexus point overwhelmed their defences and crushed them like bugs. They would have been safer, he saw now, to stand in the path of a rushing river and demand it bow to their will.

It had been a dreadful mistake, he knew now. The castle had seemed their only hope – it was far from civilisation, far from anyone who might want to hunt the commune – but the nexus point beneath the castle was a wild thing. It could not be tamed, he realised; the merest touch had unleashed a surge of magic so strong that all of the masters, working together, could barely save themselves from instant death. And yet they could not even break free to warn the remainder of the commune to evacuate the castle. They – the masters and a handful of their most trusted apprentices – would only be the first to die.

His head started to pound as he thrust more and more magic into the wards, knowing that it was futile. All he could hope to do was keep his people alive for a few more seconds, before the wild magic slammed into them. Those who lived would envy the dead, he thought, if the whispered rumours were true. The monsters they’d encountered as they hacked their way through the forest, towards the castle, might have been human once, before the wild magic transformed them. Now? Now they were just beasts.

I’m sorry, he thought.

He wasn’t sure who he was apologising to. His teacher, the man whose secrets would now be lost with his former apprentice; his fellow masters, who would die beside him; his apprentice, who would never become a master in his own right; his daughter, who would never have a husband or children of her own … ? He’d failed them all. They were all going to die in the next few minutes, no matter what he did …

The demon tricked us.

It was a bitter thought. He’d known for years – his master had hammered it into his skull, when he’d been a young man barely starting out as a magician – that demons were untrustworthy, but they’d been desperate. They’d known they were desperate. And so Lord and Master Alfred had summoned a demon and put the question to the entity, asking where they could go that was safe. The demon had told them about the nexus point …

… And sent them straight to their doom.

Power surged around him as the nexus point grew larger, wild magic spilling into the air and pressing against the wards. They couldn’t hold for more than a few seconds … he heard someone screaming, but he couldn’t tell who. Perhaps it was himself, in the final seconds of his life, all dignity torn from him by the grim awareness that he’d led his people right into a trap. And then there was a flash of light and … someone … was kneeling in the middle of the circle, just in front of the nexus point.

There was no time to stare. The wave of magic – the final wave of magic – built up, slowly sliding forward as if it were guided by a mind that wanted the magicians to watch helplessly as their doom approached them. He pushed the last dregs of his power into the wards, knowing that it would be futile …

… And then the newcomer added his strength to the wards.

Whitehall would have been astonished as the wards changed, snapping into a new configuration that was both bizarre and yet perfect, if he hadn’t been concentrating on holding the outer wards in place as the inner wards grew more complex. It was working! Whatever the newcomer had done, it was working! The wild magic flashed and flared inside the wards, but it couldn’t escape. There was a final shudder, running through the entire building and then the wild magic was gone. The blinding light vanished at the same moment, plunging the room into near-darkness. And the nexus point hung in the middle of the room, tiny and yet immensely large at the same time, tamed. They’d tamed a nexus point!

He found it hard to keep from giggling inanely as he collapsed to the stone floor. For a long moment, all he could do was lie there and fight to keep himself awake. Everything blurred around him as fatigue threatened to overcome him. And then, drawing on reserves he hadn’t known he possessed, he pulled himself to his feet, grabbed a torch and stumbled towards the newcomer, heedless of the risk of stepping too close to the nexus. He …

… No, she.

Whitehall stared. He’d travelled widely, first with his master and then with a string of apprentices, but he’d only ever heard wild rumours about witches. He’d certainly never met a real witch. And yet, the girl before him was clearly a magician. Her power was faint, perhaps as drained as his own, but he could perceive it surrounding her, infusing her body and giving her a strength she would not otherwise possess.

She blinked up at him, clearly half-blinded by the light. Her face was perfect, almost too perfect; there were no scars or blemishes, none of the marks carried by the girls and women waiting in the castle above. Her arms were muscular, but it was clear that she was not used to the backbreaking labour of a farmwife. And she was clean, as if someone had scrubbed away all the torments of womanhood and left behind nothing but purity. She was tall, almost as tall as himself; she was easily the tallest woman he’d seen outside royalty. Her long brown hair hung down to the small of her back, contrasting oddly with the shapeless grey garment she wore. He’d never seen anything like it …

And he couldn’t even begin to guess at her age.

He held up a hand, motioning for the others to stay back as the girl looked at him. He couldn’t help noticing that her eyes were soft, with none of the hardness that was all too familiar to him. His own wife had lived a harsh life, even after she’d married a magician; she’d never dared reveal such … vulnerability to anyone, not even him. The women upstairs, waiting to hear what the magicians had done, were hardly less harsh. Whitehall knew the world was an unkind place, but it was harsher on women. And yet, the girl before him was different.

And she was a magician.

The girl seemed to steady herself. “Who … who are you?”

Whitehall contemplated her for a long moment. Her words were understandable, but they were oddly-accented. The common tongue was clearly not her first language, he decided; boys were normally taught the common tongue in childhood, while girls were rarely taught anything other than their mother tongue unless they were destined to marry a merchant or a magician. His wife had spoken three languages and considered herself accomplished, for the youngest daughter of a magician. She’d been a remarkable woman. And yet she’d died in childbirth …

“I am Lord and Master Whitehall,” Whitehall said, gravely. He didn’t miss the expression of shock that passed across the girl’s face. This was not someone, he reasoned, who was used to concealing her feelings or minding her words. An indulgent father and no husband? Or perhaps she was powerful enough not to care about her words. “Who are you?”

He held out a hand to help the girl to her feet. It was dangerous, but his instincts insisted that the girl wasn’t a threat. She seemed oddly hesitant to take his hand – that, at least, was a normal reaction – but she eventually allowed him to help her up. Her legs were concealed within her garment, yet Whitehall could tell she was tired and drained. Doing what she’d done – doing the impossible thing she’d done – had to have cost her dearly.

“I … I am Emily,” the girl managed. “I shouldn’t be here.”

Whitehall surprised himself by laughing. “Nor should we,” he said. “Nor should we.”

He snorted, then pushed his humour aside as he heard whispering from behind him. Solving the mystery of just how the girl – Emily – had arrived in the castle was important, but he was damned if he was going to rip her mind open to find out. They owed her their lives – and those of the men, women and children who had followed them to the castle.

“We are in your debt,” he added, grandly. “And you are welcome here.”


Chapter One

“I am Lord and Master Whitehall,” the man said, gravely. For a moment, Emily honestly thought the translation spell was glitched. “Who are you?”

Emily stared up at the speaker in absolute disbelief. She couldn’t have gone back in time, could she? It was impossible! Going forward in time was easy enough – she’d adjusted the flow of time within pocket dimensions to skip forward nearly an entire day – but going backwards in time was impossible. Or so she’d been told. Five years ago, she would have believed that turning someone into a frog was impossible too!

Her head spun. “I … I am Emily,” she said. She could feel the nexus point behind her, twisting in and out of her awareness as though it was both infinitely large and impossibly tiny. “I shouldn’t be here.”

She tried hard to think clearly as Whitehall helped her to her feet and welcomed her to the castle. Her head hurt as she considered the implications. If she was lost in time, she didn’t dare say or do anything that might alter the timeline for fear of accidentally altering the series of events that led up to her departure from Earth. But, at the same time, she’d already interfered – and, in doing so, protected the timeline. Everyone knew Lord Whitehall was the first man to tame a nexus point. No one had ever suggested he might have had help from the future.

And if I’m meant to be here, she thought numbly, what else am I meant to do?

She looked at Whitehall, feeling oddly intimidated. She was in the presence of a legend, the man who would found Whitehall School and lay the groundwork for educating hundreds of thousands of young magicians. The men behind him, watching her with wary eyes, had to be part of the Whitehall Commune. She wondered, absently, if she knew their names, if recorded history had been remotely accurate. There were so many gaps in the records that it was hard to know just who was truly significant and who had merely been shoehorned into reconstructions of past events because his writings had survived.

Whitehall himself looked nothing like his portraits. They’d made him look like a grand old wizard, Emily recalled, but the man before her was clearly in his late forties rather than pushing into a second century. His face was a dark olive, his beard slowly shading to white as he grew older. His hair was cropped close to his skull; his eyes, darker than hers, seemed to bore into her very soul. She couldn’t help thinking of owls as she let go of his hand, trusting her legs to hold her upright. There was something about the way he moved that reminded her of an owl.

He wore no robes, she saw, as he turned to face his companions. Instead, he wore heavy trousers and a dark shirt, making him look more like a labourer than a magician. Runes and sigils were sewn into his shirt, almost all of them unknown to her. And yet, she recalled seeing a handful of them in the tunnels below Whitehall … below old Whitehall. If she was truly back in the early days of the school, perhaps even before the school, the tunnel network might not have been constructed yet. She reached out to the familiar wards, but sensed no response. They didn’t exist either, not yet. The only thing she could sense was the constant presence of the nexus point.

She rubbed the snake-bracelet on her wrist, silently grateful that she’d kept it on when she prepared for bed. She wouldn’t be completely friendless …

“Master Baju-Merah is dead,” a voice said. “The strain killed him.”

Emily sucked in her breath as she saw the body. The man – the old man – had died badly, his face twisted in pain. A heart attack, perhaps, judging from the lack of physical wounds on his corpse. There was no way to know. Perhaps a strand of wild magic had escaped … she shook her head, dismissing the thought. If the wards had cracked, even slightly, everyone in the chamber would be dead or wishing they were.

She looked at the other magicians as they clustered around the body, glancing at her as they talked in low voices. There was no point in trying to match names to faces, not when the portraits were so wildly inaccurate. They looked … odd, at least compared to the magicians she knew. A number looked surprisingly old, surprisingly dirty, for magicians; others looked physically young, but mentally old. She found herself staring at a young man who was looking at her, unable to be sure just how old he actually was. But then, she’d never been very good at guessing ages on the Nameless World. People without magic aged at terrifying speed.

They’re all men, she thought, numbly. There isn’t a single woman amongst them.

The realisation struck her with terrifying force. My God, she thought. I’m the Dark Lady.

Her legs buckled, threatening to send her crashing to the stone floor. The Dark Lady was a legend, a person who was only mentioned in a couple of sources … a person who half the historians in the Nameless World believed to be nothing more than a story. Her story had either been wildly exaggerated or written out altogether … there was no way Emily and she could be the same person. And yet, it was impossible to convince herself that she wasn’t. It didn’t look as though there was any other role to play.

She closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to decide what to say when Whitehall finally demanded answers. He would demand answers too, she knew … and she doubted the Sorcerers Rule held sway a thousand years ago. Or was it only seven hundred? The thought made her smile, despite the shock and growing fear for the future. She might be able to learn answers to questions that had vexed historians from whomever had written the Book of Lives to Professor Locke himself.

I have to get back, she told herself. The past was fascinating, but she wanted to get back to her Whitehall – and Caleb. And everyone else she knew and loved. I can’t stay here forever.

“Emily,” Whitehall said. She opened her eyes. He’d dismissed most of the magicians, leaving only himself and the young man in the chamber. “I need to ask you some questions.”

Emily nodded, sensing Whitehall’s exhaustion under his words. Up close, it was surprisingly easy to sense his magic. He didn’t seem to be masking his power at all. That was – would be – considered incredibly rude in the future, a bare-faced attempt to intimidate her, but his body language didn’t suggest anything of the sort. He certainly wasn’t trying to lean into her personal space. Perhaps he was just too tired to keep his magic under control. There was certainly something … discordant … about it. Behind him, it was impossible to sense the young man’s magic at all.

“This is quite a hard place to reach,” Whitehall said. “How did you get here?”

The young man leaned forward. “And how did you appear in the chamber?”

“Bernard,” Whitehall said, reprovingly. “One question at a time.”

Emily felt her mouth drop open. The young man before her was Bernard De Born? The man who would be the first true Grandmaster? The writer who would write a history of Whitehall and dozens of other books that had been lost over the years? It was impossible to reconcile the image of the older man with the younger one in front of her.

She forced herself to focus on choosing her words. There was no way she could tell Whitehall the truth, even if she swore him – both of them – to silence. And yet, the more lies she told, the greater the chance of being caught out. Whitehall wouldn’t trust her – at all – if he caught her in a lie. She would be surprised if he wasn’t already concerned – and suspicious – about her appearance. She’d arrived right at the moment of their greatest need.

“My tutor and I made our way here,” she said, finally. “He had a theory about …”

“He?” Whitehall repeated. “He?”

Emily cursed under her breath. She had the nasty feeling she’d just put her foot in it. But there was no going back now.

“He had a theory about taking control of a nexus point,” she said. “He’d worked out a complex set of spells he believed would be sufficient to take control. But it wasn’t enough to save his life. There was a flash of light and I saw him die, a moment before you arrived.”

Bernard’s eyes narrowed. “There was no one in the chamber when we arrived.”

“She might have been trapped in the nexus point,” Whitehall pointed out. “And our attempt to tame the wild magic freed her.”

“Then I thank you,” Emily said. “But I don’t recall anything between his death and your arrival.”

Whitehall frowned. “Who taught you?”

A dozen answers ran through Emily’s head. She could claim to have been taught by Dumbledore, or Gandalf, or Yoda … it wasn’t as if Whitehall could disprove her words. But she needed to keep it as simple as possible. She knew enough about telling lies to know just how easy it was to say too much and give the listener the key they needed to untangle the entire web of deceit.

“I swore an oath to keep the details of my training to myself,” she said, finally. If Whitehall and his commune were anything like the magicians she knew, they’d respect an oath. “Even though he’s dead, he never saw fit to release me from it.”

Whitehall nodded. “It is … uncommon for a girl to be schooled in magic,” he said. “Your father, perhaps? Teaching you because he had no son?”

Emily kept her face blank with an effort. Whitehall – her Whitehall – taught girls and boys equally, assuming they had magic. But the history books had made it clear that girls were not originally taught magic. It had been Bernard – Grandmaster Bernard – who’d first permitted girls to study at Whitehall, assuming that wasn’t something else the history books had managed to get wrong. There was no point, not any longer, in pretending to be an untrained magician. They’d seen what she’d done to the nexus point.

“I swore an oath,” she said, again.

Whitehall nodded. “I understand,” he said. “He must have been a very smart man.”

“He taught a girl,” Bernard said. “How is that smart? The curse …”

Emily frowned. “What curse?”

“He didn’t even tell you that?”

Bernard turned to his master. “She’s lying,” he said. “I sense no magic from her.”

“I sense no magic from you either,” Emily snapped back.

Whitehall gave her an odd look. “My apprentice has more than enough magic,” he said, coldly. “But yours is well hidden.”

Bernard stepped forward. “This is a joke, master,” he said. “I don’t know how she got here, but she is no magician.”

Emily scowled at him, feeling oddly disappointed. This was the Grandmaster who would invite girls to study alongside the boys? She reached out with her senses and frowned as she sensed magic surrounding Bernard for the first time. He wasn’t trying to mask his power at all; indeed, the only reason she hadn’t sensed it earlier was because Whitehall’s magic had obscured his apprentice’s power. Professor Lombardi would have summarily failed any student who failed to mask his power within his personal wards, she knew. Allowing one’s power to roam free was … sloppy.

“You sensed what she did to the nexus point,” Whitehall said. He sounded puzzled, but calm and composed. There was no anger in his tone. “She showed us how to patch the wards in place to tame the wild magic.”

“She’s a girl,” Bernard protested.

Emily felt her temper snap. “Then fight me,” she said. “I challenge you to a duel, if you dare.”

Bernard glared at her, then turned to his master. “Master …”

“She challenged you,” Whitehall said. He smiled, rather dryly. “Are you going to take up the challenge?”

“It wouldn’t be a fight,” Bernard objected.

Emily resisted – barely – the urge to stick out her tongue. “Then you don’t have anything to fear,” she said, instead. “You’ll beat me with ease.”

“Fine,” Bernard snapped. He turned and paced across the chamber, then turned to face her, his hands clenching into fists. “Master, will you set up the warding circle?”

“I doubt one will be necessary,” Whitehall said. He stepped to one side, nodding shortly to Emily. “Try not to kill each other.”

Emily kept her expression blank as she tensed, testing her protections carefully. Challenging Bernard was a risk, she knew all too well. She could lose. And yet, his casual dismissal of her abilities hurt. She was damned if she was allowing him to talk down to her, let alone treat her as a silly girl who needed a man to make all the decisions for her. It wasn’t as if she was one of the stupid noblewomen who’d made Alassa’s wedding preparations such a trial. And Bernard was a disappointment anyway.

“Begin,” Whitehall said.

Bernard didn’t hesitate. His hand snapped down as he unleashed a spell she didn’t recognise, a spell that bled mana in all directions. It was sloppy work – Professor Lombardi would probably have broken Bernard’s hand if he’d cast that in class – but it was powerful. The spell slammed into her protections, shaking them roughly, yet it was really nothing more than brute force. Part of her mind analysed the spell quickly, noting how it made no attempt to seek out weaknesses in her protections and break through the cracks. Bernard had a great deal of raw power, although it was so sloppy she couldn’t tell just how much power, but very little actual skill.

“Impressive,” Whitehall commented.

Emily kept her eyes on Bernard as she deflected or drained the last remnants of his spell. He looked stunned, as if he’d expected her to be knocked out … or killed … by his magic. Emily wasn’t quite sure what the spell had actually been intended to do. It had just been thrown together so poorly that merely striking her defences had been enough to disrupt the spellware beyond repair. She gathered her own magic, readying a retaliatory blow, but waited to see what he would do. And then he tossed a second spell at her. This one was tighter and sharper … and felt unpleasant as it crawled across her wards. She felt a flicker of horror as she realised what that spell was meant to do.

“Careful,” Whitehall said. His smile was gone. “Using that in a duel could get you in real trouble.”

I suppose it could, Emily thought. Trying to take control of your opponent …

She summoned a fireball and threw it at him, watching dispassionately as it crashed into his magic and exploded into nothingness. His protections were nothing like hers, she saw; they were crude, utterly unfocused. It looked as though he was using his own magic as a baseball bat, swatting away spells as they approached, rather than embedding wards within his magic and concentrating on offense. Emily hated to think what Sergeant Miles would have said to any of his students stupid enough to try that. Splitting their attention between offense and defence meant that they couldn’t concentrate on either.

Bernard flung a third spell at her, so powerful that she stepped aside rather than try to catch it on her protections. Bracing herself, she threw back a ward-cracking spell of her own and followed up with a prank spell. Bernard let out a yelp of shock as his wards came apart – Emily realised, too late, that the ward-cracking spell had actually attacked his magic directly – and then shrank, rapidly, as the prank spell took effect. Moments later, a tiny green frog was looking up at her with disturbingly human eyes.

“I think I win,” Emily said.

She looked at Whitehall and saw him looking back in shock. “You did it so casually?”

“I had a good teacher,” Emily said. She cursed her mistake – if it had been a mistake – under her breath. She had no idea when transfiguration spells had been invented, but it was possible that Whitehall didn’t know how to use them – or regarded them as too demanding to be practical. “He taught me everything I know.”

Whitehall studied her for a long moment. “I think you win too,” he said. “Undo the spell, please.”

Emily nodded and cast the counterspell. Bernard looked astonished as he reverted to human form, his face pale and wan. A lingering greenish tone hung over his skin for long seconds after the spell faded back into the ether. He would have been trying to break free, Emily knew. If he had no experience with pranking spells – the spells Emily had learned in her first year of studies – he might assume that his mind was on the verge of sinking into the frog’s and being lost forever.

“I am sorry for doubting you,” Bernard said. He stood upright, then held out a hand. Emily shook it firmly. “And you are clearly a great magician.”

“A useful lesson, young man,” Whitehall said. “You are strong, but your training is far from complete.”

Emily kept her thoughts to herself as Whitehall turned towards the gaping door. Bernard, at least, didn’t seem to bear a grudge. But then, Sergeant Miles had told her she might have to fight to prove herself, if she was dumped in with the men. Beating a man fairly would work far better, he’d said, than whining to his superiors. The former would earn respect, the latter would breed resentment.

She rubbed the side of her head as she followed Whitehall, Bernard falling into step beside her. Her head hurt, a dull ache that was making it hard to think. She’d been awakened in the middle of the night, after all. She needed to sleep, to rest and figure out a way home before she accidentally tore a hole in history and erased her friends from existence.

And hope I can survive here long enough to find a way home, she thought, grimly. This isn’t the Whitehall I know.

Snippet – Fear God And Dread Naught (Ark Royal 8, Vanguard II)

11 Jun

fear god and dread naught cover

Prologue

Published In British Space Review, 2216

Sir.

In their recent letters, the Honourable Gordon Cameron and General Sir David Brown (ret) both asserted that Britain – and humanity – has no legal obligation to go to the aid of the Tadpoles, even though human ships were attacked and destroyed during the Battle of UXS-469. They claim that we can pull back and allow the Tadpoles to face the newcomers on their own.

I could not disagree more.

The blunt truth is that the newcomers attacked a joint task force composed of ships belonging to both ourselves and the Tadpoles. They made no attempt to open communications; they merely opened fire (which is, in itself, a form of communication). Their attack came alarmingly close to capturing or destroying over thirty warships from five different nations, including the Tadpoles. They followed up by invading a number of Tadpole-held star systems, culminating with a thrust at a major colony that would, if captured, have opened up access to tramlines leading towards Tadpole Prime. Those are not the actions of the innocent victims of unthinking aggression. They are the actions of an aggressor.

We do not know – we have no way to know – what our new opponents are thinking. They may be so xenophobic that an immediate offensive is their only possible response to any alien contact, although the proof that we are in fact facing two unknown races seems to render this unlikely. Or they may merely be an aggressive, expansionist race taking advantage of the contact to snatch as much territory as possible. Given their technical advantages, we dare not assume that the whole affair is a simple misunderstanding. Nor do we dare assume that communications have merely been poorly handled and the matter will be solved through simple negotiation. We are at war.

From a cold-blooded perspective, fighting the war well away from the Human Sphere has a great deal to recommend it. Human colonies and populations will not be at risk. We can and we will trade space for time, if necessary; there will certainly be no messy political repercussions from military missteps so far from Earth. Keeping the war as far from our major worlds as possible cannot do anything, but work in our favour.

But there is another point – one of honour. We gave our word to the Tadpoles that we would uphold the Alien Contact Treaty. Are we now to welsh on the treaty we proposed and drafted? Are we now to confirm to the Tadpole Factions that humans are truly untrustworthy? And should we write off the deaths of over thirty thousand human spacers we can ill afford to lose? Their deaths cry out to be avenged.

No one would be more relieved than I, should we find a way to communicate with our unknown foes. But I have seen nothing that suggests that communication – meaningful communication – is possible. We may be dealing with a mentality that will refuse to negotiate until they are given a convincing reason to negotiate or we may be dealing with a race that we cannot talk to, whatever we do. The only way to guarantee the safety and security of the Human Sphere is to assist our allies and make it clear, to our new foes, that human lives don’t come cheap. And if we are unable to convince them to talk to us, then we must carry the offensive forward and strike deep into their territory.

The galaxy is a big place. But it may not be big enough for both of us.

Admiral Sir Tristan Bellwether, Second Space Lord (ret).

Chapter One

“Henry,” the First Space Lord said. He rose to his feet as Henry was shown into his office and held out a hand in greeting. “It’s been a long time.”

“Longer for you than for me,” Ambassador Henry Windsor said. He hadn’t visited Nelson Base since the endless series of debriefings, after he returned from Tadpole space. “It’s been quite some time since we served together on Ark Royal.”

“True,” the First Space Lord agreed. He shook Henry’s hand, then motioned him to take a comfortable chair. “I remember when you were just a fledging fighter pilot.”

“And I remember when you were a mere captain,” Henry said. He smiled, rather tiredly, as he took his seat. “It’s definitely been a very long time.”

He studied his former commanding officer thoughtfully as the First Space Lord ordered tea and biscuits. Admiral Sir James Montrose Fitzwilliam had been a dark-haired young man – some would say an overambitious young man – when he’d talked his way into the XO slot on HMS Ark Royal. His dark hair had shaded to grey and there were new lines on his face, but Henry still had no trouble seeing the face of the man he’d liked and respected, even when he’d been called out on the carpet for hiding his true identity from his lover. And yet, there was a strain there that Henry found somewhat disconcerting. Admiral Fitzwilliam had commanded the task force that had recovered the Pegasus System and defeated the Indians seven years ago, but it had been too long since he’d stood on a command deck.

“You’ve been back on Earth for a month,” the First Space Lord said. “How are the kids?”

“Safe on my estate,” Henry said, bluntly. “They’re complaining about being prisoners, but at least they’re safe from the parasites outside the walls.”

“The media,” the First Space Lord agreed. “And to think I thought the King intended to welcome them at court.”

Henry shook his head. “Over my dead body,” he said. “None of the girls are going to grow up in a goldfish bowl, certainly not without any real reward at the far end.”

“A commendable attitude,” the First Space Lord said. “But what are you going to do about their education?”

“I’ll hire tutors,” Henry said. He looked up as the aide reappeared, carrying a tray laden with tea and biscuits. “They’re certainly not going to boarding school.”

He sighed inwardly as the aide poured them both a cup of tea then retreated, as silently as she had come. Paeans had been written to the British Boarding School – he had a sneaky feeling that the people who’d written them had never actually been there – but his three daughters were not going to attend. He didn’t remember his school years very fondly and he’d had the advantage of being a strong boy, with unarmed combat training from a couple of his bodyguards. Being sent away from home had left scars that had never truly healed.

And it was worse for my sister, he thought. No wonder she clings so hard to the throne.

He took a sip of his tea – it was excellent, of course – and then leaned forward, resting the cup on the armrest.

“I assume you know why I’m here,” he said. “It certainly took a while to secure an appointment.”

The First Space Lord didn’t bother to dissemble. “Susan Onarina.”

“Correct,” Henry said. He met the older man’s eyes, reminding himself – sharply – that they were no longer senior officer and junior officer. “My contacts inform me that no final decision has been reached on her case.”

“That is correct,” the First Space Lord said. He shifted, uncomfortably. “There have been issues …”

“It’s been a month,” Henry interrupted.

“Collecting evidence for the Board of Inquiry can sometimes take much longer, as you well know,” the First Space Lord said. “This is a question of mutiny in the face of the enemy.”

“Bullshit,” Henry said.

The First Space Lord lifted his eyebrows. “I beg your pardon?”

Henry stared back, evenly. “Should I have said bovine faecal matter?”

He plunged on before the First Space Lord could say a word. “Let us be blunt, Admiral,” he insisted. “Susan Onarina assumed command of HMS Vanguard in the middle of a battle. I do not believe that fact is in dispute. But it is also clear that the battleship’s former commander, Captain Sir Thomas Blake, froze up in the middle of two consecutive combat operations. If she had not taken command, in the manner she did, we would be mourning an additional fifteen thousand spacers.”

“That’s one interpretation of the data,” the First Space Lord said, icily.

“It isn’t just my interpretation of the data,” Henry noted. “The Yanks have … requested … permission to award her the Navy Cross for her actions, which saved the lives of several thousand American spacers too. Captain Owen Harper – they’ve bumped him up to Commodore now – has considerable reason to be annoyed at her, but his report – which accidentally found its way across my desk – praises her to the skies. You know how touchy the Americans are about placing their ships under outside command.”

He took a breath. “I believe the only other naval officer with that honour, in recent memory, was Theodore Smith.”

Something flickered in the First Space Lord’s eyes. “The Americans do not dictate what we do – or don’t do – with our personnel.”

“No, they don’t,” Henry agreed. “But sooner or later, they’re going to actually want to award her that medal – and it will be pretty fucking embarrassing if we have to explain to the media cockroaches that she’s in Colchester awaiting court martial.”

He picked up one of his biscuits and dunked it in his tea as he spoke. “And, by law, formal court martial proceedings have to be public,” he added. “It will set the government up for an disastrous political catfight at the worst possible time.”

“She does have the option of retiring quietly,” the First Space Lord pointed out.

“Which is as good as an admission that there’s no real case against her,” Henry snapped. “I have the recordings, sir; I have the data records. Blake was a crawling sycophant who should never have been promoted above Midshipman, let alone put in command of our largest and most powerful battleship! He was damn lucky that Admiral Boskone didn’t realise just how badly he screwed up during the war games or he would probably have been brutally strangled on his own command deck.”

“Blake was a good officer, once,” the First Space Lord said, quietly.

“He wasn’t when he assumed command of Vanguard,” Henry said. He made an effort to moderate his tone. “I’m not going to second-guess the officers who put him in charge, sir, but my reading of the situation is that his former XO was covering for him. It would have taken a toll on anyone. I’m not surprised that he deserted.

“And if that gets out,” he added, “all hell is going to break loose.”

“It may still break loose,” the First Space Lord admitted. “Blake … had a number of friends in high places.”

Henry groaned. “And they’re the ones pressing for court martial,” he guessed. “Because heaven forbid that such illustrious personages ever make a fucking mistake!”

“You’re an illustrious personage,” the First Space Lord snapped. “You are still first or second in line to the throne …”

“I took myself out of the line of succession,” Henry said. “And I have never knowingly promoted someone above his level of competence.”

“Neither did they,” the First Space Lord countered. “This was a terrible surprise to them too.”

“So they’re going to destroy an innocent woman, a woman we should be hailing as a hero, to cover their arses,” Henry snarled. “And you are going to let them get away with it.”

He felt anger rising and choked it down, savagely. It was the arrogance of the aristocracy that had driven him away from it, the arrogance of people who knew they held very real power and the will to use it. And he, the Crown Prince of Great Britain and her Colonies, would have inherited nothing, if he’d taken the throne. His role had been to be nothing more than a figurehead. He honestly didn’t know why his father had chosen to stay on the throne for over thirty years. Henry knew he would have gone stir-crazy within the month.

“I have very little choice,” the First Space Lord said. “I …”

“Bullshit,” Henry said, again. “What happened to you?”

It was a struggle to keep his voice even, but he managed it. “What happened to the commander who saw fit to ignore his instructions and save his superior’s career? What happened to the captain who stood up to his admiral and told him to keep his nose out of command business? What happened to the admiral who plotted the defeat of the Indian Navy and then carried it out?”

The First Space Lord slapped his desk, making the teacups rattle. “I will not be spoken to like this.”

“Then it’s high time you remembered your duty,” Henry said, sharply. “Your duty is to the men and women under your command, the men and women wearing naval uniform and risking their lives in combat. Or have you been behind a desk long enough to forget what is really important?”

He leaned back in his chair, deliberately presenting a relaxed demeanour. “The facts of the whole affair will get out, sir,” he warned. “And when they do, the government will wind up with a shitload of rotten egg on its collective face.”

“I see,” the First Space Lord said. “Is that a threat?”

“Merely a statement,” Henry said. “There isn’t a naval force in the Human Sphere that doesn’t have copies of the combat records. I’m surprised they haven’t leaked already. And those combat records include statements from Captain Harper and myself. Once they leak …”

He leaned forward. “Once they leak, everyone will see the government covering its arse at the expense of a genuine naval heroine’s career,” he added. “God damn it, sir; you know how fragile the government’s position is right now. The Opposition will not hesitate to take the whole affair and use it as a stick to beat the government to death. And then we will run the risk of losing the right to promote our own officers without obtaining governmental permission, in triplicate.

“And you, the person who should be defending her, is sitting on the sidelines muttering about politics!”

“I cannot afford to risk my position, not now,” the First Space Lord snapped. “If I …”

“And what,” Henry asked, “would Theodore Smith think of that?”

The First Space Lord glared at him, his jaw working incoherently. Henry watched him, wondering absently if he was about to be kicked out of the older man’s office. The First Space Lord was no coward, whatever Henry might have implied. His pride might lead him into a damaging political fight with no clear winner – with no possible winner – if he listened to it, rather than Henry.

“I suspect he might have changed, if he’d had to do battle with this job and it’s excessive paperwork,” the First Space Lord said, rather coldly. He picked up his cup and took a long sip, clearly calming himself. “What do you propose?”

Henry carefully hid his smile. He’d won.

“I assume you know who backed Blake for command of Vanguard,” he said. “Get them up here and explain, as thoroughly as you can, that Blake screwed up twice – and, the second time, he got a great many people killed. There’s no way they can pin it on poor Susan Onarina. They may destroy her career, if they try, but the facts will come out and Blake will be turned into a scapegoat for the entire battle.”

“They may not go for that,” the First Space Lord said.

“A handful of them will be former naval personages themselves,” Henry said. It was traditional for the aristocracy to send at least one or two of their children into the military, normally the Royal Navy. “They’ll understand. And the ones who aren’t will have someone to explain it to them, even if they have to use words of one syllable. They may not grasp the complexities of a naval engagement, but they will understand looming political disaster.”

“I confess I don’t share your faith in their rationality,” the First Space Lord mused.

Henry shrugged. There was no shortage of inbred idiots amongst the British Aristocracy – in his nastier moments, he wondered if his sister had only one or two working brain cells – but the ones who managed to reach high rank tended to be very competent indeed. And they would be ruthless enough to drop Blake like a hot rock, if patronising him raised the spectre of watching helplessly as their own positions were undermined.

“We will see,” he said.

He took a breath. “At that point, you will inform them that the Board of Inquiry has decided that Captain Susan Onarina acted in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, etcetera, etcetera and that it has recommended that she be confirmed as Vanguard’s commanding officer. You will, of course, accept this recommendation. And when they protest, as they will, you will also tell them that the Board of Inquiry has recommended that Captain Blake be given a medical discharge from the Royal Navy. They will, I am sure, regard it as a way out of the mess they’ve managed to get themselves into.”

“And grab it with both hands,” the First Space Lord observed. “Do you think the Board of Inquiry will cooperate?”

“A fair-minded Board of Inquiry will definitely produce a report that backs my conclusions,” Henry pointed out. “Right now, I suspect they’re worried about the effects on their careers if they produce the wrong report, without actually knowing which one is the wrong report. And if they seem reluctant, you can merely order them to come to the right conclusions.”

“Boards of Inquiry hate being leant on,” the First Space Lord said.

“But it is a defensiable position,” Henry said. “And if it blows up, it will blow up in your face, not theirs.”

“I’m starting to think you don’t like me anymore,” the First Space Lord commented. He smiled, rather thinly. “You’ve changed, Henry.”

“I was an ambassador for over a decade,” Henry said. He bit down the urge to ask just how much respect an admiral who was prepared to throw one of his subordinates under the shuttlecraft deserved. His former commander was caught between two fires. “I still am, technically. And I have learned a great deal about how the universe works in that time.”

The First Space Lord smiled, again. “And what about Blake himself?”

“My impression of him, towards the end of the voyage home, was one of relief,” Henry said, honestly. “I think he will accept his pension and fade into obscurity.”

He sighed, inwardly. Captain Blake hadn’t impressed him, but the First Space Lord was right. Blake had been a good officer once, before he’d lost his nerve. Henry would have been sorry for him if he’d been smart enough to request relief before the shit hit the fan, but he understood. No officer would request relief if there was any way it could be avoided, knowing that it meant the near-certainty of never seeing command again.

You wouldn’t have done it either, he told himself, dryly. Would you?

He shook his head, dismissing the thought. He’d been a starfighter pilot. Even towards the end of the war, he’d never progressed beyond Squadron Commander … and only then because everyone above him had been killed. The Admiralty had promoted him to captain when he’d retired, but he’d never commanded a warship and probably never would.

“I will trust that you are right,” the First Space Lord said. He cocked his head. “Might I ask why you chose to beard me in my den?”

“The new aliens attacked us,” Henry said. “They made no attempt to contact us; they made no attempt, either, to sound us out before opening fire. Even the Tadpoles watched us from stealth before the war began. But these new aliens? Their behaviour is insane, which worries me. Either they were waiting for us to enter their system before attacking or they merely attacked us on sight …”

“That’s nothing new,” the First Space Lord said, sharply.

“No, it isn’t,” Henry agreed. He’d spent most of the last month closeted with the xenospecialists as they struggled to make sense of what few scraps had been recovered from damaged or destroyed alien ships. If politics – damnable politics hadn’t drawn him away, he would be there still. “But we are at war, sir. We need every capable officer we have …”

He leaned forward. “And destroying a young officer’s career for saving her ship – and a dozen others – is a dangerous mistake,” he added. “What sort of message does that send to the navy? Or have you been off the command deck for too long?”

Touché,” the First Space Lord said. He nodded, slowly. “It will be done as you suggest, Henry. And I suggest” – his voice hardened – “that you don’t speak to me that again.”

“Of course, sir,” Henry said. Why would he? He’d won the argument. “It was a pleasure meeting you again.”

“I’m sure it was,” the First Space Lord said. He rose, terminating the meeting. “My aide will show you back to your shuttle, Henry.”

“Thank you,” Henry said. He rose, too. “And you will tell Susan – Captain Onarina – the good news in person?”

“I suppose I should,” the First Space Lord said. The hatch opened; his aide hurried into the chamber. “Be seeing you, Henry.”

“I’m sure you will,” Henry said. He shook his former commander’s hand, then turned to the hatch. “But right now you have a war to fight.”