Archive | October, 2017

Alassa’s Tale–Snippet

15 Oct

This probably merits some explanation.

I’ve got … something, perhaps a cold, that kept me from writing yesterday. But I had this scene running through my head, demanding I write it. It’s the first chapter of Alassa’s Tale, a novella I intend to bridge the gap between Graduation Day (Schooled in Magic 14) and The Princess in the Tower (Schooled in Magic 15). Obviously, this is written from Alassa’s POV instead of Emily’s. Comments would be very welcome.

I have a vague plan for writing the rest of the novella in December, but a lot depends on precisely what happens over the month.

Until then … Enjoy!

Chapter One

Alassa threw back her head and laughed.

The King’s Road opened up in front of her as the horse galloped forward. She heard Jade cry out behind her, his voice lost in the clatter of hooves. He’d only want her to slow down, she knew. Jade was a brave man, but he absolutely refused to allow her to take risks. Her smile grew wider as the horse moved faster, racing down the road. A woman was expected to obey her father, then her husband, but she was the Crown Princess. Exceptions were made for her.

And a sorceress, she thought. Exceptions are made for them too.

The wind grew stronger, blowing through her golden hair. She allowed it to stream out behind her, enjoying the sensation of freedom. It wouldn’t last, she knew, not when they were back home. Her father would expect her to play her role as Crown Princess, Heir to the Throne. He wouldn’t allow her to shirk her duties, not if she wanted to succeed him. It had taken him years to come around to the idea of his daughter following him, rather than a strapping son. And the hell of it was that now, after acknowledging his daughter as his heir, King Randor had a son. A bastard, to be sure, but a son none-the-less.

Forget about him, Alassa told herself, sharply. She knew she’d be seeing too much of the little brat over the next few years, even if her father had promised to keep the boy’s parentage a secret. Enjoy your freedom while it lasts.

The horse neighed as the trees grew closer, casting the road into shadow. Alassa glanced behind her, seeing nothing. Jade was a good horseman, one of the best she’d seen, but she’d been riding practically since she’d been old enough to walk. And Jade’s horse wasn’t quite as good as hers. She’d insisted on the best for herself and got it, too. The rest of the convoy – their guards and attendants – wouldn’t have a hope of catching up with either of them until they slowed down.

Better let him catch up, sooner or later, she thought. The thought of galloping all the way to Alexis was delightful, but she didn’t really want to abandon Jade. I don’t want to get too far ahead.

She smiled at the thought. Jade would be angry, of course, pointing out that she’d put her life at risk – as well as the unborn baby in her womb. If, of course, there was a child. She wasn’t sure herself, not after two false alarms. Jade and she would have an argument, once they reached the castle and established privacy wards, an argument that would end with hot make-up sex. She felt her smile grow brighter. She couldn’t wait.

The King’s Road grew bumpy, the horse catching itself an instant before it could plunge its foot into a pothole. Alassa pulled back on the reins, slowing the horse down … just a little, just enough to ensure their safety. Her lips thinned with disapproval. The local villagers were supposed to keep the King’s Road in good repair, even though they weren’t supposed to use it for themselves. No doubt they’d done as little as they felt they could get away with, so far from Alexis. Peasants rather bothered to think about their betters. Or care, for that matter, that they really weren’t that far from the capital. Her father could dispatch a team of inspectors and soldiers at any point, if he wished.

They haven’t even cut the undergrowth back from the road, she thought, displeased. The King’s Roads were meant to allow horsemen and carriages to race from one side of the kingdom to the other. And they needed constant maintenance or else they would slow passage. Father will definitely not be pleased.

She looked behind her, again. There was still no sign of Jade. She smiled again, knowing that he would be miles ahead of the convoy. They’d have a chance to kiss, a little, before the mounted men caught up with them. It wasn’t something she’d ever seen herself doing in married life, but … Jade wasn’t the kind of man she’d expected to marry. She felt a sudden rush of affection for her husband – and her father, the man who’d accepted her choice. She knew too many princesses and noblewomen who’d been forced into unhappy marriages for reasons of state. Princes and noblemen had been forced to wed too – of course – but they had alternatives. No one cared – much – if a husband had a mistress, but a wife …?

We have to be sure who fathered the children, she reminded herself, sourly. It was just another grim reminder that, if her father had had a legitimate son, she would have been put out of the line of succession years ago. The nasty part of her mind wondered just what she would have done, if her father had had a son. Would I have accepted it? Or would I have cursed the child before he grew into a man.

The surge of magic caught her by surprise. She reacted instantly, drawing on her own magic to hurl herself into the air. Her riding skirt billowed around her, an instant before the horse ran straight into the spell and froze. A trap. She’d almost ridden straight into a trap. Another spell crackled past her, cast by someone on the ground. She shaped an attractor spell of her own, aiming it at the nearest treetop as her levitation spell failed. The tree seemed to bend, just for a second, before she was suddenly shooting towards it. She cancelled the spell an instant before she slammed into the wood, grabbing onto the branch before gravity could reassert itself and she started to fall.

She grinned, savagely, as she peered downwards. There were too many leaves and branches for her to actually see anything with the naked eye, but she could sense at least one sorcerer down on the ground. He didn’t appear to have very good control over his magic. Very few sorcerers would willingly show their full power to the world, which meant she was either dealing with an incompetent or someone too powerful for him to hide his full power. Or someone who wanted her to think he was one or the other.

The tree shook, violently. Alassa glanced up, sighted another treetop and cast a second attractor spell. She flew off the branch, yanked forward by an irresistible force. Jade had explained, in detail, precisely why the spell worked – and why balancing the weights was important – but Alassa didn’t care about the details. She wasn’t Emily, who’d happily spend an afternoon taking the spell apart to find out how and why it worked, then rewrite the spellware to suit herself. All Alassa cared about was how it could be used.

She cast a third spell as she flew through the air, latching on to a third tree. The magic balanced, allowing her to hang motionless in the air. Jade had told her that it was an old combat sorcerer trick, although he was the only combat sorcerer she’d seen use it. Even Master Grey hadn’t used it, in his final duel. But then, he’d been confined to the duelling circle. There had been no room to fly.

One of the spells snapped, cancelled by her unseen attacker. Alassa gasped as she hurled towards the other tree, catching herself an instant before it was too late. She grinned as she crawled around the tree trunk, moving from branch to branch. The sorcerer had assumed, no doubt, that she was levitating. He’d probably expected her to fall out of the air and land at his feet. But instead she’d been yanked out of the way.

She looked down, trying to peer through the leaves. The sorcerer would be able to sense her, she was sure. She couldn’t hide herself and use magic, not simultaneously. And yet, she could easily make her escape. Her fingers reached down and touched her shirt, where the baby was growing … if, indeed, there was a baby. She could turn herself into a bird and hide in the woods, or simply move from tree to tree until she crossed paths with Jade and her guards. It would be the smart thing to do …

Pulling her magic around her, she threw herself down towards the ground. Another spell shot past her, a moment too late. They were trying to capture her, then. A trained sorcerer had no shortage of options if he wanted her dead, rather than locked away in a hidden cell. Not someone who wanted to cause chaos, then. There weren’t that many factions that would come out ahead if King Randor was suddenly left without a heir. The list of suspects was long, but manageable.

She hit the ground, her magic cancelling her fall. Magic billowed out in all directions – she heard a male voice curse – as she landed, looking around quickly. Two men, both dressed as peasants, were forced back by her magic, holding up their hands to shield themselves. She snapped her fingers at them, casting a pair of transfiguration spells. They should have been transformed into frogs, but the magic snapped out of existence an instant before it touched their skins. Not sorcerers themselves, then … yet someone had given them protections. The list of suspects suddenly seemed a little shorter.

A hand fell on her upper arm, swinging her around. Another man stood there, leering down at her. Alassa felt a flicker of contempt as she threw a punch at his jaw, casting the force punch spell an instant before she made contact. The man’s head disintegrated under the force of the blow. She yanked herself free of his grip as his body collapsed, resisting the urge to kick him as hard as she could. What had he thought she was? A pampered princess who’d faint the moment she saw blood? Or a scared little girl who’d be too frightened of the big strong man to fight back? Or … there were women in the court who’d probably surrender at once, if someone grabbed their arm, but not her. She was a sorceress! Didn’t they know she was a sorceress?

She turned back to the other two men, glancing around for the sorcerer. Where was he? Had she landed on him? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t see him anyway. And there was no time to reach out with her senses. The two men were advancing on her, carefully. One of them was holding a iron net, runes carved into the metal. A good trick, she acknowledged sourly. Once they had her pinned down, they’d be able to stun or drug her before they carried her deeper into the forest. Even Jade would have problems tracking them down before they reached their lair. And then they’d probably use her as leverage to make her father do whatever they wanted.

Hell, no, she thought.

Alassa took a step backwards, studying the men as they advanced. They didn’t seem to be angry that one – perhaps two – of their fellows had died, even though they were clearly a team. Professionals, then. Mercenaries? Or armsmen? They were definitely not peasants, whatever they might be wearing. Their clothes were too clean. It was a dead giveaway, even if they weren’t moving and acting like soldiers. The ambush had come far too close to outright success. It might still succeed.

Hell with that, she thought.

She cast another pair of spells, watching them flicker and die, then cast a kinetic spell on a tree branch. The two men didn’t look impressed as she pushed it at them, clearly not recognising the threat. A normal spell would fail the minute it struck their protections, dropping the branch to the ground, but Alassa hadn’t cast a normal spell. Emily had taught her something better, something guaranteed to take even a trained sorcerer by surprise. The spell might die, the moment it was cancelled, but the motion it had imparted to the tree branch would live on. She watched with grim satisfaction as it slammed into its targets, hurling them backwards. One of them hit a tree hard enough to break his neck. The other was badly wounded. It was a minor miracle that he’d survived.

A spell slammed into her back, throwing her to the ground. The sorcerer. She cursed her mistake as she hit the dirt, trying to force herself to move forward as another spell smashed her back down again. She’d forgotten him … how had she forgotten him? She twisted, fighting the power as it burned through her protections one by one. The sorcerer was bending over her, his face so indistinct that her eyes just seemed to slip over him. A glamour, then, a glamour so powerful that it had caused her to lose track of him altogether … until he’d attacked her.

The last of her protections started to die. She’d be helpless … panic yammered at the back of her mind, panic she ruthlessly suppressed. She forced herself to roll over, slipping the virgin blade from its sleeve and slashing out towards him. He was quick. He jerked back, so quickly that all she did was cut him. But it was enough. His glamour snapped, an instant before he staggered and fell. The poison on the blade was very quick. Only a trained alchemist could possibly have brewed an antidote and none of them could have brewed it in time to save the victim’s life. He tried to lift his hand, perhaps to cast one final spell, but it was already too late.

Alassa stood, returning the dagger to her sleeve and brushing the dirt off her clothes as she looked down at the dead body. The sorcerer was a complete stranger, somewhat to her relief. At least he wasn’t a graduate of Whitehall! But then, someone who’d been at the school would know better than to underestimate her. She glanced up and smiled as Jade’s horse cantered into the clearing, her magic crackling on the air. He’d sensed something, alright. And he’d pushed his horse with magic. The poor creature looked as though it was on the verge of collapse.

Lady Cecelia will not be pleased, Alassa thought, wryly. The Lady of the Stables was one of the most intimidating people in the castle. She’d been one of the very few people Alassa had respected and feared as a child. But he had no choice.

She grinned as Jade jumped off his horse. “What kept you?”

Jade stared back at her. “What happened?”

A dozen mischievous answers ran through Alassa’s mind, but she walked forward and kissed him instead. He kissed her back, hard. Someone had tried to kidnap her, but he’d failed … he’d failed completely. She pushed against him, feeling his muscles start to relax. She’d escaped. She wanted to celebrate …

Someone groaned. She jerked back, one hand reaching for the dagger. One of the attackers was still alive … badly wounded, mortally wounded, but alive. Jade walked towards him, motioning for her to stay back. Alassa followed, studying the wounded man carefully. His legs were a mangled mess and, judging from the way he was struggling to breathe, he had internal injuries too. A trained healer might be able to save him, but who’d want to waste effort trying? He’d committed an act of treason against his king!

She drew the dagger. “Answer my questions and I’ll give you a quick end,” she said. Emily would not approve, but Emily wasn’t the one who needed answers. Besides, there were no other ways to make him talk. No one would send armsmen or mercenaries out on a kidnap mission without making sure they couldn’t be forced to divulge information. The only way to get answers was to make the wounded man talk willingly. “If not … I’ll just leave you here.”

He looked back at her, his eyes filled with horror. There was no hope of survival. He knew it as well as she did. And being left behind … he might die quickly or he might be chewed to death by wild animals. The blood would draw foxes and wild boar to the clearing. Alassa wouldn’t have cared to face a boar, not without proper weapons or magic.

“I …”

He convulsed, sharply. Alassa started forward, but Jade caught her arm and pulled her backwards. The wounded man shuddered, then went limp and unmoving. Jade stepped forward and prodded him, not gently.

“A suicide spell,” he said, finally. “One designed to keep him from talking under any circumstances.”

And one he would have had to have accepted willingly, Alassa thought. It would have been a very complex spell. A simple one wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between being wounded and being tortured. Who are we facing?

Alassa reached out and took Jade’s hand, just for a moment. His warm grip was reassuring, even though she knew she should be worried. Someone had risked an ambush, within a few hours of Alexis. And even though the ambush had failed, the person behind it was still unknown. One of the Barons? Or one of the more radical factions? Or someone trying to cause trouble? Everyone knew the kingdom was on a knife-edge. An attack on the Crown Princess might just start a slide towards civil war.

She let go of Jade’s hand, stepping away from him and standing straighter as the guardsmen raced into the clearing, followed by the four carriages. Her personal bodyguards jumped off their horses, weapons raised … too late. She kicked herself, mentally. Too many people knew she had a habit of galloping off, leaving her husband and bodyguards behind. That piece of predictable behaviour had nearly gotten her kidnapped – or killed. Her father was not going to be pleased.

“Your Highness,” Sir William said. “Are you alright?”

Alassa looked back at him, evenly. Sir William was one of the very few senior knights – he was old enough to be her father – who didn’t appear to resent taking orders from a young woman. And he wasn’t scared of her magic either, as far as she could tell. That made him practically unique, around the court. But then, she had been a little monster when she’d come into her powers. And there was no way she could show weakness now. Too many older men saw her as a foolish female, someone who would allow either her hormones or her husband to guide her. She honestly wasn’t sure which one they found most objectionable.

Probably the prospect of Jade giving me orders, she thought. The unfairness burned in her gut. Even something as simple as holding Jade’s hand would be seen as a sign of weakness, while boys half her age could lead men and win renown on the battlefield. At least my hormones are aristocratic hormones.

She pushed the resentment out of her head. She was Crown Princess – and she would be Queen, in time. The kingdom would be hers until she died, whereupon it would be passed down to her eldest child. That was all that mattered.

“Put the bodies in the carriage,” she ordered. She carefully didn’t answer his question. It wasn’t one he would have asked a man. “We’ll see if we can identify them when we get home.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Sir William said.

“I don’t recognise any of the bastards,” Jade said, as the troopers hurried to obey. “Not even the sorcerer.”

Alassa nodded, stiffly. There were thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of sorcerers in the Nameless World – and not all of them went to school. The bastard who’d set the ambush could have studied at Mountaintop or Stronghold or … he might simply have been taught by his parents. There was no guarantee that an investigation would turn up his name, let alone whoever had hired him. The unknown backers had worked hard to ensure they wouldn’t be fingered by their servants.

“We’ll find out,” she promised. Anger burned within her, demanding retribution. Someone had tried to kidnap her, to turn her into a pawn in their game. “And then we’ll kill them.”

Sir William stamped back to her. “The bodies have been stowed, Your Highness,” he said, curtly. “I suggest we move.”

Alassa looked at her horse. The poor beast was lying on the ground, dead. Whatever spell had been used to freeze the beast had snapped during the brief fight – or, perhaps, the sorcerer had killed the horse, just to make sure she couldn’t jump on and flee. He definitely hadn’t known her very well, had he?

“Give me one of the spare horses,” she ordered. She was aware of Jade shifting behind her, but deliberately didn’t look at him. “The rider can stay in the carriage.”

Sir William looked, just for a moment, as if he wanted to protest. Alassa didn’t blame him, not really. He would be in deep shit when they got home, if only for letting her get so far ahead of him that she’d run into an ambush and had to fight her way out by herself. Jade was equally guilty, but Jade was Prince Consort. There was literally no one else to blame.

But I won’t let them put me out of the way, either, Alassa thought. They wouldn’t tell a king or a prince to hide.

“As you command, Your Highness,” Sir William said. “Shall we go?”

Alassa nodded. Jade was not going to be pleased, but he’d keep his thoughts to himself until they were alone. And then … they’d argue, they’d fight, and then they’d make up. She definitely couldn’t wait.

“Yes, Sir William,” she said. “We shall go.”

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The White Council: Background Notes

12 Oct

The White Council

In a sense, the White Council assumed it’s leadership role – such as it is – by default. During the days of the Empire, it was effectively a parliament (elected and/or appointed by wealthy or powerful voters); now, with the Emperor’s line apparently extinct and the senior aristocrats running kingdoms, it is the only transnational authority in the Allied Lands. Unsurprisingly, it’s actual powers are very limited. This is caused, most notably, by the political and patronage networks of the Allied Lands themselves.

On the face of it, the Allied Lands are divided into feudal kingdoms, independent city-states, magical communities and families and, the jokers in the deck, Lone Powers. However, it is very difficult to draw strict lines between them. A king’s land-holding noblemen may owe him allegiance, first and foremost, but they might also owe homage to monarchs in other countries, if they also own lands there. This was not a problem when the Empire was a going concern, as patchwork landholding was seen as a way of binding the lands together; now, it forces the majority of powerful noblemen to strike a balancing act between one monarch and the other. There have been some attempts to rationalise this in a number of kingdoms, with swaps arranged between various noblemen, but they haven’t been entirely successful. The net result is that it is different to say which way a given nobleman will jump, if it comes down to war.

This problem grows worse when city-states and magical communities are involved. Some city-states are effectively independent, others know that their independence rests on the nearby monarch choosing to honour their independence. The magical communities, by a set of compacts, enjoy more independence, but kings and princes are free to recruit sorcerers to work for them and to try to gain influence within the community. A number of Great Houses have close relationships with nearby monarchs, providing magical support in exchange for various other services. The patronage networks formed and maintained by city-state merchants and powerful magicians, again, make it hard to tell which way someone will jump, if pushed.

The White Council, therefore, can be seen as a cross between the Medieval Papacy and the United Nations. In theory, every independent political entity enjoys a voice in council and a vote; in practice, not all voices are equal. Indeed, the council itself is really a series of smaller working councils, with most decisions made in private and presented to the wider council as fait accompli. However, because most major decisions have to be sold to powerful monarchs and sorcerers, it is rare for anything significant to be agreed without a great deal of horse-trading. The White Council may grant legitimacy, but it has its limits. Forcing the powerful factions to go along with its decisions is not easy.

This happens, at least in part, because the White Council has few ways to enforce its will. It does call upon Mediators, who are trained combat sorcerers, and the Knights of the Allied Lands, but political forces within the Allied Lands would not allow a full-scale invasion to remove a monarch, regardless of his behaviour. The White Council cannot take strong action without uniting the Allied Lands against it. Kings and princes might see the target as unspeakably vile, but they would be reluctant to tolerate such a precedent. This is why the embargo on certain kinds of magic – the Black Arts, for example – is so leaky. The White Council does not have the power to hunt down and destroy every copy of every book dating back to that era, let alone search magical strongholds without a very good reason.

There are really only two things that keep the White Council and the Allied Lands from falling apart. The first is the constant threat of the necromancers, forcing the various kingdoms and city-states to forget their differences as they concentrate on the threat from the south. The second is the need for a forum where differences can be hashed out – or smoothed over – without triggering a continent-wide war. No rational monarch wants such a war, not when it would be utterly devastating. At the same time, both of these are very limited: the necromancers are a long way away, as far as most monarchs are concerned, and the concept of war on a modern scale is beyond their imaginations.

Unsurprisingly, very little gets done.

Technically, the White Council has a great many powers, ranging from border negotiation to choosing administers for magic schools. In practice, these matters are often debated in subcommittee, with favour-trading being more important than anything else. (Gordian became Whitehall’s Grandmaster because he called in a great many favours and made a number of promises … some of which will come back to bite him.) Indeed, as of The Gordian Knot, the White Council is still debating the adoption of universal measurements … when Emily’s CM/M/KM measurements have already spread across the continent and every forward-thinking artificer is using them.

The White Council does have the power to declare someone outlaw (and thus make them a target for every bounty hunter), provided no one with power tries to challenge the verdict. In that case, Mediators will be assigned to hunt down the target and capture them, dead or alive. (As most outlaws tend to be rogue sorcerers, it is rare to take them alive.) Beyond that, the White Council’s authority is very limited. It does provide a court of last resort when a powerful nobleman or magician needs to be put on trial, but that is very rare. Normally, such trials are handled by the local authorities.

It would be more accurate, in many ways, to say that the White Council exists to allow powerful monarchs and magicians the chance to save face. By providing a semi-neutral arbitration service, the council provides a fig-leaf of political cover for a monarch who wants to back down … while, at the same time, the council won’t try to press the losing side so hard that he feels, rightly or wrongly, that he has no choice but to fight.

That said, there is very little pretence at ‘fairness’ within the council. The strong have the power to compel the weak to do as they want, regardless of legal right or wrong. And all the weak can do is either find a way to prevent the strong from getting to them or bow the knee.

Going Up, Going Live

9 Oct

This isn’t really an Ask A Writer post, not in the sense that someone sent me a question. But it did come from questions fired at me when The Zero Curse was going live – why, for example, did it take so long for certain things to go online.

Basically, the process goes like this:

First, the manuscript and cover are uploaded to Amazon Kindle and distributed around the different sub-systems (COM, CO.UK, etc). It generally takes around 8-24 hours for the file to go live on all of the servers, which is why it sometimes appears on one server fairly quickly and takes longer for others. When this process is complete, I get an email telling me so – that’s when I update the website and blog, then send out a general email, etc.

Second, Amazon starts to link the new manuscript to my author name. For some reason, the system isn’t always very good at recognising links between one name and another – ‘Christopher Nuttall’ is sometimes classed as a different person to ‘Christopher G. Nuttall’ – and it can take time for the links to bed in. I speed this up a little by telling Amazon – through the Author Central dashboard – that I own the book.

Third, Amazon links the manuscript to other books in the series. People who looked at The Zero Curse shortly after it was uploaded didn’t see a link to The Zero Blessing because Amazon had yet to update the links between Book I and Book II. There are occasionally also hiccups caused by misspellings, but I think I managed to keep everything consistent.

Fourth, Amazon starts noting that people who bought Book I also bought Book II. This takes longer because no one bought The Zero Curse until the book was actually available – no one could purchase it until it went live. This is a slower process because – as I understand it – the system has to gather data before it can start offering ‘if you liked this, you might like’ deals. It does work quicker in reverse – someone who bought The Zero Blessing when it first came out might be noted as having done so – but that’s less efficient.

Fifth, Amazon sends out its own notifications to people who follow me.

Audio and paperback versions go live when they’re up and running – again, sometimes it takes time to link the three formats together.

Hopefully, this makes some sense <grin>

Chris

Snippet– The Cruel Stars (Ark 11)

9 Oct

Chris_final1 crual stars

Prologue

From: Commodore James Scorpio, Planning Cell Alpha Black

To: Admiral Sir Thomas Hanover, First Space Lord

Sir.

At the risk of sounding somewhat peevish, it must be noted that the sudden appearance of a new threat – an unexpected alien threat – is a tactical and strategic nightmare. Our contingency planning – and long-term construction schedules – were based around a limited war with another human power, rather than a conflict with an alien power of unknown origin, motives and technological base. The data from Vera Cruz, such as it is, tells us little about our opponents. It behoves us, therefore, to prepare for a long war.

This will not be easy. Assuming we cut as many corners as possible – and accept the risk of outright catastrophe – it will still take us six months to complete the fleet carriers under construction and another twelve to fourteen months to construct any new fleet carriers from scratch. (Frankly, the risk of serious system failure at the worst possible time cannot be discounted.) We are therefore faced with the prospect of a ‘come as you are’ war, with the danger – as in 2025 – that our forces and military stockpiles will be insufficient to the task at hand. Fifteen fleet carriers – sixteen, if we count Ark Royal – are a staggering force, yet we know nothing about our enemy. It is quite possible that they have enough fleet carriers at their disposal to outmatch all of humanity’s put together.

While we can look to our allies – and the rest of the spacefaring powers – to assist in filling some of the holes in our order of battle, they will have similar problems of their own. Most notably, they will be reluctant to put their fleet carriers in unnecessary jeopardy as, like us, fleet carriers represent a massive proportion of their military budgets. Even if the various national governments devote a considerably greater percentage of their GNP to their militaries, it will still take time to bring new shipyards online, train new personnel and start churning out new carriers. Our most optimistic projections indicate that we will simply be unable to increase the pace of construction for at least two years. Realistically speaking, that may be too optimistic.

Therefore, I propose that we activate the escort carrier contingency plans at once.

I concede that this will cause us problems. Removing even a relatively small number of Workhorse-class bulk freighters from the shipping lanes will have knock-on effects, most notably disrupting our logistics during our frantic rush to establish forward lines of defence around New Russia. We simply don’t have enough freighters at the best of times, despite nearly fifty years of trying to build up our interstellar shipping capability. (Construction of new freighters is something we can push forward, fortunately.) At the same time, we simply don’t have enough starfighter launching platforms to fight a full-scale war. Losing a single fleet carrier, sir, means losing the personnel as well as the ship itself. The loss of a single carrier would severely dent our ability to meet our commitments to both Britain and the united defence force. From a purely cold-blooded point of view, sir, the destruction of a dozen Workhorses would not impede our ability to make war.

From a technical point of view, the conversion is only a matter of removing the hold facilities and replacing them with starfighter support and maintenance facilities. Given that normal safety procedures are suspended, the first escort carrier could be ready for deployment within a week of going into the yard. However, crewing does represent a problem. While a significant number of freighter captains and crews are Royal Naval Reserve personnel, others are not and may be resistant to serving on the front lines. (If nothing else, the question of nationality comes into play; freighter crews, particularly belters, are notorious for not asking too many questions about a prospective crewer’s past.) And our manpower resources are already stretched to the limit.

With that in mind, sir, I have the following suggestion …

Chapter One

No one, Captain Abigail Harrison had often reflected, would consider HMMS Archibald Haddock’s bridge to be remotely photogenic. It was a cramped mess, with five consoles and chairs jammed so close together that a crewman couldn’t wave a hand without striking one of his fellow crewers. Even the command chair was little more than a slightly elevated console, giving the merchant vessel’s commanding officer a prominence that many military and survey officers would insist she didn’t deserve. But it did have its advantages. She could not only keep a very close eye on her crew, but cut them out of the command network at once if she felt it necessary.

Which might well be necessary, she thought, as she eyed Midshipwoman Podkayne Harrison’s back. Poddy hasn’t handed a proper jump since we left Britannia.

She cleared her throat, loudly. “Poddy?”

“I’m working on it, Captain,” Poddy said. She knew better than to call Abigail anything other than Captain when they were both on duty. “I’ve almost finished.”

“Check and recheck everything,” Abigail ordered, reminding herself to remain calm and composed. Military ships might want to go through the tramline at speed, but there was no need for Haddock to hurry. Her daughter had plenty of time to complete her calculations before making the jump. “One mistake here and you’ll be in trouble.”

“So will the rest of us,” Lieutenant Anson Harrison put in.

“I’m relying on you to check your sister’s work,” Abigail said. Her eldest son could be relied upon to point out any flaws, not least because he didn’t want to compete with his sister for postings on the next cruise. “And I’ll be checking it myself too.”

She saw Poddy stiffen and winced, inwardly. It didn’t feel right to put such pressure on her daughter, even though Poddy had grown up amongst the asteroids, where the slightest mistake could spell utter disaster. But there was no choice. Poddy couldn’t be given her spacer badge until she calculated at least three jumps in succession, each one as smooth as possible. Abigail certainly couldn’t afford to develop a reputation for overlooking weaknesses in her children. Nepotism was hardly unknown amongst the RockRats and interstellar shipping communities, where family ties were stronger than anything else, but promoting an incompetent was a good way to lose everything. Poddy would have to start again – from the beginning – if she failed her last jump.

I went through it too, Abigail reminded herself. Poddy can do it.

She watched her daughter’s fingers darting over the console. Poddy was slight, with long brown hair and a pale face that owed more to her father than her mother. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that they were actually related. Abigail’s black hair, tanned skin and oval eyes – to say nothing of her heavyset body – spoke of a more exotic origin than the asteroid belt. But then, Poddy had had the latest set of genetic modifications spliced into her DNA before she’d been born. She wouldn’t suffer from overeating unless she really overdid it.

Poddy’s console chimed. “Done, Captain,” she said. “It’s ready.”

“Anson, check it,” Abigail ordered. She tapped her own console, bringing up Poddy’s calculations on her screen. “You’ll be rewarded for any mistakes you find.”

Poddy tensed, slightly. Abigail felt a flicker of guilt and reminded herself, sharply, that it was for Poddy’s own good. Better she had her mistakes pointed out by her family rather than some unrelated captain, who wouldn’t hesitate to lock her in her cabin and throw her off the ship at the next port if he felt she was dangerously unreliable. Besides, their lives were at stake. A minor mistake in calculating the jump along the tramline might just destroy the entire ship.

Or risk getting our licence pulled, Abigail thought. Her lips twitched. A fate worse than a fate worse than death.

“It appears to be fine,” Anson said, grudgingly. He turned to look at Abigail, his white teeth flashing against his dark skin. “Captain, I believe we can make the jump.”

Abigail nodded, slowly. There wasn’t anything wrong with the calculations, as far as she could tell. She’d checked everything with savage intensity, just to be sure. And that meant …

She leaned back in her chair. “Make the jump,” she ordered. “Now!”

A low whine echoed through the ship as the Puller Drive powered up. Abigail braced herself, feeling her ears starting to hurt. Something was wrong with the drive field, although no one – not even her engineer – had been able to find the cause. Perhaps a handful of components were simply worn down, ahead of time. She’d replace the whole installation, if she could afford it. But she simply didn’t have the money to even begin to replace it.

And there isn’t much hope of getting a loan, she thought, as the whining sound rose to a crescendo. Not unless we really hit it big …

Haddock shook, violently. The displays blanked, just for a second. Abigail gritted her teeth, allowing herself a moment of relief as the displays started to come back online. A civilian would have assumed that Poddy had messed up her calculations, but Abigail knew better. It was a typical jump. She’d heard that the latest versions of the Puller Drive could take a ship through the tramlines without so much as spilling the captain’s coffee, but she didn’t believe it. Besides, even if it was true, there was no way she’d be able to afford a newer drive either.

“Jump complete, Captain,” Anson reported. “We have arrived in the Sol System.”

“Made it,” Poddy crowed.

Abigail allowed herself an indulgent smile. “So you did,” she said, trying to sound proud. “We’ll go out for dinner once we reach Ceres – and you can choose where we go.”

Anson looked up. “All of us?”

“Yes, all of us,” Abigail said, firmly. Anson probably wanted to visit the brothel. She didn’t blame him for that – God knew it had been a long time since she’d had anyone in her bed – but family came first. They’d be at Ceres for at least a week. “Poddy, send a standard message to the shipping coordinator. Inform them that we have returned.”

“Aye, Captain,” Poddy said.

“Anson, set course for Ceres,” Abigail added. “No need to hurry.”

“Aye, Captain,” Anson said.

Abigail smiled as she pulled up the jump records and checked them against Poddy’s calculations. The younger girl had done a good job. The calculations matched the records perfectly. Not that Abigail had expected anything else – a serious mishap would probably have ended poorly – but it was still important to prove that Poddy had earned the right to style herself a navigator. The guilds would check the records themselves, if Poddy decided to leave Haddock. Abigail made a mental note to ensure that the records were copied over as soon as they arrived on Ceres. One of her adult children was probably going to seek a transfer soon, no matter what Abigail did. There was only limited room for advancement on Haddock.

And Anson wants to captain his own ship, Abigail thought. Her eldest son was twenty, more than old enough to strike out on his own. He’ll probably be looking for postings when we reach Ceres.

Poddy’s console bleeped. “Captain, I am receiving a priority message from the Merchant Shipping Guild,” she said. “It’s tagged as urgent.”

Abigail frowned. The message couldn’t have been sent from Ceres. It would take hours for the message she’d sent to reach the asteroid, let alone for any reply to be sent back. The light-speed delay would see to that. And yet … she keyed her console, bringing up the message. The header insisted that it had been sent from a monitoring station much closer to the designated emergence point. She felt a flicker of concern as she ran the message through the computers. The emergency codes all checked out.

ALERT. ALERT. STUFT EMERGENCY. YOU ARE ORDERED TO PROCEED IMMEDIATELY TO RNRB TALLYMAN. ACKNOWLEDGE, THEN RADIO SILENCE. MESSAGE REPEATS. ALERT …

“What?”

Anson glanced at Poddy’s console. “A STUFT Emergency?”

“Ships Taken Up From Trade,” Abigail translated, absently. “They expect us to head straight for Tallyman.”

She sucked in her breath, thinking hard. She was, technically, a Royal Navy Reservist. It was the price she’d paid for the loan that had allowed her to purchase her ship. But she’d never expected to be actually called upon to serve. She’d never seen any of the authorisation codes attached to the message, outside a handful of update messages. Her ship had certainly never been summoned at short notice. They hadn’t even been dragged into any drills.

“They’re out of their minds,” Anson said. “Mum … do you know what will happen if we don’t meet the deadline …”

Abigail nodded, grimly. Interstellar shipping was never as predictable as travel on Earth – no one would risk setting their clocks by a starship’s arrival – but they were expected to arrive at Ceres within a certain timeframe. Being late would cost them badly, particularly if the penalty clauses loaded into their contract went into effect. And besides, their cargo was perishable. They might wind up being sued if they failed to deliver it on time.

The Navy is supposed to indemnify us, she thought. But we might lose everything by the time the bureaucrats actually get around to paying out.

She shook her head. “Anson, set course for Tallyman,” she ordered. “Poddy …”

Mum,” Anson protested. “If we don’t get there …”

“I know,” Abigail snapped. She made a mental note to chew him out later. Other captains wouldn’t be quite so forgiving of outbursts on the bridge. “But what would you have us do?”

She watched Anson trying to think of a solution and coming up with nothing. There wasn’t one, as far as Abigail could tell. Haddock could reverse course and go … go where? The Royal Navy would eventually realise that the freighter wasn’t going to show up at Tallyman and file charges, at which point the ship and her crew would grow too hot to handle. Even the independent asteroid settlements would refuse to have anything to do with them, if they were lucky. They’d be far more likely to be arrested and be shipped straight to the nearest penal world. And the thought of being locked out of space was terrifying.

“… Fuck,” Anson said.

“Don’t worry,” Poddy said. “I’m sure this will be nothing.”

“Hah,” Anson muttered. His fingers touched his console. “Course laid in, Captain. We should be there in seven hours.”

“Very good,” Abigail said. “Poddy, send an acknowledgement and then go silent. No one is to send a message without my direct authorisation.”

“Understood,” Poddy said.

Abigail rose. “Take the bridge, Anson,” she ordered. “I’ll be in my cabin, catching up with my sleep.”

“I’ll wake you if anything happens,” Anson assured her.

“See that you do,” Abigail said.

She stepped through the hatch and walked down to her cabin. It was a tiny compartment, barely large enough for a bed, a small desk and a private washroom, the only real luxury afforded to the freighter’s commanding officer. Abigail had heard that military officers had real cabins, but there was no way anyone could fit anything bigger into Haddock. The freighter was huge, yet the crew spaces were small. She loved her ship, but she’d be glad to move into a hotel for a few days when they completed their voyage. A proper bath alone would work wonders. She was ruefully aware that she – and the rest of her crew – stank.

A good thing no one notices the smell after the first few hours, she thought, as she climbed into bed. But they’ll probably force us to go through decontamination when we reach Tallyman.

Sleep didn’t come easy. Indeed, by the time Anson paged her, she didn’t feel as though she’d slept at all. She sat upright and keyed her terminal, linking to the external sensors. RNRB Tallyman was a fairly standard asteroid base – one designed for mining and zero-g construction work rather than habitation – but it was surrounded by a dozen Workhorse-class freighters and a pair of naval destroyers. Abigail shivered as she checked the freighter ID codes, recognising a couple of names. Whatever was going on was serious. The Royal Navy wouldn’t yank so many freighters off the shipping lanes without a very good excuse.

“They want you to shuttle over to the base,” Anson said, over the intercom. “Now, apparently. The shuttle is already on its way.”

“Joy,” Abigail muttered. “Open the lower hatch for them. Just let me slip into something a little less comfortable and I’ll be down.”

She stripped off her shipsuit, sponged herself down and rapidly donned a fresh outfit. It wasn’t a dress uniform, but it would have to do. She literally had nothing else to wear. The stuffed shirts who ran the navy might be outraged if they saw her, but it didn’t matter. They should know they hadn’t called her after she’d arrived at Ceres. She’d have hired something more suitable if they’d arranged a meeting on the asteroid. God knew she didn’t meet potential clients in smelly shipsuits.

Pinning her hair back into place, she hurried down to the hatch, checking the telltales before she opened it. The shuttle was fairly standard, the interior surprisingly comfortable for a military craft. A Royal Marine checked her fingerprints and DNA code, then directed her to a comfortable seat. Abigail wondered, helplessly, if she was in trouble. And yet, she knew it was absurd. The Royal Navy wouldn’t have bothered to summon her to Tallyman if it wanted to arrest her. Ceres had an internal police force that would have happily taken Abigail and her crew into custody until matters were sorted out.

She forced herself to relax as the shuttle undocked and headed back to the asteroid. The pilot kept up a steady stream of chatter, speaking to his controller … Abigail had to fight to keep the contempt off her face. Didn’t the navy trust its pilots? The endless checklists bred sloth and apathy, not efficiency. God knew she trusted Anson to handle her ship in her absence … she wouldn’t insult his intelligence by forcing him to run through a checklist for something as simple as a docking manoeuvre. Maybe the pilot was new. But in that case, he shouldn’t be flying the shuttle …

A low clunk echoed through the craft as it docked with the asteroid. Abigail rolled her eyes in annoyance – Anson wouldn’t have banged a shuttle against the airlock – and then rose as the hatch opened. There was gravity inside, surprisingly. She’d half-expected the entire complex to be in zero-g. But then, the military could afford far more powerful and selective gravity generators than any civilian freighter crew. No doubt half their crew was composed of groundpounders. She could move easily from gravity to zero-g and back again, but groundpounders could not. Half of them couldn’t even fly to orbit without throwing up.

Sad, she thought, as she stepped through the hatch. Who’d want to live on the ground?

A young man wearing a midshipman’s uniform met her on the far side. “Captain Harrison?”

“That’s me,” Abigail said. She resisted the urge to point out that her identity had already been checked. The midshipman looked so young that she was tempted to check if he was still in nappies. Poddy looked older – and more responsible – and Poddy was fifteen! “What can I do for you?”

“Please, come with me,” the midshipman said. His voice was very quiet. He turned, motioning for her to follow him. “There’s a briefing in the … ah … briefing room.”

“And where else would we hold a briefing?” Abigail asked, rhetorically. “Lead on, young man.”

The back of the young man’s neck went red, Abigail noted. She smiled to herself, then followed him through a series of drab – and unmarked – corridors. There was no personality to the complex at all, no decorations … there weren’t even any paintings or drawings produced by the local children. But then, there were probably no children on the base. The RNBR complex might just have been reactivated at very short notice. She mulled it over as she followed him into the briefing room, where four other merchant skippers were waiting for her.

“Abigail,” Captain Philip Chester said. He was a colossal man, with a beard that reached down to his chest. His shipsuit was carefully tailored to show off his muscles. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too,” Abigail said, warmly. They’d shared a bed a few times, back when they’d been younger. It hadn’t meant much to either of them, she knew, but it had been fun. “What’s an ugly bastard like you doing in a place like this?”

“Waiting for you, it would seem,” Chester said. He waved a hand around the room. “We were all summoned here …”

“I’m sorry about the delay,” a new voice said. A young man strode into the room, closing the hatch behind him. “We were hoping to get started earlier, but something came up.”

“That’s quite all right,” Captain Dawes said, sarcastically. “We’re just sitting here, twiddling our thumbs.”

“Good,” the naval officer said, as he motioned for Abigail to take a seat. He didn’t seem to have any sense of irony. “My name is Sidney Jameson, Commodore Jameson. I’m sorry that you were all summoned here at short notice. Please rest assured that we wouldn’t have called you if the situation wasn’t truly urgent.”

“I’d prefer to rest assured that you were going to compensate us for our losses,” Captain Dawes told him.

“We will,” Jameson said. He took a breath. “We are at war.”

Abigail felt ice trickling down her spine. “At war? With whom?”

Jameson looked at her. “Aliens.”

Emily’s Growth

3 Oct

I’m reposting this because i messed up the formatting with the last post.  Sorry.

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The Spanish Cockpit

3 Oct

I can’t say I know that much about Spanish, particularly Catalonian, history. I’ve studied the Spanish Civil War, as a prelude to World War Two, but I haven’t looked at the post-WW2 country with any great depth. Certain things can be said – Spain spent plenty of cash it didn’t have during the EU boom, rather akin to Greece – but I didn’t realise that there was a push for Catalonian independence until the whole matter started to explode last week.

The crux of the matter, as far as I can tell, is that Catalonia feels that it gives more to the federal (Spanish) government than it gets in return. This may actually be true. Furthermore, Catalonia believes that is a distant entity within Spain, rather than merely another country or region. There is a long history of revolts, repressions and more revolts, with the current federal government quietly ignoring laws and agreements that don’t suit its purposes.

That doesn’t matter, not now. What does matter is that the federal government was prepared to use force – perhaps deadly force – to prevent a referendum on Catalonian independence.

That is, in many ways, a sign of weakness – or a lack of confidence that the voters will vote the right way. Worse, it is a sign that the federal government is prepared to override the will of the people – Spain already claims that the referendum was neither legal nor valid – and is prepared to sacrifice its own legitimacy in a bid to stop it. In doing so, it has destroyed any faith the Catalonians might have in the federal government – there seems to be little reason for anyone to have any faith in the federal government – and risked outright civil war.

The EU has said nothing, which is (unsurprisingly) odd. On one hand, if you believe that nations have the right to make decisions for themselves, you have to support a reasonably fair referendum; on the other hand, if you are bent on avoiding a second state (or part of a state) withdrawing from the EU, you certainly don’t want to allow Catalonia to leave. I suspect that a great many people in Brussels are hoping that the whole matter will go away, instead of either resulting in independence or civil war. Either way, the EU would be in serious trouble.

I cannot predict where this will go. But, in some ways, this showcases the problem with the EU. It is a federal organisation that is not only largely unaccountable to the European populations, but has no qualms about overriding the will of the people when it feels that the people haven’t voted the right way. (Witness the push to keep moving towards greater integration, despite strong countervailing pressure.) Unsurprisingly, people who feel that they are losing out – or that their tax money is supporting shiftless layabouts – do not feel any inclination to support the EU. Why should French or German taxpayers pay to bail the Greeks out of their mess?

The question people ask, when confronted by something like this, is ‘what’s in it for us?’

Society works because the vast majority of citizens think – not always without acknowledging it – that society is worth upholding. This is true of Britain and the United States – the majority of Scots did not want to leave Britain, because Britain worked for them. Yet one can reasonably ask what the EU has done for its population later? (Cue lines from Monty Python.) There is a strong perception that the EU is really nothing more than a bloated leech, an instrument of Franco-German power. This may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people believe it.

The principle problem with government is two-fold. First, the more you ask the government to do, the less it can do. The more layers of bureaucracy and web after web of government departments, the greater the distance between the decision-makers and the population – and the slower their reaction to any given problem. Second, the more power you give the government, the greater the chance that it will use that power in a manner you dislike. For example, as John Ross pointed out, if you give the government the power to ban abortions … how long will it be before federal agents are investigating miscarriages, citing probable cause?

Put together, there is a strong reason to be very careful with giving the government power – and to keep a close eye on it. Trust – the trust that the government is not corrupt, that the government will act in the best interests of the people – depends on transparency, something the EU has signally failed to institute. Instead, we have the perception that the EU is not only unaccountable, but flat-out untrustworthy. And that, when it acts, it acts in a way calculated to benefit France and Germany. Germany’s attempt to force Poland and Hungry to take migrants does not benefit anyone, but Germany. Why should Poland and Hungry not resist it?

Spain needs reform. The EU needs reform. But the problem seems to be getting it to reform.

It’s worth bearing this rather morbid quote in mind: “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution certain.”

Emily’s Growth

3 Oct

Fair Warning – Spoilers for The Gordian Knot below.

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