Archive | October, 2017

Guest Post: The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

29 Oct

By Matthew W. Quinn

One rule of Internet discourse that it’s wise to follow is to avoid reading the comments. There, protected by anonymity, all sorts of ugly commentary tends to flourish. If you value having a positive view of humanity, by all means stay away.

However, occasionally one can learn from the comments section. Awhile back, Chris was so gracious as to host a guest post promoting my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set in Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire universe. I related the Alliance strategy depicted in that story to Billy Mitchell’s thesis on air power trumping capital ships and cited the case of Operation Ten-Go in which dozens of American carrier aircraft sank the Japanese super-battleship Yamato and several of its escorts, killing thousands of Japanese at a cost of a dozen or so of their own.

Well, not everybody agreed with my argument. The gentleman (or lady) whose handle was Pyo pointed out that the distances involved in space battle are vastly larger than those in an oceanic battle. A space-opera setting will also feature vastly more advanced sensory technology to track incoming enemies and combat in space lacks the drag imposed by water or even air that contribute to a capital ship being less maneuverable than a fighter. Pyo also pointed other variables like energy shields, rapid-firing point-defense weapons, etc. that wouldn’t have been a factor in WWII naval battles. The user whose handle is Tim pointed out that PT boats are the same size as aircraft and were much less maneuverable on the water. In a space battle all vessels are maneuvering in the same medium, depriving aircraft of that advantage.

Pyo in particular made a very good point, which I responded to by citing the example of Battlestar Galactica. Multiple capital ships bunched together could create a very effective flak barrier, while energy shields make it so you’d need many torpedo hits, not just one or two, to actually inflict damage. That’s one reason the Cylons resorted to trickery (human-appearing infiltrators, hacking and disabling ships) as much as they did in the Second Cylon War–disrupting the flak barrier, even for a moment, would be necessary for their missile-spam strategy to bear fruit. And in an environment without drag, a capital ship’s much larger power-plant could make it far more faster and maneuverable in relationship to attacking fighter-craft than an earthbound battleship would be against torpedo bombers.

All those factors come into play in my newest Fallen Empire Kindle Worlds novella, "Discovery and Flight." The story takes place before and after Buroker’s short story "Remnants," which you can find in the You Are Here short-story collection. "Remnants" describes the Alliance having to evacuate one of its bases after fending off an Imperial assault that devastates its fleet. "Discovery" tells the tale of that battle and how much more difficult the Alliance’s fighter-heavy space force would find multiple Imperial capital ships supporting each other against torpedo barrages instead of the two Imperial cruisers they managed to separate in "Ten Davids."

So if you want to see more of Lieutenants Geun Choi and Tamara Watson–along with the canon characters Alisa Marchenko and Bradford Tomich–or just want a fun military scifi/space-opera story, check out "Discovery and Flight."

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Social Change in SF/Fantasy

23 Oct

I’m trying to rest today, but this article got me thinking …

There are times, in medieval British history, when one could reasonably think that history repeats itself.

The story is always the same. Pushed too far, the commoners revolt. Being often armed and dangerous, these revolts come very close to success. And then the monarch promises compromise and reform and the rebels disband, only to be hunted down like dogs once the government reasserted its power. Richard II, Henry VI and Henry VIII all came very close to losing their thrones to peasants. And while the rebels sometimes managed to get the government to change its mind – the poll tax of 1381 was scrapped after the revolt – it was rare for them to achieve much of anything.

Indeed, even when Charles I had proven himself a treacherous and utterly untrustworthy monarch – and he was stripped of all effective power – Parliament hesitated before executing him. He was the king!

Kings had been killed before, of course. Edward II had been murdered after he’d been overthrown (unless you believe he was held prisoner after his reported death.) Richard II was murdered after his overthrow. The Princes in the Tower vanished and were widely believed to have been murdered by Richard III. But they were all murdered by their successors or, in one case, a high-ranking nobleman. (Roger Mortimer was savaged by historians after he was overthrown and executed too, perhaps because he wasn’t crowned king himself.) The idea of the commoners overthrowing and killing the king was unthinkable.

Part of this, of course, was the myth of ‘evil counsellors.’ The myth insisted that all the bad things were done by the king’s counsellors, not the king himself. If the king actually knew what was being done in his name, the story went, he would act immediately to punish the evil-doers and rule wisely and justly from that moment on. There was very little actual truth in the myth, but it served a useful purpose. Rebels demanded the heads of ‘evil counsellors,’ not the king himself. And if matters got too far out of hand, those counsellors could be sacrificed to preserve the monarchy.

But a more fundamental point was that people of that era – even as late as the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite Rebellion – believed firmly in the social hierarchy. The crowned and anointed king was at the top, followed by the various orders of noblemen and churchmen all the way down to peasants and serfs. This was how they thought things were supposed to be – the peasants wanted good rulers, not chaos. And those who did question the social order were often considered dangerous heretics. John Ball, for example, was rapidly smacked down when he moved from questioning the church – a cause that many noblemen privately supported – to questioning the noblemen themselves. His famous question – “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” – was not one they wanted the peasants to ask.

The author condemns the social structure of JK Rowling’s Wizarding World – and, more fundamentally, insists that Hermione’s lust for social justice – particularly for the House Elves – fades as she adopts a pragmatic approach to civil rights. Equality is a fine thing to fight for when you’re a passionate teenager, she notes, but dreams fade into incremental bureaucratic reality when you grow up, get married, and get serious.

It’s a valid point. But it also bears some examination.

It is instructive to note that Hermione makes a number of fundamental mistakes when trying to free the elves. First, she refuses to accept that the majority of elves see nothing wrong with their treatment. Second, she is unable to grasp that not everyone shares her opinion of the situation; Ron, for example, sees nothing wrong with how the elves are treated despite not owning an elf himself. (Or, for that matter, having any real prospect of owning one.) And third, directly related to the second, she is unable to put together a coherent argument that might convince people who are neutral or leaning towards the other side. Like the vast majority of social justice warriors, Hermione assumed that her emotional reaction to House Elf enslavement – and she was right to regard it as horrific – was sufficient to force everyone else to act. She made no attempt to understand those she was trying to help – and their oppressors.

Hermione Granger Quotes

(A statement that is flatly incorrect.)

Rowling depicted the results quite accurately. Harry and Ron, her closest friends, have to be bullied into supporting her – it’s clear they find it embarrassing – while everyone else laughs at her. She gains nothing from her rather strident approach to the whole situation, while making life harder for everyone else in her dorm (as the House Elves are reluctant to clean the room.) And trying to give the elves clothes is pointless when she doesn’t own the elves and therefore cannot free them!

Societies – real as well as fictional – exist the way they do because of certain underlying realities. Throughout history, women were often regarded as second-class citizens; although it was far from uncommon for women to build power bases of their own, they did this by working within the system and manipulating it. This was not just because men were physically stronger than women, although that played a part. It was because a woman had a very real chance of dying in childbirth, even if she got the best medical care available at the time. There is no suggestion that Pompey the Great ever mistreated Julia Caesar – indeed, he was regarded as shamefully infatuated with his young bride – but that didn’t stop her dying in childbirth.

There are other points, of course. Farmers would try to have large families because they needed hands to help on the farm. Male children were often seen as more important than female children because boys stayed to work the farm while girls married out (often as soon as they could bear children themselves) and went to work for their husband’s family. The high mortality rate in the past often meant that a peasant would be married several times, with a brood of children and stepchildren that would confuse anyone trying to work out their relationships. There was always something to do on the farm, for everyone: sowing the fields, feeding the animals, cleaning the house, cooking, sewing … the tasks were endless.

This isn’t something that is easy to comprehend. Emma Watson, upon being cast as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, asked what Belle did with her time. She even insisted that the live-action Belle be an inventor. But in saying that, Emma Watson only revealed her own ignorance. A young girl growing up in such a place, without a mother, would have no shortage of things to do. She would be expected to keep house for her father: cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. There were no mod-cons to make it easy, either. Belle would have had to do everything by hand …

… And Gaston would have been seen as a great catch. Belle’s father would have been overjoyed if such a man had been courting his daughter. And no one would have cared about Belle’s opinion at all.

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Those who want social change, therefore, face two problems. First, there are plenty of people amongst the ‘downtrodden’ who fear change and what it may bring in its wake. This isn’t entirely an unreasonable concern. The French Revolution was necessary, but the Terror was chaotic – resulting in civil wars within the civil war – and the lives of many Frenchmen grew worse even before Napoleon took over. Educating one’s children might lead to them putting on airs and graces, instead of working on the farm. There actually was a brain-drain from the Russian countryside before the Revolution because the educated no longer had a place in the villages.

Second, perhaps more importantly, the people on top don’t want social change. Why should they? History tells us that if the people had waited for the elites to grant them social change, they’d still be waiting. Why would a slaveholder in Dixie give up his slaves? Freeing the slaves would mean losing the plantation – at the very least, he’d have to pay the former slaves to work – while keeping them might save his land and profits. Why exactly would he want to support abolition? Worse, perhaps, a number of men who don’t own slaves would also oppose abolition. They wouldn’t want free blacks to enter the labour market, thus driving wages down.

The writer of the article then refers to The Goblin Emperor, a book I got about a third of the way through before giving up. Her snide observation that the anarchists are regarded as insane misses the point that insane is exactly how they’d be regarded, back in the past. And this would be true of anyone who wanted too much change, too quickly. Like it or not, the rapid spread of the internet has caused us problems we have yet to resolve – in hindsight, would it have been wiser to go slower? But no one could direct the storm once it had begun …

The Goblin Emperor is apparently disappointing because social change is very slow. (I didn’t get that far, so I don’t know how true this is.) But social change – real social change – requires generations. It’s easy to smear radicals as … well, radicals. Those who want change must be prepared to argue for it – and they must have a valid answer when someone asks, as they will, ‘what’s in it for me?’

More importantly, directed social change requires an understanding of how society actually works. A lone king or emperor may not be able to accomplish much, even if – in theory – he is all-powerful. Noblemen, or the church, or even the bureaucracy will turn against him if he pushes for too much, too fast. Sometimes this will be as minor and petty as refusing to accept that a commoner can be given a knighthood, sometimes it will be more significant – insisting on keeping a monopoly, perhaps. A person who rages against the machine without understanding how the machine works will not be able to play John Galt and stop the motor of the world.

And yet, societies do change.

Sometimes, something happens that loosens the bonds of society. The Black Death killed hundreds of thousands of people, but it also allowed the survivors to start demanding better terms or they’d move elsewhere. Wages, accordingly, went up. At the same time, it also induced the gentry and nobility to start taking more interest in local postings … which upped the corruption in local government.

Other changes were technological. The spread of reading and writing allowed ideas to move from place to place, encouraging social change. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist promoted social change by making reasonable arguments and illustrating the hypocrisy of reactionaries. So too did books like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. It was no longer possible to shoot the messenger, once books and broadsheets became popular. Steam technology allowed faster movement from place to place, while improvements to farming technology eliminated the economic impetus for chattel slavery.

And still other changes were medical. The Pill allowed women to enter the workforce, as well as decoupling sex and reproduction. This caused other changes … premarital sex was no longer sinful, at least for the women, and virginity was no longer so highly prized. And so on and so on …

A writer who tries to use social change as the centre of the novel, therefore, faces two significant problems. On one hand, he must make social change interesting; on the other, he will face people who will argue that that ‘it wouldn’t have happened like that.’ Naomi Alderman’s The Power starts to collapse into an incoherent mess as her background overwhelms the foreground. It is very difficult to get a story out of pure social change. I would like a universe where we all develop the power to teleport, but how would I turn the social change into a story?

It’s a problem I have grappled with myself, when writing Schooled in Magic. It was always my intention to show what the influx of new ideas – first, ideas introduced by Emily; second, adaptations and improvements made by the locals – would do to a society that was, in many ways, stagnant. Emily’s education was not the best, but she knew enough to introduce everything from simple letters and numbers to paper and printing presses. (A secondary advantage is that she can imagine newer and better ways to use magic, causing yet another set of revolutions.)

This has happened in the real world, to some extent. Cortes – the Conqueror of Mexico – was a middling general by European standards. But he had a far more advanced playbook than the Aztecs and was able to use the weaknesses in their society to bring them down. Emily’s mindset allows her to make intellectual leaps that are beyond most of the locals – to them, she came out of nowhere. Her limited knowledge is more than enough to change the world.

But these changes have effects that are bad as well as good. A new banking system allows commoners to horde money, but it also kicks off a financial bubble that eventually – inevitably – explodes. Broadsheets (newspapers) allow more and more people to become aware of the world outside their spheres of interest, yet they also undermine the social order and threaten the position of the kings and princes (and sorcerers). Steam railways change the world by allowing movement over far greater distances. Newer and better understandings – germs, for example – have their own effects. Even something as simple as standardised measurements can turn the world upside down.

And yet, these changes take time. By ‘now,’ most of the low-hanging fruits have been picked. Greater changes will take time, far more time. And there will be people who have an interest in trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

And changes take time in the real world too.

The writer asks why SF has lost its ability to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But the blunt truth is that most SF utopias – The Culture, for example – require technological breakthroughs that have not – yet – happened. It also relies upon super-intelligent AIs – the Minds – to run the society. Star Trek: The Next Generation has the same problem. The human race may have evolved – Captain Picard: “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives” – but it has done so because of technological advances that have eliminated everything from hunger to (most) disease. There is no fundamental need for humans to acquire wealth in such surroundings because they don’t need it. This is a better world, but – from a storytelling point of view – it’s also boring.

It’s also worth noting that capitalism – and competition, and enlightened self-interest – have done more for the lives of the poor than any other form of government. Communism is nothing more than the equal distribution of poverty, the ultimate end result of the steady reduction of interest in actually working. Why work when the rewards of not working are just the same? Socialism is a dead end without the technology to make it work. Fascism and monarchism – and direct democracy – have their own limits; some obvious and brutal, some so small that they appear insignificant until too late. Social change is not always a part of epic fantasy – from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – because the basic structure of their worlds mandates against it.

In conclusion, I’d like to make a simple observation.

The reference to Hillary Clinton made me smile, for all sorts of reasons. One of them was Hillary – or her ghost-writer – comparing her to Cersei Lannister, particularly when Cersei is made to walk the streets naked as a punishment for her crimes. (Ironically, Englishwomen were often spared the worst when a king was on the throne, whatever their crimes; Mary and Elizabeth had far less hesitation in executing their sisters.) But there is no doubt that Cersei Lannister was guilty of everything from incest to murdering her husband and abusing her children. It was a cruel and gendered punishment (a man would have been executed) but it was not undeserved. If Hillary Clinton identifies with Cersei, does that mean that Hillary is guilty too? She certainly has the ‘evil counsellors’ – Anthony Weiner copped a great deal of the blame for her loss, rather than Hillary herself.

And one might also argue that one of the reasons Trump won was simply that he was more popular than Hillary – he certainly enjoyed a broader base of support – something that is not unlike to Henry VI being more popular than Richard II.

But there is a more serious point. The writer calls the Clintons a de facto aristocratic family – and one of the things aristocracies do is slow progress. Hillary Clinton had countless advantages when she took the field against Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 – in the latter, she had the nomination stitched up ahead of time – but she lost both times. And part of the reason she lost is that she didn’t have an inherent understanding of politics, unlike Obama, Trump and Bill Clinton. But how could she have developed one when she never had to face a serious challenge until it was too late?

The monarchies – and aristocrats – want to ensure that there are no social changes which undermine their power. (This is as true of the Bushes as it is of the Clintons, as well as the Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts.) But this slows development to a crawl. Worse, the aristocrats lose touch with reality. On one hand, Hillary Clinton and the DNC was unable to adapt to a new reality; on the other, moderate reformers in the past got eliminated, clearing the way for rather less moderate reformers. One can argue that the RNC crushed the Tea Party, thus clearing the way for a man who proved a far more capable enemy – Donald Trump.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson of fantasy is not that knights and dragons and damsels in distress are cool, but that no one in their right mind would want to live there, let alone surrender their lives to a monarch …

… And, if you want social change, you have to start by understanding why society works the way it does.

Reviewers Behaving Badly

20 Oct

I’ve caught a chest infection, which has slowed me down so updates are going to be a little delayed. But I just had to write about this.

Let me be blunt.

Reviewing a book you haven’t read is despicable. Reviewing a book that isn’t out yet is disgraceful. Reviewing – and slamming – a book for political reasons is contemptible.

Hard on the heels of The Black Witch controversy comes another one. American Heart – a novel that seems to be an updated version of Huckleberry Finn, with Muslims instead of runaway black slaves – has been hammered by online reviewers, even though the book hasn’t been officially released and the majority of reviewers almost certainly haven’t read the book (which probably explains why very few reviews go into actual detail.) Here’s an example from Goodreads:

american heart review

One of the fundamental truths of writing – and I speak as a writer – is that there will always be bad reviews. And there is nothing that can be done about them. Readers have a right to their opinions and if they don’t like your book, they don’t like your book. I’ve had my fair share of reviews that made me want to reach through the computer screen and strangle the reviewer, but I can’t (and I shouldn’t if I could). Honest bad reviews are the price we pay for honest good reviews – and a detailed bad review is often worth its weight in gold.

Dishonest reviews – and by dishonest I mean reviews that aren’t focused on the fundamental issue of whether or not the book is actually any good – weaken the system. A reviewer who slammed Netflix’s Death Note for being whitewashed may have a point, but it doesn’t answer the important question. Why should such reviews be taken seriously? And why should a review site that bows to outside pressure be taken seriously either?

Look, there’s a right way to handle controversial books. Put up a positive review and a negative review – a thoughtful negative review. Let the readers read both reviews and make up their own minds. Surrendering to an online onslaught, on the other hand, is nothing more than cowardly. At best, it diminishes Kirkus – rest assured I won’t bother to read their reviews in future – while, at worst, it encourages more online harassment now the trolls have scented blood. Showing weakness in the face of the mob is always a mistake.

What makes this particularly sad – and yet unsurprising – is that the author bent over backwards to try to avoid this controversy. She ran it past a Muslim friend, then the publisher sent it to the so-called Sensitivity Readers in the hopes of removing anything vaguely problematic. And yet, the book got slammed anyway. I haven’t read American Heart, of course, but I do wonder at readers who challenge a book that, on the face of it, insists that a minority group is human too. What’s wrong with that?

The simplest lesson of the whole affair, basically, is don’t feed the trolls. But there is a more important point.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Inside GamerGate. And one of the points the author made was that GamerGate started an anti-harassment patrol of its own, which was apparently highly successful. But none of GamerGate’s critics seemed inclined to recognise the patrol’s existence, let alone its good work. As the author put it:

“As a result, the effort began to fall away as their efforts weren’t being recognised and they were being blamed for harassment as well as being undermined from within Gamergate by the free speech extremists. Why labour so much on behalf of your enemies when they won’t acknowledge your effort or apologise for implicating you in mass harassment?”

American Heart was not written by a demented (left-wing or right-wing) extremist who thinks that everyone who doesn’t agree with him 100% should be sent to the death camps and exterminated. It was written by someone who meant well, someone who wanted to remind the world of our common humanity. (The same lesson Huckleberry Finn tried to teach.) And her reward for that was being savaged by her own side. Why should she – why should anyone – try again?

No one, least of all me, would deny that a book can be legitimately criticised. And there are certainly grounds for criticising American Heart (another here). But the legitimate criticism is drowned out – in this case and many others – by illegitimate criticism and reviewers behaving badly. Saying you don’t like the book is one thing, harassing reviewers, publishers and authors is quite another. And the people who lose are the authors, who don’t get thoughtful reviews, and the readers, who cannot trust the reviews.

Sigh. As far as I can tell, the only person who acted like an adult is the author herself.

If you can’t act like an adult, don’t read adult books.

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.”

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.”