Archive | November, 2019

Out Now: Their Last Full Measure

30 Nov

Humanity has won a great victory, shattering the alien fleet that would have destroyed the Solar Union and exterminated the human race.  But the war is not yet over.  The Tokomak still have a huge fleet and an immense industrial base, large enough to crush the human race once and for all if they have time to bring it into action.  The war may still be lost.

There is only one way to win.  Admiral Hoshiko Stuart and her fleet must take the war deep into enemy territory, to the very heart of the Tokomak Empire.  But with the Tokomak gathering their forces and rallying their allies for one final battle, the outcome still hangs in the balance …

… And whoever wins will dominate the galaxy for thousands of years to come.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase copies from the links here: Amazon USUKCANAUSDraft2Digital (more publishing links being added all the time).  And read the Afterword here.

Their Last Few Measure is out, but …

30 Nov

I’ve been trying to update the website, but there’ve been some problems with the host. I can’t put up the samples and links now. I’ll do that as soon as the problems are fixed – I hope – but for the moment you can purchase Their Last Full Measure from Amazon and Draft2Digital now.

Amazon USUKCANAUSDraft2Digital (more publishing links being added all the time). 

I’ll post again when the samples are up.

Draft Afterword: Socialism

30 Nov

Hi, everyone

This is a draft afterword – it isn’t finalised yet.  Comments and thoughts would be welcome.

Afterword for BAC

Anybody else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory … I had allowed myself more of a creed than scientific intelligence can justify.

-Bertrand Russell

Why did Chernobyl explode?

I could give, if you like, a complex technical explanation of what people think went wrong, inside the reactor, on that fateful night.  The story of precisely what happened, from a scientific point of view, is quite interesting.  But, as a writer, I’ve always been more interested in the social-political explanations.  Why was the disaster – or something like it – practically inevitable?  And why did things go so badly wrong?

There were, as I see it, five interlocking factors that ensured there would be a disaster and, worse, that the system would be unable to handle it.

First, the reactor design was very poor.  The Russians skipped over better designs, both home-grown and stolen, in order to produce a beast of a reactor capable of provided unprecedented amounts of power for the Soviet grid.  This was at least partly a recognition of shortages within the Soviet system – they cut production costs wherever possible – and partly a belief they needed the reactor up and running as quickly as possible.  They failed to learn lessons from earlier accidents, even ones that had taken place outside the USSR, and ensured eventual disaster.

Second, the construction itself was very poor.  Components from the factories would arrive in very poor condition, forcing the construction crews to tear many of them down and put them back together again.  Specialised equipment was lacking at all levels, ensuring the operators couldn’t react quickly when placed under stress; poor construction ensured that the early problems led rapidly and inevitably to a string of failures that caused disaster.

Third, the operators themselves were poorly trained – they barely knew how to control the reactor, let alone the underlying rational behind their instructions – and not encouraged to learn anything outside their fields.  There was no comprehensive attempt to learn lessons from earlier accidents, even ones that had happened to comparable reactor designs.  This was pervasive at all levels.  Even Anatoly Dyatlov, who was supervising the fateful test, admitted there were things he didn’t understand about the reactor (although that might have been in hindsight).  When faced with an unprecedented situation, the operators made a string of mistakes that led to disaster.

Fourth, the plant and crew were under immense pressure to deliver the goods – i.e. power – to the local grid.  Production quotas were high, with too many workers being heavily overworked and the test itself delayed repeatedly until the operators on duty were tired and unable to think straight.  To make this worse, the managers were also under pressure and forced their subordinates to press ahead even though events were already spiralling out of control.  (The real-life Dyatlov wasn’t as bad as his HBO counterpart, but he did force the operators to continue with the test or risk losing their jobs.)  And so they plunged down the road to disaster.

Fifth – and perhaps the most dangerous of all – there was a culture of lies woven into the very roots of soviet culture.  Head Offices would set impossible quotas, which managers would claim to meet; Head Offices wouldn’t look too closely for fear of uncovering problems that would make them look bad.  Everyone lied, to the point the KGB had to use its spy satellites to monitor crop production right across the USSR.  People who tried to tell the truth were ignored or silenced.  Indeed, after the first explosion, there were government officials who honestly believed the whole disaster was a minor hiccup and that Reactor Number Four would be back in action at any moment.  Given that Reactor Number Four was in pieces, with the remains of the core burning with a radioactive fire, this appears unbelievable.  But it remained true for far too long.  Without proper information, the government couldn’t make proper judgements and thus couldn’t cope with the disaster.

Even after the true scale of the disaster had been recognised, the soviets kept lying.  They tried to cover up the disaster, then minimised it even after the first traces of radioactivity had been detected outside the USSR.  It rapidly became impossible to take their word for anything.  Their own people were convinced – rightly – that they were being lied to, that the disaster had been far greater than they’d been told.  And, when things had finally calmed down, the soviets kept lying.  The story they told about how a simple test had gone so badly wrong was, at best, dangerously incomplete.  It wasn’t until after the Cold War had finally come to an end that the world realised how close the Russians had come to total disaster.

It’s easy to say that these factors were inevitable themselves, and the Russians simply got very unlucky.  But what made these factors inevitable was communism itself.  The system was steadily strangling the life out of the Russian people.  Living in an environment where honesty was punished and lying was rewarded, there was no incentive to rock the boat by raising concerns … indeed, even trying to alert the authorities to the potential for disaster, or discuss the problems with communism itself, could be fatal.  The bureaucracy had taken on a life of its own.   Unaccountable, practically uncontrollable, it ensured disaster would strike and, when it did, that the system would be unable to cope with it.

And all of these problems were rooted in a single factor: communism itself.


There is a saying, attributed to various different people, that goes like this.  “He who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but he who is still a socialist at thirty has no brain.”  There is a great deal of truth to this.  On paper, socialism (which leads to communism) appears a great idea.  A more equal distribution of production seems idyllic.  And yet, every attempt to impose a socialistic system on anything other than a very small scale – where everyone can verify for themselves that the system is indeed equal – has failed spectacularly.  Where people can, they walk away; when they can’t escape, they grow bitter and disillusioned and effectively stop doing more than the bare minimum to survive.

This is perhaps unsurprising.  The basic building blocks of socialistic thought were devised by intellectuals – Karl Marx was a university professor as well as a radical – who had relatively little experience of the outside world.  Their theories took everything into account, apart from human nature itself.  They had no laboratory to test their work – or chose to ignore examples from earlier eras – and thus were unable to grasp the problems, let alone deal with them.  And, as later socialists tried to put theory into practice, they discovered the only way to get vast numbers of people to cooperate in their own destruction was through force.  It isn’t a coincidence that building socialism in Russia and China required mass murder on a scale that made Hitler look like an amateur. 

The core of the problem with socialism/communism lies in human nature.  People are not selfish, by and large, but they are self-interested.  They work for reward and they expect, when they work at a higher level, that they will receive a higher level of reward.  A farmer who grows extra crops, for example, wants to sell them for a little extra profit.  If that incentive is taken away – and it is, under communism – the farmer has no reason to grow more than he needs to satisfy his family.  This problem pervades socialistic and communistic societies.  When there is no link between hard work and reward, workers stop working.  Worse, if it looks like a lazy worker gets the exact same reward as someone who works overtime five days a week, it starts wearing down the social contract.  The lazy worker doesn’t work, while the overtime worker loses any desire to continue.  And so production steadily starts to drop.

This leads to further problems that are not immediately apparent.  An engineer who comes up with a new widget expects recognition and reward.  He loses all incentive to continue innovating when his company steals the patent (and the credit).  The Soviet Union lagged behind the United States, at least in part, because innovation was not always rewarded.  This ensured that Soviet engineering would always be primitive, thus the joke about the only truly brilliant product of the Soviet Union being the AK-47 (which is a remarkably simple weapon, which is why it sells so well).  Like most such jokes, it’s funny because there’s a great deal of truth in it.

Worse, the development of socialism requires a massive bureaucracy.  Bureaucrats rarely know anything like enough about industries to govern them effectively … and the USSR bureaucracy was trying to govern an entire country!  The planners couldn’t have hoped to rationalise the entire economy, even if their subordinates hadn’t been lying to them.  They set targets, rather than giving the producers their heads and allowing them to compete openly; they rewarded mythical successes and punished what failures came to their attention.  The net result was massive shortages of just about everything, from food and housing to computers and vital components, and a pervasive corruption that was summed up by a truly cynical saying: “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, bureaucracies are very bad at admitting their mistakes, even as they try to expand their power.  As Mike Williamson put it “any government-supported system is by definition government controlled and therefore authoritative and subject to abuse without possibility of objection.”  The idea that someone might object to becoming part of a socialistic society is unthinkable to them, at least in part because an example of a working non-socialist society will lure away the people the socialist society desperately needs (even as it brutalises them).  Socialists, faced with the choice between accepting dissent and crushing it, inevitably move to crush it.  Independent businesses and farms will be forcibly collectivised, state-run unions will control the workers, the media will be censored, ordinary people will be disarmed and the net result is utter devastation.  The famines that killed millions in Russia and China occurred because the government bureaucracy destroyed all incentive to produce food.  It’s quite notable – at least to those who care to see – that Chinese production skyrocketed when they made genuine reforms.  The Soviet Union, which had enough farmland to become a net exporter of food, was forced instead to import grain from the class enemy (i.e. America.)

Put bluntly, socialists injure the golden goose – and communists kill it – and then wonder why gold production has fallen or stopped completely.

But this isn’t the worst of it.  A socialist party may start with good intentions.  However, the methods they may have to use to get into power – and then implement changes that are obviously destructive and therefore resisted – will lead to corruption.  The temptation to use force will get stronger and stronger – and, once that line is crossed, it will become easier to cross it again.  The party will need security forces to secure its rule, spies and counterintelligence agents to deploy against enemies foreign and domestic.  This puts incredible power in the hands of the enforcers, power that an ambitious man can use to make himself unquestioned ruler of the state.  Stalin became a dictator because he worked his way up, carefully manoeuvring until all real power rested in his hands; others, too, have taken advantage of socialist weaknesses – and the urgent need to build enforcement arms – to make themselves masters of all they surveyed.  It is no coincidence that the true believers tend to be the first ones purged, when the dictator takes control. They’re the ones who might be able to challenge him on a legalistic level, threatening to turn the party against him.  But most of them don’t realise what they’ve unleashed until it’s too late. 

It is often argued that communism simply wasn’t done right.  This is, in one sense, true.  But it is also true to say that communism cannot be done right.  Human nature precludes it from working on anything other than a very small scale.  The bigger the system, the greater the chance of the rulers forgetting what’s important and thus corruption eventually bringing the entire structure crashing down.

It’s often alleged that socialism and communism are morally superior to nationalism and fascism.  But, in truth, the only real difference between communism and fascism is the lies told to maintain the system.

And when people stop believing those lies, they stop believing in the system too.


With all of this in mind, it seems incredible that anyone could believe in a socialist system, let alone work to impose one.  In the early days of the USSR, western intellectuals could – perhaps – be forgiven for not realising the truth behind the Potemkin Villages they were shown.  One might also accept that the US government needed to convince the population to support the USSR during World War Two, thus the acceptance of blatantly-false misrepresentations of life in Soviet Russia in Song of Russia and other motion pictures.  The Soviet Union was not a common tourist destination – and tourists were often carefully steered so they only saw what their minders wanted them to see – and there was no shortage of apologists ready to explain or gloss over things that might have unsettled people (the invasion of Finland in 1939, for example, or the brutal suppression of freedom in Eastern Europe).  And yet, now the Cold War is over, socialism appears to be on the rise?  Why?

One possible answer, of course, lies in intellectualism.  The loudest proponents of socialism – the ones who see themselves as the natural leaders, although they don’t put it that way – have little experience of life outside a university campus.  They see socialism as an ideal system and don’t see the downsides, ironically using the fruits of capitalism – the internet, smartphones, etc – to spread the word.  The older ones veer between being true believers and cynics who exploit their followers.  It’s often fairly easy to see they don’t believe their words.  On one hand, many of them are immensely rich; on the other, they insist the government is inherently racist and sexist (etc), but want to give the ‘evil’ government more power.  And a handful of them see socialism as the key to power.  They’ll mouth support for socialism as long as it is politically convenient.

In short, supporters of socialism and communism are either power-hungry, intellectual or desperate.  The first will kill the second and lord it over the third when they take power, making things worse for them.  (And also making it even harder to rebel, as – on paper – the workers have all the rights they want.)

Another answer, of course, is that socialism often looks good.  There are strong intellectual arguments in favour of it, deliberately weighted to make anyone who disagrees look bad.  A person who argues against giving money to beggars may be quite right to say it doesn’t really help them, but he’ll come across as a heartless bastard even if he’s telling the truth!  The socialists are good at arguing, right up to the point they get their hands on real power.  And then they start killing dissenters instead.  It can be quite hard to find one’s way out of an intellectual web, even if one feels – emotionally – that the web is gossamer-thin.  As 1984 put it:

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended.”

It’s easy enough to spot a problem and call attention to it.  And it’s easy to say ‘the government will fix it if we just give it the power.’  But – at best – the more you ask your government to do for you, the less it can do for you.  It will rapidly develop layers upon layers of bureaucracy as it loses touch with reality, trying to apply a ‘one size fits all’ solution to everything from education to the military and welfare payments.  The answer to the question of why Jonnie can’t read is that the important thing – kids having good teachers – has been replaced by bureaucratic bovine faecal matter.  Bureaucrats cannot make individual judgements.  Centralising decision-making leads to endless problems and eventual disaster.

And, at worst, you open the door to dictatorship.

I don’t pretend that capitalism is perfect.  Unrestrained capitalism can and does lead to problems, particularly when successful companies start warping the law and manipulating the government to make life harder for newer competitors … something that also kills the golden goose.  But the results of capitalism are so far superior to communism that there’s simply no contrast.  The only thing communists are better at is telling lies.  Their system gives them a great deal of practice.

But – eventually – the tide goes out.  Economic reality hits.  And, as Warren Buffett said, you discover the emperor is really naked. 

And by then, it is often too late.

Life During Wartime (Ark Royal Short) – Snippet

26 Nov

This is a different sort of character from the usual Ark hero/heroine. Let’s see how it works.

Chapter One


Richard rolled over, glanced at the sunlight beaming through the window blinds and closed his eyes.  It couldn’t be that late, surely.  He’d been up half the night playing Naval Command on his datanet terminal and he’d only gone to sleep a few short hours ago.  He wriggled against the lumpy mattress, trying to get comfortable again.  His mother had taken his old mattress for the guests, two weeks ago, and hadn’t bothered to replace it.  He had a feeling she was hoping he’d forget that he’d ever had an older and softer mattress.

The door crashed open.  “Richard Tobias Gurnard,” his mother snapped.  “Get out of that bed at once!”

Richard opened his eyes again.  There were worse things to see on waking, he was sure, but his mother in a foul mood was probably worthy of a honourable mention or two.  It was hard to see, sometimes, why his father had married her.  Richard loved his mother, but … they had very little in common.  There were times when he understood why his father had joined the navy, putting dozens of light years between him and his wife.  If he’d lived …

“This is my room,” Richard protested.  “You shouldn’t come in …”

“You are seventeen years old and on the verge of being late for school,” his mother informed him.  She rested her beefy hands on her ample hits, her eyes never leaving his face.  “Believe me, I do not want another call from the headmaster.  I certainly don’t want to sign another punishment slip.  If it happens again, I will …”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Richard said.  He glanced at the clock.  Eight o’clock.  Stupid o’clock, really.  “I’ll be down in a moment.”

“You’d better, or your sister will have eaten your porridge,” his mother thundered.  “And if you go to school without breakfast, you’ll be starving until lunch.”

She turned and stamped out the room, slamming the door behind her.  Richard sat upright and sighed, wishing – again – that his family were wealthy enough to hire a private tutor.  He learnt so much more from private lessons than formal schooling, caught between apathetic teachers and fellow students who spent half their time goofing off and the rest picking on him.  Richard wondered, sometimes, why his father had insisted Richard carry his name.  He hadn’t been a sadist, surely.  Didn’t he know how easy it was for someone to make fun of the name?

Dad was a strong man, Richard thought.  He’d seen his father’s medals.  Anyone who laughed at him would be duffed up good and proper.

He stood and dressed, hastily.  The school uniform felt as crappy as always, even though it was the last day he’d have to wear it.  Grey trousers, grey shirt, grey jumper, grey socks … he’d rebelled, just slightly, by wearing black underpants.  Rumour had it the girls wore all sorts of underclothes under their jumpers, but Richard didn’t believe it.  Wearing the wrong uniform wasn’t a harmless little prank like plagiarism, bullying and drawing insulting caricatures of the headmaster in the bogs.  It was serious.  Any girl who wore the wrong underwear would be lucky if she was merely sent to a borstal.

His reflection looked back at him as he gazed into the mirror, feeling a twinge of disgust at his appearance.  He was just a little overweight, enough to be noticeable; his blond hair fell over a pudgy face that had yet to lose its baby fat.  He was condemned to six hours of PE a week, thanks to the school-to-military pipeline, but it hadn’t done much for his weight.  Richard was honest enough to admit it hadn’t put much effort into it, yet … he’d never felt the urge to engage in any sporting activities.  What was the point?

He walked downstairs, telling himself that today would be different.  He was getting his exam results, the exam results he’d slaved so hard to get.  He’d already applied to a set of proper universities, places where intellect was respected and barbaric physical sports simply didn’t exist.  He’d meet people who actually understood him, he told himself; he’d meet intellectuals who could actually challenge his thinking.  And, most importantly of all, he wouldn’t be conscripted into the army.  He wouldn’t be called upon to fight in the war.

The radio was blaring loudly as he stepped into the kitchen.  Something had happened … he caught snatches of babble about places he’d never visit and things he’d never see as he picked up a bowl and filled it with porridge.  His sister Elizabeth was seated at the table, reading a datapad as she finished her breakfast.  She was two years younger than him, with long blond hair that was strikingly attractive when she wasn’t wearing the school uniform.  He hoped she’d be fine, once he left for university.  She was smart.  She’d have a good life if she didn’t let someone sweep her off her feet.  Richard sometimes wondered if that was what had happened to his mother.

“Better not be late today,” Elizabeth advised.  “You know how the Beast gets when someone’s late for assembly.”

“Better to skip it altogether,” Richard said, as he sat down and started to eat.  “It’ll just be another boring lecture about who died and brought honour to the school.”

He ate quickly, knowing better than to press his luck.  The Beast – Headmaster Gordon – was a former military officer who had no qualms about meting out harsh punishment to boys and girls alike.  Some people claimed he’d been kicked out of the army for unacceptable brutality.  Richard didn’t believe it.  He’d always thought that unacceptable brutality was the way people got ahead in the army.  Richard had once spent several hours trying to match the headmaster’s name to the army lists, only to draw a blank.  He had a private theory the headmaster was a Walt, a poser, but he’d kept it to himself.  The Beast wouldn’t have hesitate to beast him if he’d heard even a hint of the theory.

“Don’t forget your bag,” his mother shouted from up the stairs.  “And go now!”

Richard groaned, grabbed his coat and bag and hurried to the door.  The black mark on it signified that someone in the family had made the ultimate sacrifice and given his life for his country, but no one outside the family itself seemed to care.  Too many men – and women – had given their lives in the last five years of war.  Richard wanted his father back, not a meaningless medal and a fatherless life.  His greatest fear, the one he wouldn’t admit to anyone, was that he would end up just like his father.

Elizabeth joined him as they half-ran onto the streets and joined the others heading to school, a stream of grey-clad teenagers who blurred together into a single mass.  Richard tried not to react when he spotted a handful of sporty kids amongst the throng, chatting happily as they tossed a ball during the walk to school.  He’d long since grown used to being picked last for teams – he’d never liked sports – but he would have been happier if they left him alone.  They actually liked school, somehow.  They saw sporting careers as their only way out of poverty.  Richard had looked it up, when one of the school bullies had bragged he’d be playing for a famous team within the year.  The odds of him suceeding – of anyone suceeding – were lower than the odds of winning the lottery.

The throng grew larger as the school came into view.  Richard glanced at his sister, then waved goodbye and headed towards the boys side of the playground.  The handful of climbing frames looked as cracked and broken as ever, despite endless promises from the council to repair them.  He’d never dared climb to the top, not when there was no shortage of wankers who’d try to pull him down.  The concrete below the frame promised a hard landing and a week or two in hospital for anyone unlucky enough to fall.  Richard had heard PE teachers claim that suffering built character, but he wasn’t going to risk it.  He already had quite enough character.

A couple of boys kissed their girlfriends, then ran towards the growing lines as the school bell rang.  Richard felt a stab of envy, mingled with an odd sense of disdain.  He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t remain trapped in the grim town, that he’d find a job and build a life for himself somewhere else.  London perhaps, or Edinburgh.  Or even Manchester, somewhere where there were jobs for intelligent students too smart to waste their time playing games.  He joined the line as the whistle blew, ducking his head to avoid catching the teacher’s eye.  The teacher at the door was already holding a datapad, ready to record the names of anyone who came late.  They’d be for the high jump at the end of the day.

It’s the last day of school, he thought, as the line began to move.  Can’t they give us a break?

The door loomed up in front of him, a solid metal structure that looked as if it belonged in a prison.  The school really was a prison … he winced as he pressed his hand against the bioscanner, trying to ignore the prick of pain as the scanner sampled his blood and pronounced him clean.  He’d always wondered what would happen if the scanner reported he did have the alien virus, although he was pretty certain it was just security theatre to keep the proles under control.  The virus was airborne.  If he had it, he’d have infected the entire line of prattling boys by now.  He’d read as much on the dark web. 

Richard tried to breathe through his nose as he stepped through the door, into the school, and walked down the corridor to the assembly hall.  The school stank of stale cabbages and quiet desperation, the sense that most of the students wouldn’t go on to long and prosperous careers.  The smell grew stronger – the stench of too many sweaty bodies in too close proximity – as he found a place to sit in line and sat down.  There were no seats in the hall, not even for the older students.  He’d heard the teachers were scared of having chairs hurled at them.  He would have liked to believe the rumour, but it was probably another cost-cutting measure.  The assembly hall did double duty as the indoor gym.

A figure sat down next to him and sniggered.  “Hey, dickhead!”

Richard groaned, inwardly.  Colin.  He hated Colin.  The asshole didn’t have a single working brain cell, as far as Richard could tell, but that didn’t stop him leading a charmed life.  Girls loved him, teachers made allowances for him … he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with so much if he hadn’t been a star on the sports field.  Richard was sure Colin would have been expelled by now if he hadn’t brought in the medals.  Colin was too stupid to know it, but his charmed life wouldn’t last.  He wouldn’t go on to fame and glory, not if there was any justice in the world.  Or so Richard told himself.

He did his best to ignore the taunts as the remainder of the students filed into the vast chamber.  Really, did Colin think he was the first person to remember that Dick was short for Richard?  Or that dick was slang for penis?  He probably did.  He wasn’t smart enough to realise the joke was older than the Beast himself, older than the oldest person still alive.  Richard hated his name, more than he cared to admit.  He intended to change it as soon as he got his majority.

The Beast stepped onto the stage, his mortar board so perfect he could have stepped off a recruiting poster for schoolteachers.  He was a sour-faced man, his long black robes cut to hint at his powerful body.  Richard did his best to pretend to pay attention as the headmaster started to speak, praising the former pupils who’d given their lives in battle against the alien foe.  Richard winced, inwardly, when the Beast mentioned a handful of familiar names.  It wasn’t common to know students who were more than a couple of years older or younger than oneself, but he’d known a handful of older boys on the block.  Two of them were now dead, according to the Beast.  Richard would have liked to think he was lying.  It wouldn’t be the first time the headmaster had lied to the school.

The speech went on and on, to the point that even the teachers started to look bored.  Richard amused himself by mulling over the Beast’s military credentials, wondering if the headmaster really had been in the army after all.  If he’d been a high-ranking officer, surely he would have kept the title … right?  He’d openly claimed to have killed men in combat.  Maybe he’d just been a cook, a cook who’d poisoned the poor bastards who’d had to eat his food.  He’d seen that joke in a TV series that had been banned long ago.

He was relieved beyond words when, after a cursory and compulsory rendition of God Save The Queen, the younger students were dismissed.  The older students waited, shuffling uncomfortably as the Beast informed them that their exam results had been returned from the board and some of them had interviews with guidance counsellors.  Or consolers.  Richard groaned at the pun, then managed a fake titter with the rest of the students.  The Beast had earned his nickname, whatever the truth behind his military service.  It wouldn’t do to draw his attention on the final day of school.

“And I trust, when you have made something of yourselves, that you will remember what made you,” the Beast said.  “Dismissed.”

I’ll remember you, all right, Richard thought, as he stood.  The headmaster had no shame.  It was really too early to start hitting them up for donations.  And I’ll donate a rusty penny if you try asking me for money.

He held back as the students tried to cram themselves through the doors and push their way into the lobby.  There was no point in running, not when he was already in the midst of the crowd.  Instead, he forced himself to calm down as he followed the rest of the students up the stairs, past classrooms they’d never have to enter again and down a corridor to the notice boards.  The building really did look like a panopticon prison.  A man standing on the top could look down at the lobby, without being seen by the people below him.  But there were laws against treating prisoners so badly.  Richard had once considered trying to make a formal protest.  Being sent to school in such a building probably constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  He hadn’t bothered, in the end.  It was unlikely that anyone would pay more than a moment’s attention to him.

He felt his heart twist as he made his way down the corridor.  It would have been nice to have friends, it would have been nice to have someone he could be himself around … he shook his head.  It would have been nice, yes.  And while he was wishing, he’d like a pony.  He glanced up at the library, his hiding place while classes were out of session.  He couldn’t wait to go to university.  He’d sell his soul for the chance to actually make something of himself.

Colin waved at him.  “I’m going to the army!  And I’m going to shoot assholes like you!”

Richard bit down the reply that came to mind.  Colin was good at mindless brutality.  No doubt he’d fit right in.  Richard was a more sensitive soul.  He ignored the whoops and cheers as Colin and his friends headed for the exit, ready to spend a week of freedom before they reported for training.  They didn’t matter.  All that mattered, right now, was getting out of the dump before the poverty sucked him back in.  He told himself, firmly, that he’d made it.

He found the exam results and skimmed through to find his name.  A student needed 95% – whatever that meant – to go to university.  Richard had already filled in the paperwork and filed it, but without the result he’d get nowhere.  He passed over a handful of names – he felt a flash of vindictive glee as he noted Colin had only scored 15% – until he found his own.  He could hardly bare to look.

His heart skipped a beat.  94%.

Richard stared, feeling his legs start to sway.  He barely caught himself before they buckled and he hit the floor.  94%!  He was dead.  He was … his head swam.  He was going to join the army and do his national service and … probably get killed, blown away by his squadmates before the infected zombies ever got a shot at him.  Colin had made it clear, time and time again, that he’d kill Richard if he ever got a chance … Richard told himself that he must be mistaken, that Colin was merely being an asshole who made normal assholes look bland and boring, but he couldn’t believe it.  He was dead.  The tiny note ordering him to see the guidance counsellor mocked him.  The man was probably going to measure him for his coffin.

He thought, briefly, about skipping the meeting and going home.  Perhaps there were other options.  Perhaps … he couldn’t think of any.  There were stories about underground organisations that claimed to help draft dodgers, but he didn’t have any contacts.  And the rackets wouldn’t help him either.  He didn’t know who to ask …

… And he was too much of a coward to try.

Helplessly, tasting bitter defeat, Richard made his way to the guidance counsellor’s office.

Rich Kid Follies

25 Nov

I was in a cranky mode when I wrote this, but I think it’s still true.

When I was a child, it was a simple fact of life that there were kids at my school who came from more affluent families than my own.  These kids – more accurately, their parents – either had more money than mine or were prepared to spend money to give the impression they had money.  The gap between rich and poor at my primary school was not, however, that apparent.  It consisted of little things like who got the most pocket money – there was no concept, back then, of giving a child a credit card – and who had the most advanced video game consoles.  There was no one, as far as I know, whose family was really that rich.

I didn’t meet genuine rich kids until I went to university and, given where I went to university, I didn’t meet many of them.  (In hindsight, I don’t think any of them came from mega-rich families.)  They were different.  It wasn’t just that they had more money, although that was a big part of it.  It was that they had very different social attitudes to kids who had to work to earn money to go to university.  I was painfully aware, at that age, that I could run out of money.  I worked every summer to earn money to keep myself at university (in hindsight, again, I should have just kept the money).  They didn’t have to work.  They had more money, each month, than I had in a year.  There was even a person I knew who boasted that his parents gave him thousands of pounds each money as drinking money.  (Given how much he drank, this might actually have been true.)

The worst part of their attitudes, however, was their belief that money could fix everything – and that they’d never run out of money.  When they had problems, they would call on the Bank of Mum and Dad to fix them.  If they had medical problems, they’d pay for private treatment; if they had legal problems, they’d pay for the finest lawyers in the land.  People would make endless excuses for them, just because they didn’t want to get frozen out of the benefits of having rich friends.

It took something really serious for them to have a brush with reality, at which point all their money couldn’t save them. 

When I first heard of the ‘Affluenza Defence,’ I thought it was a joke.  It was, I should note, in the context of an American teenager,  Ethan Couch, essentially getting away with killing four pedestrians and injuring eleven more (as well as DUI and stealing his father’s car).  Couch’s lawyers argued, apparently successfully, that Couch ‘was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege.’  Others, people who lived in the real world (instead of whatever world his high-priced lawyers inhabited) insisted that this was nonsense.  Couch was perfectly capable of realising that he was doing wrong.  The sentence was an insult to his victims.

And yet, there might be something to it.  If you grow up in an environment where all your mistakes can be fixed by shovelling cash like snow, why should you learn from your mistakes?  Why should you fear consequences when you’ve never had to face them?  Why should you fear being poor when you have so much money you can spend it like water and never run out?  Why?

The answer, of course, is that sooner or later you will do something that all the money in the world can’t fix.  But why should you believe that when your entire life experience suggests otherwise?

And why, you might ask, am I talking about this now?

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating again.  One of the problems facing us in the West today is that the political class, a subset of people – the political, corporate/financial and media elites – has effectively lost touch with reality.  This is what tends to happen, it should be noted, when there are no serious consequences for mistakes.   Inside the bubble, mistakes can be laughed off or simply ignored; outside the bubble, the rest of the world steadily grows to hate and resent – and hold in contempt – the political class.  They have become, collectively speaking, a drunkard in command of a car.  The results have been, more or less, what you might expect.

In Britain, the political class is caught in a web of its own making.  There is no clear split between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ factions within the Houses of Parliament.  None of the mainstream political parties can be said to be wholly for ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave.’  This creates a tangled political web in which the British people voted for BREXIT, but have been – at least in part – denied their democratic right by ‘Remain’ politicians.  It does not seem to have occurred to the politicians that they are doing vast damage to Britain’s political infrastructure.  They do not seem to have realised that the bills will eventually come due.

In America, the political establishment is caught in a morass it created for itself.  It isn’t clear, from what I’ve seen, that President Trump did anything for which he could reasonably be impeached.  Given the stakes, and the endless string of Trump scandals that turned into nothingburgers, it is obviously vitally important that any impeachment proceedings should be utterly beyond reproach.  And yet, the attempts to build a case for impeachment have not even come close to being beyond reproach.  This ensures that large numbers of American citizens will not accept an impeachment, should it take place.  Why should they?

There is, in fact, a further problem.  The United States is in trouble, for all sorts of reasons.  Trump was elected, at least in part, because his supporters realised that the US was in trouble and needed strong medicine.  (Victor Davis Hanson compared Trump to chemotherapy, which I can testify from personal experience is thoroughly unpleasant.)  However, the constant political attacks on Trump – and endless media pressure – makes it obvious to the fair-minded voter that Trump is being treated unfairly.  The impeachment, from this point of view, is yet another dubious attack on Trump – and, through him, the American system itself.  On one hand, this gives Trump a ready-made excuse for not fulfilling his campaign promises – and there will be plenty of truth in it – and, on the other, it suggests Trump’s enemies have lost sight of reality themselves.  Instead of trying to find a reasonable candidate to face Trump in 2020, they’ve set their sights on tearing down the rules in order to take down Trump.

This is classic rich kid behaviour.  Nothing has ever gone wrong, they reason, so nothing can go wrong.  There are no consequences, no matter how badly we behave, so there never will be consequences.  We’ve never been punished, so why should we fear punishment?  Really … punishment?  What’s punishment

The problem in both Britain and America is that both political classes are engaged in rich kid behaviour.  Poorer kids, kids who are aware there are limits on what they can spend and, in some ways, on what they can get away with tend to be more reasonable.  The average citizen, on a budget, understands that there are limits, that you cannot buy the ‘nice to have’ items ahead of the ‘must-have’ items unless you want to starve.  Sensible people understand that you cannot change the rules of the game, even if you’re losing, because it will ruin the game beyond repair.  If you don’t honour the rules, why should anyone else?  But rich kidsbrats, more like – are quite happy to smash the gameboard if they don’t come out ahead.  It never seems to cross their mind that they’re building up a store of resentment and contempt that will one day overwhelm them. 

The problem is not that there are bad apples in the political bunch.  That’s true of just about everywhere.  The problem is that the political elites have reached a position of supremacy, assumed that they will remain supreme and started – deliberately or not – tearing down the structure that sustains them.  Legitimacy requires a degree of respect for the rules, even if it’s just lip-service.  Once you lose popular respect, and the popular belief that you won fairly even if vast numbers of people hate you, you’re on the way to disaster.  On one hand, that is why so many talking heads chatter endlessly about Trump losing the political vote (and why his supporters insist that Trump would have won that too were it not for voter fraud); on the other, the ‘rich kid’ behaviour of politicians who do not appear to have anything at risk is destroying their legitimacy.

This is a crisis.  And one I don’t know how to solve.

Updates …

24 Nov

Hi, everyone

Good news first – I’ve finished the first draft of Their Last Full Measure (A Learning Experience 6).  I’m hoping to have it up for sale by the end of the coming week, but – as always – it depends on editing and suchlike.  A paperback edition will hopefully be along in a month or so following eBook; audio will be coming, but I don’t know when yet.

I’m currently planning to write a mid-sized story – projected at around 18’000 words – for a Chris Kennedy anthology, provisionally entitled Life During Wartime.  It’s going to be an intro episode for a character for the final Ark Royal trilogy, stuff I wanted to put in the main books but couldn’t without really unbalancing the story.  I’ll probably put a snippet up, but the remainder of the story will have to be held until the anthology comes out.  (Probably before the trilogy itself).

After that, I intend to write Debt of War, which is the projected end of the planned Kat Falcone books.  I can’t post snippets from that, as the first book isn’t out yet, but hopefully it will go smoothly.

In other news, my son John was two years old yesterday and growing with terrifying speed.


Book Review: The Dragon Republic

4 Nov

The Dragon Republic

-Rebecca F. Kuang

One of the problems with ‘diverse’ books is that their authors often feel the urge to mouth politically-correct talking points, or feel pressured to do so, even when such points either don’t fit the narrative or openly break the reader’s trance.  The Poppy War was such a magnificent success, in all senses of the word, that PC talking points fitted so smoothly into the narrative I had no intention of questioning them.  The pointlessness of both racism and class privilege was so well demonstrated that there was no need to mention it overtly.  But, in many ways, The Dragon Republic stumbles when such points are raised.  And that is, it must be admitted, a weakness.

The deeper problem, one suffered by many other books, is that The Dragon Republic is the middle book in a (presumed) trilogy.  It advances the overall plot, but – unlike The Poppy War – it is neither complete nor conclusive in itself.  There aren’t many middle books that are, and this is quite understandable, yet it remains a problem given the sheer size of the book.  The plotline seemed to drag in places, while Rin – the heroine – seemed to regress too.  I saw the ultimate denouncement coming long before it finally arrived.

If you haven’t read The Poppy War, which I highly recommend, The Dragon Republic probably won’t make any real sense to you.  During the first book, set in a slightly-fantastical version of Imperial China during the last few years of its existence, Rin won a scholarship to a military academy, learned how to call upon the gods, fought a hopeless war against an analogy of imperial Japan, won it decisively by unleashing a holocaust on their home islands … and found herself betrayed by the Empress and forced to go on the run.  As the story develops, she is invited to join forces with the Dragon Warlord (the father of a character who bullied her, then befriended her) to overthrow the Empress and establish a republic.  It rapidly becomes clear that the Dragon Warlord is no better than the Empress he fights, his subordinates are too aristocratic to put the common interests first and that his foreign allies are dangerously untrustworthy.    In the end, he betrays Rin (surprise, surprise) and she winds up leading a revolutionary movement against him. 

The book is very good in depicting a massive civil war, roughly akin to the final years of Imperial China and the rise of the Republicans and Communists.  Both sides make logical moves, hampered by the need to watch their backs (betrayal is a universal theme running through the book) and their low quality of their leaders.  Family is a burden in such a society, weirdly enough; the oldest son leads his forces into a trap, ignoring advice from his younger brother who cannot disagree with him publicly.  The war is on an immense scale, ranging from ‘simple’ assassinations to massive campaigns, often decided by shamanic activity and ingenuity, or sneak attacks designed to cause famine and weaken the opposing sides.  Both sides are hypocrites, using force to convince people to join them and then punishing them for changing sides when the other side applies force of its own.  This was true of pretty much every civil war in China.

It also explores the problems of outside meddling, with both sides working to secure help from foreigners … foreign aid that might come at a price.   The book illustrates both the urgent need for help and the price, a price that might not be paid by the people who get the help (another common problem with foreign aid).  It does, however, tend to fall over itself a little.  On one hand, the ‘Europeans’ believe themselves to be more evolved than the natives (with a twist that the natives will grow more evolved as they develop); on the other hand, there is no suggest that they have shamans and therefore they’re seriously outgunned (and perhaps out-evolved).  Racism does not have to make logical sense, of course, but it’s still odd.  Historically, Europe regarded China as a mighty civilisation until the Opium Wars, when it sank in that China was rotting away from within.

The book’s weakness, however, lies in character development.  Rin seems to regress a little, alternatively mourning her lost friend (and commanding officer, who casts a long shadow over the book) and churning in circles, unsure of herself and being constantly manipulated by others.  It’s nice to see how the magic system develops, and how many long-lost secrets are unearthed (along with new ideas and concepts) but Rin keeps making mistakes and its only at the end of the book that she realises they’ve been fighting the wrong war all along.  Rin travels from place to place, learning more, but she doesn’t really seem to develop much as a character.  Others do develop a little, including a couple who managed to surprise me.  But then, given that betrayal is a theme of the book, perhaps it shouldn’t have.

Overall, though, the book does come across as a worthy successor to The Poppy War.  It pulls no punches about the grim reality of war, or the effects on civilian populations … most of whom are trapped between one side or the other and exposed to the horrors without hope of succour.  Rin herself only really grasps this after she encounters her adopted family within a refugee camp, although she should have seen it after witnessing the aftermath of this world’s Rape of Nanking and later committing genocide herself.  And, as before, the world itself is finely realised, from the shamanic magic to the corrupt and decaying (and racial) power structure that is responsible for so much suffering.  It is slightly less gripping than The Poppy War, but The Poppy War was a masterpiece.

I recommend it.

Snippet – Their Last Full Measure (A Learning Experience VI)

4 Nov


The irony would have made Empress Neola laugh, if it wasn’t so … ironic.

She had rebelled, the first junior officer – by the standards of her people – to rebel in thousands of years.  She had led an almost effortless coup against the old ones, the ancients too doddering and old to realise that someone could overthrow them … only to discover, after the twin disasters of Apsidal and N-Gann, that someone had overthrown her in turn.  They hadn’t stripped her of her power, they hadn’t banished her to a retirement world nicely out of the way, but they had limited her power.  The omnipotence she’d claimed for herself was gone.

Although I was never quite omnipotent, she reflected, sourly.  Sure, she’d been the absolute ruler of the Tokomak Empire, but … there had been limits.  The humans and their pathetic Galactic Alliance hadn’t surrendered, when faced with the prospect of clashing with the greatest military machine in the known galaxy.  The universe didn’t bend to my will.

She studied the handful of faces around the table, knowing her position was weaker than ever before.  Once, she could have snapped her long fingers and everyone would have leapt to obey.  Now … it was a popularity contest, where the soldiers and spacers decided for themselves who they’d follow, who they’d obey.  Neola shuddered at the thought.  She understood the importance of ensuring competence at the top – it was why she’d launched her coup – but soldiers and spacers couldn’t decide for themselves which orders they’d follow.  At best, there would be long delays as they tried to argue out the pros and cons of each set of orders: at worst, there would be absolute anarchy.  It was no way to run a government, let alone a war.  And she knew they simply didn’t have time to iron out the kinks before the humans set Tokomak Prime itself on fire.

And they know I lost the last campaign, she thought.  They’re not inclined to listen to me.

A human would have gritted her teeth.  Neola was too practiced to reveal her emotions that openly, but anger and despair gnawed at her gut.  It wasn’t a complete disaster – she’d argued, time and time again – but hardly anyone believed her.  Cold logic was no substitute for the shock of hundreds of thousands of lives, important lives, being expended on a gravity point assault.  No one in the room cared one whit for the lesser races who served the Tokomak as sepoys, expendable cannon fodder, but the Tokomak spacers themselves?  They were important.  The Tokomak hadn’t suffered such losses in living memory.  And, given there were Tokomak who were literally thousands of years old, that was a very long time indeed.

“We expect you to behave yourself, Empress,” Coordinator Hakav said.  “And to listen to our advice.”

You could just have taken power for yourself, Neola thought, coldly.  It spoke of either rectitude or moral cowardice.  She didn’t care which.  And instead you content yourself with giving advice.

She wanted to laugh.  Or cry.  The youngsters often affected the manner of the old … but they didn’t need to, not any longer.  They were calling the shots.  Now.  And yet, they didn’t have the courage to overthrow her completely.  They had to know she was dangerous.  Neola had overthrown ancients who’d held their posts for longer than most of them had been alive, sheer longevity giving them a legitimacy the youngsters lacked.  She’d kill them all if she got a chance and they had to know it.  But they’d merely hampered her.  That was a mistake.

Unless they don’t want to risk another round of infighting, she reminded herself.  We could lose the war with the humans while scrabbling amongst ourselves.

She nodded, curtly, and directed their attention to the holographic display.  “There is no point in lying to ourselves,” she said.  Let them think of her as fettered, for the moment.  She’d regain what she’d lost in time.  “We are not our servants, who need reassurance.  We can accept that the situation is grim.  The humans have scored a major victory.”

“We have never lost a fleet base before,” Admiral Kyan said.

“No.”  Neola conceded the point without rancour.  “But we have many – many – fleet bases.”

She spoke calmly, hiding her irritation as much as she could.  “The humans have successfully prevented us from launching a major invasion of their sector.  Right now, our fleets would have to proceed through FTL, a journey that would take decades.  The human outposts blocking the gravity point chains have to be dislodged before we could mount an invasion in a reasonable space of time.  We will be required to launch a series of gravity point assaults before we could even think about bringing our muscle to bear on Earth.

“However, we have other problems.  The loss of a major fleet base” – she nodded to the admiral – “has … unsettled our allies.  Many of them are rethinking their stance in the light of new developments.  Others are looking back to the days of their independence and wondering what, if anything, they can do while we’re distracted.  And while we are still strong enough to take out our allies if there is no other choice, they could produce a distraction at the worst possible time.  Right now, there is a human fleet within striking distance of the inner worlds.  It may only be a matter of time before that fleet starts an advance to the core.”

She allowed her words to hang in the air.  “To Tokomak Prime itself.”

There was a long chilling pause.  She smiled inwardly, despite the seriousness of the situation.  They’d never really considered just how easily a strength could become a weakness, if the balance of power shifted even slightly.  The Tokomak had banned their servants from fortifying the gravity points, both to ensure free navigation and to make it difficult for anyone to stop their fleets from teaching any rebellious systems a lesson.  Now, with a major enemy fleet pressing against the inner worlds themselves, the gravity points were terrifyingly undefended.  Neola had started a fortification program, hastily repurposing planetary defence platforms and constructing floating fortresses from scratch, but she was uncomfortably aware that the program would take time.  Time she didn’t have.  The humans moved so quickly that they’d often managed to surprise even her.

And they’ve also managed to improve upon the technology they stole, she mused, sourly.  The Tokomak had thought they’d taken technology as far as it could go.  The humans had proved them wrong.  In hindsight, it had been a convenient lie … a lie that been believed, eventually even by the people who’d propagated it in the first place.  Neola knew she’d pulled off some tactical innovations – she’d caught the humans by surprise, once or twice – but her people were ill-prepared to engage in a technological arms race.  Sooner or later, they’ll come up with something that renders our giant reserve fleet nothing more than scrap metal.

She shuddered at the thought.  The Tokomak had built literally millions of warships over thousands of years.  They’d built so many ships they couldn’t hope to man them, even if they gave every last one of their race a uniform and assigned him to a ship.  The fleet had been held in reserve, the largest hammer in the known galaxy.  But now, the fleet was only of limited value.  The programs to bring the ships out of mothballs, crew them and deploy them to the front might not be completed in time to keep the humans from developing a whole new weapons system.  And then the reserve fleet might become worse than useless.

“Time is not on our side,” she said, calmly.  She altered the display.  “This is what I intend to do.”

She outlined her plan, grimly aware that it was really nothing more than a more urgent version of her previous plan.  She’d assumed she could secure Apsidal and open the way to Earth without much ado, forcing the humans to stand in defence of their homeworld rather than raiding the inner worlds themselves.  She’d assumed … those assumptions had died in fire, along with hundreds of thousands of Tokomak spacers.  She hadn’t bothered to calculate how many of their subjects had died too – no one had cared enough to ask – but she knew their deaths were in the millions.  And yet, she needed to demand more and more from their client races.  They’d all have to stand in defence of civilisation itself.

And yet, they’re starting to wonder if we can be beaten, Neola thought.  And that makes them unreliable.

She cursed the gentocrats under her breath, savagely.  The humans had an expression – Old Farts – that fitted them perfectly.  They’d been so keen to make it clear that the Tokomak had never suffered even the slightest loss – not in recorded history, anyway – that losing even a single ship was a major disaster.  And she’d lost thousands of ships.  It was a black eye – she had hundreds of thousands of ships coming online – but it looked bad.  The public perception was that the Tokomak were losing.  And the mere fact they had to consider public perception was itself a sign that things were going wrong …

“Time is not on our side,” she repeated.  “The humans are at our gates.  But we do have a preponderance of firepower and mobile units.  If we can find the time to bring the rest of the fleet online – if – we can end this threat once and for all.”

If,” Coordinator Hakav repeated.

“If,” Neola agreed.  “The galaxy has changed beyond measure in the last few years.  We can no longer allow ourselves the delusion that we are unbeatable.  We cannot afford to keep believing our own lies.  We must adapt or die when change sweeps over us.”

She let out a long breath.  She was young, although by human standards she would be on the verge of death.  And yet, even she had trouble grasping what might lie ahead.  She’d been so used to the limits of everything from technological to politics, and to the concept of those limits being inflexible, that she had trouble imagining what might happen if they changed.  The Tokomak saw themselves as the undisputed and unchallengeable masters of the known universe.  It rarely occurred to them – it had rarely occurred to them – that their dominance was not a natural law.  The universe didn’t guarantee them anything.

But it doesn’t guarantee the humans anything either, she reminded herself, firmly.  They’re strong, but they’re not unbeatable.  We can still reclaim the galaxy for ourselves.

Sure, her thoughts answered, as the discussion continued to rage.  And what sort of galaxy will we pass down to our children?

Chapter One

Hameeda’s eyes snapped open.

For a moment, wrapped in the darkness, she was honestly unsure of where she was or what she was doing.  She’d been dreaming … she wasn’t sure what she’d been dreaming, but it had troubled her on a level she couldn’t express.  There’d been shadows in her dreams … she shook her head as the cabin lights came on, illuminating a chamber that was surprisingly large and luxurious for such a small warship.  But then, she was trapped in the LinkShip until the day she died.  The designers had known they’d better make it comfortable for her.

She rubbed her forehead and sat upright, trying to recover the dream.  It bugged her, more than she cared to admit.  She’d rarely dreamed since joining the navy … but then, she supposed, she’d often been too tired to do anything more than throw herself on her bunk at the end of her shift and sleep until the next shift began.  Even now, with a small army of automatic helpers at her beck and call, she still got tired.  Her body was in the peak of health, and would remain that way until she died, but she could still get mentally tired.  And there was no one who could take her place.

Hameeda sighed, then reached out through her implants to touch the local processor.  The LinkShip was surrounded by the featureless darkness of FTL, effectively alone within the folded universe.  Her long-range sensors had picked up the occasional hint of other starships passing through FTL, but none of them had come close enough to exchange greetings.  They might have been hundreds of light years away, given how gravity waves propagated within FTL.  There was no way to be entirely certain of anything unless they came a great deal closer.  A status display appeared in front of her and she studied it carefully.  She was definitely alone on the ship.

Perhaps I should have asked for a companion, she thought, ruefully.  Or a sexbot.

She snorted at the thought – she’d tried a sexbot when she’d reached her majority, only to discover that even the most humanoid robot wasn’t human – and swung her legs over the side of the bed.  The floor grew warm under her naked feet.  Hameeda didn’t bother to check her appearance in the mirror, let alone don her uniform, as she paced down the corridor and onto the bridge.  She felt a twinge of the old disappointment as she stepped through the airlock – the chamber was really nothing more than a single command chair, surrounded by holographic displays she rarely used – and then pushed it aside.  One day, all starships would be controlled by direct neural links and complex command bridges would be a thing of the past.  She rather suspected that would be a long time in the future.  A normal bridge might be less efficient, but it looked better.

Her lips quirked as she sat down, the neural links activating automatically.  Her awareness expanded, twinning itself time and time again with the starship’s processor nodes.  She took a long breath as a string of status reports fell into her head, each one assessed by her intellectual-shadow and classed as non-urgent.  There was no reason to be concerned about anything, the network said.  She checked them anyway, just to be sure.  The LinkShip was in perfect shape.  It was more than ready to carry out the mission.

Hameeda nodded to herself, then checked the FTL drive.  The LinkShip was rocketing towards Yunnan, a major Tokomak fleet base a few hundred light years from N-Gann.  If Solar Intelligence was correct – and Hameeda took everything the spooks said with a grain of salt – the Tokomak were massing ships there, preparing for … something.  Hameeda’s tactical computers offered a number of possibilities, listed in order of probability.  They could launch a counterstroke at N-Gann, despite the presence of two-thirds of the Solar Navy; they could withdraw the ships to block a thrust towards Tokomak Prime; they might even be bracing themselves for a revolution, for a whole string of revolutions.  Hameeda had read the reports from the inner worlds.  There were literally hundreds of alien races that hated the Tokomak, but were too scared to rebel.  That might have changed, now the Tokomak had taken a black eye.  Their servants might be wondering if they could launch a successful revolt against their masters …

And they’d better pray they could get away with it, if they did, Hameeda told herself.  The Tokomak won’t hesitate to burn entire planets to ash if that’s what they have to do to stop the rebels.

She shuddered.  She’d grown up in the Solar Union – she’d never set foot on Earth – but she’d heard the tales.  Her grandmother had been born in the most barbaric region of the planet, a place that was up against some pretty stiff competition.  She’d been aware, from birth until she’d escaped to space, that the strong did what they liked and the weak suffered what they must.  Hameeda had found it hard to believe, when she’d listened to her grandmother’s stories of near-permanent starvation, warlords, religious fanatics and raving misogynists who hated and feared women.  She believed it now.  The Tokomak would do whatever it took to keep themselves in power, fearful of what would happen if – when – they lost it.  They and their human enemies weren’t that different.

A timer appeared in her vision, counting down the final seconds.  Hameeda checked her weapons and shields again, bracing herself for the worst.  The FTL baffles were supposed to keep the enemy from detecting a ship in FTL, but the Tokomak might be wise to that trick by now.  They were unimaginative, not stupid.  And they were the ones who’d developed FTL travel.  The Solar Navy’s officers had spent years wondering just what, if anything, the Tokomak might have kept back for themselves.  They didn’t have to share everything with their allies.  Why should they?

There might be an ambush lying in wait for me, she mused.  Or they might be preparing to yank me out of FTL early and pound hell out of me.

The timer reached zero.  The LinkShip hummed out of FTL.  Hameeda allowed herself a sigh of relief as the near-space sensors drew a blank, then started to deploy a handful of passive sensor platforms.  A torrent of information rushed into her sensor processors as the LinkShip coasted towards the planet, daring the local sensors to detect her.  Hameeda snorted to herself, half-wishing she could kick whoever had issued her orders.  She could have gotten a lot closer without any real risk of detection, if she’d remained hidden under cloak, but the analysts wanted to know when – if – the locals spotted her when she wasn’t trying to hide.  It wouldn’t be long.  They might not have seen her coming – the lack of a welcoming committee suggested the locals hadn’t worked out how to track her yet – but they’d detect her drive emissions soon enough.  She rather suspected it was too much to hope that some artificial stupid would decide she couldn’t be there and dismiss her as nothing more than a sensor glitch.  There was a war on.  The Tokomak would probably investigate any sensor contacts that appeared on their screens.

We could use that against them, she thought, wryly.  A few hundred fake contacts and they’d be ready to ignore an entire battle fleet bearing down on them.

She put the thought to one side as more and more data flowed into the sensors.  Yunnan had been populated by spacefaring races for thousands of years and it showed.  Four rocky worlds, three of them heavily developed; two gas giants, both surrounded by cloudscoops and hundreds of industrial nodes.  Her eyes narrowed as she recalled the history datafiles, the ones that stated the Tokomak had raised the natives from the mud and given them the keys to the stars.  Reading between the lines of flattery so cloying that even the most narcissistic human in existence would vomit in disgust, it was clear the Tokomak had enslaved the natives after discovering their world and its three gravity points.  They might have the stars, but only as passengers on someone else’s ships.  Their worlds were no longer theirs.  And they might – just – want to rebel.

Her lips tightened as her sensors picked out the signs of new construction around the gravity points.  The Tokomak were hastily fortifying them, although she wasn’t sure who they thought they were fortifying them against.  Admiral Stuart could take her fleet from N-Gann to Yunnan if she wished, but she’d prefer to take the long way through FTL rather than bleed her fleet white punching through the gravity points.  The fortresses would be expensive white elephants if Yunnan itself was attacked.  They’d be unable to cover the planet and the gravity points.  She shook her head, mentally.  There might be other problems.  The Harmonies were only three jumps away and they had a powerful fleet.  They might be allies, as far as the Tokomak were concerned, but … given a chance, who knew what they’d do?

The Tokomak probably don’t know, she thought.  And that might be why they’re building the fortresses.

A flash of red light flared across her vision.  The enemy had pinged her, active sensors sweeping her hull.  She watched, feeling a twinge of amusement, as their entire defence network flash-woke.  Her sensors drank it all in, nothing the position of everything from active sensor platforms to orbital fortresses guarding the planets and their industrial nodes from enemy attack.  The Tokomak hadn’t skimped on the defences, she noted, as a handful of enemy cruisers left orbit and barrelled straight for her.  They’d clearly had some reason to fear attack.

And they might have been right, she thought.  They just didn’t expect it to come from us.

She watched the cruisers draw near, then kicked her drives into high gear.  The cruisers swept their sensors across her time and time again, the universal signal ordering the unlucky recipient to stop or be fired upon.  Hameeda wondered if they actually expected her to stop or if they were mindlessly following orders that had been written thousands of years before humans had discovered fire.  She swept closer, bracing herself for the moment they took the gloves off and opened fire.  They’d have a solid lock on her hull, with or without active sensors.  They might not give her any warning before they opened fire …

There!  She sensed the flicker and threw the LinkShip into an evasive pattern, sweeping through a set of manoeuvres that would have been impossible for anything larger than a gunboat ten years ago.  A handful of shots rocketed through where she’d been, missing her cleanly.  She smirked as she darted near a cruiser, trying to dare the ship to fire … knowing that if she missed, she might just hit one of her fellows.  The Tokomak ships could take a few hits, but would they take the chance?  She snorted as the enemy held their fire, then altered course and headed directly towards Yunnan itself.  The enemy ships were left eating her dust.  They changed their own course, following her, but it was too late.  The only way they’d ever get back into weapons range was if she let them.

The planet grew larger as she zoomed towards it.  The enemy were starting to panic, hundreds of freighters leaving orbit and dropping into FTL without even bothering to boost themselves into high orbit first.  There’d be some trouble over that when the unlucky crews returned, she was sure.  Human bureaucrats were mindless fools – she’d met too many, even in the Solar Union – but Tokomak bureaucrats were worse.  The freighter crews would probably be stripped of their licences when the dust settled, if they were lucky.  Who knew?  Perhaps they’d make their way to N-Gann and join the Galactic Alliance instead.  They would be welcome.

She watched, grimly, the planetary defences brought more and more weapons on line.  The orbital battlestations would be a major threat if she got too close, while – oddly – the giant ring surrounding the planet was studded with tactical sensors too.  She frowned, wondering if the ring had weapons mounted too.  That was odd – the Galactics were normally careful not to do anything that might make the rings targets – but there was a war on.  Perhaps they’d decided to gamble their human opponents wouldn’t risk an accidental genocide by destroying the ring and bombarding the planet below with debris.  Or maybe they simply didn’t care.

They have to care, Hameeda thought.  The alternative was unthinkable.  The population below isn’t expendable.

She accessed her communications array and uploaded a handful of commands into the system as she swept into firing range.  The enemy CO was an idiot, as he opened fire the moment she flew into range … extreme range.  A full-sized battleship could have evaded his missiles, let alone the nimble LinkShip.  Hameeda was tempted to hold her position and let him empty his magazines, if he was stupid enough to oblige her.  But the risks were too great.  A lucky hit – or an antimatter warhead – might do real damage.  She had no illusions.  The LinkShip was too small to soak up damage and keep going.  If she lost her shields, she was doomed.

The barrage of missiles grew stronger as she darted closer to the planet, evading them with almost effortless ease.  She wondered, idly, if someone was screaming at the CO to stop wasting missiles, to stop throwing warheads around too close to the ring for comfort.  A single nuclear warhead might not do much damage to a structure that literally surrounded an entire planet, but why take chances?  She evaded another spread of missiles, then dropped below the ring.  Thankfully, if there were any weapons on the ring they held their fire.  Either they didn’t exist or whoever was in charge was smarter …

They could hardly be stupider, she thought.  She opened the communications array, searching for enemy nodes.  Here, so close to the planet, they couldn’t keep her from hacking the system without shutting down the entire network.  The Tokomak system wasn’t badly designed, but it had its flaws.  And humanity had had plenty of time to learn to take advantage of each and every one of them.  And now …

She uploaded the hacking package, sending it into every communications node within reach.  The message would spread rapidly, using codes they’d hacked from other Tokomak systems to stay ahead of any mass-wiping programs.  It wouldn’t last forever, she’d been warned, but it would take them weeks to get rid of it … weeks when the message, the call to war and revolution, would be seen by millions of people.  If only a tiny percentage of them rose up against their masters, the Tokomak would have a real fight on their hands.  Who knew how much of their productive capability would be lost if they had to suppress a hundred revolts?

And how many of their servants and slaves will be butchered to keep the revolt from spreading, she thought, sourly.  The Tokomak had always reacted badly to any challenge, particularly from the younger races.  We could be doing the wrong thing here.

She put the thought away as new alerts flashed up in front of her.  The enemy were launching gunboats, hoping they could chase her out of low orbit and back into missile range.  She smiled, resisting the temptation to force them to play cat and mouse for the next few hours.  It would be entertaining, but she couldn’t risk being hit.  Not here.  She’d completed her mission and now it was time to run.  She altered course and dove towards the ring, flying into a giant starship repair yard.  A transport ship, large enough to carry a hundred LinkShips within its hull, was drifting within the yard, open to space. Hameeda flew right through it, resisting the urge to fire off a handful of missiles at the repair facilities.  It would hamper them – slightly – if they lost the yard, but the risk was unthinkable.  She wasn’t prepared to risk genocide.  Not now.  Not ever.

The enemy commander opened fire as she climbed into high orbit, his missiles sprinting towards her.  She cancelled her drives, coming to an abrupt stop, then dropped a handful of decoys before vanishing into FTL.  The combination of sensor static and gravity baffles should keep them from realising what she’d done … she shook her head as she rocketed away from the system, all too aware that she’d never know.  They might think they’d destroyed her.  They might tell everyone they’d destroyed her.  They might not even know they were lying.  They might genuinely believe they’d destroyed her.

But no one will believe them, she thought.  They’ve lied so often that they won’t be believed even if they honestly think they’re telling the truth.

She put the thought aside as she waited long enough to be sure she was clear, then slipped her mind out of the network and fell back into her own body.  The experience wasn’t so disorientating now, thankfully … she wiped sweat from her brow, her stomach grumbling angrily as it reminded her she hadn’t eaten anything for hours.  She disconnected herself from the chair and stood, feeling her legs wobbling threateningly.  She’d have to force herself to exercise, during the flight to her next target.  There were limits to what a combination of genetic modification and nanotech helpers could do.

Not that it matters, she thought, as she headed to the galley.   She couldn’t be bothered to cook, but there were plenty of food patterns stored within the processor.  If we lose this war, there won’t be anything of us left.  And our opponents won’t hesitate to commit genocide.