Archive | April, 2020

Musings on Biden and METOO

30 Apr

Normal commenting rules apply.

“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”

-Joe Biden, 2018

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that mass protest movements, driven by raw emotion, rarely achieve much (at least within a short space of time).  They tend to be victims of their own success, growing too fast to establish a proper internal structure before fractures within the movement start tearing it apart.  Movements like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March and #METOO started well, offering the promise of real change and better lives for all, before they ran afoul of their own contradictions.

These problems tend to manifest in a number of different ways.  Infighting within the group, often over focus or politics, can shatter the movement into a number of different factions.  Individual members can sell out, either through a desire to monetise their experience or a honest belief that a diluted version of the cause will appeal to more people.  Political battles, particularly when they intersect with the cause, can threaten it’s integrity.  And, worst of all, the cause’s excesses can and do power a reactionary movement that is unwilling or unable – for fear of creating conceptual superweapons (here and here) that can be used against them – to acknowledge that the original cause was valid.  In a sense, the activists drive their movement onto the rocks because they want whatever they want NOW.

People have a right to be angry.  But people who allow their anger to override their common sense can be very dangerous.

This is a key part of human – and mob – psychology.  Anger is a good servant, but a dangerous master.  A person who is angry may calm down and start thinking calmly again; an angry mob will keep the anger going until they’re trapped in a vicious circle.  Those who try to talk their fellows into calming down and thinking will be seen as traitors.  Humans do not react well to being betrayed.  Mobs can turn on someone they think betrayed them with terrifying speed.  They can also go too far very quickly.  Think how easy it is to have a very bad day, then ruin your relationship with your partner/siblings/parents/children with a single anger-driven act.  Now scale it up by several orders of magnitude and you see the problem with mob rule.  Activist groups have only a limited amount of goodwill from outsiders.  When it’s gone, it’s gone.

METOO started well.  There was little doubt Weinstein deserved to be called out.  His behaviour was an open secret for years.  It also exposed how the media could be manipulated to keep his victims from telling their stories and how many abusers had ties to prominent politicians, including – most strikingly – Hillary Clinton.  Weinstein’s fall led to others, exposing people who ranged from being abusive and exploitive to people who showed terminally poor judgement.  It looked as if things would change for good.

However, the rot had already started to take root.  There was little coherence in how accusations were made, no standards for what constituted abuse, no patience for the legal system’s show movement and, most importantly of all, no way to curb the excesses of the movement.  The willingness to uphold trial by mob, for example, ensured that people who felt the victims had been denied a fair trial would turn against the movement.  The failure to define abuse ensured that male workers would edge away from their female co-workers, denying women the chance for mentorships, networking and everything else they’d need to reach the very highest levels.  And this was impossible to stop.  If there is no solid definition of bad behaviour, the safest thing to do is keep your distance.

As Nelson Mandela understood – and so few others have grasped, before or since – it is important to create a world everyone can live with.  METOO had a good chance to dictate terms of surrender.  It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been progress.  It failed to take the chance before it was too late. 

This came to a head during the Kavanaugh Hearings.  The first accusation levelled against Brett Kavanaugh was inherently impossible to prove.  If one goes by the standard of ‘Believe All Women,’ then Kavanaugh should have been hounded out of public life; if one goes by the standard of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ then Kavanaugh should have been assumed to be innocent until proof surfaced.  The political storm surrounding the hearings ensured they became political.  In the absence of proof, there was no perfect solution.  METOO started to be seen as – accurately or not – a weapon to be deployed against the GOP.

This might not have proven fatal, if METOO had acknowledged the problem.  It might have seemed absurd to argue that METOO should try to go after a balanced ticket of Democrats as well as Republicans, but it would have gone a long way towards ensuring a certain degree of bipartisan support.  And there was a very big – and obvious – target, Bill and Hillary Clinton.  There has not yet been any serious accounting for Bill’s actions while in office, nor Hillary’s role in covering them up (and the money she took from Weinstein).  This is something that should have been done a long time ago.  Indeed, hard questions should be asked about how much Obama knew when he allowed his daughter to intern for Weinstein.  Was the Secret Service asleep at the switch?  But this opportunity was lost.

And now, we have the charges levelled against Joe Biden.

Like Kavanaugh, it is impossible to prove the charges.  Biden has the presumption of innocence.  That said, there are circumstantial reasons to suspect there may be some meat to them.  It was never established that Kavanaugh and Christine Ford actually met; Tara Reade worked for Biden during the time of the alleged assault.  There’s no evidence that Ford told anyone of the assault at the time; there’s some evidence that Tara Reade did.  Kavanaugh has no history of inappropriate behaviour  during his career; Biden has an endless series of photos showing him engaging in just that.  In short, there’s good reason to suspect there’s some truth to the story.

But you wouldn’t know it from the (lack of) reaction.

The left has done its best to bury the story (although some left-wingers are starting to break ranks.)  There has been no call for a full investigation, for automatically giving Tara Reade the credence given to Christine Ford.  METOO appears to have adopted the mantra of ‘believe all women, unless it is politically inconvenient.’  At the very least, the scrutiny that was aimed at Kavanaugh should be aimed at Biden.  It would have suggested, very strongly, that METOO was a politically-neutral movement.  Instead, we have a fracturing movement that can no longer claim the moral high ground.  I’ve heard right-wingers openly gloating about how the affair exposes hypocrisy and double standards – and how they’re going to teach the left a lesson by using their weapon – impossible to prove accusations – to crush Joe Biden.

Civilisation depends on a shared understanding and application of the law.  If [X] is unacceptable when Bob does it, it’s equally unacceptable when Alice does it.  Double standards – “do as I say, not as I do” – are maddening even when there’s a good reason behind them.  There isn’t one here.  If you burn down all standards of common decency – and weaken the rule of law – what are you going to do when someone does it back to you?  Why should they not?  You did it to them first.

The blunt truth is that due process exists for a reasoning.  The wheels of civilised justice grind very slowly, but they grind very fine indeed.  This isn’t satisfactory for the angry people who want whatever they want now, yet it is the only way to ensure proper punishment and lasting change.  In a bid to embarrass and weaken President Trump, METOO has become a political football, a weapon that can cut both ways …

… And now, as Joe Biden has come to discover, it has.

I don’t know if there’s truth in the accusations levelled against Biden.  But we live in a world where increasingly fewer people, right and left alike, care.

Audio Editions

30 Apr

Hi, everyone

As you may have noticed, there’s been a lot of questions asked about the audio production schedule (and why it isn’t quicker).  The simple truth is that most of my books are either independent or hybrid, ensuring there’s little synchronisation between the different versions.  Paperback (for indie) comes out a week or so after eBook; audio takes a little bit longer.  Books produced by big publishers tend to be synchronised, so they all come out at once, but the Angel series is the only one that does that.

Anyway, this is the rough schedule for the coming months:

Their Last Full Measure – May 26

First Strike – June 16

Mirror Image – June 23

Favor the Bold – September 8

The Family Pride – December (?)

OUT NOW – The Artful Apprentice (Schooled in Magic 19)

27 Apr

Every magician who wants to be great goes through an apprenticeship, through a period of training under a master who will — hopefully — raise them to mastery themselves. Now, for Emily, the time has come to begin her long-awaited apprenticeship with Void. She must master her powers or risk being destroyed by them.

But as Void introduces her to levels and layers of magic she never even knew existed, she finds herself fighting desperately to keep up, to defeat challenge after challenge to prove her worth to study under him … perhaps, even, to survive a training course that has killed other — lesser — magicians.

And, when Void sends her to a kingdom she’s never visited, on a mysterious mission she has to figure out for herself, she finds herself facing a choice that could destroy her …

… Or unleash a nightmare that could destroy an entire kingdom.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from the links on this page.

Snippet – Knife Edge (The Empire’s Corps VII)

22 Apr

Prologue I

From: The Dying Days: The Death of the Old Order and the Birth of the New.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

In hindsight, Earthfall was pretty much inevitable.  We saw it coming.

I suppose we should have wondered, when we finally realised that all hell was going to break loose, who else might have reached the same conclusion.

It wasn’t as if anything was secret.  Sure, it was hard to get a completely accurate picture of what was going on, thanks to lies being written into the official record and prevalent official censorship, but enough leaked through for me to see it.  The Terran Marine Corps saw it.  I should have wondered … why not others?  Who else knew – or guessed – what was coming?

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

As we saw in previous volumes, the Terrain Marine Corps saw Earthfall coming and took steps to preserve themselves and – hopefully – rebuild the Empire they’d sworn to serve.   Small groups of marines were assigned to isolated worlds at the edge of explored space – including Avalon, a story explored in my earlier volumes – with a mandate to protect and preserve what remnants of civilisation they could.  Others were withdrawn from more populated – and inevitably doomed – worlds to await the final end.  And, when Earthfall finally came – somehow catching us all by surprise despite years of planning and preparations – the corps started liberating and recruiting the trained and experienced workers who would assist the marines to preserve civilisation.

All of this did not take place in a vacuum.  Earthfall led to utter chaos, to wave after wave of destruction sweeping across the Core Worlds.  Planetary governors seized power, only to be consumed by the chaos as uncounted billions were swept out of work and unemployment benefits came to a sudden end.  Imperial Navy officers declared themselves warlords and started building empires of their own, most falling prey to ambitious subordinates or supply shortages within a very short space of time.  Old grudges burst into flame, unleashing a cycle of attacks and revenge attacks that ended with entire planetary systems burning to ashes.  We do not know how many people died in the first few months.  It remains beyond calculation.

It was during a recruitment mission, as detailed in the prior volume, that the marines discovered they had a major rival.  The Onge Corporation, previously ruled by Grand Senator Stephen Onge (who died during Earthfall), had established a major base on an isolated world, Hameau.  This alone would be concerning, but further investigation revealed that Hameau was a corporate paradise, a seemingly-ordered world held in stasis by a combination of extreme surveillance and a cold-blooded willingness to remove and terminate troublemakers before they became a serious threat.  It was clear, to the marines, that Hameau represented the future … as seen by the Onge Family.  The upper classes would have considerable freedom, while the lower classes would be trapped within a social system that would keep them from either rising or rebelling.  If this wasn’t bad enough, the sociologists believed the long-term result would be utterly disastrous.  Hameau would either stagnate to the point it entered a steep decline – not unknown, amongst worlds that refused to permit a degree of social mobility – or eventually be destroyed by a brutal and uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) uprising. 

The marines therefore decided to intervene.  Landing troops on the surface – the planetary defences were strong enough to keep the starships from securing the high orbitals and demanding surrender – the marines carried out a brilliant campaign that ended with the capture of the capital city, the effective destruction of the planetary government and them being firmly in control.  Everything seemed to have gone their way until the enemy reinforcements arrived, too late to save the world … but quickly enough, perhaps, to destroy the marines.

Now read on …

Prologue II

Paradise Island, Paradise (Ten Years Prior To Earthfall)

Commodore Nelson Agate had heard the expression killing someone with kindness, but he’d never realised it might be applicable to the Imperial Navy.  The Admiralty had plenty of ways to deal with officers it didn’t like, from assigning them to dead-end desk jobs or dispatching them to asteroid mining facilities in the middle of nowhere.  Nelson had expected some kind of punishment for daring to disagree with Admiral Valentine, but being ordered to take a long shore leave on Paradise wasn’t quite what he’d expected.  And yet, the more he sunned himself on a remote island, the more he wondered if his career hadn’t been cunningly destroyed.  Who’d take a complaint about being ordered to go on leave seriously?

Paradise Island lived up to the name, he admitted privately.  The beaches were utterly pristine.  The water was warm.  The local girls were beautiful and willing.  The bars never ran out of alcohol.  The games weren’t rigged.  If he’d wanted to have a long holiday, he wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else.  But three months of paradise had left him bored and jaded, convinced he’d sooner go somewhere – anywhere – else.  He’d almost pay for an assignment to an asteroid facility.

He lay back on his deckchair, wondering if he should signal the waitress for another beer.  It was too early in the morning to be drunk, but … there was little else to do.  He’d swum, he’d played beach ball, he’d … he’d done too many things, all of which bored him now.  The waitress was pretty, but … all the waitresses were pretty.  It was funny, he reflected sourly, how quickly one could grow sick of something when there was an unlimited supply.  There was no longer any thrill, let alone pleasure in victory.  What was the point of playing when the game was rigged.

I’m wasting away here, he thought, morbidly.  In Paradise!

A shadow fell across him.  He looked up, at a pretty young woman wearing a throng bikini and little else.  She looked like another guest, yet … there was something in the way that she held herself that set alarm bells ringing in his mind.  Nelson forced himself to sit up as she knelt beside him, her bare breasts somehow … unnoticeable.  She might have dressed to fit in, he noted, but she wasn’t one of the staff.  She was something else.

“Commodore Nelson Agate, is it not?”  The woman’s voice was calm.  She spoke with a corporate accent.  “I’m Julia.  Julia Ganister.”

“A pleasure,” Nelson said.  He shook her hand firmly.  “What can I do for you?”

Julia sat next to him.  “Why are you here, Commodore?”

“I was ordered to go on leave, an all-expenses paid leave,” Nelson said.  “Why are you here?”

“I’m looking for people who interest me,” Julia said.  “And you do.”

Nelson frowned.  Julia held herself like someone with authority, which meant … what?  An intelligence service?  A military unit?  She didn’t look as muscular as he would expect from a uniformed woman, but that was meaningless.  Standards had been slipping for years.  He’d been in the Admiralty’s bad books well before they’d found a way to get rid of him, just by complaining about officers who hired their staff based on looks rather than qualifications and experience.  Bad enough in a staff office, sheer fucking disaster onboard ship.  He was tempted to say as much, just to see what Julia made of it.  If she was collecting information for the Inspectorate General …

“I see,” he said, neutrally.  His career was already on the rocks.  Better to say nothing incriminating until he knew the lie of the land.  “And how do I interest you?”

“A competent officer,” Julia said.  “A cadet who graduated top of his class, when the rating system was stripped of all ID tags.  A midshipman who saved his ship, when his drunken supervisor nearly crashed her into an asteroid.  A captain who stood against a rebel militia and defeated them, despite being outnumbered five to one.  And a commodore who dared to tell Admiral Valentine that his planned operation was going to fail and fail spectacularly.”

Nelson sat up.  “Who are you?”

“Julia.”  Julia smiled, as if she found his question amusing.  “Tell me something, Commodore.  Where do you see your career going in the next few years?”

“Nowhere,” Nelson said, sourly.

“We agree,” Julia said.  “And where do you see the Empire going in the next few decades?”

Nelson blinked.  It was treason to even suggest the Empire might be going through a very rough patch.  He dreaded to think what it might be to suggest the Empire was falling to destruction.  And yet, he’d heard enough whispered rumours, seen enough failing sectors, to know something was deeply wrong.  He’d kept that thought to himself, not daring to utter it aloud where anyone could hear, yet … it had plagued him, in the dead of night.  The Imperial Navy that had fought the Unification Wars would not have tolerated Admiral Valentine.  The officers would have rebelled against him and the spacers would have used him for target practice.  It was hard to escape the sense the entire universe was heading for a fall.

“I’m not a traitor,” he managed, finally.  He studied her face, noting – for the first time – that it was pretty yet bland.  A few minutes with a cosmetic set and she’d look very different.  “And I …”

Julia rested her hand on his arm.  “We’re not asking you to be a traitor,” she said.  “We’re asking you to think about the future.”

Nelson swung his legs over the side of the deckchair.  “And what do you want me to think about the future?”

“I’m not here to lead you into saying something incriminating,” Julia said.  Her voice was so calm that Nelson found himself believing every word.  “Believe me, your enemies already have enough lined up to ensure your career hits a dead end.  Admiral Valentine has spent the last three weeks making certain you’ll be on your way to the deep black once your leave finally comes to an end.  I’m here to offer you an alternative.”

“Like what?”  Nelson felt ice congealing around his heart.  “Who are you?”

Julia stood.  “There are some people you should meet,” she said.  “Will you come with me?”

“Perhaps,” Nelson said.  “And I ask again – who are you?”

“Julia,” Julia said.  “Julia Ganister-Onge.  And we’re trying to salvage something from the ruins.  Perhaps that answers your question?”

“It does,” Nelson said.

Julia nodded, then turned and walked away.

After a moment, Nelson followed her.

Chapter One

It is often said, when discussing communist, fascist, theocratic, corpocratic and other unpleasant regimes, that they might have survived if they’d possessed computers and – at the same time – avoided a dictator.  This is, for better or worse, untrue.

– Professor Leo Caesius.  The Right to be Wrong: How Silencing People Hurts You

Captain Kerri Stumbaugh kept her face under tight control as she stared at the display

One of her instructors had told her, years ago, that if things started going suspiciously well it was a clear sign she was about to lose.  Experience had taught her there was a degree of truth in that statement.  Things going well wasn’t a sign of incoming trouble, but the mindset it bred was.  The idea that she could relax, that she could assume the matter was going to end without further intervention from her … she shook her head, dismissing the thought.  They’d been caught with their pants down.  They were in deep shit.

Her eyes narrowed as the red icons took on shape and form.  Nineteen warships, led by the missing battlecruiser; nineteen warships and seven troop transports, probably crammed to the gunwales with soldiers itching for a fight.  Nineteen warships … more than enough to destroy her squadron in a straight engagement.  She wanted to believe her superior training would give her the edge, if push came to shove, but it was clear the enemy ships were manned by trained and experienced personal.  Her lips curved into a grim smile.  They weren’t Imperial Navy officers, then.  They’d been skimping on training and exercises for years, mothballing ships and discharging crewmen while pocketing their wages and skimming billions of credits from the budget for ships and facilities that only existed on paper.  These guys knew what they were doing.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Tomas said.  The tactical officer sounded grim.  “They’ll be within engagement range in thirty minutes.”

Kerri nodded.  The enemy was playing it safe.  They were advancing directly towards Hameau, forcing her to either block their path or get out of their way.  If she did the former, they’d crush her; if she did the latter, she’d be unable to help the groundpounders on the planet’s surface.  She forced herself to think, her mind racing as she tried to find a way to even the odds.  But she knew, all too well, there was none.  She didn’t have the time or equipment to do more than delay the enemy ships.

“Prepare for a long-range engagement,” she ordered, coolly.  An exchange of missile fire wouldn’t slow the enemy ships for long, if it had any effect on their plans, but the only alternative was withdrawing and waiting for a chance to regain control of the high orbitals.  She doubted they’d give her that chance anytime soon.  Hameau had been important … was still important.  They’d be fools to let her retake the planet.  “And pass the warning to General Anderson.  Inform him that we cannot delay the enemy for long.”

She felt a surge of frustrated rage as the squadron rapidly prepared for battle.  She knew, better than most, the role sheer random chance played in human affairs, but … she gritted her teeth in silent fury.  They’d won, damn it!  They’d defeated the enemy forces, they’d occupied the enemy cities, they’d taken out the enemy government … only to have a relief fleet arrive to undo all they’d done.  She knew they’d screwed up by the numbers.  There’d been no hint the enemy possessed that many ships until they showed themselves.  It was agonisingly clear Hameau was merely a tiny fragment of a much greater operation.

And in hindsight, that shouldn’t have surprised us, she thought, coldly.  There was no time for recriminations, but even the Terran Marine Corps was not immune to people using hindsight to score cheap points.  Thankfully, they’d probably wait until the campaign was over.  Probably.  One world might preserve something of civilisation, and an industrial base, but it couldn’t hope to retake the galaxy.

She wished, suddenly, that she could communicate with someone higher up the chain of command.  Major-General Anderson was in command of the operation, but the communications lag would ensure he wouldn’t receive her messages until it was too late for him to countermand her orders.  There’d been times, in her career, when that would have seemed an advantage.  She’d met too many Imperial Navy officers who’d been promoted because of connections or bribes, rather than merit.  But Anderson was an experienced officer.  He might have something else in mind for her ships.

“The enemy ships are sweeping us with tactical sensors,” Tomas warned.  “But they’re not altering course.”

“They don’t have to,” Kerri said.  Whoever was in command of the enemy fleet knew what he was doing. It was tempting to think she could lure the enemy ships onto a stern chase, forcing them to push their drives to the limit in a fruitless bid to run down her command, but she doubted they’d take the bait.  “They know they can force us to fight on their terms.”

She keyed her console, bringing up the latest sensor reports.  The enemy fleet hadn’t opened fire – yet – but she’d be astonished if their weapons weren’t in full working order.  Their sensors were certainly top of the range, military-grade systems that shouldn’t have been in civilian or corporate hands.  She wondered, idly, how they’d secured them, then dismissed the thought.  The Onge Corporation had built ships and weapons for the Imperial Navy.  It would have been simplicity itself, back then, to produce a handful of extra units – and hulls – and squirrel them away.  The Asset Tracking department on Safehouse was going to have to look at the data and try to deduce what had happened, as if it mattered.  The only important thing, right now, was that the enemy ships were bearing down on her.

And some of those ships might have non-typical configurations, she mused.  Starship design had plateaued over the last few decades – the enemy hulls looked like standard navy hulls – but tacticians had been talking about fitting the ships with newer or different weapons for years.  Her ship’s configuration owed much to their planning.  The enemy might have been trying to hide an ace or two up their sleeve too.

Her eyes narrowed as another report flashed up in front of her.  The enemy transports looked more like colonist-carriers.  Repurposed transports?  Or … or what?  She doubted it mattered.  The transports would be sitting ducks, if her ships closed to engagement range.  It was the enemy warships that posed the real threat.

She felt an icy hand clench her heart as the range steadily closed.  There was no hope of doing more than delaying the enemy, if that.  There was nothing she could do for the marines on the planet.  They controlled enough of the PDCs – she thought – to keep the enemy from simply smashing their positions from orbit, but … if nothing else, control of the high orbitals would give them a chance to land troops and retake the world.  Or simply let the marines writher on the vine.  Supplying the invasion force had been a problem even when the high orbitals were firmly in their hands.  She cursed under her breath, then smiled.  Hameau hadn’t been an easy target.  Hopefully, the factors that had made the planet a difficult world to invade would protect the marines long enough for reinforcements to arrive.  The Commandant would dispatch them as soon as he knew the invasion had gone off the rails.

And if he doesn’t, she thought as the enemy ships glided closer, a hundred thousand marines are going to wind up dead.


Admiral Nelson Agate, Onge Navy, allowed himself a feeling of grim satisfaction as he watched ONS Hammerblow’s tactical staff perform their duties.  It hadn’t been easy, even with the combination of headhunted officers from the Imperial Navy and very enthusiastic recruits from Onge itself, to escape bad habits and turn the Onge Navy into a lean mean fighting machine.  He’d relished the challenge – it helped that his budget had been immense, practically unlimited – but he’d been all too aware that the navy had yet to face its first real test.  Now … the staff were performing well, even though they knew they were going into battle.  The red icons on the display weren’t simulated.  They were very real.

He studied the long-range sensor reports thoughtfully.  He hadn’t believed the reports when they’d first arrived, even though they’d come from unquestionable sources, but now … the marines were invading Hameau.  He shook his head in disbelief.  He’d heard the Terran Marine Corps had been destroyed, that the Slaughterhouse had been turned into a radioactive hellhole and the remainder of the corps had been scattered to the four winds.  And yet … the display was very clear.  Four giant MEU troop transports held position near Hameau itself, while a small squadron of warships sought to block his path.  And yet, they had no hope of stopping him.  They were going to die for nothing.

Know when to fold them, you fools, he thought, coldly.  He’d known enough marines to know they had the sense to know when they were fighting a losing battle and withdraw before it was too late.  Or is it already too late.

His lips curved into a smile.  The marines were renowned for travelling light, but they’d have problems packing up and retreating before his forces took the high orbitals.  They’d have to abandon all their equipment if they wanted to get their men out, if they had time to do even that!  He checked his console, silently contemplating the problem.  They’d have to get very lucky to pull even a fraction of their men off the surface before it was too late.  He didn’t think it was possible.  The last report from Hameau had warned the marines were advancing on the capital, with little standing between them and victory.  There was little chance they’d regrouped before it was too late.

“They shouldn’t even be here,” Julia Ganister-Onge.  The corporation’s commissioner – and his lover – sounded astonished.  “What are they doing here?”

“Invading, it seems,” Nelson said.  He shared her astonishment.  The Terran Marine Corps was a formidable force, but … what were they doing?  “The corporation might not be the only people who planned for the future.”

Julia gave him a sharp look.  “They shouldn’t have invaded our world.”

Nelson shrugged.  He didn’t see the logic either, but … no one would have gone to all the trouble of invading a heavily-defended world unless they thought there was a good reason.  The marines were hardly unthinking brutes, whatever the media claimed.  And they’d been at the sharp end of every conflict for the last few centuries.  They might have realised Earthfall was coming and planned for it.  Why not?  The Onge Corporation had been laying its plans for decades.

He felt an odd stab of guilt as the range continued to close.  He’d rarely questioned his decision to leave the Imperial Navy, yet … he shook his head.  The Imperial Navy had been doomed.  The Terran Marine Corps were doomed too, doomed by lack of supplies and – he supposed – a cause.  What were they fighting for?  Did they intend to put their Commandant on the throne?  Or did they think they could find the Childe Roland and put him on the throne?  The last reports suggested the young emperor had died during Earthfall.  Even if he hadn’t … what throne?  The Core Worlds were burning.  By the time the fighting died down, there would be little left of the once-great civilisation.  The Empire was gone.

“Prepare firing solutions,” he ordered.  “Engage them as soon as they enter medium-range.”

“Aye, Admiral,” the tactical officer said.  “Preparing to engage.”

Nelson smiled, coldly.  Julia had made sure he’d had a fairly free hand.  And he’d done his best to create a fleet that could go toe-to-toe with the best in the galaxy.  His officers were highly-trained, his crewmen drilled until they could perform their duties in their sleep and his maintenance cycles run to ensure peak efficiency.  He had no intention of letting standards slip, even now the principle threat was gone.  His crews would never have the chance to pick up bad habits.  He’d shoot anyone who so much as suggested an outdated component could be left in place because it hadn’t failed yet.

Julia glanced at him.  “Shouldn’t we be trying to defeat the enemy fleet?”

“No.”  Nelson spoke as much for his own benefit as hers.  She was no naval officer – he was all too aware that her duties included keeping an eye on him as well as everything else – but it helped, sometimes, to discuss issues out loud.  “They have the edge, when it comes to speed.  They’d just keep the range open while trying to lead us into a minefield.”

His eyes narrowed.  The ships – he smiled suddenly as he remembered the marines weren’t supposed to have any real warships – were clearly in peak condition, handled by crews who knew precisely how to get the best out of them.  If they’d had more than three heavy cruisers, he might have feared the worst if he’d taken Hammerblow against them alone.  He’d have made them pay a heavy price for their victory, but … he shook his head.  He had nineteen wardships against twelve.  Odds like that didn’t care if the weaker side had a slight edge in training.  Unless the marines had some kind of superweapon he’d never even dreamt existed, he had the edge. 

They might be nearly unbeatable, man for man, on the ground, he mused.  But we’re facing them in space.

He indicated the display.  “Right now, the folks on the planet know we’re coming.  They’re frantically running around, trying to work out how to evacuate what they can before we take the high orbitals and start shooting holes in their transports.  They’re doing to have to get the transports moving in fifty minutes if they want to get them out of range before we run them down.  If we can get there before they start running, we might just trap them on the ground.”

“I see,” Julia said.  “And you are sure they’re frantically running around?”

“They’re caught in a bind,” Nelson said.  He doubted the marines were frantic – he’d never seen marines panic under fire, which was more than could be said for many other military formations – but they were in deep shit.  “They have to save what they can, yet they simply don’t have time.  If we take the high orbitals, they’re screwed and they know it.”

Probably, his thoughts added.  They’ve almost certainly taken the remaining PDCs by now.

“So the whole operation becomes relatively simple,” he explained.  “They have to get those troop transports moving before we get there.  Therefore, their ships will try to either slow us down or lead us away.  I have no intention of letting them do either.  The ships aren’t important, not now.  The real priority is the planet, not so much because of the industries as because the enemy has thousands of troops on the ground.  We retake the high orbitals and land troops – we win.”

He grinned as he looked at the display.  “They have to try to slow us down,” he repeated.  “And if they want to do that, they have to come within weapons range.  We’ll blow hell out of them.”

And if the marines refuse to surrender, he thought with a cold smile, we can blow hell out of the planet too.

He sobered.  They had strict orders to preserve what they could of the planet’s industry and trained workforce.  Hameau had served the corporation well, first as a training zone for everything from starship personnel to technical experts and then as a relocation centre for trained and experienced personnel from all over the Core Worlds.  The Corporation had done everything in its power to recruit trained personal, often trying to remove them from worlds and systems that were already starting to collapse into chaos.  Nelson had devoted two-thirds of his life to the Empire.  It was chilling to watch it fall into ruin, even though it had betrayed him well before he’d turned his back.  At least the Corporation was trying to save something.  It wasn’t much, but it was all they had.

“Just remember we need to recover the industries intact,” Julia said, as if she’d read his thoughts.  She might not be a naval officer, but she was very skilled in her field.  “We can’t replace them.”

“Not in a hurry,” Nelson agreed.  The Corporation had gone further than anyone else – as far as he knew – in creating an entirely separate technical base, but losing Hameau’s industrial nodes would hurt.  It would take years to rebuild, even if there were no further glitches along the path to galactic domination.  “We’ll do what we can.”

He leaned back in his chair.  He’d already done everything he could to ensure success.  The crews were trained, the ships were in good condition … they’d simulated the coming engagement, running through hundreds of variants in a bid to predict what the enemy was going to do and devise countermeasures.  He was entirely sure his squadron could engage and defeat an Imperial Navy squadron twice its size.  But the marines?  He didn’t know.  They understood the value of good training, preventive maintenance and prior planning.

But I still have the edge, he told himself, firmly.  And that’s all that matters.

“Admiral,” the tactical officer said.  “The enemy fleet will enter engagement range in ten minutes.”

“Good,” Nelson said.  The enemy had to know their attempts to lure him astray – and perhaps onto a minefield – had failed.  “Stand by point defence.”

He smiled, coldly.  It wouldn’t be long now.


21 Apr

Hi, everyone

I’ve taken a few days off over the last week, largely to catch my breath and cope with the problem of the four of us being trapped inside the house.  (As a cancer survivor, I’ve had strict orders to stay indoors as much as possible – the letter I got from the NHS veers between practical advance and bureaucratic CYA.)  It’s starting to gnaw on me, even though I know I’m one of the lucky ones.  Many of my friends are in essential roles, facing the threat of infection as well as everything else; others are on furlough, facing the risk of losing their jobs, houses and such like as the country takes its first hesitant steps back to normality.  It’s striking to see just how many knock-on problems there are, each one requiring solutions that cause additional knock-on effects.

For example, wages are reduced or lost altogether; people can’t pay rent.  Landlords are ordered to minimise evictions where possible; landlords can’t pay their mortgages (or whatever) because they’ve lost their source of income.  Landlords get mortgage relief, banks start having money problems shortly afterwards.  It’s easy to think the banks are wealthy, but the blunt truth is that, if a number of mortgages are never repaid, the banks may be in some trouble.  And if they start to totter, a lot of other things will come crashing down.

It’s strange to see how people react.  Panic-buying toilet paper makes a certain amount of sense (I actually did that in Malaysia, partly because it was never easy to be sure it would be in the shops when you needed it.)  A lot of the shortages make sense too – long-life milk, pasta, rice … things that can be storied for a long time, without a fridge or freezer.  We’re living in interesting times.  It’s fairly clear why that’s considered a curse.

Anyway …

Everyone keeps asking about The Artful Apprentice.  I’m just waiting on the final set of edits (hopefully this week) and once they’re done, the book will be published. 

I’ve finished Nanette’s Tale, with the intention of adding it to Fantastic Schools IIFantastic Schools I should be out in May. 

I’ve also been looking at some of my older plots.  The Devil and the Deep Blue SeaTheir Darkest Hour II – is probably writable, with some minor edits.  The original version was too close to other books for my peace of mind, even if the story IS set in the UK.  I’ll see about doing it at some point, sooner rather than later (if people are interested).  I’ve also been studying the old The Succubus who fell in love story and thinking about finalising the plot.

There’s also The Royal Sorceress V: The Revolutionary War.  I’m still thinking about it, but the first set of ideas are too close to a few older books for them to work. 

Anyway … I start Knife Edge (The Empire’s Corps 17) tomorrow. 


Snippet – Nanette’s Tale

11 Apr


In hindsight, the memories mocked her.

Nanette had been sixteen – barely sixteen – when she’d met Aurelius for the first time.  The Administrator rarely had time for first-year students, particularly those of no good family.  It wasn’t until she found herself in his office, staring expulsion right in the face, that she’d had a chance to study him for the first time.  He was a man of power, a man so sure in his own power that he had no need to play dominance games with anyone.  And part of her wanted that for herself.

And so she squared her shoulders, looked him right in the eye, and told him the truth.

“She treated me badly, sir,” she said, when Aurelius pointed out that her former mistress was currently in the infirmary.  “And I wanted to get her off my back.”

Aurelius raised his eyebrows.  “And how did you do it?”

Nanette stumbled through a complex explanation.  Ophelia – the girl who’d been supposed to mentor Nanette, in exchange for service – had been fond of pinching her at the slightest excuse.  Nanette had put together a spell that not only transferred the pain to the older girl, but magnified it.  Ophelia had pinched Nanette’s upper arm, hard enough to leave bruises on her pale skin.  Ophelia must have felt as if her arm had been caught in a pressure spell.

“Fascinating,” Aurelius said, when she had finished.  “And where did you learn to cast such a complex spell?”

“The library,” Nanette said.  The spell had really been a mixture of charms and potions.  It had been the only way she’d been able to attach it to the older girl.  “I put it together.”

“I see.”  Aurelius said nothing for a long moment.  “Can you give me any reason why you should not be expelled?”

“We were told the system was meant to teach us the skills we needed for later life,” Nanette said.  She was tempted to plead, but her instincts told her she’d get nowhere.  “I’d say it succeeded.”

“Indeed,” Aurelius said.  He cocked his head.  “I will take you as my ward.  You will work for me as you learn from me.”

Nanette had wondered, even then, if he’d wanted something more.  She was no sheltered flower, no well-connected girl whose family would protect her if an unsuitable suitor came calling.  And Aurelius was a powerful man, used to taking whatever he wanted.  But – to her early surprise – he’d kept his word.  He’d taken her under his wing, he’d spent the summers teaching her everything from etiquette to spells that would have upset many older magicians if they’d realised she knew them … he’d been, in many ways, the paternal figure she’d wanted since her father had died.  Not, she admitted, that he’d gone easy on her.  He was a stern tutor, quick to correct her when she made mistakes.  But he was fair.

She’d grown to trust him.  She’d even grown to love him.  And then …

The memories rose up within her, mocking her.  She’d gone to Whitehall, posing as a transfer student.  It had been easy.  She knew how to remain unnoticed, how to hide within the shadows and social conventions; she knew how to ensure she remained unsuspected, even as she collected the intelligence she’d been ordered to obtain.  And she’d found it easy to watch Whitehall’s most famous student from a distance.  She’d almost been unhappy when her cover had finally been blown and she’d been forced to flee.

She felt hatred curling around her heart as the memories flowed through her mind.  Aurelius had wanted to bring Emily to Mountaintop, explaining that she could be converted to their cause.  And he’d taken her as a protégé … Nanette had been angry, hating the younger girl for taking her place.  She’d followed orders, even as matters started to spiral out of control; she’d held her tongue, even when she could have put a knife in the Child of Destiny’s back.  And, when she’d finally stood revealed in front of the younger girl, Emily had thrown a Death Viper at her.  Nanette still couldn’t believe it.  If she hadn’t touched the snake …

The memories of pain were too strong.  She cringed, trying not to remember the tendrils of ice and fire burning through her veins.  Her hand was gone and her arm was going and she was doomed … Emily, the girl who’d killed her, had saved her by cutting off her arm before hurrying onwards to meet her destiny.  Nanette wasn’t sure quite what had happened then, as she’d stumbled out of the school.  She hadn’t realised Aurelius was dead – and the school was no longer a safe haven – until it was far too late.  She’d turned her back and fled, knowing she had nowhere to go.  She’d staked everything on her tutor …

… And now she was crippled, broken, on the run and alone.

Chapter One

Magicians, Aurelius had said, were superior beings.

Nanette didn’t feel very superior as she staggered up the dingy stairs to her even dingier room.  Her arm – her stump – ached, no matter how many spells she cast to dull the pain.  Her magic felt weak, as if it was fading into nothingness.  The bumps and bruises she’d picked up during her escape from Mountaintop had failed to heal, even though it had been a week since she’d fled the school.  And her skin felt unclean where the alleyrat had grabbed her.  Once, it would have been easy to turn him into a slug and step on him.  Now, the effort of merely casting the spell had nearly killed her.  She honestly wasn’t sure if she’d managed to kill him or not.

And the landlord is just biding his time, she thought savagely, as she stumbled through the door and slammed it closed.  She’d seen the way the bastard looked at her, when she’d taken a room at the inn.  It’s just a matter of time until he does something stupid.

She forced herself to keep moving until she collapsed in front of the bed.  Her bag hit the floor, hard enough to break one of the jars.  She heard the crack, but felt too drained to do anything about it before the liquid stained the floorboards.  The landlord would throw a fit about that, she was sure.  He’d demand she paid for it.  And she had no idea how she was going to pay him.  She had the skills to steal whatever she wanted – if she couldn’t get honest work – but she didn’t have the magic.  Anyone who wanted to hire her wouldn’t be doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Her heart started to beat, erratically, as she leaned against the wooden frame.  She wasn’t sure how she’d managed to escape the school, let alone reach Dragon’s Den.  Her memories were a blur, lost behind pain and delirium.  She’d teleported, of course, but how?  Aurelius had made her practice, time and time again, when she’d sneaked into Whitehall.  Perhaps the lessons had taken better than she’d thought.  Dragon’s Den was hundreds of miles from Mountaintop.  It was safe, for the moment.  The searchers wouldn’t think to look for her there.

They might find my body, she thought, numbly.  I can’t go on like this.

She felt helpless, bitter … alone.  She’d always been able to rely on Aurelius.  Her mentor had taught her everything, from magics that were rarely shared with students to how to be a social chameleon.  Nanette knew she had the skills to make something of herself, if she survived the next few days.  But she knew it was unlikely.  The Death Viper had wounded her.  It would have killed her, if Emily hadn’t saved her life.  Nanette stared down at the stump, wondering if death would have been preferable.  She knew what cripples could expect, in cold and merciless towns.  Emily might have saved her only to damn her to a lingering death.

Cold hatred twisted in her heart.  Her mentor was dead.  He’d been a father to her – he’d meant the world to her – and now he was dead. And Emily … the Child of Destiny had gone back to Whitehall, leaving Mountaintop a smoking ruin.  Perhaps that was why the searchers hadn’t tracked her down.  Perhaps they were too busy saving what they could from the ruins.  Or perhaps they simply didn’t care.  Maybe she’d never been truly important.  Maybe they hadn’t even realised she was missing.

She closed her eyes.  It was futile, utterly futile.  She could neither beg nor borrow nor steal the potions – or ingredients – she needed to heal herself.  She could no more convince a local brewer to prepare them for her than she could talk her way out of trouble, when the searchers finally caught up with her.  And she could still feel the poison within her.  Her magic was steadily weakening.  It was only a matter of time before she became truly defenceless.  The landlord would have his fun, then throw her into the allay to die.

Perhaps it would have been better not to rise so high, she thought, grimly.  I would not have known there was so far to fall.

Something moved, behind her.  “Hello.”

Nanette tensed, trying to spin around.  Her body failed her and she wound up a crumpled heap, staring at the man sitting on the rickety wooden chair.  It was the landlord … no, it wasn’t the landlord.  The man wore a hooded clock, his face shrouded in a glamour that made it hard to see his features.  A long iron-tipped staff rested in his hand.  She couldn’t muster the magic to peer through the spell, but she rather suspected it didn’t matter.  The searchers had found her.  It was over.

“You look a mess,” the stranger said.  She wondered, insanely, if he wasn’t a searcher, as if he’d merely caught a sniff of a strange visitor and come to investigate.  “What happened to you?”

“None of your business,” Nanette managed, somehow.  Her voice sounded weak and feeble, even to her.  “Who are you?”

“Call me Cloak,” the man said.  “How did you get here?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nanette said.  She could feel the poison rushing through her blood, inching towards her heart.  “Go away.”

“You’re dying,” Cloak said.  “Do you really want me to go away?”

Nanette didn’t have the strength to glare at him.  He wasn’t going to help her.  A hundred ideas ran through her mind, ideas she might be able to use to convince him to help, but … most of them were useless.  And the ones that weren’t were almost worse.  She had sacrificed so much in the last few days.  She wasn’t going to sacrifice her dignity too.

Cloak stood, picked up her bag and started to unload it onto the bed.  “You broke a jar of ointment,” he observed.  “You’re lucky it didn’t have the chance to mingle with the powdered rhino horn.”

“Go away,” Nanette said.  If he wanted to rob her … she didn’t care any longer.  Her entire body was growing numb.  She knew she should be concerned, but … it was hard to muster the feeling.  “I don’t …”

“I can help you,” Cloak said.  “In exchange, I need you to perform a task for me.  And, if you complete it to my satisfaction, I’ll give you a permanent job.”

“Hah,” Nanette mumbled.  She knew she should ask more questions, demand to know the details before she committed herself, but she was dying.  And she wanted very much, despite everything, to live.  “Fine.”

Cloak knelt down, placed his hand under her chin and lifted her head so she was staring into his shrouded eyes.  “Do you accept my offer?”

“Yes.”  Nanette hoped she hadn’t made a mistake.  “I do.”

“Good.”  Cloak removed a glass vial from a hidden pocket, popped it open and held it to her lips.  “Drink this.”

Nanette obeyed.  The liquid tasted warm and sunny, bringing back memories of a childhood that had been spent in a fatherless home.  She felt magic trickling through her, a wave of warmth that banished the numbness.  Her entire body shook and started to sweat.  A ghostly sensation nearly overwhelmed her, a suggestion her missing hand was still there.  Tears prickled at the corner of her eyes as she forced herself to sit up.  She suddenly felt like running and jumping and dancing and …

Cloak caught her arm, just in time to keep her from falling.  “Sit down on the bed and wait,” he advised.  “It takes some time for the potion to run its course.  And then we’ll have to do something about your arm.”

“You can regrow my arm?”  Nanette knew it was possible, but it wasn’t cheap.  A merchant would have to work for years to scrape together the funds.  There was no way her family could have afforded it, in the days before Aurelius had taken her under his wing.  “I …”

“There are a few healers who won’t ask inconvenient questions,” Cloak said.  She thought she saw him smile, beneath the glamour, but it was hard to be sure.  “I’ll take you to one of them.”

“Thanks.”  Nanette felt woozy, as if she’d drunk something she really shouldn’t.  “I … what did you give me?”

“A very special potion, devised to counteract Death Viper venom,” Cloak said.  “Thank you for giving me the chance to test it.”

Nanette stared at him.  “You didn’t know if it would work?”

Cloak snorted.  “How many people do you know who managed to touch a Death Viper and live to tell the tale?”

“Touché,” Nanette muttered, sourly.  She could have saved her own life, if she’d thought to cut off her wrist, but the pain had banished all rational thought from her mind.  It was quite possible she was the only living survivor in recent memory.  And she’d only survived because someone had acted to save her.  “I … I take your point.”

She forced herself to focus as sweat poured down her back.  Her magic felt weak, but slowly starting to recover.  She felt as if she’d tired herself out, not as if she was on the verge of death.  Her body still ached, but … she felt stronger than she’d felt in days.  The urge to get up and move was fading, yet … she knew she could get up.  It was just a matter of time before she recovered most of her former abilities.  And then …

Making that potion couldn’t have been easy, Nanette thought, grimly.  It would have cost him badly.  And he’ll want something of equal value in exchange.

She studied him, carefully.  “What do you want me to do for you?”

“I want you to steal a book for me,” Cloak said.  “Does that answer your question?”

Nanette nearly laughed a bitter laugh.  Of course he wanted something illegal, something that would get them both in real trouble if they were caught.  She was already in trouble.  Emily would have made a report, damn the girl.  There was no longer any mystery who’d played Lin, who’d pretended to be transfer student long enough to spy on the Child of Destiny.  Lin had been a mask, one she’d discarded when she’d left Whitehall School; Nanette was her real name.  There was no way she could go home or resume a normal life.  The searchers would be looking for her.

“A book,” she repeated.  It would be something dark, she was sure.  Probably one on the Proscribed Index.  Aurelius had had quite a collection, some of which she’d read.  There were books that could get someone in real trouble, if they so much as glanced at the bloodstained cover.  “Which book?  And where?”

Lamplighter’s Lines,” Cloak said.  “And the copy I want is at Laughter.”

Nanette blinked.  Lamplighter’s Lines was restricted, but it wasn’t that restricted.  It wasn’t Malice, or Chanson’s Charms, or Midsummer Murders, or anything else that might be understandably regarded with fear and horror.  A student could read Lamplighter’s Lines, if they convinced the librarian they had a legitimate reason.  She’d read it herself.  The spells were dubious, but they were hardly dark.  And many of them were outdated.

“I don’t understand,” she admitted.  “You want me to steal a book you could consult anywhere?”

“The original owner of that copy wrote notes in the margins,” Cloak explained.  “I want those notes.”

“I see, I think,” Nanette said.  She was in no place to argue.  “And you want the copy at Laughter?”

She frowned.  She’d heard all the stories, particularly the ones whispered in the dorms after Lights Out, but … she’d never actually visited the school.  She was fairly sure most of the horror stories were exaggerated, if only because it was hard to believe anyone would actually send their children to such a school if it truly was that horrid.  Mountaintop had its flaws – had had its flaws, if Emily had truly destroyed the school – but it wasn’t that bad.  One just had to learn to manipulate the system to one’s own advantage.  And some of the whispers she’d heard about her alma mater had been insane.  The teachers did not perform blood rites when the students were asleep, nor did they sacrifice firsties to dark gods. 

“Yes,” Cloak said, patiently.  “And I want it quickly.”

Nanette rubbed clammy sweat from her brow and forced herself to think.  It wasn’t easy to get into a magic school.  Sure, she could pretend to be a transfer student again, but last time she’d had Aurelius filing the paperwork well in advance.  Lin had had a solid paper trail when she’d entered Whitehall.  Someone would ask questions if she just appeared out of nowhere.  She could replace another student, but it would be tricky.  Even an unpopular student would be hard to replace, if only because of the number of people who’d met her.  The slightest mistake might expose the deception, leaving her in enemy territory with little hope of escape.  She could set up a paper trail herself, but it would take time.  Her new persona would have to enter next year, as a completely new student.  She didn’t think she had the time.

“I don’t think I could crack the defences,” she said, slowly.  Sneaking into the school might be doable, but not quickly.  “They’d have to have a reason to accept me.”

“One month from today, Princess” – the sneer in Cloak’s voice suggested it was nothing more than an affection – “Nadine of Hightower will be joining the student body.  You can take her place, if you cannot come up with a better idea.”

Nanette’s eyes narrowed.  “Why her?”

Cloak didn’t seem annoyed by her question.  He merely shrugged.

“The young lady is apparently quite unpleasant,” Cloak said.  “She is, for better or worse, the natural-born daughter of Hedrick Harkness.  Baron Harkness, after he was … encouraged to marry Baroness Lillian Harkness of Zangaria.  The man is … how shall I put it?  A milksop wimp.  King Randor was unwise to expect him to keep his unwanted wife under control.”

“Of Zangaria,” Nanette said.  A wash of hatred flashed through her.  “Emily’s country.”

“Indeed,” Cloak said.  “Nadine was kept in an isolated castle with her mother and a handful of servants.  She does indeed have a strong talent, but she was … prevented … from applying to Whitehall or Mountaintop.  It is only recently that she was able to convince her father to petition the king to let her apply to other schools.  Laughter was the only one that agreed to take her, after a fairly considerable bribe.  I believe it was that – and that alone – that convinced them to accept her in the middle of term.”

“Which is never a pleasant experience,” Nanette said.  A girl who entered school on the same day as a bunch of strangers had an excellent chance of making friends.  A girl who entered late would discover that all the friendships had been made before she arrived – and there was no room for her.  “Should I feel sorry for her?”

“If you like,” Cloak said.  He made an impatient gesture with one pale hand.  “The important point is that no one at the school has met her.”

Nanette nodded in understanding.  She wouldn’t jar someone’s preconceptions if they had no preconceptions.  “How long have you been planning this?”

“I had someone else in mind,” Cloak said.  “But you represent a better option.  You have the skills and experience to pull the mission off without a hitch.”

And I’m expendable, Nanette added, silently.  He won’t regret my death.

“I understand,” she said.  “How do you intend for me to get the book out of the library?”

“I’ll give you a replacement copy,” Cloak said.  “And teach you how to transfer the security charms to a new book.  They won’t realise the original book has been stolen because, as far as they’ll be able to tell, they’ll still have it.”

“Clever,” Nanette said.  She’d have to practice the spells repeatedly.  And spend time thinking through all the possible contingences.  And memorise everything she could about Nadine.  And get used to thinking of herself by another name.  “You seem to have all the answers.  What now?”

“Now you wash, you change and you come with me,” Cloak said.  He passed her a simple apprentice’s robe, something that would go unnoticed in any major town or city.  “Unless you particularly want to remain here.”

“No, thank you,” Nanette said.  She stood.  Her legs felt steady, as if she hadn’t been at death’s door.  Sweat trickled down her back.  “Would you mind waiting outside?”

Cloak nodded and left the room.  Nanette watched him go, wondering who he truly was.  He’d known who she was, he’d known where to find her … who was he?  It wasn’t as if she’d had a plan to flee to Dragon’s Den.  And yet … she stood, forcing herself to undress carefully before wiping herself down and donning the robe.  The sooner she got her hand regrown, the better.  She’d never really felt sorry for the cripples she’d seen on the streets before there’d been a very real prospect of joining them.

She brushed her hair back, then stepped outside and cast a pair of charms on the door.  The landlord would be in for a shock, when he tried to sneak into her room.  The spells wouldn’t last forever – she didn’t have the magic to make them last, not yet – but a few weeks as a pig would teach him a lesson about creeping on vulnerable young girls.  Cloak watched her, saying nothing.  She couldn’t tell if he approved or not.  Aurelius would have approved.  It was the job of a superior to chastise one’s inferiors. 

“Take my hand,” Cloak ordered.

Nanette obeyed.  A moment later, they were somewhere else.

The Right to be Wrong

10 Apr

Many years ago, a friend … convinced … me to watch Gone With The Wind.  I wasn’t impressed, for various reasons (none of which are particularly important here), but there was one moment that lingered in my memory.  The ‘heroes’ – Southern Gentlemen of a breed that largely only existed in myth – are discussing their chances of victory in the forthcoming civil war.  One of them makes the mistake of asking Rhett Butler for his opinion, which leads to the following exchange (clip):

Rhett: I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen.

Charles: What do you mean, sir?

Rhett: I mean, Mr. Hamilton, there’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.

Man: What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?

Rhett: I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen, sir.

Charles: Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?

Rhett: No, I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbours and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance.

This does not go down well, naturally.

Man: That’s treacherous!

Charles: I refuse to listen to any renegade talk!

Rhett: Well, I’m sorry if the truth offends you.

Charles: Apologies aren’t enough sir. I hear you were turned out of West Point, Mr. Rhett Butler. And that you aren’t received in a decent family in Charleston. Not even your own.

Rhett: I apologize again for all my shortcomings. Mr. Wilkes, Perhaps you won’t mind if I walk about and look over your place. I seem to be spoiling everybody’s brandy and cigars and… dreams of victory. 

What struck me, as I remembered the scene, was how closely it resembles modern day problems.  Rhett is asked for his opinion, which goes down poorly; he is offered a chance to recant, which he declines; he is personally attacked and smeared and made to feel unwelcome, so he leaves (but not without a final parting shot.)  And, of course, Rhett is absolutely right.  The South is outmatched nearly everywhere.  The Yankees not only can lick them, they do lick them.

And, just like our modern day issues, there is no attempt to debate Rhett in good faith.  Charles could have pointed to the Southern fighting man, to skilled generals and brave soldiers who would – theoretically – give the South a considerable advantage, at least in the early months of the war.  Or he could have pointed to the demand for cotton overseas, insisting that Britain and/or France would force the North to abandon its blockade for fear of economic collapse.  Or … my point is there were plenty of pro-victory arguments that could have been put forward, in good faith.  They might not be convincing arguments, but at least they’d be good faith arguments.  The reaction to the merest hint they might be wrong – and Rhett’s plain speaking – suggests a certain basic insecurity.

I have zero sympathy for the Confederate States, but I’ll say one thing for them.  The gentlemen – one of them, anyway – was prepared to put his life on the line to silence Rhett in a duel (one of the others even tells him, afterwards, that he would have lost.)  The same cannot be said for modern-day social justice activists. 


I am, if I may make so bold, one of those people who is interested in truth.  I don’t care so much who says [whatever] – I care about whether or not [whatever] is actually true.  An idea can and must be tested, to determine if it holds good or if it shatters under the first touch of an inquisitive mind.  It’s fairly easy to test an argument, if everyone involved is arguing in good faith.  A good faith argument – and arguer – is not personal, never personal.  It is merely concerned with objective fact and subjective arguments.  For example, a fact that states “Texas City is the capital of Texas” is easily checked and objectively wrong; a fact that states “Edinburgh has better fish and chips than Glasgow” is a subjective statement of opinion, one that allows for (at least) two possible – and legitimate – answers.

Those who can and do put forward legitimate – i.e. good faith – arguments are, in my view, suggesting they are secure in their positions.  Those who put forward illegitimate – i.e. bad faith – arguments are suggesting they are not.  A person who calmly and reasonably argues for or against his position is likely to make a good impression, even if his arguments are unconvincing.  (In the same way one can lose at chess, then shake his opponent’s hand and proceed to the next game.)  A person who throws a colossal fit, engages in histrionics and demands that the other guy be silenced (disinvited, deplatformed, banned, etc) is someone who will make a very bad impression, even if his audience agrees with his points!  And this, it should be noted, can undermine the rightness of his cause.

For example, a few years ago, I attended a panel at a convention that touched on the Sad Puppies controversy.  One of the panellists put forward an argument that went a little like this: “Vox Day supports the Sad Puppies, Vox Day is a fascist bastard, therefore the Sad Puppies are evil.”  Quite apart from the sheer number of inaccuracies in the statement, it misses the fundamental point that [whatever] is not rendered right or wrong by whoever says it.  Just because Vox Day said something doesn’t make it automatically wrong.  That argument leads to logical fallacies like “Hitler was a vegetarian and openly promoted the lifestyle, therefore vegetarians are evil.”  I’m pretty sure that every last vegetarian would find that fallacy offensive.

The Sad Puppies affair does show, on a small scale, the problems caused by bad faith arguments.  No one would have objected to a statement that started “the Sad Puppy books are not Hugo-worthy” and gone on to give a calm and reasonable argument.  Even if the arguments were unconvincing, they would not have the corrosive effects of bad faith arguments like the one I mentioned above and many more.  To use a slightly different example, I have played and lost many – many, many – games of chess.  But the handful of losses that rankle, that convinced me never to play those opponents again, were the ones that were fundamentally unfair

To put forward an argument does not necessarily mean the arguer supports it – nor does it mean that the mere act of saying the argument renders the arguer beyond the pale.  The Catholic Church, for example, used to employ a ‘Devil’s Advocate,’ who had the job of critically examining every candidate for sainthood and putting forward arguments why the candidate should not be canonised.  They did not earn any official disapproval for pointing out the flaws, although – in some case – I imagine they drew the ire of the candidate’s supporters.  (I imagine it was a little easier as most candidates were safely dead before the church had to decide if they deserved to be canonised or not.)  It was their job to point out the problems and help their fellows to place them in context and decide if they disqualified the candidate.  This is, of course, why militaries tend to form ‘red teams,’ groups with a mandate to think as the enemy thinks – or as close to it as they can come – and try to predict what the enemy will do.  This can and does lead to embarrassment, but it also gives the good guys a chance to fix problems before they blow up in their faces. 

The problem facing bad actors, however, is that silencing their opponents only lends credence to their arguments.  Simple logic argues that, if someone can prove their opponent wrong, why wouldn’t they?  The inference – rightly or wrongly – is that they can’t, which leads to cases of fascist propaganda being taken seriously because the folks in charge – however defined – are acting in a manner that suggests they should be taken seriously.  When Google fired James Damore, for example, it did so in a manner that proved Google was unable or unwilling to engage with different viewpoints (and thus suggested it couldn’t).  It made no attempt to prove Damore wrong before it fired him.  Worse, by clamping down on dissent, Google made sure it wouldn’t receive any more honest opinions.  Who’d dare offer comment, even anonymously, when he thought it might get him fired?  

And so, if no one is prepared to speak out, Google – and any other large corporation – might discover it runs into trouble it could have avoided, if they’d been willing to listen to dissenters.  It is no coincidence that states such as the USSR, Iran, China, Iraq and many others found themselves sliding downhill when they decided they wanted to keep ideas out, while keeping their people in.  They didn’t stop their people thinking – how could they?  They just forced them to stay quiet until it was too late.  

The backlash of silencing people – directly or indirectly – can be disastrous.  Corporations that destroy their employees’ faith in them are in serious trouble.  Military forces that refuse to listen to their red teams are doomed when they try to go to war.  Governments that try to cover up disasters – everything from Chernobyl to the Migrant Crisis and Coronavirus – find they have no credibility left.

The point is not that the dissenters are right.  The point is that you have to give them a fair hearing, and you have to refrain from punishing them for ‘bad’ opinions, even if you don’t like them.  At best, you’ll be able to confirm your positions and make a show of open-mindedness; at worst, you’ll avoid disaster. 

I was looking up the Gone With The Wind quote above and ended up skimming through the TV Tropes page.  It raised an interesting alternate character interpretation of Prissy, one of the black slaves on the plantation, in suggesting she pretends not to know about “birthing babies”, only to casually dish out useful childbirth advice at a later, less convenient time.  One interpretation is that she could have learnt a thing or two, between the first birth and the second, but another is that she was playing stupid.  She was a slave, then a ‘freewoman’ who was not truly free.  Letting her mistress’s baby die through keeping her mouth shut might have been her only hope of revenge against a system that had effectively enslaved her from birth.

Petty, spiteful, very human … and precisely what you get if you treat people poorly.

Another Draft Afterword

7 Apr

Just a draft – comments welcome.


All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

-Monty Python’s Life of Brian

If you read the above quote, you might be forgiven for assuming that the plotters were a bunch of idiots.  Why would anyone want to throw the Romans out?  They brought so much good to Judea, right?  The whole idea of tossing them out on their ear sounds like a plan to cut one’s nose to spite one’s face.  And yet, if you look at the scene with any knowledge of history, it starts looking less stupid.  Indeed, the question might really be phrased as “what did the Romans do TO us?

Between the Third Punic War and the series of civil wars that ended with Augustus Caesar in firm control of the empire, the Romans conquered vast swathes of territory surrounding the Mediterranean.  Some kingdoms were effectively annexed, ruled by governors appointed by Rome; others were granted limited internal independence, as long as they behaved themselves.  The latter were luckier than the former, as the Romans were not nice imperialists.  It was often said, in Rome, that a governor needed to make three fortunes: one to bribe the voters so he’d get his position, one to make himself wealthy and one to bribe the judges during the inevitable trial for misconduct during his term in office.  They made themselves wealthy by extracting money from their provinces, which they did with extreme brutality.  It should not have been a surprise, therefore, that so many of their subjects were happy to turn on them, when given half a chance.  The Romans did make attempts to put their possessions in better order, but Roman internal politics often made that difficult.  Rome was, in the view of its subjects, a demon that had to be placated.  Cleopatra has been branded a whore – and other, less pleasant, things – for forming personal relationships with the two most powerful Romans of their era, but really … she had no choice.  She had to keep the Romans sweet or risk losing everything, including her life.

I don’t know how old Mary and Joseph were, when they were ordered to Bethlehem before Jesus was born, but they – and their grandparents – would be all too aware that Rome could turn nasty at the drop of a hat.  Indeed, they were going to Bethlehem because the Romans had ordered them to register so they could be taxed.  There would be good reason for them to resent and fear the Romans, even if the Romans had done a lot of good for their people.  And the Jews – and everyone else in the region – would want to be free of the Romans, if it could be done safely.  The Romans were, in short, people who’d been very nasty and simply couldn’t be trusted not to turn nasty again.

As Tacitus (or Calgacus) commented, the Romans “make a desert and call it peace.”

The desire for independence, to escape foreign domination, runs strong in the human mind.  Indeed, we often turn against outsiders even when the outsiders genuinely are better than the natives.  Events like BREXIT wouldn’t have gotten so much traction, for better or worse, if the EU hadn’t been seen as an outside power interfering in British politics … a view that may have little in common with reality, but one that caught on.  The BREXIT referendum itself was merely the culmination of a series of problems that no one in office dared admit needed to be fixed.  Put crudely, the EU fiddled while Rome burned (British public opinion turned against the EU) and discovered, too late, that it was seen as beyond reform.  Indeed, this was not Britain’s first BREXIT.  Henry VIII’s decision to cut ties with Rome in 1532 might have been spurred by his desire to sire a male heir, but it sprang from long-standing anti-papal sentiments that saw the Pope as a biased and therefore untrustworthy figure who could be – and was – far more easily influenced by France and Spain than England.  The papacy’s meddling in English – and Scottish – affairs was often seen as, at best, foolish; at worst, detrimental and greedy.  There was no sense, by the time Henry VIII took the throne, that the Pope was a neutral arbiter.  The more the ideal of the papacy got bogged down in real-world politics, the more it surrendered its claim to moral authority. 

Point is, outside powers simply don’t understand local matters.  It is easy for outsiders to influence their politics, but harder for locals to influence distant overlords.  This breeds resentment and eventual hatred, even with the best will in the world.  Something that looks very reasonable to the outsiders, whatever it might happen to be, doesn’t always look so reasonable to the locals.  The various attempts to regulate the British America lead directly to the American Revolution!

And outsider politics can make it harder for the locals to seek justice.  Brigadier General Reginald Dyer – often called the “man who killed the British Empire – presented his masters in Whitehall with a serious political headache after the Amritsar Massacre.  On one hand, Dyer’s actions were a political nightmare; they convinced countless Indians to turn against the Raj.  On the other, it was hard to convict Dyer of anything without giving the impression Dyer was being railroaded, something that would (and did) turn his supporters against the government.  Matters were not helped by confusion over who was legally in command, just how much authority had been devolved to Dyer, legal and military questions regarding what actions an officer could take to save his command and a somewhat odd set of excuses and justifications from Dyer himself.  There was no good answer.  It should not have surprised anyone, therefore, that India would seek self-determination and independence from that moment on.  Faith in the Raj’s justice died under Dyer’s guns.

And all of this assumes a degree of goodwill.  How do you think the East Europeans regarded Nazi and Soviet occupiers?

It is true, of course, that independence brings with it perils.  British India separated into two pieces upon independence (and Pakistan would separate again, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.)  India did not fight a bloody war of independence, but it took time for matters to steady down and – of course – India and Pakistan would fight several wars over the coming decades.  And yet, India was relatively lucky.  Newly-independent African states devolved into tribal war and/or dictatorships as the glue holding them together.  The social structures to keep the countries united weren’t strong enough to survive independence.  And if one separates during a war, as the Confederate States of America tried, it should be obvious that one’s society (and attempt to build a new government) may not survive the war.  The CSA lost, at least in part, because the government was massively dysfunctional. 

These perils cannot go underestimated, despite the natural desire for freedom.  Those who seek independence must think about what they’ll do, the day after independence.  Most independence activists, in my view, indulge in wishful thinking, believing – for better or worse – that things will both change and yet stay the same.  The Scottish Nationalist Party is particularly guilty of wishful thinking, claiming to believe that oil revenue will remain high and there will be no economic hiccups (doubtful), that Scotland could remain in both the EU and NATO without any problems (really doubtful) and Scotland could continue to influence global affairs and – so to speak – punch above its weight (impossible.)  Any cold-blooded and rational assessment of the situation would point out that oil prices (and Scottish production) have been falling, that England would feel no obligation to purchase goods from Scottish industries (particularly at the expense of English industries), that NATO would be understandably annoyed at having to rewrite a whole series of treaties to accommodate an independent Scotland (not to mention the problems caused by splitting Scottish units from the remainder of the British military) and many EU member states would be flatly opposed to rewarding Scotland for gaining independence.  How many EU members have independence movements of one stripe or another?  The answer is probably bigger than you think.  Spain, for example, has quite serious movements.  Why would they want to do something that would encourage those movements? 

It is quite easy for intellectuals to dream up a political structure that works perfectly – on paper.  God knows both liberals and conservatives have devised perfect states that work perfectly … on paper.  The real world is rarely so obliging.  Their political structures tend to come with massive downsides that make themselves apparent when they run into trouble, downsides that tend to make dealing with the problem harder.  The structures demand a considerable amount of trust, yet the people promoting them act in ways that undermine trust and weaken society.  And once trust is lost – as the Romans discovered, once they started to forget their scruples – it can never be regained.

The problems plaguing our world today have many causes, but one of them – in my view – is the belief that governments have long-since lost touch with their people.  They mistake their preconceptions for reality, they listen to experts who are nothing of the sort (or are seen as being nothing of the sort), they let themselves be bullied by pressure groups, they let barmy bureaucrats run things … and, because of these failings, people want independence, to live their lives without interference.  Nationalist and populist politicians were elected because, at base, people want to be free. 

And this is not something we should take lightly. 

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020

Background Notes: Laughter Academy of the Magical Arts

5 Apr

Background Notes: Laughter Academy of the Magical Arts

More nonsense has been written about Laughter Academy, also known as Laughter School, than any of the other schools of magic within the Allied Lands.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given that it is the only school that refuses to accept male magicians as students (and senior teachers).  Rumours of everything from rampant lesbian orgies to forced gender transfigurations surround Laughter, all of which have very little basis in reality.  In truth, Laughter is very little different – apart from the female-only student body – from Whitehall or Mountaintop.

Politically, Laughter enjoys the same level of near-complete independence as Whitehall and Mountaintop.  The school does follow the White Council’s standard curriculum, wherever possible, with a handful of tiny modifications.  The majority of the tutors are accredited by the council well before they’re invited to join the staff.  However, it inspires somewhat mixed feelings within the White City.  Both aristocrats and magical families are often reluctant to send their daughters to the school, although for different reasons.  The former feel the school’s education will give their daughters ideas, and an unhealthy degree of independence; the latter believe Laughter isolates its students from the patronage networks that dominate magical society.  This does not, however, keep the school from having more applicants than it can handle.

The origins of the school – and particularly who built the twin castles – are lost somewhere in the mists of time. The officially-accepted story states that a powerful witch, the sister of a king, defeated a banshee-like creature that plagued the Howling Peaks and, in reward, was given the region as a personal fiefdom.  This witch, whose name has also been lost in time, went on to found Laughter, first as a retreat for her fellow women of magic and later as a full-fledged school.  The more dubious stories suggest the founder was, in fact, the banshee herself, who made a deal with the king for reasons of her own.  A final version of the story, told by the local men, speaks of a powerful and haughty witch who was bested by the kingdom’s prince and swore herself – and her sisters – to his service for the rest of time.  It is difficult to know, now, which version of the story is correct.  The only thing known for certain is that the Howling Peaks, and the town of Pendle, have effectively been ceded to Laughter Academy.  Those who do not care to live under a witch’s rule have no choice, but to leave.

Laughter Academy consists of four separate buildings, resting on the two highest peaks within the fiefdom.  The Keep – a sinister-looking castle – houses the school itself, as well as most of the teachers.  The Retreat provides accommodation for Sisters – see below – and other women, mainly magical or aristocratic, who wish to retire from the world.  The Guesthouse, positioned between the Keep and Pendle Town, houses male tutors and guests who, by law, are not allowed to be within the castle after dark.  The Redoubt – a ruined castle of uncertain purpose – dominates the other peak.  It is normally deserted, save for martial magic-style training sessions.  The girls claim the castle is haunted and make a habit of daring their fellow students to spend the night in the region.  This is officially discouraged, but – in practice – tolerated as long as it doesn’t get dangerous.

On the western side of the castle, a narrow road leads down to Pendle, a town resting within the valley.  Home to many former students – and merchants who make a living from selling to them – it is a peaceful place to live, even during the worst periods of unrest.  It is generally self-governing, although the headmistress has the right to step in if matters are deemed to be getting out of hand.  In recent years, the New Learning has spread to the town, bringing with it ideas and concepts from the outside world. 

On the eastern side, a rocky path leads down to the Silent Woods, a valley that cannot be reached save by passing through the school itself.  The hidden forest represents both a source of potions ingredients and a place for the girls to test themselves against nature.  Men are not barred from the woods, but their presence is strongly discouraged. 

By long-established custom – precisely who established the custom and why is hotly debated – the school is ruled by the headmistress, who is known as the Old Woman (this is more of a nickname than a formal title).  Her deputy, and presumed successor, is known as the Young Woman.  The Young Woman is elected by former students, who will generally confirm her as headmistress when the older woman retires or dies in office.  (If there is a challenge, by custom it has to be made before the succession has to be settled one way or the other.)  The Head Girl, elected by her fellows as they complete their fifth year, makes up the third of the triumvirate, but she doesn’t have the power to override the other two, merely make her opinions known. 

Below the triumvirate, there are the senior tutors, each of whom is a specialist in her subject and has a junior tutor to assist them.  The tutors have very little weight individually, but collectively can vote to override, suspend or outright expel the headmistress.  Some of these tutors are male, but they can never rise any higher than senior tutor and have a number of other restrictions placed on their behaviour.  It’s rare for any of them to last more than a handful of years. 

The student body is composed of young witches – the term is not seen as derogatory in Laughter, unlike the other schools – who come from all walks of life.  Students – Little Sisters – are considered equals once they walk through the doors, although it isn’t hard for students with powerful connections to establish themselves as leaders within the school.  The school does go to some effort to make everyone act as equals, from a deliberately bland uniform to a rotating system of chores that everyone, regardless of their birth, has to do.  There are no servants within the school, save for the cooks.  Their duties are shared amongst the junior students. 

There was one boy who studied at the school.  It didn’t work out.  It is flatly forbidden to bring a boy/man into the school without special permission and no male is allowed to remain in the school after dark.  Students have been expelled for trying to sneak their boyfriends into the school (although the horrific tales of what happened to those poor boys are largely exaggerated.) 

Junior students – years one to five – are expected to fetch and carry for the senior students, although there are consequences for any senior students who abuse this privilege.  Years two and above are allowed to elect their dorm heads; those who do well in the role are generally re-elected, although they know better than to take re-election for granted.  They also elect the Head Girl as they complete their fifth year, as well as the prefects.  Senior students have a lot more privileges, ranging from being allowed to stay up late to wearing their own clothes outside school hours, though they can lose them quickly if they misbehave.

The school uniform is universally regarded as ugly, although – after graduation – it becomes a badge of honour.  Junior girls wear grey: grey floor-length skirt, grey shirt, grey blazer.  Senior girls wear black, save for when they attend formal functions when they are allowed to wear aristocratic-style dressers.  (Students who enter as senior girls are expected to wear a grey blazer or shirt.)  Trousers are explicitly forbidden, outside sports and games.

The lessons themselves are not that different from Whitehall, although there’s more focus on politics, land management and other gaps in more customary (i.e. traditional) forms of female education.  (The school is noted for producing more healer candidates than any other.)  Outside classes, the girls are free to do what they like – within reason.  Senior girls are free to visit Pendle at will and many of them form relationships with boys from the town; junior girls are only allowed to visit on weekends, under supervision.

Unusually for a magic school, the students are taught to levitate – and fly – from a very early age.  The dangers inherent in any form of flying spell are noted, and there is usually at least one serious accident every year, but the school refuses to rethink its policy.  Indeed, it is often seen as something that sets Laughter apart from the rest.  The tutors do, however, maintain careful watch on the students, and any student caught trying to disrupt someone else’s spell is instantly expelled, without appeal. 

Upon graduation, either from the junior or senior school, a student is inducted into the Sisterhood, a quarrel (association) composed of former students.  The Sisterhood serves as a combination of Old Girls Network and political pressure group, which – given the number of magical patrons and aristocrats within its ranks – gives it a surprising amount of clout.  It rarely shows its hand openly, if only because the Sisterhood is structured to make action difficult without consensus, but is feared by many throughout the Allied Lands.  Sisters are expected to help other sisters, although they are also supposed to bear in mind the political consequences of their acts.  When Princess Joanna, daughter of King Edwin, married against her father’s will – to a rebel lord, no less – the Sisterhood helped her and her husband to safety, but refused to interfere further.  (The Elders reasoned that it would lead to a clash with the aristocracy, which would be a breach of the Convent.)  They have far fewer qualms about assisting common-born women.

What If I Gave a Graduation Speech (and No One Came)?

1 Apr

This started as a joke challenge – what would I say, if I was invited to speak?  And it probably ensures it never happens.  <grin>.  And if you want to write your own, why not?

[I step onto the stage to a handful of claps.  My ego deflates accordingly.  But I manage to put on a pompous tone anyway.]

May I start by saying that it is a great honour to be invited to speak at the University of [mumble]’s graduation ceremony?

I mean, I’m not that important.  And I’m not a graduate of the University of [mumble].  I’m quite flattered you thought of me, if only because I’m going to commit an unpardonable sin.  I’m going to tell you the truth.  Or part of it, at least.  And I’m going to start with a story you probably won’t find very funny at all. 

A few years back, there were a bunch of interns who decided they didn’t like the company’s dress code.  So what did they do?  They wrote and signed a petition!  All, but one of them put their name to the paper demanding a change.  And they got fired.

When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it.  Not that they got fired, but that they were stupid enough to write and forward the petition in the first place.  What sort of idiot thought his boss would be amused to receive a petition from the lowest of the low, from short-term employees who are rarely worth the money they were paid?  I couldn’t wrap my head around the level of stupidity – as I saw it – that led someone to think that writing such a petition could possibly be a good idea.

And then, slowly, I came to understand.

You students have spent the last few years in a very artificial environment.  Your professors have a very good incentive to keep you sweet.  And that is reflected in everything from their willingness to listen to petitions to bending over backwards to give you what you say you want, to disinviting some controversial guests while allowing others to stay.  You say you have paid for an education and that’s true – you have.  But many students – perhaps including yourselves – have acted in a way that prevents you from getting a good education.  You have grown used to a world where you can pressure academics into giving you good grades, without realising that the rules of the internal world simply do not apply outside it. 

The thing is, you’re paying for a service.  And you have only yourselves to blame if you fail to take advantage of it.

I get it.  I really do.  I hire editors and I don’t like it when they say entire sections and chapters and whatever need rewriting.  But it’s their job to tell me when they think something doesn’t work.  Sure, I could demand they praised me endlessly and so on, and I’m sure they’d be happy to flatter me in terms that would make a despot blush – it’s amazing what people will do if you offer money – but it wouldn’t be very useful.  What you get out of education depends, very much, on what you put into it.  If you listen to your professors, and learn to think critically, you’ll go far. If you spend your days coming up with excuses and swanning around with a sense of entitlement, while partying the nights away, you’ll crash and burn soon after graduating. 

Your professors are human.  Many of them will have spent their entire lives in academia, inside the artificial environment I mentioned.  They will not be used to being wrong – because, in the artificial environment, they will not be wrong.  They will be ignorant – sometimes – of their own ignorance.  The blind are trying to lead the blind.  The skills they have leant to survive academia will not always be applicable in the outside world.  Believe me, anything you hear from a university or college career advice centre should be taken with a massive grain of salt!

The day you enter the job market, the rules change.  No one, absolutely no one, will feel obliged to give you a job.  Your importance to the company will depend on what they need at any given time.  There will be rules you won’t understand, at least at first; instructions that will seen, dare I say, senseless or discriminatory.  And you will not have the standing to push back unless you prove yourself.  The interns who signed the petition did not even remotely have the standing to demand anything.  If they were important, they would not have been fired.  They might even have been able to request a change in the rules!

This has wider implications than you might realise.  I’d bet good money your professors know an awful lot of theory.  It’s really easy to come up with a brilliant theory, if one isn’t charged with putting it into practice.  Those of us who have to actually turn the theory into reality rapidly discover the real world is not so obliging.  The path from idea to reality can be a bumpy one.  And if you don’t understand how the world really works, you’re going to start walking down the road to hell.

People are not, by and large, utterly selfish.  But they are self-interested.  If you try to convince them to act against their own self-interest, as they see it, they’ll resist.  They’ll push back.  You may feel that they’re being selfish bleepers.  You may feel that they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, whatever-phobic.  They feel they’re protecting themselves against you.  They see you as the enemy.  And there’s a strong case they’re right.

The blunt truth is, you have been shielded from the realities of the world.  You have been coddled and cosseted, first by your parents and then by professors who are just a little bit scared of how you’ll react when they tell you no.  Many of you will have signed up to student loans without understanding they’ll become an anchor around your neck, dragging you down when you get a real job.  Others will have embraced the university lifestyle, a lifestyle that is no longer affordable once you leave campus.  And some of you will have an entirely warped view of how to get what you want. 

And many of you, I think, will come to realise that attitudes held by the deplorables become somewhat less deplorable when you’re one of them.

I’ll wrap this talk up by committing another unpardonable sin, bringing religion into the public arena.  God helps those who help themselves.  Many of you will find post-university life difficult, at first.  You’ll discover that experience counts more than degrees – and, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have any.  Work hard.  Do whatever you can to broaden your skills.  And don’t think you can bully your boss into giving you whatever you want.  That never ends well.

Thank you. 

[An angry mob advances on the stage.  I decide discretion is the better part of valour and run.]