Archive | July, 2020

Fantastic Schools Story Ideas

27 Jul

Hi, everyone

As you know, Fantastic Schools I came out recently and had some good reviews (and also some bad ones, but that’s par for the course in anthologies).  We’re working on bringing out Fantastic Schools II at some point fairly soon and kaying down rough notes for FS3.  There’s been quite some interest from other writers – and if you fancy having a try yourself, check out the details here – but I do intend to do either a novella and/or a handful of short stories for the book.  Let me know which one you would like:

A story set in the world of The Royal Sorceress, where a person with magic is torn between the demands of high and low society.  (Probably a short novella.)

A story set in the world of The Zero Enigma, where someone finds the way to set a bully up for self-inflicted humiliation (short story).

The Chaperone’s Tale (Schooled in Magic), in which an intelligent but poor girl is assigned to serve as a princess’s companion (read maid) at Whitehall.

The Apothecary’s Tale (Schooled in Magic), in which a mundane apothecary is given a chance to study at Heart’s Eye … unfortunately, without any magic.

The Sportsman’s Tale (Schooled in Magic), in which a sporty boy discovers the reason his team keeps losing is because one of the other teams has rigged the match in their favour …  (I might give this one to Cirroc or Frieda; maybe Melissa, pre-SIM6).  Or maybe someone completely new.

I’ve been trying to decide what other themes to tackle.  I have a rough idea about a talent show, about a ‘war’ between two dorms, a common-born student who tries to prove he belongs, about the discovery that a teacher might just be a spy (or perhaps a bad man), but I’m not sure how to develop them.  Let me know if you have any rough ideas.


Book Review: The Atlanta Incursion

26 Jul

The Atlanta Incursion (The Long War Book 2)

-Matthew W. Quinn

James Daly thought he was safe at college after defeating small-town cultists and their otherworldly master. He was wrong. Although the Thing in the Woods is dead, there’s more to this world than just one monster.

Back in 2017, Mathew Quinn wrote The Thing in the Woods (reviewed here), which featured a pre-college boy in a small town coming face to face with a monster.  In the aftermath of that story, he was threatened/bribed into silence by the Men in Black and sent to Georgia State University with his best friend Eli Schwartz.  Unfortunately for them – and his girlfriend, fellow survivor Amber Webb – James starts having nightmares that lead him, eventually, to uncover an alien presence in the city, an alien presence that has also kidnapped a reluctant gang member and drawn the attention of the Men in Black, leading to outright war in the streets between humans and aliens …

Quinn captured the feel of all four characters very well.  James is recovering, slowly, from his experiences in the previous book; the others grow and develop as people as the story moves along.  They touch on resentments – personal and racial – then struggle to overcome them as they find themselves confronting a nakedly sadistic alien race.  There’s a very strong sense that all of them will grow and develop, as human differences face in the face of alien threats.  The romance between James and Amber is nicely done, with moments of intimacy that don’t get too explicit.  There’s also some wry commentary on matters such as porn – and its effect on people – and growing up in areas that don’t offer much, if any, support for people who want to better themselves.  This was touched upon in the first book, but the theme grows stronger here. 

On the bigger scale, it’s not clear what – if anything – the aliens are actually doing.  They appear to be committing sadistic acts for the sheer hell of it.  (I had the feeling they were interdimensional intruders rather than extraterrestrials, but apparently not.)  It suggests they’re very interested in fighting a covert war, which suits the MIBs too, but it can’t be long until their presence explodes into the open.  That said, it’s nice to see a government agency that is smart enough to recruit people who’ve already seen the aliens rather than threatening them into silence.  There are some neat Men in Black references too. 

It’s a relatively short story, more of a novella than a novel.  But it’s a nice read and a good continuation that manages to be different while maintaining the feel of the first book.

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Out Now – Oathkeeper (Schooled in Magic XX)

18 Jul

The Allied Lands are in mortal danger. Three of the most powerful necromancers in the Blighted Lands have banded together into an unstoppable force, one capable of breaching the Craggy Mountains and laying waste to the lands beyond. If they cannot be stopped, they will tear the Allied Lands apart. Nothing will survive. And so Emily, the Necromancer’s Bane, is called upon once more to stand in defense of her adopted homeland and stop the necromancers in their tracks. Her presence may be the only thing keeping the Allied Lands from shattering as the war turns hot once again.

But there is a complication. Six years ago, Emily made a promise to the Unseelie Court, swearing to give them whatever they wanted in exchange for their help. Now, that promise has been called in. The Unseelie want her to travel into the Blighted Lands, despite the risk, and carry out a mission for them. And if she refuses, she’ll die.

Emily has no choice. Gathering an army, recruiting old friends and foes and preparing new weapons, she sets out to challenge the necromancers in their lair, to complete the oath and win time for the Allied Land to prepare their defenses, to face the true horror of the Blighted Lands …

… And aware, all too aware, that the necromancers know she’s coming.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links HERE! (And check out Fantastic Schools (with SIM novella) here.

Snippet – The Lion and the Unicorn (Ark Royal)

10 Jul


Admiral Susan Onarina knew, without false modesty, that she’d been in some pretty uncomfortable – even hellish – places in her long career, from middy country to jail and even boarding school.  And yet, the Alpha Black facility – located on the very edge of the solar system, within an asteroid that wasn’t listed in any charts – was the worst place she’d ever been.  She tried to avoid it, as did all sensible officers.  The asteroid’s inhabitants were either servicemen on short-term deployments, medical scientists too intent on their work to notice their surroundings or infected humans who were no longer in command of themselves.  The asteroid was far worse than jail.

She squeezed her eyes shut as she stumbled through the chemical shower, feeling the acidic liquid stinging her skin.  Rays of ultraviolet light poured down on her from high above, followed by lasers that were designed to sweep her body clear of the slightest trace of bacteria.  She forced herself to keep moving, as robotic arms pressed against her arm to collect skin and blood samples.  The lights seemed to grow brighter as she passed through another series of airlocks, wondering – not for the first time – if the precautions were more than a little excessive.  Blood samples, urine samples, stool samples … she shuddered as she made her way onwards, trying to ignore her awareness that she was being probed on a molecular level.  She’d seen the virus – the virus – at work.  If anything, the facility director wasn’t being paranoid enough.

And I suppose it makes sure I don’t come out here more than once or twice a year, she mused, as she stepped through the final airlock.  Warm water – clean water – cascaded down on her, washing away the traces of chemicals that had survived the earlier showers.  The director doesn’t want anyone looking over his shoulder.

Susan breathed a sigh of relief as she dried herself, then walked into the locker room.  Her clothes were already waiting for her.  They felt like paper against her skin.  She found it hard to feel like a serious person in the outfit, even though she knew her dignity was not the important issue on the asteroid.  The garments were designed to be torn away, if the medics needed to tend to a patient.   She understood the logic.  She just didn’t like it. 

She took a long breath, then opened the door to the antechamber.  Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, jumped to his feet and snapped off a salute as she entered, then held out a mug of tea.  Susan took the mug and sipped it gratefully.  It was navy tea, strong and sour, but it washed the taste away perfectly well.

“You’d think we could spring for better tea,” she said, as she poured herself another mug.  “Or even proper milk.”

“You know what it’s like,” Mason said, dryly.  “Billions for untested research equipment that never does what it says on the tin, not one penny for better food and drink for the workers.”

Susan nodded, brushing her dark hair back over her shoulder.  “It’s good to see you again,” she said.  They’d been lovers, once upon a time.  “I take it you haven’t gone mad yet, trapped out here.”

“Not yet, but I’m still trying.”  Mason winked, then sobered.  “We may have had a breakthrough.”

“The beancounters will be pleased,” Susan said.  “They’re still talking about defunding this facility and spending more on warship production instead.”

“That would be a mistake,” Mason said, urgently.  “We’re not going to outproduce the virus.”

Susan nodded, curtly.  “I agree,” she said.  “The key to victory – or even simple survival – lies in pushing technological and biological research as far as possible.”

She stared into her empty mug, remembering hours after hours of endless arguments with the bureaucrats and politicians.  They felt the money would be better spent on tried and tested technology, on warships and starfighters rather than potential war-winning weapons.  Susan understood their concerns – she’d read Superiority, they’d all read Superiority –  but she also understood the virus didn’t need to concern itself with economic issues.  It’s society, insofar as it even existed, was communistic to a degree no human society could match.  It didn’t have to worry about keeping the population alive and reasonably contented.  It could simply churn out an endless series of warships and point them at its foes.  And there was no way the alliance could match the virus ship for ship.

And we have to worry about zombies within the ranks, she reminded herself.  One moment, someone is perfectly loyal and trustworthy; the next, they’re agents of an alien power.

“Like I said, we’ve made something of a breakthrough.”  Mason took her mug and put it in the sink.  “If you’ll come with me.”

Susan nodded and followed him through a maze of corridors.  The facility was almost completely barren, save for a handful of childish paintings pinned to the wall that somehow made the corridors look worse.  One of the researchers had kids, she supposed.  The poor children were probably back on Earth, perhaps in a naval boarding school.  She winced in sympathy.  It was never easy to be separated from one’s parents, even if there was no actual danger.  The parents felt the same way too.

She frowned as they stepped into a large compartment.  The rear bulkhead was transparent, allowing the guests to peer into the environmental compartment.  A handful of naked people – men and women – wandered aimlessly around the chamber, their bare skin marred with unsightly growths and protrusions.  Susan had seen horror – she’d seen people injured or killed in active service – but there was something about the scene in front of her that chilled her to the bone.  The infected were no longer wholly human.  Their will was no longer their own.  The virus had them in its thrall.  An alien intelligence seemed to beat on the air, pressing against her thoughts … she told herself, savagely, that she was imagining it.  And then the infected turned to face her.

Susan glanced at Mason.  “Can they see us?”

“They shouldn’t be able to see us.”  Mason sounded worried, a far cry from the cocky midshipman she’d known years ago.  “The bulkhead is opaque, on their side.  But they seem to know when someone is looking at them.  We don’t understand it.”

“I see.”  Susan calmed herself with an effort.  She’d faced all sorts of challenges in the past, from incompetent commanding officers to naked racism.  She’d face this one too.  “Are they secure?”

“We think so,” Mason said.  He ignored the sharp look she sent him with the ease of long practice.  “That said, they’ve been quite good at testing our defences.  A couple of bioresearchers got infected, we’re not sure how.  Thankfully, we caught it in time to flush the virus from their systems.  Others … the Russians had a breakout at their facility, one that forced them to trigger the nuke and vaporise everyone.  Apparently, one of the guards got seduced.  We don’t know how that happened either.”

Susan shuddered.  Bioweapons research was the big taboo.  The tailored biological weapons that had gotten loose during the Age of Unrest had killed hundreds of thousands before they’d been stopped.  No one, even the really weird independent asteroid colonies, cared to push the limits any further.  And yet, governments had continued research into bioweapons on the grounds it was the only way to develop defences against biological warfare.  They were right, she acknowledged sourly, but it didn’t sit well with her.  It was only a short step from defence to attack.

She turned her gaze back to the infected prisoners.  “Is there nothing that can be done for them?”

“The infection’s too far advanced,” Mason said.  “Their brains have been literally riddled with the virus’s command and control structures.  One of the zombies” – he indicated a middle-aged man – “actually has a bullet hole through his brain.  It hasn’t slowed him down any.  Sure, we could purge the infection, but we’d kill them in the process.  Once the infection reaches a certain point, it’s unstoppable and euthanasia is the only solution.”

He stepped forward until he was almost touching the bulkhead.  “We’ve had some success in slowing the infection, or even purging it, but not after the tipping point is reached.  It seems to laugh at our genetically-engineered immune systems.  We’re working on nanotech solutions, but so far we haven’t come up with anything practical.”

Susan turned as an older woman bustled into the room.  “Admiral?  I’m sorry I wasn’t at the airlock to meet you?”

“It’s quite all right,” Susan assured her.  “Doctor Velda Womack, I presume?”

“Just call me Velda,” Velda said.  “I’m the director of research in this facility.”

Susan smiled at Mason, who shrugged expressively.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, deciding not to point out that Mason was in formal command of the facility.  Velda wasn’t the first civilian she’d met with an inflated idea of her own importance.  “I understand you have a briefing for me?”

“Yes, Admiral.”  Velda walked over to the wall and tapped a console.  The bulkhead turned opaque.  A holographic image appeared in front of them.  “The face of the enemy.”

“Living cells,” Susan said.  She still found it hard to wrap her head around the idea of a sentient virus.  The alien enemies she’d faced had been humanoid, for a given value of humanoid.  “It’s almost beautiful.”

“It’s also almost certainly artificial,” Velda said.  “There’s remarkably little junk DNA in its structure.  Even the most enhanced human has a lot of junk in his generic code.  The virus was created by someone, we’re sure, and got out of control.”

“And they might be still out there,” Susan said.

“It’s possible,” Velda agreed.  “It’s also possible they were simply the first victims.  We may never know.”

She indicated the display with a single finger.  “We’ve been looking for ways to fight the virus on its own level.  It isn’t easy.  It’s capable of overwhelming most immune systems fairly quickly, unless the victim receives medical attention within the first few hours.  We think it’s actually adapted to face humans, as the time between infection and mental collapse has grown shorter.  It may not be intelligent as we understand the term, but it’s clearly very smart.  Once the air is infected with viral base cells, total infection is just a matter of time.”

“I am aware of this,” Susan said, stiffly.  “We lost a handful of colonies to biological attack.”

Velda adjusted the display.  “We’ve been experimenting with manipulating the base cells ourselves.  They’re really quite remarkable, in so many ways.  We came up with a way to use modified base cells to break down the viral … biological computer network, for want of a better term.  It would be a terminal blow to their cohesion.  We think it would shatter the infected hive mind into a collection of individuals.”

“We think,” Mason put in.  “We don’t know for sure.”

“No one ever does,” Susan said.  She looked at Velda.  “Are you sure they can’t adapt?”

“We believe they wouldn’t have time to react before the base cells die,” Velda said.  “The virus requires a high concentration of base cells within the atmosphere to maintain the hive mind.  We’d be smashing it like … like building blocks, in a manner that should make it impossible for the network to be rebuilt.  The rate of infection would be reduced sharply, if not curtailed completely.  Or so we believe.”

“It can’t be that simple,” Susan said.  “What’s the catch?”

“We can hit a planet, easily enough,” Mason said.  “Taking out a ship would be a great deal harder.”

Susan’s lips twitched.  “And they can deploy counter-infection protocols of their own,” she said.  “They may slow the spread of our infection …”

“Our BioBomb,” Velda said.  “We’d be fighting fire with fire.”

“Clever.”  Susan studied the hologram for a long moment.  “How do you know the BioBomb won’t turn into a worse threat?”

“It relies upon viral base cells,” Velda said.  “If we released it here” – she waved a hand in the air – “it would die swiftly.  It isn’t capable of infecting us, or adapting to its surroundings.  One might as well transport a human to the bottom of the sea and expect him to survive long enough to learn how to breathe water.  In a sense, we’ve actually created a predator.  It’s designed to prey on the virus.”

“I hope you’re not going to suggest we infect ourselves with a downgraded virus,” Susan said, dryly.

“That is how the first vaccines were created.”  Velda shrugged.  “No, we’re still working on medical defences.  It might be possible to turn our blood into viral poison, but doing that and keeping the infected person alive has so far proven beyond us.”

Susan nodded, curtly.  “I read the reports,” she said.  “They didn’t make comforting reading.”

“No,” Velda agreed.

“In theory, we should be able to disrupt their networks if we unleash the BioBombs,” Mason said.  “At the very least, we should be able to give them a nasty fright.”

“I’m not convinced the virus has emotions, as we understand the term,” Velda said.  “All of our attempts to communicate have failed.”

“This is a war of extermination,” Susan agreed.  She glanced at Mason.  “I’ll discuss it with the First Space Lord and COBRA, then take it to GATO if they agree.  Until then … start producing the BioBombs.  I want them ready for deployment as soon as possible.”

Mason looked disturbed.  “What has this war done to us?”

Susan nodded to the opaque bulkhead.  “We either fight, using every weapon at our disposal, or wind up like them,” she said.  She understood his fears, but … she knew she couldn’t afford to let sentiment blind her.  “There’s no other way.”

Chapter One

“Welcome to Nelson Base,” Midshipwoman Nancy Ryland said.  “Admiral Onarina is waiting for you.”

Captain the Hon Lord Thomas Hammond nodded as he stepped through the airlock.  The summons to Nelson Base had caught him by surprise, forcing him to make his excuses to his wife and board a shuttle at very short notice.  His wife hadn’t been pleased – she’d been hosting a garden party at the time – but she’d understood.  Duty came first, even if her husband had only just returned from Luna for a month of shore leave.  Thomas felt a twinge of bemusement as the midshipwoman turned and led him down the corridor.  He’d spent the last year at the academy, helping to impart lessons from previous engagements to officer cadets.  He would have preferred another ship, but the navy hadn’t bothered to take his preferences into account before assigning him.

“Please take me to a washroom first,” he said.  “I need to freshen up.”

“Yes, sir,” Nancy said.  “There’s one just outside the admiral’s office.”

Thomas sighed inwardly as he followed her, feeling old.  Nancy looked to be the same age as his daughters, give or take a year or two.  He wondered, idly, if she viewed the assignment to the admiral’s office as a reward or a punishment.  There was something to be said for endearing oneself to one’s superiors, by serving as their aides, but it wasn’t active duty.  The navy wouldn’t promote someone past a certain point unless they’d served at least a year on active duty.  Nancy would probably be assigned to a ship in a year or two, unless she had no ambitions to rise higher.  Thomas found that incomprehensible, although he supposed it was possible she was biding her time until a good match came along.  Or that she just wanted to do her bit for her country.

He put the thought out of his mind as they passed a giant viewport.  Earth floated in front of him, a blue and green marble in an endless sea of stars.  It took his breath away, even though he knew the planet was far from peaceful.  The virus had infected large swathes of the population, unleashing a nightmare that might never end.  The BBC maintained a positive outlook, as did most of the other national and international news channels, but he’d read the reports from more pessimistic analysts.  The virus was steadily grinding the human race down.  It was only a matter of time, some feared, before it broke through the defences and infected the entire planet.  There were even people talking about a mass evacuation of Earth.

Which is logistically impossible, he thought, as they stopped outside a washroom.  We’ve been shipping people off-world for the last century and we’ve barely made a dent in the global population.

Thomas took a breath and stepped into the washroom.  The summons really had caught him by surprise.  Admiral Onarina wasn’t known for being a martinet – she didn’t have a reputation for reprimanding officers who didn’t wear dress uniforms – but he simply hadn’t had time to find anything more than his academy tunic.  He splashed water on his face, then stared at himself in the mirror.  He’d had a lifetime of genetic tweaks – it was one advantage of being born into the aristocracy, then going into naval service – but he still looked old.  His brown hair was starting to turn gray, his skin looked as if it was starting to develop wrinkles.  He was almost tempted to visit a cosmetic surgeon and have everything tightened up, but he wasn’t that vain.  He’d certainly never thought well of men – and women – who made themselves look like teenagers, even though they were parents and grandparents.  They’d always seemed like people who’d never really grown up.

He dismissed the thought with an irritated shrug as he brushed down his uniform, then headed for the hatch.  Nancy looked as if she’d been waiting patiently, when he stepped into the corridor.  Thomas was mildly impressed.  It was unlikely she’d been remotely patient – he certainly hadn’t been, when he’d been at the beck and call of everyone who outranked him – but she hadn’t had a choice.  He wondered, idly, if she had orders not to leave him alone for very long.  It was unlikely – Nelson Base wasn’t a top-secret facility – but he had to admit it was possible.  These days, friend could turn to foe very quickly.  Who knew who might have been infected, without even known it?

“This way, sir,” Nancy said.  “Admiral Onarina is waiting.”

Thomas felt a little fresher as Nancy pressed her fingers against a keypad, then opened the hatch.  Admiral Onarina’s office was surprisingly small, although still much larger than the ready room on his last command.  A simple desk, a set of chairs, a comfortable sofa, a small cluster of pictures on one of the bulkheads … Admiral Onarina, it seemed, didn’t believe in luxury.  Thomas approved.  He’d met too many officers who seemed intent on turning their quarters into apartments that wouldn’t have shamed the Ritz. 

Admiral Onarina rose as he entered.  “Thank you, Nancy,” she said.  “Please bring us tea, then leave us.”

“Aye, Admiral,” Nancy said.

“Please, take a seat,” Admiral Onarina said, as Nancy left the compartment.  “We have much to discuss.”

Thomas sat, studying Admiral Onarina with interest.  She was taller than him, with dark brown skin, long dark hair and darker eyes.  The Order of the Garter was clearly emblazoned on her chest, a vote of confidence from the highest in the land.  It was unlikely she’d reach First Space Lord – she didn’t have the family connections to climb to the very top – but no one doubted her competence.  He wondered, idly, what she’d been doing since she’d reached flag rank.  He’d heard rumours, but none of them had been substantiated. 

Nancy returned, with a tray of tea and biscuits.  Thomas allowed himself a flicker of relief as the midshipwoman placed the tray on the desk, then retreated.  He wasn’t in trouble.  The admiral wouldn’t have offered him a drink if she intended to rake him over the coals.  He’d been fairly sure of it – he’d have known if he’d done something worth a bollocking from an admiral – but it was nice to have confirmation.  And yet, why had he been summoned?  He couldn’t think of a good reason.  A promotion?  It was unlikely Admiral Onarina had called to promote him personally.

“I’m sorry for cutting your leave short,” Admiral Onarina said.  She actually managed to sound regretful.  “You’re being reassigned.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows.  He’d assumed he’d be spending at least another six months at the academy, if not remaining there for the rest of his career.  It was quite possible, he’d thought, that the navy had seen the academy as the last stage of his career.  He’d probably missed the change to jump up to commodore, if not admiral.  Family connections or not, there were limits.  A stalled career might never be restarted.

Admiral Onarina leaned forward.  “The war is going poorly,” she said.  “The blunt truth is that the enemy outnumbers us.  In the last two major engagements, they brought enough ships to outnumber the defenders two-to-one.  Intelligence believes they’re planning to continue thrusting towards us through at least two tramline chains, simultaneously.  If they do, we will be unable to stop one thrust without giving the other thrust a chance to break through and wreck havoc.”

Thomas sucked in his breath.  He’d seen the reports – and he was a past master at reading between the lines, particularly when the news broadcasts were so vague it was brutally obvious they were concealing something – but he hadn’t realised it was so bad.  The naval reports hadn’t been anything like so grim.  And yet … he took a sip of his tea, trying to remain calm.  Admiral Onarina wouldn’t have summoned him, a lowly captain, to discuss the war.  She had something else in mind.

“We cannot hope to outproduce the virus,” Admiral Onarina continued.  “We’re pushing our industrial nodes to the limit, despite the risk of a general collapse, but it isn’t enough to keep the virus from crushing us through sheer numbers.  Our only edge is that our technology is slightly – slightly – more advanced.  We at Special Projects have been working hard to develop newer and better weapons systems that will give us a chance to turn the tide.  We’ve had some successes, but – so far – we haven’t developed a silver bullet.”

“I see,” Thomas said.  “We may come up with something revolutionary …”

“We may,” Admiral Onarina agreed, grimly.  “There are problems, of course.  The naval commanders don’t want to risk betting everything on an untried weapons system.  They’re concerned about discovering, the hard way, that a brand new invention works perfectly in the lab, but fails spectacularly in the real world.  Quite a few of the concepts that have come out of Special Projects – and the Next Generation Weapons program – have proven unworkable, at least until the kinks are worked out.  However, we have made a number of advances and improvements to weapons tech.”

She tapped her terminal.  A holographic starship materialised above the deck.  Thomas leaned forward, drinking in the details.  She was oddly designed, a cross between a giant battleship and a light cruiser.  Thomas frowned as his eyes traced the flattened cylinder, bristling with weapons pods and missile tubes.  The drive section looked unusually large, for a ship of her size.  He didn’t like the look of it.  The section struck him as a huge target.  They’d be drive nodes embedded into the hull itself, but if the drive section were shot off the ship would be effectively dead in space.  His eyes narrowed as he spotted the tiny gunboats clinging to the hull.  Had the designers tried to combine a carrier with a battleship and a cruiser?

“HMS Lion,” Admiral Onarina said, when he looked at her.  “Our first battlecruiser.”

Thomas blinked.  The Americans had experimented with a battlecruiser design, if he recalled correctly, but their prototype hadn’t worked out.  She hadn’t had the acceleration of a cruiser, nor the armour to fight beside the battleships.  Most navies preferred to deploy destroyers, cruisers, carriers and battleships.  Hybrid designs tended to have all the weaknesses and few of the strengths.  And …

“She carries missiles,” he said, bemused.  It made no sense.  “They’d be blown out of space before they reach their target.”

“We’ve been improving missile design and technology ever since we realised they might still have a use in modern war,” Admiral Onarina explained.  “These missiles are designed for long-range engagements, their seeker heads crammed with ECM generators and suchlike to make targeting them difficult … although, sadly, not impossible.  They carry improved warheads too, far more deadly than starfighter torpedoes or kinetic projectiles.  A battleship that took a direct hit would be seriously damaged.  A cruiser would be blown to atoms.”

Thomas sucked in his breath.  “But enemy point defence would still pick them off …?”

“Perhaps,” Admiral Onarina said.  “The missiles are designed for multiple roles, as you can imagine.  They are capable of going ballistic for a time, relying on the gunboats to provide guidance, or simply travelling at speeds that make them difficult to hit.  They’re even capable of travelling in evasive patterns, just like starfighters … expensive as hell, I have to admit, but right now expense isn’t an issue.  We’re gearing up to churn out hundreds of the missiles.”

She altered the display.  A smaller ship appeared beside the battlecruiser.  “HMS Unicorn.  Officially, she’s a corvette, although she’s actually bigger than a standard design.  She’s a combination of recon ship, sniper spotter and a few other roles.  Ideally, she’ll be providing targeting data to Lion’s missiles, allowing Lion a chance to open fire from a distance and then vanish back into stealth before the enemy can react.  She’s also capable of operating independently, if necessary.  She has shorter legs than the average destroyer, and she’s not designed to stand in the line of battle, but she does have enough point defence to provide cover for her mothership.”

Thomas nodded, slowly.  “The concept sounds good.”

“On paper,” Admiral Onarina agreed.  “Practically, we want – we need – to make sure the prototypes are tested to the limit before we commit to building more.  It took months of arguing to convince the Admiralty to assign funding and resources to construct even one, then the project was delayed twice as shipyard workers had to be assigned to other projects and then reassigned back to Lion.  Ideally, she would have left her slip six months ago.”

She met his eyes, evenly.  “I would like you to take command of HMS Lion.”

Thomas felt a thrill of excitement.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing, like starship command.  He wasn’t blind to the politics – or to the danger of being made the scapegoat for the project’s failure, if it failed – but he couldn’t resist.  If he declined the command, the navy would never offer him another.  And besides … he lifted his eyes to the hologram.  He was a conservative when it came to naval technology – most serving officers were all too aware of the risks of taking untested weapons into combat – but he had to admit the concept sounded good.  It remained to be seen just how well it would work in the real world.

“It will be my pleasure,” he said.  An untested ship, fresh off the slips … there’d be challenges galore.  It wasn’t uncommon for ships to develop problems as they were put through their paces – it was why the navy insisted on shakedown cruises before putting a ship in the line of battle – but many of those problems could be anticipated and corrected.  Lion was a new design.  It remained to be seen what would go wrong when she powered up her drives for the first time.  “Do we have a mission?”

“Not yet.”  Admiral Onarina grimaced.  “There are a handful of possibilities, and I want you ready for deployment as quickly as possible, but nothing is set in stone.  There’s some … disagreement … amongst various senior officers about just how Lion should be employed in combat.  Some of us believe she should be held in reserve until we have enough additional units to prove decisive, others feel she and her classmates will not be enough to turn the tide on their own.  Your first priority is to get Lion ready for combat.  We’ll have orders for you then, never fear.”

“Yes, Admiral.”  Thomas found himself smiling.  “It will be one hell of a challenge.”

“Quite.”  Admiral Onarina’s lips thinned, just slightly.  “You’ll be partnered with Captain Mitch Campbell, who’ll have command of Unicorn.  You may have seen him in the news reports.  He’s going to be promoted when I meet him, but you’ll have command of the two-ship flotilla and you’ll be breveted commodore for official correspondence.   I’m afraid this doesn’t come with a pay rise.”

Thomas had to laugh.  “Why am I not surprised?”

“Captain Campbell is a hard-charging young man,” Admiral Onarina said.  “He’s very good with small ships, but – so far – hasn’t served on anything larger than a destroyer.  He was also injured during the last set of engagements and spent several weeks in hospital.  I expect you to keep him under control.”


“He’s very hard-charging,” Admiral Onarina said, again.  “Aggressiveness is a useful trait, as you are aware, but there’s more at stake here than a lone corvette.  No one doubts his bravery, and his crew loves him, but – frankly – I’d be concerned about giving him anything bigger than Unicorn.  He really needs more seasoning before taking command of a cruiser, let alone a battleship or carrier.”

“And the media might make that difficult,” Thomas said.  He vaguely recalled watching broadcasts about Commander Campbell.  “They’ve been promoting him as a major hero.”

“He is a hero,” Admiral Onarina said, bluntly.  “He deserves the medal and promotion.  But he also needs more time to mature.  The media may have made that impossible.”

Thomas nodded, curtly.  Naval heroes were heroes, a tradition that stretched all the way back to Lord Nelson and Francis Drake.  The time when movie stars and football players had been regarded as heroes and role models were long gone, so far removed from the modern world that it was impossible to understand why anyone had ever taken it seriously.  Who cared when someone who’s only skill was kicking a football around a field had to say about anything?  Naval heroes – and army heroes – were far more significant.  And yet, it was easy to start turning them into icons … icons that inevitably had feet of clay.  Everyone knew Theodore Smith had been a drunkard.  It hadn’t kept him from saving the entire human race.

And it’s also very easy to get a swelled head, he thought.  This might not end well.

“I’ll keep him pointed in the right direction,” he promised.  “And we’ll be a long way from the media.”

“Always a good idea,” Admiral Onarina agreed.  She stood, signalling the interview was over.  “Nancy will escort you to your shuttle.”

“I’ll have to call my wife first,” Thomas said.  He stood, brushing down his uniform.  “She needs to know I’m going back on active service.”

“Nancy can arrange a private call,” Admiral Onarina said.   “You can leave immediately afterwards.”

“Aye, Admiral,” Thomas said.  It was inconvenient, to say the least, and his wife would not be pleased.  But he’d signed away his freedom when he’d joined the navy.  “And thank you.”

“Thank me when you come back,” Admiral Onarina said.  “A great deal is riding on this project, Captain.”

“I understand,” Thomas said.  “I won’t let you down.”

Planetary Overview: New Doncaster

9 Jul

The setting for the first of Prince Roland’s stories. What do you think?

New Doncaster

The settlement rights to the New Doncaster System remained in a curious legal limbo until roughly 500PEF, as the system was claimed by the remnants of a political faction that was steadily losing its remaining influence in the Grand Senate.  This did not, of course, stop rogue factions from settling the planet before the official colonists arrived, causing all sorts of minor problems as the newcomers asserted their claim to the planet.  There was a brief series of engagements that ended when the Imperial Navy bombarded the illegal settlements, the survivors forcibly integrated into the new power structure.  Tales of hidden settlements and rogue sailors abound, but few believe them.

Officially, New Doncaster – generally shortened to Doncaster – is a representative democracy, with a parliament composed of elected MPs.  Practically, voting rights are highly restricted and based largely – almost completely – on land ownership.  The original investors – the Landowners – own roughly 70% of the planet’s land surface (as well as the moons, asteroid belts and gas giants) and generally run the planet to suit themselves.  They have endless privileges, written into the constitution by the first legal settlers; the majority of government jobs are reserved for them.  Naturally, the parliament is little more than a rubber stamp.  Decisions are taken in private, by the dominant landowners, and then effortlessly passed through parliament.  The handful of MPs from townie factions are unable to do anything about it. 

This is bitterly resented by two of the four other factions: the townies (who form a growing business/middle class) and the debtors (who are effectively serfs, working to pay off impossible debts).  The economic slowdown that ended with Earthfall has hit the planet hard, ensuring that the debts are even more unserviceable.  The townies want more say in planetary affairs – in effect, an end to the landholding scheme – and are prepared to agitate to get it; the debtors want an end to debt and a more fair sharing of planetary resources.  The more perceptive landowners realise that they’ll have to make some concessions, sooner or later, but they’re blocked by their fellows, who feel that any concessions will come back to bite them. 

The remaining two factions – the sailors and the spacers – try to have as little to do with the other factions as possible. However, that may not be able to endure indefinitely. 

There is a surprising amount of ethnic diversity amongst the population, but the planet is resolutely monocultural.  The price of settlement – as a townie or a debtor – was abandoning one’s former culture, if it was believed to be incompatible.  Racism is thankfully rare – classism is considerably more prevalent – and it isn’t unknown for a particularly competent debtor or townie to climb the ladders.  However, this is uncommon.  There are very few slots for newcomers, no matter how talented they may be.

The planet’s military is more of a glorified police force.  The landowners disliked the idea of a standing army – particularly one drawn largely from the lower classes – and kept it as low as possible.  They preferred the idea of a volunteer force drawn from the higher classes, who were the only ones who were allowed to bear arms.  Accordingly, the army consists of little more than 10’000 infantry, with a handful of supporting aircraft and boats, backed up by volunteer posses whenever things get too far out of hand.  Logistics are minimal.  Training is very much a mixed bag, as officers are exclusively drawn from the landowners.  Some are strikingly competent, some are practically useless.

New Doncaster is unusual amongst planets, in that it has a relatively small settlement zone running around the equator.  The planetary surface is an archipelago of islands, some of which are very large indeed (think Cuba or Ireland); the waters, stocked with fish from Earth, provide more than enough sustenance for the system’s inhabitants.  (This is partly why the sailors think they can remain aloof from the power struggle, as they can feed themselves and maintain their sailing ships without much from the main islands.)  A number of islands play host to factories, farms and plantations; a cluster of mid-sized islands represent the capital of the planetary system.

The planet is orbited by a small halo of asteroid settlements and industrial nodes, with varying levels of ties to the planetary government.  Some are owned directly by the landowners, some owe formal fealty to the government but pay as little attention to it as possible.  Smuggling is big business.  Doncaster’s government will never admit it, but the planet sells a considerable amount of advanced technology on the black market.  There is a formal planetary defence network, but no one is really sure how capable it is.  The handful of outdated gunboats patrolling the system are completely inadequate for the task.

Outside the high orbitals, there are small settlements on the rocky worlds, cloudscoops orbiting the gas giants (both owned by the landowners) and an ever-increasing union of settled asteroids (some independent).

The planet’s major exports are food, rare chemicals (harvested from the plantations) and a small – but growing – trade in advanced technology and starship components.

Unsurprisingly, Doncaster has been heading steadily towards disaster.  Earthfall has ensured that the planetary government can no longer call on the Imperial Navy for help.  Worse, the steady economic collapse across the sector has brought pirates, (more) smugglers and independence activists to Doncaster.  The Secessionist League, in particular, has been trying to supply the debtors – and some of the townies – with advanced weapons, hoping the rebels can take the planetary surface and industrial nodes.  The government has reacted poorly, as it remains unwilling to make any substantial concessions to either the townies or the debtors.  Instead, it has tried to crack down – unsuccessfully – on subversion.  It’s heavy-handed tactics have only made things worse, ensuring more resentment and more recruits for the rebel factions.

It is only a matter of time until the planet explodes.

Quick Updates

1 Jul

Hi, everyone.

It’s been a pretty good week, by and large.  I finished the first draft of The Lady Heiress (Zero 7) and did the first set of edits for Oathkeeper (SIM20).  The planned publication date is early August, but we might manage to get it formatted and out sooner.  We’ll see.  The cover is great, as you can see:

We’ve also managed to publish the first volume of Fantastic Schools (see links on that post here.)  There’s a collection of stories by various authors, including Gennady’s Tale (a Schooled in Magic novella).  It adds a certain something to the universe (just don’t ask me to say what).  Reviews are, of course, very welcome. 

My current plan is to write The Lion and the Unicorn  (Ark 15) next, followed by The Right Side of History (SIM21).  I need to work out the plot, as – ideally – I want to get everything lined up for the final three books (and get Oathkeeper finalised) before I start putting hand to keyboard.

I’ve also been sketching out ideas for a new Empire’s Corps trilogy, following Prince Roland in the post-empire universe.  What do you think?

The bad news is that the COVID-19 recession is starting to bite.  Sales are down everywhere (it’s not just me).  If you’ve read a recent book – not just mine <grin> – please take the time to review it.  Every little helps.

In other news, I’ve been thinking about an article on the ongoing breakdown on the other side of the pond.  But I get depressed every time I think about it.