Archive | October, 2021

Standing Alone Appendix: Interstellar Law

27 Oct

Does this make sense?

Appendix: Interstellar Law

Galactic Law, as laid down – at least in part – by the Alphans rests on a somewhat contradictory premise.  On one hand, all races deserve a certain degree of legal rights as well as responsibilities; on the other, it is extremely difficult to keep an interstellar power from putting its own interests first, regardless of the harm they do to any less powerful or outright defenceless race that happens to find itself in the superpower’s path.  Cynics insist the Alphans devised Galactic Law to justify and legitimise their own conquests, as they were once the galaxy’s foremost conquerors.  It is generally agreed the cynics are correct.

The Alphans divided intelligent races into three different subsets.  Galactics are races capable of both defending their homeworlds and exerting their influence outside their borders.  Spacefarers are capable of defending themselves, yet have little influence outside their homeworlds.  Primitives are unable to reach orbit, let alone defend themselves against a spacefaring opponent.  Each subset has different rights and responsibilities, towards both themselves and other intelligent races.  Galactics, for example, have the right and the responsibility to take the primitives in hand, to provide guidance to their clients in exchange for service.  In theory, the superior race is expected to uplift their inferiors.  In practice, this generally means a considerable degree of exploitation, if not outright slavery, for races that are unable to defend themselves.  Very few primitive races have ever broken free from their unwanted patrons.

From a moralistic point of view, this is outrageous and many interstellar races and factions regard de facto enslavement with horror.  From a practical point of view, the only way to keep the more aggressive races from occupying primitive worlds is force and, when the aggressor is too powerful to be easily deterred, the other interstellar powers tend to look away rather than try to do something about it.  Nothing short of blatant defiance of the law (direct or indirect genocide) will provoke a response and, with the Alphans no longer willing to provide any degree of leadership, it is generally believed that even the handful of protections extended to primitive races no longer hold force.

Indeed, the only real check on patron abuse comes from the patrons being legally responsible for their clients.  Primitive races are, legally, children; they cannot be penalised, under the law, for their ignorance and/or stupidity.  If a human were to assassinate a Galactic while Earth was under Alphan rule, the Alphans would be legally responsible for the deed (in the same way a parent would be obliged to repay money a child had stolen).  It isn’t uncommon for rebel groups to try to create incidents that force other interstellar powers to pressure the patron race, regardless of the cost.  If nothing else, it makes life harder for the occupying power and demonstrates they don’t control the primitive homeworld (see below).

Spacefaring races do have title over their own homeworlds (and star systems) and have rights that are generally respected (if nothing else, races that understand technology do tend to be better allies than outright slaves.)  However, they are legally obliged to bend to the will of the local superpower and, if they lose their ability to protect their home system, they run the risk of losing their political influence (see below).  Their positions are rarely pleasant, let alone secure.  They are not allowed, for example, to let their space be used for military operations, but lack the power to prevent it.  Indeed, if their local superpower loses influence, the spacerfarers may find themselves thrown into the hands of another superpower.  It is extremely tricky to navigate such chaos without losing what remains of their former independence.

Both spacefarers and Galactics have, at least in theory, complete internal autonomy.  The Alphans originally tried to impose their legal code on everyone else, but discovered very quickly that their laws were often unsuitable for other races.  As long as a race’s internal affairs don’t impinge upon other powers, it can generally do whatever it wants on its own homeworld or enclaves, up to and including outright genocide.  Most races at least try to be circumspect when dealing with others, regardless of the relative balance of power, but visitors to alien worlds are advised to study both local law and custom before leaving the ship.  A person who commits a crime under local law can be deported and blacklisted, even if they are not legally charged (as the crime isn’t a crime under their native law.)

The owner of a certain volume of space – a star system, for example, or a sector – is the interstellar power that can and does exert control over the volume.  The owner must be able to prevent incursion, from either other interstellar powers or independent forces (pirates); the owner’s own laws and social systems must be dominant, with all others existing at the owner’s sufferance.  For example, the Vultek enclaves within Alphan space may be governed by Vultek law, but Alphan law has primacy whenever multiple races are involved.  The ruling power must be capable, also, of protecting other Galactics making transit through the sector.  Failure to do this effectively means the other powers have the right to take steps to protect their own people, such as providing convoy escorts or even establishing military bases within the sector.  This often provides perfectly legal cover for covert destabilisation operations, mounted in hopes of providing an excuse to send warships into the sector on ‘temporary’ missions that never actually end. 

It should be clear that ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ are not the driving principles of Galactic Law.  The Alphans themselves would admit as much, pointing both to their own (presumed) superiority as well as the simple fact the races are not equal.  There is little room for moralistic platitudes and, in truth, most races find them annoying.  Galactic Law does not exist as a supranational power structure, binding on all races, but as a framework to migrate conflicts (open and covert) between interstellar powers.  It is ruthlessly practical, with only a few hints of idealism (the prohibition on interstellar genocide, for example); it has few, if any, enforcement mechanisms beyond the superpowers being willing to band together to punish an offender. 

And, now the Alphans are leaving the interstellar stage, it is no longer clear who – if anyone – will even make a pretence at upholding interstellar law.

Snippet – The Prince’s Gambit (The Empire’s Corps 20)

25 Oct

Prologue I

From: An Unbiased History of the Imperial Royal Family.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

As we have seen in previous chapters, Prince Roland – the last surviving member of the Imperial Family – was extremely lucky to escape Earth before Earthfall.  The Childe Roland – as he was known – was a spoilt brat, permanently on the verge of descending into a sybarite madness that would have suited the real rulers of the empire quite well.  It was only through the intervention of a Marine Pathfinder, Belinda Lawson, that Prince Roland started to climb out of the pit his minders had dug for him.  Indeed, it is quite possible – if Earthfall had been somehow delayed – that the prince would have grown into a fine young man.

But it was not to be.  Roland fled Earth and found himself in the custody of the Terran Marine Corps.  This posed a serious problem.  Legally, Roland was the ruler of the empire; practically, the empire was gone and hardly anyone would be willing to recognise Roland as the master of anything.  Even the Marine Corps had its doubts.  Roland’s reputation preceded him, to the point it was unlikely anyone who hadn’t met him would offer any support.  His value as a rallying cry for loyalists was very limited.  The corps finessed the problem by arranging for Roland to attend Boot Camp, under an assumed name.  It would either make a man out of him, and give him a solid grounding in military and civil realities, or prove beyond reasonable doubt he was unsuited for any major role in the post-Earthfall universe.

Results were decidedly mixed.  Roland had definite natural talent.  At the same time, he still bore the scars of his earlier life.  The corps was honestly unsure if he should receive advanced training, with the aim of turning him into a full-fledged Marine, or quietly sidelining him into a less significant role.  It was decided, after much consideration, to offer Roland a chance to take command of a military training and assistance team, which would be assigned to New Doncaster.  The risk appeared minimal.  New Doncaster was a volatile planet, and long-term projections indicated the world would either fall into civil war or be invaded by one of its neighbours, but – in the short-term – Roland should be able to prove himself without any real risk.  Just in case, Specialist Rachel Green – a Pathfinder – was assigned to serve as a covert bodyguard.

It rapidly became clear that events on New Doncaster were not following the expected timescale. The situation was degenerating rapidly.  Roland’s training mission worked hard to build up the local military, despite opposition from government factions, but it was barely enough to stabilise the line.  It seemed unlikely, despite Roland’s best efforts, that that planet could remain stable long enough for the government to start addressing deep-rooted structure issues underlying the conflict.  Indeed, there were plenty of factions that saw no need to address the issues.

Roland showed both the strengths and weaknesses of a young officer with little practical experience.  He devised a scheme to mount an airborne raid on a rebel base, which worked surprisingly well; he also drew up a plan to establish defence lines and blockhouses throughout the threatened islands in a bid to curtail rebel activities, a plan that might have worked if he’d had more resources at his disposal.  On the other hand, he also put his life at risk – sometimes to show the troops he was sharing the risks, sometimes for his own selfish reasons – and it could easily have ended in disaster.  However, he had good reason to think his plan would slow the rebel advance, giving the government a chance to at least try to hammer out a political solution.

He was wrong.  The rebels had long been planning a major offensive.  Roland’s army camp and the capital island came under heavy attack.  The spaceport, and the understrength Marine contingent providing protection, was destroyed in a single cataclysmic bombing.  It seemed likely, as Roland led his troops in defence of the government, that the rebels had dealt a fatal blow.  Perhaps, if Roland had not acted so quickly, they would have won.  Instead, though heavy fighting and a great deal of luck, Roland was able to drive the rebels off Kingston and save the government. 

However, the remainder of the rebel plans went off without a hitch.  The government’s authority across the outlying plantation islands, long hotbeds of insurgent activity, fell to rebel forces with terrifying speed.  It rapidly became apparent that, far from being beaten, the rebels had preserved much of their strength and were working to build up their forces as quickly as possible.

And, as Roland assumed command of the planetary military, it became clear the war was far from over.

Prologue II

Ludlow Estate, New Doncaster

It felt odd, Lord Hamish Ludlow reflected, to hold a party in the middle of a war.  His estate – and the island – was as secure as his personal armsmen could make it, but he had few illusions about what would happen if the rebels dispatched a small army to take his mansion and lands.  The seas were choppy, and the only safe way to reach the island was by aircraft, yet the rebels were master sailors and it was quite possible his household included a number of sympathizers.   They were supposed to be trustworthy – they’d worked for his family for generations – but who could tell these days?  Hamish had cracked down hard, using the war situation as an excuse to keep his clients and servants under right control, yet he feared the worst.  If the spaceport hadn’t been destroyed, he would have been very tempted to send his wife and daughters into orbit for their own safety.

Because the rebels made it clear they consider women and children to be legitimate targets, Hamish thought, coldly.  He’d seen the images from the first uprisings, the handful of video files that had been transmitted across the globe.  If they storm the island, they’ll show no mercy to everyone.

The thought pained him as he swept through the dance hall, quietly directing a handful of his fellows towards the meeting room.  His wife had arranged the ball with her usual skill, inviting everyone who was anyone; he had to admit, as he passed a pair of young debutantes being chaperoned by their mothers, that she’d done a wonderful job.  It was important to keep up the pretence all was normal, as well as reminding the young men what they were fighting for.  He smiled, inwardly, as he spied a handful of men in fancy uniforms.  They looked ready and able to fight for the planet.  He just hoped they did as well on the battlefield as they did on the dance floor.

Hamish nodded politely to a maid as he left the hall, making his way down to the secure conference room.  It looked like a comfortable sitting room, complete with armchairs, a well-stocked drinks cabinet and a fire burning merrily in the fireplace, but his family had invested millions of credits in making the chamber as secure as possible.  They weren’t exactly going to discuss treason, but … he shook his head.  The lower orders – and those who’d thrown their lot in with them – wouldn’t understand, if they knew what he was doing.  They’d assume he was merely being a selfish bastard, rather than a true son of New Doncaster.  His lips thinned at the thought.  Once, he could have spoken his mind and all would have listened.  Now … saying one’s mind risked social death.  It was just a matter of time until it meant literal death.

He poured himself a drink, then waited for the remaining three men to arrive.  They were older aristocrats, all descendents of the founders themselves … all so deeply rooted in the planet’s history that the mere thought of pulling up roots and moving elsewhere was unthinkable.  There were no women, nor any young and foolish men.  Hamish’s mouth twisted in distaste.  It was hard to know who could be trusted, these days.  The war had sorted the men from the boys, true, but it had also made it hard to oppose the government.  And yet, when government policy threatened to lead the planet to ruin …

“Hamish,” Lord Prestwick said.  He was older than Hamish, with grey hair and cold blue eyes, but his mind was as sharp as ever.  “I assume there’s a reason you called us here?”

“Yes.”  Hamish looked from face to face.  “The first offensive will begin tomorrow.”

None of the men, he noted sourly, showed any hint of surprise.  They’d owned the government, at least until the Prime Minister had made peace with the townspeople, and they still possessed a considerable degree of influence.  The aristocracy had scattered its clients throughout the government structure; some openly patronised – in all senses of the word – some under strict orders to keep their true allegiances concealed.  It would have been more surprising if they hadn’t been aware the offensive was about to begin.  The media might have been muzzled, but word had been spreading anyway.

“That is good, is it not?”  Lord Doncaster was the oldest man in the room and the only one who could claim descent from the Doncaster.  He never let anyone forget it.  “The rebels are about to be crushed, freeing the islands from their iron grip.  Is that not good news?”

“Perhaps,” Hamish said.  It was good news.  The aristocracy owned the rebel islands.  Losing them to the rebels had been painful.  A number of families had gone bankrupt when their ability to pay their debts had been called into question, because they’d lost control of their lands and plantations.  “And yet, what does it mean for the future if the army emerges victorious?”

The question hung in the air.  It wasn’t enough to beat the rebels.  They had to restore the founding families to their former position of absolute mastery over the planet and that wasn’t going to be easy.  Hamish wasn’t blind to the implications of letting the townspeople have a share in government, certainly not after studying the history of Earth.  His distant ancestors had lost much of their power, after they’d widened the franchise to the point anyone could vote.  Earthfall was clear proof of what could happen, if there was too much democracy.  He had no intention of letting it happen to his homeworld.  New Doncaster had once been a shining beacon of civilisation.  God willing, it would be again.

“The army is under our control,” Lord Doncaster pointed out.  “Their victories are our victories.”

“Except we don’t control the army,” Lord Prestwick countered.  “General Roland Windsor controls the army.”

He looked at Lord Windsor.  “Is he not one of yours?”

“No,” Lord Windsor said, flatly.  “When Roland Windsor arrived, we did a search of the archives.  There are quite a few people with the same name, as you can imagine, but none of them are our Roland Windsor.  If there is a family connection, it is a long way back in time.  We may share a name, but we have nothing else in common.”

“Even so,” Lord Prestwick said.  “He should support you.”

Hamish kept his face under tight control.  The age-old tradition was very simple.  The family supported its children – it birthed, educated and employed them – and, in exchange, the children supported the family.  Lord Oakley, the Prime Minister, had betrayed his family, as well as the rest of the aristocracy.  And Roland Windsor … it was not clear if there was any connection between the imprudent young man and the Windsors of New Doncaster, but it provided a handy tool to hack away at the soldier’s reputation.  It would be easy, with a word or two in the right ear, to brand Roland Windsor a traitor.  He would never see it coming.

He tapped his glass, drawing their attention back to him.  “We have spent the last six months building up the army,” he said.  “The rebels are tougher than we thought” – it cost him to admit it – “but our victory is inevitable.  And what will happen then?”

The words hung in the air.  He didn’t give them time to react.

“Our forefathers were the ones who realised this world could become more than just a settlement, a refuge from the political storms battering the homeworld,” he said.  “They saw profit.  They invested vast sums in turning the planet into a going concern.  They made it work!  And are we going to step aside, to surrender to rebels and traitors and short-sighted fools and give up everything we’ve built?”

Lord Doncaster frowned.  “The government has agreed to limited political reform.”

“If there was no further reform, I might be less concerned,” Hamish told him.  “But it is unfortunately clear that each reform, each change in the rules, will lead to more demands and more changes and, eventually, we’ll surrender everything to keep the peace.  It has happened before, time and time again, on hundreds of worlds.  Once you get on the slippery slope, you cannot keep yourself from sliding down to disaster.  And if you try to say no, to uphold your old rights, you will be branded a reactionary fool if not an outright monster.  Do we want it to happen here?”

He watched their faces, hoping they’d understand and agree.  He had contingency plans, if one of the little party decided to go straight to the government, but putting them into practice would be difficult.  The old freedoms were gone.  The government’s emergency laws left little room for the old rights.  The days he was the absolute lord and master of his estate were gone.  It was up to him to bring them back.

“The army is largely townie,” he pointed out.  “What will it do, if it emerges victorious?”

“General Windsor is a Marine,” Lord Doncaster said.  “Will he not be recalled, and moved to another trouble spot?”

“We cannot count on it,” Hamish said.  “And there are townie officers making their way up the ladder.”

“They won’t reach the top,” Lord Prestwick argued.

“They’ll be in position to mount a coup,” Hamish disagreed.  “The rebels did it.  Why can’t they?”

Lord Windsor leaned forward.  “Your point is taken,” he said.  “I assume you have something in mind?”

“This is our world,” Hamish said.  He needed to remind them of it, time and time again.  They had to keep their eyes on the prize.  “And we need to defend it.”

He took a breath, then started to outline his plan.

Chapter One

Mountebank Island, New Doncaster

From above, Specialist Rachel Green noted, New Doncaster was a surprisingly beautiful planet.

The hang glider – a flimsy device that would be torn to shreds, if the weather changed before she reached her destination – seemed to shift slightly as she glided towards Mountebank Island.  Her passive sensor array picked up a handful of radar pulses, but not – thankfully – any active sensors that might pick her out against the charged atmosphere before it was too late.  The glider was so fragile, she’d been assured, that most sensors wouldn’t have a hope of spotting it, although she had no illusions about what would happen if the rebel defences did.  She wasn’t anything like high enough to see a missile coming towards her before it reached its target, nor would she have any hope of survival if it did.  Stealth was her only real defence and she knew it might not be enough.

It will have to be, she told herself.  We cannot afford to fail now.

She took a breath, waiting patiently as the island slowly came into view.  It looked tiny from overhead, a postage stamp of greenery set in an endless blue sea, falling slowly into darkness as the sun sank behind the horizon.  The sole city was a mass of dark buildings, the plantations beyond a haze of greenery and the burnt-out remains of manor houses and indent barracks.  Rachel’s lips twisted in disgust.  It wasn’t the first time she’d found herself, and the corps as a whole, supporting a government that didn’t deserve to exist, but it had never sat well with her.  She would have preferred to land an entire division, then thrash both the government and the rebels before dictating terms that might just keep the planet from exploding again when the division was pulled out and sent to the next trouble spot.  But it was not to be.  The government was the only hope of maintaining any sort of stability and that meant supporting it to the hilt.

For what it’s worth, when we have so little to offer, she thought.  New Doncaster just isn’t that important.

The thought mocked her.  She’d had reservations about the mission when she’d first been briefed, although she’d had to concede it was better than either being reassigned to another special ops team or being sent into deep cover somewhere in the former core worlds.  The Commandant had even suggested it would be a milk run, a chance to ease herself back into service after losing most of her former team.  It would hardly be the first time she’d handled close-protection duty, with orders to watch her charge while watching his back.  And yet, Prince Roland?  Everything she’d heard about the young prince had suggested he was a degenerate, a fop lost in pursuit of pleasure … the idea he might make a Civil Guardsman, let alone a Marine, was absurd.  She’d half-expected disaster, right from the start.

And yet, he’s done better than I thought, she admitted, in the privacy of her own mind.  He has his flaws, and weaknesses, but he’s done well.

She twisted her head slightly, looking up.  The handful of government-owned satellites had been zapped when the rebels had started their offensive, although between their outdated technology and New Doncaster’s weather they’d been practically useless.  The government had made overtures to the spacers, in hopes they’d replace the lost satellites, but the spacers had been reluctant.  Rachel suspected half of them supported the rebels or simply wanted to wait and see who won before openly choosing a side.  The remainder wanted independence.  She had the feeling they would do what they could to stir the pot, making sure the war on the surface lasted long enough to ensure the winner inherited a ruined planet.  And there was nothing she could do about it.

And there’s no way I can send a message to Safehouse either, she thought.  I don’t even know what happened to the messages I sent to the dead drop.

She cursed under her breath.  New Doncaster had been largely isolated since Earthfall, with only a handful of starships passing through the system before the simmering discontent had exploded into open war.  She’d sent a handful of messages on passing starships, in hopes of forwarding updates to her superiors, but she knew it would be months – at best – before there was any reply.  It was unlikely the corps would divert a starship to investigate what had happened, not unless the Commandant decided to reassign Captain Allen or Roland himself.  And then … Rachel shook her head as a gust of wind carried her over the island.  Captain Allen was dead, killed by treacherous attack.  Roland probably wouldn’t want to leave.

Rachel put the thought out of her mind as she checked the sensor array again.  The rebels didn’t appear to be using radio, let alone microburst transmitters, although the latter were difficult to detect, let alone pin down, before it was too late.  They’d probably be relying on landlines, if the island’s primitive communications infrastructure remained intact, or simply using couriers to take messages from place to place.  It was what she would have done, if she had been on the other side.  She knew from grim experience that anyone radiating a signal in the middle of a war zone was practically asking to get killed.

Her terminal vibrated, once.  It was time.

She braced herself.  The darkness was inching forward.  Her eyes had been heavily enhanced, allowing her to see in the dark, but she knew not to count on it.  She was too high up to be seen by the naked – unenhanced – eye, yet … she took a breath as she unhooked herself from the glider, then allowed herself to plummet down.  The glider itself would be swept up by the wind and blown well out to see before it came down, or so she’d been assured.  She hated the idea of leaving anything to chance, but trying to land the glider or destroying it both raised the odds of detection.  She’d been careful to ensure the glider was as clean as possible, with nothing that suggested it was anything other than a civilian model flown by a dangerous sports club.  By the time it was found, if it ever was, it would be too late.

The air snapped at her as she fell, a silent reminder of her first parachute jump.  It had been fun and terrifying … here, she ran the risk of falling straight into an enemy camp.  The intelligence staff had done their best to pin down the rebel positions, but their best wasn’t anything like good enough.  The rebels knew how to conceal their camps, how to keep their forces safe from prying eyes.  Rachel trusted the odds – they were in her favour – but mentally prepared herself for the worst.  If she did land in an enemy camp, she’d have to kill her way out before they recovered and brought her down.  Roland would never know what had happened to her.

She counted down the seconds, one hand on the parachute cord.  It was never easy to be sure when one should deploy the parachute, not on a high-attitude low-opening drop.  Opening the chute too early could get her killed, either by the weather throwing her right across the island and into the sea, or an enemy sniper spotting her and trying to do something about it; opening it too late could see her plunging into the ground hard enough to kill her, even with the chute slowing her fall.  She kept counting, drawing on all her experience to pick the right moment to pull the cord.  The chute blossomed above her, jerking violently as the ground came up and hit her.  Rachel grunted in pain as she landed, drawing her pistol as she ducked down and swept the chute aside.  She was alone.  The half-assed road was as still and quiet as the grave.

Bad thought, Rachel told herself, as she swept up the remains of the chute and hurried into the jungle.  Very bad thought.

She paused, listening with her enhanced ears.  The jungle was never quiet – she could hear birds and insects moving through the trees, heedless of her presence – but she couldn’t make out any signs of rebel activity.  She reminded herself, sharply, that that was meaningless.  The rebels had good jungle tradecraft.  The ones who hadn’t developed such skills, in the years before the insurgency had turned into outright war, had been killed long ago.  She turned slowly, listening carefully, then knelt down and dug a small hole with her multitool.  The chute needed to be buried, before someone spotted it and started to ask the wrong – or rather the right – questions.  It wouldn’t be the first time a mission had been compromised by a local spotting something out of place, then passing a warning up the chain to higher authorities.

And we have no friends on this island, she reflected, as she kicked dirt into the hole before moving away.  No one here will give the government a friendly word, let alone any actual support.

She took a breath as she checked her compass, then started to walk north, remaining within the jungle while following the road.  It would rain soon, concealing the few traces of her presence.  She kept her eyes on the rough road, reminding herself the lack of paving wasn’t proof it had fallen into disuse.  The planetary government – and the aristocracy – hadn’t been interested in investing in transport infrastructure, not this far from the coast.  And besides, even if they’d tried, the rebels would have tried to stop them.  A working road network would have made it easier for the militia to move troops from place to place.

The air grew warmer as she walked, faint flashes of light from the dark clouds suggesting a thunderstorm was on the way.  Rachel kept moving as the road widened, leading onto the remains of a plantation.  The rebels had wrecked it beyond repair, burning the manor and the surrounding houses to the ground, then tearing up the alien plants to ensure it would be years – at best – before the plantation could be made profitable once again.  She felt a flicker of sympathy for the former workers, men and women who’d been told they could earn their way out of debt slavery … only to discover, when they crunched the numbers, that the system was carefully rigged to make escape impossible.  She cursed the government under her breath.  If they’d wanted an insurgency, they could hardly have done a better job. 

No bodies, she thought, as she circumvented the plantation.  Perhaps that’s a good sign.

She dismissed the thought as she resumed her walk.  There were hundreds of refugees from the rebel-held islands, people who’d fled the wrath of rebels with nothing to lose but their chains, yet there should have been more.  There’d been a middle class, small yet not insignificant; there’d been aristocrats and overseers and trusties who … she shook her head.  It had been six months.  Anyone who hadn’t made it out, in the first chaotic week, was either behind enemy lines or dead.  The rebel leadership, to its credit, had tried to put a lid on the violence, but the hatred was just too great.  Rachel knew what might have happened, to any of the former masters caught behind the lines.  They’d be lucky if they were only killed by their former slaves.

The ground rose under her feet.  The skies rumbled, the first smatterings of rain falling around her.  Rachel almost welcomed it as she saw lights in the distance, heard the sound of roaring engines.  She ducked down, careful to choose a vantage point that would let her watch the road without being seen herself.  A line vehicles came into view, driving down the dirt road.  Rachel eyed them warily.  The rebel soldiers on guard looked antsy, their weapons shifting from side to side as if they expected to be attacked at any moment.  She wondered, idly, if there were loyalists or criminals within the jungle.  It wasn’t impossible.  Mountebank was not a penal island, not one of the hellish colonies where serious criminals were sent to work themselves to death, but it was quite possible some of the indents were guilty of more than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They might not have found themselves welcomed by the rebels …

Her eyes narrowed.  The vehicles looked like technicals – civilian vehicles hastily outfitted with makeshift armour and weapons – but there was something about them that had her instincts sounding the alarm.  Purpose-built military vehicles?  The design was odd, but she couldn’t deny the practicality.  Would the rebels prefer to build such vehicles, rather than tanks or IFVs?  There was no way to know.  They might be better off relying on designs they understood, rather than expending resources on vehicles that might prove to be nothing more than expensive white elephants.

She waited for the convoy to vanish into the darkness, then resumed her walk towards the enemy installation.  Intelligence had sworn blind the rebels had set up their HQ near the centre of the island, well away from either Mountebank City or the majority of the plantations.  Rachel hadn’t expected the spooks to get it right, but – as she closed on the installation – she realised the rebels definitely had something in the right location.  Her sensor array picked up a couple of microbursts, compressed and encrypted to the point even modern computers would take weeks to decrypt the signals.  She frowned as she slowed her advance, careful to keep watching for enemy spies.  A regular military base would have cut the foliage back, in hopes of keeping someone from creeping up on the fence.  The rebels hadn’t had that option – it would have revealed their base’s presence – but they were doing their best to compensate.  Their patrols were alarmingly random.

Someone’s been studying the right books, she thought.  The patrol would have caught her, if she hadn’t stayed back to watch and study their patterns.  They appeared to be completely random.  There’s no way to predict when a patrol will be passing by.

Rachel slipped back, then studied the rebel base from a distance.  It was half-hidden in the foliage, like the base they’d attacked before the insurgency had kicked into high gear, to the point it was hard to be sure how big it really was.  There were no vehicles within view, nothing to suggest the base was nothing more than a jungle resort or hidden settlement.  If there hadn’t been regular patrols, and microburst transmissions, she would have wondered if the spooks had made a mistake.  Hell, it was quite possible the real HQ was somewhere nearby … but not too near.  The rebels would be foolish to assume their microbursts couldn’t be detected, then pinned down.  A single prowling drone could drop a missile on the transmitter before the crew could escape. 

She kept inching back, then started to make her way around the edge of the base.  The patrols were too solid for her to risk trying to sneak into the base itself, not without setting off the alarms.  She thought she could get through, particularly if the rebels were distracted, but it was hard to be sure.  Better to wait until the offensive began, then go to work.

Dawn glimmered in the distance as she swept through the surrounding area, looking for hints of a secondary base.  There was nothing, but that was meaningless.  The rebels knew how to survive in the jungle, knew what was safe to eat, knew where to find water … in their shoes, she might set up a tent, or even a very basic shelter.  The rain wouldn’t make that easy, but better to be damp and free then dry and in a POW camp.  Rachel knew Roland had worked hard to convince the government to treat prisoners well, yet she was all too aware hardly anyone believed it would keep its word.  It was hard to take prisoners when the prisoners feared they’d either be worked to death or simply shot out of hand.

She glanced at her terminal, then tapped a code into the touchscreen.  The microburst transmitter sent two wordless bursts, before shutting down completely.  Rachel was already moving.  It was unlikely the rebels could track her signals, even if they had modern sensor arrays, but she dared not rule it out.  The rebels had some support from off-world factions, factions that had remained carefully anonymous.  It was quite possible they might have been sent modern gear.  Better to be safe, she reasoned, than sorry.

There was no hint she’d been detected, as she put some distance between herself and her former position.  She breathed a sigh of relief, then found a place to hide and settled down to wait.  There wasn’t long to go, not before all hell broke loose.  She checked her stimulant reserve, preparing for the coming chaos.  She’d pay for using the boost later, when all was said and done, but there was no choice.  She dared not let herself be captured or killed.  If Roland hadn’t figured out what she really was, she would have been standing beside him, watching his back.  Instead, she’d been pressed into service.

He had no choice, she reminded herself.  Roland had been persuasive – and right.  The political situation was a ramshackle nightmare.  The only reason he’d been put in overall command was to ensure the blame didn’t fall on any of the locals, if the coming engagement ended in disaster.  And she knew what was at stake.  The army must not lose the first battle or it will lose the war.

But she knew, even as she rested and waited, that there were no guarantees in war.

Mystic Albion: A Brief Overview

10 Oct

Just some background, perhaps for ‘The Stranded’. What do you think?

Mystic Albion A Brief Overview

The early history of Mystic Albion is shrouded in mystery.  The generally accepted version is that the Old Gods, realising the magic on Earth was slowly draining away (and the lack of it would eventually kill them), opened portals to Mystic Albion and moved there in a single giant exodus.  Mystic Albion became, in effect, the source of the legends of godly realms, from Valhalla and Asgard to Heaven itself.  It is not clear if this is actually true.  The gods – and entities so powerful and different from humans that they might as well be gods, when they’re not being eldritch nightmares – have not spoken to the human settlers in centuries.  It is generally believed they have gone beyond the borders of human understanding (although their places of power in Mystic Albion are still given a wide berth, just in case).

What is known is that, with the magic drain steadily increasing, a young witch called Anne Boleyn made a deal with an entity from Mystic Albion.  (Some say it was the Faerie Queen, others that it was someone or something far darker).  The terms of the deal were relatively simple.  Anne would bear a child who would eventually rule England, in exchange for which portals between the two worlds would be opened (as long as possible) and the magic users of Britannia would emigrate to Mystic Albion, where they would be safe from increasing persecution.  Anne perhaps should have been a little more careful with the precise wording of the deal, as her child was a girl and this led rapidly to the destruction of her reputation and her execution.  (This is often held up as a cautionary tale for young wizards, who are often enthralled with the idea of making deals with such creatures.)  Despite Anne’s death, Elizabeth Tudor came to rule England and the portals opened, in places that came to be known as Gatehouses.  The Tudor authorities quietly ignored the whole affair, at least as long as Elizabeth was on the throne.  Besides, magic was a thing – even if it was less powerful than it had been – and they saw it as better to get rid of it rather than risk pushing the magicians to do something desperate.  Upon Elizabeth’s death, and James I’s assumption of the throne, the Gatehouses started to close.  The last of them, in Yorkshire, closed when James started openly hunting witches. 

(Quite what happened to the magic users who remained behind was never established.)

Mystic Albion is, at least on the surface, divided into seven princedoms, which are (in honour of Elizabeth) ruled by princesses, but their power is actually quite limited.  They are judges, when cases come to trial, and very little else.  Most communities (cities, farming villages) tend to have a great deal of autonomy, as many of them have enough magic to make life difficult for would-be tyrants; others are so close to the borderlines between human and ‘other’ lands that trying to overshadow or occupy the communities might well prove dangerous.  The princesses do control the Knights, who serve as the ultimate law-enforcement arm in the event of a dark magic outbreak, but normally most law and order issues are handled by the local communities. 

The ‘other’ lands are, legally, untouchable regardless of their current status.  People who enter sometimes don’t come out again, or find themselves returning to a time years after their own, or wind up changed by the inhabitants. 

There are other human communities, established by other exiles from Earth.  Contact between them and Mystic Albion is limited, although trade routes are slowly being established.  It isn’t easy.  Most forms of transport are incapable of long ocean crossings, ensuring that contact relies on boats (sailing ships) or flying sorcerers.  Attempts to set up portals between Mystic Albion and Mystic North America (dominated by various tribes, descended from Native Americans) have been unsuccessful.  To all intents and purposes, Mystic Albion is alone in the world.

Socially, most people are regarded as effectively equal.  Magic levels the playing field between males and females, aristocrats and commoners; a person who finds one community unwelcoming, for whatever reason, is free to leave and find somewhere else.  This is easy; flying carpets, broomsticks and even portals and floating carriages are available for all, in exchange for a nominal fee or service. 

Magic is a part of life, to the point it has effectively prevented the development of actual technology.  The average person knows at least a few basic spells; the hyper-powerful wizards are capable of building castles in the clouds, flying around the entire world in hours and many other tricks.  There is a considerable amount of rivalry amongst the stronger magical bloodlines, but – as sorcery requires a certain degree of maturity – the benefits of cooperation tend to convince most sorcerers to at least try to work together.  Some bloodlines arrange marriages for their children, in hopes of breeding stronger and stronger magicians, but the results have been mixed.  No one knows why.

There are, at base, two types of magicians; heads and hearts.  The hearts (performers) tend to be more powerful, at least at first, but they tend to run into problems because they rarely learn the basics and find themselves unable to progress past the point they can no longer compensate for the flaws in their spellwork with magic.  The heads (technicians) tend to be slower to develop, but they master the basics and generally speed past the hearts once the hearts reach their natural stopping point.  (Put simply, a heart can build a castle out of cloud-stuff, but they cannot modify the castle; a head might take longer to bend the cloud-stuff to his will, but can turn it into whatever he wants).  It is generally agreed that a heart can beat a head if they catch him by surprise, but given time to prepare a head can catch a heart very effectively.

The centre of magical research lies in Gatehouse.  Originally, it was the York Gatehouse (and its location corresponds to York on Earth), but now it is just the Gatehouse.  The Gatehouse Portal itself is long gone.  Instead, students with high magical aptitude are tutored in the basics of magic while they work to discover their specific talents and inclinations.  The school takes students of all ages and social classes (insofar as they exist) and it isn’t uncommon to have children sharing classes with adults old enough to be their grandparents.  All forms of magic are studied at Gatehouse, but several types – particularly dark or demonic magics – are studied in theory only.  A student with an inclination towards them would be quietly told to leave, before they could corrupt others. 

Gatehouse is ruled by the Merlin (it’s a title, not a gender-specific name) who is selected by the princesses.  The Merlin is normally a powerful sorcerer, but not amongst the most powerful (as they tend to lose interest in the world or, worse, start playing power games with it).  Below him, there are a multitude of teachers. 


9 Oct

Hi, everyone

It’s a smaller update this time, I’m afraid.  I completed the first draft of The Family Secret, but – as always – it needs a great deal of editing and suchlike before it can be put on sale.  Standing Alone is being edited now, so – as you can see – there’s a bit of a backlog.  Still, it could be worse <grin>.

My planned next project, in a couple of weeks (school holiday and really, I need a rest), is The Prince’s Gambit, a direct sequel to The Prince’s War.

Beyond that, I would like to try something new.  It’s a choice between a pure alternate history story and a semi-urban fantasy.  The former is set in the 1950s, a world where the Third Reich bestrides Europe, Hitler is dying … and, as the succession question suddenly becomes very dangerous, Werner Von Braun, the founder of the Nazi Rocket Program, wants to defect to the West.  (I don’t have a title for this yet, so suggestions welcome).  The latter – provisionally entitled The Stranded – follows a trio of students from a magical world who find themselves trapped in our world, unaware that they’re under threat from shadowy enemies intent on keeping the doors between the two firmly closed. 

Which one would you like to see?


OUT NOW (Updated) – The Cunning Man (A Schooled In Magic Spin-Off)

2 Oct

Schooled in Magic Spin-Off!

Adam of Beneficence wanted to be a magician, and even undertook a magical apprenticeship, but there isn’t a single spark of magic in his entire body.  In desperation, his master arranged for him to study at Heart’s Eye University, a former school of magic that has become a university, a place where magicians and mundanes can work to combine their talents and forge the future together. 

But all is not well at Heart’s Eye.  The magical and mundane apprentices resent and fear each other, the teaching staff is unsure how to shape the university and, outside, powerful forces are gathering to snuff out the future before it can take shape.  As Adam starts his new apprenticeship, and stumbles across a secret that could reshape the world, he finds himself drawn into a deadly plot that could destroy the university …

… And leave Lady Emily’s legacy in flaming ruins.  

Download a FREE SAMPLE, (Or read here, or here, or here because the website is currently down) then purchase from the links here: AmazonBooks2Read.  The novella that was rewritten and expanded into a full novel can be found in Fantastic Schools III