Archive | January, 2022

Out NOW – The Prince’s Gambit (The Empire’s Corps XX)

30 Jan

New Doncaster should have been a success.  It wasn’t.  A deeply-corrupt and embedded ruling class, disenfranchised settlers and embittered indentured workers – slaves in all but name – have poisoned the planet, unleashing the fires of class war and threatening – in the wake of Earthfall – to turn the beautiful planet into hell.  And sinister forces are stirring the pot.  Roland – once Crown Prince of Earth, now a Marine Auxiliary – was charged with building an army to stabilise New Doncaster.  But it was too late.  The rebels struck and the planet fell into civil war.

Roland scored one victory, keeping the rebels from winning in a single blow, but the war is far from over.  Rebel forces have swept over the outlying islands, destroying plantations, capturing infrastructure, liberating slaves while forcing their former owners to flee or die on the remains of their lands.  Now, with both sides preparing for the coming contest, Roland – cut off from the Marine Corps – finds himself charged with leading the government troops, to launch a desperate military gambit to win a war against a rebel force that might have right on its side. And if his gambit fails …

… The entire planet may collapse into chaos.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links here (AmazonBooks2Read), or read the AFTERWORD here. Also, you can can also download a copy of You Pay, We Slay, which includes a short story written by me.

Brief Updates

30 Jan

Hi, everyone

COVID sucks, II (I wrote COVID sucks I in my newsletter).

Two weeks ago, pretty much my entire family caught COVID or something related to it.  My kids had a couple of bad days, then recovered very rapidly; my wife and I found it a lot harder to get better.  COVID left me feeling like I had gone back to the bad old days of chemobrain, without actually having more chemo.  To cut a long story short, I missed a week of work and the following week I only did four days – everything just caught up with me again on Friday morning (which happened when I had chemo too.)  All things considered, I don’t recommend COVID to anyone. 

(Pity you can’t write reviews for diseases – “terrible disease, will not catch again.”  <grin>)

Anyway, I’m hoping to finish the first draft of Endeavour this week and then move to publication ASAP.  Until then, The Prince’s Gambit has been published – I’ll get the formal link and free sample up later – and you can see it here (Amazon, Books2Read).  You can also download a copy of We Pay, You Slay, which includes a short story written by me.  Beyond that … well, we will see ..

I’m still putting together a list of smaller projects for my decade of writing anthology.  No promises, but can you let me know what you would like to see?



OUT NOW – The Family Secret (The Zero Enigma XI)

12 Jan

Kirkhaven Hall has been home to Isabella Rubén ever since she was sent into exile for treason.  It has always been a strange place; isolated, wrapped in dark clouds and ancient magics.  No one really knows what’s hidden there, from eerie ghosts and warlocks to secrets House Rubén not only has kept from the rest of the world, but has itself forgotten.  They thought those secrets would remain buried for eternity.

But now, as Isabella and her fiancé return from their holiday in Shallot, those secrets are starting to slip into the light.  Strange lights have been seen on the mire, ghosts have been walking the halls, ancient artefacts have been discovered and the ground itself, tainted by dark magics, is threatening to give up its dead  And, as Isabella finds herself caught in an ever-growing nightmare, it becomes clear that the disaster is not limited to Kirkhaven …

… And the magic crisis has only just begun.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from Amazon or Books2Read NOW! And follow me HERE.

Snippet – Endeavor (Ark 18)

5 Jan

Prologue: The Sphere, Virus Prime

Racism, Doctor Athena Gaurs told herself, is a mental illness.

It didn’t help.  Her heart began to race as she drifted through the Sphere.  She had spent most of her professional life working with aliens, studying their cultures and technologies in the hopes of promoting interspecies cooperation and harmony, yet the Sphere was just too alien for her mind to process.  It was so huge, built on such a great scale, that she felt like a fly crawling across a cathedral window, something so far beyond the poor creature it couldn’t even begin to comprehend what it was crawling on.  The other alien races humanity had encountered, in nearly a hundred years of contact and conflict, had all been understandable.  Whoever had built the Sphere was not.

She tried to calm herself as she glided onwards.  The Sphere was inert, powerless, and yet it wasn’t.  The xenospecialists had noted and logged everything from strange lights, with no discernible source, to faint flickers of energy and gravitational pulses that came and went so quickly that even the most sensitive equipment in the known galaxy was barely callable of detecting their presence before they were gone.  Athena had read the reports, when she’d been assigned to the project, and she’d had trouble understanding why so many of the exploration team had managed to get lost in the structure.  She knew now.  The interior seemed purposely designed to be confusing.  There were even hints it restructured itself when humans weren’t looking.

And some of us are sure we’re being watched, she thought, grimly.  What if we are?

The thought taunted her.  It had been nearly a year since HMS Lion had stumbled across and Sphere, during the final days of the Virus War.  Since then, a covert project had been mounted to explore the alien artefact and unlock its secrets, a project that – so far – had produced precisely nothing.  Athena had read the reports from the first teams, brimming with excitement and enthusiasm until they’d started their work.  They’d drawn a series of complete blanks.  They didn’t know what material had been used to produce the alien artefact, let alone what it was intended to do.  They didn’t even know why it had remained undetected in the system for so long.  There were even people who wondered if the Sphere hadn’t been detected because it simply hadn’t been there.

A shiver ran down her spine as she drifted into the next chamber.  It was hard, sometimes, to avoid the sensation she was being watched.  They hadn’t found anything to suggest they were, but that was meaningless.  Whoever had built the Sphere was so far ahead of humanity that their surveillance tech, assuming they even relied upon something as primitive as tech, might be completely undetectable.  The human race could produce bugs so small they couldn’t be located without the proper equipment.  Who knew what the Builders could produce?

She frowned, turning slowly to take in the entire chamber.  It was a bare sphere, within the Sphere, the bulkheads utterly unmarred by even the slightest hint of writing.  The bronze material had defied everything humanity had thrown at it, from pens designed to leave marks on everything to laser cutters capable of slicing through a battleship’s hull.  It was maddening to think of all the secrets waiting for discovery and exploitation, if only they could figure out how to unlock them.  And yet, they’d found nothing.  There was a small but growing consensus amongst some of the scientists that there was nothing to find.

This installation was clearly not abandoned in a hurry, she reminded herself, grimly.  They had all the time they needed to strip it bare, taking everything save for the shell itself.

It was possible, she’d been assured.  The Sphere might be nothing more than a hollowed out asteroid, as far as the Builders were concerned.  They might have abandoned it, secure in the knowledge they’d taken everything that could be used to unlock their technology or leave a trail of breadcrumbs to their homeworld.  Athena would have believed it herself – she knew how carefully warship datacores were swept for sensitive information, then rigged for destruction if there was even the slightest chance the warship would fall into enemy hands – if she hadn’t seen so many oddities surrounding the alien structure.  It just didn’t feel dead and cold, abandoned like so many mined-out asteroids.  It felt as if it was watching and waiting as the team probed its innards.

Perhaps its an intelligence test, she thought, as she proceeded into the next chamber.  And we’re failing.

Athena keyed her sensors, taking a reading and comparing it to what she saw.  The results made no sense.  They never did.  Some suggested the Sphere was bigger on the inside, some suggested it was collapsing in on itself … she gritted her teeth and looked at the nearest bulkhead.  Her sensors insisted the walls were closing in.  Her naked eyes told her the bulkheads weren’t moving.  Athena sighed, inwardly.  There was no way to know if the Sphere was spoofing their sensors deliberately or if the structure was just too alien for the sensors to handle.  Athena wasn’t sure, sometimes, if she could handle it.  The Sphere was just too big.

We’ve seen larger structures, she reminded herself.  But none of them were quite so solid.

She shook her head slowly as she made her way onwards, feeling oddly isolated even though the rest of the team was only a radio call away.  They’d been told, at first, never to be alone on the alien structure, but they’d rapidly discovered that the more interesting events only took place when there was only one or two witnesses.  It didn’t help, when they reported their findings back to Earth.  Athena had a feeling, reading between the lines, that there were factions on the homeworld that thought the researchers were seeing things.  There was no shortage of tales of weird sightings in the depths of space, of alien starships and entities that were – somehow – never captured by starship sensors.  It was generally believed most of the stories were made up and yet …

Her radio crackled, once.  Athena keyed her wristcom, feeling a shiver run down her spine.  She’d been told to remain in touch and, if there was a hint she was losing contact with the rest of the team, to back out at once.  The Sphere just wasn’t safe.  She thought she saw something at the corner of her eye, a flicker that was gone when she looked at it.  Her radio crackled again.  There was no reply.  She swore under her breath as she made her way back to her hatch.  Perhaps it was nothing, just a random burst of energy within the alien structure.  Perhaps it was not …

Light flared, behind her.  Athena spun around.  The chamber had come to life, glowing energy flaring through the air.  A wave of panic shot through her.  She was alone and defenceless and utterly unaware of what was happening … she found it hard to believe, deep inside, that a super-advanced race would deliberately seek to harm her, but it was hard to be sure.  How many insects were trodden on by humans, without any malicious intent?  The light grew brighter.  She hoped – prayed – that her recorders were still working.  They were meant to record everything and yet, ever since they’d started exploring the Sphere, there’d been odd gaps in the recordings.  It was suddenly very easy to believe the Sphere was toying with them.

The glow sharpened, the lights becoming something oddly familiar and yet alien … it took her several seconds to realise she was looking at a holographic starchart.  Humanity’s holographic projects always had a faint sense of insubstantiality, a reminder they really were nothing more than illusions.  The alien projections were so sharp, so perfect, it was hard to believe they weren’t real.  She reached forward, despite her training, and felt resistance as her fingers brushed against the holographic star.  Solid-light projections?  They’d always been theoretically possible, but no one had made them work.  Not until now.

And then the hologram just snapped out of existence.

Athena felt a sense of overwhelming loss as darkness crashed down on her.  The starchart was gone, as if it had never been … her radio crackled, her team trying to contact her.  She barely heard them, tears prickling in her eyes as she tried to come to terms with what she’d seen.  Her CO was demanding she report immediately, that she make her way back to the starship, but she couldn’t bring herself to reply.  Would they believe her?  Athena hadn’t believed some of the stories she’d heard, from the first teams to explore the alien structure.  It would be ironic, indeed, if her team refused to believe her.

“I … I think I found something,” she said, checking the wristcom.  The sensors insisted they’d recorded everything.  She hoped, desperately, that they were correct.  “I’m on my way.”

Her heart started to pound, again, as she recalled what she’d seen.  The sensors might not have recorded anything – there was no way to know, not until she got back to the ship – but she had.  There were ways to get memories out of someone, even memories that they didn’t consciously recall.  She could be hypnotised and urged to draw out the starchart and then …

If that was a starchart, it might have shown me their homeworld, she told herself.  We can find them.  And then, we can learn so much …

Prologue II: London, United Kingdom

“They used to say my ancestors couldn’t see the white man’s ships on the horizon, so alien they were to their experience,” Admiral Lady Susan Onarina said.  “I think I understand how they felt.”

She studied the report, feeling unsure of herself.  Training and experience demanded she rebuke the xenospecialists for a decidedly careless approach to exploring the alien structure, although – going by the reports – it was clear they’d had littler choice.  The weirder manifestations never showed themselves to more than two humans and there was only one witness to the alien starchart.  Susan didn’t like the implications.  The Sphere was clearly neither dead or understood.  It might be playing with the human explorers or it might just be letting off random bursts of energy or it might be something in-between.  It was just too alien for anyone to be sure of anything.

“I always had the impression such stories were exaggerated,” Admiral Paul Mason said, as he sipped his tea.  Her old friend, and occasional lover, had been running the top secret research program into the enigmatic aliens since the first traces of their existence had been discovered, back during the war.  “They might not have been capable of building ocean-going ships, but they certainly understood the concept.”

Susan nodded, although she wasn’t so sure.  Humanity had encountered two alien races – three, if one counted the Virus – that possessed more advanced technology, but it hadn’t been that advanced.  The tech had been understandable.  Human scientists had been able to reverse-engineer captured alien technology or, knowing something was possible, simply figure out how it was done and produce their own version.  It had never been easy – and she knew there’d been admirals who’d expected the scientists to simply wave a magic wand and put the new tech into production instantly – but it had been done.  Here, though … the scientists didn’t even know where to begin.  The tech was just too different.

The RAF of the Second World War might not have been able to duplicate a jet fighter of the Troubles, she reflected.  But at least they’d understand the concept of a flying machine.  Here …

She shook her head, slowly.  The Sphere didn’t have any technology, at least as far as the explorers could determine.  It was just an empty shell.  And yet, it was clearly doing something.  Susan had read the reports, each one really little more than empty speculation that read like something out of a science-fantasy novel.  The tech was welded into the bulkheads.  The tech existed in some weird alternate dimension.  There was no tech.  Instead, there was an alien ghost playing games with humans unable to so much as detect, let alone deduce, its presence.  They just didn’t know.

“The starchart does match the local stellar environment,” Mason said, quietly.  “And, if the tramlines are as laid out on the map, we can get a ship to the alien homeworld.”

“If it is their homeworld,” Susan said.  “And if they’re not trying to lure us there …”

The thought made her feel cold.  She was a student of history.  She knew what happened when a primitive race met a more advanced one, even when there was no malice involved.  The primitive race found it hard, almost impossible, to take the shock.  How many human societies had collapsed, falling to pieces in the wake of contact?  The Vesy really hadn’t had an easy time of it, after they’d encountered humanity.  The gulf between the two races was just too wide for them to catch up, at least quickly enough to matter.  Susan had read those reports too.  There was a very real chance the Vesy would lose what remained of their own culture, becoming little more than copies of humanity.  And the hell of it was that copying humanity might be their only chance to survive.

Whoever built the Sphere might not mean to harm us, she thought.  But contact with them might be destructive, all the same.

She sipped her tea, organising her thoughts.  The human race had been spacefaring for nearly two hundred years when it had discovered, to its dismay, that it wasn’t alone in the universe.  The concept of aliens had been far from unknown.  Indeed, it had preceded the first true offworld settlements.  And while there had been a gulf between humans and Tadpoles, the gulf hadn’t been insurmountable.  There had been some culture shock – Susan could hardly deny it, given the number of humans trying to model themselves on the Tadpoles – but not as much as the politicians had feared.  The Tadpoles had not been vastly superior.  But whoever had built the Sphere was different.

Mason cleared his throat.  “What are you going to advise the PM?”

Susan said nothing for a long moment.  She was mildly surprised the government hadn’t asked her to step down, or resign, after the murky end of the war.  She’d already been in office longer than she’d expected.  The government just had too many other problems to worry about her … she wondered, idly, if that was about to change.  What would she advise the PM?  There were risks, very real risks, in trying to make contact and yet, failing to make contact would have other risks.  It was just a matter of time before someone else sent a ship to the alien homeworld themselves.

If it is their homeworld, she thought, numbly.  What happened to them?

It was a worrying thought.  The days when the human race had all of its eggs in one basket were long gone.  Earth had been shipping out millions of colonists yearly, before the war, and the colonisation program was starting to pick up steam again.  A race that had been in space for far longer should have filled up the entire galaxy by now, leaving no room for humanity and its peers.  Where were they?  The researchers speculated they’d drawn back, leaving room for the younger races, but Susan was too cynical to believe it.  She knew from experience that principles often went by the wayside when they demanded sacrifice of any sort.  Maybe they’d run into something even a super-powerful couldn’t handle.

“We need to know what happened to them,” she said.  “And we have to get a handle on their technology before we encounter someone far more advanced than ourselves.”

“And promote British interests,” Mason added, dryly.

“That goes without saying,” Susan said, although she had her doubts.  She knew how Britain would react if one of the other Great Powers suddenly gained access to super-technology and she was entirely sure they’d react the same way.  “I’ll discuss it with the PM, but the final call is a political one.”

She rubbed her forehead.  The war was over and yet … it wasn’t.  Not quite.  The virus’s power had been broken and yet, it was still out there.  It might never be eradicated completely, no matter what they did.  And humanity was too tired and divided to continue the fight.  She had no idea if the plans for a united government would ever be put into practice or not – they were far from popular, now the war in space was over – but it might not be enough to save the day.  Humanity needed to rest, not to find new challenges.

And yet, we have no choice, she thought, tapping her console.  Her aide would set up the meeting with the PM, as soon as possible.  If we don’t go look to see what’s there, who will?

Chapter One: London, United Kingdom

Commander Staci Templeton awoke, drenched in sweat.

For a moment, she was unsure of where she was.  The nightmare had been intense, a bitter reminder of HMS Unicorn’s final moments before she’d rammed the alien brainship, blowing both starships into atoms and giving HMS Lion a chance to escape before it was too late.  It had been a hard battle, and a costly one, but they’d won.  Or had they?  Her nightmare had been so intense, so real, that she honestly wasn’t sure what was real.  She’d seen the virus infecting the ship, the crew turning into monsters before her eyes …

She rubbed her forehead as she sat up in bed.  She’d declined the offer of a bed in the admiralty barracks, or a room at one of London’s many clubs, and chosen a simple bedsit on the outskirts of the city, simply because she wanted to be alone.  Her peers didn’t know what to make of her.  She’d been ordered to abandon ship, to abandon her commanding officer, and yet they judged her for leaving him behind.  One did not abandon one’s comrades, they said, even if one was ordered to do so.  Staci knew she’d feel the same way, if she was in their shoes, although she knew it wouldn’t make a difference.  Captain Mitch Campbell, Staci’s friend and mentor, had gone down with his ship.  All she could have done, if she’d stayed, was add one more name to the final casualty list.

And he told me to go, she thought.  She felt guilty, even though she had been obeying her commander’s orders.  She’d had commanders she hadn’t really respected, men and women who had never inspired loyalty in their subordinates, but Captain Campbell had been a good man, even if he had been fucking a married woman.  I had to do as I was ordered.

The thought hurt as she stared around the cramped room.  She’d spent the last nine months, after her return to Earth, standing in front of a Board of Inquiry and answering their questions … the same questions, time and time again.  It felt like torture, even though she understood the logic.  It was supposed to be hard to maintain a consistent lie if one was constantly asked the same questions, slightly differently phrased every time.  She suspected that wasn’t the real reason.  If the Board had thought she was lying, they had the right – and the duty – to pump her full of truth drugs and ask her questions while the tech monitored her brainwaves to make sure the drugs were working.  No, she was sure they were drawing the inquiry out as long as possible, simply because of the political implications.  Staci snorted at the thought as she clambered out of bed, feeling old despite her relative youth.  If Captain Campbell had kept it in his pants, perhaps his death and his ship’s destruction would have passed unremarked.  Perhaps …

She staggered into the tiny washroom and glared at herself in the mirror.  The face looking back at her didn’t feel like hers.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, a trim yet muscular body … she’d put on a little weight, she noted sourly, because she hadn’t kept herself in shape.  She’d allowed her hair to grow out, when it had dawned on her she wasn’t going to be reassigned to a new ship in a hurry … she ran her hand through her curls, wondering if it was worth getting it cropped short again.  The navy didn’t encourage long hairstyles.  They got in the way when one had to throw on a spacesuit in a tearing hurry.

Her nightmare flickered at the back of her mind as she stepped into the shower, washed herself hurriedly and then clambered out before the water could shut off automatically.  London was still in lockdown, the water – and everything else – rationed to ensure everyone had enough to eat, drink, and wash.  It didn’t bother her that much – the navy rationed water even though there was no shortage of ice asteroids that could be mined – but she’d read endless complaints on the datanet.  The civvies believed the war was over.  Staci wished they were right.  Sure, the virus’s space fleet had been destroyed, but there were still hundreds of infections right across the Human Sphere and beyond. 

They just want it to end, Staci told herself.  And who can blame them?

She flicked the wall-mounted screen on as she returned to the bedroom and started to dress.  The BBC was as bland and boring as ever, talking heads pontificating about politics and the endless debate in the House of Commons over who – if anyone – should succeed Prime Minister Harrison and lead Great Britain into the post-war world.  Staci rolled her eyes as they brought on a series of academics, none of whom had any experience of the real world nor any awareness of just how unworkable their suggestions actually were.  One might as well wave a magic wand, chant some bastardised Latin, and expect it to actually work.  She dismissed the thought as she finished dressing, then forced herself to watch a mindless show about navy life, silently listing the many inaccuracies in the show.  She’d reached fifty-seven when her wristcom bleeped, informing her she had an appointment with the First Space Lord in two hours.  She sighed as she stood, keying her wristcom to call a taxi.  The Board of Inquiry had probably reached its decision.

And that could be either good or bad, she thought.  She’d had the feeling the verdict was already done and dusted, before the inquiry actually started, but that hadn’t stopped the assembled officers from giving her a very hard time.  Bastards.  They’d had plenty of time to review the records well before she’d returned to Earth.  They had no real cause to give her a dishonourable discharge, or even a black mark in her file.  If the Admiral herself is speaking to me …

She put the thought out of her mind as she checked she had her wristcom and pistol, then made her way downstairs.  The bedsit appeared empty, no one manning the desk in the tiny lobby.  She knew it was an illusion.  The people who rented rooms – often for little more than an hour or two – wanted privacy, without any real social interaction.  Everything was electronic.  There was no such thing as room service and she wouldn’t have trusted it if there had.  The rooms were so unclean she dreaded to think what might come out of their kitchens.

The taxi was waiting for her.  She climbed inside and forced herself to relax as the driver drove into London, passing through a handful of military and police checkpoints before finally reaching Whitehall.  There were fewer with every passing month, she noted, although it hadn’t stopped the civvies complaining.  Staci understood their point.  She was used to passing through endless checkpoints, when making her way from one posting to another, but it was irritating to have to show her papers time and time again.  And yet, there was no choice.  A single zombie could cause no end of havoc, if he got into Central London without being detected.  Staci had seen the statistics.  Better to endure some minor inconvenience than get infected and killed.

Perhaps on the streets, perhaps in a hospital bed, she thought, coldly.  There were ways to purge the virus from a host’s body, but they were sometimes fatal.  The civilians don’t understand how hard it is, even with modern medicine, to cure the infection.

She put the thought out of her mind as the taxi stopped outside the Admiralty Building to let her disembark.  A unformed aide saluted, then led her down a series of corridors – and two more checkpoints – into an antechamber.  Staci had expected to be told to wait, to cool her heels to show her who was really in charge, but instead she was shown straight into the admiral’s office.  She stood to attention and saluted.  Admiral Lady Susan Onarina was one of the few flag officers who’d enjoyed Captain Campbell’s unstinting respect.  Her record spoke for itself.

“Commander,” Lady Susan said.  “Thank you for coming.  Tea?  Coffee?”

Staci relaxed, slightly.  The offer of a drink was a clear sign she wasn’t in real trouble, although she wasn’t out of the woods yet.  The admirals would be looking for someone to blame for Unicorn’s destruction and her commanding officer was dead, his body nothing more than atoms orbiting an alien star.  Staci doubted they could make her the scapegoat, but they could make life very hard for her if they decided she’d been technically in command of the frigate during its final moments.  She knew officers who’d landed in hot water because they’d been technically in command, but never been aware they were the senior survivor until it was too late.

The aide brought her a cup of tea, then withdrew silently.  Staci studied the admiral thoughtfully, waiting for her to speak.  Lady Susan was a dark-skinned woman, her dark hair slowly shading to grey.  Staci felt a twinge of sympathy.  Lady Susan had been a starship commander, but now she was flying a desk in London, the uniformed head of the Royal Navy who was permanently accountable to politicians who knew little about how the navy really worked.  It couldn’t be an easy position, no matter the honours regularly poured upon the incumbent.  Staci wanted to climb the ladder, but perhaps not that high.

“The Board of Inquiry has finished its deliberations,” Lady Susan informed her.  “They have ruled that you are personally blameless in the loss of HMS Unicorn and, in fact, following the orders you were given by your CO was the right course of action.  The tactical analysts will be debating the precise course of the final battle for many years to come, I fear, but their conclusions will not affect you personally.  Captain Campbell’s final report on you, filed before he departed on his final mission, included a recommendation for you to be promoted to captain as soon as possible and given your own ship.  I have chosen to accept his recommendation.”

Staci’s breath caught in her throat.  She’d known she was personally blameless, but … her career might have suffered, just for spending so much of the last couple of years as Captain Campbell’s XO.  The man had had powerful enemies.  It would have been easy for one of them to insist his recommendations were worthless, that Staci might even have picked up bad habits from her former CO.  Who knew?  Some senior officers, no longer in touch with the realities of naval life, became political creatures, fighting bitter bureaucratic wars rather than concentrating on what was really important.  And they might have casually destroyed her career in passing.

The admiral smiled.  “You are being given HMS Endeavour,” she added.  “And we have a very specific mission for you.”

Staci blinked.  Endeavour?  A deep-space survey ship, if she remembered correctly.  Her class had never been particularly popular, not when they were intended to serve as both military and civilian vessels.  The Royal Navy had done its best to keep survey ships and crews isolated from the rest of the fleet, although – with an increasing need to find newer tramlines – it was common for prospective admirals to serve a term on a survey ship before they were promoted.  And she was being given a survey ship?  She wasn’t sure if it was a sign the admirals thought she’d join them one day or a cunning plan to get her out of their hair for several years.  Before the war, it had been common for survey ships to spend years away from home.

“I … thank you,” she managed.  A survey ship … it would be something different.  And yet, she was sure there were more qualified officers.  She’d spent most of her career on frigates and gunboats, not capital ships.  “What do you want me to do?”

Lady Susan smiled again, perhaps recognising the unspoken question.  “Tell me … did you hear anything about the alien artefact discovered at Virus Prime?”

“Yes, My Lady.”  Staci had no trouble recalling the details.  “I was told it would be studied properly after the war.”

“Quite.”  Lady Susan leaned forward, slightly.  “Unfortunately, too many people on both Lion and Unicorn were aware of the artefact’s discovery.  They certainly heard rumours, rumours that – as always – grew increasingly wild as they moved from mouth to mouth.  We were careful, in line with protocols devised after the first hint there was an ancient and very powerful race out there, to try to limit word spreading from place to place, but we may have been unsuccessful.  We don’t know how many unfriendly powers may have heard the stories.”

Staci frowned.  “If the stories are that wild, Admiral, surely they won’t be believed.”

“We hope not, yet we don’t know,” Lady Susan said.  “You can read the reports later – I’ve had you cleared for them – but right now, all you need to know is that an alien starchart was discovered within the artefact under odd and slightly unclear circumstances.  If it is accurate, we may know where to find the alien homeworld.  Your mission is to travel to the alien homeworld and, if possible, attempt to make contact.  Your orders are a little vague, I’m afraid, because we don’t know what you’ll find.  You’ll have considerable freedom to proceed as you see fit.”

Because I’ll be travelling well outside the flicker network, Staci thought.  I’ll have a true independent command.

She schooled her face into impassivity.  It was hard not to feel a twinge of excitement, mingled with unease and fear.  She knew the basic parameters of interstellar combat, as laid down by the known spacefaring races.  There were few true surprises.  But unknown tech, from an unknown race … who knew what it could do?  Who knew what certainties would vanish, as if they’d never been, in the face of technology she didn’t have the slightest idea was even possible?  Her imagination provided quite a few possible answers.  Who knew what was so far beyond her imagination that it would blindside her completely, if it was deployed against her?

“We don’t know much of anything about the Builders,” Lady Susan said.  “We know they were watching the virus, Captain, and we know they had some means of keeping it in check, preventing it from trying to overwhelm their installations.  We know they left a large artefact behind, something we cannot even begin to understand.  Beyond that, all we really have is speculation.  Did they create the virus?  Did they let it go or … or did it break free of their control?  Or … or what?  We don’t know.  We dare not assume their motives are friendly.”

“If they are unfriendly,” Staci pointed out, “we may be … screwed.”

“They may do us a great deal of harm, just by existing,” Lady Susan said.  “Our existence did the Vesy no favours, when they finally realised just how advanced we were.  There have been hundreds of complications, from them trying to discard their old ways and embracing ours to demands for newer and better weapons, medical technology and everything else we can offer them.  In a sense, their society may have hit a brick wall and stopped dead, the moment the Russians landed on their world.  They are steadily losing the ability to innovate for themselves – and why should they, why should they even try, when we already have all the answers?  The same could happen to us.  It has happened, in the past.”

“Not on such a big scale,” Staci said.

“No,” Lady Susan agreed.  “But contact between two very unequal societies has always been painful, even when there is no hostile intent.  We know a great deal about how the universe works, and we were capable of using what we knew to catch up with the first aliens we encountered.  But what will happen to us when the gulf is so wide as to beyond all hope of jumping across, before it is too late?  That’s another reason for sending you out alone, Captain.  If you encounter something beyond our ability to accept, word will not spread beyond the handful of people already involved in the project.”

“It seems unlikely,” Staci said.

“We don’t know,” Lady Susan said.  “What if we encounter an alien race so advanced they just need to snap their fingers to do anything?  What if we encounter a race of pure telepaths, who can read our thoughts effortlessly?  What happens if they know there’s life after death, or think their religion is the one true faith, or something – anything – that will disrupt our society and damage it beyond all hope of repair?  We have to plan for the worst, without even being sure our thinking can encompass the worst.”

“I see your problem,” Staci said.  Her stomach churned.  “How do we know they’re not already watching us?”

“We don’t,” Lady Susan said, flatly.  “And because we know nothing about them, we don’t know what they’ll find objectionable.  Not yet.”

Staci nodded, grimly.  The idea of being watched by alien minds was unpleasant, even though she’d spent most of her life in the navy, where there was no such thing as privacy.  It was rare for a pervert to take advantage of it and, if one did, she knew how to deal with it.  But watching aliens?  She hoped they were just being paranoid.  They might never know for sure.

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

“I’m sure of it,” Lady Susan said, passing Staci a datachip.  “Your orders.  A shuttle flight has already been organised to get you to your new command.  Once you assume command, prepare for departure.  I want you ready to depart by the time the ambassadorial and xenospecialist staffs arrive.”

“Understood,” Staci said.  She felt a thrill of excitement, even if they were plunging into the unknown.  “We’ll be ready.”

Fantastic Schools 5 and Fantastic School Hols – Call For Submissions

3 Jan

Fantastic Schools 5 and Fantastic School Hols – Call For Submissions

Wisecraft Publications is putting out a call for submissions for the next pair of Fantastic Schools anthologies.  We are looking for stories (3000-12000 words, unless by prior arrangement) set in magical schools, or related in some way to the theme of magical education.  If you are interested, please read the guidelines below and then drop us an email with your proposal.  All profits shared equally.  Please also forward this email to anyone you think might be interested.

Check out the first volumes here.


Fantastic Schools V.5

We are looking for generalist stories set within a magical educational environment.  They can be of any sort, including sporty, bully-gets-theirs, newbie wins respect, dark lord gets beaten by students, etc.  We prefer reasonably stand alone stories, but feel free to write them in your own worlds; we invite writers to include details that might draw new readers to their stories.

Fantastic School Hols

What do students do on those long school holidays?  Work experience?  Private tutoring?  Visit each other’s homes … whatever else … as long as it touches on magical education in some way.  We prefer reasonably stand alone stories, but feel free to write them in your own worlds; we invite writers to include details that might draw new readers to their stories.


We are looking for submissions of stories dealing with any aspect of life at a magical school and/or magical education. School life, extracurricular activities, teachers’ trials, life as a magical custodian—this is your chance to explore beyond what has appeared in your favourite magical school, be it Hogwarts, Roke, Whitehall, or more.

The Fantastic Schools anthology is intended for a YA and general audience. Stories do not need to be directed at a YA audience, but story content should be appropriate for both teen and adult readers.

Magic schools must be original to the author or used with the author’s express permission, which must be provided in writing beforehand. No unauthorized fan fiction will be accepted.

Please query with your story idea, so to avoid too many stories on the same exact topic.

Word count: 3000 to 12,000 (for longer stories, inquire.)

Payment: Authors will receive equal shares of 55%  of profits.

Please send queries and questions to:

Note: Query acceptance does not guarantee a place in the anthology.