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Musings on Kavanaugh

14 Oct

I’ve got a cold which is making it hard to concentrate on anything, so – in a bid to jumpstart my writing – I decided to write a political post instead. I’ve done my best to be even-handed, but – under the circumstances – a great many people are going to disagree with me. Please keep the angry objections to a dull roar <grin>.

If I am forced to be honest, I had simply never heard of Brett Kavanaugh until he was nominated by Donald Trump to the US Supreme Court. He seemed, as far as I could tell, to be reasonably qualified for the post. I certainly didn’t see any major reason to disqualify him from consideration. Given the howling and screeching about the prospect of Trump nominating someone entirely unsuitable to the role, Kavanaugh was almost a relief.

And then the accusations started.

The thing that sticks in my craw – the thing that makes the accusations impossible to believe – is that they were held back until it was impossible to investigate them properly. There was ample opportunity for Kavanaugh to be questioned – under oath – about possible dark secrets in his past, but Dianne Feinstein declined to bring the accusations forward until the very last minute. As a stroke against a nominee who was almost guaranteed to be confirmed, it was a political masterstroke; as a piece of political dirty-dealing, it was unmatched. Feinstein, with a single accusation, created an impossible problem for the GOP. If they supported and confirmed Kavanaugh, they would pay for it in the next set of elections; if they dumped Kavanaugh like a hot rock, they would also pay for it in the next elections.

It did not seem to occur to Feinstein that her actions are likely to have thoroughly unpleasant consequences.

Those of us who believe in the Rule of Law understand that we must apply a strict standard of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The charges levelled against Kavanaugh by Christine Ford are serious, yet the accusation is not proof of guilt. Kavanaugh does not (did not) have to prove his innocence; Ford and his other accusers (and whoever happened to be ordered to investigate the matter) have to prove his guilt. This is an impossible task. Quite apart from the question marks raised by Ford’s story repeatedly changing, and the lack of witnesses to her tale, the time between the alleged sexual assault and Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings is so great that it is literally impossible to produce enough evidence to satisfy a judge and jury. If Ford was indeed assaulted, by Kavanaugh or anyone else, she should have gone straight to the police. Now, it is impossible to prove anything. No responsible prosecutor would take the case. And no responsible politician would turn such a weak accusation into a weapon. It says a great deal about Feinstein that she chose to do just that.

In the short term, Kavanaugh’s enemies had two lines of attack. On one hand, Kavanaugh was a sexual predator (the absence of proof did not deter them) and therefore should not be confirmed; on the other, Kavanaugh’s openly-displayed anger was proof that he lacked the temperament to sit on the Supreme Court. Open-minded people, devoted to the Rule of Law, recoiled in disgust. There was, on one hand, an understanding that Kavanaugh had not been proven guilty, that he could not be proven guilty; on the other hand, there was an understanding that Kavanaugh had every right to be angry. And, on the gripping hand, there was an understanding that Kavanaugh was being held to an impossible standard. The suggestions that Kavanaugh drank to excess during his student days is meaningless to his conduct today. Who could possibly survive having events from thirty years ago dragged up and used in evidence against them?

I do not know if Ford was genuinely assaulted. I do know that none of the charges levelled against Kavanaugh are particularly creditable. There is simply no proof.

Kavanaugh’s supporters, as I said above, were placed in an interesting position. They simply could not win – it seemed. If evidence actually surfaced that Kavanaugh was guilty, they would be branded guilty by association. (The simple fact that they had chosen to support Kavanaugh based on what they knew at the time would not, of course, be mentioned.) But they had to win. They had to show Feinstein and her ilk that such tactics would not work, that they would rebound badly on the Democrats. Let’s be honest here. Donald Trump was elected, as I have noted before, at least in part because the GOP base was sick of watching their elected representatives surrender whenever they were accused of everything from racism to sexism. A failure to support Kavanaugh meant incurring the anger of the GOP base, which would be disastrous. They therefore had to confirm Kavanaugh.

Some people – Jordan Peterson, most notably – suggested that Kavanaugh should be confirmed, then resign. This suggestion brought scorn from a great many quarters, as he noted himself, but there was some merit to it. An understandably embittered Kavanaugh might put the chance to hurt the Democrats ahead of actual justice, if asked to rule on one of their Sacred Cows. I certainly wouldn’t care to have Kavanaugh as my judge, were I Dianne Feinstein! There is no way he could be considered impartial in such circumstances. However, however many advantages it would bring, the resignation would certainly be seen as an admission of guilt. Kavanaugh has to sit on the bench if the GOP base was to be satisfied. Anything less would be considered a betrayal.

And yet, Kavanaugh’s reputation will be forever overshadowed by a charge that – as far as anyone can tell – is completely unjustified.

But it won’t stop there. The long-term consequences will be unpleasant.

One of the problems, as many commenters have pointed out, is that #METOO has become politicized. Worse, it has been turned into a weapon against the GOP and, by and large, the GOP alone. The charges against Bill Clinton and Keith Ellison are far more creditable than anything levelled at Kavanaugh, yet the Democrats – by and large – ignore them. If Kavanaugh can face rumination because of an unproven decades-old charge, why not Clinton and Ellison? Why should anyone take one set of allegations seriously when others have simply been ignored? The media spent more time having hysterics over Kavanaugh than investigating more serious complaints.

More seriously, it should be noted, is the development of a conceptual superweapon – and an entirely understandable response.

A conceptual superweapon, according to an article I read a few months ago (which seems to have disappeared from the web), is a social attitude that can be used against you. To use a simple example, pretend you’re a Muslim who hears someone say ‘all Muslims are terrorists.’ This statement will anger you – and you will not want to leave it unchallenged, because you are a Muslim. If all Muslims are terrorists, then you’re a terrorist too. And someone will use this against you.

This is why everyone from PETA to CAIR spends so much time defending the undefendable. They dare not allow a conceptual superweapon to be built against them.

This creates obvious problems for any group. If they cannot concede that some of their people are bad apples, because their enemies will use the suggestion that some of their people are bad apples to imply that all of their people are bad apples. This is perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, this creates a further problem. The mere act of defending the undefendable is, in itself, undefendable. By failing to strike a balance between the need to remove the bad apples and, at the same time, defending the entire group, the entire group is condemned. The rise of identity politics has only made that worse.

The Left built a conceptual superweapon against the Right when it ensured that any charges of racism (and sexism, etc) were effectively career-ending. This worked, at least in part, because the Right had fewer qualms about kicking out unsuitable people (while the Left firmly believed that ‘there are no enemies to the Left.’) However, the Left was unwilling to let the matter go. Having found a weapon that constantly weakened the GOP, they used it again and again. And the GOP allowed itself, like Charlie Brown, to be lured into kicking that football again and again, only to have it snatched away by Lucy.

This also provoked an angry and embittered reaction from the Right. The GOP base was so desperate for a leader – and so divorced from the GOP elite, which they saw as cowards – that they threw themselves behind Donald Trump. And why should they not?

More significantly, they started to automatically dismiss charges of racism and other such issues. If one charge of racism was clearly spurious, then all charges of racism were clearly spurious. (Etc, etc.) They saw that charges of racism were being used against them, so they learnt to dismiss them. Worse, they became aware of political dirty tricks – and learnt to dismiss them too. Trump steamrollered over charges that would wreck a more conventional political campaign because his backers had heard them so many times before that they simply rolled their eyes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you happen to believe that Trump is a fascist, and you’re looking for someone to blame for his election, look at all the idiots who cried wolf …

The Kavanaugh Affair has created another set of conceptual superweapons and counter-superweapons. On one hand, charges against candidates for important posts will simply not be believed; on the other, given how many politicians have engaged in improper behaviour, it is quite likely that a genuine sex offender will slip into high office. On one hand, Kavanaugh will not be considered legitimate by a goodly portion of the country; on the other, how many other potential candidates – decent candidates – will look at what happened to Kavanaugh and decide they don’t want to be nominated after all? On one hand, further charges – against anyone – will be ignored; on the other, people will simply stop believing them. Real victims will suffer because Feinstein has created a climate where believing victims is no longer seen as a sensible course of action.

I’ve seen people online suggesting that the Pence Rule – never be alone with a woman who isn’t related to you – is the wave of the future. They may well be right. It would be unfortunate indeed if women were denied everything from mentoring to promotion because men were unwilling to be alone with them – and how can you build up a proper mentoring relationship if you cannot be alone with your mentor? How can you form a rapport with your boss if he’s unwilling to talk to you, for fear that he’ll say something that you’ll take out of context and use against him? It does not matter, as Kavanaugh found out, that criminal charges will never be filed. The mere accusation is enough to ruin lives.

And this brings us back to dirty tricks. The worst impact of the Kavanaugh Affair, for both Democrats and Republicans, is that it has destroyed any faith in the other side. To Republicans, Democrats set out to smear and ruin an innocent man in hopes of seeking partisan political advantage; to Democrats, Republicans gleefully trampled on women and elected a sexual predator to the Supreme Court. This follows a trend I have noted before, but this time there doesn’t seem to have been any smoke, let alone fire. If one party dares not give up power, as Tom Kratman put it, for fear of what the other side will do to them, what does that mean for the United States?

Feinstein handled the whole situation appallingly badly, so badly that I am inclined to agree with the people who said she knew the charges were baseless (or at least impossible to prove) all along. If she’d brought the matter forward as soon as she heard of it, she could have ensured that it was settled (one way or the other) before the final vote.) Or she could have had it investigated herself, found Ford to be lacking in credibility and simply ignored the whole affair. Instead, she created a political nightmare that cannot fail to have long-term repercussions for the United States.

I cannot help thinking that the repercussions will last long after Brett Kavanaugh is gone.

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Slightly Better Updates

9 Oct

Hi, everyone

The good news (well, the first piece of good news) is that I had the second set of treatments last Friday and, so far, no serious ill-effects have materialised. I’ve therefore been able to return to writing, with the aim of completing Para Bellum before the third set of treatments on the 26th. I don’t have a due date yet because A) I might not meet that deadline and B) the editing will have to be more intensive because I had to leave the project for six weeks. I can handle leaving a project for a week, although I prefer to avoid it, but six weeks is a bit much.

The next bit of good news is that I managed to do the first set of edits for The Broken Throne; hopefully, I will get the second set of edits done within a week or two and it can be slated for publication ASAP.

I’m not sure what I want to do next. Should I go for The Alchemist’s Apprentice, which is Zero 5, or Family Magic, which is the homeschooled magic kids idea? What do you want?

Chris

Updates–And Godpower Notes

1 Oct

Hi, everyone

Things have been a little better over the past few days – the side effects have started to clear up, allowing me to actually get some work done. I’ve sketched out a set of background notes for a universe that grew out of a discussion with Leo Champion – see below – and I’ve started to edit The Broken Throne. It’s an extensive edit because the manuscript was sent to both editors while I was in hospital, but I am fairly confident of finishing it before Friday. If things go well on Friday, I hope to return to Para Bellum on Monday.

Thank you – once again – to everyone who used the cookie jar to send donations. They will be put to good use.

Let me know what you think of the background, please.

The World of Godpower

For generations – the Age of Ignorance – the natives of Rhyamdine have been blessed and cursed with Godspeakers, men and women who briefly wielded the power of God to work miracles. The Godspeakers showed their powers, altering the course of history, then faded back into obscurity as the power left them. God, it seemed, rarely shared his gifts for long, even with the most faithful. (Indeed, heretics questioned if the Godspeakers were really drawing their power from God; they argued, sometimes quite convincingly, that the Godspeakers had merely found a way to tap into a supernatural power source.)

And yet, it could not be denied that miracles happened. The blind could be made to see, the sick could be healed, the crippled could walk again … indeed, there were even cases of the dead being resurrected by the Godspeakers. A handful even gained the power – very briefly -to alter the course of wars, raining fire and blood on the enemy army. Very few dared to stand against a Godspeaker. Did he not have God on his side?

And yet, Godspeakers were relatively rare … and when they came into being, they never held the power for long.

This changed with the advent of the First Speaker, a Godspeaker who seemingly never lost the power. He was born during an age of conflict, yet was regarded – even by his enemies – as a singularly pious man. His Godpower was strong enough for him to take control of his hometown, build an army – the first Army of God – and start a crusade against the warring kingdoms. The kings, originally unimpressed despite his power, soon found out that they had underestimated him. Unlike his predecessors, the First Speaker never lost the power. Worse, his disciples – the Sinless – were wielding Godpower for themselves. They led the Army of God as it struck out in all directions, steadily bringing the kings to heel. It was not long before most of the continent fell under the First Speaker’s control.

Previous Godspeakers had rarely held the power long enough to make lasting change. The First Speaker could – and did. Shunning the urge to take control directly, he supported kings and princes who were prepared to rule justly and live in peace with their neighbours. It rapidly became a golden age as laws – religious laws – were codified and enforced. Those who might have resented the loss of power rapidly came to fear the people’s devotion to the First Speaker. The clerics who had taken over the schools – and established a range of monasteries and nunneries across the land – had done their work well. The obvious benefits of the peace ensured that even the ungodly had reason to support the First Speaker.

Precisely what happened to the First Speaker is not recorded (official dogma says that he was the first person to be taken into God’s arms without dying). Anyone who might have hoped that his death would weaken the new empire was rapidly disappointed. The Sinless hastily elected a new speaker – the Second Speaker – who proved himself able to wield Godpower without his mentor (although to a far lesser degree). Despite the lack of raw power, a combination of raw ambition and sheer talent allowed the Second Speaker to put the empire on a more formal footing. The Church, led by the Sinless, became a supranational organisation that would arbitrate between the kings and princes, allowing it to maintain a balance of power. It also maintained the schools – and provided clerics for the kingdoms – that ensured the local population remained faithful. As it also collected a considerable amount of tribute, the Church was also wealthy enough to – if necessary – raise an army or bribe kings who might otherwise be reluctant to follow orders. The city of Speaker’s Rest was built from scratch to hold the Church’s senior officials and bureaucracy.

The key to the Church’s power, however, was the Godly Chain. The First Speaker had discovered (or been taught) how to open a link between a Godspeaker and a prospective disciple. If the disciple was properly prepared – purified, in the Church’s lexicon – the link would open and the disciple would be able to wield Godpower in his own right. Curiously, the disciple was only able to wield half the power of his mentor – and anyone he linked to would only have a quarter of the original mentor’s power – but the Church has steadily discouraged inquiry into the matter. Instead, it was merely relieved to have more Sinless who could be dispatched to serve the Church across the empire. (There are non-Sinless within the Church, as it would be impossible to operate a vast bureaucracy without them, but every senior post – without exception – is held by a Sinless, who outranks every non-Sinless he may encounter.)

At the top of the Church’s hierarchy is the Council of Sinless, headed by the [Number] Speaker. The Speakers give up their names when they are elected, as it is presumed they now speak for God; they are simply referred to by title. Technically, the [Number] Speaker is an absolute ruler; in practice, he takes advice from the Council of Sinless before making his pronouncements and decisions. Each councillor rules a Canton, ranging from the Canton of Holy Words (education) to the Canton of Justice (law and order) and the Canton of Inquisition (anti-heresy). Although they are all Sinless, there is a constant battle for resources amongst the Cantons and it isn’t unknown for their rivalry to have a unfortunate effect on the Church’s ability to maintain order. The Canton of Sisterhood, the sole female Canton within the Church, is the only exception. Practically speaking, they are a separate organisation in their own right.

Below the Council, there is a strict hierarchy amongst the Sinless. Archbishops have responsibility for entire kingdoms; they are appointed by the council, something that has led to tensions between the council and the kings they rule. Bishops have responsibility for either cities or monasteries; clerics have responsibility for smaller towns. Monks and deacons assist their masters, but are rarely Sinless themselves. (That said, there are a handful of low-ranking Sinless who have steadily refused higher rank.) The Sisterhood has its own hierarchy – Daughter, Mother, Grandmother, Mother Superior – and, while the sisters are technically outranked by their male counterparts, it is generally agreed that they don’t take orders from them.

Each member of the Church is expected to follow a strict regime. Their lives are very spartan, at least at first; they are expected to eat simple food, sleep as little as possible and have no sexual contact with the opposite sex. Church dogma states that the Sinless are incapable of breaking the rules; non-Sinless who are caught breaking the rules are generally flogged and then expected from the Church. (Oddly, the Church is quite tolerant of a non-Sinless marrying, although it ensures they have no further hope of advancing.)

Outside the Church – and the castles and manors of the nobility – the Church’s hand is quite light, but omnipresent. A marriage cannot be duly solemnised without a priest – ideally, one of the Sinless; a dead man cannot be buried without the last rites being spoken over his corpse. Every man is expected to attend prayers at least once a week; women are expected to pray at home, except during religious holidays, where they are permitted to attend public prayers and take part in the celebrations afterwards. Locals who can afford it are also expected to make donations to the Church – although, it should be noted, the Church has an extensive charity program to assist the less fortunate.

Upon claiming a vocation, a prospective churchman (generally upon reaching the age of twelve) will present himself at his local monastery. (A prospective sister will visit the nearest nunnery.) The local priest will interview the lad, then inform him that he will spend the next year performing tasks of mindless drudgery. If the candidate remains within the monastery for a year – he is free to leave at any time, having discovered that he doesn’t have a vocation after all – he will either be sent to a seminary or dispatched to Speaker’s Rest, where he will enter a far harsher period of his life. Church dogma and writings – the First Speaker’s Words, the Commentaries on Faith, The Nature of Sin and The Essence of Godpower – will be hammered into his head, along with prayers and vast numbers of precedents for churchly action. If he qualifies, a senior official will attempt to induct him into the Sinless; if the induction is unsuccessful, the candidate will be encouraged to meditate on his sins and confess them to his tutors. Small sins may be punished by the tutors; serious sins may result in immediate expulsion. (The Church believes that if you pay for your sins, you rise above them.) A candidate who fails induction three times will be expelled, on the assumption that he is corrupt.

The Church dwells quite heavily on corruption, which it deems a grave threat to the moral and spiritual realm. Corruption is two-fold, the willingness to sin and the willingness to preach heretical teachings. In the case of the former, the corrupt is either unaware that he is committing a sin or unwilling to confess; it is not so much that the corrupt has done something wrong, but that they do not know (or admit) that they’ve done something wrong. A man who batters his wife to death in a fit of rage might be forgiven by the Church; a man who cold-bloodedly plots his wife’s death would not be forgiven. Worse, someone who followed a heretic would be sinning against God himself. The Canton of Inquisition is charged with hunting down heretics and executing them. It also censors publications that touch on matters the Church would prefer left firmly alone.

***

Despite the two thousand years between the First Speaker and the present, Rhyamdine has developed far slower than Earth. This is indirectly the Church’s fault as it has, by and large, proven quite successful in preventing conflict amongst the various kingdoms. The handful of skirmishes have not spurred technological development in quite the same manner that open warfare did on Earth, although there is constant pressure to develop better ways of farming, metalworking and suchlike. Gunpowder exists, but serves as a mining tool rather than a weapon (although the military applications have not gone unnoticed.) Contact with two extra-continental empires has introduced quite a few new ideas to the continent. The Church has considered a crusade against one or both of the empires, but has been stymied by a lack of enthusiasm amongst the temporal powers.

It would be wrong to think of the continent as being trapped in stasis. The combination of kingdoms, princely states and city-states has encouraged a surprising amount of social mobility, with ambitious commoners picking up sticks and heading to the cities. (The nobility is divided on the issue, with some seeing the cities as safely valves (peasant revolts are always merciless) and others seeing their human capital disappearing into the teeming mass.) The Church itself isn’t sure how to treat the cities; on one hand, the Church granted their independence and doesn’t want to go back on its word, but on the others the cities are havens for freethinkers and heretics. That said, the number of such undesirables is relatively low, as the Church still has a great deal of influence.

That said, the majority of the population still lives in towns, villages and farms.

The kingdoms are ruled by kings, who enjoy the support of the Church as long as they follow orders (and accept the Church’s primacy in religious matters). The princely states are a little more complicated – the ruler is often elected from and by the local nobility – while the cities are experimenting with various different forms of government. The Church is not amused, but does nothing as long as its primacy is acknowledged.

***

The Church has ruled, indirectly, for nearly two thousand years. But cracks are beginning to appear in the edifice. The slow advance of technology has presented the Church with new problems, problems it has failed to solve. The failure to ban the printing press, for example, has kicked off a whole new range of problems, ranging from people openly questioning the social order to heretics propagating their beliefs to far greater audience than ever before. Trade with countries outside the Church’s empire has upset the balance of power, discontented noblemen (upset because the Church ruled against them) have been looking for ways to subvert the Church or provide quiet support to its rivals. They understand that not even the Sinless are immune to quiet bribery or subtle manipulation.

Worst of all, however, are reports that the Godpower is failing. Sinless who should have been able to work miracles have reported that the power has left them. The Church has been trying to cover it up, while it works frantically to find a solution, but the Council of Sinless knows it’s just a matter of time before the news leaks out. And, with reports of heretics wielding Godpower of their own, who knows what will happen next?

[Unknown to the Church, it’s dogma regarding Godpower is only half-right. Godpower is a reserve of power that can be tapped into, assuming that the would-be Godspeaker is pure enough to handle it. A selfish man would rapidly be destroyed by his own mind, if he was able to tap into Godpower in the first place. The First Speaker was autistic, allowing him greater understanding and control of Godpower than any of his predecessors. The Godly Chain allows less pure minds access to some of the power, ensuring that they aren’t likely to accidentally destroy themselves.

However, the Godly Chain is a chain. If someone within the chain becomes corrupt – and thus unable to wield Godpower – everyone below the corrupt man loses access to the power too. (For example, if Bob inducts John and Sarah, and then succumbs to corruption, John and Sarah will lose their powers too … as will everyone they have inducted.) The Church hasn’t realised – yet – that this is a problem because most of the Sinless, particularly the ones in high office, are rarely called upon to demonstrate their command of Godpower.

This does not, of course, stop heretics from accessing Godpower like the Godspeakers of old.

The exact nature of Godpower is not clear, intentionally so. Is it truly an aspect of God, with the First Speaker a Prophet? Or is it nothing more than a reserve of immense power, with the First Speaker nothing more than a man who set out to do good and succeeded. Like several other religions I could mention, the Church’s empire – at least at the start – was so much better than what had gone before that most people were delighted. It took time for disillusionment to sink in.]

A Very Bad Month

25 Sep

Hi everyone

The short version of the story is that I was diagnosed with aggressive lymphoma after going for a private CT/MRI scan. The doctors prescribed a six-month R-CHOP treatment, thinking that I could go into hospital for each session and then go straight home. It didn’t work out that way. I collapsed during a chest x-ray, revealing the presence of a nasty chest infection as well as the lymphoma …

… Which meant I went straight into hospital for nearly a month, hence the lack of any updates or chapters.

I’ve got out of hospital now, but I’m feeling wretched. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to work, although I obviously want to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

I’d like to say a big thank you to all the people who emailed or PMed me, or who sent gifts and donations. I’ll try to answer each of those messages over the next few days, but right now I barely have the energy to do anything (a problem made worse by nasty side effects). But I’ll do my best.

Chris

Snippet–Para Bellum

20 Aug

Prologue I

From: Admiral Kathy Lauder, UK BIOPREP

To: Admiral Sir John Naiser, First Space Lord

Classification: Top Secret, Eyes-Only FSL

John.

My official conclusions are in the report forwarded to your office, which you can read at your leisure. My unofficial conclusion is that I’m bloody terrified. Bioweapons have been a constant threat since every kid with a modified chemistry set could start brewing up something nasty in his parents basement, and we saw a whole string of nasty outbreaks during the Age of Unrest, but this is an order of magnitude more dangerous than anything we’ve seen. The concept of a virus that could pass from one species to another was the stuff of low-budget fiction, until now. A sentient alien virus, capable of infecting humans as easily as the common cold, must be reckoned a serious threat. We may find it very difficult to defend ourselves.

We can and we will take precautions. The virus does not appear to cope well with ultraviolet light, allowing us to ensure it doesn’t spread through the air. We have had some success with experimental counter-viral treatments, when those treatments are carried out within a few short hours of infection. We can be fairly sure of catching an infected person within a few hours, through the use of a simple blood test. However, once the virus starts to infect the body’s organs and build control structures, we have been unable to do more than slow it down. Enthasusia may be the only logical response, particularly once the virus reaches the brain. It isn’t clear – yet – if the virus is capable of masquerading as the infected person, but I think we have to assume that it can and it will. Our people may be subverted and turned against us. It is vitally important that we perform regular blood tests within all sensitive installations.

Worse, there is no reason to assume that the infections will be limited only to humanity – and our alien allies. We believe the virus can spread into animals too, presenting us with a unique threat. The prospect of dogs – or smaller animals, like rats – being used to carry the virus into human settlements cannot be overlooked. In the event of a major outbreak on Earth, Admiral, we must assume our own ecosystem will be turned against us. The absolute worst case scenario suggests that the virus can even infect our entire ecology. It is vitally important that we don’t let the virus gain a foothold on Earth. If necessary, we will need to destroy any infection with nuclear weapons.

My team has not, as yet, been able to put together a coherent scenario for the virus’s evolution. However, given its aggressive nature and ability to cross the species barrier, it seems likely that the virus is not remotely natural. Someone designed it, Admiral; someone designed it as a weapon. I don’t know if the creators unleashed it as a final shot at enemies they couldn’t defeat by any normal means, or if it broke loose and destroyed its own creators before starting to ravage the rest of the galaxy, but I don’t believe its natural. It’s just too effective a killing machine. If we can find its creators, we may be able to convince them to stop their virus before it destroys us and every other known sentient race. If not …

Of course, some people might consider that whistling in the dark.

Prologue II

It was very quiet in the underground chamber.

President Aleksandr Sergeyevich Nekrasov lifted his head from the report and looked at the other two men – and one woman – sitting at the table. Their faces were carefully blank, the result of a lifetime spent struggling for power and security. None of them dared betray their thoughts too openly. The slightest hint of weakness might prove disastrous. It might cost them their lives. And yet, Aleksandr could tell they were scared. They were the most powerful people in Russia, but were they powerful enough to stand against the latest interstellar menace? He had a feeling that they were about to find out?

He spoke, with heavy irony. “Your comments, gentlemen?”

Admiral Svetlana Zadornov smiled, humourlessly. “We made a serious mistake, Mr. President.”

Aleksandr studied her for a long moment, knowing that she was almost certainly the most ambitious – and dangerous – person in the room. Women in Russia were expected to marry and have at least four children by the time they reached their mid-twenties, not go into the navy and fight their way up the ladder to flag rank. Svetlana had faced a whole string of challenges, from lecherous instructors to alien battleships, and she’d overcome them all. She was good. She had to be good. The only thing keeping her from being an even greater threat was her sex … and that might not matter, if she laid the groundwork properly. She was a national hero as well as a naval star.

He cocked his eyebrow. “How so?”

Svetlana had no patience for political bullshit. “We assumed that we were dealing with another alien race, one akin to the Tadpoles or the Foxes. We believed that we could make contact – covert contact – and manipulate events to our advantage. Instead, we have betrayed the human race to an … to an alien virus. We must assume that Dezhnev was taken and her crew … assimilated. The Great Powers will be furious.”

“If they find out,” Director Igor Ivanovich Zaitsev said, smoothly. The FSB Director leaned forward, his cold eyes moving from face to face. “The ship’s captain had orders to destroy his vessel rather than let her fall into enemy hands, did he not?”

“Yes,” Svetlana said. “But we have no guarantee he was able to carry out those orders. He might have been lured into talks, while the virus steadily overcame his crew. There’s no sense, from the British reports, that our vaccinations will be enough to stop the virus in its tracks. The ship might well have been taken with datacores intact.”

“And if the virus can take control of the crew, they’ll happily unlock the datacores for their new masters,” General Stepan Viktorovich Dyakov rumbled. “They’ll be turned into willing traitors.”

“Yes, General,” Svetlana said. “Dezhnev did not carry a full database, a sensible precaution when the ship intended to make contact with an unknown alien race, but she still carried enough information to make life very difficult. The virus, assuming it took the ship intact, now knows the layout of human space.”

Aleksandr kept his face impassive, somehow. The Solar Treaty – rewritten after the Tadpoles had taught humanity that it wasn’t alone in the universe – had made it clear that no new alien races were to learn anything of the human sphere’s inner workings until contact had been established and humanity was sure it wasn’t about to be attacked again. A hostile alien race would have to spend a great deal of time surveying the tramlines before they found the ones that led to the more densely-populated worlds – and Earth itself. Humanity could use that time to set up defensive lines and prepare for war. But if the virus had captured an intact navigational datacore, the virus would already know where to attack. His bid to break Russia free of its shackles might have led to disaster for the entire human race.

He wanted to shout his fury and frustration to the stars. The other Great Powers had never forgiven, let alone forgotten, how Aleksandr’s predecessor had tried to use bioweapons on the Tadpoles during peace negotiations. Russia had seen no choice – it was the only way to recover their principle colony and its population – but it had been a disastrous failure. Nothing had been said publicly, there had been no angry denunciations of Russia … yet, trade and investment had almost dried up. The country had been badly weakened. It had practically had to mortgage its future to remain a Great Power. Aleksandr was all too aware that keeping up with the latest military technology was costing his country dearly. And yet, they had to keep up. The rising powers would not hesitate to displace Russia if they thought they could get away with it.

The Indians already tried to displace the British, Aleksandr thought. And the British were in a far stronger position than ourselves.

He looked down at the report for a long moment, trying not to think about the people on the streets outside. They’d made huge sacrifices, they’d allowed the state to dictate to them … and yet, they were trapped in an austere nightmare. Mother Russia could feed her children – that was no longer a problem, thanks to modern technology – but they had little in the way of luxury or hope. Aleksandr knew there were grumblers, people complaining that their lives were drab and empty. The FSB had it under control, he’d been assured, but he knew better than to take that for granted. Life in Russia was steadily becoming worse. How long would it be until Moscow exploded into revolution, once again.

Svetlana cleared her throat. “There is nothing to be gained from recriminations,” she said, dryly. “We have to decide how to proceed.”

How generous, Aleksandr thought. Svetlana was sneakily making it clear that she wasn’t going to call their attention to the fact that she was the one who’d argued against sending a covert contact team – and, in doing so, was quietly rubbing their noses in it. And how do you intend to use this to unseat me?

“We have to assume the worst,” Svetlana continued. “The virus knows that we intended to betray our fellow humans. It may seek to use that against us. If it truly understands human psychology, it will see it as a gamble worth taking. It can certainly present enough proof to overcome doubt and suspicion from the other Great Powers.”

“Great,” Zaitsev said, sarcastically.

“Therefore, we need to take action,” Svetlana said. “We have to act before it can take advantage of its newfound knowledge. And I know how we should proceed.”

Chapter One

The chamber, Captain Sir Stephen Shields thought as he faced his judges, had cost the Royal Navy a great deal of money. No expense had been spared in a bid to make it clear that justice would be done, from the magnificent wooden boxes for the judges to the smaller chair and table for himself and his lawyer. He couldn’t help thinking that the giant painting of the king hanging from the far wall was worth a few million pounds. The entire courtroom had probably cost as much as a cruiser. He wondered, rather sardonically, how they intended to explain the expense during the next audit. The Royal Navy had been having problems funding the latest generation of ships even before Invincible had stumbled across a whole new threat.

He kept his face as impassive as possible, despite a growing headache, as his judges hurled question after question at him. It was hard, so hard, to keep from snapping at them as they asked the same question time and time again, sometimes rephrasing the words in a bid to catch him out. They weren’t interested in the truth, he felt. The five flag officers facing him were more interested in politics than the threat facing the entire human race. He wondered, sourly, just who’d smoothed their path through the navy. His family had enemies. They’d have worked overtime to make sure that their people were in place to push for a court-martial.

“No, sir,” he said, in response to a particularly irritating question. “I feel that my ship and crew performed adequately.”

An admiral leaned forward. “Captain, some of our analysts believe that you didn’t make enough of an attempt at opening communications,” he said. “What do you say to that?”

Some of our analysts, Stephen thought. The ones who give the answers they know their masters want?

He braced himself. “As you can see from my records, Admiral, we did attempt to open communications. However, we came under enemy fire. Further attempts at opening communications were unsuccessful – and, when we realised what we were facing, we understood why. There is little hope of opening a dialogue when someone simply won’t talk to you.”

“But you should have tried,” the Admiral said.

Stephen felt his temper start to snap. He ignored the warning nudge from his lawyer. “With all due respect, Admiral, firing on someone is also a form of communication. The aliens – the virus – wanted us dead.”

Another admiral chuckled. “He’s got you there, Fred.”

The first admiral glowered. “Captain Shields, you used classified technology to make your escape. In doing so, you revealed its existence to the enemy. How do you justify that?”

Stephen felt a hot flash of anger. They’d been over that three times already. He was tempted to suggest they simply refer to the written record, but he knew they wouldn’t listen. They wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Again.

Invincible needed to return home safely, carrying her cargo of precious knowledge,” Stephen said, flatly. “We had lost contact with the Russians and we had no way to be sure that any previous messages would reach Falkirk, let alone Earth. Accordingly, I saw no option but to deploy every weapon in our arsenal to ensure that my ship made it safely through the tramline and escaped.”

He allowed his voice to harden. “I understand the importance of keeping secret weapons secret until they are actually used, Admiral, but we had no choice. I had to do everything in my power to maximise our chances of escape. Deploying classified technology was, in my judgement, the only thing to do. What would you do in my place?”

There was a long silence. Stephen waited, wondering what the admiral would say? He’d bet half his salary that his questioners had never commanded starships, even during peacetime. No, they’d stayed home and nitpicked from the comfort of their armchairs … he shook his head in exasperation. He knew that, sometimes, officers made mistakes. But they rarely had anything like enough time to think of the perfect solution.

The chairman cleared his throat. “I believe we’ve gone as far as we can for the day,” he said, making a show of checking his watch. “Captain Shields, thank you for your time. You’ll have our decision by the end of the week.”

Unless you want to call me back for some worthless questioning, Stephen thought. You’ve heard everything I can tell you – twice, perhaps – and you still want to waste my time.

He kept that thought off his face. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” he said. It was hard not to allow sarcasm to slip into his voice. “I am at your disposal.”

His lawyer walked next to him as they headed for the hatch. “They’re unsure how to proceed,” he muttered. “As long as they’re asking questions, they don’t have to take any decisions.”

“No wonder they’re not on command decks,” Stephen muttered back. A starship captain had to make a decision and stick to it, even if that mean putting his neck on the line, not waffle endlessly until his ship was blown into dust and plasma. “Seriously, what’s our chances.”

The lawyer said nothing until they walked through the hatch and into the corridor. “I’d say sixty-forty they recommend that all charges be dropped,” he said. “There’s no moment of egregious misconduct from you, Captain, and without that they’ll have some problems justifying putting you in front of a court-martial board. I think they’ll be happier not trying to try a national hero.”

Stephen shrugged. One half of the country had considered him a hero when he and his ship had returned, bringing warning of a new interstellar war; the other half had seen him as a villain, the bearer of bad news. That half would believe – they’d want to believe – that Stephen had fucked up First Contact so badly that a multispecies alien confederation had declared war on Earth. And, because of his family connections, his fate wouldn’t be decided by the navy. Parliament would become involved. The final decision wouldn’t be based on anything he’d actually done, but on what was politically acceptable.

And my superiors will throw me under the shuttlecraft, he thought, sourly. The First Space Load had signalled his support, but Stephen had no illusions. If the politicians wanted him punished, he’d be punished. Perhaps I should have gone into law instead, or sought an easy seat in Parliament.

He shook his head. He loved the navy. He loved command. And the situation was not hopeless. His family’s enemies would have to find a figleaf of justification before they could hang him – perhaps literally – and, so far, no such justification had materialised. He had to keep fighting if he wanted to return to his ship. Invincible was currently being repaired, under his XO’s command. He was damned if he was just letting go of command after how hard he’d had to work to get it.

A young midshipwoman ran up and saluted. “Captain Shields?”

Stephen returned her salute. “Yes?”

“Sir, a car has arrived for you,” the midshipwoman said. “Its waiting at the main gate.”

Stephen dismissed his lawyer and hurried down the stairs to the main gate. A large black limousine, with tinted windows, was waiting for him. A uniformed chauffeur stepped out of the front door as Stephen approached, saluted him, and opened the rear door. Stephen was not remotely surprised to see his brother sitting in the vehicle. It was the sort of thing his brother would do.

“Duncan,” he said, stiffly. “What are you doing here?”

“Get in,” Duncan said. “We don’t have much time.”

Stephen hesitated, then climbed into the limousine. The chauffeur closed the door behind him. Silence fell, abruptly. Duncan gestured to a seat; Stephen looked around, noting the silent maid sitting at the back of the vehicle, then sat down. The vehicle hummed into life a moment later. There was barely any sense of motion.

“Our latest car,” Duncan said. He sounded as if he’d built the limo himself. “What do you think?”

Stephen snorted. “How much of the family fortune did you waste on this … this white elephant?”

“I assure you that this vehicle isn’t useless,” Duncan said. “We have a minibar, a small portable cooker, desks and chairs and, of course, secure links to the datanet. I can conduct my business while travelling around the country.”

“You could also get from one end of the country to the other in less than an hour,” Stephen pointed out, although he knew it was a waste of time. Duncan had always believed an aristocrat had to look wealthy as well as be wealthy. The family name demanded a show of conspicuous consumption. Stephen had never believed that, but then he’d gone into the navy, where efficiency was prized over everything else. “I assume you have a reason for meeting me?”

Duncan smiled. “Do I need a reason to speak to my little brother?”

“You never said a word to me at school,” Stephen said. “Ever.”

“You know as well as I do that older kids are not supposed to talk to the younger kids,” Duncan said. That was unfortunately true. “I’m sure I said a word or two to you during the holidays. And did I not speak to you after we both left school?”

Stephen shrugged. “And now?”

Duncan met his eyes. “The Leader of the Opposition has been trying to figure out a way to use your court martial to bring down the government,” he said. “However, it doesn’t look as though you gave them enough rope to hang the Prime Minister. I doubt a vote of no confidence could be passed right now.”

“That’s something,” Stephen said. He’d always disliked politics, even though he’d been brought up in an aristocratic family. The navy life was far simpler. “What now?”

“They’ll try and find some kind of face-saving solution, I suppose,” Duncan said. “They staked too much on you. Now, they need to find a way to let you go without making it look as though they were tormenting you for fun and games. I imagine they’d redefine the whole courtroom session as a fact-finding mission.”

“They certainly found a great many facts,” Stephen said, dryly. “When can I go back to my ship?”

“When they figure out a way to save face.” Duncan shrugged. “We’re not going to hammer them too hard over the issue – the government’s majority is too thin – but they won’t take that for granted. They’ll assume we’ll take full advantage of their mistake.”

“Perhaps you should,” Stephen said. “Really try and put the boot in.”

“We wouldn’t be able to do enough damage to matter,” Duncan said. “And we don’t want a political catfight right now. The country is unsettled enough.”

He tapped a switch. The tinted windows became transparent. Stephen frowned as he realised where they were. The limo was crossing Admiralty Bridge, heading towards Whitehall, driving past a steady stream of protesters. Many of them were carrying signs, protesting against the new war. He sucked in his breath, sharply. They were walking so closely together that the virus would have a field day, if one of the protesters was infected. They’d all be infected soon enough.

“I thought large gatherings were going to be banned,” he said, as he spotted a handful of policemen. They were watching the crowd, but making no attempt to break it up. “What happened?”

Duncan gave him a sharp look. “Political realities,” he said, curtly. He tapped the switch again. The windows darkened. “Shutting down the schools is one thing, but shutting down everything else is quite another. And there’s no reason to believe the virus has reached Earth.”

Stephen gritted his teeth. There had been a number of starships at Wensleydale that hadn’t known to take extensive precautions against biological contamination, even though they were dealing with a previously-unknown alien race. And some of those ships had disappeared. It was tempting to believe that their crews had managed to hit the self-destruct before they’d been overwhelmed, but he didn’t dare believe it. Planetary defence networks had orders to destroy the ships on sight, yet … it would be easy to sneak a shuttle down to the surface and begin the infection. Earth might already have been infected.

“Those idiots are going to get themselves killed,” he snarled. “And they’ll get a lot of innocent people killed with them.”

“Perhaps,” Duncan said. “But they also don’t want war.”

Stephen laughed, harshly. “Do you suppose the universe cares what they want?”

“No,” Duncan said. He sounded as though he understood. “But they do have good reasons for wanting it.”

“I know,” Stephen said.

He shook his head. He understood too. Of course he understood. Twenty years ago, the First Interstellar War had brought the human race to the brink of defeat. The Tadpoles had bombarded Earth, killing millions of humans and destroying the work of hundreds of years. And then Britain had skirmished with India, shortly before the Second Interstellar War had pitted humanity and its enemies-turned-allies against a pair of alien races that had made common cause and set out to conquer the galaxy together. The human race had seen too much change in the past few years, too many reminders that the universe was red in tooth and claw. He was uneasily aware that Britain – and the remainder of the Great Powers – had lost so much that something was going to break. And now …

And now, we have a whole new war, against an extremely dangerous and deadly race, he thought. I’d vote against it too if I thought it would make a difference.

“We’re switching to a full war footing now, aren’t we?” Stephen met his brother’s eyes, hoping to see confirmation. “Aren’t we?”

“We are,” Stephen confirmed. “The Opposition’s grown-ups realise that the threat exists, even though their backbenchers want to use the crisis to demand concessions. We’re preparing for war at breakneck speed.”

Stephen nodded, relieved. The Royal Navy had been taken unawares by the new threat, but a great many lessons had been learnt during the First Interstellar War. This time, procedures were in place to call up the reserves, draw weapons and spare parts from stockpiles that had been extensively built up during peacetime and prepare to go on the offensive. Starships were probably already being dispatched to Falkirk, the point of contact, in hopes of blunting an alien offensive before it could reach the more populated parts of the human sphere. He was fairly sure the Admiralty was already considering ways to go on the offensive. No one ever won a war by sitting still and waiting to be hit.

But we have no idea of just how much territory they control, he reminded himself. They might be expecting us to launch an offensive; hell, they may intend to destroy the invasion fleet and then follow up with a full-scale offensive of their own.

“There is a cost, of course,” Duncan added. “Do you know how many people are reservists?”

“No,” Stephen said.

“There’s always been a push to favour reservists when it comes to selecting candidates for a job,” Duncan said. “The family industries have done their part. But if the reservists are called up to go to war, there’s going to be a problem replacing them. Losing one reservist isn’t a bad thing, but losing all of them at once … there is no way replacements for everyone can be invited to apply, be interviewed and accepted before the losses start to bite.”

He shook his head. “And that problem is affecting the entire country,” he said. “I dare say it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Probably,” Stephen said. “But think how much worse it will be if we lose.”

“I know that,” Duncan snapped. “But how many people don’t grasp the sheer scale of the threat? There were all sorts of problems during the Second Interstellar War. They’ll be worse here.”

“Probably,” Stephen said, again. Civilians didn’t understand the realities of interstellar warfare. A threat might be a few hundred light-years away, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t touch Earth. “I can’t wait to go back to space.”

“I don’t blame you,” Duncan told him. There was an oddly wistful tone in his voice. “I wish I could go to space too.”

The limo came to a halt. Stephen looked up as the door opened, revealing the chauffeur and a darkening sky. He glanced at his watch as Duncan rose and climbed out of the vehicle. It was seven o’clock. And yet, it was strikingly quiet. He frowned as he followed his brother onto the streets. London was a city that never slept. Normally, the streets would be filled with tourists making their way to the theatres or the city’s diverse selection of cafes and restaurants. There was nowhere else in the entire world that had so many diversions for the educated palate. And yet, the city was quiet. Even the hum of traffic was dulled.

“The club’s still open,” Duncan said. “I thought I’d treat you to dinner.”

Stephen glowered at his retreating back. “And the rest of the city?”

“Martial law has been declared,” Duncan reminded him. “The city is shutting down for the night.”

Good, Stephen thought. He snorted, rudely, as they walked past the bowing doorman and headed up the stairs. Naturally, the aristocracy had ensured that their spaces were spared the attention of the law. But the population will not be pleased.

He shook his head as they passed a cluster of UV lights. The public would not be pleased, if they realised what was happening. There was nothing to be gained by shutting down the city’s nightlife if a handful of select clubs were allowed to remain open. And yet, it would help keep them alive, if the virus reached Earth …

… And that, as far as he was concerned, was all that mattered.

Quick Update

17 Aug

It’s not been a good week.

The good news is that I finished the first draft of The Broken Throne on Saturday 11th. The bad news is that my health went downhill spectacularly on Sunday 12th, not helped by extremely unpleasant medical tests on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ve been promised a proper dioganis in a week or so, until then …

Things have been a bit stalled, as you might have realised. I’d hoped to complete the edits for Debt of Honour/The Embers of War, but I’ve bogged down somewhere around chapter 14. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of task that can be passed on to someone else. I seem to have one good week followed by one bad week, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that next week and then make a start on Para Bellum. But we have too many other things to do over the next two weeks …

Thoughts and prayers would be appreciated, if you have time.

Chris

I Ain’t Dead

28 Jul

I ain’t dead <grin>

Actually, I got a pair of PMs asking if I was alright. My health has been something of a mix these days. I wrote for four day, then had to take three days off and then wrote for another five days. Right now, I feel reasonably fine. It’s starting to look as though I get two-three weeks of relative health, followed by a few days of poor health. I’m due to visit the clinic on Tuesday, so hopefully we’ll get some answers.

The good news is that I’ve managed to write 25 chapters of The Broken Throne. It’s a curiously challenging book, all the more so as Emily cannot be involved in most of the action. But there will still be plenty for her to do. I’m hoping to have the first draft completed by the 4th, although no promises. My health may complicate matters.

Para_Bellum

After that, I’m not sure. Para Bellum is the clear favourite, but I need to work a little more on the plot. We shall see …

Chris