Tag Archives: warship

Snippet # 2 from Leo Champion’s Highway West

Here’s another snippet from Leo Champion’s Highway West, coming soon to Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook vendors near you!

 

Chapter Two

It was mostly dark when Najif woke Ashford, shaking his shoulders hard. He’d been sleeping – was lying down, now – on a rough straw mattress in a corner of Najif’s room, in an apartment in the fisherman’s district.

You need to change,” was the first thing Najif said to him. His tone implied heavy urgency. Ashford got to a sitting position.

Why?”

Najif held out some clothing.

Change. Now. Later I will explain.”

It’s got to be something bad.

Ashford got to his feet, stripped out of his white uniform and down to his briefs. He wished he could shower or something first. He changed into the clothing Najif gave him – grey linen trousers, a once-white sleeveless shirt, black leather belt, leather sandals. As he pulled his socks off and stepped into the sandals, worry went through him. The clothes, his uniform, were the last connection he’d had to civilization after his ship had been destroyed and his men had deserted.

In the first moments after waking, Ashford had hoped all of that might have been a bad dream, a nightmare. The cool morning air and Najif’s terse urgency, the coarse linen on his skin over the mild sunburn and the slowly-starting-to-heal wounds, dispelled that hard.

The pants were loose. He buckled the belt tight.

Your skin is white. There are not many things we can do about that. Some men have white skin, and the sunburn can help. Hmm.”

Najif turned around. He’d packed two rucksacks the night before. He rummaged in one and came up with a black kerchief.

You have fair hair. Put this on. Less men have blond hair than white skin.”

Ashford took the kerchief. He’d never worn one in his life, and for good reason. Bandannas were what laborers, dockside workers and common sailors wore. Ashford’s family was upper-middle-class and proud of it in a class-conscious society.

There’s danger. There’s obviously danger, Ashford thought. He put it on and inexpertly tied it behind his head.

The uniform is worth some money. Good cotton has a price,” said Najif. “Rosa will say she found it in the street. If someone speaks to you, say nothing. You know some Greek, but your accent gives you away. The talking, I will do.”

Najif picked up one of the rucksacks and handed it to Ashford.

Put this on. It’s time to go.”

Why? What’s the urgency? Why are we hiding?”

There could be a million reasons. Ashford didn’t doubt Najif’s sincerity. But why?

Najif scraped his hands along a corner of the room,where boarded floor met stucco wall and a lot of dirt had been swept. Then he carefully daubed Ashford’s face with it.

Do not move,” he said. Smearing a little more of the dirt on his face, spreading it thinner.

This should be adequate. Take a look and go to the window. Tell me what it is that you see.”

Gut in his throat, Ashford went to the window. It was open and glassless and looked out from the third storey directly onto the harbor. Some of the morning fishermen were already out, and there was a buzz of activity on the fishermen’s docks.

And in the mouth of the harbor, surrounded by a wide margin of empty water because the early fishermen had heard all about yesterday’s devastation, was the battleship. Eight hundred feet long, brutally wide, dark steel and heavy batteries of massive guns. Men moved around on it, but there was not a single flag to be seen on her grey-black shape.

Ashford ducked instinctively, staggered back to where Najif was.

She arrived in the night. Men have landed. There is a rumor out that they are looking for Americans. That they will pay a price for live ones.”

Oh shit.

Do you know who they are?”

The rumor did not say,” said Najif. “Do you want to find out by asking them? Or should we leave before one of my apartment-sharers hears the same rumor?”

There were noises outside. Najif shared this place with two other unmarried fishermen.

Oh, shit.”

You understand the urgency now. Put some more dirt on you. Not a lot. It does not do for a fisherman to appear muddy. But enough to darken the skin a little.”

Ashford didn’t think. He took more dirt from the ground, dusted it across his arms, his neck and his ankles.

Najif nodded.

Come on.”

Wait – do we have money? What about your boat? Where are we going?”

Captain Enos is a good man; he has had a standing offer for my share since I bought it some years ago. He was not able to raise the full price, not at a few hours notice. He was able to raise a sizable amount of it. Do you have any more urgent questions or shall we hurry? Ask, because we might not be able to talk easily once we leave here.”

Can I trust you? came immediately to mind, but he shot that down immediately. Where are we going? might take a while to answer, and Ashford completely understood Najif’s urgency now. He himself wanted to run, run, run as fast as he could away from that ship.

Can you give me a weapon?” he surprised himself by asking.

A gun, I do not own. Needless violence is against my religion; I am a true follower of Mohammed.. But we may need to defend ourselves. In the countryside there are sometimes bandits. For what little good it may do, I can give you a fish knife.”

It was a six-inch gutting knife. A thin steel blade, slightly curved, set into a short wooden handle.

In there,” said Najif, gesturing to a short loop on Ashford’s belt that he hadn’t noticed before. He put it in and drew the loop closed; the blade hung by his side. There was a similar loop with a slightly longer knife on Najif’s belt.

Let’s go.”

* * *

Ashford kept his head down as they hurried down the stairs and out of the apartment. The fishing district here was as bustlingly busy as the one in Provincetown had been, this time of morning. They passed fishermen checking their nets, wives doing last-minute repairs or carefully threading hooks onto lines. Vendors sold clay jugs of wine and kebabs of smoked fish and vegetables.

The traffic grew a little quieter as they transitioned from the fishing district to the area around the commercial docks. Kids and old men slept in doorways. A teenaged boy sold booklet-like newspapers from a small wooden barrow, crying out in fast Greek that Ashford barely understood the gist of. The big item of the day’s news was, of course, the Wilson’s destruction.

Ashford wanted to buy a paper – he could read Greek well enough – but he didn’t have any money. Besides, Najif wasn’t about to stop.

They hurried on past, staying a couple of streets away from the docks. A gasoline-powered truck was being unloaded in front of one warehouse by half a dozen muscular men in brightly-colored bandannas. A man on horseback trotted past in the opposite direction. In front of a surprisingly elegant building that had to be some prosperous merchant’s dockside offices, an electric light shone onto the street.

At a market square, stallholders were starting to unpack their wares. Fish, fruit, meat, eggs and a hundred other things. Another newspaper vendor was yelling shrilly. This time Najif stopped. He handed over a couple of coppers.

The kid nodded thanks and gave him a paper. It was thin, only four pages, and badly-typeset; the Boston papers were much better but Ashford was surprised there was one at all in a place like this.

Well, the city bosses probably needed some way to get the word out about new taxes, or to criticize their rivals. There were a lot of crudely-woodcut pictures, which made sense. Probably not too many literate people around here.

This way,” Najif said. They took a right turn, heading uphill on a road that steadily got steeper. Past shuttered-up shops and through a small slum. Tenement buildings gave way to nicer apartments and, as they ascended further, the fortified houses of the upper class. They crested the top of the hill, past more warehouses and another slum on the downslope, and then they were at the city walls.

A hundred and seventy years ago, of course, Kyrenia had been a lot bigger; everywhere had been. Deaths, sickness, violence and food-seeking migrations to the countryside, had shrunken Cyprus’s northern port from forty thousand to – well, probably almost nothing for a while like most of the towns and cities, but it’d only recovered now to maybe a fifth of that. Most of the stone from the abandoned buildings had been rebuilt into these twenty-foot-high walls.

A line of people and vehicles were slowly shuffling uphill toward the gate. Early farmers coming back from delivering their goods to the city. A few merchants. A good number of individuals on their own errands. Individuals on foot mixed with donkeys, carts, wheelbarrows and a single gasoline-driven car that flew a complex flag from a low pole on the center of its roof.

Guards with bolt-action rifles were looking over the people as they left, but not interfering too much. The people coming into the city got more attention, and most had to pay a toll. The outgoing line moved pretty quickly.

Ashford expected something to happen when they passed the guard, but he did nothing; he barely even moved his head to motion them forwards.

Rusty coils of barbed wire were strung here and there amongst the dirt on the hundred yards or so between the city walls and the nearest construction, a couple of buildings that smelled vile. Tannery or something. A steep downhill slope looked across a narrow valley.

Najif had slowed down when they approached the gate. To Ashford’s relief, because the effort of walking so fast had opened up the cut on his chest, he didn’t resume the earlier pace when they were out.

Instead, they headed along the badly-maintained tarmac road at a slow walk. A few hundred yards out, as they were climbing the facing slope, he stopped a man with a donkey coming towards the city. There was brief haggling, before Najif handed over a couple of coins in return for a double-handful of large black olives.

Breakfast,” he said to Ashford. “There’s a stream on the other side.”

***

Where the hell are going?” Ashford asked about half an hour later. They were sitting down by the stream in the next valley, where there was fresh water to go with the olives they’d eaten.

Overland,” Najif said, replying in English to Ashford’s Greek.

I thought we were going by sea.”

I thought so too,” said Najif. “Then the ship came. Do you know anything about Kyrenia politics?”

Nothing. Don’t they usually just obey whoever controls Constantinople this week?”

That indicates their character. Not their allegiance,” said Najif. “Governor Kosmas is a greedy coward who would sell his province to the Greeks in ten minutes if they’d offer him enough. And if he thought they were any more honest than he is – if he really believed they’d let him keep the money. If the people on that battleship want to offer money for American survivors, they won’t just put a reward on the streets. If they understood Cyprus they’d go to the Governor directly and offer him money.”

Ashford nodded. He’d been turning that idea over in his mind all yesterday afternoon.

There might be ships bigger than that battleship in the Mediterranean, but you wouldn’t need all the fingers of one hand to count them.

He’d spent most of his career handling logisticals, finance, those numbers swayed for political purposes and budget wrangling; he knew exactly what it cost to build and run a ship like that. You had to be a nation and probably a large one. Or you had to be an independent with so much money and power that functionally you were a nation.

US intelligence this far east was almost nonexistent. Until the Wilson had arrived in the area a couple of weeks ago, it had been completely nonexistent. And that might have been the motivation: somebody wanted to keep it that way.

Without more information, there was no point in trying to guess who that was. He wanted to find out, but speculating on it now was insane. The fact was that these people had resources, and if they’d gone to the trouble of killing a cruiser of the United States Navy, they probably had good reason to want absolutely no survivors from that cruiser.

He’d pushed that concern to the back of his mind until that ship had arrived in harbor now. This morning, less than an hour ago, the battleship had again become a pressing threat.

Yes,” said Najif. “And Kosmas is a coward. When there is a ship in his harbor that outguns his shore batteries by ten to one, he probably does not need bribes to obey its captain. The Governor has customs inspectors. He relies on them for a good part of his taxes. He can inspect any ship that leaves. He can have it boarded and searched.”

Which kills the idea you were talking about last night,” said Ashford. “Of just getting on a freighter for Athens via Crete. Shit.”

Yes. They might have searched it. And then your mission, and my green card, go. Look on the bright side; perhaps they will catch your mutineers and save you the trouble of hanging them.”

Ashford hadn’t thought about that, but he disliked the idea a lot more than was rational.

Briggs is going to face a Navy court and he’s going to hang for mutiny, desertion, grand larceny and the attempted murder of an officer,” he said coldly. “He’s not going to die at the hands of some foreign power for the crime of being an American. I’m going to get him or the Navy will. Nobody else.”

Until yesterday, Ashford had never seriously imagined himself killing anybody; not up close and personal. Now, he thought he’d enjoy shooting Briggs and his traitors. Knew he would.

To his surprise, Najif nodded.

I can understand that. Well, hope they escape and we run into them again. When we have friends, and guns. We can arrest them and see them face a court.”

We need both of those,” Ashford agreed. “Guns especially.”

We won’t find them here and last night I didn’t have time to look for them. Not since we wanted to wake in time for the morning outgoing tide.”

How far is it to the Greek port?”

To Paphos? Sixty miles,” Najif said. “Perhaps four days, if it was flat and our course was straight. It’s not, and it won’t be. We’ll be going over mountains and we have to cross a border. The border means we might need to take detours. It could take a week if we’re lucky. Perhaps longer.”

Right.”

Ashford closed his eyes. A week’s travel, just to the next port.

Before the Pulses, when there had been cars and good roads, it would have been a half-day or less. Except that there had been aircraft then, commonly available and flying everywhere. There had been satellite phones to make the trip unnecessary. There had been a lot of other things; computers and computer networks, microchips and cars everywhere; wishing for them now was stupid.

Just as pointless as wishing for fifty stars on the US flag, instead of twenty. That motivation was why Ashford had joined the Navy – his nation had been glorious once, and perhaps he could help rebuild it. The Pulses had only been a hundred and seventy years ago; his grandparents’ parents had probably heard stories of the old world first-hand.

The motivation had survived four years at the Annapolis academy, narrowly outside the safe-radioactivity line around what had been Washington DC. It had survived six years of glorified clerking and unglamorous errand-boying in the capital, in Charlestown and Beacon Hill; it had survived a pretty-boy assignment as the naval liaison for a Philadelphian traders’ combine run by a politically-connected family friend, and somehow it had survived the last couple of days.

Been strengthened by the last couple of days, in fact, because this was meaningful. For the first time in his life, there was something critical, something important, that only he could do.

He was surprised that he felt this way; this wasn’t supposed to invigorate you, it was supposed to break and terrify you. Especially someone like him; he’d always seen the Navy as a stepping-stone to eventual political office, from which he’d do his truly meaningful work. The line officers on the Wilson had perhaps guessed that, or perhaps they’d simply had the fighting man’s contempt for a career staff officer whose first ship duty had come after his first promotion.

Their put-downs had led Ashford to think even more that he’d break under pressure, and driven him to spend his off-hours with other staff types, engineers and technical officers, who seemed to have decided in childhood that they were not going to be any more than parts of a machine, that heroics were for the men with the balls connections. He’d come to empathize with that viewpoint.

Especially since Susannah’s letter, ending what he’d hoped would become an engagement when he returned. The worst part about her stinging criticisms of his courage and his character, the really painful part, was that he knew at gut level that they had been right.

That thought made him get to his feet.

We’ve been killing time long enough,” he said. “Gibraltar is still a thousand miles away, and Athens isn’t much closer. The sooner we get moving and the faster we walk, the sooner they’ll know.”

***

It was slow going; the ground was rough and steep and there wasn’t much of a road; it was badly-maintained and usually not much more than a dirt track, large parts of it turned to drying mud by the spring rains. Grapes and olives grew on the steep slopes, and thin sheep grazed in other areas, perhaps competing with chickens for the rugged grass and moss. There were rock ledges, too, and occasional drops; these were somewhere between high hills and low mountains.

You went down one hill, perhaps a few hundred yards through an extremely narrow valley, then up another hill. Wheat and some other crops that Ashford didn’t recognize grew in ordered little farms in the valleys, tended by stocky peasants.

Here and there they passed other traffic; donkey carts laden with farm produce for the most part, a horseman here and there, a few pedestrians. Two heavy carts pulled by teams of oxen, carrying barrels that might have held rock oil, or olive oil, and copper ingots from the mines in these mountains. Once they were overtaken by three open-backed motor trucks loaded with soldiers, the last of them towing an artillery piece. The trucks’ engines were loud and the exhaust pipes left a thick trail of foul-smelling black smoke.

By evening they’d only made seven miles on Najif’s map. They stopped, with the sun setting, at an inn in a medium-sized village. Najif haggled briefly with the proprietor, shook hands and gave him a large piece of copper.

It was a small private room. Closing his eyes, Ashford collapsed onto a filthy straw mattress. Najif said something about food and departed.

God, he hurt. The map said seven miles, but that was as the plane flew. In practice, the road zigged and zagged to make the slopes easier, and to route away from the steeper hills. They might have walked eighteen or twenty in the hot sun.

His chest hurt, and so did his throat. He stripped to the waist and examined the cut that he could see; he wished he had some more of that ointment.

Only seven fucking miles. At this rate it’ll be almost a week and a half until we get to Paphos, and that’s just the first step.

It was logical; he understood that. Trying to get out through Kyrenia, past the battleship, wouldn’t have been safe; they had to go to Paphos and hope the battleship wasn’t there. Maybe there was some small fishing village they could leave from instead. Najif had also raised the possibility of getting a ride by sea to Paphos.

They’d get there. And his wound hadn’t been agitated so badly; it wasn’t much worse now, he thought, than it had been this morning. His feet hurt worse; my soul for a good pair of boots. For any pair.

Najif came back with a tray of food, bread and goat cheese and olives and dried meat, and a jug of wine. He set the tray down on the small table between the room’s two mattresses. Ashford poured himself a cup of the wine and gulped it down, it was the sourest thing he’d ever tasteed but that didn’t matter right now. He poured another cup and reached for one of the pieces of meat.

Tell me about where we are going,” said Najif, sitting down and cutting off a slice of goat cheese with the belt knife. “Tell me about the United States.”

Later,” said Ashford. “For now; do you think we’re safe here? We’re only seven miles away from the port.”

We’re a day’s walk,” Najif said. “Distance is different here than on the sea; seven miles is further because it takes longer. It should be smooth until we reach the border. I think the border is quiet right now, but sometimes it flares up. Constantinople is massing for another war, you know. We’ll be out of the mountains by tomorrow midday, I think. We can go faster then.”

Any chance we can buy some transport?”

Najif shook his head.

Not if we also want to buy our ship tickets for a thousand miles. Perhaps we can get a ride, if we’re lucky.”

The further we are from those bastards, the luckier we are,” said Ashford. “And preferably the sooner we’re out of Turkish territory and into Greek. I know from ship Intelligence that some of these local militaries have radio communications.”

I think you might be starting to be becoming overly paranoid in that,” said Najif. “The Governor’s customs men are one group; the Army is another; they’re less corrupt and they answer directly to Constantinople. We’re out of Kyrenia; I don’t think we have a great deal more to worry about than the usual dangers, unless we’re unlucky.”

Two days ago I didn’t think my ship had a great deal more to worry about than the usual dangers,” said Ashford. “And she got unlucky, remember? The same bad luck is still hanging around, and you told me the rumor that they were looking for Americans. I’ll feel safe at Gibraltar and not before.”

You’re becoming overly paranoid in that,” said Najif again, but this time he didn’t seem to mean it as much.

***

The ship was called the Woodrow Wilson?”

Yes.” Gasping, the prisoner let some blood drool through the smashed wreckage of what had been his front teeth. “I said. Heavy cruiser. Peacemaker-class. Twelve thousand tons. Outta Charleston, Carolina.”

You told me all that earlier. I’m bored.”

A knife descended, made its cut with a surgeon’s precision. Screams. A wet thud in the aluminum trash bin. Alcohol splashed on the injury.

You have another eye remaining. You may yet see Charleston, South Carolina with it. How was she armed?”

Gasping, panting. He tried to hold back screams and say what the man wanted to hear. Say the truth; maybe he’d keep his other nut if he didn’t lie again.

The knife descended again.

Three batteries; fore was two six-inch guns and two four-inchers. Aft was triple four-inchers. Twelve twenty-millimeter boatsinkers on deck mounts.”

He gasped. Heavily. The knife stayed where it was. For a few seconds. Then descended towards his right hand, which was manacled in place. Three fingernails and four fingertips remained.

Some of the boatkillers could be used for anti-air if needed. Had two thirty-foot cutters, capable of short-range independent operations, each had two twenty-mms. No rockets or torpedoes.”

Not much of a heavy cruiser,” said an observer.

The man remained silent. Thank God they’d only got him. No; not thank God. Maybe if he hadn’t been the only stupid one, they’d be leaving him alone a little. No; they’d be torturing them in front of each other.

He was already telling them what they wanted! They didn’t need to hurt him any more! He’d learned!

The knife moved towards his hand.

The officer asked you a question,” said the man who held it.

Oh! Oh! I’m sorry!” He restrained the urge to blubber. That would mean pain. Talk. Not much of a heavy cruiser. Talk about that, then. Elaborate on that and keep the rest of his fingers.

Not meant as one. Armed like a light cruiser, yes. The extra tonnage goes to ammo storage, fuel storage, provisions. Trade off firepower for more range. Can operate on extended tours of duty without external support. That’s what they’re for. But they’ve got the tonnage. Classed as heavy. Really only more of a light. They use the cutters for chasing stuff. Cutters were the fast ones.”

The Atlantic United States Navy has four Peacemaker-class heavy cruisers in service,” said a second observer. “Two more are being built, we understand. They have a crew of six hundred and thirty, including a forty-five man Marine complement. How many crewmen does the unlamented ship have now?”

Seven, goddamn it! Seven! I said seven!”

You said there were eight, earlier.” The knife descended. Screams. Scraping bone. Blood. Louder screams. Something thick and rubber was shoved between the man’s teeth and he hyperventilated briefly. The cutting board tilted and the top joint of a ring finger slid into the trash. The hyperventilation came to a ragged conclusion when the knife began to slowly draw blood on the second joint.

Seven! Seven of us and the lieutenant but I don’t know where he is!”

A lieutenant,” said the first observer to the second.

A lieutenant,” the man with the knife said.

His name’s Ashfour; no, Ashford! Ashford, Ashford. Peter or Paul Ashford. Ship’s assistant purser. They put him in charge of the buying party. Mid twenties. This’s his first cruise. Brown-blond hair, not a big guy, not a smart guy, just a pretty boy doing his time `cause he saw the flag and had an urge. He was a Beacon Hill staff puke until this cruise. Lieutenant junior-grade; junior, not senior. Annapolis. He was assistant to the purser. REMF. From Beacon—”

A gesture told the man to shut up. He forced himself to.

Very good,” said the first observer. “I think that calls for some anaesthetic.”

The man smiled. The injection went into his right hand, a fairly strong local. Pain, less pain. He still hurt, but less pain. Thank God.

You have other organs, remember. Why didn’t you know where the lieutenant is?”

The man tried to be calm. It was easier, with his right hand numb. Not easy. Other parts of his body hurt, terribly. If he was good, perhaps they would not.

We ditched him. He didn’t want to split the cash from what we’d bought; he wanted to use it all to go to Gibraltar. To tell about it. About the attack. We were going to take it and go independent. So we drugged him and ditched him.”

You let him go?”

Briggs didn’t wanna kill him. Said nature’d do that without getting on his conscience; we just ditched him without his braid or his shit.”

A fisherman reported that his boat’s assistant captain had an injured man aboard their boat yesterday,” said the second observer to the first observer. “Wearing a white uniform and speaking English.”

What did this Lieutenant Ashford look like?” asked the first observer. “If you describe him, and describe him well, you will only have a few more questions. Then you will have anaesthetic and food.”

The description took some time; the man with the knife had an assistant who was an artist. He produced a sketch of the man, erasing bits and modifying them, down to small details. Presently he held up a draft that the prisoner nodded enthusiastically at.

That’s him. That’s just him. He looks like that. It’s like a photo. I’d recognize him from that.”

We can verify. We have other men who may have seen him,” said the man with the knife.

He’s real. I swear, that’s what he looks like; it’s good, I’d recognize him. I swear I would!”

Very well,” said the man with the knife, coldly. “Finally. You said that you were three months out of the joint US-British base at Gibraltar. Now tell us what you know about Gibraltar. Tell us about Gibraltar, her garrison, and her defenses.”

Snippet from Leo Champion’s Highway West

Leo Champion’s book, Highway West, will be coming later this month.  He’s asked me to post a sample here, which you should find enjoyable:

Chapter One

Lieutenant junior-grade Peter Ashford had just returned to the Kyrenia docks with his shore supply party when the first salvo slammed into his ship, which was moored a few hundred yards out in the mouth of the shallow harbor.

Oh shit, was his first reaction. There were two waterspouts and two explosions, one in the center of the USS Woodrow Wilson’s superstructure and the other by the stern. Thick smoke began to boil up from the stern area, by the cruiser’s main aft battery.

The local boats – lighters, skiffs and rowboats – that had been surrounding the Wilson, fled like water bugs, those that hadn’t been overturned by the forty-foot high waterpouts. People on the docks ran for cover. One of the delivery men with Ashford’s party dropped his wheelbarrow of fruit sacks and bolted. Chief Petty Officer Briggs, the senior NCO of Ashford’s eight-man party, muttered something vile and drew a very non-regulation automatic pistol from somewhere inside his jacket.

Ashford stood at the docks, numbly watching his ship die.

Men ran across the deck with fire extinguishers; others ran for the guns. The ship shuddered as secondary and tertiary explosions set the aft battery on fire, as the superstructure burned. The Wilson’s engines started and she moved slightly; her fore turrets begin to traverse to port.

How the hell? What the hell? Who the hell?

Alarm bells began to clang somewhere. No doubt the garrison of the harbor fort was going insane right now. Maybe this was a pre-emptive Greek strike on a misidentified target.

Another salvo hit the Wilson, at least two explosions and a huge waterspout. In one blazing explosion the fore part of the superstructure, including the bridge, simply vanished; smoke and blazing fire. A wave of secondary detonations rippled across the stern of the ship; the aft battery itself was ripped apart. Something at the very aft started to burn furiously, waves of heat making Ashford, more than a quarter of a mile away, turn his face. Men started to bail overboard.

Who the hell was doing this and why the hell?, Ashford wondered desperately. He wanted to turn and run or do something, but he couldn’t turn away. It was inconceivable that this could be happening.

The United States was not at war. Not on this side of the Atlantic, not even officially on the North American side. The Wilson was here for a few reasons, the main one being just to show the flag. Gathering intelligence and killing pirates were stated but secondary objectives. People out this way had to be reminded that the real United States was the secular East Coast government and not the fundamentalist theocracy inland.

Colorado, thought Ashford. They were the enemy he’d grown up hating, grown up fearing. But the Inland Republic governed from Colorado Springs, the false United States, didn’t have a navy – they didn’t have a coastline outside a few miles on Lake Michigan around the rebuilt ruins of Milwaukee. Most pirates used cigarette boats or fast sailboats. The Caliphate nations sponsoring them didn’t have ships capable of laying down this level of fire – their engineering mostly depended on slaves and was nowhere near good enough.

Some European nations disliked the United States, but they were fighting a constant low-intensity war against Islamic invasion and preparing right now for an imminent high-intensity one. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t do this.

The last time anybody in this part of the world had considered the United States of America to be their number one enemy had been a hundred and eighty years ago. Before the Pulses, in the near-legendary days of computers and jet aircraft and nuclear weapons. Back when there had been fifty stars on the United States flag.

Something drew his eyes to a dark shape, barely visible above the edge of the horizon. Tiny even in the binoculars his hands had unconsciously raised. Brutally-shaped and angular, without the elegant lines most cruisers had.

Not like Captain Reece to get caught with his pants down like that,” muttered Briggs. “Intelligence musta really fucked up. That or someone got the wrong target.”

Shit oh shit oh shit oh shit,” the newest of the enlisted men, Riden, was saying. Grundy, the second-ranking NCO of the party, said something and Riden shut up.

Ashford could empathize. It took an effort of self-control – I am an officer of the United States Navy, I am an Annapolis graduate and an officer of the United States Navy – to keep from gibbering in fear himself.

The Wilson was slowly turning to port, putting on steam, moving, trying to fight. There was a huge waterspout near the cruiser’s stern, a hundred-foot-high blast of water that swamped the fleeing small boats and drenched the men on the docks. Ashford barely noticed that he was soaked. One of the shells that hit went through the center of the cruiser’s already-blazing superstructure.

He had an instant to remember that seventy percent of the Wilson’s ammunition was in the amidships hold when the shell exploded.

Down!” yelled somebody in English. Ashford refused to move as his cruiser became the biggest explosion he had ever seen. A bigger explosion than he could ever have imagined. Pieces of metal rained across the port, zinged into the concrete docks, snipped into wooden trading boats and snicked through the metal roof of a truck’s cab.

Then there was nothing but thick grey smoke over the turgid water where Ashford’s ship had been. Of the six hundred and thirty men that Ashford and his party had gone out to buy food for, only the eight men of that party remained alive.

For what must have been half a minute, he stood there in shock. Not seeing, not thinking. A part of his mind watched for survivors and prayed for them, but nothing moved around the spots of burning flotsam.

Then something other than what the hell or oh God went through his mind. Something new.

That was the realization that he was alone with a handful of enlisted men, a thousand miles away from the base at Gibraltar and the nearest friends. Aside from his service automatic and whatever contraband weapons the enlisted men had, they were unarmed. They had no money to speak of. Between them and Gibraltar were pirates, hostile navies and an emerging New Great Jihad. The very nation he was in now, the Turkish Empire, was about to go to war with Greece.

And around them now were a thousand traders, spies, pirates and freelance killers who knew just how alone he and his seven men had suddenly become.

Shit,” Ashford said – almost casually – to Briggs. Nodding his head.

Shit,” he said again.

* * *

We need to sell this crap,” Briggs said. The eight of them were sitting in a large private room in the back of a shoreside tavern. Most of the room was filled to the ceiling with the supplies they’d bought. Chains of bananas, bags of dates, orange and lemons, sacks of flour and bundles of corn-sheaves. Shanks of beef and mutton. Strings of chickens tied together by their strangled necks. Several fresh meals for six hundred and thirty men. It took up a lot of space and had cost a lot of money.

Ashford nodded. He was just starting to understand that the Wilson’s destruction had been real.

Briggs had done most of the buying. Ashford came from a merchant’s family and spoke more than one language, but he barely understood the trade argot that they used here. It was a bit of Spanish, a bit of Italian and of Greek and Arabic, with no more than one in five words English. Briggs was an old-time Navy man who’d been tough when Ashford was a toddler. He didn’t know any individual foreign language, but he spoke the trade pidgins as though he’d been born to them.

Briggs scared Ashford. All those hard-core veteran enlisteds did. The line officers, the guys from old Navy families whose fathers and great-grandfathers also had Annapolis rings, knew how to deal with those guys. They had some kind of an instinct for it.

Ashford was the first in his family to be a peacetime, non-reserve member of any military service. He’d never served in a line command; he was twenty-six years old and his assignments had so far been political and logistical. This was – had been – his first shipboard duty, as the Wilson’s assistant supply officer.

Is it just my imagination, or does the chief have contempt for me? Come to think of it, he hasn’t called me ‘sir’ once in the half-hour since whoever-it-was killed the Wilson.

We need to sell it,” Ashford agreed. “We need the money. How much do you think we’ll be able to get for it?”

Not what we paid for it,” said Briggs. “Not eight-tenths.” He threw back another shot of whatever he had in his plastic flask. The other six enlisted men, sitting around the same table, watched the exchange between their two leaders.

Not when we have to unload the stuff quick,” Briggs went on, “and everyone knows it. We’ve got nowhere to store it if we don’t. If we’re lucky we’ll get three-quarters. This is a trade town. We should be able to do at least seven-tenths.”

Then we’ll keep what we can carry,” said Ashford. “Trade value, and we’ll need to eat ourselves. The rest – seven tenths of what we paid is just over six thousand dollars. That’s still a good bit of money.”

That it is,” Briggs agreed. The other men nodded themselves. The annual salary of an unrated seaman second-class was two hundred and five dollars. Most of these men made between three and four hundred dollars a year.

That’s seven hundred and fifty each way,” said the second-highest of the enlisted men, a petty officer named Grundy. He was short and wiry, middle-aged with a trimmed brown beard and a slightly bushier brown moustache, thinning brown hair and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from his mouth. Ashford had never seen Grundy without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. It wasn’t always lit, but it was always there.

That would be, if we were splitting up,” Ashford said. “To make Gibraltar, we’ll need to stay together and we’ll need all of it.”

Maybe,” said Grundy. “But think of it, jake. We got this payola, and we’re on Cyprus, and everyone in Charlestown’s gonna think we’re gone. When Charlietown hears about this, they’re gonna assume we died with everybody else. They’re not gonna come looking for us. Or for the money.”

Charlestown was the Admiralty, a catapulted stone’s throw from where Congress sat on Beacon Hill, in the old Massachusetts statehouse.

When they learn someone did a Pearl Harbor on the Wilson,” said Ashford. If this new enemy doesn’t hurt us worse before Boston gets the word. “They might hear that in three months, or they might hear it in a year if we don’t make it back.”

There. I’ve voiced the possibility. And now I’m going to overcome it.

We’re going to make it back,” Ashford continued. “We have easily enough money to get to the embassy in Athens, and then some. They’ll probably send us on to Gibraltar anyway, but Athens is the first step.”

And who says, Lieutenant, that we’re going to want to make it to the embassy?” asked Briggs.

Oh, God.

Ashford had been terrified beyond clear thought of this possibility. For these enlisted men, seven hundred and fifty dollars was a lot of money. Six grand was a fortune. And since Charlestown did have reason to consider them all dead men… Grundy was right. There wouldn’t be much of a search.

I say that we’re going to want to make it back to Gibraltar,” said Ashford with every ounce of firmness he could muster. “Because it’s our duty to. You saying you’re not going to do your duty, Briggs?”

That was supposed to be the question they couldn’t say no to, wasn’t it? It was a rhetorical question, but they’d say yes to it, that of course they were going to do their duty. And from there he’d remind them that it was their duty to obey orders.

Man has a duty to his nation,” Briggs agreed pleasantly. “Duty to himself and his shipmates, too. I been doing duty to this country since before you were born, LT. Fought under the Prez on Lake Michigan, almost got my balls blown off in St. Larry’s Gulf. Nobody can say I didn’t do my share of duty for the country. Reckon it’s now time I did some duty to myself. Man could set himself up pretty sweet out here, if he had some money to get himself going with. Seems to me like we’ve got that now.”

What?

Briggs had been a hard case aboard the ship. Of course he’d been. That was why Lieutenant Marning, the supply officer, had chosen him and these others to do the shore party, because they could handle themselves in a rough town and keep their nominal commander alive long enough to get some experience.

But Ashford had always thought the man – these men – to be basically loyal. Right? Right?

You’re kidding, Briggs,” said Ashford, trying to keep the edge of desperation out of his voice. “You realize that Charlestown will reward us when we get back. With a medal if nothing else.”

You, maybe. But you’ll get your cut of this,” Briggs said. “Seven fifty. Twelve and a half percent of this. You can go back, LT. Or you can come with us. Man with your book-knowledge could be handy, and you could do pretty good out here yourself.”

What the hell is it exactly that you plan to do?” Ashford stammered. He wasn’t even trying to sound commanding any more. All his Navy time until six months ago had been staff duties, because ship duty was for men with connections and nerve and aggression and he’d had none of those. And now, the first time he’d ever had anything remotely resembling an independent command, the men were deserting him right away.

Aegean Sea,” Briggs said. Grundy and the others nodded.

He’s their leader, Ashford thought bitterly. Not me. I’m just the guy with the rank. And since the nearest organization is at Gibraltar, the rank doesn’t mean shit.

Lots of little islands,” Briggs said. “Little territories. Bit of commerce. Slammies, Greekies, Turkeys, Eyeties, all fighting each other for a bit of it. Room for some independent operators, if there’s the startup money. Your family’s merchants – you know how to do books, and once you get the lingo you’ll probably be as shrewd as Grunds here. More money for you than Navy pay. Lot more, LT. Think about it.”

This is outright mutiny.

That thought clarified things. Mutiny. And it was. He could shoot men for mutiny. Kill the ringleaders, arrest them, throw them irons. The local authorities would co-operate with that, right? And then the others would fall into line.

He went for his gun. His hand was closing on the butt when there were the clicking sounds of two guns being cocked. Briggs was pointing his automatic at him. Another man, Henley, had a revolver on the table as well.

Don’t, LT. Please don’t,” said Grundy. “Killed me an ossifer down in the Free City of St. Louis once. Don’t wanna kill another one, not today. You’re a nice kid and all, but if you don’t get your hands palm down on this table here by the count of three, you’re not gonna have a head.”

Briggs’ tone was calm and friendly. The gaping mouth of his huge .48, eighteen inches from Ashford’s eyes, was all the emphasis he needed. Slowly, Ashford complied.

Good boy,” Briggs said. “If you didn’t wanna come along, you might’ve just said so. You’d have had your piece and the freedom to make it back to the Rock yourself if that’s what you wanted to do with it.”

Can’t trust him to agree we’re dead now,” said Grundy. “I say we zag him.”

A long, slender knife was in Grundy’s hand.

Briggs shook his head.

Not `less we got to, Grunds. I can see the good business sense in that, but I’m not gonna have murder on my conscience `less we have to, and I’m hoping that we still don’t. Pour the man a drink. Looks like he needs it.”

We all do,” said Riden, the youngest of the enlisteds.

You ain’t gonna have one, not now. We got things to do that we can’t accomplish drunk,” said Briggs firmly. “But the LT here, he hasn’t got a lot to do right now. Not things that we won’t be doing for him. Drink up, jake.”

Henley’s revolver was still on the table, pointed in his direction. Ashford took the metal shot-glass Grundy had poured, threw it back. The liquor tasted like burning sewage; it wasn’t local, must have come from some hidden distillery that one of the men had operated on board the Wilson. Ashford spluttered. His stomach churned as the vile stuff hit. Unable to speak, he gestured with a hand for a chaser – some water, anything.

Take another one, LT.”

No, thanks,” Ashford made himself say. It hurt to speak with that burning acid in his throat. “One’s enough.”

Wasn’t a request, LT.”

A second shot was placed on the table in front of Ashford. Conscious of the gun pointed at him, he gritted his teeth and raised the glass.

Another officer would have found something to say to bring these men on side.

A combat officer would have overpowered them or something.

I should not be letting them do this.

Pour the jake a glass of water,” said Briggs. “He can have a chaser after this one. Promise it’ll be your last, sir.”

There was something in the chief’s tone that made Ashford uneasy. Even more uneasy. It wouldn’t be poisoned or anything, would it?

Of course not. If they wanted to kill him, they’d slit his throat or shoot him. Murdered corpses were probably routine in a district like this, in a town like this. They just wanted him drunk.

Two shots wouldn’t do that, but they’d definitely get to him. This stuff was almost pure alcohol.

He could see Grundy getting ready to say something. Images of a man giving the ready-aim-fire commands to the firing squad at his own execution came to mind.

Die like a man.

He raised the shot glass and chugged it down. There was something different, something heavier, about the taste of the second one. He reached for the glass of water Grundy had put on the table.

The room seemed to waver. His reaching hand shook. Everything was like a blurred telescope, out of focus. No – a broken, shattered lens. Had it gotten so dark so suddenly? Had one of those bastard mutineers turned out the lights? Why – why was everything spinning?

Two… yes, two… shots… weren’t – he felt himself stifle a vomit-reflex – weren’t… meant… to do something… like… like… huh?… like…?

You bastards poisoned me, came through as a single, final, coherent thought before the black hammer hit.

* * *

A fragmentary notion – a dream, perhaps? – of loud shouting above him, and a gunshot. Movement and perhaps a scream as the notion or the dream faded away again into darkness.

* * *

The blazing sun woke him. He was looking up at one of those beautiful azure Mediterranean skies, with the sun almost directly overhead, a large part of it obscured by a dirty white sailcloth.

He was naked except for his briefs, he realized as his consciousness slowly returned, and he was lying on beaten wood that had to be a ship’s deck.

Memories came back to him of what had happened. The Wilson’s destruction and Briggs’ betrayal; Briggs poisoning him with something in the alcohol that they’d forced him to drink.

So why was he still alive?

Either the stuff had only been a knockout drug, or it hadn’t worked.

Briggs had wanted to poison him so that no reliable witnesses could ever tell Charlestown that there’d been survivors from the Wilson. That was a motivation; Ashford had spent enough time around politics, and in his family’s merchant business, to understand just how valid a motivation that was. It was that thought – coupled with if they’d meant to kill me, why am I alive now? – that made him keep still.

Wherever he was, it was likely that he was some kind of a prisoner. There was a thriving slave market in the Black Sea, Turkey and the Caliphates. If he was a prisoner and he wasn’t tied down, he wanted time to think and look before making it apparent that he was now awake.

Slowly, carefully, he turned his head to the left. This boat was moving, but the deck rails prevented him from getting any view of where they were. From the roll, it wasn’t a large boat. He was at the very bow of it, his head on a coiled rope. A grappling hook lay nearby. The big fore sail, on a mast about ten feet away, obscured the rest of his view.

A barefoot brown man wearing baggy pants, a loose sheepskin vest and a red bandanna came past. His back was to Ashford and he carried a heavy net. He shouted in a language that Taylor recognized as Turkish; from the handful of words he’d picked up, something about turning and nets.

I’m on a fishing boat, he thought. That didn’t make sense; slavers generally had their own ships. For that matter, why wasn’t he tied?

A moment later, whoever was at the tiller obeyed. The boat swung starboard. The billowing fore sail billowed a good bit less, and the sea became a fraction heavier. There was more shouting from the aft, words Ashford didn’t understand.

Behind the sail was a small wheelhouse. The man with the red bandanna came back to pull and refasten a couple of ropes, trimming the sail a bit tighter. Something splashed into the water.

I hurt, Ashford realized. His stomach felt vile, and there was a dull ache in the back of his head. A general pain covered his whole body, with particular emphasis on his chest and his throat. It took hard effort not to reach up and feel the sources of those pains.

Why the hell am I on a fishing boat?

Someone thinking he was dead, taking him out to deep water so as to tie weights to his corpse and dump him?

In Boston that would be plausible, or Plymouth. This was Cyprus. Dead foreigners weren’t a law-enforcement problem to local authorities in this part of the world, they were a trash-disposal problem.

Briggs being really careful?

If Briggs was being careful enough to do this, he’d have been careful enough to cut his throat or tie him up. This made no sense.

More shouting in the same language, something about a hundred something.

Another man came by, wearing baggy brown pants tied at the ankles and an open leather vest. He ducked under the sail and went over to where Ashford lay. The fact that this man wasn’t armed – outside a small utility knife on his belt – was what caused Ashford to fully open his eyes and stop pretending to be unconscious.

A second later it occurred to Ashford that those pants were baggy enough to conceal a light machine-gun. By then it was too late.

You awake, then?” the man asked in heavily-accented English.

Yes,” Ashford said. “Where am I?”

Now that he’d stopped pretending to be unconscious, there was no point lying on his back. He got up to a sitting position, where he found that his chest, his arms and his legs were mildly sunburned. The cause of the sharper pain was a long but apparently shallow slash along his lower biceps, visible by a wide streak of yellow salve. They were at sea with no land visible, but a handful of other fishing boats in the middle distance indicated that they probably weren’t too far out.

He turned back to the man, who was squatting next to him. He had sharp features, intelligent eyes and looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties. He was short and stocky, with heavy muscles visible under his vest. His black hair was cut short on the sides and tied into a shoulder-length ponytail in back.

You are on Corianna’s Pride,” he said. “Fishing boat. You feeling alright?”

There was pain in his neck, too. Ashford touched it, and felt sticky salve across his throat.

Did not do it right,” said the man. “They were disturbed.”

Ashford nodded dumbly.

They poisoned me and then tried to cut my throat for good measure.

I’m Pete Ashford,” he said. “Who are you, and what happened? How did I get here?”

My name is Hiram Najif. First mate and part owner of this fine vessel. You are United States Navy?”

Ashford nodded. The motion made his throat hurt.

Lieutenant junior-grade Pete Ashford,” he said, extending a hand.

Najif shook it.

I had thought that, an officer. You are a lucky man, Lieutenant Ashford.”

I’m alive,” Ashford said. “You said that someone was trying to cut my throat, and they were disturbed?”

Disturbed by my friends and I,” said Najif. He produced a flask. “Would you like a drink of water?”

Yes. Very much. He took the flask and drank greedily from it. It tasted good.

Then I owe you and your friends,” Ashford said. He sat up straighter. He was fine; aside from those cuts and a couple more scratches on his arms and his legs, he’d really felt worse after a heavy night’s drinking.

What happened, exactly?” he asked. “You said they were trying to cut my throat?”

Two men, in back of one of the Corsair taverns,” said Najif. “You were in whites that could have belonged to any Western sailors, but it was in English that I heard one of the men talking. About doing the lieutenant for good and all so that he never wakes up. From that, I decided that you might have been a British or American navy officer.”

Ashford nodded.

So you and your friends stepped in?”

In the Nicholas of time. The one who was talking was bending down with a knife. I was walking home, with three of my friends who were drunk. In the Corsair district it is always wise, you see, to have a man in the group who does not get drunk. Last night it was my turn.”

I attacked the man who was going to cut your throat; I pushed him hard out of the way. The younger man was probably meant to be the lookout, but he was not paying attention; he had been watching his friend. That man hit one of my friends, who was drunk; we had a short fight, my three friends who were drunk against those two, while I tried to carry you away.”

The man who had been trying to cut your throat, he tried again to cut you as I carried you away; I was forced to kick him in the face so he would give up. Then my friends and I, we were able to get away with you slung between two of us. We ran fast because the men who tried to cut you, they might have had more of their own friends.”

Briggs and those bastards.

When he found them, he was going to kill them.

Never in his life until now had he felt this kind of anger.

Those mutineering traitors abandoned their duty and tried to murder me. I’m going to personally shoot Briggs and see the rest hang.

Najif was looking at him.

Yes, they had friends,” said Ashford. “Seven of them. Thanks for saving me. You realize I don’t have any money?”

And your ship was destroyed yesterday afternoon. I was near the ship that did the killing, only a mile away. She had no flag. But you are an American.”

And that makes me a god, I suppose.

No – this wasn’t the Pacific. And those stories were probably lies in the first place.

Get up, Lieutenant Ashford. Would you like to get dressed?”

Yes. Thank you.”

I undressed you because wounds like yours, they need air so they can heal. So the medicine can work. Your clothes are in the wheelhouse.”

As well as the yellow salve, there was something on his body that seemed to be some kind of suntan lotion.

The boat appeared to have a crew of about half a dozen men. Most of them were tending nets right now; they turned as Najf and Ashford passed, staring at the half-naked American officer whose throat had almost been cut.

It was a relief to find his clothes in the wheelhouse. Najif was right, though – not just his rank insignia but all identification had been removed. His cap and coat were missing and his shirt wasn’t much more than a white civilian shirt, tattered from where the flags, rank tabs and ship name had been torn away. It still felt good to get dressed.

His gun was gone, of course, along with everything else from his pockets. His wallet, the Dear John letter from Susannah that he’d been carrying out of morbid self-pity since Gibraltar, and even the handful of pocket change he’d carried. And his Annapolis ring.

Briggs, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you.

No – taking the word back to Gibraltar had to take priority. Duty above revenge. Besides, in his current situation – unarmed, no money – it would be a difficult question as to how he was going to do either.

You look like an officer,” said Najif. “You look educated.”

Thanks,” Ashford said warily.

This is the Mediterranean, he thought. Nobody does favors for free here.

What do you plan to do now, Mr. Lieutenant Ashford?” asked Najif.

I’m going to go find that mutineering bastard Briggs and kill him.” There was a raw satisfaction in saying that. A feeling of violent freedom that he’d never before felt. He wasn’t quite sure if he liked it.

And I’m going to go back to Gibraltar, to report my ship’s destruction. It might take them six months to hear of it otherwise, and it could be a year before they have the fact verified. Anything could happen in that time.”

And then the United States?” asked Najif. “Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have always wanted to see the United States. I have heard the old stories about the United States of All North America, whose land spread from ocean to ocean and which ruled the world. I have heard good things about the United States of the Eastern Coast.”

It’s a pretty good place,” Ashford agreed. Wary again.

How do you plan to get to Gibraltar, without money and without a ship and without your men?”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

He’d figure that out when he got to shore. If he had to, he’d work his way there as a common seaman. That would take a long time and probably be dangerous. Not to mention difficult – he didn’t have the skills to be a common crewman on most of the ships that plied the Mediterranean nowadays.

I’ll figure something out. Why do you ask?”

Mr. Lieutenant Ashford, I have heard that the United States always takes care of its friends,” said Najif. “The old stories said so, and so do the stories I have heard from more recently. Mr. Lieutenant, this part of the world is poor and primitive and dangerous compared to all I have heard of the United States. Your country is somewhere a man does not need family or violence in order to get rich.”

Ashford nodded. He was far too much the political staff-officer not to see the slightly calculating look on the fisherman’s face.

Mr. Ashford, I saved your life. Because I like the stories I have heard of America, and because I hope your country will reward its friends. Your mission is probably an important one; your country’s commanders will want to know that their cruiser has been lost with almost all hands, and that they have an unpleasant new enemy, and that some of their men have become traitors.”

I will help you to Gibraltar to bring this news, Mr. Lieutenant, if you will help me the rest of the way to the United States. I hear that a man needs a permit to live there and those permits are not always granted, especially when a man has dark skin. I need a permit. Can you do that?”

He wants a green card.

Well, those had been handed out for this sort of thing in the past. Alongside, sometimes, fair-sized sums of money. The Navy didn’t have direct authority to give those things out – the Department of State jealously guarded its power in that regard – but Ashford had made friends on Beacon Hill. For that matter, his family had a couple of friends, too. And the loss of the Wilson was big enough, important enough, that the case would probably stand on its own merits anyway. State was nowhere near as unreasonable as most line officers seemed to think they were.

He extended a hand.

Mr. Najif, help me get to Gibraltar, and I’ll do everything I can to get you a green card.”

The fisherman beamed; he clasped both of his hands around Ashford’s right and shook eagerly.

We have made a deal, then,” he said. “I hear Americans are good at that.”

***

Highway West will be available at the end of March.

 

Fenris Unchained

Fenris Unchained

 

The Wolf is Loose.

Ten years ago, after her parents’ deaths in a terrorist attack, Melanie Armstrong walked away from a military officer’s career to raise her orphaned brother.

Since then she’s been captain of a tramp freighter – shuffling from world to world, scraping to barely get by, but content that she’s made the right decision.

But when her ship crashes, authorities make her an offer: take a fifteen-year sentence on a prison world where the average lifespan is a third of that… or stop an ancient and until-now forgotten robotic warship, the Fenris, from completing its hundred-year-old mission to kill millions of people and destroy a planet.

 

My latest novel, Fenris Unchained, is now available on Amazon and Smashwords.

New Review For The Fallen Race

The Fallen Race Book I of The Shadow Space Chronicles
The Fallen Race
Book I of The Shadow Space Chronicles

There’s a new review up for The Fallen Race from Planetary Defense Command.  He reviewed the audio version.  Check it out, and be sure to check out some of his other reviews!

Baron Lucius Giovanni, Captain of the battleship War Shrike, finds himself without a home or nation, his ship heavily damaged, and crew in bad shape. The odds against their personal survival are slim. The time of humanity has come to a close. The great nations have all fallen, either to the encroaching alien threats or to internal fighting and civil war. The aliens who seek to supplant humanity, however, have not taken one thing into account: Lucius Giovanni. He and his crew will not give up – not while they still draw breath. If this is to be the fall of humanity, then the crew of the War Shrike will go down fighting…and in the heat of that fight, they may just light a new fire for humanity….

The Fallen Race is available from Amazon, Audible, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords and Kobo.  If you’ve already read The Fallen Race, be sure to check out its sequel, The Shattered Empire.

 

 

The Shattered Empire Final Sample

Here’s the final section from The Shattered Empire.  Here’s the first, second, third, and fourth samples if you missed them.

Eldorado, Garris Major System

Colonial Republic

May 3, 2403

Mason and Lauren followed the ornately dressed monk towards the pillars of the monastery. After his initial announcement, he had deflected Mason’s other questions. Lauren found him irritating. She didn’t hold with holy men, not of any stripe. In her mind, any kind of higher power would have gotten itself involved already if it cared. What that meant was that either God didn’t exist or he didn’t care, in Lauren’s book.

What that left holy men, in her regard, was either dupes or charlatans. The obvious intelligence of the monk suggested that he was the latter. They stepped under the awning of the monastery. The large stone pillars that upheld the ornate roof also divided the structure into separate areas. Up close, Lauren could see that there were a number of glass display cases, which had held what looked like scrolls, stone tablets, and other odd artifacts. Had being the operative word, Lauren thought dryly.

Someone had smashed the glass cases and torn bits of ancient parchment, smashed stone tablets, and broken glass littered the floors. Overturned tables marked a swath of destruction. The damage was complete and utterly thorough.

Mason turned to Lan, “I’m so sorry. This is my fault…”

“This is the fault of the men who did it,” Lan said, his voice calm. “I did not show you this to make you feel guilt, I showed you it so that you can see the determination of those who hunt you.”

“What else did they do?” Mason asked. There was a detached tone to his voice, almost as if he were tapping into some part of him that did not involve emotion.

“When I initially refused to divulge your location, they first threatened the collection of items we had here. I refused, so they destroyed them. They then threatened my people. However, I made it clear that not only would we not cooperate, but that I would kill myself rather than capitulate,” Lan said.

Mason winced. Lauren gave the old man a skeptical look. Passive resistance in that form only went so far, in her mind. Granted, the mercenaries needed him alive, but she didn’t see how the man could prove his determination short of acting on it. Lan caught her look and gave her a small smile, he raised his wrists. She saw, with shock, that he had two bandages, one over each of his wrists.

“The mercenaries moved quickly to have a doctor save my life. After that, they did not further threaten my people, they merely made a recording, threatening the monastery, which they said they posted.”

Mason sighed, “I’m sorry, Lan. I’ve been out of contact for the past few months with no way to find their message. Otherwise, I would have come sooner.”

“Then I am disappointed in you,” Lan said, his voice calm. “I had assumed you realized that showing up would further endanger us, so you stayed away. The mercenaries would have left, eventually. Perhaps, then, they would have lived.” Lan turned, “I see that you have returned to violence.” The way he said it, Lauren could tell it wasn’t a question.

Mason looked away. “Some things happened.”

“As I expected,” Lan said. “As happened here, the last time my people were under threat.” The monk sighed. “This, Mason, is why you had to leave before.”

“Because he defends the people he cares about?” Lauren snapped. She was tired of seeing Mason lectured. Yes, he had done terrible things. Yes, he had a core of violence. If he used that in the right way, she didn’t see the issue.

“No, because his path, as always, is a different one,” Lan said. “I would not take a wolf pup, shear it, force it to eat grain, and run with the flock. To do so is to wrong the wolf and threatens the flock.” Lan cocked his head, “I might, instead, raise the wolf pup to protect the flock, feed it meat, and tame it… but again, this would be to wrong the wolf. This is not the path of the wolf.” Lan’s gaze was calm as he met Lauren’s eyes. “The wolf is a predator. He is not a sheep dog. He is not a sheep. He must hunt, must kill, it is in his nature.”

Mason sighed, “So, what, you want me to return to what I was?”

“The wolf who kills for no reason is not along his path either,” Lan said. “The wolf that hunts alone, without a pack, is less than himself.” The old man shrugged. “Truly, I merely wish for you to find the path that is right for you… and in that, I think you will finally find peace.”

Mason turned away. He took a deep breath as he stared down at the ruins of the artifacts. “I’m sorry about what happened here.”

“Do not be,” Lan said. “They are just objects, of little importance.” He smiled slightly, “Besides, we keep the actual ones hidden away, this is just what we show the tourists.” Despite herself, Lauren gave a snort. Perhaps Lan wasn’t so bad after all.

Mason said, “I need to find out where they came from and what they wanted with… Tommy King.”

“They spoke of their employer several times,” Lan said. He pulled a slip of paper from inside his robes. “One of my younger monks followed them and found that this was the contact code they used at the planetary ansible.”

Mason took the slip of paper. “Whatever you feel about this, I know it is my fault.” Lauren hated the tone of defeat in his voice.

“Fault is inconsequential,” Lan answered. “To use terms of blame and fault is to imply causality, to suggest that man is stripped of choice, that we act only in response to others.” He cocked his head, “All men have free will… you have a choice, now, just as these other men did. What you do with it is up to you.”

Lauren shivered at his words. They were outwardly calm, yet there was a sense of warning and knowledge there… as well as resignation. Lan knew what choice Mason would take, yet he warned him anyway. If he really wanted to stop Mason, he wouldn’t have given him the paper, Lauren thought. She watched Mason as he walked away with slumped shoulders.

Almost as if he had read her mind, Lan spoke, “To deny him the information would be to deny him free will, you know.”

Lauren looked sharply at the old monk. “Free will is overrated. I’d rather have a happy, ignorant life. Since I can’t have that, I just want revenge.”

“How can one be happy without freedom?” Lan asked.

Lauren shook her head, “I don’t have time for your riddles, old man.” She looked him in the eyes, “And if you really gave a damn about Mason, you’d have protected him from the only choice he could make. He spent a decade or more burying Tommy King.”

“A wolf could never be happy living as a sheep,” Lan said, his voice sad. “Nor, despite what it tells itself, would it find happiness in denial and isolation.”

All of the parables and similes and his odd behavior just became too much. Lauren wasn’t certain if Lan wanted Mason to return to being the pirate Tommy King or if he didn’t. For that matter, half of what he said sounded almost as if he said Tommy King wasn’t a bad man. She stared at the old monk for a long moment as she searched for the right words. Eventually, she settled on the truth.

She glared at him suspiciously. “You are weird,” Lauren finally said.

***

The Shattered Empire will be available on Amazon on the 25th of October, 2014.  Read below for the blurb.

Baron Lucius Giovanni has managed to buy the human race a brief reprieve from the two alien races which seek humanity’s extinction. In the process he has become the leader of a new nation and the commander of a powerful fleet. However, victory comes with consequences. Without an imminent threat, old feuds have sparked back to life and tenuous alliances falter. There are also old enemies who cannot forget that Lucius has what they wanted. He must find a way to hold off scheming rivals, sociopathic psychics, and even former friends. If he can’t do all that and take the fight to humanity’s true enemies, billions may die under alien servitude.

The Shattered Empire Fourth Sample

Here’s the fourth sample of The Shattered Empire.  Follow the links to read the first, second, and third samples.

Halcyon, Garris Major System

Contested

May 3, 2403

Garret yawned and stretched as he climbed out of the cockpit. His long, lean frame fit into the cockpit of his Hammer, but only barely. He ran a hand over his shaved scalp and then reached down and offered Heller his hand. As usual, she ignored it and pulled her light body out with one hand. Garret sighed, “You know, I’m just being polite?”

“Ya,” Heller said. “I’m being polite by not breaking your wrist.”

Garret sighed again, “You know, I couldn’t fly with a broken wrist.” Normally a frown on his hard, dark face was reason enough for someone to change their attitude, especially backed by his size.

“This is reason for politeness,” Heller said as she dusted off her flight suit, doffed her helmet, and put her ear-buds in. Her voice grew a bit louder, “It would take me too long to train new pilot, ya?”

“Right,” Garret said. He shook his head as he turned away, but he didn’t even try to hide his smile. Heller was eccentric, to say the least, but she was a great auxiliary officer on his Hammer.

“Commander Penwaithe,” a voice spoke from behind him.

Garret turned and grimaced to find a man in a black uniform. He recognized it as Nova Roman, which meant he was one of Admiral Mannetti’s people, “Yes?” He recognized the tabs on the man’s uniform, he was a commander as well, apparently. Like most of Mannetti’s people, his uniform did away with any form of identification. Either they liked to keep people guessing who they were dealing with or it was some kind of stylistic choice, much like her infamous low-cut uniform.

“Commodore Pierce sent me to speak with you,” the officer said. “Admiral Mannetti is preparing a raid and the locals are going to accompany us for combat experience.” The smirk on his face told Garret just what he thought of that. “We’re cross-loading some of your missiles to the locals, until they’re able to replace some of their stocks.”

Garret grimaced. They’d captured Heinlein Base intact, but like many officers in the Colonial Republic, it’s garrison commander had been corrupt. He’d sold off most of his stockpile of munitions to the black market, which meant that the locals had a paltry reserve to draw upon after the War Dogs had turned over the Colonial Republic ships to them. In theory, Admiral Mannetti could have made up that lack from the ships she’d captured. Of course, she’d moved those to one of her bases ‘for repairs.’

Garret seriously doubted she’d ever turn over any of the ships and he had some dark suspicions about what had happened to the prisoners she promised to ‘repatriate’ to the Centauri Confederation.

Of course, the people of Halcyon Colony didn’t ask many questions, in that regard. Their allies and hired help had come through, and they had liberated the planet. But funding was tight, the Colonial Republic had cut all trade and the Centauri Confederation had already threatened to retaliate for the loss of their ships and the profit of Nova Corp.

So now the locals had turned to privateering… which meant more work for the War Dogs, of course, but it also meant stronger ties to a pirate. A generous man would have assumed that it was just one of those things that happened. Garret being an experienced mercenary figured it was all according to Admiral Mannetti’s plan… and that the long term survival of his former homeworld was in far graver jeopardy than it’s inhabitants realized.

“I assume that Commodore Pierce has already received payment for the transfer?” Garret asked. Wherever his loyalties might, in theory, lie, he was still a mercenary. Payment of goods and services was a necessity, especially for when this entire enterprise fell apart and the people of Halcyon colony were left holding the bag.

“Of course,” the nameless commander answered.

“Great,” Garret smiled. He knew his white, even teeth would stand out starkly on his dark face and seem even more friendly. “I’ll just call Commodore Pierce, then, to confirm and see how many we’ve been paid for already.”

The nameless commander grimaced, “Oh, well, that’s fine. I, uh, meant to say that the President of Halcyon authorized a transfer for payment and I can arrange delivery.”

“Excellent,” Garret said and his smile grew broader. “I’ll wait then, until the payment arrives.”

The commander grimaced, again, “Usually this sort of thing is done on trust.”

“Good, then you can trust me to transfer the munitions upon receipt of payment,” Garret said. “In the meantime, I’ve got some preparations to make.” Garret turned away and didn’t bother to listen for a reply. He could almost hear the other man’s teeth grind in frustration. He listened as the other man struggled a moment to think up some way to dig himself out of the hole he’d dug and then turned and stalked away. This kind of move was exactly the sleazy treatment he’d come to expect from Mannetti’s people. Why, after all, did they need to even pretend to be fair to the hired help?

Garret loved to turn that around on one of them, especially since he had caught the other man trying to cheat him. The War Dogs couldn’t afford the best munitions, but if they were transferring over enough to augment the Halcyon ships, then it would a quantity be worth hundreds of thousands in any currency worth mentioning. The crews of those ships needed those munitions, Garret didn’t doubt. So far, they and the War Dogs had gone on two similar ‘raids’ with Admiral Mannetti. To Garret, it looked more like the Admiral wanted to use them in high visibility missions to lessen her own exposure.

Commodore Pierce had remained remarkably quiet about why they had remained under the contract at Garris Major. Garret had fully expected news that they would depart just after they’d turned over Heinlein Base to the locals. Instead, the Commodore had attended a number of meetings with the newly elected President Monaghan and his staff. One of dad’s old cronies, Garret thought, if I remember right.

“You want me to let them know to prepare to transfer the missiles?” Heller asked. Her light voice and thick accent somehow managed to make even that sound sexy, Garret noted. He nodded, “Yeah, but don’t authorize movement until payment clears.”

“Ya, of course,” Heller said with a roll of her eyes. She popped her ear-buds back in and bounced away. The small, blonde woman looked almost like a teenager as she flounced away.

Garret just shook his head and headed for the War Dogs offices. The huge bays of Heinlein Base were originally built for commerce, but they served more than adequately for warships. His eyes picked out the men and women of his squadron as they moved out after the patrol. Clint, Jason, and Caela headed with purpose towards the civilian section, no doubt to find a card game and company. Ted, more cerebral, looked to be headed for the barracks, no doubt to dive into a book or one of his strategy games. Jay and Ahmad both had girlfriends among the crew and they headed off together in a rush that made Garret smirk a bit.

The other four, Hugh, Tyrone, Jacel, and Jude, all oversaw the post-flight maintenance as the flight crews serviced their Hammers. The big gunboats required extensive maintenance after each flight, far more than a fighter or even dedicated bomber. The gun systems, especially, caused intense structural stresses on their hulls, but also all of the auxiliary systems, engines, and every other part of the big craft needed a full inspection after each flight and extensive maintenance.

Garret worked his way over to the War Dogs’s offices. Almost as soon as he stepped inside, he found Commodore Pierce waiting. “What’s this I hear about you refusing to transfer munitions?”

Garret sighed, “Not refusing, just requiring proof of payment, first, sir.”

“Well, good job, then,” Commodore Pierce said. “It didn’t sound right when that sniveling worm called me a moment ago. How did the patrol go?”

That was one thing that Garret loved about the War Dogs. Some mercenary companies went with rigid military structures and enforced draconian discipline, to the point that reporting was an intensive process. “No sign of any activity from the RLF at Eldorado, but we didn’t have time to linger and do a full scan. I uploaded our data already to our network, if you want, I’ll go brief Josh on it.” Captain Josh Wachope was the War Dogs’ operations officer.

“Nah, he’ll want to review it and compare it to what Mannetti’s people sent us from last week. I think they filtered their sensor data before they turned it over.” The tall, blonde man shook his head, “I’m about entirely fed up with those lying bastards at this point. If not for…” he trailed off and shot Garret a sharp glance. “Well, let’s just say that the locals are lucky we’re still here.”

“Right,” Garret nodded. It was reassuring, in many ways, to see that the Commodore had the same feeling as far as Admiral Mannetti. At the same time, Garret felt uncomfortable about the thought of leaving the planet to her tender mercies, especially since they didn’t seem to realize how dangerous their alliance with her was becoming. In some ways, the War Dogs prevented Admiral Mannetti from entirely leveraging the colony into her pocket.

“Garret,” Pierce’s tone changed and Garret heard the slightest hesitation in the other man’s voice. “I know that you are originally from Halcyon. I haven’t brought it up before… I know damned well where your loyalty lies.”

Garret stood a little straighter at that. His face flushed, though with his dark complexion it would have been hard to tell. The War Dogs weren’t just any mercenary company, in many ways they were family. Better than his family had been, anyway. “Thank you, sir.”

The Commodore shrugged, “Just calling things the way I see them.” He cleared his throat, “However… I wonder if you might have contacts, here?”

“What do you mean by that, sir?” Garret asked. He felt uneasy at the thought. Granted, he hadn’t any loyalty to the planet, but the way his superior had phrased it, it almost sounded as if they were talking about spying on their employers. Which is just good business sense for a mercenary company, Garret thought.

“Friends, former companions, even family,” Commodore Pierce said. “Anyone that you can talk with, possibly even leverage. There’s more here than their struggle for independence, you’ve seen that. Hell, it’s half the talk of our company. The shift to privateering went too quickly, their crews were too eager, and their government is getting too friendly with the likes of Admiral Mannetti and Admiral Collae.”

Garret shrugged uncomfortably. Not that he disagreed. “Sir, what does that have to do with us?” Granted, Admiral Mannetti and her people were snakes, but Admiral Collae had something of a good reputation as an opponent to the corrupt leaders of many of the Colonial Republic systems.

“I want to know why they’re making such a big deal about such a backwater world. They pissed in the faces of the Centauri Confederation and they seem to count on the likes of Admiral Mannetti to keep them safe… and I want to know why they trust a pirate so much and what leverage they think they have on her. Because if their assumptions are wrong… we’re going to be left holding the bag.” Pierce leaned back against the wall, “And I don’t like being left holding the bag.”

“Yes, sir,” Garret said. He frowned in thought. When he’d left, he hadn’t stayed in touch with anyone, for good reason. My father was vindictive enough, Garret thought darkly, that he would have used my old friends against me. Of course, he could always try to to talk to Jessica…

“I’ll figure something out, sir,” Garret said. Yet he felt a spike of unease. If there was some mysterious leverage, then he didn’t doubt that his father was involved up to his neatly trimmed beard. Spencer Penwaithe lived off of wealth and power like food and drink… and his plots were always labyrinthine. For that matter, the new President was one of his father’s old cronies, which basically ensured that his father was running things, or thought he was, from behind the scenes. Getting involved in this would almost definitely draw him into his father’s schemes yet again. On the other hand, with the fate of the War Dogs on the line, there wasn’t really much choice. Garret let out a deep breath, “After all, I remember where my loyalty lies.”

“Good,” Commodore Pierce gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Oh, and when Mannetti’s people call you back on the missiles, tell them there was an accounting error and that we’re hiking the price by ten percent.”

***

The Shattered Empire will be available on Amazon on the 25th of October, 2014.  Read below for the blurb.

Baron Lucius Giovanni has managed to buy the human race a brief reprieve from the two alien races which seek humanity’s extinction. In the process he has become the leader of a new nation and the commander of a powerful fleet. However, victory comes with consequences. Without an imminent threat, old feuds have sparked back to life and tenuous alliances falter. There are also old enemies who cannot forget that Lucius has what they wanted. He must find a way to hold off scheming rivals, sociopathic psychics, and even former friends. If he can’t do all that and take the fight to humanity’s true enemies, billions may die under alien servitude.

The Shattered Empire Third Sample

Here’s the third section from The Shattered Empire!  Follow the links to read the first and second ones.

 

Eldorado, Garris Major System

Colonial Republic

May 3rd, 2403

Lauren Kelly stepped down off the loading ramp and took a deep breath of fresh air. She coughed it out almost immediately as the acrid fumes of the spaceport cut into the back of her throat. Her companion continued down the ramp. His long, panther-like stride took him to where a customs agent waited. Lauren watched the two speak briefly. She didn’t see when Mason slipped the agent a bribe, but a moment later the other man left. “How much did that cost us?” She asked.

Mason turned. “More than I’d like. I guess there’s some kind of revolution going on in the system. We aren’t carrying a prohibited cargo, but I didn’t want him looking at our navigation computer and wondering what we have to do with what’s going on in Faraday.”

“Do you think they’ve heard anything here yet?” Lauren asked. She wasn’t terribly surprised about some kind of revolt here. More than half the systems in the Colonial Republic had insurrections or uprisings. Most of those were from fractured ethnic or political lines, though some were ostensibly about freedom.

“About your Baron Lucius?” Mason smirked, even as his eyes swept the dingy landing pad for eavesdroppers. “Probably about his defeat of the Chxor at Faraday. Definitely rumors about the Dreyfus Fleet.” He stepped forward and took her duffel off her shoulder. He spoke the next part in a low tone, “Hopefully they’ve heard nothing about Mason McGann’s involvement.”

Lauren nodded, oddly relieved that she, at least, had no personal infamy to worry about She had possessed somewhat of a reputation back at Faraday for her actions during a mutiny aboard a Chxor ship and later during a ground attack against a planetary defense base. Neither of those put her remotely near as juicy a subject of discussion as a former pirate turned smuggler who’d once run with Tommy King. Even that must be easier than actually being Tommy King.

“Let’s go, I’ve locked down the ship, and there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Mason said. Lauren smiled slightly, glad to see the eagerness in his face. His expression had looked so hard in the aftermath of the battle against the Chxor.

“Who’s this, I thought you didn’t have any friends?” Lauren asked.

He led the way through a doorway and then out into the crowded streets. “I don’t,” Mason said, over his shoulder. “He’s more like a teacher.” Something in his voice suggested that their relationship was more friendship than he would like to admit.

The industrial smell of the spaceport blended with the stench of unwashed bodies and the faint reek of an open sewer. Lauren fought back a memory of her childhood raised under Chxor occupation. She clenched her fists and blinked away sudden tears.

She continued to follow Mason, though her enjoyment of being on a new world had vanished with the memories of the one she’d been born to. She absently wondered if she would ever kill enough Chxor to make her feel better about her childhood. No… not ever, she thought, not even if I could kill them all at once. She’d become so caught up in her own thoughts that she nearly ran into Mason’s back when he stopped suddenly.

The first thing she noticed was the sudden tensing of his shoulders. “Mason?”

He slowly set her duffel down, “Wait here.”

He stepped forward and she saw his hands brush his prayer beads. A moment later, those same hands came to rest on his holstered pistols.

Lauren sidestepped into a nearby doorway and her hand fell to her own pistol. The street Mason had led her down seemed to empty of people as she watched. Mason had stopped, three or four meters away from the ornate entrance to a walled courtyard.

As if on cue, three men stepped out of the shadows of the gate. All three were big men and carried weapons. The two flankers carried submachine guns, Lauren saw. The one in the center held a drawn pistol, not quite aimed at Mason. He was the one who spoke, “Took you long enough to get here. Almost thought you hadn’t got the message.”

“I hadn’t,” Mason said, “I’ve been… detained. What’s this about?”

Something caught Lauren’s attention above. Her eyes flicked to the rooftops to where two men took up overwatch positions, rifles held ready.

“Just a friendly chat,” the speaker said. “Our boss had no bone to pick with the priest. What happened here could have been avoided if he’d cooperated sooner.”

Lauren drew her own pistol as she saw Mason’s body stance shift. Even so, she barely had it out of the holster before his first shots rang out. The three men in the doorway were down. She had her pistol trained on the nearest of the men on the rooftop. Even as she squeezed the trigger, four more shots rang out, so rapidly they might have come from a machine gun.

One of the men fell onto the street, body limp. The other, struck by her shots and Mason’s, flopped back out of sight. Lauren peered around. Her heart beat rapidly. The burnt smell of smokeless powder stung her nose. “That’s all of them,” Mason said, his voice flat and emotionless as a robot. There were times he scared the hell out of her.

His cold blue eyes met hers and he frowned, “Are you alright?”

Lauren nodded, “I’m fine.”

Mason cleared his throat, “I… have to see this, but if you want…” A part of her cringed at his tone, for she knew exactly what he expected to find in this place. He hadn’t spoke of it much during the voyage, but the few words he’d said had held tones of reverence.

He expected to face the worst – his sanctuary, the place he found his soul again – to be violated. And he’s willing to face it alone, Lauren thought, as if I would leave him. Lauren said, “No, I’ll come.” She stepped forward and picked up her duffel to stand by his side. He smiled, at her and she smiled back.

The stepped through the gate and Lauren bit back a shout of surprise at what she saw on the other side. The wall had concealed a large, open compound. Dozens of trees, some in bloom with bright pink flowers, sat in clusters around small buildings. In the center, a larger stone building squatted. It consisted of many heavy stone pillars supporting a roof that seemed more curves and angles than anything else.

Boiling out of that structure came dozens of men and women in brightly embroidered robes. The ocular impact almost reset her brain after the dingy brown streets of the city. The crowd came to a halt, their leader an ancient old man with, what Lauren judged, what had to be the most absurd hat she’d ever seen in her life. It towered, a mass of feathers, beads, bells, and possibly acres of silk.

He managed to bow gracefully and Lauren repressed a giggle at the fact that the hat stayed firmly in place. “Mason, it is good to see you.”

Mason looked stunned, “Lan, it’s very good to see you, I thought–”

“You thought they had killed me,” The old man spoke calmly.

“Yes. I’m glad you’re alright.” Mason let out a deep breath. “Did they say why they came?” The old man nodded, his face expressionless, serene in a way that made Lauren feel uncomfortable. Not nearly as uncomfortable as his next words, though. “Yes, they came looking for Tommy King.”

***

The Shattered Empire will be available on the 25th of October, 2014 from Amazon.  Read below for the teaser.

Baron Lucius Giovanni has managed to buy the human race a brief reprieve from the two alien races which seek humanity’s extinction. In the process he has become the leader of a new nation and the commander of a powerful fleet. However, victory comes with consequences. Without an imminent threat, old feuds have sparked back to life and tenuous alliances falter. There are also old enemies who cannot forget that Lucius has what they wanted. He must find a way to hold off scheming rivals, sociopathic psychics, and even former friends. If he can’t do all that and take the fight to humanity’s true enemies, billions may die under alien servitude.