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This post is part of the Bloggy XMAS Countdown, bringing you blog posts on the topic of games and community through December to Christmas Day. You can thank Syl at MMO Gypsy for the idea and the advent calendar, and the rest of us for being weak enough to fall under spell when she suggests stuff like this :)

A big part of Christmas, for many people, is a chance to get together not just with their immediate family and friends who live nearby, but also to see some people they may not see quite so often. Christmas and New Year (and Thanksgiving for those in North America) are opportunities to travel, catch up with relatives and meet up once again with old friends scattered far and wide by the winds of time. If you play MMOs, unless you’re the sort of curmudgeon who insists on playing everything as a massively single player online game, then you’ve got another network of friends – guildies, ex-guildies, people you know from around your server or banter with every day on the forums. But how many of them have you met in the flesh?

I’m not a huge one on gaming get-togethers. In over a dozen years playing MMOs I’ve only been to three, each one different and worthwhile in its own way. The first one was a server-wide gathering. Those of you who played Dark Age of Camelot back in the old days will remember how much ‘realm pride’ was a thing and server communities were close-knit, pulling together not just for the war against the other realms but for massive PvE content and day-to-day levelling and crafting as well. The rest of you are probably bored with hearing us old farts go on about it. But of all the realms, on all the servers, I suspect Hibernia on Prydwen may have had the closest. We had one overarching alliance for all the main guilds (albeit in a loose confederation, with at least one ‘man who would be king’ shouted down the freedom-loving rabble). We had our own forums, in lieu of any official ones, which because they were restricted to known and vouched-for realm-mates were remarkably free of trolls (although we did have some pretty heated disagreements). Pretty much everyone knew everyone (and we knew who we thought was a loot-whoring S.O.B.). So it seemed only right and proper to arrange a meet-up, and (Prydwen being an English language European server) London seemed the most central place to meet. Easy enough for me, although others came from far afield – all over the UK, and at least one from Norway. We met, we drank, we talked and even though we exchanged real names it still seemed natural to keep calling each other by our in-game names. After all, this is how we knew each other, and this is how we mattered to those people. The staff of Belgo must have wondered why that bunch of fifty or so people were yelling “HIBERNIA!!!” at the top of their voices whilst knocking back rounds of schnapps, but we didn’t care. We were pledging our allegiance to something we had in common – something real to us.

The second get-together was of my main World of Warcraft guild, back in the days before the Burning Crusade. The guild had started as a bunch of co-workers who later added various waifs and strays such as myself, so the guild had a very specific geographic centre in Southend, a coastal town east of London. Maybe not quite as easy to get to for me as the city, but certainly doable. What can I say? Like the last gathering we met, we drank (we’re British, heavy alcohol consumption is a standard part of our social ritual), we talked about the game and our guild-mates who couldn’t make it. Some of their ears might have been burning, but this was back when WoW raiding was still 40 man and actually relatively casual. The hunter who just sat there spamming Steady Shot was something to joke about over beer, not a deadly threat to our raid progression who had to be \gkicked forthwith. Again, we had something in common, with our war stories of the Molten Core and Blackwing’s Lair, and I recall a very pleasant evening, a very late taxi back to my hotel and a somewhat bleary-eyed journey home.

The final get-together was centred around a game rather than a specific guild or server. When the RIFT community team announced on their forums that they were in London and offering free beer and phat loot to anyone who could make it to a specific pub one evening, well, how could I refuse? All it was going to cost me was the time to travel across London on the Underground during evening rush hour (actually OK, maybe that does count as an epic quest) and the social embarrassment involved in walking into a room full of people who I don’t actually know, as at that point I was guildless and none of my real life friends were playing RIFT. Again – I’m English, social embarrassment is a big thing for us. But this didn’t matter once I got there, because people got to talking and guess what? We had something in common. So once again I met people, drank, talked games and left with a medium size RIFT T-shirt (thankfully, made of stretchy material) and the code for a Hooty pet owl that earned me a few admiring whispers in-game.

Insofar as there’s a moral to this rambling tale – spend Christmas with your loved ones. But in the New Year, think about maybe meeting up with some of the faces behind the avatars. Even if you’re an introvert (like myself) and don’t meet strangers all that easily – it’s not nearly as scary as it might seem, because you do actually know many of these people already. and even the ones you don’t know, you have something in common, and that’s really all you need to break the ice.

League of Legends has a developer post up giving their players a pat on the back for not being as toxic as is commonly believed. 95% of players have not received any disciplinary action in the last year. Way to go, you paragons of all that is right and good in humanity!

Oh, wait a second. That means one in twenty of your players IS such a jerk that their behaviour has attracted official sanction. You don’t have to play that many games before you’re pretty certain to run into one of these guys. Also, that one in twenty is actually the floor on any estimate of the actual jerk ratio, because it only counts the jerks who have actually been punished for their behaviour. That’s always a suspect measure, because if Riot Games want to show an ‘improvement’ in this figure, they can do so simply by not punishing people. It also doesn’t count unpleasant behaviour below the threshold for official action – and by all accounts, you can get pretty unpleasant without crossing that threshold.

So anyway, thumbs up, LoL players! Only one in twenty of you are such egregious dipshits that the devs actually bothered to punish you for it this year!

Syp has been taking a look at which MMO studios can lay claim to leading the industry over at Bio Break. Unfortunately, for good reasons or bad he left out the two who actually released new MMOs this year. Something of an oversight I think, especially since both of them tried to buck the F2P tide and sell us a subscription, and neither can be accused of being a derivative clone of (current state) WoW. Instead, Carbine tried to serve up a fusion of cutting-edge action MMO gameplay with old-school vanilla WoW big ass hardcore raiding, while Zenimax stepped away from the well-trodden path of MMO game mechanics to create something closer to the Skyrim experience without totally alienating the seasoned MMO player. Either of those, if it had succeeded and succeeded big, had the potential to lead future MMO games on a different path from the endless attempts to ‘refine’ World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, neither succeeded all that big.

Carbine are suffering from a really nasty case of ‘slipped halo’ effect at the moment. They had a hype train built up to full steam ahead, for which some responsibility lies with the players and some with Carbine themselves. Then the game landed and turned out to be fun, quirky (and sophomoric – but hey, movie box office receipts suggest that sophomoric sells just fine). However, it turned out NOT to be nearly as revolutionary as it pretended, nor ass inclusive as it should have been. Openly nailing your colours to the “hardcore or GTFO” mast may feel cool when you strike that pose, but it’s decidedly less cool to realise that you’ve told 95% of your player base to GTFO, especially when backtracking on the approach only serves to alienate the remaining 5%. Carbine aren’t aspiring to lead the industry right now – if anything, they’re struggling not to be held up as an object lesson to future developers. While Carbine may claim to have the support of NCSoft West that attitude could be little more than whistling past the graveyard if their Korean masters decide the game is underperforming. It’s probably impolite to mention the words Tabula Rasa within earshot of any Carbine employees…

Zenimax seem to be doing somewhat better, if only because the gamer community had lower expectations and in fact decided to hate the game, sight unseen, for not being their ideal of The One True Elder Scrolls Game regardless of how well their ideal would have actually worked out (pro tip – Skyrim is a single player game. Many things that are cool in single player games are somewhat less cool when some jerk with a mind of his own is in your virtual world). The public berating of ESO has died down as the usual suspects have moved on to crucifying Wildstar for murdering their favourite kittens, the player base seems to have fallen off much less of a cliff than Wildstar’s, and Zenimax are putting out a reasonable pipeline of updates. I think ESO has settled into the same sort of niche as SWTOR and RIFT – a comfortable player base whilst not being anywhere near challenging WoW’s dominance, enough to be profitable with a good-sized community of satisfied players even if they aren’t being raved about by the cool kids. Could ESO have been bigger? Probably, if only they’d sent their interns out to sleep with gaming journalists for better reviews at launch :) However, I don’t think it’s going to be seen as a stain on anyone’s resume.

Richard Bartle is musing on relative finger lengths and game controls over at his blog. His main point is that men have (slightly) longer ring fingers than index fingers on average, whereas women tend to have both fingers the same length, and whether this is a help or a hindrance when using WASD keys plus right hand on the mouse.

I’m pretty sure the good doctor is joking, and I’d like to file this under “does it really, honestly, make a difference?” except in the current toxic climate some bozo is either going to leap on it as an example of the patriarchal oppressive nature of game design (if the men have an edge) or else evidence that even with a biological advantage girls still suck at games so they should shut up and go make us a sandwich (if equal length digits prove superior).

For the record: my index finger is slightly longer than my ring finger on both hands, which bucks the trend for males; the fact that I resemble a werewolf at times implies there’s nothing much wrong with my levels of male hormones; and I’m a southpaw so I use the cursor keys as God intended instead of this WASD malarkey, and am eternally grateful that Razer FINALLY brought out a left-handed Naga MMO mouse.

Massively has a “thought provoking” discussion piece up entitled Where did all the MMO bars go? which kind of got me to scratching my head. I’m pretty certain that all of the MMOs I’ve played recently have featured drinking establishments:

ESO – yup, taverns everywhere. With cooking fires for us chefs. And bards. One of ESO’s many nice touches is that they had each of the bard songs recorded by several artists, so you can hear different performances in different places.

Wildstar – definitely has bars, at least on the Exile side (I haven’t really played Dominion). There are beered-up granoks all over Nexus.

Rift – has bars. There’s even one in Sanctum, capital city of the stick-up-their-immortal-butts, religious zealot Guardian faction.

Guild Wars 2 – human taverns, an asuran cantina in the depths of Rata Sum, moody charr dives where grizzled cat monsters gulp shots of whisky. Pretty much the entire Norn culture is one endless Octoberfest, the lucky bastards.

SWTOR – cantinas. With coin-operated jukeboxes. And hologram twi’lek dancers.

Neverwinter – even Cryptic’s stripped-down, instance heavy game, seen by some people as little more than a graphical UI for a cash shop, has taverns aplenty. Mind you, it’s D&D, every adventure HAS to start with a mysterious stranger in a tavern.

World of Tanks – OK, got me there. I did see a KV-1 brew up nicely when I hit it the other day, but I’m guessing that really doesn’t count.

Fortunately, the comment thread on the article picks up on the real issue – it’s not a lack of bars, it’s a lack of players in them. MMO spaces aren’t used as much to socialise as they used to because players socialise less. In part, because we don’t NEED to seek out others – auction houses have replaced the need to seek out crafters in person, dungeon finders have replaced the need to form a labour exchange to assemble adventuring groups. The other reason is that games have got more, well, more gamified. I used to log into DAoC or even vanilla WoW to hang out, and maybe look for something to do in the game world. The modern MMO expects and helps you to be active and productive for every second of your precious gaming time. Daily quests give you a checklist of things to complete, dungeon finders and PvP queues get you straight into the action (unless you’re yet another bloody DPS, of course) and quest flows are designed to take you efficiently through the PvE content without time to smell the roses, let alone sit back quaffing beer. Show me a player character granok kicking back with a brew in Thayd and I’ll show you a slacker who won’t hit his Elder Gem cap for the week.

I suspect some bars do see use – they’re roleplaying venues par excellence, but in the modern MMO the RP community tends to be ghettoised, so if you aren’t on the (official or unofficial) RP server you’re not going to see them. LotRO’s Prancing Pony attracts sightseers. And a certain inn found in one of WoW’s start zones is, of course, famous for attracting a regular if slightly specialist clientele. But ultimately, the bars are out there. It’s just that after a hard day’s work in the real world, it turns out we’re too busy to kick back with a virtual beer in a place where everyone knows your avatar’s name.

Some months back, Massively decided to savage ESO because one-sided rants are the new journalism, or some such.

Yes, I know that a good few of my posts are one-sided rants. I never claimed to be a journalist, and I do this primarily for my own entertainment rather than for a living. I hope you are entertained as well, but if you aren’t then you don’t have to read this – I doubt I’ll ever be the first person to break some story so you wouldn’t actually be missing anything apart from my one-sided rants.

Anyway, apparently now it’s Wildstar’s turn

It’s pretty clear Wildstar hasn’t conquered the MMO playing world, and the gaming commentariat have got the knives out for it like a Thanksgiving turkey now that ArcheAge has supplanted it as The New Shiny and Saviour Of The MMO Genre. There are sensible, thoughtful articles to be written about just why Wildstar hasn’t really caught on, whether it is really in a death spiral or settling into a niche, and what (if anything) can be done about it. There are bloggers who have written just such an article. Massively haven’t gone down that route. The premise of the article is that since Massively submitted some questions to Carbine (at the studio’s request) and haven’t received an answer to the questions, while a rival site did get a reply to their questions, that the game is in incredibly deep, dark doo-doo and Carbine are covering it up. In other words, in the absence of any concrete answer one way or another assume the very worst.

The problem with that is that there are actually four possible explanations for the lack of response:

1) Evil Corporate Conspiracy.

2) Carbine decided that the questions were posed with an obvious agenda, along the lines of “have you stopped beating your wife yet?”, that there was no answer to give that wouldn’t result in it being used to pillory them, and refused to play that game.

3) Carbine decided that Massively are way down the pecking order of websites and either can’t be arsed to waste their time on them, or are going to once they’ve finished answering questions from the more important websites and just haven’t got around to poor little Massively yet.

4) PR department cock-up. Massively’s questions got lost down the back of a radiator, or the intern who was supposed to pass them on to the devs subsequently got fired for watching porn on the office computer before he could get around to it, or something of that ilk.

We don’t actually know which is the truth. I tend to look for explanations other than 1, mostly because I work with several conspiracy theorists and I just find them annoying. Answer 2 is quite possible, given that we never see the exact questions posed to Carbine – we’re just told that they were about “the health of the game” and that MMORPG’s questions were “gentler”. It’s probably not reason 3, because even though it may be past its glory days, Massively is still one of the premier news sites for the genre and it would be incredibly stupid to invite a journalist to submit questions only to then leave them at the bottom of your in-tray. However, answer 4 is always possible as I’ve learned to never underestimate the power of human incompetence (that back of a radiator thing happened to an acquaintance of mine and delayed his job application for six months before the HR person found the form).

Wildstar has definitely shed a lot of its initial players. Whether that constitutes a ‘death spiral’ remains to be seen. What is pretty clear is that spinning dark fantasies in response to a perceived snub is piss-poor journalism, especially from someone who’s actually paid to do so.

While all of the Council Houses have a wide variety of commercial interests, the Tremaynes are best known for their ownership of Insight, much as people instantly think of ‘mercenaries’ when the Steiners are mentioned, or ‘biotech’ for House Bardan. Tremayne StarFreight and their extensive media holdings generate far more wealth for the Tremaynes than Insight does directly, but it is Insight that creates the image of the Tremaynes in the popular imagination as information brokers – or sinister masterminds, as their detractors would put it.
Insight defines its purpose as refining data into information, information into knowledge, and then making the best use of that knowledge. The company’s operations are organised into three tiers, defined by the resources expended. The first tier deals in publicly available information, and publishes periodicals such as the weekly news magazine Insights, as well as an entire library of factbooks and references. The second tier acts as a consultancy, carrying out specific research and detailed analysis for clients as required. The third tier functions more like a national intelligence agency, sifting and analysing through all of the information they can gather in an attempt to ferret out secrets. Unlike a national agency, Insight are happy to sell or trade the secrets they uncover, and indeed a number of different intelligence agencies working for various governments have standing commercial arrangements with them.
There are persistent stories of a secret fourth tier, and these rumours usually suggest wildly improbably sources of information and analysis methods that border on the dark arts. None of these rumours have any verifiable basis, and it’s entirely possible that the Tremaynes have created the rumours themselves to bolster their reputation.
The Dragon’s Rise: An Analysis of the Draconis Alliance by Professor Jen Guatella, Margrethe University Press
“Oh look, first in the office on Monday morning, once again. How did I know you would be sitting with half a day’s work done before the rest of us slackers drag our sorry tails in here? How was it I was able to come prepared for this eventuality?” Anita DaCosta declaimed as placed a polyfoam cup of coffee on Catriona Marks’ desk and then took a long swig from her own cup.
“Because you’d be a sorry excuse for an analyst if you couldn’t see that pattern, given the historical trends,” Cat replied drily. She took a swallow of coffee. “Thanks and good morning Anita, and how is your sorry tail today?”
“Not sorry at all, girlfriend. Let me tell you… “ Cat smiled and half listened to her friend’s outrageous story of her escapades while she kept scrolling through the discussion threads on her screen. Anita wouldn’t mind. Anita was understanding and thoughtful, as well as being tall, dark, beautiful and about twenty more times extroverted than Cat had ever dreamed of being. They had both joined Insight as part of the same intake last year, and while Cat had cautiously felt her way into living here in New Amsterdam on Margrethe, Anita had joyously thrown herself into exploring a new city on a new world, and then shared her discoveries with Cat and their fellow graduate trainees.
“So, what did you get up to last night then Cat? Anything exciting?”
“Not really,” Cat said distractedly. “I ordered in some Italian, had a bath, read a couple of chapters of Gina Tolliver’s new book and got an early night.” Anita snorted disgustedly and was about to say something when Cat started waving both of her hands through her holo interface rapidly. After a couple of minutes she sat back as the search she had set up ran.
“Anita, what does the phrase ‘manifest destiny’ mean to you?”
“Historically, building the United States on Earth. Which wasn’t always good news for anyone living in the states they were looking to unite.” Anita had been a history major. “More generally, it’s usually a rallying call for one gang of people to do something shitty to another gang of people because it’s all right and proper. Given the way you were reading stuff while I was telling you all about last night, it’s not a random question, is it?”
“Not exactly. I’ve seen it five times this morning in the downloads – once in general economics, once in social reform and three times in the external affairs board. Looks like it’s something of a meme.”
“Oh great. Of all the memes that could start knocking around the Polaris Federation, ‘manifest destiny’ is not the one I’d choose to have their consensus latch onto.” Anita drained her coffee cup. “And now that you’ve scared me, time for me to catch up on the Albion gossip columns before Luis wanders through here and gets shitty about us bouncing ideas off each other instead of doing what he considers proper work. After all, that’s his manifest destiny – to be an asshole. See you at lunch!”
Cat shrugged as she set up a consensus model of the manifest destiny meme. Phrases like that came and went all of the time in discussion boards, and they rarely made much of a dent in the underlying consensus that actually determined policy. The algorithms that translate millions of discussions into a set of preferences and directives would filter out all sorts of transient noise, otherwise it could never establish a consistent set of policies. Still, it would be worth seeing just how much this might affect long term trends, and it would be interesting to see where the meme originated. Any thought leader putting out ideas like ‘manifest destiny’ would bear keeping an eye on.
“How’s the economic policy trends analysis coming along, Miss Marks?”
Wonderful. Cat hadn’t even noticed Luis Barr-Tremayne come strutting up to her desk, she had been so absorbed in her thoughts. Strutting was the only way to describe how Luis walked around the office, completely suffused with his importance as a tier three section coordinator and a member of the Tremayne family that owned the company. Even if, as Anita liked to put it, he wasn’t a real Tremayne – not yet, anyway.
“I’ve got some models running against the baseline at the moment. There’s something else showing up in the latest downloads that could be –“
“Economic policy trends, Miss Marks. That’s what will be useful. That’s where we will find something useful. Something saleable. Some that justifies bonuses, or, for that matter, continued employment.”
Cat ground her teeth. Tier three analysts were supposed to follow their nose and look into anything they thought might be worthwhile, even if Luis insisted on micro-managing. Or, as he would put it, providing clear direction towards the most profitable endeavours. The fact that he was incapable of analysing the current state of the weather if he stuck his head out of a window was neither here nor there. Unfortunately, the one thing Luis did have an actual talent for detecting was any sign of defiance from his subordinates.
“So what, exactly, have you been spending your time on this morning, Miss Marks? That isn’t economic policy trends analysis?”
“There’s a meme that seems to be cropping up across several boards…”
“A meme? A meme?” Luis raised an eyebrow, a trademark expression that the entire team were convinced he spent hours practicing in front of a mirror. “Nobody wants to pay good money to Insight to find out about memes. Let me tell you…”

Cat stabbed her fork into the nest of pad thai on her plate and twirled it savagely. “So then he told me exactly what the ten highest paid research findings were last year, and explained how none of them were memes.”
“That, my dear, is because Luis is an idiot, which should not be news to you.” Unlike her friend, Anita wielded chopsticks with blinding speed and deadly grace, effortlessly picking choice morsels out of her seafood salad. “What was item number three on his list?”
“How public opinion pressures in the Albion Star Empire delayed the annexation of Burroughs Star by four months.”
Anita smiled. “A report written by yours truly. And would you care to guess how I identified the opposition and quantified it enough to model the actual impact? Semantic analysis and meme indexing. And that’s in the Star Empire, where public opinion is only of secondary importance. You’re looking at the Polaris Federation, which is run by a consensus!”
“So, you’re saying what I was looking at is valuable?”
“I’m saying that anyone with half a brain watching the Federation would kill for advance warning on trending memes, that the downloads we get are more complete than anyone outside the Federation sees – and that includes Albion MI6, I should know – and that I’m bored talking about Luis over lunch, and should discuss why both of us need to find men right now.”
“I didn’t think you did too badly last night,” Cat said.
“In my case, I mean right now – I need someone I can exact chip tax on. In your case, the need is more general.”
“I’ll be the judge of my needs,” Cat replied. “And what’s chip tax?”
“When you want to eat a few chips, but don’t want to order a full portion, that’s when you need to bring a man along for a meal. The big dears always order a big slab of meat with chips, it’s a Y chromosome thing, and then you can confiscate some of them. Chip tax, spiders and pickle jars, the three reasons for keeping men around – apart from the obvious, of course!” Anita concluded smugly.
“So you’re saying I need a man in my life so that I can swipe chips, get rid of spiders and open pickle jars?”
“And the obvious! Just so happens I’ve identified a suitable candidate for you as well.”
“Uh-huh…” most of the men Anita met socially weren’t exactly Cat’s type. To be honest, she wasn’t entirely sure these days what her type was, although after David she knew that ‘able to cope with a woman being smarter than them’ was a good start.
“Oh you’ll like Josh. Bit quiet, has a good sense of humour if you don’t scare him to death, seems more the type to stay at home with a book than go out partying but you can’t have everything.”
“So how did you manage to meet him then?”
“In the office. He’s a navy lieutenant, works in intelligence as part of the team that buys intel from us. He comes by every week for a briefing. He’s due in on Wednesday, I’ll introduce you.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“Don’t look so dubious. I’ll bring him by your desk after the briefing, introduce you professionally and we’ll all go grab a coffee. If you want to give him your number, that’ll be entirely up to you.”
With lunch out of the way, Cat made a point of setting up a series of economic models and sending Luis a status report with a couple of terabytes of raw data attached before checking on her other searches. Nothing conclusive there, unfortunately. The meme looked to have originated somewhere outside the data downloads available. With a sigh, Cat set up a request for a further search on the meme when the next set of downloads came in, and went back to the economic data.

Wednesday brought another download, and Cat let her meme search run in the background while she made a point of focusing on the economic data, since Luis was in one of his prowling moods. She was engrossed in comparing the latest model results to the previous set when she heard Anita’s voice behind her.
“… and this is Cat Marks, when she’s on the same plane as the rest of us. Hello, calling Cat Marks!”
Cat jumped. She stood and turned, to see Anita in her new geometric print summer dress that they had bought on the last weekend’s shopping trip, accompanied by a slightly earnest looking dark-haired young man in a navy uniform. Cat had completely forgotten about Anita’s promise to set her up, and was wearing a simple cream tunic and trousers. Presentable, but nothing special.
“Hi,” she said, holding out her hand. “You must be Joshua?”
“Ah, yes. Lieutenant Joshua Naylor, at your service.” He gave a quick, reasonably firm handshake. “Sorry if we disturbed you…”
“That’s OK, I probably needed to come up for air anyway,” Cat replied. “I was looking at – well, never mind. If I told you, my boss would probably tell me off for giving away freebies.”
“Really?” Joshua asked.
“Really,” Anita said firmly. “Let’s just say that our manager takes a certain amount of managing, and go get a coffee, which will probably be the most exciting part of Cat’s day.”
“Really?” Joshua said again. “Because I’m afraid to say that coffee with junior officers like myself isn’t generally regarded as thrill-a-minute stuff.”
“Afraid so,” Anita said as she guided both of them over to the elevator. “Cat spends her days deep in research, and her evenings engrossed in Gina Tolliver novels.” Cat glared at Anita behind Joshua’s back, but Anita just grinned back at her.
“Spy thrillers, eh?” Joshua said with interest. “Have you seen Marco Tiell’s new one?”
They talked books on the way down to the cafeteria, and then the talk turned more businesslike, with a pleasant thread of banter on the side. Joshua was interested in the economic trends work Cat was doing, especially when she mentioned that there might be some movement in Polaris Federation defence spending, and was even more interested when she mentioned the ‘manifest destiny’ meme.
“That’s exactly the sort of thing the boys and girls over in Intentions are looking for. If you can get some solid info on how that idea is trending and what sort of influence it’s having, if it’s likely to spark off some other idea…”
Cat nodded. “That’s exactly the analysis I’ve got running now. I’ll keep you posted.”
“Please do,” Joshua said as he stood up. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
“He likes you,” Anita said with a grin once Joshua had left.
Cat shrugged. “He’s interested in the work I’m doing.”
“Girl, that was twenty per cent interested in the data, and eighty per cent interested in you. And you played him cool. Didn’t even ask for his number. For shame!”
“I was – we were just talking about work!”
Anita sighed. “Nerds! Cat, you and Joshua are both so sweet, but you need help if you’re ever going to get anywhere. Maybe,” she continued in a low and wicked whisper, “someone needs to establish a captive breeding programme?”
Cat’s blush lasted well after she got back to her desk.

Days went by. On some of these days, there was fresh data from the Polaris consensus for Cat to work with, on others she mulled over what she had and wrote up the results. There was nothing startling in any of the economic discussions she monitored, but there were some solid trends that she could report to Luis and he could pass on to the Collation and Marketing department. The phrase ‘manifest destiny’ continued to show up – it hadn’t gone viral, but was cropping up regularly enough for Cat to mention it to Joshua. She told herself that he genuinely had been interested in the meme, and it wasn’t just an excuse to call him. Nonetheless, this time Cat made sure she asked Joshua out for dinner as well. This was, Cat was convinced, solely for the sake of a quiet life and to stop Anita teasing her.
Needless to say, Anita was smug about the whole thing for an entire week.
Cat had chosen Catullus for their date, probably the best of the neo-Roman restaurants that were springing up all over Draconis space and beyond these days. Unlike a lot of the others, Catullus had a chef who had actually trained under Vince Tribeca at his Triclinium restaurant on Earth, where the trend had begun. Cat got to the restaurant slightly early and found Joshua standing outside and looking at the menu with a slightly stricken expression. She walked up and slipped her arm through his.
“Hi, Joshua. Shall we go in?”
“I’m not sure. This is a bit…”
“Nothing you like on the menu?”
“It’s not that, exactly,” Joshua said with a bit of a blush. “It’s just that, well, I’m only a lieutenant…”
“My treat,” Cat said with a smile. “Insight pay us more than I really know what to do with. That’s not a problem is it?” she asked, while thinking Oh please, not another one like David.
“Not as long as you let me pay for the next one, I suppose,” Joshua said as they stepped inside. The décor was much more modern than Roman, all chrome and coloured glass, and they were immediately greeted and shown straight to a corner table equally modern with self-adjusting smart plastic chairs. The waiter brought out a basket of bread with dipping wine and olives, took their drinks order and left them to study their menus.
“Dormouse?” Joshua said. “Oh, I see – it’s actually rabbit in a honey and poppy seed sauce in the style the Romans served dormice. Actually, that sounds quite good.”
“Go for it. I like the look of the seafood platter myself,” Cat said. She hesitated, then went on. “Look, I really don’t want to talk about work all evening, but there was something I wanted to ask you. Have you heard of Lucentum?”
“That’s a Latin name, means ‘city of light’ and was the ancient name for the city of Alicante, in Spain. It’s also the name of an Alliance member world that’s on the border with the Polaris Federation. That last nit I know from my day job, the rest is just the sort of useless stuff that I pick up and means that I’m great at quizzes and bore most girls rigid. Sorry.”
Cat smiled. “I’m not ‘most girls’, Joshua. As long as you don’t start in on sports or celebrity gossip, you probably won’t manage to bore me. But I asked because some of the same people who were using that phrase we talked about have been mentioning Lucentum.”
“Well, it is out on their border. Government is pretty solidly pro-Alliance, but there are pro-Federation Unionist opposition groups on Lucentum. The place is pretty much run by a select group of families who get the lion’s share of benefits from off-world trade. There’s a lot of resentment, although the oligarchs do spread enough of the goodies around to keep things from boiling over. In short, pretty typical of maybe a third of the worlds in the Alliance.”
Cat looked surprised. “You don’t sound like a big fan of the Alliance.”
“I’m… look, I support the Alliance. I think it’s a great idea. All these worlds, coming together to trade and help each other out while still being free to do things their own way. I don’t even mind that a bunch of rich families organised it and got even richer off the back of it. I do think it’s a shame that being free to do things their own way seems to amount to being free to be shitty to their own people in a lot of cases. But I’m Navy. We aren’t supposed to have any politics beyond defending the Alliance, and we do that without any preference or favour to anyone. I’d like to be prouder of the Alliance we defend sometimes, but I’m proud that we defend it.”
Joshua flushed, took a deep swallow of wine, and started to apologise, but Cat put her hand on his.
“Don’t be sorry. You care, I get it. And I think you and the rest of the Navy do an important job. Besides, I’m not going to criticise, am I? Sitting here having a wonderful dinner paid for by a generous salary from one of those rich families.”
“That wasn’t really fair of me. And they aren’t all families…”
“Details. And enough politics, Joshua. Let’s set the rules for the rest of the evening – no work, no politics, no religion. Let’s see if we can think of something else… tell you what. You tell me the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, and maybe I’ll tell you mine.”

The next morning, Cat was back at her desk as early as ever, but with a smile on her lips. It had been a fun date, in the end, and Josh had been a perfect gentleman. She’d have to do something about that.
There was another data download from the Polaris consensus to be sifted through this morning. Cat kicked off all of her regular analysis jobs, plus one extra search she had added to the stack. Since both the mentions of ‘manifest destiny’ and Lucentum had come from, or at least through, the same posters, the new search would correlate any new phrases that that set of individuals started using.
Cat hadn’t really expected that search to throw up any results, but there was a clearly trending new phrase. It was used in a civil order discussion, to refer to criminals. It appeared in external affairs in reference to the Draconis Alliance, the Royal Albion Star Empire and the governments of Lucentum and Winterfell. It was even applied to some of the discussion board moderators. The context differed, but all of the posters on Cat’s watch list were using the same phrase, which was being picked up and used by others through the consensus.
Over and over again: they haven’t got the guts.
Cat had a bad feeling about this.

The Draconis Alliance Navy is the unofficial name of the Defence and Commerce Protection Directorate of the Draconis Alliance – not that the official name is ever used. Unlike the other directorates, the Navy is independent and appoints its own officers instead of having its positions of power shared among the placemen of the fourteen Council houses. The Navy retains this independence from day-to-day interference because it is very deliberately apolitical in its operations, and because none of the Council houses will trust any of their rivals with direct control over the apparatus of force, especially when that apparatus is based right next to their council chambers on Crucis Station.
For most of its existence the Draconis Alliance Navy has been focused on the commerce protection part of its duties, with a force consisting almost exclusively of escorts, destroyers and lighter units. Where heavier units were required they would have to call on the house squadrons, each of which is required to maintain a ship of the line and consorts that would be available to support the Navy when required, as well as the planetary navies.
The Steiner-Cova naval reform of 2372 is dramatically changing this force into a proper navy, on a par with the Polaris Federation Starfleet and the Terran Union Navy. From having no ships of the line, the Draconis Alliance Navy is going to a fleet of thirty, starting with a long term lease of the house battleships and a purchase of several surplus vessels from the Albion Royal Navy. This is accompanied by a massive cruiser production programme and expansion of facilities at Crucis Station and four new quadrant depots. All of this is intended to allow for a new role of collective defence, replacing the need for the member worlds to maintain their own fleets. How a ‘commerce protection directorate’ can handle a sudden transformation into a first rank military force remains to be seen.
The Dragon’s Rise: An Analysis of the Draconis Alliance by Professor Jen Guatella, Margrethe University Press

“All hands, stand by for jump in thirty seconds from mark. Mark!”
Commander Duncan Tremayne heard the shipwide announcement, along with the steady stream from the talker over his headset and the spoken reports from the officers and ratings around his station in SecOp, the Vigilant’s secondary operations room. He took all of that in, along with the tactical plot in his holo display in front of him and the two side display screens showing the ship’s status and the fire plans for the weapon batteries. If you couldn’t handle all of those information feeds simultaneously, you had no business being a command officer.
If you couldn’t handle that much information, you certainly had no business being a Tremayne worthy of the name, not that Duncan saw being a Tremayne as nearly as important as being the best officer he could be.
The information on the tactical plot was five minutes out of date. Five minutes ago and ninety million kilometres away, a pack of pirate vessels were deploying around the liner Countess Anastasia, which they had caught waiting to jump between congruencies at nexus TR-41 on her route from Galloway to Bonne Chance.
Most of those pirates thought they’d found themselves a payday. A liner meant good loot, ransoms for some of the passengers, and every chance of some fun with passengers who didn’t have a ransom worth being kept intact for. One of the pirates knew that he’d got himself a payday here, as long as the Navy kept their side of the bargain. Which the Navy always did, that being the best way to encourage informers in the future.
“All hands, brace for jump. Jump in ten…”
Quick glance over the tac plot and fire plan, a slightly more measured check of the ship status. Jump web fully charged and field calculations one hundred percent complete.
“Seven…”
Almost silent in SecOp now. The sensor and plotting teams were standing by, no point updating this plot when they would have much more up to date data in a few seconds. Just the gentle whirr of the air circulation system, which made just enough noise for a spacer to be alerted when it wasn’t working.
“Five…”
Duncan could sense the anticipation, the slight apprehension from everyone on the bridge. You would have to be seriously messed up to actually enjoy a jump, although this one was going to be a tiddler. They should barely feel it.
“Three…”
Relax. Look confident. That was one lesson the academy drummed into every officer – if you have nothing else to do, you can always spend your time looking confident for the ratings. Don’t be over-confident, but if you take everything in your stride then so will they.
“One… jump!”
A blink, a slight twisting sensation that was little more than a tightening of the skin this time. Five light minutes was less than a tenth of the distance a ship’s jump field could handle – easy enough to compensate for that level of dispersion. The sensor displays jumped to accept their new inputs and the tactical plot updated with the new data, first as tentative IDs by the computers, then firmed up as the humans in the loop checked and confirmed the machines’ assumptions. There were nine pirate vessels, but even the two converted tramp freighters were a fraction of the size of the two hundred meter long Vigilant. One of the freighters and what was tagged as an actual assault shuttle were moving to dock with the Countess Anastasia, while the mixed bag of half a dozen one and two-seat fighters were arrayed threateningly around the liner. The second freighter, presumably the command ship, stood back but still well within weapon range. Which meant that all of the pirates were within easy range of the Vigilant’s weapons now that she had jumped in close by.
Duncan grinned as he listened to Captain Raines’ broadcast call for the pirates to surrender or be destroyed. The pirates were in what Commander Devakaran, his tactical instructor at the academy, was wont to refer to as an unenviable tactical situation. Trying to fight was futile. Vigilant was a warship, with a full military shield. Nothing those pirates had was powerful enough to burn through that shield, and all of them firing together probably couldn’t hammer the shield enough to destabilise it even if Vigilant didn’t throw up a flak wall to interdict their fire – which she would, as Captain Raines wasn’t a man to take any chances he didn’t have to.
In theory, the fighters could close with Vigilant, use their own shields to slip through hers and fire into the ship’s unprotected hull. Pirates didn’t have the discipline and guts for that sort of close assault though, and while it might have worked against a destroyer if they were lucky, Vigilant was an escort, a larger warship built specifically to carry massive batteries of rapid-firing light pulse cannon. Killing fighters was what escorts were born for.
That left flight, but the pirates had only just jumped in one their victim a few minutes ago. It would be at least ten minutes before their jump webs could be recharged, and unless those freighters had been upgraded with some serious astrogation computers it would take them even longer to plot their field calculations for themselves, never mind ones for the fighters and shuttle as well. Vigilant’s comms officer had already sent an override command to the nav beacon at the congruency, which would lock them out from requesting calculations from the beacon computer.
Their only hope of escape was to scatter and try and evade in normal space for long enough to make an escape jump. Evade fire from a ship that carried twenty four quick-firing dual mounts on each broadside, backed up by eight twin rail missile launchers. And was already in range. Not exactly a lot of hope there.
There was a moment’s pause, and then the plot was updated as first the pirate command ship fired up her engines, and then after a few seconds the others followed suit.
“Looks like hope really does spring eternal, Duncan,” the captain said on the command channel.
“Not sure if that’s hope sir, or just stupid.” Duncan checked the plot. “Looks like Tango Six is going for the safe vector. Watch out for Tango Three…”
Most of the pirate ships were trying to get away, including one of the fighters that was heading off on a very specific course, the pre-arranged safe vector for that only the informant knew about. The assault shuttle, however, was speeding up its approach to the Countess Anastasia. Duncan had to assume that the pirates thought that they could still get aboard the liner, take hostages and then either escape with their prize or at least negotiate their way out of the situation. It might work, he conceded. It wouldn’t take too long for the shuttle to get too close for Vigilant to fire without risking stray shots hitting the liner. Vigilant only carried a single platoon of marines – there could easily be as many pirates aboard that shuttle, or even more, making recapturing the liner a chancy proposition and bound to result in civilian casualties even if they did succeed.
“I see it. Guns, priority fire on Tango Three. Lock fire control on the others but do not fire until I give the word.”
Vigilant’s aft port batteries both flashed to active on Duncan’s display. That was eight weapon mounts, sixteen guns, each gun firing a hundred times per minute. The projectiles were forty millimetre balls of high energy hydrogen plasma – fragments of suns, for all intents and purposes – each encased in a very temporary force field that was timed to collapse at the target’s range, so any pulses that weren’t direct hits would still blossom into miniature nuclear fireballs all around it.
The batteries hammered away at the target for six seconds – long enough for ten rounds per gun. A hundred and sixty shots at a target that was at close range, running a predictable course and had no electronic countermeasures worth a damn when it came to trying to throw of the aim of an escort, a class built to engage much more difficult targets. The shuttle’s shields lasted maybe a second and a half before flaring and dying, after which the plasma pulses were blasting away at the exposed hull. The last couple of seconds’ worth of fire was more a matter of scattering the debris than anything else.
“I repeat, cut your engines, stand down and prepare to be taken into custody. Any further attempts to escape or resist will be met with further deadly force.” Captain Raines broadcast, projecting just a touch of exasperation, then switched back to the command channel. “Duncan, assuming there are no more outbreaks of stupidity, how do you suggest we go about securing this merry band of gentleman adventurers?”
“Depends how many there are on those freighters sir, but we don’t really have a lot of spare capacity for guests here, sir. I would suggest we hold the ringleaders on the Vigilant and put the bulk of the prisoners on the Countess Anastasia with some of the marines to keep an eye on them, they have much more room.”
“The civilians are going to love that.”
“Needs must, sir. It’s only as far as Bonne Chance, so that’s less than a day.”
“Makes sense. Prize crews for the freighters then, and arrange appropriate accommodations aboard for the leaders of these brigands.” Duncan noticed that Captain Raines couldn’t quite bring himself to use the word ‘officers’ for the pirates. “I’ll have a word with Lieutenant Hobdell and the captain of the Anastasia, and then we’ll know who needs to get shuttled where and when.”
An escort’s executive officer might not have much to do during action, but there was plenty to be done afterwards. The ship’s two general purpose cutters were already standing by with a couple of squads of marines in each, but they needed prize crews. Duncan paged a couple of junior officers to serve as prize masters, then placed a call to the bosun, senior chief Valdes.
“Bosun, I need prize crews for those freighters – a pair of bridge ratings, two engineers and an environmental tech on each, plus three or four deck ratings.”
“Are you sure that’s enough, sir?” Valdes was a small, dark-eyed woman who could pass for a school teacher or something equally inoffensive out of uniform, but she had command presence to spare. Duncan had seen her stop a drunken brawl with her voice alone, and nothing he’d asked had ever fazed her. If she didn’t know how to do something, she knew who to assign it to or would come up with a thoroughly reasonable approach of her own. Assigning prize crews was the sort of routine matter she could handle in her sleep.
“Should be – we’re taking the prisoners off the freighters so they won’t have to worry about watching them.”
“Sounds about right then, sir. You’ve already assigned the officers?”
“Yes, Lieutenants Frain and O’Brien. We’re going to need to secure those fighters as well, and I don’t much fancy stacking them in our boat bay even if there is enough room, which I doubt. Any bright ideas?”
Valdes grunted. “Tell the pilots to EVA, and we’ll send the launch to pick them up. Once the cutters have dropped off the marines and ferried the prisoners they can haul the fighters here and we can secure them to the hull.”
“Sounds like a plan, bosun. One other thing – we need to improvise a brig for a few of the pirates. I thought maybe we could use thirty two delta three, if we cleared the stores from there. It’s half empty already and mostly canned goods, as I recall, so should be relatively straightforward to clear.
“By your leave sir, I’ll get a team started on that now. Bosun, out.”
Once the cutters had docked with the freighters and the launch had picked up the free-floating fighter pilots, Vigilant’s crew could stand down from action stations. Duncan swung by the wardroom to grab a mug of coffee and a couple of cookies to take back to his office. Properly victualled, could get on with collating the departmental after action reports for the captain, highlighting a couple of Operations Room ratings who deserved commendations and making a private note that one of the damage control teams had taken several minutes longer to close up than the others. There was no reason given in the report, but Duncan would do some quiet digging. Damage control team four included Able Spacer Warren, who was due for Captain’s Mast after an altercation with two of her crewmates. If the delay was down to more of the same, then Duncan would have to let the Captain drop the hammer on her, but best to make sure he had all the facts before making a decision that Warren would regret.
With the after action reports out of the way, Duncan could get back to ploughing through the crew’s quarterly efficiency reports. He didn’t even hear the clunks and clangs of the captured fighters being pushed against the hull and secured with monocable tie-downs by the bosun’s teams of deck ratings in EVA suits. He had to be reminded by the senior wardroom steward to preside over dinner, which was a high-spirited affair with a good few drinks being sunk by those fortunate enough not to be standing watch afterwards – the Alliance Navy hadn’t adopted the silly American tradition of keeping their warships dry.
Duncan had to shoot a couple of quelling glances at watchstanders who were tempted. The regulations didn’t forbid drinking before going on watch, they merely specified horrendous penalties for those who impaired their judgement, but the XO’s disapproval was far more real and effective for a junior officer than any formal regulation.
“So what are you going to be doing with your prize money, sir?” Ensign Callaghan asked. Her neighbour tried shushing her with a whispered he doesn’t need the money, you doofus! that was far too audible, and then turned bright red as Duncan looked at him.
“Mister Howell –“ and that was a sign of just how gross a breach of etiquette had occurred, as junior officers were normally addressed by their first names in the wardroom “ – there are a number of ways to address a fellow officer, depending on the circumstances. ‘Doofus’ is not appropriate in any of them. I suggest you apologise to Kate and to the wardroom at large – say, by signing the chit for the next round of drinks.”
Once Bill Howell had stammered out his apology and tried not to wince at the total on the chit that a grinning steward brought for him to sign, Duncan smiled and answered Kate Callaghan’s question.
“In the short run, I’m not going to be doing anything with my prize money, and neither will the rest of you, I’m afraid. It will be months before the sale of those pirate vessels goes through, even after their crews have all had a fair trial and they are no longer required as evidence. And once the Operations Directorate have completed the sale, they will take their own sweet time passing the proceeds to the Council and Financial Directorate, who will then drag their heels before crediting the funds to the Navy, who will eventually pay out the shares to the crew of the Vigilant, who actually did the work of capturing the pirates.” Duncan paused, and then raised his glass – water, as he had the next bridge watch. “Ladies, and gentlemen, the crew of the Vigilant, may they someday get paid their fair dues!
“Anyway,” Duncan continued after the toast, “I’m not trying to dishearten you, just give you fair warning that it will be a while before any of us actually receive any money, so don’t go spending it just yet. But to answer your question, I’m banking mine as part of my nest egg for when I retire.” He smiled.
“You’re saving? But… I thought…”
“I’m sure you thought that, given my name, I had far more money than I’d ever need? Not the way it works in my family, I’m afraid. The family – that is, the Tremayne Foundation and its trust funds – are staggeringly rich, individual members of the family aren’t. I get an allowance that I could live on reasonably comfortably without working if I chose, and makes a very nice addition to my salary, but that’s it. Believe it or not, my daddy did not give me a planet of my very own for my eighteenth birthday, and I spent my time at the academy trying to convince my classmates that I really didn’t have a private palace with hot and cold running dancing girls that they could visit.”
Lieutenant Commander Owens changed the subject at that point by segueing the comment about dancing girls into a long and highly improbable story about local customs on a planet of the Sagittarius Reach and how they pertained to young spacers on liberty. Duncan gave him a grateful nod, and then left the wardroom as soon as he could decently do so. After twelve years in the service, he still found his family background an uncomfortable subject with his fellow officers – almost as uncomfortable as the twisting, stretching sensation of jump travel. The captain had allowed time for the crew to have an uninterrupted meal before starting the journey back to Bonne Chance, but once underway they would be making a jump every hour in consort with the Countess Anastasia and the prizes, resulting in a restless and disturbed ship’s night for everyone aboard. Normally, liners would coast in normal space during the night for the comfort of their passengers, but after the attack and with the pirates on board as prisoners, the Anastasia’s captain wanted to make port as soon as possible.
A four hour watch meant four jumps, two congruency jumps and a local hop within each nexus from one congruency to the exit one. Four sets of jump calculations to be run and authorised, each giving a specific field topography that should translate each infinitesimal point within it to somewhere else and keep all of those points in the same arrangement relative to one another. Four moments of wrenching pain because even the most powerful computers humans could devise still couldn’t get those fields exactly right, just close enough. Four tense moments as the Ops Room updated the plot after each job, until they could be certain there was no imminent danger to Vigilant and her consorts and they could get on with plotting the next jump in peace. And in between those four moments of pain and four moments of tension, four hours of trying to keep busy and stay awake while the computers ran the calculations. Someone had once described war as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Space travel was much like that, if you substituted aches and pains for the terror and accepted that the punctuation was a bit more frequent. However, it was also routine, and it was well known that humans could get used to just about anything if it becomes routine enough. Duncan’s watch ended without incident, just like most of the thousands of watches he’d stood over the years, and he could get a few hours of sleep. Routine even let him sleep through the jumps, or at least get back to sleep so quickly that they didn’t register.
The working day starts early on a navy ship, even for those who aren’t on watch, but an executive officer’s day starts even earlier. Duncan made a point of carrying out a couple of surprise inspections before breakfast every day to keep the departments on their toes – today it was the turn of the supplies office and the galley, so he made a point of inspecting some of the bacon that was being prepared for the ratings’ messes. It made a fine sandwich.
By mid-morning the ship was in the Bonne Chance system, where one more jump was followed by a burn on the thrusters to put the ship into orbit. Duncan was working through notes for the next training rotation when Captain Raines paged him and asked him to come up to his cabn ‘at his earliest convenience’.
“Right away, sir.” That was what ‘earliest convenience’ meant in the navy.
“Good morning Duncan. Take a seat, will you?” Raines said when Duncan reported to him. “I’ve got some news.” He looked a little troubled.
“Bad news?”
“Far from it, I think. Our dispatches have caught up with us, and they include your next posting, which is a bit earlier than we expected. I’m ordered to detach you at the earliest opportunity to report to Crucis Station.”
Duncan frowned. “They’ve given me a staff posting?” He’d done a tour on the staff before Vigilant, and didn’t expect to go back again – not yet, anyway. He’d completed the Command Officer Qualification Course, which had the inevitable nickname, which should have put him securely on a fleet track rather than being destined to be a staff weenie.
“No, they haven’t. Tell me, what were you hoping for after leaving Vigilant?”
“Command of my own, ideally, or XO on a cruiser or ship of the line, sir. But ideally command of a destroyer – maybe even an escort, the way the fleet’s expanding.”
“That’s fair enough. You’re a ‘cock’ in the nicest possible sense of the word, and as you say the fleet’s expanding rapidly and is short of command officers. But evidently neither of us realised just how rapidly it’s expanding and how short it is of command officers.” He handed Duncan a sheet of paper.
Duncan scanned through the orders rapidly. Detach at earliest opportunity… briefing at Crucis Station… granted leave until 17th June… accept delivery and take command of DNS Warden on behalf of the Draconis Alliance, for and by authority of the Draconis Council… is hereby promoted to the rank of Captain. He sat there, staring at the last sentence for several seconds while it sank in. Then he realised something else.
“The Warden? Isn’t that…”
“One of the ships of the line we’ve purchased from the Albion Royal Navy, yes. Congratulations, Commodore.” There could only be one captain aboard a ship, so any other person holding the rank of the same name was addressed by a higher rank. Duncan hadn’t expected that particular piece of etiquette to apply to him.
“There must be more experienced captains they could give that ship to!”
“And yet, the navy in their infinite wisdom chose you.” Raines looked at Duncan strangely. “Unless you’re planning to decline?”
“No, sir!” Officers who turned down any responsibility they were offered, let alone command of a ship of the line, very quickly ceased to be officers in the navy in any capacity.
“Well, congratulations. And stop trying not to look sorry for me, Duncan. I’m staying with Vigilant for a while yet, apparently they want me to break in a couple more XOs for them, but I got my first star in the same set of dispatches. Apparently I’m now Commanding Officer, Eighth Commerce Protection Group, whatever that is, details to follow.
“Now, since we’re in orbit the sun is always over the yardarm so let’s have a drink and toast each other’s good fortune before you go and give Lieutenant Commander McHale the good news that you are dumping your entire workload on her and swanning off to Crucis Station.
“Oh, and Duncan?” he paused. “When you get there, watch your back.”

The end of the Secession Wars left the bulk of humanity’s settled planets free, independent and poor. You cannot eat sovereignty, and worlds that had been developed to fit niches in the United Nations’ planned mercantilism were ill-equipped for self-sufficiency. Standards of living crashed as each planet’s economy was forced to adapt to suddenly having massive over-production in some sectors whilst being woefully inadequate in others.
This post-colonial depression gave rise to a period of rapid expansion by the merchant houses, who parlayed their position as the lifeblood of the insurrection into a network of highly profitable trade routes as they brought the worlds back together in a new configuration without the dead weight of Earth at its core. It also pushed many of the newly independent worlds together to survive. Both the Polaris Federation and the Albion Star Empire grew quickly and with remarkably little bloodshed in this period, and even the People’s Republic of Greater China, the so-called Celestial Raj, added a number of border worlds that (somewhat) willingly chose caste-bound bureaucracy over starvation.
These two trends came together on the coreward side of the Sagittarius Reach, where the European and American colonial arms ran close together. The Draconis Customs Union began as a consortium of six merchant houses, and a package of trade agreements they offered to each of the planetary governments where they did business. What it became was something altogether stranger…
The Dragon’s Rise: An Analysis of the Draconis Alliance by Professor Jen Guatella, Margrethe University Press

Elysian’s sun was rising over the Mirrormere lake as the shuttle glided across the estate that shared the lake’s name. The landing pad was a good half mile from the house and discreetly screened by a natural-looking copse of Terran trees – birch, ash and the occasional oak – that ensured the early arrival did not disturb any of the guests at the great house. A trio of open-topped electric carts waited by the landing pad, each with its own driver sitting patiently as the shuttle settled under anti-grav alone for its landing, but there was no other welcoming committee.
Once the shuttle was grounded and it had extruded a passenger ramp, the first people to disembark were a pair of men in open-collared formal business dress with long-tailed coats, followed closely by a young woman in a somewhat old-fashioned knee-length skirt, blouse and jacket. The half dozen others who followed were clearly staff, allowing enough of a gap for their principals to speak without being overheard. The two men made for a striking contrast – the one on the left being tall, burly, dark and with a full beard, while his sandy-haired companion was almost a head shorter, slight of build and with narrow features.
“Welcome to Mirrormere Master Bardan, Mistress Bardan,” the smaller man said with a slight bow and an equally slight smile and gesturing towards the first of the carts. “The Tremayne will be waiting to greet you properly, if discreetly, at the house.”
“Will you still not call me Louis?” the big man sighed as he climbed into the cart, beckoning for his companion to sit beside him and waving the young woman to sit up front with the driver. “We have too much to be done here for you to be saying Master Bardan to me every time we speak, and there will be entirely too many Master Tremaynes here for me to call you so without confusion. And having to say Master Paul Tremayne every time is entirely too cumbersome!”
“Then Louis it is, and of course you may call me Paul,” Paul Tremayne said with the same slight smile. The driver put his foot to the cart’s floor pedal and they were underway with no more sound than the crunch of gravel under the tires and a medley of birdsong, both Terran and the Elysian equivalent, from the trees. The young woman looked attentively towards the trees whilst Louis and Paul spoke behind her.
“I sense that you do not really approve of this alliance,” Louis said. “You are too much the diplomat to ever say so, and your work to bring us this far has been impeccable, but there is no, how to say, no spark there. Shall we speak honestly, here and now, before we meet with Alexander? If there is anything I can do to help warm you to this alliance… as I say, your work with us so far has been impeccable, but I sense with your whole-hearted cooperation you could be a truly formidable ally.”
“Honestly…” Paul shrugged. “Honesty is a large part of it, Louis. You must admit that your house’s reputation is somewhat damaged in that regard.”
The young woman gasped, showing that she had indeed been listening, but Louis shushed her. “No Maria, Paul is right. Our family made a great mistake – no, we did a terrible thing, and we have to pay for it. It does not matter that the lawyers have settled their cases and the cheques have been written. This sort of debt is not so easily paid, not to the sort of people who are worth having as allies. And this is not just an abstract matter for you Paul, is it now? You are not one of the unfortunates, I would remember your name from the lists – someone close to you perhaps?”
“Not quite. My name was very nearly on your list, though. And I should have known something was wrong.”
“Why? Because you’re a Tremayne? Perhaps you take your family’s reputation for omniscience a little too seriously, Paul. I knew nothing at the time, and my cousin headed the project, my own brother was the head of the house.”
Paul laughed. “But I was in charge of intelligence on House Bardan back then, Louis. It was my job to know more about your business than you did – more than your brother did, if I could manage it. And he out-foxed me. Don’t believe all the stories, Louis. It is possible to fool the Tremaynes. Your own brother managed it, at the worst possible time!”
Louis shrugged. “I always knew Philippe was clever. And at the last, I realised that he was, as the English used to say, too clever by half. I am not so clever as he was, but I like to think myself clever enough and honest enough to know just how cleaver I am, and no more. Unlike Philippe, also, I have a purpose to work towards – to try and make amends for what he did. Anyway,” he said, looking up at the house, “here we are! I have to ask –are you Tremaynes compensating for something?”
Paul snorted and the first genuine smile touched his lips. “Not exactly, not in the sense you mean at least. It does look rather grand, doesn’t it? The exterior is an exact copy of Blenheim Palace in England, back on Earth. Black Jack Tremayne had it built ninety years ago, straight after the Seccession Wars finished, when we first came to our understanding with the Elysian government. Said he wanted a fancy country house and by God, he was only going to steal from the best! The interior layout’s completely different from the original, of course. This place is designed for modern living and needs to support a working staff as well.”
“So, this is the headquarters for your family’s operations?” Louis asked as they entered through an unprepossessing side door.
“Not really. Things are quite decentralised, each of the businesses has its own separate headquarters and even the Foundation has the bulk of its administration done elsewhere, but the Tremayne – Alexander – bases himself here so he has a resident staff, and various visiting family members need support as well. And just running this estate requires a fair sized office.”
“And this would be the office wing of the house, I assume?” Louis gestured at the corridor the walked down. The walls were oak panelled and the dark blue carpet was sumptuous, but the rooms they passed were clearly working spaces, albeit empty at this time.
“I’m afraid so. If it were up to me, we would have let you get settled into your suite but the Tremayne was quite insistent he wanted to see you straight away” Paul said as he ushered Louis and Maria into one of the rooms.
“You can drop that ‘the Tremayne’ crap, Paul,” the room’s occupant said waspishly. “Louis, good to see you again. Mistress Maria, it’s a pleasure” Alexander Tremayne continued as he levered himself out of one of the deep leather armchairs arranged around the fireplace. Unlike the rest of the wing, this room could easily have been part of the residence – a luxuriously appointed library-cum-study with shelf upon shelf of real books as well as a couple of high spec display units and a holo workstation. There was a silver coffee service on a sideboard along with a selection of pastries and muffins, with which Paul made himself busy whilst Alexander shook hands with his guests.
The Tremayne could easily have been Paul’s older brother at first glance, rather than a slightly younger cousin. Alexander’s hair was a shade darker than Paul’s and receded a touch more at the temples, but they had the same sharp features and lively intelligence in their eyes. He wore the same dress as his visitors but without the coat, and judging from the empty cup on the coffee table by his chair had already started on the refreshments.
“You’ll have to excuse me. I know you’re still on station time and that’s early evening, but here it is oh God awful in the morning, which is not really my best time at all. So please sit, let Paul see to the refreshments and let me welcome you extremely informally to Mirrormere. I suggest you take a couple of days to adjust yourselves naturally to local time instead of messing your systems up with jet lag drugs. After all, we’re not in that much of a rush over these negotiations. Enjoy the facilities here – there are all sorts of sports available here for the youngsters and those sort of people who enjoy exercise, horses at the stables, boats down on the lake, Connor has his endless poker game open to anyone foolish enough to try, and there’s a rather good library upstairs.” Alexander smiled. “We’re deliberately informal here, apart from dinner of course.”
Louis looked startled. “I thought you were going to keep us secluded?”
“Not really necessary. Our staff here are very discreet and very loyal, and the only family members staying currently are ones who can be trusted to keep their mouths shut about family business. It’s normally something of a madhouse here – there are usually people with prospective partners and various youngsters of the family invited here so I can see them at first hand, but my staff have massaged the schedule to give us a little more privacy for a couple of weeks.”
“Very good, Alexander. It all sounds most delightful. And now that you have us at the mercy of your sports facilities and your boats and horses – what do you intend to do with us?” Louis asked with a smile.
“Hammer out an alliance that suits both of us, of course. I don’t think it’s any secret what you need from this – you need to stabilise your finances so that House Bardan can keep its seat in the Draconis Council. We can help there by buying some of the assets you’re having to divest at a fairer price than you would get from any of our competitors…”
“But not so fair you don’t make a good profit on the deal,” Maria interjected with a frown.
“Of course they will make a profit on the deal, my daughter. The Tremaynes are looking to be our allies, not a charity. So, we point you towards the most promising of the businesses we will be selling, and you will uplift your bids for those by twenty percent, shall we say?”
“That much seems a little obvious,” Paul replied. “What do you think, cousin? Ten percent?”
“Fifteen,” Louis replied firmly before Alexander could speak. “Not too much, but enough to be noticeable, and that will make the others wonder. You Tremaynes have a reputation for always knowing that bit more than the information you sell to the rest of us. They will see you pay a higher price than they would have done and think maybe there is more to the Bardan assets than they know.”
“That works,” Alexander agreed with a nod. “We’ll let your staff and mine work out the details later, of course. And in the longer term there are some promising joint ventures where we can make sure you get a good deal on the partnership, which will let you rebuild. In a generation, people will forget House Bardan were ever in the biotech business.”
Paul and Louis both frowned at that, both thinking that there was a good reason why people would forget in a generation.
Alexander ignored the brief awkward pause and continued. “As for what we get out of it… well to start with, we aren’t going to make a loss on any of those details. It’s the founding principle of the whole Draconis Alliance – free trade benefits all parties. The other thing we gain is keeping you on the Council. We need all the Liberal votes we can to counterbalance the Confederate factions these days. We don’t even need to tell you how to vote in return for our assistance – by and large, you vote the way we want on all the big issues anyway.”
“But you will expect us to owe you a favour for this, nonetheless.”
“You’ll owe us several favours for this, but don’t worry. We will be gentle in how we call upon them.”
“So…” Louis passed for a moment. “Perhaps it would help if we understood exactly what your aims are in the Council.”
Alexander looked surprised. “They’re straightforward enough. We take care of our family’s best interests, and we’re Liberals like yourself – we want to keep the government of the Alliance small and have it interfere in business as little as possible.”
“Not quite like us. We are Liberals because everything the Alliance Directorates do has to be paid for out of the dues from the houses. We want to keep our costs down, they are squeezing us too much as it is. For you, it seems more ideological. But then you are the ones behind this expansion of the navy…”
Alexander raised an eyebrow at this.
“No denials, please. I know you got Steiner and Cova to propose the plan, but it is very much an open secret that you had your minion over there put them up to it. Which leaves a lot of people wondering why any secret manoeuvre by the famously Machiavellian Tremaynes is an open secret!”
“Do you really want to know? It’s quite simple – it made you and the other Liberals much more comfortable with the idea, knowing that one of their own was the source of the idea. If some power-hungry ambitious gobshite like Philip Cova had actually originated the proposal then more than half of the Council would have run a mile away from the idea.”
“But why propose this at all? It imposes a massive cost on the houses for the build-up, and this transfer of our warships to the Alliance Navy puts so much power in the hands of a Directorate… as I said, your Liberalism always seemed ideological to me, and this seems counter to that ideology.
Alexander looked serious. “Because we believe that the Alliance government – in as far as it is a government – should have no more power than necessary, but our read of the situation out there is that it is actually necessary. We’re Liberal, but we aren’t stupid.”
“Perhaps. But I have to tell you Alexander, that the others are becoming worried that perhaps you are playing one of your deeper games here. Nobody is pleased about this thing with your nephew.”
Paul and Alexander exchanged worried looks. “At the risk of destroying my family’s reputation for omniscience,” Alexander said slowly, “What thing? And for that matter, which nephew?”
Alexander sighed at Louis’ frown. “Trust me – and if we’re going to make an alliance work, then you are going to have to trust me – I am not playing some sort of game here. I genuinely do not know what this ‘thing’ you mention is. Given that we were just talking about the Navy however, I would venture a guess that the nephew in question is Duncan?”
“Just so. Duncan Tremayne. Commander Duncan Tremayne, one of the very few officers in the regular Navy with close ties to one of the Council houses. And all of a sudden he is Captain Duncan Tremayne, promoted early and given command of one of the Navy’s new battleships over the head of more experienced officers who do not have those close family ties. Are you really telling me this is not your doing?”
Alexander shook his head. “I really am telling you, it is not. And just to be clear, Duncan is not going to be at all happy about this.”

Today has been a good day for two reasons, neither of them MMO related (although I do plan to pop on to Wildstar after posting this and get my Medic to level 20). Firstly, it’s the release date for Thomas Bergersen’s second solo album, Sun. Thomas is one half of Two Steps From Hell, and you can tell from his solo albums that he’s not just being carried by Nick Phoenix

Incidentally, my daughter’s ‘artistic roller skating’ class last weekend was playing ‘Protectors of the Earth’ from 2SFH’s album Invincible as one of the tracks they were dancing to. Now that is epic roller skating :)

Secondly, I finally finished writing the third chapter of the novel I’m currently working on, so that’s a bit over ten thousand words under my belt this time around on it. The story, currently titled ‘A Test Of Nerve’ is part SF political drama, part military space opera and part techno-thriller, and each of the first three chapters launches one of those three threads, which has made getting the story underway at least three times as hard as if I’d picked one point of view character and voice and just stuck with that. Now that’s done though, the remaining chapters are all in one of those voices so I just need to switch back and forth between them at will. Simples :) I’m going to put those first three chapters up here over the coming week – the remainder, if you like them, I’m afraid you’ll probably have to wait until the whole thing is finished. If you don’t like them, don’t worry, as it will be back to normal gaming-related service here soon enough.

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