Monday, September 25, 2017

"Spanish ships of war at sea! We have sighted"...all of three?

OK, it’s not quite as impressive as the fleet of fifty-three that Sir Richard Grenville encountered. And for “ships of war” read “gigantic cruise ships loaded with Guardia Civil,” and if that isn’t a WTF moment, what is?

For anybody who’s been sensibly ignoring the news for the last week: Catalonia wants to hold a referendum on independence this coming Sunday. Spain doesn’t want them to.

So far, Spain has confiscated referendum ballots and ballot boxes, sent Spanish – not local – Guardia Civil to arrest over a dozen Catalan leaders (in dawn raids – shades of Franco!), and parked three cruise liners full of Guardia Civil outside Barcelona and Tarragona.

The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has announced that they have more ballot boxes stashed where the Spanish will never find them; the streets of Barcelona are filled with protestors; and the dockworkers of Barcelona and Tarragona have refused to provide any services to boats carrying security forces.

Oh, and did I mention that at least one of the cruise ships is decorated with oversize Looney Tunes characters? (Some sources say all three, but I haven’t been able to verify that.)

All this over a referendum that, according to polls before the Spanish Crackdown, was unlikely to garner over 40% support. And that wasn’t legally binding. The Spanish government appears terrified of allowing the Catalans even to express their opinions on the subject. So, naturally, they’ve embarked on a series of measures guaranteed to convert the other 60% of Catalans to the side of independence.

Yup. Looney Tunes.

But bear in mind that Sir Richard Grenville lost

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Our only enemy was gold

I’ve always thought Edwin Muir’s poem ‘The Castle,’ like Burns’ ‘Parcel of Rogues,’ referred to the Acts of Union of 1707. Many Scots considered the union of Scotland and England to be a corrupt bargain in which Scottish nobles and landowners who’d been ruined by the Darien scheme were bailed out with English money in return for signing over Scotland’s independence. (I don’t want to argue the merits of that theory; historians have been batting it around for four hundred years without reaching agreement. I just want to point out that the attitude exists.)

It did just occur to me recently that there could be another, slightly anachronistic interpretation of the poem. If Edwin Muir had been given a glimpse of Scotland’s condition today and the destructive effects of welfare dependency, he might have written exactly the same poem. For generations Scotland was a poor country whose greatest natural resource was its people and their devotion to education. They educated their young people and sent them out all over the world, and as George MacDonald Fraser said, “A Scotsman on the make is a terrible thing.”

The expansion of the welfare state has eroded that, perhaps fatally.

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true….
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Another one bites the dust

A couple of days ago I finished A Pocketful of Stars, a fantasy novel - I guess I could call it urban fantasy, since it's set in present-day Austin. But "urban fantasy" seems to imply a noir atmosphere, mystery, supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves - none of which are present in Stars. It's got a talking turtle head with a snakebot body (told you I was going to use that snakebot somewhere!) and evil grackles. But no vampires, zombies, werewolves, elves, etc., etc. Just a handful of young mathematicians who have discovered a way to 'nudge' reality by visualizing certain topological constructs and theorems. None of which, I promise, you need to understand to follow the book!

This theme does have the advantage of allowing me to shut up various people (brothers-in-law, doctors, statisticians) who consider themselves intellectually superior to a mere writer. When they ask, "What's this one about?" I say truthfully, "It's a fantasy novel about a system of magic based on topology."

After they've said, "Uh," and before they can betray that they don't know the difference between topology and topography, I add helpfully, "Topology is the study of non-metric properties of surfaces."

It's cheap entertainment, and I'm not going to lean on the flimsy mathematical substructure when pitching the book to potential readers. But I'm thinking that it might inspire some interesting covers. The picture at the head of this blog? Partial side view of a torus, which is the shape that doughnuts and coffee cups typify to a topologist. There are many more such images. I can remember my father working for hours with colored pencils and drawing tools to create the necessary illustrations for a paper; this was back when computers were the size of a city block and didn't do much that was useful to normal people. All right, maybe I'm stretching the definition of "normal" here to include topologists, but you know what I mean.

Would you buy a book with this torus on the cover?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Suicide missions and heroes

I've been thinking about Heather Penney today, because it's 9/11 and this article about her was just published. She was one of two pilots at Andrews Air Force Base who was charged with flying an unarmed F-16 into Flight 93 to stop the plane from reaching Washington. As we know now, the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93 spared her that sacrifice. But that doesn't make her acceptance of the mission any less heroic.

I wouldn't have remembered her name, except that a friend who flies had a chance encounter with her recently. He said that the name sounded familiar to him but he wasn't sure why, so he asked, "Are you famous?" and all she said was, "No, I don't think so." Later he looked her up and found out the story.

So we have three kinds of heroes to think about with respect to Flight 93. First there were the passengers who died to crash the plane. They must have considered themselves essentially dead men already; does that detract from their courage and sacrifice? Not to me. There must ALWAYS be a temptation to stay quiet and hope that the apparently inevitable will not come to pass. They overcame that temptation.

And we have Heather Penney, who says that she did not plan to eject because she was afraid that if she did, her plane wouldn't hit in the right spot to disable the other aircraft.

And we have the other F-16 pilot, Col. Mark Sasseville, who hoped to eject just before his plane hit the other aircraft.

In my book they're ALL heroes.

But - and I hope you don't think this is too frivolous - in a novel, they would pose three different writing challenges. You have the character who reasonably believes he has no chance of survival and chooses to die in a way that may save others. You have the character who accepts a mission tagged with certain death. And you have the character who accepts the mission but not the inevitability of death.

All three of them pose challenges to the writer, but I think that Sasseville's situation is the most moving of them. It's the shred of hope, the desire to live, the willingness to act without accepting that death is inevitable, that tugs at your heartstrings and makes this character so moving.

At least that's my perspective. What's yours?

Paperback of Insurgents

The paperback version is up now. Createspace is... not as easy to use as KDP for ebooks, but it's there.

I'm glad I only have to do this for the first time once.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

It's live!

That was fast! The e-book of Insurgents is already up on Amazon here.

Now to upload the paperback version.

Monday, September 4, 2017


Whee! The ebook has been successfully uploaded to Amazon Kindle; I'm dealing with some size issues on the paperback cover, but hope to have that version also uploaded soon. They say it can take up to 72 hours to go live. I'm going to try not to check more than, oh, every hour or so.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from the book:

Amari and Jesse on the right, and Wil on the left, broke through the screen of needles almost simultaneously. Nikos could be heard incautiously scrambling down to them across the patches of scree, and incidentally sending down a shower of pebbles and raw shards of rock that inspired all of them to duck under the cover of the cave’s wide mouth.

“They’re back!” Nikos announced before he was quite level with the rest of them. He made a flying leap from the ledge over the cave to the patch of grass below, and landed so lightly that Gabrel envied him. When he’d been seventeen, he would have made the jump too. Dammit, twenty-three wasn’t exactly old; he could leap all over the mountainside just like Nikos if he wanted to, he told himself. It was the responsibility of command, the understanding of how even a minor injury could fatally slow a man, that forced him to take the safer paths. And, of course, his own – not quite so minor – injury, incurred on last week’s raid. Gabrel’s knee twinged in protest as he stood to greet the returning men.

Besides, Nikos had grown up in one of the mountain villages that clung to the sides of these hills, so he had a built-in advantage.

“How many?” Amari demanded, and simultaneously Wil asked, “Did they get it?”

Nikos looked first at Amari, opened his mouth to speak, caught Gabrel’s eye, swallowed, and stood at attention looking only at Gabrel. “Sir! I have to report a large party advancing. Leaders are identified as Ravi and Patrik, and… somebody I don’t know. Riding a donkey. The guy I don’t know, I mean. And they’re bringing a train of a dozen pack donkeys. Heavily loaded.”

“They got it! Hai yi!” Amari shouted.

‘Hai yi yi yiee!” Nikos joined in, sending the call to bounce off the mountainside and echo on the far side of the valley.

“Don’t let’s advertise our presence to everybody in the valley,” Gabrel suggested mildly.

“Aw…. They already know we’re here. We get eggs and cheese from Skyros ‘most every day,” Nikos argued.

Gabrel quelled him with a look. “Consider it practice for the day when a Harmony patrol shows up in Skyros.” He turned back to the others. “All right, they’re going to be tired. Make a chain to unload and place the supplies back in the cave.”

The needles quivered violently again and Patrik pushed into the clearing. Gabrel let out his breath in silent relief. He’d sent four men, nearly half his group, on this mission. He hoped to get back four men in reasonably good shape. But Patrik, just two years older than Nikos and not noticeably more mature, had been the one he worried about most.

“Everybody all right?” he demanded sharply. Patrik was breathing heavily. “Better than all right,” he announced with a seraphic smile before taking another gasp of air. “Got what we came for, and a bonus!”

“What’s that?” Patrik slowly folded his lanky frame down upon the grass where he’d been standing. “Only two things wrong with the mountains,” he announced. “You people don’t keep enough oxygen around, and there is way too much vertical.”

“So hang onto a donkey’s tail, next time, instead of rushing ahead to be first back,” Gabrel said crisply. "The ‘bonus?’" Dear God, had Patrik gotten creative again? He’d been counting on Ravi to restrain him.

“It’ll be here in a minute.” Patrik pulled off the top half of his uniform and used it to mop his forehead. “I think it should be a surprise, and Ravi thinks it should wait until he has a chance to explain.”

Gabrel’s forebodings grew. It sounded as though Ravi hadn’t been quite as successful as he’d hoped at keeping Patrik within bounds. But he could hear the donkey train now, crashing through the woods and, no doubt, turning the narrow path to their camp into something more like a construction road. No need for a show of authority; he’d know the worst within minutes anyway.

The first donkeys came through the trees, with Ravi tugging on their headstalls while the donkeys looked this way and that and indicated that they’d just as soon wander off into the woods if only this stupid person weren’t being so insistent. One of the first pair of donkeys was loaded with nets on either side, each holding two cans that looked very much like the ink they’d gone to get. The other – was being ridden by what Gabrel supposed was Patrik’s ‘surprise.’

“Pat! You’ve never gone and brought me a girl for my birthday?” Amari was the first of them to overcome his shock and find his voice.

“You have succeeded,” Gabrel told Patrik. “That is definitely a surprise. Ravi, I’m told you can explain?”

Before Ravi could speak, the girl slipped off the donkey and addressed Gabrel directly. “Are you in command of this rabble?” The cut-glass, icy voice seemed incongruous, coming from a sweat-stained and dusty girl with a mop of pale hair falling around her face. Her long dark green trousers and lighter green tunic appeared spotless and unwrinkled and generally in much better shape than the girl. Smartcloth, then. And that accent had never come from Esilia.

“One moment, Citizen.” The girl’s expression told Gabrel that he’d guessed correctly. He turned on the men, who were all staring at the girl like idiots, and probably frightening her. “Ravi, what part of ‘inconspicuous’ did you not understand? And the rest of you ‘rabble’, don’t just stand there. We’ve got a pack train to deal with. All of you get to work! Unload the donkeys, put the ink in the cave, and the printer – you did get the printer?”

Ravi nodded. “Martin and Isak are preventing it from falling out of a sling between the last two donkeys. Hell of a thing to wrestle up a mountain.”

“Printer at the front of the cave, when it gets here. Take the donkeys to water as they’re unloaded, then get them back down the mountain as far as Skyros; we paid enough to use them, we’re not going to feed them as well. Do I have to spell out everything for you?”

“Water?” the girl repeated, then closed her mouth with a snap. Obviously she’d be damned if she asked them for anything.

“Allow me.” Nikos had kept his wits; while everybody else was staring, he’d taken his flask to the spring and filled it. Now he handed it to the girl, who took the flask in her bound hands, sipped cautiously and then tilted her head back to inhale the entire contents of the flask. “Skyros water is known to be the best in all the mountains,” Nikos boasted, “and Skyros gets its water from our spring.”

“Skyros is also known for its talkative men,” Gabrel said drily. “Nikos, get to work. Ravi, you’re excused from unloading duty while you give me an explanation.”

Ravi and Patrik alternately described the scene outside B12 as they had just finished loading the cans of ink: the girl appearing out of nowhere, the hasty decision to throw her in the float and take off, the naked man pursuing them. “Once she’d seen us,” Patrik pointed out, “’inconspicuous’ was really no longer an option. Whether we took her or left her, somebody was bound to notice.”

“Ask them what they did to Jonny,” the girl interrupted. “They wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“Jonny would be the – ah – scantily dressed gentleman?” Gabrel inquired. He cocked an eyebrow at Ravi.

Ravi shrugged. “We didn’t even bring any lethal weapons. All we had was two stunners. Martin and Isak both aimed at him. He hit the ground hard. He should be all right now, except for stunner hangover.”

“And his buddies,” Patrik said with a smirk, “are probably having a multi-colored lightning jack hangover.”

“All right. That explains why you took off with her,” Gabrel said, “you were stupid, and you panicked.” Ravi’s brown cheeks flushed, but Patrik clamped his jaw with an expression remarkably like a donkey’s. “But you had forty kilometers of plains to cross before you had to hide the float and load the pack train. Why didn’t you stop somewhere, put her off and let her walk back? Leave her far enough from any farms, she wouldn’t have been able to raise the alarm in time.”

“Well, Patrik thought…” Ravi began.

“Was Patrik in charge of this expedition? I thought I put you in charge.”

“He had a point…”

“I recognized her,” Patrik said proudly. “She’s General Dayvson’s daughter.”

The girl laughed. Loudly. “Oh, you idiots. Do I look like a general’s daughter?”

Even after a forced ride through the mountains, Gabrel thought, she looked exactly like a general’s daughter – or the daughter of somebody else from the top rung of Committee families. It wasn’t so much the long, slim legs, clad in perfectly fitted smartcloth; or the once-white hands, now marred with several scratches and a broken nail; or even the patrician profile. It was the way she lifted her chin and talked down her elegant nose at them, he thought. And she did resemble the girl he’d seen on holocasts, except for being considerably more disheveled.

“I’ve seen the newscasts,” Patrik insisted. “They showed you debarking with your father, off a troopship from Harmony.”

“That was nearly two months ago. Don’t you keep up with the news?”

“We can’t get the ‘casts in the mountains. Only when we go down to the plains.”

“Well. I suppose that explains it. You yokels obviously haven’t heard. Isovel Dayvson went back to Harmony after a week.”

Patrik scowled. “And you just happen to be her identical twin separated at birth, I suppose?”

“You. Captured. The. Wrong. Woman,” the girl insisted. “I’m just a commissary clerk. Don’t tell me you really believed those stories about Dayvson keeping his own daughter in an occupied city! Haven’t you Esilian hicks ever heard of propaganda?”

“Well, you see,” Gabrel said apologetically, “It’s not just that idiot Patrik. All of us hicks get to see some of them flashy holos when we go down-country. And you do look a lot like Isovel Dayvson to me.”

“And me,” Ravi chimed in.

The girl shrugged. “I daresay all civilized women look alike to you bumpkins. No wonder this is the poorest sector of the colony. Look at you men lolling around here half-naked instead of doing some useful work!” Patrik flushed and pulled his shirt back over his head. Scowling at Patrik, Gabrel stuck his thumbs in the waistband of his pants and pushed them down another inch, until they were hanging off his hipbones. They weren’t going to take lessons in etiquette from some Harmonica snob of a girl, and the sooner she grasped that, the better.

Her fair skin showed a flush more clearly than did Patrik’s olive complexion. She blinked and stared Gabrel directly in the eyes. Her own eyes were a light golden brown, about two shades darker than her tumbled hair. Of course, there was no reason to suppose any of that was natural. Gabrel didn’t know what kind of mods a top-level Harmony cosmetic stylist was offering these days, but hair and eye color coordination was probably the least of it.

“I suppose you think you’ll get a fortune in ransom for me? Well, don’t blame me when General Dayvson laughs in your faces.”

“If she’s the wrong one,” growled Jesse, “why shouldn’t we kill her now and save the trouble of keeping her?” He stepped forward so swiftly that he had her by the shoulder, his knife bright against her throat, before anyone else could react.

“Oh, she’s Dayvson’s daughter, all right,” said Gabrel tiredly. “She just doesn’t know when to give up. Just like her father. Stand down, Jesse. Or - if you feel an uncontrollable urge to use that knife - you might cut her hands free.” She yanked her bound hands back when Jesse touched her wrist. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Yet.”

“I’m not afraid, I just don’t want you destroying the only sash I’ve got! Can’t somebody just untie it?” She extended her hands to Gabrel, who looked at Patrik’s work with dismay. Patrik had wound the soft, voluminous silky fabric several times around the girl’s wrists and had finished with hard, tight knots that sank into the fabric.

With a conscious effort, he did not limp for the three steps that brought him close enough to work on the sash. His knee flamed white-hot agony on the second step, but he could live with that; better than appearing a cripple before this rude, scornful young woman. He had to stand quite close to her to pick at the knots; close enough to notice that although she smelled primarily of sweaty human female, there was also a hint of a gentle floral fragrance about her. Wisps of her loosened fair hair brushed his face. His hands were not shaking, it was just difficult loosening the knots. He bent his head over them and concentrated on the sash, not on the fine white hands and delicate wrists it bound. Patrik had made this mess, it would serve him right to have to fix it. But Patrik was young, not so steady, and he might be influenced by the scent, the closeness. He, being more mature, could take it in stride… She was tall for a woman, just his height, presumably staring out over his bent head while he worked… There went the last knot.

Freed, she shook out her wrists for a moment, then lifted her hands and tried to run her fingers through the long hair that rippled in the sunlight where it wasn’t hopelessly tangled. “I don’t suppose anyone has a comb? No? Why am I not surprised?”

“Us bumpkins don’t comb our hair much,” Patrik said.

“And neither, it seems, will I. Until you come to your senses and send me back. Kidnapping me was a very big mistake, you know.”

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