Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zzz...zzzz...zzzz (time for a rest)

Holy Moley...that was one heck of a month!

This final post feels a bit like cheating because I don't have a real "Z" post on my theme, but the last one felt like a fitting conclusion anyway, so I decided it was time for reflection.

Posting each day for a month (with Sundays off)...way more than I usually do. Throw in the alphabet and it gets harder. And I chose to stick to a theme, upping the ante.

In the end, the posts themselves were the least of it. I started preparing back in February. Ghosts of Innocence turned out to be a rich seam of inspiration, and I had little trouble finding topics for the alphabet. OK, a few letters were a bit weak, but others suffered an embarrassment of choice, and I had to turn down many other posts that I would have loved to have written. Maybe another day.

No. The biggest effort in the end was simply keeping up with all the activity going on during April.

On my own blog here, I like to acknowledge comments individually, usually by adding one comment containing a bundle of responses. A few times, especially in the early days, I resorted to a more blanket approach. I don't like doing that, but time was pressing and I wanted to get on with...

Keeping up with people I follow, especially those I started following during the Challenge. I gave you folks priority, at least visiting as much as possible, even if I didn't always leave comments.

That alone was a marathon effort some days, as I scrolled down my Blogger dashboard thinking How many posts to read???

And then there's all the other blogs in the Challenge. No, I didn't get to visit even a respectable fraction. Probably about 200 out of the 1700+ signed up.

All this. meant that blogging practically took over my life for the month of April. Writing, revising, and critiquing have been pretty much on hiatus so I'm looking forward to a return to normality.

Before I forget, I'd like to say a big "Hello" to new followers this month. It may take me a while to track you down, if I haven't already. You can help yourselves hugely here by leaving comments. The "Followers" gadget isn't always very good at showing links to your blogs. It seems to show some weird variation on people's profiles, and I've often been frustrated in the past when someone has followed but not left a comment, and I find I have no way to seek them out.

So, commenting saves a lot of hassle and gets you firmly on my radar.

Meanwhile, The Bald Patch is returning to a more normal pace of life.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Your Next Adventure, Shayla

Most of these posts have talked about the world setting for Ghosts of Innocence, some backstory, some world-building, and a bit about the story itself.

Without revealing anything about how we reach this point, the story ends with Shayla joining forces with the Emperor to hunt down a mutual enemy: the person truly responsible for the Cleansing of Eloon.

At the end of Ghosts, the Emperor has to decide how to deal with Shayla, balancing some extraordinary crimes against the equally extraordinary services that she's performed. He comes up with a combined punishment and reward: lifelong exile to her burnt-out home world, Eloon, but in the capacity of planetary governor. She is charged with rebuilding the planet and establishing a new Freeworld as a refuge for victims of conflict from anywhere in the boundaries of civilization.

In the Emperor's own words, "This would be an ample task to keep the most dedicated and single-minded person occupied for a lifetime. And enough to keep even you out of trouble, I think."

I felt this was a fitting conclusion to the story, with no thought at the time for a sequel. But, of course, this ending is really just a beginning, and is rife with possibilities for proving the Emperor wrong!

The sequel, The Ashes of Home, is still only in rough outline. My thoughts on it are as follows:

Even for an assassin, Shayla Carver has made a lot of enemies. Never mind the two billion she almost killed in revenge for the destruction of her home planet many years ago, they hardly count. More important are the powerful people she betrayed on her journey of vengeance. People with long memories and deep pockets.

So when a pair of assassins ambush Shayla, it is nothing remarkable. Just another attempt on her life.

Attempts on her own life she can handle. She's had plenty of practice. But when Shayla was tasked with rebuilding her shattered home world in atonement for her earlier crimes, she hadn't bargained on the endless bickering, the religious uprisings, attempts to free high profile prisoners in her care ... running a planet is harder work than she'd ever imagined.

And this particular attempt turns out to be just one of a string of seemingly unconnected events which drive Shayla close to madness as she struggles to prepare a fledgling colony for an Imperial inspection.

Then members of her own guard try to kill the Imperial inspectors themselves. Or so it appears. Shayla thwarts the plot, but is summoned to explain matters to the Emperor in person.

Realizing that she is close to losing her home world for a second time, Shayla retreats to the ruins of her ancestral family home. The one place she can be alone to recover her strength. The one place she is truly vulnerable.

Waiting for her there is Cobra. Once a leading member of a terrorist organization whose plans Shayla derailed, Cobra has been stalking her ever since, watching her movements, seeking weaknesses. He's behind the recent events, turning up the pressure, driving Shayla into his clutches...

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Xeno-no-show

In all the planets humanity has explored in Ghosts of Innocence, there is one notable absence.

An official census at the accession of Julian Flavio Skamensis counted 523 inhabited star systems. This does not include the many tens of thousands of other systems explored but holding no self-supporting permanent population.

Note that I chose my words carefully there. I posted about the difficulties of interstellar censuses here.

OK, there were actually two notable absences.

Firstly, none of these worlds was originally fit to live on. Apart from Earth, which has long since been lost in the mists of legend, everywhere people live has had to be artificially made fit for habitation. Many worlds were terraformed - a slow and expensive process that eventually became the cause for immense conflict. Some, like Jemiyal, were simply converted into immense enclosed bases.

But there were no new Gardens of Eden, no Earthly twins. Just inhospitable balls of rock.

And that brings me to the most significant absence.

No alien life. Not even a microbe.

I chose not to populate my universe with a zoo of alien races. Yes, it's been fashionable for decades to pretend we aren't alone in our corner of the galaxy, but I suspect other intelligent life will turn out to be far spread in both time and space, and may be so removed from anything we have on Earth as to be possibly unrecognizable. This is a far cry from aliens in popular fiction, most of which, for some reason, turn out to be bipedal near-humanoids, or based on some Earthly body plan like insects or reptiles. That always makes me roll my eyes when I read it, so I decided to hold true to my beliefs.

Every person, plant, and animal in Shayla's world is ultimately of terrestrial origin.

Little green men, or large-eyed silvery men, are not part of the landscape.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for Weaponry

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

I've already posted about a couple of specific, and exotic, kinds of weapons in Shayla's world. This post is about the more generally-used weaponry.

The commonest weapon is the particle beam. Coming in all sizes from hand-held pistols to heavy ship- or ground-mounted batteries, a beam weapon emits focused pulses of charged particles. The effect is a bit like a precisely-controlled lightning bolt.

For really heavy offense, large warships sometimes mount plasma cannon, which spit a glob of high energy plasma. This is the decisive weapon of the Imperial Sword-class battleships, which can level whole cities in a single blast.

Electromagnetic shields provide defense against both types of weapons. When beam meets shield, it's a simple trial of strength. To get around this, projectile weapons are still a useful addition to your armory. Shields cannot protect you from brute physical assault.

From an assassin's point of view, beam pistols have two drawbacks: they are noisy, and a beam discharge can be detected and traced from miles away. Shayla regards them as a weapon of last resort, preferring a blade or bare hands for close-quarters work, and a needle gun for distance. Her needle gun holds a formidable chemical armory of drugs and poisons.

A needle gun is not something an ordinary citizen would ever carry, so in situations where she might be searched, Shayla favors a low-tech blowtube to deliver her needles. On Magentis, she carries a tiny blowtube and a small selection of needles concealed inside the cover of a religious book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Vantism

Alongside technology and politics, religion forms a significant thread through Ghosts of Innocence.

Vantism is the dominant Imperial religion, founded by the prophet Mikhael Avantis. Followers of this ascetic religion believe in the unity of all life, and subordination to a higher purpose. They practice meditation, and believe in strict observance of duty.

This suits the Emperor nicely.

This encouragement, in turn, happens to suit Shayla nicely as some outlying regions are steeped in religion, and even Imperial soldiers hesitate to tread on the toes of the local priests and temples.

In order to enter the Imperial palace, Shayla has to intercept and switch with a newly-appointed public servant, Brynwyn. She makes good use of the religious cover amongst devout followers to hide her tracks, as Brynwyn completes a week-long Meditation of Thanksgiving.

The story is littered with references to the Vantist holy books, with occasional quotations and a few awkward moments as Shayla assumes the identity of the highly devout Brynwyn.

From sea to cloud to rainfall, 
from field to crop to table, 
we take from the earth and we give back to it. 
In the circle of life we are united, 
and we offer thanks for the life-giving gifts brought to our table today. 
May the nourishment of the body nourish the soul.

(Vantist Grace)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Under Cover

To get at the Emperor, Shayla has to work under cover. Trouble is, she's not just herself working under cover here. She had to work under cover to infiltrate an organization that was in a position to place her under cover where he wanted to be.

It's a bit like an actor in a movie playing the part of an actor in a movie who's playing an actor...

It takes a lot of effort to keep track of all the layers, as described in this scene:

Shayla's eyes flew open. She took a few moments to still the pounding in her chest. The darkness of the room was broken by the softly luminous filigree of the wall clock hanging opposite the open windows. One of Brynwyn's possessions, and one of the few to show any touch of luxury or ornament. Shayla gazed at the glowing symbols woven into an intricate geometric background. At first, the alien words in provincial dialect failed to register, and she felt a wrenching disconnect from her surroundings, as if she were still struggling from a dream state.

Her mind scrabbled for a fingerhold on time and place, seeking stability in a sea of uncertainty.

Calm! Shayla ran through a quick litany she'd used for many years to anchor her self-identity while working under cover.

There was Shayla Carver, the bedrock, the core of her being, hidden under so many layers of subterfuge. She mentally reconstructed those layers, like applying theatrical makeup and costume.

Shayla the Firenzi assassin, a small cog in the machinery of one of humanity's most powerful families. Trained to work under cover. Trained to kill. Placed by the Firenzi Special Service into the ranks of one of their deadliest ideological foes as ...

Shark, the Insurrection agent, in turn posing as Brynwyn bin Covin, loyal Imperial servant.

Shark was assigned to worm her way close enough to the Emperor to kill him and turn the reins of power over to the Insurrection. Shayla the Firenzi was supposed to subvert that plan at the last minute and hand the Emperor over to her masters to force an abdication. And Shayla Carver? She had her own plans for revenge. The Emperor would die, but first he had to understand what was happening to him and everything he had built.

Her mental edifice whole once more, the symbols on the clock became familiar and meaningful.

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for Technology

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

Space ships, anti-gravity, death rays ... all the staples of sci-fi are present in Ghosts of Innocence. But I try to keep them in the background. Part of the furniture. Not something to be drooled over.

I've talked about odd bits of technology in various posts already - space travel, drugs, electronic implants, passkeys, quark bombs, shimmerblades - and I will talk more about weaponry in a later post.

Alongside the "hard landscaping", such as faster than light travel and death-dealing weapons, I like to bring a lot more of the "softer" technologies into the story.

I also make a point that not everyone has access to the same technology. Some groups have specializations, and are far more advanced in some areas than others.

The Imperial Family Skamensis is all about the harder stuff. They have the big ships and the big guns. They also excel in electronics and computing, and have the more advanced artificial intelligence systems to command their fleets. The latter being their Achilles' heel, when Shayla dupes the Emperor into compromising his access codes, allowing her to take control.

The computing devices are worth a mention. Pretty much everyone carries either a notepad or a scroll, flexible computers no thicker than a sheet of cardstock that you can either fold or roll up and tuck in a pocket. Many tables, desks, and walls are also computationally-active surfaces that you can write on or throw up images from our own device.

By contrast, the Family Firenzi are masters of materials and biotech. Many of the drugs I mentioned earlier come from them, and they have more highly advanced medicines than the other Families.

They can produce materials able to withstand extraordinary temperatures, like the re-entry bubble Shayla uses to eject from a crashing starship.

Firenzi agents carry chemical recognition devices, usually a small piece of jewelry, which emit a chemical tracer that can be recognized by another such device close by. A stealthy version of a secret handshake.

My favorite device, though, is the "nose", which allows you to follow a planted scent...but let Shayla show you how it's done:

Finn took a deep breath and nodded. "Time to pick up her trail." He handed Shayla a thin translucent strip about an inch across and a few inches long. "You know how to use a nose, don't you?"

"Of course." Shayla took the strip and placed it across her eyes. It stuck to her skin and held itself in place. To outward appearances, this might have been nothing more than a fashionable sun visor. Perfectly reasonable in the high altitude glare.

Through the hard but flexible material, she could just make out the outline of the path. Her vision cleared when she squeezed the topmost of a row of tiny protrusions at each end of the strip, and a luminous display hovered in her line of sight. Shayla fingered the bumps along the edge, tuning the device in to the chemical signature that had been planted on their quarry. This was another secret from the Firenzi materials laboratories, but one which the Insurrection had known about for decades.

"Got it." A hint of fluorescent violet hung in the air in front of Shayla. "Raven managed to plant the tracer OK."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Patience is a virtue

Especially when dealing with the Federal Government.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that our application for Canadian citizenship had finally been processed. After twenty months of waiting, we had a letter asking us to come and take our citizenship test.

Now, I'm not complaining about the waiting. We know they have a vast backlog, they post the expected waiting time on the website, and we've been here before. It took eighteen months to process our immigration application in the first place. We are used to the long waits.

The test was last week, and was a slightly surreal experience.

We arrived a bit early, and grabbed a drink while we lined up and waited to be let into the examination room. There were about thirty of us altogether taking the test. Only people taking the test are allowed into the room.

The officials were very strict about people sitting in the chairs with the clipboards, and carefully moved anyone who inadvertently sat in one of the many free seats. I guess the idea was to ensure people were spread out through the room with a reasonable distance between them.

The test itself was twenty multiple choice questions. You need fifteen or more correct to pass. It was a pencil-and-paper exercise. Haven't seen anything like that since school.

We were allowed half an hour for the test. Most people finished much quicker. I think it only took me a couple of minutes to rattle through, then I went back at least twice more to see if I could improve on my "educated guesses" to some of the questions.

A tip for anyone taking the test: Read the book they send you very carefully. Even what seems like a throwaway snippet buried in a paragraph somewhere might be the subject of a question. You don't necessarily need to learn it off by heart, but if you've read the words a few times, your memory should be jogged when you read the question choices. It is also worth trying practice questions on one of the many websites available. They helped us tune in to the gist of what they were looking for.

We also discovered that not everyone in the room was taking the same test. Ali had a whole different set of questions to me. I think they have several different sets to hand out, so you can't cheat by seeing which answers your neighbor has circled.

Then, more waiting. People got called up to the front of the room to be quizzed by one of the officials. We had about an hour wait before our turn.

Where you have a joint application, like we had, you got called together. They went through every little detail that might get questioned by the immigration judge. For example, all our passports other then mine had expired, and we got grilled on why we hadn't renewed them. It costs way more to get British passports renewed in Canada than in Britain, we've had no need to travel, we were holding on until we became citizens and could get Canadian passports ... the official scribbled down everything we said.

While there, we learned that the Victoria immigration office is about to close down - funding cuts. The officials testing us only learned a few days ago, so they were struggling a bit.

This means we don't know where, let alone when, we'll be called to the citizenship ceremony.

Assuming we pass.

This is the bit we're struggling with now.

We'd been looking forward to an end to the uncertainty, and speculated on what would happen if we didn't pass. But they don't mark the exam there and then. We think we've done OK, but we just don't know.

The one thing we weren't prepared for was not knowing.

All we can do is wait. We'll either get a letter inviting us to a ceremony, or asking us to meet with a citizenship judge. Even that may not mean we failed, it might just mean that they have more questions about our application.

So, we wait.

S is for Shimmerblade

One of the assassins' favorite products of the Firenzi materials laboratories, the shimmerblade is a fearsome weapon.

Inactive, it looks like an ordinary knife, but when its vibrating crystalline edge is activated, it can shear through almost any material short of military-grade vehicle armor.

Naturally, you have to remember to switch it off before trying to sheath it!

The other drawback of the weapon is the tell-tale blue glow that highlights the activated edge. This immediately tells any onlooker that you are handling no ordinary knife. If you haven't already given the game away, of course, by your ability to behead an opponent with a casual flick of a wrist.

Shimmerblades come in all shapes and sizes. Shayla favors a pocket knife. Small, innocuous, the sort of thing anyone might carry.

In the The Ashes of Home, Shayla is attacked by another assassin wielding a rapier shimmerblade. This confrontation highlights another limitation of the weapon: when two active blades clash, the results are unpredictable and potentially lethal to the owners. At best, the blades rebound with a ferocious, bone-jarring wrench. At worst, one or both blades could shatter, filling the air with a supersonic hail of needle-fine shrapnel.

These are not weapons you will ever see used in a swordfight.

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Revenge

Ghosts of Innocence is a story of revenge. My original working title was An Eye For an Eye.

Yeah, OK, that had to go. But it did make the nature of Shayla's intent a lot clearer: you burned my planet, I'll burn yours.

So the driver for the story is a personal quest for revenge. But if you look for something a bit deeper, it's more about the dangerous spiral that results, what such a quest can turn you into, and most especially about the dangers of misplaced actions.

Shayla's quest is intensely personal, and childishly selfish. She lost her home, everything that she had ever known, and it wasn't an accident. Someone had made a choice. That someone would pay. Like for like.

The trouble is, all the millions of other people who had also lost everything never featured in Shayla's thinking. As a child, everything was about her. They weren't important, and nor were the lives she was about to take.

In my mind's eye, I picture all those lost innocents, casualties of Eloon, watching from the sidelines and praying for Shayla not to make the same mistake. Not to commit the same crime as her aggressor all those years ago.

These ghostly hordes are echoed through the story, in the eyes of a young girl on board a starship that Shayla crashes, in the mother and children shackled in a town square for public punishment, in the young cadets swarming across the parade ground as the Emperor's own ships launch their assault on his homeworld.

These are the ghosts of innocence that haunt Shayla, and which ultimately pull her back from the brink.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Quark bomb

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

This exotic weapon is more potent as a threat to instill fear, than as a realistic weapon of war.

The quark bomb is to nuclear fission, as fission is to chemical explosives. When successfully assembled and detonated, a quark bomb can vaporize a mountain, and its radiation can sterilize a large portion of a planet.

The problem is that it's almost impossible to assemble successfully, let alone deploy under battle conditions.

The quark detonator, which produces the energizing field that initiates the full reaction, is touchy enough, but at least it can be handled. 

With care. 

By an expert. 

And it's small enough to fit in a small backpack.

The problem lies in bringing the fissile fuel together at the right moment without triggering a premature regular boring old nuclear explosion.

A detonator on its own does significant damage, though. It will leave a sizeable hole in a street, noticeably more than a small backpack full of regular explosives.

But the real damage is in the message it sends. Unlike a normal explosion, a quark detonator effectively atomizes everything within a thirty foot radius. The hemispherical crater is extremely clean, and it directs most of the resulting blast of superheated plasma upwards, so nearby buildings suffer relatively little damage. This means that its detonation leaves an unmistakable signature.

A signature which says "you nearly lost this continent."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Passkey

The passkey is how Imperial security keeps tabs on its more important citizens.

A bit like an RFID tag, a passkey is a piece of electronics about the size of a grain of rice, surgically implanted, usually somewhere in the abdomen.

Like an RFID tag, a passkey will respond to the right coded signal with information about its owner. Unlike an RFID tag, the passkey contains deeply-encrypted biometric data and security clearance codes.

The "Big Brother" side of the technology involves pervasive logging of people's movements. Passkeys are routinely scanned in towns and major sites of interest. Mostly, these are just passive records of identities as people pass nearby.

The benefit to the wearer, at least those high up in the hierarchy, is that their identity is automatically verified, giving them access to facilities so seamlessly that they are rarely even aware of the rings of security they've passed through. These kinds of checks involve more than passive logging. Access codes will be checked against clearance levels, and the monitoring station may verify biometric details.

The Empire places great faith in the security of its passkey technology. It uses signaling and encryption technology far removed from the general interchange standards used throughout civilization.

The Empire knew nothing about Shayla's brother, Brandt.

Naturally, posing as a high-ranking public servant, Shayla needed her own passkey.

Nobody outside of the Imperial Security Services laboratories has ever been able to forge a passkey good enough to fool the strict checks used around the Imperial capital. Brandt was no exception in this respect.

Shayla bypassed the problem of forgery by stealing one, after making sure its previous owner had no further need of it, of course.

With a genuine piece of technology in his hands, Brandt was able to crack the security, allowing Shayla to encrypt her own biometrics and any chosen set of access codes into the device. All she needed to do was read off and decrypt the access codes and identity information from her chosen target.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Ordinary people

On Saturday, I talked about the extraordinary side of Magentis.

The planet's public face is the machinery of Imperial government: military might, ancient landmarks, ridiculous costumes and ceremonies.

To the cynical, this means a hive of strutting soldiers, arrogant bureaucrats, and corrupt officials.

All this is true. And to most of the outside world, even to the assiduous researcher, this is the only face accessible.

But behind the facade, locked away behind almost impenetrable security, the remaining 99% of the planet presents another face entirely.

Step outside the capital city, steer clear of the official Imperial palaces and residences, and you could be on just about any planet.

There are towns and villages, farms and factories. Most of the two billion inhabitants live lives that could be lived practically anywhere. There's rich and poor, honest folk and scoundrels, fishermen, artisans, teachers, doctors, merchants, just like anywhere else.

These people just happened to be born here. They live their lives, and have their own dreams and aspirations that have nothing to do with Empire and conquest.

Shayla never suspected this face of Magentis until she slipped through the tight security and began living and working amongst its people.

Even within the exalted walls of the Mosaic Palace, the people - all those Imperial lackeys, as she would have put it - were pretty darned ordinary. Motivated by the same petty hopes and fears, greeds and lusts, as anyone else.

This ordinariness catches Shayla off balance when she comes face to face with the reality she's setting out to destroy. It sows the seeds of doubt needed to sway her from her deadly course.

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Nacrolin

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

I talked earlier about drugs, which feature heavily in Ghosts of Innocence. One in particular stands out for pure nastiness. Nacrolin.

This is Shayla's weapon of choice for the final part of her revenge.

Nacrolin is extremely rare, and rarely used, even - or especially - by assassins. Assassins already have a powerful arsenal of chemicals to kill quickly and silently, to incapacitate, to induce robot-like compliance ...

The only reason to use nacrolin is as the harshest of punishments.

Nacrolin attacks the nervous system. It induces paralysis within seconds and then gets down to its real work. While the victim is helpless but fully aware, the drug eats away at the nerves, starting at the extremities. The dying nerve cells go into hyperdrive, sending wave upon wave of pain signals, torturing the victim beyond endurance, until the necrotic process reaches the brain stem bringing the release of death.

It is a slow death. The smaller the dose, the slower the process. A carefully-judged dose can keep a victim in torment for days.

There is no antidote.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Magentis

Magentis is the home planet of the Imperium. The one Shayla tries to annihilate in revenge for Eloon.

To the world outside, Magentis seems extraordinary.

It is the home of the Emperor, with majestic palaces and other landmarks familiar to every schoolchild throughout known space.

Magentis is the seat from which the eighty-three worlds directly under Imperial rule are closely governed, and to which hundreds of others owe allegiance by treaty. It houses the immense central bureaucracy which implements all that tiresome ruling.

The planet sits at the center of the most fiercely guarded volume of space known to humanity. No craft, other than Imperial warships, ever fly in and land directly on the planet. All cargo is opened off-planet. All visitors are processed through orbiting reception bases before landing. This is the ring of security that Shayla has to evade.

The public face of Magentis is imposing, intimidating, steeped in traditions of pomp and ceremony from eight thousand years of continuous rule.

But on the ground, Magentis is breathtakingly ordinary. That is the subject for another post.

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Language

Ghosts of Innocence is set in the far future - fifteen thousand years from now. Of course, after millennia of expansions and collapses nobody by then will be speaking recognizable English. Heck, in this setting they don't even remember Earth!

Equally of course, the story is written in English. I just write in modern day English, as the language of my target audience, and I think this is the best way to convey the setting as being somewhere the inhabitants of the story feel at home.

Most of the time, therefore, language doesn't get a mention. It is just there in the background, and not something I want to draw attention to.

However, subtleties of language do make their impression on the story.

There's the slightly stilted speech patterns I use for the key Imperial characters. Not quite enough (I hope) to draw comment, but enough (I hope) to hint at the entrenched hierarchies and ancient etiquettes Shayla has to immerse herself in.

I deliberately chose to use feet and miles for distance, rather than metric. You'd think the latter would be a natural choice for a far future spacefaring setting, but I wanted to convey, not modernity, but deep tradition and antiquity. This is a place with history.

In some of the unstated backstory, Shayla's preparation included learning not only the northern fishing dialect of the woman whose identity she steals, but also the inflection that such a dialect would bring to the standard Imperial tongue. She went further, and softened the accent to match the more refined circles her target had moved in.

There are more explicit mentions of things like the Firenzi military tongue that Shayla reverts to when talking to some captured soldiers.

The most unusual examples, though, are the secret languages Shayla and Brandt invented. Some of Shayla's security software "talks" in code by modulating the tones and rhythms of abstract meditation music. She can be listening to a detailed report while an eavesdropper wouldn't be able to tell there was a coded message in there.

At one point, Shayla and Brandt talk about this language, called Chirple, and later Brandt sends her a message using it. Here Shayla reflects on the message and its meaning:

Fortuitous intel!

It was said that the local dialect in Prandis had fifty different words for sunshine. The brazen midday sun in a clear sky. The caress of a spring dawn. The umber glow through an afternoon dust storm.

Chirple had equally subtle distinctions to denote varieties of intelligence. Shayla pondered Brandt's choice of wording. Fortuitous. Arrived at by chance. Neither knowingly revealed by the target, nor specifically sought by the recipient.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for Knife Dance

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

Rather than tell you about the Knife Dance, I'll let the story show you, as Shayla, posing as a newly-appointed public servant, confronts the Palace bully:

Mabb snarled as Tanya scuttled back to her seat. "Fishlanders swim together, hmm?" Her lips formed a thin line. "We still need entertainment, Master of Circuses."

"That, I will provide." Shayla leaned across the table to Bo Branson. "Find the public music library for me."

Bo's scroll appeared from the depths of her sleeve. She unrolled it on the table.

"Find 'The Serpent's Passing' from The Dragon Prince."

Jojo smiled. "My favorite opera."

"Be ready to send it to the dining room's public address when I say so." Shayla removed her boots and threw off her heavy robes, to reveal leggings and a close-fitting tunic.

A lieutenant sitting nearby in full ceremonial regalia leered at her. With a murmured "Thanks," Shayla leaned over and relieved the startled soldier of his short sword. She held it in her right hand, appraising the balance. The gleaming weapon was anything but ceremonial. With her left hand, she drew her own knife.

Shayla strode to the center of the hall, and nodded to Bo. She stood, barefoot and head bowed, with the blades crossed over her heart.

The first chords of the aria filled the room like a distant lament carried on the wind across a wilderness of ice.

Shayla slowly slid her left foot up to her thigh, while spreading her arms wide, blades outstretched.

All grace and perfect balance, her raised leg extended behind while her arms closed in again, drawing the points of the weapons down her body.

Shayla had chosen one of the more dance-like routines in her martial repertoire. It would not do to advertise her full mastery of the Shohan Calinda, but she hoped this would not arouse comment. The Palm Tree...lean forward into the Hawk, then the Cobra, back to the Hawk... She recited the set poses, letting the sequence unfold from years of training as the lyrics sang of the poison coursing through the doomed Serpent's veins, and the agony of his awakening.

And hold...ready for the acrobatics...

Three forward flips and Shayla planted her feet in a wide fighting stance. The languid grace of the stylized poses gone, she was now the hunter, circling the room. Her blades were fangs seeking their prey.

Slash left, slash right, right again... The sword and the knife weaved patterns about Shayla's body. She was oblivious to her audience now, fully immersed in the dance, and the story of betrayal and quest for revenge.

The music's tempo quickened. The sword spun in the air above Shayla's head while the knife pointed an accusing finger of steel at Mabb.

Shayla leaped and pirouetted from one side of the central aisle to the other. She whirled ever closer to the high table, blades an almost invisible blur about her face. She now danced mere feet from Mabb, who sat wide-eyed with palms down on the tabletop as if she were pushing herself away from the dervish in front of her.

As the music climaxed, on the final beat, the knife and the sword flew from Shayla's hands and buried themselves an inch from Mabb's outstretched fingertips.

Mabb flinched but, to her credit, didn't snatch her hands away.

Shayla stood, head bowed once more, breathing hard. The healing wound in her shoulder screamed at her in protest. She swayed, fighting to bring the room back into focus.

A handclap echoed through her mind. Another. And another, slow and rhythmic.

She squeezed her eyes shut. She was being mocked. Her throat tightened.

"Bravo!" She recognized Kurt's voice behind her. Other pairs of hands joined in, growing, filling the air with a thunderous cadence. In this culture, a slow handclap is a sign of respect. Shayla's mission preparation reasserted itself. All the cultural differences she'd absorbed settled once more into the forefront of her awareness. She breathed again and lifted her head.

As Shayla leaned forward to retrieve the blades, Mabbwendig murmured, "You full of surprises, Master of Circuses."

"The Knife Dance is a holy and private meditation," Shayla whispered. "You know traditions. You must know that to commission it for public spectacle commands a blood price."

Mabb opened her mouth, then closed it again and swallowed hard. As Shayla pulled the weapons from the tabletop, Mabbwendig's veined hands trembled.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for Jemiyal

Jemiyal is a mining colony, deep in Firenzi territory, where the climax of Ghosts of Innocence takes place.

Jemiyal itself is a rocky moon about ten miles across, orbiting an inhospitable "super-Earth" - a rocky giant cloaked in a crushing, toxic atmosphere. The moon was mined for its rich ores, then used as a base from which to plunder the rest of the system.

Mining activities are now concentrated on the asteroid belts and outer planets, while Jemiyal remains as a thriving - if rather rough - community of three million people.

Very little of the moon's surface is now visible, being covered in buildings: warehouses, refineries, industrial plant, and the accommodation and infrastructure needed to sustain its resident population and support the millions more nomadic workers scattered throughout the system. The building works extend deep into the core of the moon, fanning out from the network of mineshafts, forming a uniquely three-dimensional habitat.

Jemiyal has a less innocent side, which made it a natural destination for the renegades fleeing from Shayla and the Emperor: it was secretly equipped as a formidable fortress, the only base known capable of withstanding the combined might of the Empire's Sword-class battleships.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for Implants

Shayla's plot against the Emperor involves passing herself off as a high-ranking member of the Imperial palace staff. Yes, it's someone newly-appointed, fresh from the Provinces, that nobody in the capital city is likely to have met, but it's still not something you can hope to get away with through ordinary impersonation.

Luckily, Shayla has some nifty technology that takes impersonation to a whole new level. Subcutaneous implants that allow her to morph her appearance...but let Shayla tell you about them in her own words. Here is an interview with Shayla, many years after the events of Ghosts of Innocence.

[Shayla Carver] ...So you see, combat skills are only part of the story. In fact, my best trick turned out to be disguise. Not fighting, but blending in. I had this talent for it. And some hi-tech help in the last few years of course.

[Interviewer] Your implants?

You bet! Something the Firenzi want to keep secret as long as possible. No surprise there. If you don't know about them they are such an effective disguise. But once people know what to look out for they'll be too easy to spot. They'll become obsolete. Well, the secret's safe, for now. And I'd never have gotten through any close scrutiny without them. But man! Those things were a pain in the butt.

How so?

Think about what the implants do. They give you conscious control over your appearance. Facial features, skin tone, hair colour. Can't do much about height, but the implants can absorb water and plump you out some.

Sounds marvellous!

It is. But remember what I just said back there. Conscious control. It's like flexing a muscle. It takes effort to morph, and effort to sustain. Slacken off and your features will revert.

So you woke up each morning as Shayla Carver instead of Brynwyn?

[She snorts and shakes her head] Not quite. It takes time. Nobody would notice much difference after only a few hours, and it takes several days to become recognisably yourself again if you simply relax. Quicker if you make a conscious effort.

But morphing your appearance in the first place is slow work and both physically and mentally draining. I normally take about four days to put on a disguise. On Magentis I did it in less than two. That was tiring.

And as for keeping the disguise up, just try walking around all day with your stomach muscles permanently tensed and your arms held high over your head and you'll start to get the idea. I spent most of my time on Magentis half dead from exhaustion. That led to a few lapses of judgement, which could have been serious.

[She leans back, gazing up at the ceiling] So, you see, the implants have their drawbacks. And I try to forget what I went through getting them in the first place.

[She looks at me again, with a sly grin] You know they were engineered from some strain of fungus? The implant process is ... painful. And creepy. You have these filaments growing under your skin from the implant sites. It's like an infection. It is an infection really. And it totally knocks you out for weeks. You're under constant medical supervision, feeling sick as a dog, but they're not trying to cure you. They're encouraging the infection, guiding it to all the right spots until it's taken over every inch of your skin.

Sounds gruesome.

It is! And then they give you a killer drug to stop it metastasising further. It knocks you sideways, but you don't mind that because you're just hoping like crap that it works!

What if it doesn't?

[She shudders] Then you really do have an infection. A nasty and terminal one.

So obviously it worked for you.

Yes. But that's not all. Once you've recovered, the real training starts. By now the filaments have made a whole network and tapped into your somatic nervous system. But it's like a phantom limb that you never knew you had. You have to learn to control it. It took me nearly two months before I started to make a conscious connection, and a full year before I had enough control to put on a decent disguise.

[She smiles] Boy was that a frustrating time for me. You know me. I'm all about action. I can be patient when I'm stalking prey, but I need to see progress. I was ready to bite heads off after the first few weeks. [She giggles. I find the incongruity unsettling] I don't know how many trainers I went through! I think the Special Service ended up offering danger money just to get them in the same room as me.

Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for Hokloks

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

We don't meet much native wildlife in Ghosts of Innocence - the focus is very much on the people - but one rather gruesome example does make an appearance:

Shayla turned to a screen and scanned the ground below. Small shadows flitted through the trees.

She shuddered. Hokloks! Curiosity had led her last night to the armored fence where the hokloks were penned. Long-necked flightless birds, standing three feet tall, they looked harmless, almost cute.

The guards released an antelope into the pen. At the sight of the hokloks, the animal snorted and bolted on trembling legs. The birds let out high, whooping cries and gave chase. Hunting as a pack, they cornered the terrified antelope and sliced it apart with razor sharp beaks and talons.

Hokloks have been bred and trained as hunting animals for aristocratic sport. Falconry on steroids.

In a hunt, the birds have their hearing blocked and sight partially blinkered so they are dependent on the skill of their human controller to ambush their prey. The huntsmen ride airbikes, each directing a pack of five or six hokloks.

In the more dedicated echelons of the nobility, the preferred prey is human, usually prisoners given the chance to earn their freedom by surviving a pre-arranged duration.

The preceding excerpt introduces a chapter in Ghosts depicting such a hunt, where Shayla learns more of the Emperor's character than she ever imagined.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Life beyond the A to Z Challenge

I realized my last few posts in the A to Z may have been a bit on the dry side, as they were all about the political and historical side of Shayla's world. I hope to lighten things up a bit next week and touch on some more down-to-earth (as it were) topics.

Believe it or not, there has also been life outside of the Challenge, even though it's been a serious challenge keeping up with comments and all the activity on blogs I follow, never mind visiting new blogs in the sign-up list.

We've had a busy Easter weekend so far. Time to make use of the spring sunshine to de-winterize the trailer, tidy up the garage, and clean the deck ready for summer. That last annual job always lifts my spirits. A grimy deck is depressing to look at, but clean it up and it's a promise of good times to come.

So, there's some worthwhile work done, and we all feel good about it. Now we're hoping to enjoy the rest of the weekend off. It looks like a promising start, I've just woken up to a glorious Easter Sunday. We plan to fire up the barbecue later on.

This week, we also had two welcome missives from the Government of Canada.

What? *Gasp* Did I hear that correctly?

First, we got our tax rebates, always a welcome thing at this time of year. But, more significant, we've finally received invitations to take our Canadian citizenship test.

Just as a matter of reference, in case any other immigrants out there are thinking of becoming citizens, it's been twenty months since we mailed off our applications. Things move slowly in Canadian bureaucracy, but we knew that when we sent in our applications. We're just glad to see light at the end of the tunnel.

This is at once exciting and scary. We received a booklet well over a year ago, with all the information needed to take the test. We were also led to believe we'd have plenty of time to swot up between being invited and the actual test.

We have less than two weeks.

On the plus side, we've been practicing online and both repeatedly achieved pass marks without difficulty. It's mostly common sense.

Now all we need to do is pass for real!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Grand Families

Just over half of the inhabited star systems in Shayla's time are ruled by one of six Grand Families.

After a period of relatively peaceful interstellar expansion, civilization collapsed in a thousand years of bitter conflict as fledgling empires grew impatient with the slow process of terraforming. Humanity as we know it nearly ended there, but a few centers retained both industrial capacity and technical knowledge to build starships.

The rulers of these few centers founded the Grand Families. With their unmatchable technology and wealth, they subdued nearby systems and have kept their grip on their territories ever since.

The Family Skamensis was always the most powerful, and holds a commanding central position in human space. Successive Skamensis rulers styled themselves "Emperor", with greater or lesser success. At the time of Ghosts of Innocence, the Skamensis rule is strong, with the other Families signing treaties of allegiance, so the current Emperor can proclaim himself Emperor of all humanity with some justification.

Of course, that doesn't stop the Families plotting constantly against the Emperor, and against each other. This is what gives Shayla the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to destroy him.

Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for Freeworlds

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world from my (unpublished) novel, Ghosts of Innocence...

The worlds in Ghosts of Innocence are either fiefdoms, owned by one of the Grand Families, or outlaw worlds eking out a precarious existence on the perimeters of civilization, or Freeworlds.

The Freeworlds enjoy independence by statute, granted by the Emperor, and honored by the other Families by treaty.

Freeworlds usually have a dedicated purpose, or charter, and establish themselves as highly specialized centers of excellence for academics, artists, or artisans. The Families honor the Freeworlds' independent status in return for the strictly impartial value that these worlds bring to all of humanity.

It is no coincidence that Freeworlds typically lack natural resources worth fighting over.

It would also be a mistake to imagine the Freeworlds as being idyllic beacons of freedom in a wilderness of feudal rule. Being a Freeworld simply means that the local rulers manage their affairs unencumbered by central control. That independence rarely extends to the general populace.

Shayla's brother, Brandt, lived on the University Freeworld of Chevinta, which is ruled by an intellectual meritocracy. Brandt lived as a recluse, taking no part in the backstabbing world of University politics, and he would have rejected any suggestion of being a member of a ruling elite, but he hardly noticed the subservient underclass that kept him and his intellectual peers fed and clothed.

At the end of Ghosts, the ravaged world Eloon is granted Freeworld status, and Shayla is exiled there to establish a refuge for people dispossessed by conflict.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Eloon

Eloon was the young Shayla's home world. Home, incidentally, to a hundred million other people, but for the most part that didn't register on an eleven-year-old's mind.

The planet belonged to the Family Firenzi, and lies close to the border between Firenzi and Imperial Skamensis space.

Some of the old Eloon's good points: Far enough removed from either territory's capital, or any military or industrial center, to enjoy relative peace and freedom. The planet was quietly prosperous, but not enough to attract unwelcome jealousy. Successive planetary governments worked to keep it that way, keeping a low profile and building an oasis in a troubled galaxy.

The problem? Shayla's father, on the run from the wrath of his mother, the tyrant Empress Florence, and from his brother Ivan, chose to live in hiding there.

If he'd been content just to hide, he and Shayla would probably have lived peaceful lives. As it is, he continued working against the excesses of Florence's rule and built a substantial network on Eloon. When Ivan finally tracked him down to Eloon, his organization was so entrenched that no amount of covert action could root them out.

No problem.

Ivan, acting in the name of his young nephew (the newly-crowned Emperor, successor to the late Florence) had some large battleships to play with. And wholesale planetary destruction was a well-practiced maneuver.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Drugs

Drugs in various forms are woven throughout Ghosts of Innocence.

The most frequently recurring example, and important to the plot, is trylex. It removes all voluntary motor control and renders a person powerless to resist external suggestion. This places the victim totally in your power, as far as general physical actions goes. It has a nasty side-effect that any attempt to fight the drug results in mind-splitting pain.

Shayla uses trylex several times to drug victims, including the Emperor, and is hit with it once herself.

Nicadyne is a more everyday drug. A powerful stimulant, commonly used to overcome fatigue, it's a bit-player in the Ghosts pharmacopoeia, and makes several brief appearances.

Two nastier drugs make single, but decisive, entrances. Animastin destroys recent memory. One of Shayla's colleagues takes it to remove any possibility of giving away his actions under interrogation. Nacrolin is a feared poison which Shayla uses at the end of the story. More of that in a later post.

Many more unnamed drugs and poisons crop up throughout the story, illustrating my leaning towards writing about "softer" technologies.

It's not all spaceships and death rays!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Cleansing

Sounds like a good thing, doesn't it?

Put "ethnic" in front of it, and it loses its innocence.

OK, for my purposes I stripped it back to just the one word, with a capital "C" for emphasis, because the "Cleansing" in Ghosts of Innocence is even more extreme. The Imperial navy appears overhead and reduces every city, town, and village to molten glass.

Picture Independence Day, but with rather fewer buildings left standing.

This is what happened to Shayla's home world.

This is why she's out to get the Emperor.

Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Brandt

...who also happens to be Shayla's brother, so this post could have been entitled "B is for Brother". Any prizes for hitting the letter twice?

Brandt Carver is the technical brains, the backroom boffin, behind the revenge mission. (Look! More "B"s)

Brandt was just as affected by the loss of his home as Shayla was, and they kept each other sane in the following years until they finally made their insane pact to take on the empire.

While Shayla went the Rambo route, Brandt hid himself away on the university Freeworld, Chevinta. By day, a distinguished, if somewhat reclusive, professor of topological number theory, by night Brandt became a hacker extraordinaire.

Few networks were safe from his covert prying. He gleaned and squirreled away vast hoards of illicit intelligence to help Shayla. He also equipped her with an electronic arsenal of hacking tools which she used many times during the course of the story.

In Ghosts of Innocence, Brandt remains very much in the background. Shayla speaks to him a couple of times, thinks about him a lot, but he doesn't make an appearance in person until the last scene in the book.

It is not a happy ending for Brandt, as you can read here.

Note: For the A to Z, I'm posting topics about all sorts of aspects of Shayla's world. Shayla Carver is the main character in my (unpublished) sci-fi novel Ghosts of Innocence.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Assassin

Well, that's an alphabetically fortuitous start!

For the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I'm posting alphabetically on things related to Shayla's world...

Shayla Carver, the main character in Ghosts of Innocence, is an assassin. 

Fighting was always in her nature, even before she started on her quest for revenge. By the age of ten, she was a junior master of Jivan wrestling, and well on her way to the bronze standard in Shohan Calinda, the Knife Dance.

Things got serious after her home planet was destroyed, and she decided to kick the sorry butt of the Emperor responsible.

She threw herself into martial arts, joined the Firenzi military at seventeen, but soon realized that this was a step in the wrong direction. The Firenzi forces would never take on the Empire, not in direct battle, and even if they did she would never be in a position to take out the kind of personal revenge she was looking for.

For that sort of opportunity, Shayla needed to enter the Special Service...not the kind of organization you just apply to join! She got noticed by their talent scouts by volunteering for behind-the-lines assignments - chances to show the skills the Service was looking for.

In doing so, she discovered her talents for disguise, for blending in under cover, and for extreme stealth. These talents complemented her formidable fighting skills, and an assassin was born.

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