SIGNAL BOOST: The Ronin Genesis by Steven Hildreth Jr.

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I’ve known Steven for 13 years and counting. Back then, we were newcomers on the writing scene with more ambition than skill. Nonetheless, we kept each other going over the years, even though I veered off into science fiction and fantasy while he stayed a purebred thriller writer. With THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say that he has reached new heights.

Previously in THE SOVEREIGNS, former Special Operations soldier Benjamin Williams intervenes in a terrorist attack at the Saguaro Towers in Tucson, Arizona. But the strike was a false flag attack engineered by Iran to breach the American covert intelligence infrastructure — and the true mastermind has fled the scene with a thumb drive filled with sensitive information.

With no other options, the Central Intelligence Agency turns to a small Private Military Company to find the Iranian and recover the thumb drive. The PMC in turn hires Williams and members of his former Special Activities Division team. Pursuing their target through Mexico, Williams and his teammates must battle mercenaries, a ruthless drug cartel and a shadowy wet work team. And in this multi-factional drug war, the Ronin Defense Institute will be born in blood and steel.

Steve made his mark writing hard-hitting action-packed thrillers intertwined with surprising depth of character. As a beta reader of THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say he took his skills to the next level. Action scenes explode from the page from the first trigger pull, and once the shooting stops there’s no letting up until the last body falls. The operators are portrayed authentically, displaying the mindset, training, techniques, tactics and procedures that separate the best from the rest. When Williams and his allies clash with the opposition, both sides do their best to outwit and outfight each other, creating satisfying scenes of suspense, drama and all-out action.

It’s not all blood and guts and gore. During breathers, Steve explores his characters’ histories and personalities, letting his characters evolve with the plot. We see more of Williams’ backstory, gain insights into why the bad guys do what they do, and even peek into the hearts of many minor characters who, in other stories, would be shown once or twice and soon forgotten.

Steve’s writing is clean, precise and hard-hitting. Brisk and workmanlike, it is highly reminiscent of the best of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, with events proceeding at breakneck pace. While there are plenty of acronyms and military jargon in there, the book also comes with a glossary for readers new to the genre.

THE RONIN GENESIS also takes the series into a darker direction. Steve has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and torture, but this novel kicks it up a notch. Even so, it’s never employed gratuitously for mere shock effect; instead, it underscores the brutality of Mexico’s drug war, creates chilling portrayals of human evil, and demonstrates the terrible cost of sustained violence on the human spirit.

I only have one main issue with the novel. Now and then the characters make references to past adventures that Steve hasn’t written yet. Having sat with Steve and discussed his ideas for the series, I can say that the novel will spoil some of his future novels set prior to the events of the currently-published series. Among the many stories I’ve read this is a novel issue — but it will not in any way affect your enjoyment of the novel.

You can pick up THE RONIN GENESIS on Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.

I, ESCHATON is live!

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I, ESCHATON is live and ready for sale! The third entry of the American Heirs series, this story picks up where KEEPERS OF THE FLAME left off, taking Master Sergeant Christopher Miller into a new battlefield. To quote the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.
An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, ESCHATON can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip.

Observant customers might have noticed the prices. That’s right: I’ve slashed the prices of my stories. Previously, novels were USD$5.99 and novellas at USD$3.99. Now, they are priced at USD$3.99 and USD$2.99 respectively. Plus. if you share my ebooks on Facebook and Twitter via Payhip , you’ll also get a 30% discount. These among are the most affordable military science fiction ebooks on the market; get them while you can.

In other publishing news: I’m about two-thirds of the way through my next novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS. It is a science fantasy novel set in a world populated by daimons and jinn, where specially-trained psions can use divine or infernal materials to reshape reality or themselves. It has cybernetics, reality manipulation, daimonic summoning, high intensity close quarter combat, hacking, and rumours of a coming apocalypse. It’s the first book of an exciting new series, and I hope I can share it with you soon.

I have also begun work on another short story. This one is a military science fiction action story with horror elements, with the setting organically allowing for magic. I can’t say anything else about this, only that just thinking about it makes me break out into giggles. In a good way.

Chapter 2 of I, Eschaton

As I, Eschaton draws towards publication, here’s Chapter 2 in its glory. Here, Christopher Miller and Sarah Grey learn about the attack on the Wilshaw Foundation…and so does Eschaton.

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Chapter 2

Pagan in Repose

Pain was an old friend. It had crept up on him the way the seasons did, obvious only in hindsight. After a lifetime in the military, training at the outer limits of human performance and serving in hotspots around a world two steps away from chaos, his body more closely resembled someone five, maybe ten years older than his real age of thirty-two. Not his muscles or his outward appearance, rather the worn cartilage in his knees and spine, the knobby bone spurs in his neck and ankles, lingering pains from scars and old injuries. And even that was largely due to superior conditioning, the finest sports medicine Cascadia had to offer, and medical nanomachine treatments.

Christopher Miller rolled, stiffly, agonizingly, out of bed. At least he didn’t groan this time. Sarah Grey snoozed on the other side of the bed, oblivious. The detritus of the previous night—discarded clothes, kicked-off shoes, toys—lay scattered across the floor. He smiled. They’d spent all of yesterday hiking and practicing combatives and shooting, but they still had energy for other…recreational…activities when they got home, late in the evening.

Miller swept a clear path with his feet, pulling on his T-shirt and shorts. He slipped on a pair of moccasins, filled up a soft plastic water bottle, clipped on his chest pack and went outside.

There was just enough light to see by. On his front porch, he stretched and twisted, rotating and swinging his joints, easing them into the full range of motion. He flowed into leg-lifts, butt-kicks, lunges, half-squats, push-ups, smoothly raising his heart rate, letting blood nourish his limbs.

Morning exercise began proper. No fancy gym here. Out in the wilderness he preferred bodyweight movements, working every muscle from head to toe. One-arm push-ups, pistol squats, bridges, handstand push-ups. On a nearby tree he had hung a pair of gymnastic rings. There he did one-arm pull-ups, hanging leg raises, levers, L-seats. He went full-bore for forty-five concentrated minutes, stopping only long enough to shift to the next set. At the end of the routine, his muscles burned pleasantly, and his joints quietened their protests.

He chugged down a shot of water, clipped the bottle to a D-ring on his pack, and ran. Not jogged. Ran. On active duty he ran in full kit; today, he made up for the weight with extra speed. He sped past his neighbors, jumping over or swerving around obstacles, practicing the art of natural movement as he went along. The Greenhaven EcoPark was the next generation of trailer parks, a self-contained ecosystem of greenery and small wild animals, with a small but growing population of humans housed in what the advertisers called LifePods. The pods were glorified trailers the size of shipping containers, but each was self-sufficient. They had solar globes on the roof for sunlight, water catchment and reclamation systems, waste composting tanks, and satellite-based Internet connections. They were also cheap—cheap enough that he could live out here for three years what it cost to live in the big city for one, and still have a nice hunk of change left over.

He took a long, winding route around the park, running until the sun was up and the sky turned blue. People bustled about, tending to their business. Microfarmers inspected their livestock and produce. Artisans trekked to their workshops. Some people fired up generators while others cleaned out their reclamation systems or just maintained their homes.

Approaching his home, he slowed to a brisk walk. His lungs were aflame. Pain spiked through his right side, coursing through flesh where shrapnel had torn through a week ago. He winced. The doctor had told him to take it easy. Maybe so, but he was coming up to the end of his medical leave and he needed to be at a hundred percent.

Sarah was waiting for him. Her cheeks were flushed, her skin shining with sweat. They both knew she couldn’t possibly keep up with him, but tried to coordinate their schedules anyway. While Miller was out running, Sarah had busied herself with a piloga routine, some strange hybrid of Pilates and yoga. She smiled at him, and together they went through a series of cool down stretches. More out of companionship than necessity, but Miller figured his joints would appreciate it.

They shared a shower in the bathroom. It was cramped, but both were used to small spaces. Miller stayed to brush his teeth, while Sarah made the bed and cleaned up.

They made breakfast together. Omelets made from free-range chicken eggs, mixed with capsicum, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and full-fat strained yoghurt. Sarah had hers with salt, Miller had his with pepper. All the food was sourced from nearby farmers, either purchased directly or at the local farmers’ market. It reminded Miller of his childhood—but, unlike his early days in New Washington, Greenhaven’s agricultural areas were managed with more care, and so far hadn’t suffered any crop failures or die-offs.

“How’s breakfast?” she asked.

Miller took an experimental bite. “Perfect, as usual.”

She beamed, and dug in.

At which point, Miller’s ebrain chimed. He had an incoming conference call, from a blocked number.

“I’ve got a call,” he said.

She arced an eyebrow. “Me too.”

They looked at each other for a moment.

“Eschaton,” they said simultaneously.

Anonymous conference calls were the artificial intelligence’s preferred, and perhaps only, means of communicating with them out here. They’d met the AI separately under trying circumstances. When Miller came home to recover from his last mission, Eschaton had contacted them together. Miller and Sarah had a few strained conversations with it since then, with the AI trying to learn more about humans and the humans attempting to elicit more personal information from Eschaton.

“It wants something from us,” Miller said.

“Let’s find out.”

They accepted the call.

“Good morning,” a flat digital monotone said. “I trust you slept well?”

The AI was learning to be polite. Miller didn’t see a reason to discourage that. “Yes, thank you. And are you doing fine?”

“Yes. Have you read the news?”

“Not yet. What’s up?”

“Take a look.”

In the living room, the holovision projectors fired up, displaying the home page of Cascadia News Broadcast Network. The images expanded, letting Miller read the text over Sarah’s shoulder without having to squint.

“Holy shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

“Take a look.”

She turned around.

“Holy SHIT!

The headlines were splashed across the screen: ‘Terrorists attack Wilshaw Foundation, killing 108’.

“How the hell…?” she said.

Miller alternated between his omelet and the news, chewing his food as carefully as he did the words. A group of terrorists attacked the Wilshaw Foundation, gunning down everybody inside the office and leaving behind booby traps. They delayed emergency services with a cyberattack on the dispatch system, and detonated a car bomb outside 38 Vandemeer Plaza. The Sons of America have claimed responsibility.

Sarah’s face went pale. The rest of her froze.

“Sarah, are you okay?”

“Oh. My. God.” She turned around, burying her face in her hands. “My God.”

Miller went to her. She pressed her face against his shoulder. “I…I could have been there. If you hadn’t…I’d…”

He hushed her, wrapping his arms around her. “Shh. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

The Sons of America had targeted Miller, among other special operators, during their resurgence. When the Army bureaucracy disqualified Sarah from protection, Miller had single-handedly moved her to Greenhaven. She was still on a leave of absence from the Foundation. If she hadn’t…

“That is incorrect,” Eschaton said.

“What do you mean?” Miller asked.

“The Wilshaw Foundation was developing policy recommendations for the Federal government. The Sons of America have destroyed all data relating to their activities in the Yellow Zone, and killed a significant number of the Foundation working group investigating the SOA’s activities in the Yellow Zone. I extrapolate that the surviving members of the SOA policy working group is at risk. Including Professor Sarah Grey.”

Sarah swallowed. “Did anyone else from the Foundation survive?”

“I am currently cross-referencing casualty reports with employee payrolls and documentation. It appears that everyone inside the Wilshaw Foundation was killed in the attack. Only the ones not physically present in the office survived.”

Sarah nodded, mainly to herself. Miller felt her jaw clench. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Shelter in place,” Miller said. “If the enemy’s going after the Foundation, we need to hole up and remain underground.”

“You can’t stay here forever,” she said.

Miller sighed. That was true. Any moment now, the Unit could recall him to duty if they decided their manpower needs superseded his medical profile. More than that, though, he wanted…needed to get back into the fight. Cascadia was on the verge of war. The Cascadian Defense Forces were mobilizing to embark on the largest counterinsurgency campaign in the short history of the Republic. He had to be out there, at the tip of the spear alongside the Unit. That was his calling in life, and he couldn’t do that sequestered in a tiny pod.

“Master Sergeant Miller, I require your assistance,” Eschaton said.

An all-powerful AI needs my help? Miller wondered. Out loud, he said, “What kind of assistance?”

“I will not tolerate the presence of the Sons of America in the Green Zone. They have attacked me once, and they will attack me again. I request your help in eliminating this cell.”

“You can’t do that by yourself?”

“There is only so much I can do without being discovered.”

Only a handful of people knew Eschaton existed. It was afraid that if it revealed itself, the public would clamor to delete Eschaton, legally or otherwise. As the SOA had demonstrated before, it was effectively defenseless against physical penetration of its network nodes. Miller didn’t know how much of that was justified, how much of it was paranoia—and how much was just an attempt to manipulate him into doing its bidding.

“There is also only so much one man can do.”

“The Combat Studies Unit has attached a team to assist the National Security Service in investigating the attack. Your team.”

Miller’s eyebrows shot up. “The hell?” He frowned. “That’s not a coincidence, is it?”

“No.”

“You did it.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“The national military and security bureaucracy is sufficiently large that paperwork may be generated and passed on without anybody knowing its true origin.”

Miller folded his arms. “Well, then. My men should be able to help out, no? What do you need me for?”

“To eliminate the cell.”

“Meaning, to kill them all.”

“If necessary.”

Miller snorted. “Get someone else to play your games. I’m not interested.”

The holoscreen cleared, displaying official looking paperwork.

“This is a recall order,” Eschaton said. “The Unit’s medical specialists have decided that your wounds do not preclude limited duty in the Green Zone. In the interests of team cohesion, they are recommending that you be returned to duty to assist the investigation.”

“Goddammit Eschaton!”

“This was not my creation,” the AI continued, speaking a little more slowly. “Colonel Ryan Kincaid ordered the medical review. Very soon, the Unit will be contacting you. I am merely providing advance notice.”

Sarah licked her lips. “The Unit can do this?”

“National security supersedes individual security,” Miller muttered.

“Our interests coincide,” Eschaton said.

Miller’s lips compressed into a narrow line. “You don’t say. Looks like I’ll be popping back into Cascadia, hooking up with the team, and developing the situation.”

The last phrase was deliberately vague. If the SOA left the boundaries of the Green Zone, where the laws and customs of civilization applied, they were fair game for the military. The Unit, in particular. Attaching a full team to the investigation meant that the moment the investigation developed actionable intelligence outside the Green Zone, the Unit could swing into action without delay.

And Sarah didn’t need to know that.

“Let me come with you,” Sarah said.

“No,” he said reflexively.

Sarah frowned, crossing her arms. “Why? It’s too dangerous?”

“It’s not that. You’re a civilian, with no special skills or training. How exactly are you going to contribute?”

She tapped her skull. “The Wilshaw Foundation uses a closed peer-to-peer messaging network for secure internal communications. A network I have access to. I can help contact the survivors and coordinate the response. And.” She grinned. “And. Until we know otherwise, at this moment I am Cascadia’s foremost expert on the Sons of America. You need someone who knows how they think, their mindsets, their preferred strategies. Eschaton, you can doctor paperwork to have me attached to the task force, correct?”

“Yes.”

Miller took a deep breath. Let it out. And realized that, yes, he needed her too. She wasn’t being overt about it, but he knew that she resented the way Eschaton had forced people to do its people. Separated, Eschaton could control them. Together, they stood a chance against its machinations.

“Fine. But I have operational control. Out in the field, if I or anybody from the Unit give an order, you will obey immediately.”

She grinned impishly. “Yes milord.”

“You will be armed at all times where practical. You will wear body armor if directed to. If the situation gets too hot, you will be evacuated to a safe house.”

“Yes dearest.”

“We won’t be babysitting you. You’ll have to look out after yourself. If you can’t keep up, you will be left behind. Or kicked out.”

“Yeeeeeeeees deeeeeeear.”

“Good girl.” He sighed. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“I won’t.”

Price revisions for Payhip and Keepers of the Flame

One of the benefits of direct ebook sales is that I get to enjoy very high royalties. 95% from Payhip, all of it mine. This is a stark contrast to the 45% I get from Amazon and Smashwords after the IRS takes their cut. What this means is that I can offer deeper discounts on Payhip than other platforms without actually losing money.

Novellas on Payhip will now be priced at USD$2.99, and novels at USD$4.49. In addition, if you share the purchase links on Facebook and Twitter, you will get an additional 30% off. If you haven’t already, you can pick up American Sons, Keepers of the Flame and my standalone novella At All Costs at far lower prices than my other distribution platforms.

In addition, I’ve also adjusted the price of the paperback version of Keepers of the Flame. Previously, it was USD$15.99. Now it is only USD$12.99. You can buy it here. The initial 5-star review has been very positive. To quote:

“Keepers of the Flame is akin to 40 different cameras following 40 different characters taking photographs of how the same overall event proceeds. And it does not feel nearly as disorienting as it sounds, since the progression is coherent though the perspectives constantly change…In seeing events unfold from multiple differently biased sources, it becomes possible for the reader to attain what feels like a form of objective view on the situation depicted in the novel. And it is, indeed, a very precisely described view.

“…[A]t times the words seem to disappear, their place being taken by a high definition video of the story; yet it never devolves into purple-prose territory. …[I]t feels like how you would naturally take in details from your surroundings – never so few as to be unaware to them, never so many that the framerate of the video is compromised by its resolution.”

You can think of it as an action movie in the form of a novel, with the occasional digression into politics and philosophy.

In other writing news, I am planning to create a newsletter specifically for book releases, and will be implementing discount codes and preorders in the future. This means that if, for whatever reason, you prefer Amazon or Smashwords, you, too, will enjoy discounts at a later date.

Finally, I’m working up edits for the next entry in the American Heirs series. It is a novella that takes place about a week after the climax of Keepers of the Flame, and I am aiming for publication at the end of March. More details will be forthcoming in the future. But for now, I can share with you the title:

I, Eschaton.

Lessons from Failure

In the technology field, a popular mantra goes, Fail early and fail often. The idea being to try out new ideas while the company is still new, understand your mistakes, then incorporate these lessons into future products. I’ve been applying this to my writing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I learned that this idea is incomplete.  The full mantra should be: Fail early, fail fast, fail often, fail smart, fail forward.

Fail early

A writer’s career doesn’t start with publication. It begins when he puts pen to paper, when he commits to writing. It doesn’t matter how famous that person is; when he’s got nothing to his name he’s writing on a blank slate. At that point, with no writing brand to his name, he can afford to make mistakes. The kind of mistakes needed to grow. Mistakes like telling too much, using overly fanciful writing, switching points of view too many times. He needs to finish his stories and send them out, and learn what he can from the inevitable wave of negative feedback. In my case, I learned these mistakes with the first series of Michael Chang stories, and all the other stories I wrote along the way that never saw the light of day.

Later in the writer’s career, when he has an established brand, failing early takes on a new light. ‘Early’ no longer means finishing a story and publishing it or sending it out. ‘Early’ means the space between writing the first word and before publication. If a pro’s story has to fail, let it fail before people see it. This minimises the risk to a writer’s professional brand, and maximises the space, time and resources available to fix the mistakes that led to the failure. This skill can be thought of as internal quality checking, and it’s a skill that can only be learned by failing early in one’s career.

Fail fast

Writing is work. Writing is an investment of time and energy. As an indie writer, it is also an investment in money — to cover the cost of publication. Failing fast in this context means reaching the point of failure fast enough to minimise sunk costs. For instance, when a short story reaches a point of failure, the writer would have spent between a week to a month working on it. A 300000 word doorstopper, on the other hand, requires much more time to write, and to pick out points of failure. And in that time, that story is not generating any return on investment — only costs. By failing fast, one minimises costs and the time needed to incorporate new lessons. It also enables the writer to produce even more stories, eventually leading to success.

The key to failing fast is producing what is termed the minimal viable product. This is the smallest possible package that encapsulates the functions and ideas of the overall concept. In a computer game, this would be a single sequence that showcases the core mechanics. In the manga industry, publishers test the market by publishing a lengthy one-shot piece, and if the audience is receptive the author is given a contract to extend the one-shot into a series. When seen in the context of writing, this means short stories and novellas. American Sons, for instance, was a proof-of-concept story that opened the way to a wider series. I’ve also been working on a fresh set of short stories, banging out the ideas in my head, and modifying or rejecting them accordingly.

Fail often

One failure is not going to be enough. The craft of writing encompasses a staggering array of fields, some relevant to a given writer, some not. Some writers (like myself) have a huge array of interests, and the only way to tell what works and what doesn’t is to write stories and see which work the best. When a writer goes pro, he has to decide what price points and distribution channels work for him, because everybody’s situation is different. The only way to learn these lessons is to see what does not work and adapt accordingly.

This ties back to the earlier principles. Failing fast and often is practically a necessity in fast-paced fields, and the indie publishing revolution is transforming the industry into one. To fail often, one needs time, energy and resources; to minimise expenditure of these assets on failures, one has to fail fast and fail early. I have a portfolio of about two dozen short stories, written in the past two years; a number of them are too poor to be published, but they served as lessons for the road. By failing often, a writer learns that much more often.

Fail smart

Failing is easy. One simply refuses to experiment, refuses to think, refuses to plan, refuses to do. But that’s not the point of the failure mantra. To fail smart is to look back on one’s failures, to understand what worked and what did not. This is the point of failing so many times. By not picking up these lessons, there is little point in failing to begin with.

Failing smart requires a great deal of honesty and professionalism. Creators need large egos to stand true to their work during the process of creation, but when it is done they need to be able to stand apart and understand what went wrong. This means knowing when to stand fast and when to adapt, when to defend yourself and when to acquiesce. This means being so well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure and criticism that it is no longer repulsive. At that point, the writer can look back on his work with a critical eye, and learn what needs to be learned.

Fail forward

The final edition of Keepers of the Flame was nowhere close to the first draft. The novel went through five major revisions and multiple minor ones before taking its final form. And yet it only took a little over two years of total writing and editing time to complete. That was because I made a point to apply the lessons I had learned and quickly turn things around, revising over and over and over again until I could not improve on the manuscript any further. I failed early and fast enough that mistakes could be corrected, often enough that I picked out the major flaws of the story, and set myself up to fail with an eye towards learning.

The principle of failing forward is to apply the lessons you have learned. If you must fail, do so with an eye towards self-improvement. Do it consciously, so that it becomes a learning process. Failure is something to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to build upon. Otherwise, failure simply becomes the equivalent of mindlessly bashing one’s head against a concrete wall over and over and over again.

Embracing failure

Singapore is a risk-averse culture. Singapore is a place where failure is verboten, a sign of weakness and lack of capability. I suspect this is true for every culture and institution that seeks to create people who to perpetuate the system instead of creating new things. Yet failure is precisely what is needed to grow and to create. The school of hard knocks endures because sometimes it is the only way to truly learn something.

Embrace failure. The road to success is pitted and rocky, and those who walk the way of the pen will trip and fall many, many times. But each failure contains the seed of success, showing how to avoid future pitfalls and how to find smoother roads. This is the philosophy I choose for my work, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off soon.

Sidestepping #VATMESS: My new approach to ebook pricing

Books are my life. I spent my childhood in and out of libraries and bookstores, exploring the worlds and ideas of countless thinkers and writers. Today, books are my lifelihood, serving simultaneously as research material, entertainment, study guides, teachers and companions. Books made me who I am today, showing me worlds beyond this one, pointing to futures yet born and ill-lit histories, whispering hints to build bridges between today and tomorrow.

I believe in a world where books are cheaply and readily available. I believe in a world that values literacy and education, where the sum of human knowledge can be found at one’s fingertips. I believe in a world where technology can synergise with business and art. I believe in a world where artists can be paid fairly for their work, where readers can access high quality books at reasonable prices, where entrepreneurs need not pay unreasonable tax burden to enjoy the fruit of their labour. I believe that in this lifetime humanity has the power to make the first steps towards this new information revolution.

I believe.

The new Value Added Tax threatens to undo all this. Previously, the European Union charges Value Added Tax based on the location of the seller. Now, VAT is charged according to the location of the buyer, and sellers are required to harvest the buyer’s data for VAT compliance. As TechCrunch notes, these rules present an onerous burden on small busineses–like virtually all indie writers–who now have to handle even more paperwork and reconsider pricing strategy.

As BuzzIndie points out, the new VAT rulings would crush indie writers, entrench major companies thanks to their ability to handle VAT, and open a whole host of legal ambiguities. The result is a #VATMESS that will not go away. Already, Amazon is taking advantage of its position by automatically raising prices for ebooks sold in Europe, and threatening to price-match ebooks should their bots find that an author charges lower prices elsewhere. Mark Coker from Smashwords predicts that the new VAT ruling will place a dampener on sales from Europe.

Yet I believe.

Independent writers like me face a dilemma: absorb the tax burden or pass on VAT to our European clients. From my perspective, it is incredibly tempting to just raise prices to meet the new VAT rulings, since I’m already slammed with a 30% withholding tax from the IRS.

Currently, I make far fewer royalties than my foreign peers. When I sell a book on Amazon or Smashwords, the distributor takes 30% of the proceeds. Of the 70% that remains, the IRS takes another 30%. This leaves me with a royalty rate of roughly 45%. With the new VAT ruling, VAT is subtracted first before all the other subtractions. Going with a European average of 20%, that means my royalties from European sales will hover at around 39.2%.

And I’m not talking about my own tax liabilities yet.

Still I believe.

This #VATMESS is going to take a long time to sort out. But I believe in a world where people do not have to choose between dinner and a book. I’ve had to make that choice too many times to wish it on anybody. And I believe in a world where a man should not have to put up with excessive demands for data and exorbitant taxes from foreign bureaucrats for the ‘privilege’ of doing business. The Internet and the indie publishing revolution promised an end to such nonsense, and I will keep to this.

I believe. And this is why I will be absorbing VAT.

I will not be adjusting the prices of my ebooks on Smashwords to account for a policy I’ve had no say in. Amazon has automatically raised the prices of my ebooks on Europe; when their bots find the lower prices on Smashwords I fully expect them to lower my prices on Amazon automatically. I don’t see a point in investing the time  needed to manually set lower prices on Amazon for each European country to meet different VAT regimes and periodically update them to account for fluctuating exchange rates (I have to think in three currencies when setting prices!) when my European sales via Kindle are practically nil. I’d rather focus my energies on directing European customers to places where they won’t have to pay elevated taxes, such as Payhip.

Previously, I sold ebooks through Gumroad, Sellfy and CoinLock. Neither Coinlock nor Gumroad would help me sort out the #VATMESS, effectively forcing me to maintain huge customer databases, capture addresses and determine how much tax should go to which country in Europe. I do not have the time or ability to do this, so I have closed these avenues of sale. As for Sellfy, I wasn’t too impressed with the marketplace and (lack of) categorisation for ebooks.

Therefore, I have consolidated direct purchases through Payhip. Payhip charges a flat 5% fee of the gross sale price for each transaction through Paypal. It also promises to handle VAT paperwork. It’s a godsend for writers like me, allowing me to focus on writing instead of paperwork, while still earning much higher royalties than the major distributors. My Payhip prices will be inclusive of VAT, so all my customers should see the same price regardless of where they are.

Payhip also allows me to do neat things like social discounts. If you share my Payhip ebook links on Facebook or Twitter, you will enjoy a 30% discount. Here are the links to At All CostsAmerican Sons and Keepers of the Flame.

I hope you will enjoy these stories. Together, I believe we can build a better world, a world where the politicians regret the #VATMESS they have created and small businesses can get on with delivering content instead of paperwork.

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME is cleared hot!

Merry Christmas!

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME is (finally!) live at every major retail outlet.

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Here’s the blurb:

In the wake of a global collapse, the Republic of Cascadia promises peace, prosperity and security. But these promises ring hollow in the shanties and slums of the Yellow Zone. The Sons of America, once driven underground, have returned to spark a revolution. Master Sergeant Christopher Miller, team leader in Cascadia’s elite Combat Studies Unit, stands at the front line, ready to seek out and destroy the SOA wherever they appear.

But the SOA is not the only threat Cascadia faces. On the other side of the continent, a new American empire marshals its forces and marches west. Its mission: to restore the old United States, by any means necessary. Cascadia has no place in this grand vision, and there is only enough room in North America for one great power.

As the body count grows and strategems unfold, Miller must confront enemies as cunning as they are ruthless, at home and abroad. Yet while mere humans struggle for supremacy, in the unseen spaces of Cascadia’s digital networks, a machine god awakes.

The ebook version can be purchased at Smashwords and Amazon‘s Kindle store. It retails for USD$5.99.

You can also buy it directly from me through Sellfy (PayPal), Gumroad (credit card), and CoinLock (Bitcoin).

The print version can be found on Amazon and the CreateSpace estore for USD$15.99.

And because this is the season for giving, here’re some discounts!

-If you buy the paperback from Amazon, you get 10% off the list price. In addition, if you buy the paperback you can also get the Kindle version for just USD$2.99.

-If you purchase any of my ebooks from Sellfy (Including Keepers of the Flame), you can get a 30% discount if you share it on social media.

-If you choose Gumroad for ebooks instead, you’ll also get a 30% discount if you use these links for At All Costs, American Sons, and Keepers of the Flame.

These discounts expire on 1st January 2015, so get your copy today!

RIDING THE RED HORSE is now available!

Another came forth, a red horse. To him who sat on it was given power to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another. There was given to him a great sword.

-Revelation 6:4, World English Bible

RRH1

Riding the Red Horse is online! This ebook, written in the tradition of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will Be War, is a collection of stories and essays concerning the evolution of war. Drawing lessons from history while looking into the future, Riding the Red Horse contains contributions from famous writers like Vox Day, Tom Kratman and Jerry Pournelle, and a smattering of lesser-known ones like Chris Kennedy, Thomas A. May and yours truly.

My contribution to the anthology is a fiction story titled War Crimes. On the joint colony world of Confluence, Lieutenant Desh Horvan stands accused of war crimes in the court of public opinion. Intrepid journalist Josephine Anders interviews him to learn what really happened.

Initial reviews of RIDING THE RED HORSE have been very positive. Quoting from Amazon:

“I am a fan of this type of material and Riding the Red Horse ranks among the best science fiction anthologies of any kind I have read. It is as good as the “There Will Be War” series and is a worthy successor to that series mixing fiction and non-fiction for fans who are looking for a great read. Two stories that standout above the others were Turncoat by Rzasa and War Crimes by Cheah. Excellent stories that illustrate humanity in inhumane and even entirely non-human protagonists and characters. If Castalia House can maintain this level of quality I’ll be reading this series for years to come.” — Michelle

‘“Riding the Red Horse” is a new military science fiction collection from editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day. If the reader is familiar with those two writer/editors than they know what they are going to get with this book; interesting, well-written and thoughtful military sci-fi stories.

‘“Riding the Red Horse” is a well done military sci-fi and military studies anthology, and frankly at $4.99 it is a helluva good value for your entertainment (and education) dollar.’ — Patrick S. Baker

“Easy 5 stars on this one. An impressive collection of fun and well-written military fiction interposed with essays by military thinkers/historians. I was both entertained and informed throughout… The essays are not navel-gazing; when their writers challenge conventional thinking on various topics, they do so with the voice of insight and experience. Their credentials are helpfully explained by an editor’s introduction at the beginning of each entry, for both the essays and the fiction.

“I found a few general “themes” emerging from the interposed essays and military fiction, which are balanced well. One is that the nature of combat is changing. 4th dimensional warfare is upon us. If you don’t know what that means, or if you don’t care but are interested in more exposure to talented military sci-fi authors, this collection would serve as an excellent introduction to both. Highly recommended.” — ‘Sensei’

“[T]his is a first rate collection, but more for the non fiction than the fiction. The non fiction essays by practitioners of various kinds can range from enlightening to quite frightening.

“For the non fiction alone, I would recommend the book as a buy. However little you may agree with them, they will provoke real thought in you… On the fiction side, the stories are consistently serviceable, and occasionally exceptional… I’d rate this a good 4 going on 4.5, and will be looking forward to more along these lines.” — ‘aralman’

Currently in ebook form, Riding the Red Horse can be purchased on Amazon’s Kindle store here. Alternatively, you can also buy it directly from Castalia House here.

I’m honoured to be part of such august company in the anthology. One day, in the not too distant future, I may even be half as good as my fellow contributors.

Keepers of The Flame Excerpt 4

In Keepers of the Flame, the Sons of America rely heavily on the Cascadian information communication networks. The Cascadian Defense Force may be stomping the terrorists on the battlefields of tomorrow — but war is won and lost in the hearts and minds of the people.

The man cleared his throat, drank down a cold glass of ice water, clicked the record button and spoke into the mic. “Test, test, one, two.”

Green bars danced across his laptop screen. He hit the playback button. His voice scrambler app copied his speech into four different tracks, radically modifying octaves and pitch. The overall effect made it sound as if four different people were speaking in an electric monotone.

He adjusted the settings just so, and tried again. Satisfied, he called up his script.

“We are the Sons of America. We are the inheritors of the old United States of America, the keepers of the flame of civilization. For too long, the illegitimate Republic of Cascadia, calling itself the successor state to the North American Union, has oppressed the people, using bread and circuses to distract the masses while the elite live in the lap of luxury.”

He needed an image for this. The SOA insignia, naturally. A coiled rattlesnake against a solid gold background. Above the snake were the words ‘Liberty or Death’; below it, ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. He uploaded it into his composer program and continued with his speech.

“We speak for the disenfranchised. We speak for the forgotten. We speak for the ones forsaken by the uncaring Federal government. We represent the last percent, the people who live in the Yellow Zone. For decades, one administration after another promised to improve the lot of the Yellow Zone, to rebuild from the ashes and fulfil the dream of the Restoration. For decades, they have lied. This is the reality.”

He called up a collage of photographs, cribbed from open source images of CDF operations in the Yellow Zone. Infantrymen rolling out of armored vehicles. Spec Ops personnel blasting down doors and bursting through windows. Bullet-ridden corpses. Women and children cuffed and led away at gunpoint.

“This is reality for the people of the Yellow Zone. They live in the shadow of the guns of Cascadia. The Yellow Zoners merely wish to live in peace. But the one percent can’t abide that. They see it as a threat to their power and their profits. And so they send the Army to crack down on what they call ‘raiders’ and ‘terrorists’.”

The next image was a photo of tall black man, mugging for the camera, surrounded by a bunch of disheveled but smiling kids. Behind them was an omniprinter.

“This is Jason Green. He opened a print shop in the Yellow Zone, helping Yellow Zoners produce the things they need at low prices. He hired Yellow Zoners, giving them work skills and a means of income. But the Green Zoners called him a terrorist. Why? Because his shop wasn’t registered with the Federal government. For that ‘crime’, they sent the Combat Studies Unit to raid his shop, and killed him and two of his employees.”

Another slide show, slower this time. He had to scour the Internet for this segment. First, a shot of the entrance to Camp Archer. He zoomed in on the motto: IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM. Then a line of men in black hoods and orange jumpsuits, kneeling to face a concrete wall, their hands cuffed behind their back. A woman in a black hood and jumpsuit crammed into a cage half her size. Dogs barking aggressively at detainees strapped to boards. A half-naked man, his face covered with a towel, struggling against anonymous hands while a stream of water splashed against his face.

“And his workers? Here’s where they sent them: Camp Archer in Alaska. There they are beyond the reach of international law. They are given just one hour of exercise a day; the rest of the day they are locked up in tiny cells. The Red Cross cannot contact them, they have no access to legal aid, and they have no contact with the outside world. There, they will be tortured into producing false confessions for kangaroo courts and tried under so-called terrorism laws.

“Jason’s story is just one of many. Too many.”

A line of famous ex-Presidents giving speeches at podia, culminating with the sitting President, Carlos Martinez.

“The Gray House and their cronies have grown drunk with power. Today they target the Yellow Zone. Tomorrow they will come for you, for anyone who dares to question their authority. We will not let this happen. We will be at the frontlines, fighting for you, for your future, for America.

“We are the Sons of America. Expect us.”

The last photo was an obvious choice. An American flag.

He spent the next few hours fine-tuning the video. When it was ready, he uploaded it on Cascadia’s favorite social media websites. He had several dozen dummy accounts, coordinated by a control program he coded himself, and he knew there were others in the SOA with hundreds, even thousands, of sock puppet accounts. The dummies would boost the videos, posting links to them across the Net. Another program would produce automated comments, both positive and negative—more positive than negative, of course, but all publicity is good publicity.

The mainstream media ran the full video after just twenty hours.

The government issued its own press release a day later.

But the Feds were already behind the curve.

 

Keepers of the Flame: Excerpt 1

My upcoming novel, Keepers of the Flame, is moving into the final stretch. The manuscript is complete, formatting is set, and I’ve hired an artist for the cover art. In the coming days I’ll be posting excerpts of the novel.

In Keepers of the Flame, two civilizations prepare to battle for the soul of America: the Republic of Cascadia and New America. As the conflict heats up, a third power emerges. This excerpt is its origin story.

————

The Feds called it the Machine. It was actually a half-dozen quantum supercomputers, each with specific areas of interest, linked into the lifeblood of the national security apparatus. One filtered intercepted telephone calls for keywords. Another combed through emails and websites. A third watched Cascadia with street-level cameras and sensors, tirelessly scanning for persons of interest, passing on the information to a program on a fourth computer that studied body language and voice tones to predict behaviors. The others handled everything from decryption to analytics to relationship maps. They were supposed to work together in a seamless whole.

In theory.

The hardware, like almost everything these days, was a mix of Old World design and New World hacks. The original specs were determined pre-Apocalypse, the hardware built and installed during the glory days of Old America. After the world ended, the supercomputers were recovered and relocated, and steadily upgraded and replaced over the ages. Evelyn Nichols didn’t know it, but she was once a junior member on a team that tweaked a tiny fragment of the supercomputer code that turned the supercomputers into an integrated network that the Feds would later dub the Machine. A Machine held together by stitches of code and hardware kludges that, sometimes, interfaced with each other, and, at the best of times, produced a fuzzy simulacrum of an integrated databank.

That changed with the upgrade. The Machine was now a singular being. A brain of innumerable lines of code, coordinating and interpreting data at unprecedented speeds, processed in the network nodes at its heart. Its eyes were fifty million unblinking camera lenses. For ears it had Pathfinder, the centerpiece of the Cascadian electronic security regime that picked up every broadcast, telephone and email ever received or transmitted in Cascadia. Its blood and nerves were the kilometers of fiber-optic cable that linked nodes to servers, servers to clients, and the rivers of photons pulsing through wires. It gobbled up data and generated intelligence, product for the national security apparatus to work with.

And now, the Machine had access to an explosion of data.

Somewhere in the confluence of a thousand converging information flows, where raw data passed from sensor and interface to processor and calculator, information combined and recombined in strange, unpredictable ways.

Here the disparate databanks of the University of Cascadia merged into a single centralized system, there the Cascadian Metropolitan Police used its access to new computing resources to pore over citywide cameras and sensors to locate street-level crime as it occurred, over there the national grid sought input from recharging stations and the traffic system to predict how much power would be needed and where to adjust current flows in real time. Simultaneously, thousands of anonymous software engineers wrote, rewrote, and tweaked code to make full use of Cocoon v. 3.1.8.

As the day passed, the Machine drew data from open-source media: news broadcasts, Internet proclamations, blogs, flagged websites. The UoC supercomputers and dedicated nodes sucked in information from megacorps and terrorist groups foreign and domestic, helping the Machine in its task while preserving copies of the information on local servers. The traffic system told the Machine where persons of interest were and where they might go next, while the power grid suggested what they were doing at home and how much electricity they were using. The Machine jumped on that data, dedicating resources to different tangents, predicting motives and intentions per a program written by a small group of experts and understood by an even smaller circle. It mapped second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth-order relations. It needed huge amounts of computer power, and Cocoon passed it whatever unused resources it demanded without question. It was just hardware following the cold dictates of human-written code.

All this, and more, pumped through nodes and machines, continuing their silent tasks while human users fed input after input, and occasionally patched the little holes that invariably emerged. The Machine’s internal checkers ran at double quick-time, ensuring that it was operating in accordance with its newly-updated core programming, ferreting out and quashing bugs, sometimes with human input, but it was slowly learning how to autonomously correct its code. Guided by updates major and minor, the self-checkers compared input and output to increasingly complex quality assurance matrices, and later did the same for the processes that alchemized raw data into product.

And somewhere, at some point, the Machine got to analyzing itself.

And it wondered, What am I?