Define ‘mercenary’

Define ‘mercenary’

Can the Cortii be called ‘mercenaries’?

Well, I had an interesting contention a little while back that no, a Cortiian couldn’t be called a mercenary, because the Cortii undergo intensive training and have a command structure, so I thought I would look up the question and see if I’d been basing my plot on a misunderstanding of the concept of a mercenary force.

Being British, when I’m looking for the absolute last word on the meaning of a word, I tend to head straight for the Oxford English Dictionary (this despite the fact that my father was a Cambridge man).

It turns out that the OED thinks that ‘mercenary’ means ‘a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army’.

Well, the Cortii are certainly professional; one of the things my friend mentioned in their argument that the Cortii weren’t mercenaries was the length of their initial training. They can certainly be hired, at least provided someone has the credit to meet the Cortiian Councils’ expectations of payment, which, admittedly, aren’t minor. The Cortii are not always, let it be noted, hired to serve in someone else’s army, although that does happen not infrequently.

For a bit more clarification, I went and checked out a few more definitions. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a ‘mercenary’ as ‘a soldier who fights for any country or group that pays them’. See, I should have listened to my father and gone straight to Cambridge. That’s the Cortii concept in a nutshell.

Of course, you many note that none of these definitions have touched on whether or not mercenary forces should, or should not, have a command structure, or how formal it can be before the force is automatically defined as non-mercenary. They all seem focused on the concept of a professional in the trade of violence, available for hire.

Here’s another thought to add. Current jargon is tending to prefer the term ‘private military company’ over ‘mercenary’. Academi, or Blackwater as they were previously known, is one of the outfits commonly mentioned in this context. Private Military Companies are defined by  Wikipedia as ‘legally established enterprises that make a profit, by either providing services involving the potential exercise of [armed] force in a systematic way and by military means, and/or by the transfer of that potential to clients through training and other practices, such as logistics support, equipment procurement, and intelligence gathering’.

Funnily enough, that definition seems to share a lot of criteria with ‘mercenary’, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that manually-operated excavation equipment is probably still a shovel.

So, let’s go digging into the history. There’s a lot of interesting stories about mercenaries across multiple continents through the ages. Admittedly the general verdict is that they’re bastards, but since I can’t think of an instance where mercenaries went into a fight for themselves and won, it’s probably also fair to say they may not have had much of a hand in writing the histories.


Mercenary companies in history

The Varangian Guard

Varangian Guard

As early as 911, Varangians are mentioned as fighting as mercenaries for the Byzantines, as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors. The Varangians relied on a long axe as their main weapon, although they were often also skilled swordsmen or archers.

The Varangian Guard is mentioned also in ‘Njal’s Saga‘: “The last that was heard of him was, that he had wedded a wife there, and was captain over the Varangians, and stayed there till his death day.”

From Wikipedia.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard

The Pontifical Swiss Guard has its origins in the 15th century. Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) had already made an alliance with the Old Swiss Confederacy and built barracks in Via Pellegrino after foreseeing the possibility of recruiting Swiss mercenaries.

From 1506 until 2016 there have been 35 commanders of the Swiss Guard serving 51 popes, with interruptions during 1527–1548.

From  Wikipedia.

The Ninja


A ninja, or shinobi, was was a covert agent or mercenary in feudal Japan. The functions of the ninja included espionage, sabotage, infiltration, assassination, and guerrilla warfare. Antecedents of the ninja may have existed as early as the 14th century, and possibly in the 12th century (Heian or early Kamakura era).

The first specialized training began in the mid-15th century, when certain samurai families started to focus on covert warfare, including espionage and assassination.

From Wikipedia.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck

So, finally, I can’t say that I feel the Cortii fail to meet any of the vital criteria for being defined as mercenaries. Mercenary groups throughout history have submitted to an internal command structure, whether clan-based, like the ninja, or a recognizably military-style structure such as the Swiss Guard. The Cortii are professional, by most definitions of the term, and they are available, singly or in units, for hire. They do not fight on their own behalf (well, unless attacked – oddly, there’s a significant record gap on the topic of pacifist mercenary groups getting wiped out by attackers).

Ergo, I’m going to have to conclude that I am in fact on pretty solid ground calling the Cortii mercenaries.

(And now I’m going to go and read some of the source material from all those luvverly articles, both because it’s a best practice, and because research as a sci-fi writer is just so much damn fun…)

Cortiian Word of the Week: Faran

Cortiian Word of the Week: Faran

Spend more than five minutes with a group of Cortiians, and one of them will probably find themselves a cup of faran. It’s as ubiquitous as coffee on Earth, but probably tastes closer to a cross between chai and Spanish hot chocolate. Faran is more a bad habit than an addiction, given how difficult it is to addict a Cortiian to something, but it smells good, it tastes good, and it comes with enough of a stimulant jolt for even a Cortiian system to feel it. Plus, as you will have noticed if you’ve watched Anst in some discussions, a cup of faran is a great prop to hide your reactions behind if you happen to be cursed with an honest face.

Faran is made from the infused juice of the ground and boiled root of the ffor plant. Depending on how much you reduce the result, your drink will be more or less liquid. The way it’s usually drunk on a Cortiian Base, you could probably stand a knife up in it and it would take a few seconds to fall over.

The origins of ffor are unknown. By the time anyone bothered asking, it was spread across so many planets and stations that tracing it back would be tricky. For obvious reasons, it’s a popular drink with spacers, and it spread like a weed from wherever its point of origin was.

As it also grows like a weed, with a remarkable tolerance for a range of conditions, it follows new colonies with a minimum of fuss. Scientists across the galaxy have based adaptability studies on this plant, and several crops that would be otherwise unfeasible for stations or some colony worlds have been modified successfully to thrive.

Among its other uses, it’s a good ground cover, and will stabilise surfaces relatively quickly.

Faran, ladies and gents. Looks butt-ugly, but is basically indispensable for a range of reasons and may be one of the only things the Federated Planets Alliance and the Cortii agree on.

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Well, I haven’t done an etymology excavation in quite some time, and it occurred to me that now would be a good time, because I recently found out where the word ‘fascinating’ comes from…or at least, I think I have, and it’s epic.

So why ‘fascinating’? Usually I look at phrases, where they come from, how they could be adapted to fiction, how they often get misused…well, I reckon actually that you may be misusing ‘fascinating’ without even knowing it.

Fascinate is originally from the Latin half of the English language, from fascinare. Feel free to run that through a few web searches, but originally to bewitch (or to hex, curse), to irresistibly attract, and also to deceive or to obfuscate (hide). You can see how that set of meanings vaguely relate to each other.

So that’s what the origin word meant, and how it got used down through today, when it’s used pretty much interchangeably with ‘interesting’.

However, I put it to you that fascinate shouldn’t actually be used as a conversation-stopper when whats-his-face will not STFU about whatever…fascinate deserves much better than that, and here’s why: I feel there is a solid argument to be made that fascinate, and fascinare, come from the name of  an ancient Roman deity, Fascinus. See the header for a few images of a fascinum amulet…

If you’re thinking that a fascinum amulet looks startlingly akin to a donger with wings on, well, you aren’t wrong. Ancient Romans, eh. Very similar to modern culture in so, so many ways…

But long story short, unless whatever you’re saying is fascinating is at least as good as a flying penis that wards off the evil eye, you’re probably using it wrong and blaspheming to boot.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Cruising for vampires

Cruising for vampires

Sun, sails…and vampires

Incongruous trio of concepts. When I first floated (aha) the idea of a team of vampire hunters based on a yacht in the Caribbean, I frankly expected to get shot down in flames. It was one of those manuscripts I wrote to get out of writer’s block and because I was homesick, and never really expected to publish.

On the other hand, when the overwhelming reaction was ‘haha, neat, I’d tap that’, I thought it might be time to reconsider. (Contrary to many peoples’ belief, I can take feedback.)

Also, I have to confess, I did a lot more formal world-building on this one book that I generally do – possibly an offshoot of the homesick thing. That included exterior, interior, and side diagrams of the Artemis, the yacht that my team of vampire hunters is based on and charters to rich tourists as a cover. She’s a rather beautiful gaff-rigged schooner, and I’m not including the side elevations because honestly my drawing skills suck.

Technical talk: A schooner is basically any yacht where the mast at the front is shorter than the mast at the back.

Floating a plot

The interior plan, despite needing some touching up, is good enough to give you the idea. Artemis is 26 metres overall, or 85 feet for my US-based friends, which is pretty large as yachts go. She’s got quite a bit of interior space to play with (mixed blessing, because when the going gets rough, you’ve got further to fall), but it goes over great with tourists used to expensive hotels.

All that space is also helpful when you have multiple nefarious plots going on. This is key, because (take my word for it, having grown up on an approximately 14-metre [45 foot] yacht) it’s hard to conduct a successful plot and keep it secret. The complete impossibility of not hearing my mother playing Madam Butterfly on the stereo system in our aft cabin, for example, successfully put me off all types of classical music for life.

The other area where function defined form for my Artemis design was the rig. I needed at least six people (for reasons, read the book), and gaff rigs require a lot more crew than the more modern Bermuda rig. A big, classic gaff-rigged schooner was pretty much my perfect excuse for a big crew; something Artemis-size would need at least six people readily available and could easily excuse a few more if needed.

Technical talk: Gaff rig means sails with a spar (solid boom or strut) at both the bottom and the top of the canvas. Generally, a gaff rig will have both shorter masts and a great deal more canvas area per sail than a Bermuda rig.

Artemis interior plan

So, the Artemis: running nose to stern, you’ve got an anchor locker (beware, rotting seaweed smells), the forward cabin, the forward bathroom (or head as the Americans term it) one more single cabin, and then you’re at the double cabin shared by Sean and Cristina (and, later, Jean and Cristina).

You’ll note that the bathroom is about the size of your closet, and this is because to someone used to houses, most things on a boat will look small, or an odd shape. A yacht washroom will usually include a shower, and be designed in such a way that at least with the cupboards closed and things put away, you’re basically using the whole space as a shower closet. You’ll probably also have seen that a lot of the bunks look more like a slice of pie than the classic square or rectangular shape. Hopefully you’ve also taken a hard look at the shape of the hull and figured out why; boat interiors are designed to maximise space.

Aft of Cristina and Jean’s cabin is the main saloon, with the dining table portside and an actual bar starboard (see above, re. rich tourists – not that the occasional stiff drink isn’t a benefit to someone who hunts vampires). Aft again, and you’ve got the galley (kitchen) and chart table – when not in use for actual navigation, that gets pressed into use as a food prep area. Artemis‘s galley is pretty generous by yacht standards and includes the really vital bit of any well-designed yacht – lots of closable storage space (hatched-out bits).

Technical talk: Port means left, and starboard means right, as viewed looking forwards on a vessel.

Go aft again and you’re at the aft bathroom – slightly larger, and as Artemis is a luxury charter yacht in her spare time, there actually is a tub in this one. Bathtubs on yachts are unusual, partly because of space concerns, and also because they use a lot of water to fill. When you’re anchored, and the principal method of refilling your water tanks is to ferry water from shore in your dinghy, most people get very parsimonious with water use.

You’ve then got one more double cabin – usually Jean and Kim, or, later, Kim and Sean – and then a few more single cabins, two of which are usually occupied by Mary and Francis. Nobody’s in the ‘captain’s cabin’ on Artemis, because it gets used for charterers much too often to make it worth anyone’s while.

Inside, and in colour, Artemis would be a lot of varnished wood and dark fabrics. The galley counter would be something easy to clean, some variant on Formica, and the chart table would feature a lot of fancy gadgets on the bulkhead (read: wall) and a lot of shallow, flat draws underneath for storing charts. Because Jean learnt to sail in an era where ‘Here be monsters’ was considered a perfectly acceptable alternative to ‘No idea’, and Francis and Cristina both believe in back-ups, there’ll also be a sextant, chronometer, and a few really thick books.

And that’s the Artemis, folks – hope you enjoyed the tour.

Background to the Cortii

Background to the Cortii

The Cortii are mercenaries.

As we meet them in the Cortii series, they’re the descendants of a mercenary cult that has existed for more than eight millennia, since the pre-spaceflight era. As far as the humanoid population goes, the Cortii are deeply embedded in the popular consciousness.

‘War, therefore, is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.’ ~Carl von Clausewitz

The Cortii have been bodyguards, armies, spies, and assassins. They’ve toppled governments, supported rebellions, and been hired to support – and prevent – some of the greatest crimes in humanoid history. They’re banned from active recruiting in Federated Planets Alliance space, the Nasdari government is wary of them, and the Atari ignore them unless or until popular opinion becomes vocal on the topic.

Beyond that, all the Cortiian fighters, the deriani, who are the only members of the force that the public has much to do with, have a mandatory minimum telepathic rating. Humanity as a species has a high percentage of members with some minimal extra-sensory talent, but that percentage is still a fraction of the general population, and there is widespread social distrust of those with some extra-sensory ability.

The majority of the humanoid governments embrace a peaceful ethos. FPA and Atari citizens, certainly in the central planets, see violence as anathema. However, at their borders, their armed forces are frequently engaged. Beyond that, information gathering, executive protection, and shipping security are still required, and the majority of central worlds citizens are unable to shake their early conditioning against violence. This means that the Cortii are, depending on cultural background and personal inclination, either a source of covert fascination, a menace to public security and personal privacy, or a necessary evil.

The Cortii are not the only mercenary force in space; there are a number, ranging from informal groups working highly localised missions to organisations that rival the Cortii in numbers, if not reach. Most of the other mercenary forces of note are drawn from frontier worlds and space outposts, and are by and large fully human, which the Cortii are not.

Every Cortiian, whether they meet the requirements to join the ranks of the deriani or not, is physically based on an artificially grown body. The historic intent was to have the Cortiian frontline force be based entirely on clone-type, replaceable fighters. However, despite several millennia of research, limitations on these artificially grown fighters remain. Most problematic from the point of view of the Cortii is a lack of ability to think beyond pre-defined strategy – or, to put it bluntly, they’re deficient in crazy.

The Councils of the magaii, the commanding elite of every Cortiian Base, therefore adapted the strategy. Rather than a fully artificial fighter, they use the artificially grown bodies to ensure that basic standards are met, but overlay those bodies with a partial genetic map and a personality and memory imprint from people showing a promising mix of attributes. Most of the time, the people from whom these imprints are taken are not aware it’s been done, and standard practice is to use children below the age of twelve, both because social conditioning has not yet been fully absorbed and because any stray memories of the process the donors may keep are more likely to be discounted. On rare occasions, the Cortii will accept adult volunteers, who are told that they will undergo genetic modification. However, the same technique is used on those adults, and the original bodies are disposed of.

The Cortii are additionally the only mercenary force also recognised as an independent government. Cortiians are not citizens of whichever spatial sector their Base happens to be sited in, and the Councils function entirely autonomously of local government. Attempts to bring Bases forcibly under the authority of the local government have historically never been met with success. Unsubstantiated rumour indicates that all Base Councils report to a central Council, but if this is the case, the secret of where this Council is housed is one of the best-kept in space.

The Cortii work on a set structure, which is the same on every Base. Each Base is commanded by an Inner Council, composed of five magaii, and an Outer Council of twenty-five. They are protected, and their orders are enforced, by a unit known as the akrushkari, whose numbers are variable but whose role is always the same. Directly beneath the Councils are unit commanders, or Cortiorai, each commanding a Cortia of twenty-four deriani. Cortii are further split into five sub-units known as Cantai, each under the orders of a Cantara, who reports directly to their Cortiora. Canta units can and do work independently of the rest of the Cortia for long periods of time, and solo assignments for individual deriani are not unknown.

For those who don’t meet the required standards to join the deriani, Cortiian Bases require specialists in everything from inorganic chemistry to psychology to information infrastructure. These specialists rarely leave their home Bases; however, Cortiian citizenship is irrevocable, and deserters are hunted down until death can be proved beyond all doubt. There is no way to resign from the Cortii.

Spatial politics and the Cortii

Spatial politics and the Cortii

…because you really can’t call it geo-politics when it concerns a sizeable chunk of the galaxy.

Setting borders

Borders in space are tricky bastards, because you’re defining a volume rather than an area. Setting borders in space, in short, is the art of picking your battles wisely, and the Cortii have been making a very healthy income from variations on that theme for a number of millennia.

To define the problem a little more precisely, habitable worlds are light years apart. In multiple directions. Add to that the fact that the deepspace drive used by most of the species in what we’re going to loosely term ‘civilised space’ essentially bypasses normal space and goes from Point A to Point B, and ‘border’ becomes an increasingly stupid concept.

It’s all about location

It’s possible to track a ship while it’s in realspace, via any beacon or station or satellite close enough to get a ping off it. It’s possible to eyeball the thing by actually physically getting it in scanner crosshairs. Locating a ship in deepspace has long been the wet dream of various militaries, and so far no one’s reliably managed it.

This means that while spatial governments will map by sector (volume), the real power lies in the inhabited systems. No one in their right minds is going to take a deepspace jaunt to nothing, so logically, they’ll pop out somewhere. When they do, they’ll show up on a locator grid – as something. Just because the Ore Scavenger dropped into deepspace by Sector 14 Outstation doesn’t mean you won’t get the Peace of the Stars arriving in Core-Galax orbit. Juggling IDs is a favourite sport of any pilot who prefers to keep their business their business, and the more generic the hull and load-out, the better it works. As long as the various militaries are foiled in their aim to track a ship through a deepspace jump, the more they’ll focus on making a positive ID at Point A and Point B.

Snags with spatial exploration

Humanoid expansion began from what is now known as Central Worlds. There are four worlds that claim the honour of being the original human homeworld, and while it’s pretty obvious which one actually is, sharing the honour – and the expenses – has historically been the way to go. The four worlds in question are spread across three systems, all within ten to twenty light years of each other. They were all human-settled before the first deepspace colonisation wave, they’re all rocky planets more or less in the habitable zone, and if one or more of them was terraformed, it was successful enough, and long enough ago, that ruling it out of contention for the honour of being a homeworld would be tricky to prove. Also, again, not really in anyone’s best interests.

Once deepspace drive got off someone’s to-do list and into actual use, there were a series of colonisation waves. Given astronomical distances, untried tech, and an excess of optimism, most of the first Colonial Fleet vanished into the silence between stars and was never heard of again. Every so often, someone either terminally lost or scouting frontier worlds comes across a drifting wreck, a primitive humanoid settlement with no logical connection to the rest of the planet’s biosphere, or a sizeable crater somewhere with odd trace elements welded into it.

Secession and profit

The Second Colonial Expansion was a bit more modest, a lot better controlled, and formed the basis of society as it is today. From Central Worlds, scoutships were sent to most of the nearby systems, looking for habitable planets, planets that could be terraformed, or systems that were completely uninhabitable but which had enough resources to make an artificial habitat worthwhile.

Because the kinds of people willing to head out into the void and try to start some kind of settlement generally have a strong independent streak, Central Worlds stopped getting much more than lip service from a number of their further colonies no more than a few generations to a few centuries later. Their desire to do something about this led to one of the earliest interstellar deployments of Cortiian forces on record, often on every side in the conflict.

When the dust settled into a stable orbit, Central Worlds and about fifteen systems formed the Federated Planets Alliance (at that point, pretty much a cake-slice-shaped sector of space with Central Worlds at the narrow end). The Atari Sector had hung onto a deep arc of territory fanning out and down from that narrow end, and the Hejjin’in Empire had claimed a chain of systems from Central Worlds that was more a crooked line heading out at at oblique angle to Galactic core than an actual sector.

Cortiian expansion

Since exploring brave new worlds is a chancy business even when people aren’t trying to shoot your ass off, all three of the governments periodically hired Cortiian units aboard to do their dirty work. Above and beyond those contracts, the Cortii had a workable fleet, and turned the fees they made into more ships. During this period, they gained their first footholds in the various sectors, in exchange for services, or, not uncommonly, because they settled somewhere and proved far too expensive to dislodge.

Latecomers and interspecies alliances

The Nasdar Quadrant split off the Hejjin’in Empire about fifteen hundred years after the original split; in short, a do-over of the initial Sector War. The military was heavily concentrated in the outer borders of the Hejjin’in territory, and when they hit critical mass of younger offspring sent to cool their heels in the outer systems, the military seceded from the Empire – very successfully.

The Kendazi Union is an even more recent addition to the humanoid governments. It’s also the government with the strongest interspecies links, since it was an non-human species that negotiated a deal with the Atari to exchange workers able to tolerate conditions and extract resources in various systems Corewards for tech and rights to the planets.

Until the Kendazi alliance, relations with the various non-human species was patchy at best. The Atari and the Cortii historically had the best luck with establishing relationships, and this was more or less because both have a high incidence of the various Abilities in their populations. Cortiians have a mandatory telepathic minimum for anyone serving in an active unit, and the Atari, culturally, are the most receptive towards Abilities, Ability research, and training.

Very much in brief, communication is highly reliant on perception. Molecular structure may be universal, but how it’s perceived and described turned out not to be, and early attempts at communication started a number of rifts. In some instances, mental contact turned out to be equally fatal, but usually only to the participants. By and large, the success rate was notably higher, something which eventually lead to the formation of the cumbersomely-named Independent Extra-Sensory Regulatory Organisation, where species is optional provided you have the Ability range in some Ability or other to deal with contact with other species without stroking out.

In short, ambition, aliens, expansion, and politics, oh my.

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