Authors: Alison Morton
Praise for INCEPTIO
“Terrific. Brilliantly plotted original story, grippingly told and cleverly combining the historical with the futuristic. It’s a real edge-of-the seat read, genuinely hard to put down.”
, writer and broadcaster
“I loved it! Intriguing, unusual and thought-provoking. Karen develops from a girl anyone of us could know into one of the toughest heroines I’ve read for a while. Roma Nova was a world I really wanted to visit—and not just to meet Conrad—vivid and compelling. A pacey, suspenseful thriller with a truly dreadful villain, I can’t recommend Inceptio enough.” –
, author of
The UnTied Kingdom
“Tense, fast-paced and deliciously inventive, Alison Morton’s INCEPTIO soon had me turning the pages. Very Dashiell Hammett.” –
, author of
The Queen’s Secret
“Gripping. Alison Morton creates a fully realised world of what could have been. Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue... Inceptio is a tour de force!”
, author of
What if King Harold had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Or if Julius Caesar had taken notice of the warning that assassins wanted to murder him on the Ides of March? Or the Spanish Armada had defeated and conquered England in 1588? Suppose Christianity had remained a Middle East minor cult? Intriguing questions, indeed. Alternate (or alternative) history stories allow us to explore them.
Whether infused with every last detail of their world as in S M Stirling’s
The Peshawar Lancers
, or lighter, where the alternative world is used as a setting for an adventure or thriller, such as Kate Johnson’s
The UnTied Kingdom
, alternate history stories are underpinned by three things: the point of divergence when the alternate timeline split from our timeline; how that world looks and works; and how things changed after the split.
focuses on one main character, Karen/Carina, and her struggle to overcome her personal and professional challenges in a baffling environment as well as to stay alive. I have dropped background history about Roma Nova into the novel only where she (and the reader) needs to know it as part of the story. Nobody likes a straight history lesson in the middle of a thriller! But if you are interested in a little more information about this mysterious country, read on...
What happened in our timeline
Of course, our timeline may turn out to be somebody else’s alternate as shown in Philip K Dick’s
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy
, the story within the story in
The Man in the High Castle
. Nothing is fixed. But for the sake of convenience I will take ours as the default.
The Western Roman Empire didn’t ‘fall’ in a cataclysmic event as often portrayed in film and television; it localised and eventually dissolved like chain mail fragmenting into separate links, giving way to rump states, local city states and petty kingdoms. The Eastern Roman Empire survived albeit as the much diminished city state of Byzantium until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Some scholars think that Christianity fatally weakened the traditional Roman way of life and was a significant factor in the collapse of the Empire. Emperor Constantine’s personal conversion to Christianity in AD 313 was a turning point for the new religion. By AD 394, his several times successor, Theodosius, banned all traditional Roman religious practice, closed and destroyed temples and dismissed all priests. The sacred flame that had burned for over a thousand years in the College of Vestals was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins expelled. The Altar of Victory, said to guard the fortune of Rome, was hauled away from the Senate building and disappeared from history. The Roman senatorial families pleaded for religious tolerance, but Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence. And his ‘religious police’ driven by the austere and ambitious bishop Ambrosius of Milan, became increasingly active in pursuing pagans...
The alternate Roma Nova timeline
In AD 395, three months after the final blow of Theodosius’ last decree banning all pagan religions, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia. Led by Senator Apulius at the head of twelve senatorial families, they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law. By purchase, alliance and conquest, this grew into Roma Nova.
Norman Davies in
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
reminds us that:
…in order to survive, newborn states need to possess a set of viable internal organs, including a functioning executive, a defence force, a revenue system and a diplomatic force. If they possess none of these things, they lack the means to sustain an autonomous existence and they perish before they can breathe and flourish.
I would add history and willpower as essential factors. Roma Nova survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures. Eventually, the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Service to the state was valued higher than personal advantage, echoing Roman Republican virtues, and the women heading the families guarded and enhanced these values to provide a core philosophy throughout the centuries.
Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology, and their robust response to any threat. Remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople, Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe. Nearly two hundred years later, they used their diplomatic skills to help forge an alliance to push Napoleon IV back across the Rhine as he attempted to expand his grandfather’s empire.
Prioritising survival, Roma Nova remained neutral in the Great War of the 20th century which lasted from 1925 to 1935. The Greater German Empire, stretching from Jutland in the north, Alsace in the west, Tyrol in the south and Bulgaria in the east, was broken up afterwards into its former small kingdoms, duchies and counties. Some became republics. There was no sign of an Austrian-born corporal with a short, square moustache.
Twenty-three years before the action of
in the early 21st century, Roma Nova was nearly destroyed by a coup, a brutal male-dominated consulship and civil war. A weak leader, sclerotic and outmoded systems that had not developed since the last great reform in the 1700s and a neglected economy let in a clever and ruthless tyrant. But with characteristic resilience, the families’ structures fought back and reconstructed their society, re-learning the basic principles of Republican virtue, while subtly changing it to a more representational model for modern times. Today, the tiny country has become one of the highest per capita income states in the world.
Part I: Departure
The boy lay in the dirt in the centre of New York’s Kew Park, blood flowing out of both his nostrils, his fine blond hair thrown out in little strands around his head. I stared at my own hand, still bunched, pain rushing to gather at the reddening knuckles. I hadn’t knocked anybody down since junior high, when Albie Jolak had tried to put his hand up my sobbing cousin’s skirt. I started to tremble. But not with fear – I was so angry.
One of the boy’s friends inched forward with a square of white cloth. He dabbed it over the fallen boy’s face, missing most of the blood. Only preppy boys carried white handkerchiefs. Aged around eighteen, nineteen, all three wore blazers and grey pants, but their eyes were bright, boiling with light, cheeks flushed. And their movements were a little too fluid. They were high. I dropped my left hand to grab my radio and called it in. Passive now, the second boy knelt by the one I’d knocked down. The third one sat on the grass and grinned like an idiot while we waited. If they attacked me again, I had my spray.
Keeping my eyes fixed on them, I circled around to the slumped figure lying a few steps away on the grass. Their victim. I laid two fingers on his neck and thankfully found a pulse. After a glance back at his tormentors, I bent my face sideways and felt his breath on my cheek. He groaned and his body tensed as he tried to move. A battered, brown felt hat lay upside down by the side of his head of long silver and black hair stiff like wire. He opened his eyes. Dull with sweat and grime, the red-brown skin stretched over high cheekbones showed he had to be an Indigenous. Well, damn. What was he doing this far east, away from the protected territories?
I heard path gravel crunching as Steff appeared through the cherry blossom cloud, driving his keeper’s buggy with Tubs as shotgun.
‘One with a bloody nose, and all three for banning. Tell Chip I’ll do the report as soon as I finish here.’
They herded the three delinquents onto the buggy. Before they left, I helped myself to dressings and swabs from the emergency kit in the buggy trunk. I had to get back to their victim. He sat up and put his hand to his head. He shrank back, his eyes full of fear when he saw me. Maybe it was my green uniform, with its park logo and ‘Autonomous City of New York’ stamped on the shoulder.
My hand started to throb, but I managed to unscrew the top of my water bottle and gave it to him.
‘C’mon, old guy, drink this.’
He lifted his face, grabbed the bottle and drank it in one go. His Adam’s apple bounced above a grimy line on his neck around the level of his disintegrating shirt collar. And he stank. But, right now, he needed my swabs and Band-Aids. Under a diagonal cut on his forehead, a bruise was blooming around his eye to match the one on his jaw. His hand was grazed, with bubbles of blood starting to clot. I cleaned his wounds, speaking calming words to him as I bandaged him up.
‘Okay, let’s get you to the nearest hospital,’ I said, but, as I lifted my radio again, he seized my wrist.
‘No,’ he said.
‘It’s okay, there’s a free one, the other side of the park in Kew Road West.’ Which was just as well, as he plainly couldn’t pay private.
‘No. Thank you. I’m well. I can go now.’
The anxious look in his dark eyes swung between my face and the safety of the tall trees. I’d have to call in for the Indigenous New York Bureau number. As I spoke to Chip, I looked over the lake at the old wood boathouse on the far side. Beyond the trees behind it, the windows in the red-brick Dutch highhouses along Verhulst Street threw the full sun back. When I turned around, the old man had disappeared.
‘You did okay, Karen,’ Chip said later in his office. ‘Little shits. They’ve been processed and taken to the south gate. I checked with the Indigenous Bureau for reported wanderers, but they had none listed.’ He grinned at me. ‘Jeez, the woman there was so prickly and made me feel like Butcher Sherman.’
Every kid knew from school the Indigenous had been more or less protected until the British finally left in 1867, but that, almost as the door shut, a rogue officer in the new American army ordered the massacre of Sioux and Cheyenne on an industrial scale. A hundred and fifty years on, the Indigenous Nations Council in the Western Territories still reacted like it was yesterday. I was more than pleased I hadn’t had to make that call.
I filed my report among the pile of paper in Chip’s in-basket and thought nothing more of it until, after a tedious week shut in my office at my regular job, I was back on duty in the park the next weekend.
That Saturday morning, I changed into my green pants and tee in the locker room and pinned on my team leader badge. The May sunshine would bring out people in droves. I picked up my volunteer’s folder from the wall rack. Hopefully, I was back on meet-and-greet supervising, instead of patrol. I could walk all day in the fresh air, greeting visitors, giving directions, answering park-related questions, laughing with the sassy kids, and helping the lost and crying ones find their parents. I knew every corner of the park from north to south, the history back to Vaux and Olmstead, who’d founded it with a huge grant from the Royal Kew in England.
I hummed a little tune and anticipated the sun on my skin. But all there was inside the folder was a note to report to the park director. What was that about? I’d met him twice before when I’d been awarded commendations, but never seen him around the park itself. Not on weekends.
The sour expression on his face told me I wasn’t here for an award. Chip stood with his back close to the far corner, no sign of his usual jokey grin. I was not invited to sit on the green-padded chair this side of the director’s desk.
‘Miss Brown.’ The director frowned at the sheet of paper in his hand. He looked up. ‘Show me your right hand.’ He spoke in a hard, closed tone.
He took hold of my hand and twisted it over, not caring when I winced. He glanced at the purple and yellow skin around my knuckles, grunted and let go.
‘You are dismissed from the Conservancy Corps, with immediate effect. Hand your uniform, ID and any other park property to your supervisor and leave within the next thirty minutes. You have become an embarrassment to the Autonomous City of New York. We cannot stop you as a member of the public entering the park, but you will be watched. That is all.’
I couldn’t believe it. I took a deep breath and grasped the back of the chair.
‘But why are you kicking me out? What have I done?’
‘Assaulting a respectable member of the public as he and his friends were quietly enjoying a walk is completely unacceptable. Even more so when drunk.’
‘Drunk? How dare you!’ I was hot as hell with fury. ‘They were all high as kites and attacking a defenceless old Indigenous.’ I took some deep breaths. ‘I did what the training said. I remonstrated with them. I attempted to mediate. I placed myself between them and their victim. It’s all in my report.’ I threw an urgent look over at Chip, desperate for his support. He looked away.
‘Have you quite finished?’ The director looked at his watch.
‘No, I haven’t! The lead one took a swing at me. I ducked. He went for me again, so I hit him on the nose. You know I’m within my rights to defend myself.’ But this was the first time I’d ever had to do it all the years I’d volunteered here. Unlike others, both volunteer and regular, I’d chosen not to carry a nightstick when I was assigned patrol.
‘This interview is finished.’ He nodded to Chip who stepped forward, took me by the arm and ushered me out with a murmured, ‘C’mon, Karen.’
‘What the hell happened there? How can he do that? And I wasn’t drunk. Ask Steff and Tubs. It was eleven in the morning, for Chrissakes!’ I threw my folder on his desk. ‘If it wasn’t so stupid, I’d kill myself laughing.’
Chip shifted his weight from one foot to the other, no grin, his easy fidgeting gone. ‘You bloodied the nose of External Affairs Secretary Hartenwyck’s son. He’s fuming. And Mrs Hartenwyck’s not only on the board of trustees, she’s a major patron of the park.’
I sucked my breath in. Hartenwyck, the second most powerful person in the country. My heart pounded with fear. I closed my eyes and shook my head. He was from one of the old Dutch families, a privileged class who still called the shots even two hundred years after their last governor had sailed out of the harbour in 1813. Even though the British had stepped up from number two position and taken everything over for the next fifty years, the ‘Dutch mafia’ still ran everything today. And I had a British name. I didn’t have a chance.
‘Then they should make sure Junior doesn’t take drugs,’ I said. ‘Or beat up old Indigenous in a public place. The Indigenous Nations Council would wipe the floor with him.’
‘But you can’t produce him to testify.’
‘Steff and Tubs saw him.’
‘They’ve been told to shut their mouths if they want to keep their jobs.’ He looked at me, almost pleading. ‘They’ve both got families, Karen.’
I walked back and forth in front of his desk, waving my arms around, but I sensed it was no use. The decision had been made and Chip was stuck with executing it.
‘So, my four years’ volunteer service and two commendations aren’t worth jack-shit?’
He fixed his gaze on the scuffed door panel directly over my shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Heat prickled in my eyes, but I was not going to cry. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I walked out, shut the heavy oak door with supreme control, changed back into my jeans and tee in the locker room and left the staff building, my head up. I threw the green park uniform and ID in a public trashcan. Childish, but satisfying.