We'd found a twin to Earth.

There was no measurement we took from space that said, "Humans can't walk around in their shirtsleeves," but we had no intention of landing. That was for an expedition with more resources. Like, say, a trained Guardian to be the first actual guinea pig to breathe the atmosphere. We were just surveyors. Then we saw our dreams of the big bonus go up in smoke.

Jayden broke the bad news, "I'm sorry guys, but I'm seeing large scale cultivation."

You don't have to see individual structures from orbit to get the clue it's inhabited. Cultivated fields don't look like uncultivated grasslands, even from orbit. Night side, get a couple hundred torches for a town of ten thousand or so, and you can see a town from orbit. City folks - of which I'm one - mostly have no idea how sensitive human eyes are to light. I looked it up later. In a dark room, humans can see light equivalent to striking a match 200 miles away. Remember, also, that there aren't many natural sources of light on a planet. There's bioluminescence, auroras, lightning, natural fires, and whatever artificial sources there may be. Looking down from space, the whole night side of a planet is the equivalent of that dark room.

Once we focused the cameras on the surface and zoomed in, it didn't take but maybe half an hour to confirm sentient habitation. They were bipedal, anthropoid, and looked human in the best images we could capture from the edge of space. Earth was still coming to terms with the fact we were descended from an Imperial ship that crashed or landed (we weren't certain which) roughly fifty thousand years ago in what is now Eastern Turkey, but there had been at least two periods in the history of the Imperial home instance alone when large numbers of people piled into any ship they could find and took off for the unknown because it was likely to be better than what they left behind. A few millennia ago, there'd been a revolution in the Empire that overthrew it and continued to tear things up so bad that the population plummeted by a factor of 3000 before the survivors of the old Imperial government reasserted themselves. And before the Empire, there'd been another great diaspora brought on by military conquest. The Empire was used to re-integrating lost colonies; it wasn't uncommon for explorers to find them.

But for us, it meant no super-sized bonus from discovering an empty planet suitable for colonization. The Empire's thinking was manifestly clear - even uninhabited parts of an inhabited world belonged to the people of that world. In some circumstances, other planets in the system as well. On Earth, the Empire had bought uninhabited islands from the legal owners in order to house their bases.

"Let's see what they have to trade," said Dulles.

"I don't think that's a good idea," said Jayden, "We're not equipped to deal with anything there may be in the atmosphere. Allergens, bacteria, viruses - any number of things could be deadly to us. Let the Empire make first contact. They can bring ships with multiple airlocks, isolation wards, and operant healers."

"Let's get a closer look! At least see if they're human or only humanoid!" Nobody argued - there wasn't any reason to argue with a closer look. "Mister Smith," he addressed Jayden, "How close do we need to be to determine if they're human?"

"Can't tell absolutely without a genetic makeup. But to make a preliminary judgment by appearance, the cameras could certainly tell us at two miles or so."

"Major Kyle, take us down to ten thousand feet. Minimal noise, please." Unlike the space shuttles we looked like, Imperial ships were whisper quiet. We weren't at the mercy of atmospheric braking, so we could be as quiet as we wanted. Actually, the translation overlays were metric, but 3000 meters was close enough.
"One zero thousand, minimal noise, roger." The pilot's response was deadpan, "Where do you want us?"

"Bring us in from the west end of this peninsula." The peninsula in question was a western projection from towards the northerly end of continent two. Think Cornwall, that finger of southernmost Britain that points west towards the New World, attached instead to the continental mainland a little further north. It was late afternoon in the area, so I had to admit that it was a pretty good choice, even if it was "John Full-up" making it. We could hide in the setting sun, and as quiet as we were, nobody should see us.

It took close to half an hour to actually perform the maneuver. If you don't mind scattering sonic booms everywhere, an Imperial ship can get down from orbit in just a couple minutes, but we were trying to sneak in and not be noticed. Major Kyle did a wonderful job, bringing us down over the ocean to the west, then bringing us towards land at about ten percent under the local speed of sound, slowing as we approached landfall. There was a fair-sized town on the southern side of the peninsula, maybe thirty kilometers up from the tip, with what looked like a castle right out of Earth's history. Oh, there were little curlicues of difference, but the basic idea was defending a particular point and projecting power on the territory around it. Given a certain range of technological capability, the idea of a castle made so much sense it was practically inevitable. It was surprisingly small, too. I'll bet that an anthropologist could have told all kinds of things about the inhabitants and their environment from the construction of the castle and the town, but none of us had that training.

As we approached the town, Jayden announced, "They're human. I'm as certain as I can be without running a gene scan." He brought up pictures of the inhabitants. The ones who hadn't been disfigured by something or another wouldn't have looked out of the ordinary on the streets of Southern California. Or many other places on Earth. Well, except for the fact that most of them were emaciated wretches. Most of them were lighter-skinned than me, although a lot more weathered. We didn't have a definite scale to judge by, but they looked shorter than most people I knew. Then I realized I was being an idiot, and had the computer superimpose a scale, and was proven right. Most of them were under a hundred seventy centimeters - roughly five feet seven. Their clothes had a very rough look to them, and animal hides were a large proportion of what they wore. Streets were dirt, or, to be technically accurate, mostly mud. It looked like most people lived in tiny one room thatch or plain, unpainted wood dwellings, probably with dirt floors. You could see that the doors were ill-fitting, and I saw no glass in any windows. Indeed, there weren't many windows, and I'd hate to try and do anything constructive inside one of those buildings. I didn't realize it until later, but I wasn't seeing chimneys, either.

"Okay, I think we can take it as given that these people don't have anything worth trading for," I said.

Then everyone on the ground turned to face us, almost all at once. Looking back now, I see how eerie that was in my mind's eye, but at that moment, it felt both right and normal. "No point in hiding, they've seen us," I remember Mr. Dulles saying. In retrospect, that ranks at the top of dumbest things I've ever heard him say, and that is saying something, but just then it seemed reasonable and rational. Major Kyle set us down just outside of town, and popped the hatch. After seventy-odd hours in a tin can, we didn't exactly smell of roses, but an odor you have to smell to understand immediately assaulted our sense of smell. We ignored it as John Dulles led us all out the hatch. Fool that I was, I followed him.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All RIghts Reserved.

I smiled and waved as they brought Julie into the courtroom for her bail hearing. She looked a little wan, bedraggled from her ordeal, bruises beginning to darken on her face and arms, and completely beautiful. It didn't take long for Mister Stuart to shoot down all of the county's contentions about why a higher bail would be appropriate. In the end, her bail was set as considerably less than mine, and I posted it the minute the clerk got the formal document.

Soon as she was officially 'free', she turned and gave me the best hug I'd had in weeks. She was trembling in fright the whole time but she did it. I tried to gauge what she needed, settled for a good tight hug while carefully avoiding any areas that might frighten her or cause an involuntary reaction. "Scary as it was, I needed that," she said.

"My pleasure. Sorry you got assaulted. How did it happen?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but now that I'm allowed to leave, I want to grab my stuff and leave before we do anything else."

I understood completely. Also, I suspected she wanted to be away before she said anything to antagonize people she might still need to work with. "I guess I'll wait here." She didn't take long to change. I'd been home; we walked to the Porsche and accomplished our usual ritual.

Once we were out of the parking lot, she said, "The women's side is all one big barracks. I woke up and the lights were out, like they were in that Chinese place we went to where the shadow-cat showed up. Then the others all started speaking in unison, something about the Mad God and his vengeance. I don't really remember much between that and the guards pulling them off me, and they took me to the hospital."

"How bad is it?"

"I'm bruised everywhere, and it all aches, but the doctors said nothing serious as far as they can tell. No broken bones, all the organ tests they did came back within limits. They did another pregnancy test, but damage to the baby isn't going to show for a while unless I miscarry."

"I'm sure Mister Stuart would love to represent you in your suit for failure to protect."

"I'm sure he would, but I think the boss is likely to pre-empt him. Mister Silver does not suffer us to be abused by anyone except him."

"A jealous boss?"


"Your experience seems to square with something RaDonna told me. The men's side is smaller cells, four bunks to a cell. She said the cell separators are probably what short-circuited the Mad God's attempt to do the same thing to me - and one of the guys I was sharing with was big enough to make me look like a toddler."

"Then I'm glad it short-circuited."

"Me too. I'd have been a small spot on the wall or floor. But when I was speaking to her about other things, I also asked RaDonna if she knew any therapists who understand magic to deal with our particular problem. She went one better and suggested her great-grandmother would be willing to help. She said she needed a couple days to ask, but seemed optimistic."

"Is that good?"

"I can't imagine RaDonna's great-grandmother agreeing to help unless she was pretty certain she'd make a difference. From what I understand, she's an important mage to the Elven holdings on this continent."

"I think I remember RaDonna saying her great-grandmother was out in Iowa just a few weeks ago. How fast can they move?"

"I don't know, but I don't think Ra' would have suggested it if we'd have to wait months. Maybe they move over to this side and drive the interstates. Maybe they even hop planes and fly commercial."

"You need I.D. to get on a plane."

"You're right, but maybe she has one. The point is RaDonna isn't the kind of idiot who'd suggest a solution that we can't use."

"You know her better than I do."

"Best office manager I've ever heard of, in addition to whatever else she does. She's sharp, Julie. She warned me about the Mad God. Evidently, he has power over groups; the larger the group the more he can do."

"Makes sense. The men were split into small groups and it fizzled. The women were all in one room and it didn't. She didn't happen to say anything limitations of this power? Something we can do to forestall it, or break it?"

"Not other than breaking up the groups or dividing them into pieces too small for the Mad God to use. Even that was implied from what she said rather than direct advice.

"Well, it's a nice caveat, but if the Mad God can raise a riot looking for us and direct it towards us, our days are numbered unless we can think of a counter," Julie realized, "This is L. A. and large groups are part of life here. Baseball will be going for another three months. Football starts soon, and basketball too. Concerts and traffic jams, and so on."

"Point. Just regular traffic probably has plenty of people, at least if he can get them out of their vehicles."

"There's no point in freaking out over every possibility. We need something that can prevent it, or break up a mob if it happens."

"Here's a question: Why hasn't the Mad God used this power to break his rivals?"

"What do you mean?"

"If he can get any group of ten or twenty people to do his bidding," I told her, "He could destroy a lot of property and attack a lot of people, particularly if he could somehow keep them going from target to target, and the momentum would snowball as they encountered more people. Imagine if riots were contagious. There have to be limits of some sort, or he would have destroyed any rival power centers by destroying the rival's worshippers or temples, or the means to pay them. The only reason that makes sense about 'he hasn't' is that he can't. Why not?"

"Good question. Answer it and we'll have something to fight him with." She stopped a moment and asked, "How did we get into this?"

"A favor for a friend, and trying to help some people," I reminded her.

"Let's hope they're feeling grateful, because we're going to need help if the Mad God took it personally."
"Seems to me the question of whether he took it personally has been answered."

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Another operant was waiting for us, a woman in a uniform like none I had seen before. It was Imperial forces field uniform, but with a large white tabard over each shoulder, like enlarged epaulets, as if she were staff, only more so. On each, an insignia of rank the size of my hand was emblazoned, about four times the normal size. It was a private's circle of rank, split by a horizontal white line. Below the line was purple, as in a Senior Private, above was green, as if for a Team Private. "This is Instructor Jereya," Ugatu told us, "She will take you to your barracks and your training units." Then without further ado, he headed back for the cutter.

"This way," the woman said, moving us quickly behind a safety line. As soon as we were all over the line, the cutter was off in a trailing vortex of wind, no sign of its presence remaining. "We're going to start with military discipline now. You jondats will keep step and interval as you follow me. You're all operant, so there's no excuse for violating a ninety isixths interval or getting out of step." The distance was just shy of one Earth meter, a little over three feet. "Each pace is seventy-five isixths, always step off with your left foot. First Step is four paces per second, Third Step is six." Eighty-two Earth centimeters, roughly thirty-two inches per step. Imperial seconds were 1.7 Earth, so first step was about 140 paces per Earth minute - a brisk walk - while third step would be 210 or so, a moderate trot about equal to what we'd done with Ugatu. "Third Step, march! Left-right-left!" she called the pace for three steps, by which time everyone was with it and she ignored it thereafter.

She yelled over her shoulder as she moved. "I am Instructor Jereya! Instructors are specialists, utilized at need to help instruct you pathetic losers in hopes of achieving a marginal competence. We are technically civilians, but unlike Staff, Instructors and Leaders are in your chain of command until you are promoted to Trained Private! All recruits are to treat Instructors as superior to Senior Privates, subordinate to Team Privates! Similarly, Leaders are superior to Team Privates, subordinate to Squad Privates! You will have one Leader to a squad, learn your current Section Leader and otherwise let the Leaders sort out who's a Section Leader! There is one active duty Section Private assigned to command each platoon; they will have final say in all matters having to do with your training. You must have your squad Leader's permission before initiating contact above that squad Leader."

Jereya took absolutely no notice of the impending storm. I didn't believe for a moment she hadn't noticed, but she didn't show that she had. We trotted past several boomerang-shaped assault cruisers and empty, recessed berths in the white pavement intended to hold others as large raindrops started splattering on the pavement and on us. Within minutes, it had become solid rain with occasional sheets, and we were all soaked. She trotted on, apparently oblivious, as the wind began driving the rain into our right side. After perhaps fifteen minutes, we came to a portal, which she programmed and led us through.

We emerged into the middle of a multistory building, kind of an atrium without glass. The light was artificial. Around us, snowflake-like, six wings of barracks in six levels. "This is Operant Training Barracks Two, your new home! Each bay holds one section in three squad rooms! The squads I am now assigning you to will be your place here until you are otherwise notified! The assignments have been made at company level and are not subject to appeal! Your squad leader has been apprised of your joining their squad and has your records! Your first assignment will be to stow your gear, change your wet disgusting clothes and report to your squad Leader! Move"

My datalink informed me I was being assigned to Third Squad, Third Section, Fourth Platoon, First Troop. What that meant was I was in Bay Six on what Americans like myself would describe as the fifth floor. When I informed Asto of that, he said he was in Second Squad, First Section of the same Platoon, in Bay Four of the same floor. Well, it could have been worse. We'd known they wouldn't put us in the same squad, no matter what. At least he was only two bays over, when he might not have been in the same building or even at the same base. I saw a couple other recruits teleport up to their new assignments, and nobody called them on it, so I followed suit. I walked into Bay Six, found Third Squad's room, noted that one bunk of the sixteen bunk beds was empty, along with the corresponding footlocker. No sleep fields here. I used perception to check my bunkmate's use of her locker, peeled my wet field uniform off along with the underclothes, dressed in another outfit, identical to the first. My civilian clothes went under the stack of neatly folded clean uniforms on the right of my locker, then I went into the squad bathroom to wring out my soaked used set before depositing it on the left side of my locker. Perhaps eight people would be comfortable in that bathroom. Too bad it had to serve thirty-three. The squad room as a whole looked like it had all the privacy one could reasonably expect in building full of operants. Unless the double doors into the section bay were open, nobody could see in. Of course, being operants, everyone else around me had a sense of perception, too, and even if that had not been the case, there was absolutely no privacy from other members of your squad. I'd had a few years to get used to the fact that the Empire didn't segregate by sexes, or I might have been really taken aback. The only ripple from Asto at the notion was mild amusement at the fact I still wasn't completely acculturated on that point. It also looked like eating was permitted in barracks - there was a large, neatly stacked pile of Life bars, next to a similar, even larger pile of water cubes.

That accomplished, my datalink told me my squad was doing something called obstacle course three. Well, I'd seen army movies back home, so I thought I might have some idea of what that entailed, and silently damned Instructor Jereya for telling me to change out of one soaked uniform in order to promptly soak another. I escalatored myself down to the main floor by jumping over the railing and slowing my fall with matris. It seemed the fastest way down. The portal refused my request, so I took off out the front door of the barracks at a run, headed for where my datalink told me my squad and its Leader were. I teleported twice when I could see far enough to make it worth my while. Even so, it took a good five minutes - about eight and a half Earth - to get to where I was going, by which time I was soaked again.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Everyone was there on time. Us, Mom, Julie's parents (her mom was matron of honor), RaDonna and her husband. Judge Jefferson came through to say he would be right back, and went back into his chambers.

That was about ten seconds before the blood-curdling scream.

We all froze for a few seconds. I was the first one to snap out of it - just before this ugly gray-brown thing that looked like a cross between a toad and goblin came through the door. Huge mouth that stretched halfway across its head, filled with tiny little teeth. Big bug-eyes, pebbly skin, crouching bipedal stance, and black razor claws at the end of its 'hands'. "Havva!" I jumped back while performing the banishment spell. Julie and RaDonna were almost simultaneous to me, while Roland was perhaps half a beat behind - but his spell was different, and his voice had dropped a couple octaves. No matter; it vanished. Roland stopped his incantation mid-word.

"What the hell was that?" Mom screeched at the top of her lungs.

"No idea!" Julie and I chorused before RaDonna said, "Trog. One of the weaker demonic minions."

"Did you say demonic minions?" Mom screeched.

"Yes, Mom, she did. Because that's what they are. But screaming isn't going to help, and panic definitely won't." I was vaguely conscious of Julie dealing with her outraged parents; at least I wasn't outnumbered in trying to control my mercurial mother.

Suddenly, Mom's eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in a heap on the carpet. "Don't use that one too often," RaDonna said, "But when I need it, comes in right handy. She'll sleep awhile. Most likely won't remember what she saw when she wakes up, or she'll think it was a dream."

"Ra' you are full of surprises." Now to help Julie with her parents, as I heard her say, "No, Mom, Mark did not get me involved in gang activity. Did that look like a gangbanger to you? It's a long story and now is not the time for it. Dad, trust me when I say I had every bit as much to do with why that creature was after us as Mark!"

"Will that trick of yours work on a couple more targets?" I quietly asked Ra'.

She shook her head no, "Not like it worked on your Mom; they're not nearly so agitated. You're going to have to talk them down the normal way."

Roland helped us out, "SILENCE!" he ordered. He was much better than I was at intimidation; Julie's parents shut up. "Your daughter and her fiancée were asked to try and help our people. Beyond all hope, and at some cost to themselves, they succeeded, but doing so made them an anonymous enemy with some ability in the arcane. I and my wife and every other member of our people is indebted to them, and would like to aid them in defeating this new enemy. But now is not the time for recriminations, nor for detailed explanations."

"Thank you, Mr. Adedeji," I replied, hitting record on my phone and headed back towards the judge's chambers. I had a pretty good idea what we'd find. "If someone could please call 911? And Julie, if you know who's in charge here in the courthouse on the weekends, it would be a good idea to get them involved sooner rather than later. A second witness to what I'm afraid I'm going to find wouldn't be amiss, either."

"I shall accompany you," Roland followed, and RaDonna pulled out her cell phone, dialed and put it to her ear. Julie grabbed her Mom and headed out the door; her father hesitated, then followed his wife and daughter when Ra' made to follow her husband and I.

Inside was about what I'd expected - the judge's body was lying in a still expanding pool of blood. I didn't investigate closely, but it was slowly leaking out four long ragged parallel gashes in his chest, leaking rather than spurting with the beats of a heart. Although it hadn't been more than a few seconds, the judge's heart was already trying to pump air. He didn't stir when I tried to find a pulse on his neck. If the pain of being slashed like that had sent him unconscious, it was likely a blessing because there was no way anything I could do would save him.

I cursed under my breath. I'd just met the judge for the first time so not getting married today was the big result for me, but Julie must have been on good terms with him. Nuts.

"Police and paramedics on the way," RaDonna said, "Not that the paramedics are going to be able to help with that."

I stopped recording. "Okay, so what are we going to tell the police?"

"Pretending we didn't see the trog is probably our simplest and best option," Roland opined.

"I don't know if either Julie's parents or my mother will go along with that version of events."

"Your mother probably isn't going to remember a thing," Ra' told me, "The spell I used is a kind of magical judo; it used her own agitated energy against her."

I resolved to ask her to teach it to me; or at least inquire of Zeb. "That leaves Julie's parents, and if my mother does remember, good luck trying to shut her up."

"So we treat her as somehow misremembering due to her level of excitement, assuming we can get Robert and Miriam to agree," Roland replied.

"That shouldn't be too difficult; most folks want to pretend such things don't exist," RaDonna added. It seemed she and her husband both had experience with people given inadvertent glimpses of life behind the metaphorical curtains.

"If Julie's parents don't agree?"

Roland was practical, "We cross that bridge if we come to it."

"Any ideas why it attacked the judge?"

"I presume your wife and yourself are applying a shielding spell every morning?" I didn't correct him; he and Ra' had been raised within an elven culture, and elven culture considered pregnancy a marriage.

"Yes, we are."

"Then it seems likely that whomever sent the trog knew where and when, but was unable to pierce your shielding." I hadn't interacted much with Ra's husband in the past; but his grasp of the situation illustrated some of what Ra' no doubt saw in him. In less than fifteen minutes, he'd earned my respect several times over.

"So either they were someone we told the specific time and place of our wedding, or someone we told informed them."

"That would seem logical."

So now I had to figure out who the mole was, and whether the information being shared was inadvertent, in ignorance of the receiver's hostility, or intentionally supporting people who meant to kill Julie and I.

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Presently, they gave up. They had to let Dalia and Peter and Tina go - no evidence meant no excuse to arrest them. They didn't want to, but I made it clear that they'd be facing the wrath of god and fifty-seven civil rights lawyers, so they caved. Me, they placed under arrest for the heinous crime of not somehow preventing my employee nephew - whose possessions I had no legal or moral right to search, by the way - from possessing two tenths of an ounce of marijuana on my property. They drove me down to the Riverside County Jail for booking, and put me alone in a room with a prosecutor who was introduced as Mr. Mendez, no matter what my rights said. I refused to talk without a lawyer. When the prosecutor started talking about confiscating my property, I said, "Maybe you can, and maybe you can't. Seems to me United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury is pretty much on point, and directly against you. Now how about letting me find a lawyer? Or at least letting me post bail? Maybe actually charging me with something?"

Then the tenor or the interview changed completely. "Look, we have pictures of an Imperial cruiser landing on your property this morning. You know and I know what that means. We want siphons and converters. You get them to us, your problems go away. You don't, we make life hell for you and your family." So he's one of the ticks - whomever was left of the stons' Earthbound stooges after I killed Brian, Greg, and Jeff.
Time to change tactics. Contrary to procedure, we weren't being recorded, so I took advantage. I held my hands up, and made the handcuffs fall off. His eyes got real big, and his mouth dropped open. "You group of ignorant, stone age savages, you really don't have any idea of what you're messing with, do you? You have to be operant to pilot an Imperial starship. I could kill you and everyone behind you, and you're just about making it worth my effort, too. You think you can stop me? Remember when you had operants, and nobody could touch them? Understand that you're looking at the reason you don't have any operants on your side anymore." I stayed seated, kept my voice low and deliberate, "I killed them. I also helped kill the basileus your stupid ston overlords couldn't control. Yeah, I'm only a Second Order Guardian. That makes me only worth about a hundred million of you. You want a war?" I paralyzed his motor control, and his eyes filled with fear. "Try and fight me right now, when you entered the room thinking I was a helpless woman. It's not going to get any easier than this. What are you waiting for?"

I continued, "I know you're just a little errand boy. But you tell your bosses from me to back off. Release my family, get away from us, leave us alone, or I swear upon my Savior Jesus Christ that you will all find out you don't have to die to spend time in hell. You want a siphon or a converter, maybe I can arrange it in return for something I want. So you send me an emissary to buy one. But you try taking one, and not only will it blow you and your rotten ticks to kingdom come, I will personally hunt down the survivors and see to it that they spend twenty years screaming in incoherent agony before I let them die. Is that plain?" I released control of his muscles; he managed to nod, cold sweat dripping from his forehead. Maybe one of the stons had used him to demonstrate what they could do, but he clearly understood that I wasn't bluffing. "I now have your entire organization because you were ignorant enough to put someone who knows something where I could reach them. Even if you hadn't, it would only have taken me a few seconds to trace you back with spak and kored. I can duplicate that any time I want. You have thirty seconds to drop charges and release me before I decide your little farce has gone too far. And while you're at it, release my family and my property and convince me you understand what a boneheaded error you made by fixing it." Adding a touch of auros, "move!" Yeah, some of it was exaggeration, and some of it was lie, but if these clowns really wanted a confrontation, I would carry through. It's one thing to go looking for trouble, it's something else when trouble comes looking for you. And yes, I was and am still Catholic. The Empire is amazingly open-minded about faith.

My diatribe had scared him, but not enough to confront his boss. He didn't understand enough about what "operant mindlord" meant, much less "Guardian". He was going to pretend to play along for a few minutes while he slipped out of my presence to arrange his dirty work. So I spoke to him, direct mind to mind, I understand what you're planning all too well, so you understand this. You try to leave the same room I'm in for any reason before my family tells me they are all safe, you will die. So you'd better do what I tell you and work fast, or resign yourself to wetting your pants. Not that letting him use the bathroom or leave my presence would give him any measure of safety, but maybe I'd picked up the Imperial habit of sand-bagging, making opponents think I couldn't do as much as I could. Besides, you didn't want to give people like him anything in the way of slack - they'd mistake it for being soft, sure as the sun rose in the east.

And nothing. He was still determined not to cooperate, like they still had something to hold over me. So I had choices: I could break out, and be officially a fugitive. I could take him over, and be a mind-rapist. I could let him do what he wanted to my family, and lose most of them. I could get them what they wanted - and even if my family escaped unscathed this time, we'd be subject to extortion forever. Or I could do what I did: Make every neuron in his body to fire at maximum for ten seconds.

I hoped never to see that again, but I knew I'd have to. It was ugly and pitiful, both at the same time. He dropped to the floor, writhing uncontrollably in small jerks, completely oblivious to the fact his thrashing around was banging his shins into a desk or his forehead into a chair leg. Any concern about him losing bladder control, or bowel, was strictly past tense. It was so bad he couldn't even scream until it was over. Two more stooges burst into the room in the middle of it, both foot-soldier thugs in the organization. They started towards me, so I gave them exactly the same treatment. When it was over, they were laying on the floor, whimpering and moaning, completely broken. I said, "That was ten seconds. I can make it last days just as easily. If I want to work at it a little bit, it can last for years. This is your last chance. What's it going to be?"

They were convinced. I'd finally done something that overshadowed their fear of their boss. Weakly, he said, "Ms. Juarez, you're free to go. Mike, get the paperwork for rescinding arrest. I'll sign you out myself." The designated thug slowly limped to a computer in the next room, printed a single sheet, brought it back. The prosecutor thug signed it. I stood there while he ordered the four teams he had harassing my family to stand down.

It was a good fifteen minutes before my family members called my cell phone, telling me they'd been set free. When I finished the call, I turned to the prosecutor thug and said, "You're off the hook for now. Let me tell you how it's going to be. I'm in and out and all over, so if you want something, you send a letter to my sanctuary. Not a messenger, not a phone call, not an e-mail, not a text message, a good old-fashioned US Postal Service letter. You address it to me, personal and confidential. You include a phone number I can call back at. I'll explain this to your boss, too." And I was off - Blink! Blink! From the rooftops in Washington DC, I picked out the federal office building that housed Ms. Okuda - head of the biggest cabal now that the shakeouts from Greg, Brian, and Jeff's deaths were over.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

We headed outside and Zeb handed me a piece of chalk. I knelt down and reached out as far as I could before spinning around slowly in a circle to draw a bigger circle on the driveway, maybe three feet or so in diameter.

It wasn't good enough for Zeb. He pointed to a place where the line crossed what had likely been a bubble in the cement when it was poured. "See that? 's no good. The circle's broke afore ya start!"

"Can it be repaired?" I asked, drawing over the gap with the chalk to the point where there was a continuous line of chalk, just a little bit thinner in that place because of the bubble.

"Yeah, that'll prob'ly work," he admitted, "The important thing is it's gotta be con-tin-was, 's IF you din't pick up yer chalk while drawin' the line. Now le's all look for other holes." Julie and I looked around the line of the circle; it didn't appear there were any other gaps like the first.

"Okay, now, stand inside, put yer drop o' blood on th' circle, 'n' will it to pertect."

I didn't have anything to draw blood handy, and I didn't want to scratch to get one, but it was a summer afternoon, over ninety still and I was in a suit. I'd developed a sheen of sweat; I ran my hand over my face and came away with enough it would probably drip off if I let it, leaned over to almost touch the circle and willed the protection as the drop fell.

I felt it right away, a feeling almost like static electricity. I didn't need to hear Zeb's "Hot damn! Jes' 's strong as yer light 'n' shield! Yer gonna be a helluva sorc'erer when ya get some 'sperience!"

"Okay, so how do I stop it?"

"Jes' step outta the circle! 'T'ill ground out. But don' step on it or smear it, yer wife's gonna use it, too!"

Julie carefully stepped into the same circle, powered it in the same way I had. It worked just as well too, judging by her smile and Zeb's interjection of "Her too! Jes' 's strong! Jumpin' Jee-ho-sa-phat, I wanna see what 's like when you two learn enough ta work together!"

And that was about the time our two favorite detectives drove up. Whitehall and Ramirez. They'd probably been by earlier, asked one of the aforementioned neighbors who thought I was a murderer to call if I came home.

"Mark Jackson, Julie Ingmar, we need you to come downtown and answer some questions."

"Whyever for?" Zeb asked, "The answers 'r' going to be the same right here."

"Detective Whitehall, Detective Ramirez," I said, "RaDonna Adedeji called me this morning to say there'd been an attack on my old office, and told me you were looking for me. At the time, I'd been looking at a property in Pasadena we're considering buying for nearly two hours, with three other people, two of them the entire time. We also met two tenants of the property during that time."

They looked at Julie, "I was in a boring office meeting that should have been an e-mail," Julie said, "But Mr. Silver likes to show off, and he pays my salary."

"What are you doing here?" Ramirez eyed the circle suspiciously.

"'m teachin' 'em to play a game I know." I hadn't known Zeb could be sarcastic, much less that he was good at it.

"Right. Who were these people whom you were with?" Detective Whitehall asked.

"Karen Alder, Jerome Butler, and Rose Houseman, an architect Ms. Alder recommended." I followed with their phone numbers. "The tenants are Harriet and Amanda, I don't know their last names, but they are tenants at the address. The listing agent set up the showing with my agent, Zhou Li." I gave them Zhou's number as well. I wasn't certain of the listing agent, and better the listing agent speak to Zhou or Karen anyway.

He looked at Julie, "Everyone in my office was there except Liz, who was in court."

"Ya heered 'em, they could'na done it!" Zeb almost screamed, "Go 'way and leave us alone!"

For a miracle, they did. Both detectives turned around and returned to their car without another word, got in, and Ramirez drove them off.

"Did you do that?" I asked Zeb.

"Durned tootin'! That one is a right nasty piece o' work! Li'l bit o' mind magic ne'er hurt no one, long's it's the truth! Yer getting married tomorry, right? Ain't got time fer him to be persecutin' his private little war!"

Oh hell. "What's likely to happen when it wears off?"

I'd meant the question for Zeb, but Julie answered, "Well, I'd expect them to be hesitant enough about admitting they were charmed to call the people we named and verify our alibi first, and that's if they didn't do it before Zeb's spell wears off. Then knowing we weren't there, they won't be in a good position to come bother us again without some sort of evidence laying it at our feet. Since we didn't do it, that will be hard."

"What if they don't have any other leads?"

"Zeb's right about Ramirez. He may try to manufacture something. But that's a worry for another day."

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

When I woke, the light was late afternoon. I checked the clock - almost four. I guessed I'd been out almost twelve hours. As strung out as I'd been, I wasn't surprised. I was pretty certain ScOsh had gone the last two days plus of his life without sleep, but I didn't know the trick to doing that yet.

I had to do something almost as scary as fighting the basileus - tell Papi the truth, and convince him it was the truth. Did I mention he's a high school math teacher with forty years of experience? He's heard it all, many times before, and Occam's Razor is something he was so used to applying I'd learned it by osmosis so early I couldn't remember. Mama was pretty sharp, too, but she'd believe me if Papi did. I had to carefully consider what hard evidence I had.

Item: one Mindsword, no longer "alive". I could maybe buy a live mouse at the pet store to demonstrate its killer cancellation effect, or use it to cut something. In fact, the brand new sweatshirt it was wrapped in was halfway shredded already, despite how careful I'd been. Not exactly impressive evidence, and dangerous to handle as well. It might be good supporting evidence, but Aurora by itself would never convince Papi. Not unless I was so irresponsible as to let someone touch it, which wasn't going to happen. ScOsh, wherever his soul had gone, would never forgive me.

Item: one small hand blaster. I checked it and the charge level was back to orange. I remembered that ScOsh had told me to dial it up, so I dialed it back down, and the meter cycled through colors back to blue. According to what ScOsh had told me, it should have recharged itself completely in about eight hours, so I figured the power per shot was about comparable to the original setting. I considered turning it off for safety, then decided against. ScOsh had been pretty certain he'd gotten all the stons, but he hadn't even tried for whatever minions they might have, and I had no way of knowing how many demons were wandering loose around Earth, and I had no way of knowing either group hadn't been given information that would lead to my parents. I left it on, and put it back in my bag. Not only self-defense, but good hard evidence as well. Earth had nothing like it.

Item: about thirty thousand dollars in cash. ScOsh had destroyed the rest. Also, what appeared to be a numbered Swiss account with a balance of just shy of six million Swiss francs, as well as various other financial instruments that I might or might not be able to access somehow. Not evidence; too many less outlandish and more morally questionable ways of acquiring it. It would be useful to the extent I could tap into it, which would have to be done carefully, but it wouldn't do anything to convince Papi.
Item: one "logbook" that ScOsh had handed me with Aurora. Problem was, it didn't look like anything more than a small case of some indeterminate material. No display, no readouts I could access. Not impressive. It might be a miracle device for all I knew, but for all I could demonstrate to Papi, it might as well be a paperweight.

Item: one "pocket". I unfolded it. Jackpot! I could actually see into it, and there was not only ScOsh's other sword, which could be handled a lot more safely than Aurora even if it was less unearthly, there were side pockets of a more mundane nature inside holding other stuff. Some if it was mundane Earth stuff (including more cash), other items were nothing I could identify. Nothing I was going to fool with, but what looked like the "gun" he'd used on the gangbangers and another similarly styled device, probably a different gun. I didn't know how to handle them, but they weren't Earth made, that was for certain. Half a dozen items like nothing I could identify. I didn't know for certain they were Imperial, but it seemed likely. I wasn't going to handle any of it more than was necessary, and I certainly wasn't going to fool with trying to use them, but the pocket by itself was probably going to convince Papi. Imagine your kitchen trash can. Now imagine all that you could see was the mouth of the trash can, with no apparent "trash container" attached, but that still held whatever you had put into it. The "mouth" was a cloth-like material about the size of a scarf or bandanna on one side with a 'lip' around the edges, but you could reach into the other and pull stuff out, or put it into for storage, without apparent care for what the pocket was resting on. A three dimensional space, carried around like a two dimensional piece of cloth, and with only the apparent mass of the cloth. Kind of like the hole that the Roadrunner was able to pick up and move like a physical object, whenever doing so would frustrate Wile E. Coyote. I thought about putting Aurora inside the "pocket", and decided ScOsh hadn't done it despite obvious opportunity, so that might not be a good idea somehow. Still, while the hand blaster might conceivably be not be too far beyond Earth's technology, and I knew even less about the other pieces of hardware I had been given custody of, this was demonstrably so far beyond anything Earth could do that Occam's Razor would tell Papi that the least complex explanation was that I was telling the truth - at least as well as I knew it.

Finally, item: Graciela Juarez, newly operant but without much practice and only the most basic level of training. I decided against telling them anything I didn't have to about the changes I'd been through. I'd last been home on Sunday, so it had been less than a week. They had to know that I'd been through a change of some sort because of the difference in my appearance, but I wasn't going to tell them their baby girl was now a bruja. Papi was only one generation removed from Mexican farmworkers who might as well have been medieval peasants. Abuelo had been a wonderful warmhearted man who got his two sons through college through incredible hard work and saving, and educated his three daughters at least through high school, but some of the superstitions I remember him having when I was a little girl were more than enough to persuade me to keep my mouth shut. Abuela, who'd only died a couple years ago, had been sweet and cheerful and happy, tough as nails beneath, and even more superstitious. Mama's family wasn't that much different. No, Graciela Juarez was not going to say one word about the marvelous things she might be able to do someday.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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No matter what the song says, it does rain in southern California. All the damn time in March of El Nino years.

The most recent storm had finished blowing through earlier that evening. I didn't like working after dark, but the compliance reports just couldn't wait any longer. My boss, "Call me George" Martinez, had informed me that the EPA was crawling all over him and that if the hazardous usage and disposal reports weren't completed by the time he got to work in the morning, I would be joining the ranks of the unemployed. In blue state basket case California, in the middle of the worst economy of the last eighty years. Jerk.

Overall, Riverside's not a bad town. I've got a small apartment not too far from the UC campus. The complex is full of students with a smattering of old fogeys too poor and too stubborn to leave, and working class stiffs, not to mention hybrids like me. The ones I've talked to were alright.

But this wasn't there. The warehouse sits in a commercial district near where the 91 dies and turns into the 215 at the 60 merge. There are some rough people nearby, in the old twenties and thirties housing they threw up back before tract housing. Tiny lots, old decaying houses, ancient plumbing and wiring, never updated. Paint cracked, chipped, and peeling. Calling them Craftsmen would be implying a level of charm that simply didn't exist. Streets jammed with old junker cars. Chain link fences, neglected lawns, junk left wherever someone dropped it because it was too much effort to clean up. An occasional abuela put in a few flowers that just made the rest of the neighborhood look even more pitiful. Rough people, mostly poor hispanics with the occasional white trash or black, human refuse that just didn't have what it took to get ahead in the world as it had become. Some were disabled, most simply never applied themselves much. Get a second or third generation in there, and you got some real gangbanging. Easy path to see, damned near impossible to make it work into a real life worth living. Enough to make me appreciate my parents, who escaped that world and made sure I knew enough not to fall back.

The gangs had been cooped up inside most of the previous ten days. El Nino storms came through one after another. Maybe they wouldn't drown or freeze you, but they were cold, wet, and miserable - at least by the standards of California weather. Nobody came out when it was raining without a good reason why they had to be out there and then, but once it stopped a light jacket would keep you warm, and the hoodies would be out looking to burn off some energy. It's not like they had anything better to do.

And here I was, a 28 year old woman leaving the building all by myself in the dark just after eight-thirty with no one around. Just bad luck the four guys in jackets walking up the other side of the street at the exact wrong time. No key to get back in - damn "Call me George" to hell. I picked up my pace. If I could get to my car - beater that it is - and lock the doors there was a chance I'd be able to drive away.

Mistake. The hoodies started to run. Now there was some effort in it for them, things were looking worse for me. Cell phone, you say? I could grab the phone and push the number to dial 911, but it wouldn't do me a bit of good. Typical response time was thirty minutes. By the time the cops showed up, it would be long over. I was about to do it anyway when it happened.

I swear on my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that this happened. He looked like an Angel of the Lord, minus the wings. Hanging up there in the air. Well, not hanging - he was falling, though not like he was getting pulled - more like he was riding an escalator that wasn't there. At least six five, thin as a rail, with a softly glowing sword of all the improbable things. Wearing what looked like some kind of uniform, dark with lighter trim, cut like nothing I'd ever seen.

I don't know what he did to call attention to himself, but all of a sudden the 'bangers noticed him. Not just the 'bangers, but everything's attention was wrenched towards him as if someone grabbed our heads, sunk hooks into our eyeballs and made us look. Right down to the rats in the dumpsters.

That was enough for the 'bangers. They hauled out their guns and started banging away. The visitor looked puzzled for an instant, then the sword vanished, and I saw a flash from him. Something in his hand - didn't did get a good look at what it was. The gang members fell over so fast it was over before I could twitch. Damn! The guy was fast. I'd never seen anything like that even in the movies.

One look showed four lifeless bodies with blood starting to pool. The visitor lit with catlike grace, apparently as unconcerned as if nothing had just happened. I had a decision to make, and I did. I jumped in my car and got the hell out of Dodge. I didn't want to be anywhere in the neighborhood when the cops finally got there. I didn't stop to say thanks, I definitely didn't talk to him, I just jumped in and went. I didn't slow down until I was home. I might have run a red light or two; I really couldn't tell you with any certainty.

I pulled into the parking lot, and spent a few minutes having a quiet attack of the shakes. The steering wheel was a nice solid reassurance of the familiar world of everyday life. Things like that just did not happen. Bad enough to come that close to being raped or maybe worse. I lived in the real world, and things like that happened even though you don't want them to. But you do not get six and a half feet of impossibly fast man walking down out of the sky to kill your enemies every day, or any day. Maybe in fairy tales or fiction, not in Riverside.

Copyright 2013 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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"Somehow, I thought there would be more for a god to do."

"Why husband, you always seem busy enough," Petra replied.

"Those are my own projects, and I know I spend more time than you would prefer on them. But I presumed the position of being a god came with its own duties and requirements. Thus far, I have found none."

"Husband, we are both Eternals - minor gods as such things go. We know there are at least two tiers above us. I spent ten thousand years and more as an Immortal. Outside of the chains of my creation, I was never tasked with anything. Art thou disappointed?" She'd taken to wearing what I called her Ultimate Lady from The Next Farm Over appearance most of the time we were together. She appeared as a dusky, light brown-skinned young lady with shoulder length medium brown hair, just barely into the first flush of maturity and shapely to the point where she drew eyes from all the men, even now at the end of her pregnancy with our first child. Petra's skin glowed with health, her hair shone with golden highlights in the soft brown. Nothing exaggerated or fancy - her breasts and buttocks were if anything slightly smaller than average, her parts just all fit together perfectly. Her hairstyle was dead simple - straight with just a hint of wave. She never wore complex fashions or glaringly sexual clothes or anything that clung too tightly, just simple and loose, hinting at the lush curves beneath. Nor was she particularly thin. Maybe by some perverse standards she might even be a little overweight. She almost never used cosmetics of any sort. But most women of King Edvard Haraldsson's court hated her for the way she drew male eyes despite everything they did to keep attention centered on themselves. They'd never understand what Petra had spent ten thousand years learning - men liked simple and elegant. These days, Petra was happy and content, and that amplified attraction even more.

"Nay, O Lady of My Heart, I am not disappointed, but happily surprised. The fact it is a happy surprise does not alter the fact it is a surprise. Why does the universe allow us to exist, when it does not require our assistance? Why are we thus privileged? There must be some purpose to allowing us this power."

"Why question thy good fortune, husband?"

"I am ultsi, milady, by habit if not by fact. We are seekers after knowledge, which requires us to be askers of questions, and I'm not explaining myself clearly, so let's approach it from another direction. Have you ever seen a living thing simply exist?"

"Trees. Grass."

"Trees and grass do not simply exist. They're in competition for soil and sunlight and water. All the other trees and blades of grass want these same things, and there's only so much to go around. Where are our competitors?"

"Other gods."

"The niche seems suspiciously empty. One of the rules is populations expand to make full use of resources. Doesn't it seem that with so much energy available, there would be more and more beings clamoring to take it for their own survival? Yet it seems that there's plenty there for all, and there's a disturbing next question."

"I would rather not be disturbed at present, husband, but it does seem that the number of gods is increasing."

I let the next question lie for now. "And our rivals?"

"Kiltig and Klikitit would fit that description."

She had a valid point. Perhaps I came from a place so energy-starved that we'd been forced to learn to make more efficient use - and now suddenly I'd been given access to a place where all the energy you could want was there for the taking, and my competitors simply had less ability to take advantage of that energy? But resource rich environments served as a beacon for organisms from less fecund locales. Aescalon was so energy rich its divinities never learned skills that even the weakest martsi and natsi - ordinary humans with the weakest level of mind power - learned as a matter of course. "Not the same thing, milady. Those are personal animosities. Given the energy rich environment of Aescalon and its fountain of plentiful energy, there should be so many gods clamoring to partake that there is none to spare. I can think of two possible reasons why this is not the case, but I'm unable at the present to test either hypothesis."

"What are those possibilities?"

"First, that the amount of energy has seen a recent increase, although 'recent' in this case is in terms of natural time, and I've insufficient data on the length of divine generations. The second is that there was a population collapse - something caused the number of divinities to drop - and we're still building back up to equilibrium. In either case, resources would seem to be plentiful until the new population increased to fill the niche."

"And how long will it take us to fill this 'niche', husband?"

"Thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands."

"Then does it not seem like thy worry is premature? We shall have plentiful time to solve it."

"A true observation my love, and yet questions of this nature are better answered sooner than late. A full answer would point us to a method of securing needed sustenance for ourselves and our descendants when the resources become strained, and such procurement is much simpler when the resources are easily acquired."

"I have faith in your abilities, milord. In ten thousand years, I have encountered none with so restless a mind."

"But as resources become strained, the quality of competition will necessarily increase as well."

"I thought I asked you not disturb my contented state, milord?"

It wasn't worth the argument at this point. I changed the subject, "How long until you believe yourself ready to give birth, milady?" But that didn't mean I wasn't going to keep pursuing answers. Nor did Petra expect me to - she knew I was ultsi to the core. She just didn't want to be disturbed at the moment. I hadn't even touched upon the most disquieting notion of all: predators. Every ecosystem has predators, and they almost always strike without warning, when they think you're most vulnerable.

Copyright 2020 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The Monad Trap is book 2 of Connected Realms.

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Service points drive rank in the civilian government as well as ability to bid on government contracts.

They are earned in three ways. Members of the Imperial military on active service earn three service points per year, regardless of rank. Certain members of the civil government also earn service points, albeit at lower rates than members of the military.

Successful government contracts - for services or for construction - also earn points. The drawback is that you have to put up points equal to at least five times the value of a successful contract in order to be eligible to win the contract. These points - as well as monetary penalties for failure of execution - can be forfeit in order to fix deficiencies in your performance of the contract. For this reason, people with service points can make a reasonable amount of money renting out those service points to potential contractors seeking government contracts.

Finally, special awards for special circumstances or contributions for deeds of public benefit can also be made by responsible officials.

Points can also be lost for irresponsible, reckless, or damaging behavior, as well as the potential to lose your legal adulthood.

Sufficient numbers of points earn you a grade 'in rank'. In ascending order, these grades are Primus, Secundus, Tertius, Quartius, Quintus, Sixtus, Septimus, and Octus. These grades earn you theoretical eligibility for appointment to actual office at the equivalent grade or lower, save in the case of Octus-in-rank. Octus-in-rank is the only 'in rank' grade with any general authority at all, as it carries not only theoretical eligibility for Octus, Nonus, and Guardian rank, but earning the points for Octus-in-rank carries with it appointment to the Great Council, which is the highest body in the Empire even though the Great Council is too large and unwieldy to be used for anything but the most basic questions of policy (the exact number of members is not general knowledge, but since there are currently at least 6000 Octuses-in-fact and 60 Nonuses, this number is an absolute minimum size for the Great Council).

Earning points for an 'in rank' grade does not mean you have to accept the relevant title. A Quintus-in-rank (or higher) is subject to legal assassination if they have any active appointment, even as a Primus-in-fact. For this reason, most people do not accept promotion to Quintus-in-rank (or higher) even though they may have the service points until it is required by the selecting authority for a prospective appointment. This generally occurs when seeking an appointment as Tertius-in-fact, as a Tertius-in-fact is generally the most senior civil official in ordinary systems of the Empire.

An Octus-in-rank, being a member of the Great Council, always has an active appointment, and is always subject to legal assassination.

'In rank' grades are entitled to wear a small equilateral triangle (two isixths, or just over 2 centimeters on a side) of the appropriate color on civilian or military dress. Primus-in-rank wears blue, Secundus gold, Tertius red, Quartius green, Quintus white, Sixtus purple, Septimus gray, and Octus orange.

An 'in rank' official may apply for 'in fact' grades less than or equal to their 'in rank' designation. Service points are not by any means sufficient qualification for actual appointments - most selecting officials consider education and other executive qualifications and other experience and generally, accumulation of sufficient assets to make good on any potential losses you may cost the government. Appointments to actual 'in fact' Imperial offices almost never take place without at least one successful term of at least ten Imperial years in the military. Nor are appointments typically made to higher offices without at least sixty to a hundred twenty years successfully holding the next lower grade. Despite this, there are generally more than enough fully qualified applicants for offices Sixtus-in-fact and below that the selecting official can be as picky as they want to be. Septimus and Octus-in-fact are generally less applied for, and officials who have been successful at those levels have other options that make as much money for less risk, so competition among successful Septimus and Octus candidates is somewhat less but selecting officials are generally less able to eliminate strong candidates for reasons of personal distaste.

A Primus-in-fact is the sole magistrate and primary economic advocate for a district of approximately 12,960,000 people (60^4). They wear a blue triangle four isixths on a side, with a smaller triangle denoting higher 'in-rank' status embedded within (inverted, vertices to midpoints of the larger triangle). They are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of a Secundus, who is generally responsible for sixty Primuses. Most Primus-in-fact are Tertius- or Quartius-in-rank.

A Secundus-in-fact wears a gold triangle 4 isixths on a side, with higher 'in rank' designation indicated the same way as a Primus. Most ongoing service contracts (law enforcement, investigation, and care for legal children) are awarded at the Secundus level. A Secundus-in-fact is also the primary appeals court for the Primus subordinates. Like a Primus, a Secundus-in-fact serves at the pleasure of their superior Tertius-in-fact, and is expected to be an economic advocate for their area of responsibility.

This pattern continues for higher levels with some differences, especially at the Quintus-in-fact level and higher.

Since there is no 'Nonus-in-rank' or higher, a Nonus is simply a Nonus. Their triangular insignia of rank is brown and always solid since all Nonuses are Octus-in-rank Similarly with the Guardian (the office formerly known as Emperor), whose insignia of rank is black.

The Imperial population has reached two thirteenths (2x60^13, or roughly 260x10^21 people), which is roughly twice the number this system was designed to work with. Most Nonuses are currently overseeing roughly twice the subordinates in the next two echelons down that the system is designed for. Debate is ongoing in The Great Council, with the most favored solution thus far being the addition of a new rank of Decius between Nonus and Guardian, which will allow the Empire to expand by a factor of roughly thirty from its current size before reaching theoretical capacity.


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