Excerpt from The Monad Trap

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The Monad Trap is the follow-up to The Fountains of Aescalon, It opens about a year after the events of The Fountains of Aescalon. Alexan and Petra have become Eternals, the second tier of divine prowess, and Alexan pretends to be an ordinary wizard and noble of the court of King Edvard, whom he assisted to the throne.

******

"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 Fountains of Aescalon is the first of (so far) two novels in a setting that pays homage to Zelazny's Amber and Moorcock's Tanelorn, amongst others. There is a second novel out (The Monad Trap), two others in planning (working titles: The Bubbles of Creation and The Crazy Lady). Alexan is a unique character, essentially a ghost at the beginning of the story, although to tell you who he's the ghost of would be spoiling part of the story.

The blurb:

The first thing Alexan knew was standing over an impossible corpse with an ichor-stained sword.

Exiled from home for reasons of politics and health, he has to orient himself in a new home, but he still has the skills he was 'born' with, skills which make him a wizard in his new homeland. A blasted, sterile cavern has many portals, but the one he chooses leads to the top of a huge tree, the source of magical power for an entire world.

Power is plentiful in Aescalon, but those who have it want to keep it all for themselves, and the arrival of a new wizard upsets the balance. It seems everyone who doesn't attack immediately wants something from him - including a cursed demi-goddess desperate to escape her fate who thinks Alexan may be able to help her.

But Alexan can't even help himself until he unravels the secrets of The Fountains of Aescalon

******


The first thing I remember was a sword in my hand and a corpse in front of me.

The corpse looked human, but wasn't. Judging strictly by outer appearance, it would have passed. Looking inside at the organs and genetic material, a star dragon was more closely related. At least a star dragon came from a three dimensional being. This corpse in front of me was from a different sort of place entirely. The body I was looking at was put together in a place of differing geometry. Fractal iterations within it said that it came from a place where the third spatial dimension wasn't as developed as we're used to.

My sword was real, but felt wrong. It was a standard charged bondsteel blade, a glossy dark gray in color. It should have been sparkling blue and silver, but it wasn't. What had initially appeared to be blood dripping off it was now changing, reverting to its true state - a two toned ugly blue and blackish green - as the glamour faded.

How did I know these things?

Good question. I could not remember anything that had gone before. Not who I was, not what I was, not where I was, where I was from. Nothing. I couldn't remember anything about how my dead opponent had gotten there, how I'd killed it, how or why we'd fought.

Logically, my memories should have been accessible to me through auros, even if I couldn't remember normally. But they refused to come. I tried perception, hoping to read the molecules themselves, only to discover I didn't have any. I wasn't material at all; simply a self-perpetuating energy pattern.

That wasn't right, or at least wasn't the whole story. I thought of myself as human, I identified as human, my mind told me I was a loyal adherent of humanity and the Human Empire. I was, at some level, both human and somehow important within that Empire.

There had to be an explanation that made sense, I just didn't know what it was at the moment. Knowledge filled me - all about the Human Empire, its history, cultures, and technology. I knew an uncountable number of facts about the universe and how it behaved in exhaustive mathematical detail. I had skills and abilities beyond the average human - I'd read the corpse in front of me with perception and compared it to a large number of other biologicals. (the star dragon being a large predator of the interstellar depths and one of the most alien species humanity had encountered). I could even use those skills. I just couldn't have told you who I was - or even what I was.

I wasn't in custody, and was obviously considered a responsible adult, as I was armed not only with the sword, but also several other weapons, weapons that obviously belonged where I was wearing them. Nobody sane lets children or the insane wander about multiply armed. So the first hypothesis was that I had known who I was until the last few minutes at the very most. The second hypothesis was that my late adversary was somehow responsible for my loss of identity.

I couldn't detect any alarms going off, so whatever our combat had been, it had evidently escaped notice somehow. Nor were there any further evident threats, so I put the sword away, in a pocket made by kored. Not that there was anything unusual about being armed in the Empire, but having it drawn would draw attention. To unaided vision, I would appear unarmed. Not that appearances meant much in the Empire.

The excitement of the moment passing, I suddenly realized how weak I was. It was bad. With normal human eyesight, I could see through my visual projection. That was a sign that collapse of the field was imminent. My power levels weren't just low, they were practically empty.

Copyright 2018 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

My Author's Brand

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One thing I should try and make clear to you, the reader, is what my author's brand is about.

First and foremost, I want to entertain you. I will happily give up everything else in order to entertain. If you don't come away from the book with a sense of "That was fun!" and wanting to read the next book, I've failed. I am trying to entertain you, and if I don't do that, you shouldn't give me any more of your money. Since I want you to buy more of my books and tell your friends I'm an entertaining writer, I'm going to try to entertain you. I don't try to have flippant smart-asses tossing off one-liners every three words, but I do try to slide a few in where appropriate.

The 'flavor' of science fiction I'm writing is a blend of Golden Age and modern 'human wave'. People are at the center of what I write. Technology has a place at the table, but humans are in control, not robots or machinery.

Second, I want the characters to think. I want you to come away from the book thinking that everyone did what they did for rational reasons or at least motivations real people have. Nobody in my books is evil because it says so on their character card. The antagonists are pursuing their own best interests as best they see them. Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Similarly, I try really hard to avoid violations of the Evil Overlord's Principles. If it were possible to game the antagonist with a cheap shot, someone would already have done it. I want you to have the feeling that it took some real thought to plot this story - that all the characters all thought and worked for their chosen ends, and that the resolution reflects this.

Third, I want the ending to be something good that the characters have earned. I'm not going to promise that they all live to get there, but all that work and risk should earn them a better place than they started from according to what they value. I'm also not going to promise it's the place they thought they were going in the first place. But if the work and risk wasn't going to earn them a better place, why should they bother? Even if it's just saving other people from a disaster, the characters should get something out of it. The ones who survive and persevere, anyway.

Fourth and finally, I'd like to think that I maybe gave you a little bit of a different way to think about things. I'm not looking to preach at you like a tenured professor, I just want to illustrate that there are different ways of looking at the same issue. I don't think I'm going to change your mind. But maybe - just maybe - I can induce you to have a thoughtful conversation with someone who doesn't agree with you. There's far too little of that these days.

The End of Childhood is the third novel of Politics of Empire, the story of Grace raising her family during the build-up to the war between the Empire and the fractal demons. There will be one more novel in the series, working title Survival, which will be my next primary work-in-progress after I finish Gifts Of The Mother

******


It never begins dramatically.

It started on an ordinary day, when I'd been doing the perfectly ordinary thing of gathering evidence for a hearing. The case I was investigating had to do with the tort of infringement. In this case the plaintiff was alleging the defendant was generating excessive noise and interfering with the plaintiff's enjoyment of their property. Evidently, the defendant had refused negotiation on the subject and so the case was going before the relevant Primus the next day.

Both were out on the fringes of Sumabad, out in the hills, out where the towering arcologies holding tens of millions each petered out, and the residents generally had reasons to need or want ground space. The plaintiff was an academy for self-defense, with classrooms for hand to hand disciplines and ranges for things like disruptors, lasers, flechette guns, and even the occasional firearm. The other was the Grubaro Club, a nightclub catering largely to the Tumar culture which had a large presence in Sumabad and environs. Tumars liked explosions while they were eating and dancing. Tumars thought loud noises were exciting and envigorating. Unfortunately for their neighbors, these explosions and other noises often reached ear-splitting levels, and it was not only disrupting to the peaceful conduct of the instruction at Hills Academy for Preparation and Discipline next door, many of the patrons and instructors were combat veterans. It wasn't my place to judge, but I was pretty sure the Primus was going to mostly rule against the Grubaro Club - they had a responsibility to see that any noise they generated did not disturb their neighbors, and my spak recording was getting readings consistently louder than an original Learjet on high-power takeoff.

Scimtar himself contacted me. Grace, I have a job if you're interested, or rather a series of jobs. Mixed family and imperial. It involves demonic traces, mostly spraxos and nephraim.

I was no longer the barely trained woman who'd been nervous about facing a terostes by herself, but neither was I a Sixth or Seventh Order Guardian. I was mid-range Fourth Order - albeit trained by House Scimtar. Furthermore, if I were observed taking on spraxos, that could be the end of me pretending to still be Second Order. What's it entail?

We're seeing a surge in the number of demonic traces, not only here in Indra System but everywhere in the Empire. The conclusion is obvious.

Trolling for traitors. It was what the fractal demons did. The vast majority of their troops would be easy pickings for Imperials when the inevitable confrontation came. Unless they could get us to turn on each other, the eventual war would be notable mostly for a lopsided casualty count. They'd seduced the old stons without anyone realizing it until the old Empire was already gone, resulting in a civil war that ended up destroying the Empire - and afterwards, almost the entire human species. This time the leaders of the Empire were alert for their tactics.

The assignment?

Match demonic traces to human contacts by Event Line congruency. Investigate the human contacts by behavior. If you happen to destroy demons, we'll pay a bounty - nephraim are worth three fourths, spraxos thirty. Ancillaries too, although manesi and lemuure aren't worth much. What we're looking for is evidence to convict or exonerate treason, and we'll double your normal rate for results.

The money was nice even if Asto and I could live very comfortably off investments if we wanted, but demonic nobles were dangerous - and they had a habit of bringing in help when threatened. Still, I didn't think Scimtar would be offering me the job if he didn't think I was able to handle myself doing it - I'd given the family five children thus far, all of them above average tracking metrics for Seventh Order Guardians their age thanks to yours truly carrying them naturally instead of using artificial gestation. I'd done it for my babies, not for House Scimtar, but I knew Scimtar valued my efforts.

Grandfather is offering you a way into the Guardian's Ears if you're willing, my husband Asto put in his two cents.

I thought the Guardian's Ears didn't accept candidates born outside the Empire?

Maybe not, but it's worth pursuing if you want to win appointment as a Primus yourself someday.

That was a carrot that had my eye. Most Secundus-in-fact had more applicants for Primus-in-fact than they knew what to do with. Even a 'might be' defect like being born on Earth before the Empire arrived could be enough to make them pass you by. Also, I was a di Scimtar, which had advantages but also carried baggage. I wasn't really qualified yet - but I needed something to counter-balance the possible defect I couldn't cure, and it was never too soon to pick up that extra little something that would put me over the top when I was. I already had work in the Merlon's Eyes to my credit. Add something equivalent to the Guardian's Ears and that might be enough.

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

You've had ten years' experience as an investigator now, and we both know you're Fourth Order. Most of our investigators are Second Order, and weaker than average Second Order at that. They might be able to handle a nephraim, but a spraxos would squash them, and if they stumbled across a jopas it would be hopeless.

If there's a basileus?

You've survived two confrontations with them. There isn't another active investigator who can say that anywhere in the Empire.

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

So be careful and don't confront anything you're not certain of. Scimtar never had any sympathy for getting caught by your own mistakes. If there's the possibility of jopas, basileus, or something even stronger, bring it to my attention and I will use an appropriate agent.

When do you need a decision? I asked Scimtar. Who are you trying to fool, love? Asto asked me. I want to talk to the kids about it, I told him.

Tomorrow, I could tell Scimtar wasn't fooled either, fifteen hours from right now. He knew this was an opportunity as well as a risk. You can bet he thought he was doing both of us a favor. He broke contact without further complication.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson

Ilras, quit trying to squirt your sister with ketchup. The inverse square law is on her side.

But mom! I'm just trying to teach her defense! Meanwhile, baby Imtara giggled in delight at frustrating her brother's dastardly plan.

Dear, even if she was asleep, she'd have plenty of time to wake up and divert the stream. She's well past that drill. All you're doing is giving the dogs a mess to clean up.

Ilras didn't realize it, but his sister had ally. Esteban, the oldest at six Imperial years of age (4 Earth), scooped together a good-sized dollop with matris, stealthed it with a buffer of matra and brun, and flung it at his younger brother. I usually expected better behavior from Esteban, but under the circumstances, I let it slide.

Splat! It caught Ilras right on his jawline. No fair! Ilras cried indignantly, then had the awareness to look abashed when I gave him the mental equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. Ilras wasn't ready for the drills Esteban was doing yet, and Esteban had just made use of that fact to slip a counter-attack his brother wasn't ready for under his defenses. Given the impetus of an older brother who wasn't above using his advantages, I suspected Ilras would learn quickly.

Meanwhile, Mischief, our English Cream longhair miniature dachshund, gave a plaintive whine that she'd been deprived of her snack, most of which was now plastered across Ilras' face, and looked expectantly at Esteban for a replacement. Her name really was doubly appropriate; we ended up calling her Miss Chief about half the time. How she knew Esteban was responsible for her deprivation, I don't know, but no replacement was forthcoming. Scarecrow, our chocolate and tan shorthair male, gave a muted but pre-emptory bark informing us he wanted ketchup, too. We were at the table; we studiously ignored them.
I felt a muted thunk as Tina, my assistant, slid us into the control plug of my latest contract, followed a few seconds later by a datalink message of control verified, ready for Vector. I'd chosen Tina for the job because she was my niece and already a fully qualified in-system navigator, but despite my hopes after six years nearly constant exposure to the kids, she hadn't gone operant yet, so I still had to do all the Vectoring. I relieved her, re-computed the Vector for confirmation, performed it, verified position, and (because our next pickup was in this same system) transferred the helm back to her for in-system maneuvering to our next job. It had taken all of six seconds, and I'd still had a couple of para to keep the peace at the dinner table.

Mama, how long until we can play with baby Alden? Ilora wanted to know again.

About three more weeks, honey, I told her. Truth be told, despite all the advantages of being a Guardian, I was ready for my last pregnancy to be over. Next time, I would plan on one child, two at the most. But I really had only myself to blame - I could have just used artificial gestation for Esteban, same as everyone else, and then most of the Empire wouldn't have known about the advantages of operant mothers carrying operant children themselves. I'd introduced Alden to his older siblings on several occasions, but most of the time, kept him swaddled away where only I or Asto could interact with him. Since Asto was a First Corporal, assigned as executive officer of a squadron of Planetary Surface troops out in Ninth Galaxy, that didn't happen as often as any of us liked. The rank was an almost exact match to Brigadier General in the old US Army; a squadron was 14,400 combat troops plus their support staff of roughly another 3600.
Alden, for his part, wanted out into the great wide world. It took two of my para full time to keep him occupied and learning, and he still wasn't satisfied. Can I play with Ilras and Esteban, Mom? It was tempting to just blow off the last three weeks of this pregnancy, knowing any physical defects could be fixed later, but neither I nor Asto was ready to experiment with Alden's emotional development. The Empire had tens of thousands of years of evidence children were more able to deal with the world after a full gestation, even in an artificial womb. Neither of us wanted to experiment more than we'd already done with our own children, carrying them naturally as I'd done.

Dinner was just about over, winding down with chocolate ice cream for everyone, when Asto told me, It's official!

Children, some news. Your father is getting a new assignment. He's going to be a Staff Corporal assigned to maintenance and repair in Indra System! We're going to go live in the Residence, where he can be home every day!

Why is he getting demoted? Esteban wanted to know. Staff Corporal was a four grade drop, although two of them were staff grades, out of the line of command.

Because he's transferring to a space unit. You always transfer from Planetary Surface to Strategic Space or Tactical Space at a lower rank. He'd be expected to absorb an entirely new set of protocols; but a maintenance and repair assignment meant he'd henceforth be eligible for direct transfers or promotions within either of the space-borne branches.

It was a necessary move if he wanted to advance. He could wait until the sergeant grades if he wanted to, but above that, slots in Planetary Surface Forces were few and rare. The higher you went the harder it was to transfer and the bigger a demotion you'd probably have to take. All the important commands went to Tactical or Strategic Space Officers, because they all involved spaceborne warfare. Planetary Surface troops were important, but battles and wars were won in space. The Empire really didn't like to destroy habitable planets or even functioning bases, but they'd do it if they had to. Nobody talked about it much, but when even a one-man fighter could blow apart an unshielded planet, there weren't any defenses that could hold off a determined assault. Imperial planets were shielded against accidental or inadvertent destruction, or perhaps against small groups of madmen, not an intentional fleet action. Asto needed to move over to a Space assignment to continue his advancement, so taking the demotion was something that we'd known about for a while. But Asto was sharp; he probably wouldn't lose more than five of the much shorter Imperial years regaining his former rank. And by taking this particular assignment, he enabled us to be together as a real family. At least for a little while, and with the kids being young, that made it even more worth the cost.

So what are you going to do, Mom? Esteban wanted to know. He'd figured out the concept of consequences - when you drop a rock in a pond, the ripples always spread. And Aunt Tina? What's she going to do?

Copyright 2018 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Politics of Empire is a second series featuring Graciela Juarez di Scimtar, one designed so that you don't need to have read the Rediscovery series to understand what's going on. Grace has realized Earth is no longer her home, and has moved out into the Empire, mostly based on Indra with her husband's family. But her in-laws are among the Empire's most prominent families, and while the rivalries between the Great Families are nowhere near as deadly as they were in previous days, there is still real danger from other Great Families and their vassals.

The Politics Of Empire series takes place largely at the same time as the Preparations For War series, but while Joe and Asina are ordinary citizens of the Empire doing something extraordinary, the Scimtars are among the Empire's movers and shakers. Inasmuch as simultaneity can mean anything in an Empire stretched across nearly a hundred Instances running at different time rates and about eighty galaxies in the Imperial Home Instance, the events of The Invention of Motherhood (First of Politics of Empire) take place a little after most of Building The People (Second of Preparations for War). As the series opens, Grace's contract with the Imperial military and the Merlon's Eyes is expiring.

The blurb for The Invention Of Motherhood:

Pregnancy is dangerous in the Empire

For thousands of years, Imperial women have used artificial gestation. But Grace was born on barbarian, pre-contact Earth. She can't call herself a mother without doing it the hard way at least once.

Grace has married into one of the most important families in the Empire - and Imperial politics are deadly at the top.

Despite the risks, she discovers that there are advantages, both to herself and to her unborn baby.

The Empire will never be quite the same again.

******

Grace I would like to ask you about extending.

The telepathic message was not unexpected. I had twelve days - three Imperial weeks - to go in my twenty year commitment to the Imperial military. In our capacity as Merlon's Eyes, Asto and I had been all over the Empire in that time, from the thinly human Thirtyfifth Galaxy where the aliens were barely more advanced than the Earth where I'd been born, to the Second and Fourth Galaxies, where humans had a more substantial presence for much longer, and the alien species inhabiting them were therefore technologically competitive with the Empire.

I was, and had been, for several years, a Staff Private. The Eyes recruited closely bonded husband and wife operant teams (or the equivalent), valuing the rapport that made such teams work more like two fingers of the same hand. But Merlon's Eyes still had to work within their roles in the Imperial military. An Eye who was a Section Private was a Section Leader with additional duties, as I had been for three years prior to making Staff Private. I would have made Platoon Private by now, except that I was getting close to timing out of the military. Officers selecting for promotion wanted someone with more time left on their contract than I did.

My husband Asto had just made Staff Corporal, three grades above me, but his commitment was not expiring. Asto had agreed to a sixty year commitment when he signed up. I'd initially agreed to ten, extending ten more to justify our selection as Eyes, but that was it. I wasn't making a big deal about my - our - plans, but I'd done my share of pulling the wagon for a while. I wanted to start our family, so I was letting my contract expire.

Which was what First Corporal Whelsed wanted to talk to me about. But that didn't mean I wanted to talk to her about it. I have other plans. In fact, I've already made promises. I'm here for another twelve days, then I'm going home for a visit. Twenty Imperial years was the same duration as fourteen Earth years, but time on Earth ran about four times faster than the Imperial Home Instance. It had been nearly sixty years on Earth since my last visit.

Earth wasn't really home any longer, but it was where I was from. I might not even recognize it any more. Fifty years before I was born, Riverside had been mostly citrus groves. The advent of the Empire was certainly no less of a change than the urbanization of California after World War II.

So go home for a visit, but give me a contract to extend first. We'll write leave of whatever duration you want into the new contract.

That's not the only plan I have, sir. Technical ang was unisex, but English "sir" captured the connotations better than other alternatives. Whelsed was in my direct chain of command - operations deputy for the squadron I was attached to. Roughly the equivalent of a one-star general in the disbanded US Army.

So what are your plans?

With respect, sir, none of your business and you know it. I agreed to twenty years. In twelve days, I will have met that commitment and what I do then is my own business.

Someone wants to select you for Platoon Private but with twelve days left, it's pointless.

People have been declining to select me for Platoon Private for about three years, sir. I've been aware of it the whole time. If I wanted to be a Platoon Private bad enough to extend, I'd have already done it.

The Eyes are stretched too thin. They don't want to lose one of their better pairs.

I've already extended once for the Eyes, because my husband wanted us to be Eyes. Now it's time for what I want, which is out. For at least sixty years.

By which time your husband will be too senior for the Eyes. Asto was something pretty special, even among Guardians. He would be well into the sergeant grades before I considered rejoining the military. Commanders of forty-odd thousand troops or more really couldn't take off for Eyes work. The Empire's command structure was too steep to allow it. In the Planetary Surface troops, any rank other than staff grades went with a specific command assignment. Asto might transfer to Tactical Space or Strategic Space command, but the situation there was no different. You might technically be an Eye forever, but above Company Corporal, only staff grades got actual Eye assignments.

As I said, sir, the Eyes got their pound of flesh.

What?

Sorry, local Earth idiom. I honored my contract, even though I wanted something else. Now are you going to waste my last twelve days trying to persuade me to do something I'm not going to do, do you have an assignment for us, or do I go back to scheduling personnel shuttles?

We have an assignment. It might take more than twelve days.

Then you'd better get them to assign someone else. Because you know as well as I do what happens if you try to hold me over involuntarily. The Imperial military knew full well people took time out between military tours, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of Imperial years. They didn't want to give people an incentive not to come back by holding them past their contract expiration. Officers at grades where they commanded multiple systems could be involuntarily extended, but that pointedly didn't include me, Asto, or even Whelsed. The lowest grade subject to that was thirty-odd promotions away.

They're having trouble finding someone else.

If you assign us the mission, I'll do my best for twelve days. Not thirteen. And that assumes you have transport standing by. I'm even willing to pilot my own way back, if I can leave the ship there. We'd formally enlisted at Fulda Base on Indra. The rule was the military was responsible for returning us there for separation by the time the contract expired.

Grace, work with me here!

I am working with you. I've been working with you these last twenty years. I've honored every last bit of my contract, but you're assuming you're entitled to more of my life than I've contracted to give you. You're not. I might point out that I'm entitled to nearly two prime days of leave I haven't taken. That was 120 days - half an Imperial year - that I hadn't taken because Asto and I had been so much in demand as Eyes. The Empire didn't really do terminal leave like Earth's bureaucracies, where people used untaken leave to take their last several months off. I'd be paid for it on separation, but they had a contractual right to my services up until the moment my contract expired. It's just that most people did get at least a few days because there wasn't an assignment to fit the time remaining. You are entitled to my best efforts until the end of the Imperial day on one-fortyfour. Not one moment longer, and the fact that I have one-fiftyeight (118 in base 10) days of leave accrued and untaken is evidence I've been more than willing to do my part under the contract. Total leave for twenty years was 240 days; I still had almost half of it.

I can't change your mind?

No, you can't, Corporal Whelsed. Tell whomever tasked you with trying that I've been looking forward to this day since the moment I agreed to be an Eye. I've done what I agreed, or at least in twelve days I will have done it. I need to be doing something else after.

Well, I can't force you, so how long do you think you'll need with the shuttle schedule?

I'll be done with it tomorrow, sir. Truth be told I'm mostly fiddling at the edges, anyway. Division will need to make more changes in reaction to events than I will to be happy with it in the theoretical state.

Alright, Grace, we'll be damned sorry to lose you, but you're right. You have shuttle runs on the current schedule through one-thirtynine; I'll cut orders sending you to Indra on one-forty. The commander's staff at Fulda base might have something for me to do the last four days, or they might let me go early. Make that probably would; their shuttle schedule would be as settled as ours was, and it was unlikely they'd find other work for only four days.

Thank you sir!

Thank you, Grace. Whelsed wasn't really a friend, but I was pretty certain she liked me. And good luck.


Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Gifts of The Mother will be the follow-up to The Gates to Faerie.

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

******

Zeb's companion was unearthly beautiful.

No, he hadn't already found the woman of his dreams. He'd brought along his mentor, a Star Elven woman named Mistyreali. She had long silver hair down to mid-back, curled just enough to notice, flawless alabaster-colored skin, and a build to inspire anyone who was into the thin athletic type. Or even those who weren't. She was six foot six or six foot eight, lean and hard like a long-distance runner. Even her pointed ears and deep violet elongated eyes added to the appeal. Her tunic and trousers of some light gray colored material hung like it was personally tailored to cling to her form like a wet t-shirt might have, but it didn't seem to have problems with stretching as necessary. For some reason she just didn't appeal to me, a thing I was starting to wonder about, but I could see the effect she'd have on most men. The legendary goddesses Artemis or Aphrodite couldn't have done much better. Heck, Zeb himself kept sneaking glances at her as if she hadn't noticed. I could tell she knew she was attractive, intentionally so, and likely even willing to act on the lust she so clearly inspired, but she acted like it just wasn't important right now.

"Zeb, would you like to introduce us to your companion?"

"Oh, pardon! This here's Mistyreali, one o' m' mentors. She's a Star Elf, if'n yas hadn' already figgered 't out.. Mistyreali, this 's Mark Jackson 'n' 's wife Julie."

I noticed Zeb had carefully pronounced her entire name, so I followed suit, "Pleased to meet you Mistyreali. What brings you here this fine evening?"

"My people have services to sell, and we've been told both of your efforts in ending the abuse of The Mother's ritual and that you have some prowess in the form of sales."

I did not say, "I'm all ears" even though it went through my mind. "I shall endeavor to be worthy of your time and trust. What is the nature of your services?"

"We can control the weather to a large extent. We've discovered that your people's farmers might be willing to pay for such services."

Holy shit if that wasn't a minefield! I looked at Julie. I could see she was just as pole-axed as I felt. "Please, I need to talk with my husband for a moment," she said, gesturing to the furniture, "Make yourselves comfortable. If you think it might help, we have a couple of stools in the kitchen that might be easier or more comfortable for someone of your stature, Mistyreali."

"Such a stool would be welcome."

I fetched one of our tall barstools from out of the kitchen, set it next to the couch, and retreated with my wife to the master bedroom.

"Don't do this," she advised, soon as the door was closed, "Even if you somehow get people to believe it and it works, it's an invitation for everyone else to sue for ruining their weather."

"The reason I love women with brains is they stop you from making stupid mistakes, even if you miss the obvious pit gaping in front of you."

"Good that you figured it out, too. The reason I love men with brains is they don't fight the obvious."
"Allow me to let them down gently?"

"That will allow you to accept them as clients for something else, so it's only good sense." She opened the door, I gestured for her to precede me.

Moving The Pieces is the fourth and final novel of Preparations for War. The Calmenan Advancement Mission has enabled the natives to largely throw off their fractal demon overlords, and live in city-states which ally with each other for common protection. Technology is mostly mid-twentieth century, but time has run out - the fractal demons have mobilized to attack the Empire of Humanity, and the seven Gates mean Calmena is a strategic stop on their route.

*******


The jungle in this part of Karnel Peninsula was two levels of canopy. I found myself in a densely shaded area between tree trunks, but smaller vegetation was more sparse than you'd probably expect. The level of light was about equal to having thick curtains over your windows in the middle of the day. It was light enough to know the sun was out, but less than if you'd turned on an ordinary room light, and it was all filtered through vegetation that was slightly yellower than Earth's. Tree leaves overhead, vines, and bugs. Anything bigger had learned to flee humans and demons or gone extinct. Bushes were rare on the jungle floor; the trees blocked too much of the light. It was almost silent; there were no bird analogs on Calmena.

After shrugging out of my parachute, the first order of business was finding Makis, so I headed northwest. He didn't take long to find, although his parachute had caught a tree branch and he was hanging about ten paces up - high enough that just cutting himself loose would result in major injury if not death. He'd started rocking to swing himself back and forth, trying to bring a tree within his grasp. He'd been lucky his parachute hadn't ripped and that the branch he'd caught on poked out far enough so he hadn't been thrown into the tree trunk on impact.

"Makis!"

"Be down in a minute, boss!"

"Not intact you won't. That trunk is too big to get your arms around and if your parachute rips, you'll fall the whole distance. Wait a minute and let me think about this."

He stopped pumping the swinging motion he'd built up, "Don't take too long, boss. The parachute's going to rip sometime."

He was right. My options were limited: I could climb the tree somehow - or make it appear I had by going up the far side and using matris. He knew I was what Calmenans called agaani - gifted - and the local operants were reasonably proficient with that part of matris, but once again he'd expect it to exhaust me. I could tell him to cut himself loose and 'catch' him enough to break his fall. Or I could do what I did.

It was a dirty trick. I ripped his chute myself using matris, but limited how fast I allowed him to fall by pulling upwards on the cords - exactly as if the parachute itself was only ripping slowly. "Ahhhh!..." his panicked cry rang out through the jungle, while the fabric-ripping noise of the parachute was barely audible under it. But it brought him down at a controllable speed into the trunk of the tree and then scraping against the rough bark the rest of the way down, and it didn't require me to pretend to be exhausted because he had no way of knowing I'd used matris.

He ended up sitting in the mud at the base of the tree, parachute cords taut above him to where the remains of the 'chute were still hanging above. His clothes were ripped, he was scraped and bloody and probably had enough splinters to make a good-sized sapling, but he was essentially intact. "You done thinking about it, boss?"

"Yes," I said, deadpan. "Let's get you cleaned up and get out of here. Not necessarily in that order."

He stood up, wobbly, visibly surprised his legs held his weight. "Guess I got lucky." He wriggled out of the harness.

"That you did. You able to walk? The demons behind us aren't going to waste any time."

"You know how to motivate a man. What about the others?"

"If they can't stay ahead of the demons, the two of us aren't going to make a difference." The reality of the war between human and demon on Calmena was harsh, but irrefutable. There was no sense adding a couple more people to the demons' pantry. "Asina knows where we are. If we can get to the road, she'll have a vehicle for us as soon as it can get here." At that point we might be able to run away if we encountered a cohort of manesi, and it wouldn't be suicidal to go back.

"Boss, how did you get out of the plane?"

Setting The Board is third of the four book series. The Calmenan Advancement Mission has enabled the natives to largely throw off their fractal demon overlords, and live in city-states which ally with each other for common protection. Technology is mostly late nineteenth century, edging into the early twentieth.

*******


We were pleasantly full when we took the Portal to Tabbraz, which was a good thing. Food on Hashiboor Continent wasn't a sure thing yet. We had a few bars of Life in our small packs in case it became an issue on the voyage to Yalskarr. Between the safe house in Tabbraz and our new station, we'd be the same as any other passengers on board whatever ship we chose.

The blue sky seemed a little more purple than Earth, and the sunlight streamed a little more orange. It was about forty degrees Celsius, and saturation level humidity. The waterfront stank of excrement and various chemicals. All in all, mid-afternoon on a nice summer day in Tabbraz. Sailing vessels and steamers crowded the docks - it was part of our mission this time to advance the technology to marine diesels. We found a shipping agent to inquire about vessels heading to Yalskarr; the custom was two coppers to the clerks for leads. Ships for their part would register with all the agents because it brought them both cargo and passengers. Everybody came out ahead.

Our first lead was a three-master that would have been recognizable to those who sailed the clipper ships of the 19th century on Earth. The tall masts would be full of sails under weigh, and the hull was designed to cut through the water, outspeeding any steamer. There was something about a sailing vessel catching the wind that spoke to the poet in all of us. This pseudo-clipper and its kind were doomed, but while they lasted they were among the most beautiful of any oceangoing vessels ever made. "Who do I speak to about passage?" Asina inquired of one of the sailors grooming its sides.

"The Captain," he pointed us to a weather beaten man in late middle age - probably early forties, Earth reckoning. This was a working vessel - the Captain was known to his crew. Beautiful uniforms were for passenger liners and the military. His garb was the adapted cotton we'd had engineered to pass for a native plant on Calmena, new and scarce enough that it was the sign of someone prosperous enough to afford it. Nonetheless, his clothes had seen as much hard use as his body. Officers on a working commercial vessel were not gentleman overseers.

"My husband and I would like passage to Yalskarr, Captain."

"Passenger or working?" he asked.

"No objections to working passage," I replied, "I've several years at Windhome Bay as a builder, and my wife as well." I gestured to her clothes. The three small huts we'd built so long ago were now the greatest shipyards on the planet, and those willing to work were well paid for their exertions. The revolution we were going to unleash at Yalskarr would change shipbuilding, but Windhome Bay would still be one of the biggest builders on the planet.

"You're what - Five eights? Five eights and four?" The captain was expressing skepticism in the form of telling me we weren't old enough. The younger age was about sixteen Earth years.

"We're agaani. I'm sixty-four, eight, and three," Asina replied. The operants of Calmena weren't up the standards of Guardians, but they'd been making progress in learning how to handle not only aging, but the wear and tear of hard environments and brutal work. "But we can pay if you need passage money more than crew." She batted her blue eyes at the Captain. It wouldn't go anywhere, but it was still a useful negotiating trick. She turned heads on Earth, where anyone could look young and attractive.

"Three gold each for passage."

"My husband said we worked at Windhome Bay, not that we owned the Yards. Two for the pair of us."

"Two and four each."

"You going to feed us like the Lords of Yarvahs, and give us a palatial cabin? We were looking for common passage. Two and four for the pair of us, and we eat with the crew."

"Two each. You'll displace cargo I can charge for."

Both of us laughed at that, "Not on any ship I've ever seen. You lash it down, and crew and common passengers find sleeping places around it. Two and four, and we eat with the crew."

"Three for the pair. If you're agaani, you'll eat like four crew each."

It was a fact that operants ate more than natural state humans - energy is never free. "With the slop you feed your crew, we'll get worms. Two and six, if your crew can vouch that the food isn't infested. You'll still profit like a water merchant at the Crossroads."

"Agreed. Two and six. Welcome to the Shimarr. We sail at first light."

It was a lot for what shouldn't be any more than a three day passage, but the fleet sailing vessels like Shimarr would be two days faster than the steamships. At this latitude, the prevailing winds blew out of the southeast. Shimarr should be sailing within a few (Earth) degrees of straight downwind to Yalskarr, and we wouldn't have to worry about food for the voyage. If what he fed the crew was too bad, we could eat Life if we had to. Asina checked in with Tellea, We have passage on a vessel named the Shimarr, out of Yalskarr. She's a fast sailer, should be there in three days. I checked in with Staff Private O'Hare, who Sephia had assigned as our contact, with the same message.

Then, we waited. There wasn't much else we could do. We could have wandered around Tabbraz - as Guardians, we'd have been safe enough from the locals, but trouble might have caused us to miss our ship. At least we didn't have a need to go into the city to buy food for our voyage - we were eating with the crew. We found an area between crates in the hold, spread our sleeping mat, and curled up together, Asina a pleasant warmth on my left side as well as a welcoming presence in my mind.


Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The forges of N'yeschlass began their beat at dawn, every day without fail. Things had changed since we began.

The town had never been officially named. The name had grown from the unofficial motto of what my wife and I and the original group of refugees cowering in the jungle had begun not quite twenty Imperial years ago. The demonic tongue of Calmena had no word for freedom. N'yeschlass translated literally as "no slaves." It was a promise to all - come to us and be free. It didn't appeal to everyone, as it included freedom to fail and freedom to starve, but those were simply the terms of life everywhere on Calmena. In the portions run by the fractal demons, slaves were eaten when they began to show signs of aging. Where the pseudo-feudal human agaani held sway, grinding poverty and recurrent famines were almost as brutal. Only in N'yeschlass and its confederated territory was there a significant chance of a human being alive on what an Earther like me would consider their fiftieth birthday.

I still worked my smithy a couple hours per day. It had seen upgrades since the day we'd built it - it was probably the equal of a mid-19th century forge on Earth now. But these days, the metal was mined out of the Collision Range and I didn't have to pretend to cart it in while pulling most of it out of a converter. We still had the secret room with all the technological conveniences underneath our forge, but these days I bought all of the metal I used. I might create the gold and silver I used to buy it out of the converter, but the metal I actually worked was honestly mined by miners who were part of our new nation. N'yeschlass the nation held better than a third of Wimarglr, the North America sized continent we'd called Continent One when we discovered Calmena, including most of the Collision Range.

There were probably twentyfive square people in N'yeschlass the city these days. After better than twenty years of thinking alternatively in demonic and Imperial systems, the former for everyday interactions with Calmenans and the latter for reports and planning to our Imperial sponsors, the decimal system and all the other standards of measurement I'd grown up with on Earth was almost alien to me now. 90,000 was a fair number of people for a city to have with this level of technology, and N'yeschlass the nation probably had four or five cities that were bigger now. N'yeschlass the city was the gateway to the mining regions in the Collision Range, a name that had stuck when I'd used it inadvertently in conversation with a Calmena native. "Collision" didn't mean anything in demonic; they just thought it was a good name. Probably half the place names on Earth came from circumstances not too different.

N'yeschlass the city had a very European feel to it. I don't mean the architecture was similar, it wasn't. That looked like nothing in my experience. By any reasonable definition, construction here was mostly wooden squalor. But the streets had grown organically rather than planned. Asina and I still owned a good bit of land, but these days most of it was in use. I spent more time managing others than working metal myself. The city was where more metal was smelted than anywhere else on Calmena. Iron, nickel, copper, tin, lead and even small amounts of aluminum and others. N'yeschlass' metallurgy was probably late eighteenth century equivalent on average. Not bad. Asina and I owned a good bit of the production, and had shown everyone else how to do it.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

 



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