Look! Imtara pointed the rest of us back to the feed. Waterfront Blue arcology was starting to fall, slowly. Cutter bombs in the foundation, just like Blue Gold. That was decades before she was born, but a disaster that killed more than sixty to the fourth power who were almost all civilians didn't get forgotten even in an Empire with several times sixty to the thirteenth inhabitants.

I thought arcologies were supposed to move their gravity generators after that? Esteban asked.

They did, his grandmother replied, But they must have been separately destroyed.

Should we move? Imtara wanted to know.

No. All of us can teleport if it becomes necessary. We're still safer here than we would be at ground level. It would have been difficult for any of us to resist Anara taking charge; not only was she Asto's mother, she had over a square of experience as an Octus-in-fact as well as a Quadrant General, including fighting through the Restoration. I was the oldest of our little family at prime thirty-eight; I had a total of twenty years in the military, peaking at the exalted rank of Staff Private. Even Asto with thirtyseven years of service was only a First Corporal. She had a point, too. The nearly ten ithirds of potential above the surface we had here would give us a lot of options if we needed to teleport.

Asto's splinter was scoping out the corridor outside. Clear for the moment.

The feed for Waterfront Blue showed it more than half impacted. It was tilting out towards the Straits, which was good because it meant it wouldn't hit any of the other arcologies on the way down. None of us had any idea how many people were trapped inside; we hoped it was low but I couldn't see it being much under a fourth. That many human casualties meant that it would be hard to classify this battle as a victory no matter how many demons we killed.

Check the estimated casualty counts, Mom. The bottom range is twelve fourths for the demons.

Twelve fourths of manesi, terostes, and lemuure! 'Shake and bake' expendables! The people killed were mostly older than me, and each represented thirty years or more of training, thirty times that of expected economic output! They won't be doing that! Nor will they be having children or training replacements! Not to mention the investment lost, not just in Waterfront Blue, but all the rest of Sumabad!

I thought the body count...

There's an old maxim, Anara interjected, trainees talk tactics, grunts talk strategy, veterans discuss logistics. Wars are won by the side that can pay for them, young man!

Embarrassed, Ilras shut up. Asto's splinter took up his mother's line of instruction, Your grandmother uses 'pay' in the broadest possible sense. There's a reason defense may win battles, but it never wins wars. If they're being fought on your territory, it's your production and your people doing the paying and the dying! We just 'paid' with a fourth of expensive bodies that they 'bought' with twelve fourths of cheap ones! That doesn't consider the cost of the equipment - at least ten sixths! The big arcologies far outmassed - and out-cost - even the biggest military starships. We have to take the war to the demons in order to win. In order to do that, we had to know where they were and where to hit them to make it hurt them instead of us. The Empire has spent the last forty years or more learning precisely those things. He didn't need to mention there was no protecting the rear areas in this war; that was obvious. Both the Empire and the demons had the ability to strike anywhere they thought advantageous.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpt from The Price Of Power

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Speaking of the dogs, Children, it's time for a treat. We're going to the park for an hour. Save your lessons; you can come back to them later. Tina helped by carrying Imtara; the baby could walk but her legs were still too short to keep up. The real point of the exercise was a treat for Mischief and Scarecrow; excursions out of the pilot module had been rare. When you're trying to hide from rival houses, you don't give them easy ways to find you. But here in the Residence our defensive strategy was different, which allowed for family excursions as long as I didn't allow them to become predictable. The two dachshunds followed us out, unsure of what was happening but secure in the fact they belonged with their people.

Everyone remember what Case Blue means?

Yes, mama! they chorused, obey now, explanation later. Children from the Great Families learned early about the dangers to them. Outings had been rare when we were aboard the ship, but even Imperial ships had life-threatening events.

Enroute, I used my datalink to purchase access to the park for all of us and Asto for an Imperial year. It didn't take long to get there; into one portal and out another, a short walk of maybe a minute from the destination portal brought us into a park within the arcology. The ecology of the park might be described as temperate mountain meadow - if you used an Indran definition of temperate. It was a warmer planet than Earth on average, so the park was kept somewhere in the eighties, Fahrenheit scale. Humidity was higher than an Earth native like me preferred as well. Perhaps half of it might have been yellow-green grasses, well-manicured in the same manner as Earthly lawns of my youth. Small clumps of three or four trees each broke up the expanse, the grasses becoming sparse to non-existent within a pace or two of each trunk. Most common was a shortish, gnarled variety no more than two to three times human height with vaguely circular leaves. The entire park was indoors and fenced; it had been seeded with small wildlife that put me in mind of rabbits and squirrels and ducks.

There were other dogs in the park, of course. Earth Dogs' second outlet had been opened in Indra System, over on Habitat One, and of course we'd had dogs in the Residence before that. There were about thirty dogs in the park including a couple other dachshunds; Imperial housing arrangements favored smaller breeds and dachshunds had been one of the first breeds I'd started working with. I didn't follow the business closely but I was pretty certain dachshunds and cocker spaniels were still the two most popular breeds. Mischief was in her 'Miss Chief' mode; she wanted to establish dominance but I kept her firmly in check as she sniffed the other dogs. Scarecrow was lower key about it; he wasn't the top dog and he knew it so he was happy to play with a little black cocker and a yellow chihuahua that greeted him.

The kids infested an unused hadul emplacement. Hadul was the closest thing the Empire had to a mass spectator sport - a configurable three dimensional volume, perhaps a little smaller than a football field in terms of footprint but three dimensional up to an altitude of about half the length. At varying altitudes, plates and cubes and spheres (among other shapes) were placed within, and gravity within was variable from one standard imperial gravity (slightly stronger than Earth's) to minus one. Neither I nor Asto were fans. All I really knew was that it was a simulated wargame, and the salient features were that the playing field wasn't fixed from contest to contest and there was a budget in terms of total player time on the field. But it was a great place for the kids to play and explore and meet the other children who were here. I judged the oldest three to be completely safe in terms of not hurting themselves (and I could heal them if they did), and even baby Imtara was really in no danger - she understood how to save herself with matris, same as she'd used it to save herself from Ilras flinging ketchup at her. Still, I needed to keep them under observation. The Scimtars were wealthy and important. Kids were safe from the other major families but there was always a chance someone had a grudge or thought they saw an opportunity for profit. Besides, it was fun to observe them playing the games kids play while exploring new territory. There were forty or so kids playing in the hadul volume and it seemed to me that close to half were operant. A higher ratio than most of the Empire, but not unexpected close to the Residence, where many of Scimtar's assistants and subordinates were themselves strongly operant.

I told the dogs stay where you can see me, and they reluctantly complied. Mischief pretended it was her own idea, sauntering over in all her imperious dignity. Scarecrow, reluctant at first, broke off from his two playmates of the moment to slink slowly in our direction. It reminded me of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, until the cocker and chihuahua decided to bring the game over to Scarecrow, where they were joined by a couple other dogs. Our chocolate and tan wiener dog perked right up as the game re-joined him, and then Mischief decided to join in, also. We were keeping them young, essentially fully grown puppies that hadn't settled into adulthood yet.

Some of the kids had evidently looked up the rules for hadul; the majority of the children present joined into a more organized activity. Esteban may have been only six, but he was a holy terror - he'd had as much physical and Guardian training as I could give him in the pilot module, and that would expand now that we had access to the Residence. I expected Scimtar himself would be tutoring the kids as well in all the major forms of survival through violence. For right now, though, Esteban was organizing the other kids into something like a hadul game in progress. Hand-to-hand combat was built into hadul, any touch by another player had a sliding scale of consequences in the actual game. Nor were there allowances for what's euphemistically called 'friendly fire'; it was a simulated war game. Even though the gravity field wasn't on, that didn't stop the kids from behaving as if it were. They swarmed over the field in a mobile clump that moved with the main action. It seemed Esteban was the primary ringleader, but Ilora and Ilras were in it, too. The dogs followed the action on the ground, barking as if to say, "We want to play, too!"

It was oddly restful watching them. Imtara needed her own supervision, but the other three reliably could keep themselves from getting hurt if they fell, so except for baby Alden's interface to the world, I could relax and let them play. Tina was watching, too, although she wouldn't be able to do anything but yell for me if something happened. It was restful watching the four of them do the same thing that didn't require constant "Mom!"

And then it was shattered.

Grace, get the kids back to the Residence! Etonas may be dead!

Copyright 2018 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Most of the others followed suit pretty quickly. In a few minutes, I was left alone with Anara and Helene. "I have a performance in an hour and a half," Helene said to Anara, "Make sure she knows what she's letting herself in for."

"I will, mother." Anara said, and Helene strode out, saying, "Welcome back, Grace. We'll do more catching up over dinner, but make certain to listen closely to what Anara has to say."

"Well, mother, I'm all ears," I told her. She wasn't my mother, but she was a wonderful mother-in-law, and we had a great relationship. Plus she had been one of my legal parents when I came to the Empire, which was how I'd met Asto. Mother was a title she'd earned, and I was happy to grant her.

"Before I start, I want you to know that I think you can do this, and that I will support whatever decision you make. I just want to make certain you understand what you're getting into. Operant babies are difficult at best to control in the womb. Strongly operant babies take that to an entirely different level."

"Mother, Asto and I read everything on the subject that's publicly available." To her credit, she at least credited me with the elementary sense to do it anonymously. "I understand that they start to have a perceptible mind around the twentyfive day mark. And I understand that the minds of children are pure 'I want!' It's my job to educate and civilize them. I may have been the youngest of five, but I helped with all of my nephews and nieces from the time when they were born."

"Are you aware that with artificial gestation, you're a lot less vulnerable to what they might do? You know children kick. Operant babies do a lot more than that. Furthermore, with artificial gestation, they don't have to be monitored every second of every day until they're ready to be born, and other people can give you assistance. If you're doing it natural style, that assistance becomes harder, because they've got to be inside your defenses to help."

"That's in accordance with my understanding."

"Now, imagine your child has a mind as strong as Asto. Can you keep them under control?"

"As strong as Asto, but untrained. Unfocused. Also, I'll be having a rapport with him that lasts until he's born. I'll feel what he does, but he will also feel what I do. By the time he's able to focus, he'll also be awake enough to be aware of the consequences." Guardian minds began developing in the womb, if you let them. By the time they were born, they would be as mature as any twelve year old Earth human, and more so than some alleged adults.

"Finally, imagine what happens if your son starts manifesting the full range of his abilities. Our family masquerade is exposed, with all of the consequences." Since Iaren had been born, Scimtar's descendants had been pretending to be Fifth Order, rather than Seventh. It insulated them from the worst of the strife of the inter-family rivalries. Let the other Great Houses vent upon one another. By pretending to be less than they were, Scimtar's heirs were exempted from the worst of it.

"I understand, mother. My plans were to do some commercial piloting while I was pregnant, but I can restrict myself to the Residence if I have to. You all taught me that I am in control of my body, but I realize I have no right to endanger the rest of you."

"Just be clear on the dangers, Grace. You'll be more of a target, also, once news of your pregnancy spreads, and we'd all be upset to lose you." I wasn't important as a Second Order Guardian. Even as Asto's wife, my value was mostly theoretical, and Scimtar had made the costs of striking at his family quite clear in the past. Rival families had bigger fish to fry. But give them a Fifth Order Scimtar in infancy with only Second Order defenses, and that might strike someone as a risk worth taking. Especially if anyone knew the younger Scimtars were Seventh Order, not Fifth.

"I understand the risk that concerns the family," I told her. We both knew that the real risk was that my Second Order abilities might not muffle the power of a Seventh Order Guardian's naked ego well enough, and it would be discovered that the family was Seventh Order. "I'm going to make a visit to Earth, but after that, I can confine myself to the Residence if you think it would be wise. Or I can build a new graycode and buy a new pilot module, and move freight anonymously. Actually, I think that would be even safer. The other Great Families can look into the Residence if they try hard enough, and they know exactly where it is and what it contains. Out there, I'd be just another pilot Vectoring stuff from system to system, and there would be nobody else with us to see what was going on."

"If you're sure that you want to do this, Grace, I'm on your side. It's just that Helene uses artificial gestation, and Corella did, too." Helene and Corella were the other female spouses with children. "For that matter, so did Anana and I." Anana I knew about, Anara I suspected, but their time was ungodly valuable, both economically speaking and politically. I made a fair chunk piloting, but nothing in their league.

"I'm sure. My sisters did it this way, as did my parents. We both know how hard pregnancy is on natural state mothers. If they can do that, I can get through this, especially as I'm a Guardian."

"You have considerations they don't know about. The other Great Families have no reason to come after them."

I clamped down hard on my frustration. Asto was amused. I knew Mother wanted the best for me and her grandchildren, but we'd been over that. "Agreed, Mother. Do you think we'll be safer from discovery in the Residence or in an anonymous pilot module nobody has any reason to suspect hides anything unusual?"

"Put a gestation chamber in your ship, just in case," she said, "And don't be too proud to change your mind if something happens." She'd picked up on my frustration despite my attempt to hide it.

"Good idea, mother!" I said, pretending I hadn't already had it. She really was concerned. And I wouldn't be afraid to change my mind if something happened to demonstrate a need. I wasn't suicidal.

"I'm sorry if I seem overprotective," she said, "You're young and haven't been involved in politics, but being pregnant with one of us puts you squarely into it. Be careful, Grace, for yourself and for the rest of us."

"I know, Mother. I'm sorry if I seem snippy. I promise you I'm not letting my hormones get out of balance. It's just that I spent twenty years thinking about how to make this work." I guess I really was cheating - no morning sickness, no mood swings, no swollen ankles, or any of the myriad other legitimate complaints of pregnancy. But those would have been carrying the point too far.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All RIghts Reserved.

We'd reached a portal. The Residence took up something over twenty cubic ithirds at the top of the arcology; the parking garage was at least a cubic ithird on its own. I didn't need to worry about most of the commercial or military volumes; only the actual family part of the Residence. All I needed to know was how to look up where stuff was, but one of the ones I knew was the portal near Ferugio's office. Security knew I had a guest, so no problems in the Family part of the Residence and we'd get Lemarcus his own access when we replaced his datalink. Earth had portals, too; Lemarcus didn't blink or hesitate as we walked through.

We emerged about thirty ififths up the corridor from Ferugio's office, just a few seconds' walk. "Ferugio, this is my son Lemarcus Wilson di Juarez. He'll be staying with us - his training is my responsibility. I expect Scimtar will have created his security profile by now."

"Yes, I've been given instructions," Ferugio over-topped me by better than half a head, but that didn't change my impression of him as a small, prissy little man. He spoke pedantically at the best of times, but he'd found a niche he could prosper in - he did know how to manage training. Despite the fact he hadn't mastered a lot of what Scimtar considered essential within his family, he knew what subjects in what order would produce a superior product - in other words, a newly minted adult ready to contribute to the family and with the best chance of surviving inter-family squabbles. "He's to have free access to general materials; only when it comes to instructor time or significant expendables will I be allowed to bill you."

"The more I think about it, the more I think I'll be sending him to Paladin for Guardian training when the time comes, although that won't be until after he's regained his adulthood. Asto and I will likely work with him on auros, but the rest needs to wait."

Ferugio looked shocked when I mentioned Lemarcus regaining adulthood. I have to admit Scimtar allowing someone who'd lost adulthood into the Residence was surprising, but perhaps he'd realized if he didn't Asto and I and perhaps our other legal children would likely have moved out. "Well then, we'll have to see about the adulthood modules first."

"He'll need refreshers on Traditional and Technical before those. Living on Earth, seems he's let his proficiencies go."

"Oh my, that is sad. As you say. Can't learn anything if he doesn't understand the languages they're taught in."

"He'll also require a new datalink up to the task. His current model is insufficient to the task."

"Why yes, I've got a validated spare here, already configured for him. Let's get to it."

I didn't know if Ferugio had thought of that himself, but the day I caught Scimtar not being at least three steps ahead of everything, I'd be worried. I told Lemarcus in English, "Ferugio is going to replace your datalink with a better one. Hold still." Switching back to Technical, "Not that any datalink is going to be a bit of good until he gets some language the local service providers offer service in."

He laughed, a dry chuckle. "Since he's not leaving the Residence until he's regained at least Environment qualification, not an immediate worry."

Lemarcus, for his part, graduated from lost to outraged, "Look, I know you're talking about me. But it's rude to talk about people in languages they don't understand!" It was a good thing Ferugio was so practiced with datalinks - the new one was already emplaced.

"Then you should have maintained your proficiency in Traditional or Technical," I told him, "So we could find a common language. But Ferugio has never had a reason to learn English, and I need to discuss your status with him in order to determine your learning priorities. We were using spoken language out of deference to you. Would it make you feel better if the two of us switched to telepathy?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" he all but shouted in return.

"Then shut up and let me get this over with." Switching to Technical for Ferugio, "Best not to schedule him for anything beyond basic fitness until he's regained legal adulthood. I'll take care of any combat instruction I want him to have before then." Lemarcus' surface thoughts confirmed that while he might have some idea about a few Traditional words, he was completely ignorant of Technical. "He seems to understand a few words in Traditional; nothing in Technical."

"That was my assessment as well, so we'll begin his instruction with Traditional."

"Copy Asto and me with his schedule and assignments. He's not trained even in auros, so he's effectively Natural State for the time being."

"You appear to have a significant task here."

"We all know how to deal with big jobs, Ferugio. One bit at a time." To Lemarcus, "We're settled. Ferugio will get us a copy of your schedule presently. Asto and I will work on teaching you auros in the gaps."
"Why you want me to work so hard?" he whined, "I been 'round two centuries; ain't never had to work so much."

"You mean you've chosen not to work so much. The fact that you've had multiple fraud convictions speaks to how well that's working for you. I'm not going to allow you to be so lazy; the easiest thing for you will be adhere to the training schedule we give you. Asto will help me there."

"When do I get to meet this Asto?"

I gestured to the portal we'd emerged from. "We're headed there right now, along with four of your five siblings. Esteban is actually on Earth right now, meeting more of our Earthside relatives."

"Any chance one of them might adopt me?"

I didn't have to read even surface thoughts to understand what he really wanted. Lemarcus was a drifter, the sort who believed in coasting on minimum possible effort. Breaking him of that would be the most significant challenge of being his guardian. "Why should they? I already did."

"Just that seems a lot closer to me, culturally."

"Culturally and personally, the easiest thing to do would be enlist you in Planetary Surface Forces. Since they don't accept legal children, I'm going to figure out how to make you a productive human myself, with my husband's help, of course."

"I'm a man, not a fucking insect!"

"Convictions for fraud and mindrape argue otherwise. Your species gives you a choice in what you produce. But you will produce something that your fellow humans are willing to pay for."

"Some people have so much, they can afford to give me a little."

"Nobody will stop them from donating if they want to. But nobody's going to force them. That would be coercion, and likely to lead to battery. You going for the whole seven?" There were seven actual criminal offenses in the Empire that concerned ordinary citizens, not including mindrape for operants and malfeasance for those in government.

"I never had to worry about Mom helping me!"

"Then she should have told you 'no' occasionally. Better get used to it, because I will, and so will Asto."

"You can't make me!" He tried to puff himself up to loom over me, trying to win with intimidation what he couldn't with emotion.

I laughed in his face, or at least to his chest. "I can and will if I need to." I pointed to the outer, junior-most of my chest insignia. "This green triangle with the stick figure human? It means I'm a Fourth Order Guardian. I could make you slather yourself in honey and jump into a nest of fire ants while howling a Pryanti mating call. I can make you scream in agony any time I want, for as long as I want. I won't unless you make it the least unpalatable alternative, because I'm a civilized adult. But I could. More to the point, I can stop you by any number of means from momentary paralysis to killing you instantly if I need to, and there is nothing you can do that will make the slightest difference to any of them. If we're talking sheer physical power, I'm at least three times stronger than you even without adding what I can do mentally, and I've spent most of the last fifty Earth years under instruction from some of the Empire's best in every form of physical combat. You really want to push it to a contest of who can make who do what?"

He'd shrunk back from me as I explained his situation to him, exclaiming "No!" several times as if his surface thoughts hadn't make his meaning completely clear to any telepath. He wasn't just a drifter; he was a bully and a coward as well.

"I've realized how badly the system I gave you to failed," I told him, "I am sorry for that failure, but that's no excuse for not performing my duties as a parent, either then or now. Far as I'm concerned, you will always have the right to refuse me as your guardian, so any time you want to go back to Adulthood Services you let me know. But until you make that decision or achieve adulthood again, you will obey my orders and abide by my decisions. Is that clear?"

Frankly, his position was pathetic. He could do what I told him, or he could be returned to Adulthood Services and sent to an exile planet. Yeah, I'd failed him fifty-five Earth years ago, or two hundred, but he had somehow passed the adulthood tests at some point, which meant he had to bear some of the weight of blame himself. Keeping my voice quiet and even, "I asked you a question."

Finally, "I'll stay, for now."

"Then let's go meet the rest of your new family." A few paces up the corridor, the portal awaited. The destination was our family apartment.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The idea for the series is simple at its core: The fractal demons are well aware that the reason the Empire of Humanity is a match for them are the mental powers of operants. Suppose they decide they want some human operants loyal to them, allowing them to better infiltrate the Empire? So they kidnapped some humans from a peripheral world cut off from the Empire (Earth), took them to another world, and began breeding subservient humans.

Preparations For War is a grunt's eye view of the long struggle between the Empire and the fractal demons. The viewpoint character, Joseph Bernard, begins as a vanilla human in unusual circumstances. While his aunt Grace is a powerful Guardian, mixing in Imperial society at the highest levels, Joe is still a low-level player at the end of the series. He's not in the Imperial military, but he works with ordinary people at the level of the individual soldier. The scope of his actions are personal, despite the wider ranging effects they may have. The most powerful person they deal with is at the level of leading a Calmenan city-state.

Unfortunately for the demonic plan of breeding operant human stooges, demons are incapable of treating humans in a way which leads to contentment as slaves. Demons thrive off power and fear; the cannon-fodder manes are perhaps the least cruel - they'll simply grab a human and eat them within a few seconds. Some of the demonic nobles can make their victims last several weeks. So successes in their program were few and far between, and the allegedly successful operant lines they did produce were too conditioned to subservience to pass for Imperial humans.

Eventually, the humans of the planet the demons used for the experiment learned to rebel with occasional success. Operant agaani humans, while not nearly the equal of trained Guardians in the Empire, could learn to fight the demonic combat castes, and independent human settlements began to sprout up, barely holding on as the demons were always trying to conquer them. Technology was primitive - barely iron age - and the threat of being conquered and enslaved again by the demons was always present. They had to keep producing workers and agaani or the demons would grind them down by weight of numbers. Those people had to be fed. Brutal, grinding poverty was the fact of life they all lived with, and the agaani became feudal overlords over the rest of the humans.

In the first book, Preparing The Ground, Joseph Bernard is an Earth human on Earth's first attempt to earn some hard Imperial currency via discovering habitable planets. Earth has recently been added to the Empire, and needs ways of earning Imperial resources. Discovering habitable planets is one such way; one Earth corporation has gained a settlement in Imperial currency allowing them to buy a couple of small ships equipped with a timejammer drive, usable by non-operant pilots. After several successes, they stumble upon Calmena and are captured by a group of agaani. Fighting their way free attracts the attention of a nearby demonic hold, and they are taken prisoner again by a group of manes and terostes demons, along with most of the formerly 'free' humans, including a young Calmenan woman, Asina, with a young daughter. With Asina's help, Joe manages to break himself and surviving shipmates free, only to discover on departure that they've run afoul of an Imperial interdiction. Joe is sentenced to an indenture in the only Imperial base on Calmena, hidden high in a mountain range on the biggest continent. It's a stressful posting with not much to do other than work, and with nothing better to do, Joe participates in the hedonism of the troops he's stationed with. However, he happens to meet Asina upon her return to Calmena. She is now a trained Guardian, intending to bring technology and a better means of fighting to the humans of Calmena, and she recruits Joe to the task. They find a small, independent community of humans, and begin the task of giving them the tools to fight the human agaani and the fractal demons. Thus is N'yeschlass, (literally, 'no slaves'), the first free human town, founded.

Building The People begins fifteen years later, as Joe and Asina hand over control of the operation they've built in N'yeschlass to a new team. After a short visit to Earth and into the main part of the Empire to visit Asina's daughter, they begin a new project to advance the free humans of Calmena: water transport. To this end, they found a new settlement, Windhome Bay, and starting with single mast shallow draft yampans, start teaching the locals about sailing. But the fractal demons have a new trick up their sleeve to overwhelm the new human communities, and they have to fight off an infestation of lemuure, which secrete a virus which gives lemuure control over their victims.

The third book, Setting The Board, begins about seventy years later. After a break on Earth to raise three children, Joe and Asina are returning to Calmena, taking over an existing station in an agaani-run town on the fourth (smallest) of Calmena's continents. Their projects this time are marine diesels and primitive aircraft. First, however, they have to deal with the meddling agaani, and then they discover that the agaani leader has been collaborating with the fractal demons for personal benefit, as as soon as the human overlords have been dealt with, they are faced with a demonic invasion force for which there's no time to prepare.

The final book, Moving The Pieces opens with the demons mobilizing their forces for assault on the Empire. As the die is cast, Joe and Asina (and the rest of the teams on Calmena) frantically try and complete preparations they'd hoped to have another twenty years or more to bring to fruition. The latest project is a few aircraft based upon Earth technology post World War 2. As Joe and his assistant test the latest prototype aircraft, Asina tries to prepare the people of Yalskarr for the massive onslaught coming through the demonic Gates, which may be aimed at the Empire but is sufficient to annihilate everything they've built on Calmena in passing.

Preparations for War is a complete series. If I ever do anything more with the characters of Joe and Asina, it will be in an entirely different setting. They will never return to Calmena.

"Starting tomorrow morning, we're going to have you on the same course of study I underwent when I got here. You will spend six hours per day in four instruction blocks. Once you can pass the automated adulthood tests, we'll start training your operant abilities so you can learn how to really use what you've got."

"Why should I do that? I thought you were rich?"

"By the standards of Earth, I am. But that doesn't mean I intend to support you in an eternal childhood. That'd be a waste and a failure on my part as well. Part of being a responsible adult is bringing your children up to be productive adults themselves. It doesn't have to be anything in particular. If you're happy in a menial position for the rest of your life, that's on you. But you will become self-supporting. You'll be fed, you'll be housed, you'll have access to education and anything else you need to become self-supporting, but once that happens, you'll be expected to furnish your own support. Anything else would be a failure by both of us."

I could almost see his dreams of an easy life crashing before his eyes. "But you're rich!"

"You're expecting the Earth culture of the wealthy coddling and protecting their children. We don't do that here, as a result of which family wealth in the Empire generally accumulates. While on Earth, most wealth dissipated in the second generation, most Imperial families continue to build wealth, which contrary to the evil lies still common on Earth today, makes it easier for others to build wealth too. I've only been here fifty Imperial years, but the mean, median, and mode levels of wealth have all at least doubled in that time, and that's with a currency which has remained essentially constant." The Empire was feeling the strain of the war with the fractal demons, but the lot of the average person was still significantly above what it had been when I arrived from Earth.

"Why'd you tell me you're rich if I don't get any of it?"

"Because it's opportunity for you, if only you'll work. You don't have to worry about being charged for room and board, you don't have to worry about how you're going to pay for the education you need, you don't have to worry about paying for adulthood exams to be reinstated, and you'll have opportunities others won't simply because of exposure to wealthy people. If something comes up where you'll do as well as anyone else, why shouldn't they choose you? You want to live life on the edges, or do you want an opportunity to have whatever you want? The fact you're operant gives you easy steps up any ladder you want - if only you'll learn control and self-discipline. The difference in the effort isn't much. Do you want to be the poor schlub who's always worried about next month's rent, or do you want to be able to get into a position where your money earns enough to pay for everything you need and earning more is something you do because you want to, not because you have to?" What he wanted was obvious to me by now - to be paid for existing. But I didn't expect him to admit it out loud.

"I liked that monthly check I used to get."

"For what? I don't see any incurable defects that mean you can't support yourself. The Empire doesn't subsidize sloth or wastrels - that's a shortcut to self-destruction and we know it. There are any number of charities that'll help folks get on their feet, get training for something that lets them support themselves and more, but none of them just hands over money. Nor will I or the family - definitely not the Scimtars and not even my Earth family." I saw the outrage bubbling in his surface thoughts and continued, "It's not about having the money to do it. It's about wasting your life. You may want to be a nothing, but we know you're capable of more. If you had a physical or mental defect, I'd heal you myself - or my husband would, or any number of charities - but the only defect I can see is moral. Which would be fine with us, so long as you didn't hurt others. However, you committed mindrape as well as fraud."

"I didn't do anything wrong."

"I read your file when I signed the Guardianship agreement. It was solidly documented by evidence and your own memory. I'm blue-gold rated, would you like me to check your mind to see if it's been altered? If true, you'd be helping us clean up corruption, and you'd be compensated for what happened to you. Of course, once I was in your mind I could see if you need mind surgery and see that it happened."

"NO!" he shouted, "I'm fine. He stepped in close, looked down, tried to be physically intimidating, "You just leave me alone and get me what I need."

I laughed, "That's what I'm doing. What you want may be to drift through life being supported by others, but what you need is someone who loves you enough to straighten you out." As he tried to loom over me even more, "Trying to intimidate a Fourth Order Guardian with physical size is pitiful. If you push it to violence, you'll never touch me, so there's no element of fear possible. If you learn what I want you to, someday you'll be able to look back and laugh at how pathetic you are. You'll also thank me. The alternative is I turn you back over to Adulthood Services now and off you go to exile for the rest of your life. Good luck as a peasant slave farmer."

"I thought you loved me!"

"I do, but if you're going to act like an entitled child and refuse to learn, I'm wasting my time and I might as well get the pain over with. So what's it going to be?"

"Maybe I'll try."

"Try what?"

"Learning what you want me to."

I popped the hatch, "We're here. Climb down and let's get you a place to stay. Dinner is at eleven thirty - you will be expected to attend daily, to interact with the rest of the family. We'll introduce you to them tonight, but right now let's get you to Ferugio." Speaking of which, I sent Ferugio a message I was incoming with a new resident who needed a new datalink and a training schedule; he told me to come to his office.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

So Armageddon was upon us.

There was no point in contacting the rest of the Advancement teams; they'd all received the same message we had. They'd know what it meant, same as we did: The war we'd all been preparing for was upon us. Imperial Intelligence - the Eyes and Ears that were the reason for Bolthole Base's existence - had discovered that the demons were on the move, and their armies would be pouring through the Seven Gates soon, as well as any other means of access to the Empire they might have.

Asina's hand tightened in mine. Thanks to our rapport, both of us knew the other was scared but determined. A few more years would have made an enormous difference, but we didn't have them. Might as well wish for something we could get, or at least hope for. Any chance of getting action out of the Guard before the demons actually show up? After so long together, most of our communication was telepathic.

I can try, but without evidence to lay before the officers it's not likely to happen. Not to mention that without the other cities helping, all we'd be doing is making them a target.

We don't need them to take the field early. We just need them to be ready to take the field. With modern transport, Calmenan troops can outmaneuver most demonic armies.

But the homefront is easy prey for any demons their nobles Gate around our interdiction.

Suddenly, I had a realization. We're talking here like we can defeat the demons in the field. If they're bringing the massive numbers the Empire has been finding in their rear areas, our strategy is going to have to be survival, not victory. Try to defend the people of Calmena, and make it easier for the demons to find prey elsewhere. Yalskarr was barely an isquare from the Karnel Gate, closest of the seven permanent Gates the demons had built upon Calmena. Humans could walk that far in four days easily. If they had a reason for haste, a day and a half. Demons would move faster.

I think our only chance is defense-in-depth. Start hitting them right away, trying to channel them away from the city while we build defensive lines to make it more difficult to reach the city with large numbers of troops.

So how do we get the Guard to cooperate? There's only a few square of them to defend the city. Their official complement as of right now was six legions of regulars and a dozen of reserves. A legion, true to Calmena's history with the demons, was a sixty-four of sixty-fours - the humans of Calmena used demonic base eight numbers for everything because the demons had kept them as slaves, laborers, and food sources for thousands of years before the first humans had escaped or broken free, permitting them no other way of doing things.

A good question. It costs money for them to take the field, so they don't want to do it if there's any doubt. Similarly, it costs money to build defenses, even temporary ones. Hard to explain extinction was expensive, too, if you didn't have any evidence you could show them that it was coming. But it doesn't cost much money to get ready so the Guard is in the field immediately when the evidence comes. If necessary, we can guarantee them the funds. Calmena was still on a precious metals standard for money. There was paper currency, but it represented real obligations of the government to come up with actual metal. Given that we had Imperial converters, we could produce as much of any element as we wanted.

Asina was right, as usual. Politics of any sort wasn't about good solutions - it was about making those in power happy. The only solution was to keep as much as possible away from government and therefore out of politics. Unfortunately, only government commands the resources for things like massive military. Even in the Empire, none of the House contingents could have challenged the Imperial military as a whole. Then better get to work on it. Do you want me involved?

She shook her head. This isn't your area, and you don't know the people involved. I was the technical side of our partnership; she was administration, which included people. I'll let you know if anything pops up.

Do you have time to see how much ammunition Bustere can send us?

I think that's something you can do. You'd have better results batting your eyes at him than I would. She was teasing; although Bustere and his partner Kilman were gay. In the Empire, that was nobody else's business, but here on Calmena they pretended to be only business partners. It made little practical difference; since they were both operant, they could teleport to each other's homes unobserved. Yeah, it would have been nice if they could just go about their business, but in the face of keeping everyone on the planet from being eaten, sometimes you had to let other battles wait. I'll instruct Taman to shut up and pay the invoices promptly.

Her sandy hair was shot with gray these days if you looked. My dark brown hair was too. Her skin had cosmetic sags and wrinkles to pretend to be aging as time passed. We'd been here in Yalskarr over a hundred twenty of Calmena's short planetary years. Crow's feet bordered her eyes. But the eyes themselves were still the lively green they'd been when we met. The great thing about being operant was we could keep age at bay where it mattered. We were as fit as the day we'd arrived, none of the decay or infirmities of age. Assuming we both lived through the coming war, we could look like young adults again in no time. That was a perk available to everyone in the Empire, but as trained Guardians, we could do for ourselves.

It suddenly hit us: Whatever else happened, this phase of our life was coming to an end. We'd both been barely adult when we'd met - I'd been twenty-two, Earth age, and close as we could figure, she'd been a little younger. Four assignments here on Calmena with a break to raise a family on Earth - just over 150 Earth years since we met - and once the war was over, we'd be done with our mission on Calmena, too. She was the first to say it. Any ideas what you want to do when this is over?

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

At that moment however, a warning whistle sounded. "What's that alarm?" I demanded of the closest worker. Short-long-short.

"I'm not sure. It started with short, so it's something about security." Right. If it had started with a long, it would've been safety related. The Calmenan operants hadn't really developed auros yet, and telephones hadn't been a priority, so there was nothing for it but to take off as fast as I dared for the main gate.

Some kind of security warning! I'm on my way to the main gate! I informed Asina

Short-long-short is a location sequence, she replied, West Annex - your area! I'll be there soon as I can!

I changed direction, rounding the end of the warehouse just in time to observe two indistinct figures disappear behind the west end of the same building. West end of the new casting-house. I'm coming in behind them to cut off escape.

Tipaym na forton amash boy. Her response in Mindlord indicated she was coming around the building the other way, so we could trap them between us. It was a large building, but the entrances and exits were all on the south side, away from the outer fence and towards the water and the rail spur.

I looked around. Nobody in sight - so I risked a short teleport saving me nearly an ifourth of distance. Without breaking stride I rounded the corner onto the west side of the building. The two figures in front of me looked like they'd dropped to all fours. Likahns, I confirmed to my wife. A thrall race from fractals having more than three dimensions, able to control their projection into a three dimensional instance, they were often used as scouts or reconnaissance because they could look like humans or various animals at a distance. I fired two shots, but wasn't sure I'd hit anything - kored didn't work as well on likahns. If I'd been able to use Imperial weapons, it wouldn't have mattered, but those were off the table in this setting, as three or four of our other workers were approaching from the waterfront or the rail spur.

The fact the intruders were likahns told me that the demons were interested in what was going on. Likahns weren't independent agents. Where there were likahns, there were demons to control them.

The likahns ran faster now they knew I was behind them. That was fine with me - they'd run right into Asina. I was stronger than her in terms of brute mental force, but my wife was more practiced and more deadly in just about everything. Unless they changed course to head straight for the waterfront through the four guards I could now see, they'd run right into someone more deadly than all of them put together. I knew she had just passed the opposite corner of our new casting building. The likahns could outrun humans, but the trap was closed. There was nowhere they could run that they would be safe from one or the other of us.

I passed where the likahns had been when I shot at them. A small trail of ichor drops began at that same point. At least one of them is wounded.

Good. A big slug like that would have done a lot of damage - and they were being forced to run. Their blood would be being pumped out the wound all the faster.

Both perception and Asina warned me as I prepared to round the next corner - one of the likahns, most likely the wounded one, doubled back to attack me. In broad daylight I don't know what he thought he was gaining, but I had plenty of time to draw my sword and slice his apparent chest open and one of his legs off. No instant kill - I wanted a chance at his mind. The likahn made a noise somewhere between a scream and a yelp and collapsed. Yes, he'd been bleeding from a bullet wound already, and his ichor was coming out in a torrent. I paralysed him with auros and began ripping open his mind. Dying and desperate, he tried to fight me but I got the opening I needed when we both heard the three shots of Asina executing his partner, distracting him. It had been only four days since we arrived, but I pulled the confirmation I needed from his dying mind, then held him immobile as he bled out. Neither side took prisoners in this war. Well, the demons might, but when they did it was for food and slaves, not exchange.

They were sent. There's someone on the human side working with them.

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Good morning my love! Her message came, Peyer just called me from Bolthole. Tratruoh and Melise have arrived. They should be arriving tomorrow morning.

Looking forward to seeing them again, even if it's only for a few days. We'd be introducing them to the locals, preparing the way for them to take over our work. If everyone in N'yeschlass knew we were leaving our possessions in their care, there shouldn't be any trouble. Then a vacation back in the Empire.

You make it sound wonderful, but...

We'll be fine. Born on Calmena, Asina had never had a vacation in her life. Even when she went to Earth to learn to become a Guardian, she'd never taken a break. We've been working twenty years without a break, and we've been paid well. We've got plenty of money to live for a couple sixties of years without working if we wanted. Even after making a donation back to the people that took care of you.

I feel that I owe them.

They're a charity, my love. You don't owe them. But it would be responsible to repay them, and virtuous to add enough so they can help more people.

Thank you for understanding.
You could feel it all over when Asina was smiling. I enjoyed the sensation every chance I got. Going to be home tonight?

Only if there's an emergency. She didn't want her ability to teleport becoming generally known. It could only make our mission more difficult. She'd been helping the operant Calmenans learn to use their talents, but there was so much they didn't know, didn't have the background to learn yet. The plan is the western tributary tonight, back tomorrow night.

As I already knew. But you can't blame a husband who misses his wife for trying.

We didn't sign off so much as return to what we'd been doing, our link active in the background. It let us know that the other was well, and helped us stay close. It's hard to have a real fight with someone when you're constantly aware of how much they love you.

I lit my forge, began stoking it. I was trying to copy an old European design for a metal framed heavy wagon, capable of holding more weight but requiring four to six horses (or in our case, swasses) to pull it. Once I got it down, I'd sell lessons in how to make them if the other smiths didn't pick it up on their own. Asina was checking on the customs inspectors and upkeep of the fort that would shelter the people nearby if there was need. I'd been there once; it was a finished adobe structure where keeping it from being torn down by the rains was a constant race between repairs and the rains. But clay was cheap and easy to work with, and even N'yeschlass was poor by the European standards of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth century. The rest of Calmena was even worse, but an entrepreneurial economy was improving things. When we'd arrived, the few scattered people of N'yeschlass had been unable to do anything more than live off the land in the fashion of the most primitive Indian tribes before the arrival of the Europeans. We'd shown them how to band together, and keep the slavers - human agaani and demons - from raiding for slaves. Now the people around here were the richest on the planet. Yes, our ability to leverage Imperial technology in secret had made a lot of difference, especially at the beginning. But creating a situation where people could work on their own behalf was a far more important factor. As a consequence, the city was both wealthy and powerful. If the city was menaced, the fyrd could muster a couple 3600s of armored pikes, and three times that many longbows. At least double the number of bows if the folk from the surrounding countryside joined the muster. Cavalry was still non-existent except for the demonic manes, but there wasn't a human agaani lord or demonic holding on the planet big enough to have a hope against the city's full muster. We were protected against the other members of the confederation by the fact that it was too risky. There were softer targets for expansion.

It definitely wasn't the Empire. But the best place to be human on Calmena was N'yeschlass, and it was getting better.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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As we filed out, we were met by a guard of armed men. I'm no expert, but their armor didn't look like anything I've seen in the movies. Breastplate, helmet, and smallish shield, but they looked thicker than in the movies. Rustier, too. Most of the armor was worn over leather or leather-like clothing of some description. Every one of them had at least two pieces of edged weaponry on them, but they were mostly swords that looked longer and thinner than most of what you see in the movies, crossed like an X on their backs. Most carried a short sword or dagger on their hips as well, and they moved much more easily than I would have believed under that kind of load. A few had long spears with really heavy heads - I later learned that the actual term was "pole-arms." I hadn't really been exposed much to our military; most Americans aren't, but I started to wonder if it was just that they were used to the load or if there was something else going on. For some reason the whole show made me a little nervous. I was carrying a little Mark 7 disrupter Tia Grace gave me and showed me how to shoot and handle, but it's not imposing like that much metal, and I'd developed the habit of carrying it mostly because Tia Grace expected me to. I could hit something with it, but I was no trained commando.

A line of the armored men came between us and Golden Hind, and I used my datalink to close the hatch so they wouldn't go in. We didn't really have a method of communication, so that seemed a smart thing to do in lieu of slapping their hands away from everything they weren't supposed to touch. All of the armed men were larger than average for this time and place, but even Will was taller than any of them. One of the armored men said something in a harsh, guttural tongue that sounded nothing like any of the languages I knew, but it sounded challenging. John Dulles tried to respond, "I don't know what you're talking about, but I'm sure it's nothing to get upset over." He spread his hands in that calming way that most Americans will use to reduce tension. The native leader gestured imperiously, come here. I felt a certainty it was not directed at me, but Dulles walked straight towards him, like a zombie in a trance.

With unbelievable speed, the leader then drew his short sword and gutted Dulles. Dulles stood there for a moment as in disbelief, then crumpled, bleeding and bloody, onto the muddy ground.

Simultaneously, his men cut us off from Dulles, fencing us in with suddenly drawn weapons. We didn't speak a word of their language but their gestures with their weapons were pretty much universal speak for stand right there and don't do anything to make me kill you.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.


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