This is a side project, a new story idea that wouldn't let go until I wrote some of it. Set in the Empire of Humanity, roughly thirty-five Earth years after the events of Empire and Earth. To give you a time-line comparison, Grace is less than halfway through her time in the Planetary Surface Forces prior to the beginning of The Invention Of Motherhood, Joe and Asina are about two years into building Windhome Bay in Building The People


The ship was poised, ready for the final transition into the Morelli system. Ambassador DeelKonosh cautioned Sergeant Mitrisa over the com, "This is a unrequested embassy, not an assault. Put us on the outskirts of their system, well off the plane of the ecliptic. I want to talk to them."

"Yes, ang." The viewscreen returned to the exterior star field.

"Excited?" Tess asked her charge.

The datalink translated. Motafo tossed his head, the dominant culture's code for yes. "It will be good to feel the earth of home," he said in his own language. Tamana, the embassy's xenologist and Tess's superior and instructor, said nothing.

Tess listened to the translation in her datalink. It would have been nice to be operant, like the Ambassador or ship's commander, but the datalink served well enough. Motavo's species had evolved from hexapedal porcinoids, live-bearing burrowing omnivores. Endothermic, tusked, hairy, mammaloids, but not mammals. They lacked mammary glands to nurse; instead the young were fed pre-chewed roots, tubers, grubs, and small prey.

"It was generous of your people to rescue us and return us home."

"Not generous. Self-interest." If there was one thing the Ambassador had been definite about, it was not to allow any illusions about altruism of the Empire. "Our Ambassador says we'd rather talk than shoot, next time our vessels encounter one another."

"Nonetheless, it was our commander who shot first. Your people found our survivors and rescued us, and now we are almost home."

It had been a wild week since the Empire had come seeking a contract at the University of St. Petersburg, the only accredited program on Earth or anywhere in the Instance. First, she'd been introduced to Howwiise, who'd been part of the crew of the Patrol Cruiser Grunthus Mountain. Howwise had been a Squad Private who'd happened to be a Guardian, therefore capable of telepathy and generating a translation program but not a trained xenologist. After giving Tess access to the translation program, Howwise had simply been ordered to return to her ship, leaving Tess in sole charge of Motafo and three other survivors of the Morelli vessel Grunthus Mountain had destroyed. Then this morning, she'd been ordered onto Hamthar Four, a size three embassy vessel, based upon the military Giant-class. She'd balked until directed to a clause of the contract she hadn't really read in the excitement as it represented a chance she'd never expected to have until much later, wherein she'd agreed to accompany an Embassy vessel to the homeworld of her contracted aliens.

Earth's University of St. Petersburg, where she'd been a graduate student, was a wild hybrid compromise between Earth universities and Imperial methods of instruction. Some subjects Earth theories had been so at variance with the Empire's hard experience that assimilating the knowledge required more than an instructional program - it required interaction with a human instructor who had experience dealing with aliens to drive out Earth's pious ignorance. Tessa understood that such experience was rare enough in the Empire as a whole that she was assured of a job in the Empire upon achieving a six rating. She'd earned her four rating already, and of those Professor Tamana had recommended, she'd been the first to accept the offer of a Xenological Liason job. Meanwhile Professor Tamana herself and her Imperial colleagues had been studying Earth's history and culture and how they'd been manipulated for a couple Earth centuries by a group of failed Imperial rebels they called stons.

Professor Tamana was along for the first year of the embassy; an experienced xenologist to provide the bones by which the Empire could deal with the Morelli. Tess was under no illusions she'd be promoted when the Professor returned to Earth; the year simply gave the Empire more time to find a qualified replacement. Earth was still the far fringe of the Empire, thirty-five years after becoming part of it, and Imperial Viceroys had many demands upon their time. Tess also understood Ambassador DeelKonosh himself was not completely unqualified, and he was also a Guardian. But she was the Liason, charged with direct interaction with the rescued group, would be a focal point for cultural and personal experience with the Morelli, and would have more than sufficient chance to burnish her credentials towards being the xenologist on a future contact.

Blink! The starfield changed. There was now one orangish star brighter than all the others. According to the datalink, they were now on the fringes of the Morelli home system, an hour thirty out from the star at its center. Converting that to Earth measure, the result came back 2 billion, 754 million Earth kilometers.

"Send the pulse," Ambassador DeelKonosh ordered, before turning to Tess, "Inform our guest it's time for his script," the Ambassador prompted. It was Tess' understanding that the pulse described was a powerful radio pulse, designed for getting attention but not to do damage.

There was a pre-arranged text Motafo was to read for his people. Tess pointed to the copy Motavo had written himself longhand in his own people's script, and tossed her head in the 'yes' gesture.

Motavo understood. "Greetings from the Empire of Humanity to the Community of the Morelli. This is Tenfo Motafo, late of the Starship Dominion on a mission to the star Costamo. We discovered another species there before us. Our commander attacked the aliens, and our ship was destroyed in response. I and three others are the survivors of Dominion's crew, and the Empire of Humanity has offered to return us to Morelli as a good faith gesture that there need be no war between us. This ship also bears an ambassador from the Empire in the hopes of avoiding future conflict. The Empire hopes you will receive this embassy in the spirit in which it is offered. I have been tasked to tell you that the ship will follow instructions to return we who survived and depart or remain, as you decide. Respond on this frequency. Tenfo Motafo out."

"Put it on loop," Ambassador DeelKonosh ordered, "Let me know when there's a response." Radio might be slow, but it was what the Morelli had, and the Empire understood the technology.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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

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

Item: about thirty thousand dollars in cash. ScOsh had destroyed the rest. Also, what appeared to be a numbered Swiss account with a balance of just shy of six million Swiss francs, as well as various other financial instruments that I might or might not be able to access somehow. Not evidence; too many less outlandish and more morally questionable ways of acquiring it. It would be useful to the extent I could tap into it, which would have to be done carefully, but it wouldn't do anything to convince Papi.

Item: one "logbook" that ScOsh had handed me with Aurora. Problem was, it didn't look like anything more than a small case of some indeterminate material. No display, no readouts I could access. Not impressive. It might be a miracle device for all I knew, but for all I could demonstrate to Papi, it might as well be a paperweight.

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

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

I heard some scratching on the door. It was Riley. An older, smallish lab, I'd still been living here when Papi brought him home from a trip to the grocery store. I let him in and sat down on the floor to get some cuddle time in. He wasn't permitted on the furniture, and he knew it. He didn't even try to change that when Mama got Candy, her golden cocker spaniel, and proceeded to spoil her rotten after I moved out. Candy was allowed on the furniture, given too many treats, and otherwise completely indulged. Riley was too good a dog or too set in his ways to try and follow suit. To Candy, I was competition for Mama's attention. To Riley, I was part of his pack, a stray puppy that came back home sometimes, to be welcomed firmly. To me, Riley was a welcome companion. I have him a big hug, and he positively glowed with the attention. It had been too long since I got down on the floor with him, and he melted with the attention. I reached out to him to see what I could learn with my new senses, and was surprised by the realization that he was a lot more aware than people thought. It wasn't a verbal and sight oriented intelligence like people; it was a social and smell oriented one. Papi was his god, but Mama and I were objects of veneration as well. He was sad that he wasn't allowed to get away with any of the things Candy did. He thought he must have somehow offended the people, his gods, but grateful he was allowed to linger in our presence. Still, it upset him that Candy was rewarded with attention where he wasn't. I reached out with my new senses, not needing to speak to tell him what a good boy he was, and I'd never be able to explain Candy's privileged status to him. He would never understand why Candy got away with it, but I was able to communicate that he was the one who was special to me, and to Papi. Despite being close to ten years old, he was wriggling with joy after a couple moments, and for the first time in years, asking for a belly rub. I gave him a good one. The whole encounter was good therapy for both of us.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

I got the impression more time than an hour had passed, and I was right. It had been an hour and ten minutes. I couldn't have done it in less than four hours before. Then I remembered ScOsh was ten minutes overdue. The way he came and went was creepy, but he seemed to have it pretty well under control. Where was he?

He stepped out of the hall closet just then. God alone knows where he found the room, but he did. He wasn't carrying anything that looked like it could hold a million dollars, but I'd reserve judgment on that. He hadn't been carrying the sword I'd seen, or the other weapon, the one that killed the gangbangers, either. "Sorry I'm late," he said, "But exchanging the money turned out to be more complicated than I thought. I found out about your physical libraries last night after you went to bed, so I walked through first your local college library, then the Library of Congress. Then I went to Atlantic City, and went through all the casinos there. Then Las Vegas"

"You cheated the casinos?" I interrupted, incredulous, "You cheated the mob-owned casinos?"

"I did no such thing," he said, "It's not cheating to use skill. If they don't have rules posted that forbid it, it's not cheating. There were rules posted, but absolutely nothing about using any of the skills I employed. I borrowed a chip from someone for a few minutes, and used it to win. Then I gave the original chip back to the owner with interest. I went from casino to casino. Didn't win too much from any of them. When people started to take an interest in my winning, I lost a little, then changed tables and started winning again. I know how not to be noticed. Speaking of which, that applies right now. You're about to have visitors. I'm not here; don't expect them to find me no matter what they do, so act natural. Don't do anything out of the ordinary. Your planet doesn't have the technology or the wizardry to catch me. I want to keep it to a minimum because there's at least one person around who can." Then he simply disappeared right in front of me, just as there was a knock on my door.

I went to the door. The spyhole showed two cops in uniforms, right out of central casting. One Mexican, one Anglo. "Can I help you?" I said, loudly enough to be heard through the door.

"Riverside Police. Ms. Graciela Juarez?" The Mexican's accent was medium strong. Probably didn't grow up around a lot of Anglos, like I had.

"That's me. Can I see your badges?" You don't let cops in without making sure.

"Yes ma'am." First one guy, then the other. Looked normal enough, not that I was sure I'd be able to tell bad ones. I opened the door and stood there.

They looked me over in a way men never had before. I wasn't certain if I liked it right now, but I could tell my earlier surmise about male attention was correct. They were both appreciating the scenery. There was a wedding ring on the lead cop's hand (the Mexican) but not the Anglo's. Neither was too far from my age.

There was one thing they might be there about. They'd also have a pretty good idea I didn't really have a cold already. So I decided to tell some of the truth.

"We found four bodies in the street in front of your office last night. We asked if anyone had seen anything, and Mr. Martinez said you had been working late. Building security logged an exit at 8:38, and the bodies were killed sometime between seven thirty and nine."

"Yes officer, I saw the bodies and I panicked. I came out, started walking to my car, saw them and ran. I'm sorry, I know I should have called, but I was just so scared." All the while doing my best little girl at the horror movie act. "I drove home and just shook a while down there in the parking lot, then I ran up here and ate. I was so hungry, I hadn't eaten since lunch, and then I ate some more because I sometimes do that when I'm upset, and before I knew it I had eaten like 5 sandwiches. Then I went in the bathroom and threw up. Then I sat there for a while, on the bathroom floor. Then I went to bed, and shook until I fell asleep. I don't know what time that was. When the alarm went off this morning, I just couldn't go back yet. Please don't tell my boss I'm not really sick! Please?"

"Mind if we come in and look around?"

This was it, the moment of truth. I decided to take ScOsh at his word. He'd been more than fair with me. Actually, he had already been absurdly generous and was promising more. But solid citizens don't just roll over for the cops. "You got a warrant?"

"No, ma'am." The Anglo. I could tell he'd bought the fear, hook, line and sinker. Maybe a little too well. "Just want to take a quick look around, make sure you're okay here. Never know if their friends tracked you down. Some of these people, they don't care if you had nothing to do with it, didn't see a thing. They want to know who offed their homies and they don't take too well to 'I don't know.' We could probably arrange protective custody if you want." He winked suggestively.

Dios Mio! Someone who's just had a scary experience like that and you're hitting on her! Still, I decided to ignore it. "Okay, take a look around if you want, but no protective custody. I have an exam tonight. I need to finish my degree. I'll make myself be okay by then"

They came in, took their time. I was grateful Mama made me learn good housekeeping. I hadn't cleaned the bathroom last night, but it was clean enough to look like maybe I had. No puke or residue or anything. The bed was made, of course. The kitchen trash backed up my story. No obvious holes, except, "Who is this blanket for?" the still-unused blanket was on the couch.

"I was just about to watch some TV when you knocked. Anything to have some voices around. And it's cold. Maybe ask Mama to come over, or my sister. If they can."

"You sure you don't want protection?" the Mexican asked, "Maybe it's not such a good idea to bring your family into it if the gangs get nasty. We got women we could put you with." So his partner being on the make was at least faintly embarrassing to him.

"No, but thanks." I was pretty certain I had better than they could possibly offer, if I needed it.

"Okay, Ms. Juarez. Thankyouforyourcooperation." It all came out like it was one word. He would have said it many times. They left.

Copyright 2013 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

I had to wait a few seconds longer than the minute and a half on the clock when I walked into Adulthood Services, which was what I expected. My number was called by a young-looking man with a vaguely Hispanic look to him. "I'm Grace," I introduced myself as I approached him.

I saw him notice my official badges. Epaulets showing brown triangles embossed on a bare metal circle may have been derivative authority - but there weren't a lot of people walking around with connections to a Nonus. Add in the green triangle (with stick figure) of a Fourth Order Guardian on my Achievement Bar, and a lot of people overlooked the lowly white disc next to it that said I'd last separated from the military as a Staff Private. Especially since I also had the small red triangle of a Tertius-in-rank. "Is there something I should know, anb?" he asked in Technical.

I shook my head, "I'm here in a personal capacity. Notice the circle is plain - I'm a specialist, not a viceroy myself - and my personal badge of rank is present separately." Tertius-in-rank had no personal authority, it was only a sign of eligibility. I still had more to learn before anyone would consider giving me charge of even a Primus' district. "I can only wield viceregal authority in connection with assigned duties." I didn't tell him I was an Investigator; that would likely only fluster him for the remainder of my visit. It may be derivative authority, but Investigator is as broad as derivative authority gets.

He relaxed,"Pedro Mendoza, amn." Even the amn honorific was pushing it, but cut him some slack - like I said, the brown triangles of a Nonus' authority were rare. "What is the nature of your personal business?"

"I got a notice that my son has been sentenced to a loss of adulthood, and if I was willing to assume responsibility for him to present myself to this office."

"Your identification?"

This was official government business. I had to use my real Imperial ID, not a graycode. I gave him the twenty-digit identifier in base sixty.

"First key?"

That was another twenty digits - what the Empire used as a password to confirm identity in non-critical cases. Everyone had three levels of key. I entered it directly into his system.

"Oh," he said, "Lemarcus Wilson. One of the more interesting cases. Your son didn't name you as a potential guardian - your relationship came up in a secondary search after a lack of response. It's been almost a year; your son is in stasis."


"Because he's operant. If nobody volunteered to become his guardian, he would have been transported to exile next week."

"What was his offense?"

"Fraud and mindrape."

Oh. The Empire got really hardcore about mindrape. Justifiably. Abusing the operant gifts to force compliance was an assault upon the entire identity of the victim. Conditional exile was a light sentence for mindrape - any of the actual criminal offenses could result in a death sentence if egregious enough, but mindrape was one of the three where a death sentence was common for offenders and 'special circumstances' meriting specifically barbaric punishments wasn't rare. With our mental abilities, the advantage was with the defender, so most often the victim of mindrape was a Natural State human. Natural State humans were still five-sixths of the population - if they thought operants had any kind of official sanction for mindrape, we'd have riots that would make the demonic raids look attractive. The thought of my son committing mindrape gave me a sharp spike of nausea - but I clamped down on the puke reflex with necris. Let's be clear - there was no way you could pass two of the adulthood tests without understanding what mindrape was or that it was a crime, so he was evidently a real piece of work. But I owed it to him to try to bring him up to being a human being. The alternative was to pretend I wasn't his mother, that I had somehow been coerced into conceiving and birthing him, step back, and lie to myself and everyone else for the rest of my life.

"What do I need to do?"

"He's physically in stasis in Minor Habitat Three, but you need to agree to an assumption of guardianship, then they will bring him back to Earth soon as they can schedule a trip. When he arrives, you will be required to sign for custody."

"He's that dangerous?" Meanwhile I read the guardianship agreement. It was shorter than I expected, although there was an attached explanation I didn't need that was significantly longer. I was agreeing to be completely responsible for my son and anything he did. Given that he was a convicted major criminal, not an insignificant consideration. His travel would also be restricted until he regained adulthood. I noted the exit clause - If he proved beyond my ability to raise, there had to be a way to halt the damage done. I'd still be responsible for what happened before, and until he was once again in custody, after which his sentence of exile would be reinstated. That was a necessity, as no matter what I owed my son, I also owed obligations elsewhere, and everyone's resources were limited.

"Probably not to a Fourth Order Guardian such as yourself. But he's been convicted of mindrape. The Empire is not willing to risk further repetition of his crimes. Regaining his adulthood will require full mental examination, and he will be required to wear a damper until his adulthood is restored. Will that be a problem?"

"How strong a damper?"

"One bar."

It'd make it harder to use my Guardian abilities around him - comparable to walking around with a weight on my wrists and ankles. For the Seventh Order Scimtars, I doubted it would even be noticeable. But the other spouses were another matter. Some of them were weak Second Order - within a couple ififths of Lemarcus, it'd be like having their external abilities cast in concrete or steel for something my son had done. But Scimtar had to have known that when he gave me permission - and not only were the weaker spouses full Guardians where my son was not, they could expect assistance if required. "Where do I get one?"

"He'll come to you already fitted with it. The charge will be levied against his fine. If he breaks it, an alert will be triggered. Repairs or replacement will also be charged."

"I presume I will be among those alerted?"

"If you request. You may also request additional alerts."

"I live in Indra System, with my husband's family."

"Register with Adulthood Services upon arrival."

"One more thing. My husband's family is politically important. I'm exposed to their rivals here. Is there any way to expedite his return to Earth, or that I can physically go fetch him?"

"Are you authorized for the habitat?"

I was authorized to be anywhere, particularly anywhere under Scimtar's jurisdiction. "Let me check... apparently yes."

"Not many are, so you might want to message ahead. Otherwise, they might ship him before you get there. Your acceptance of the guardian contract is on record. Remember to notify the Adulthood Services branch for your local Secundus when you arrive - here is a copy of his official record. They will ask for it. Make sure you get an acknowledgement in case of legal complications, and let them know if you want a notification of his damper malfunctioning to you or anyone else."

"Is there anything else?"

"Local Adulthood Services will likely assign you a contact as a monitor and for special requests. Be advised anything special will involve a charge, as will the examination for restoring adulthood - your ward owes the Empire money for his care and reimbursement to his victims. The Empire is not a charity, but there will likely be some charities willing to help with rehabilitation." There were charities for everything in the Empire. I contributed to several myself. "That covers it," Mr. Mendoza finished.

"Thank you for your assistance." I got up to leave, shook his hand, and walked out.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

"You have a point. It will be morning at least before bail will be set, so you are going to spend the night here in jail. Try not to arouse any of the other inmates. If necessary, pretend to be some ordinary person picked up for an unremarkable offense like traffic tickets. Do not call attention to yourself and do not tell any of your fellow inmates anything of your real predicament. Many of them will willingly inform on you, and given the nature of this case, the police will make a special effort to recruit informers. Understood?"


Mister Stuart opened the door to the interrogation room back up, gestured to Ramirez to take me away, and went off, presumably to rescue Julie. Ramirez, for his part, grabbed me by the arm and 'escorted' me to the holding tank as roughly as he could contrive.

The tank was an open area separated into cells by bars and not much else. Each had four bunks attached to the 'walls' two sets each of above and below. There were already three occupied bunks so I simply climbed into the fourth, the upper bunk on the right, the side 'behind' the cell door. It had neither pillow nor blankets; I presumed one of my 'roommates' had appropriated them. Mr. Stuart had instructed me not to arouse the other inmates, so I simply made myself as comfortable as I could under the circumstances.

I wasn't asleep yet when the lights suddenly blew out.

I had just time enough to think, this is not good when my cell mates jerkily got out of their bed in unison, like human marionettes on invisible strings, illuminated by the low, eerie light of computer monitors from the room next door.

The only way to make it obvious I wasn't the aggressor in whatever was about to happen was to stay right here in my bunk and scream, "Guards! GUARDS! GUARDS!" There was no immediate response. I kept yelling it anyway. It made the theater of what was going on undeniable. In the dim light, I noticed the inmates in the other cells also moving jerkily, like someone was controlling them.

"The guards can't help you now," a low growling voice issued from every other throat in the room. In the darkness, it sounded sibilant, like a snake. "You have angered the God, and you shall be made to pay."

I'm not going to kid you, I nearly lost control of my bladder I was so scared. But suddenly it was like all the strings were cut; the marionettes broke free. I supposed there had to be limits; they couldn't all have been minions of the Mad God. They hadn't accepted his bargain - he couldn't make them do much.

The lights were still out in the room. A few of my fellow detainees fell over, but most managed to preserve their balance, shaking their heads and asking questions that were variations on "What just happened?"

I was not going to attract attention to myself. I just lay there pretending nothing had happened. The mental state of my fellow detainees being what it was, none of them realized I was 'odd man out' before others had returned to their beds. Now that it was over, I had to admit I was glad the Mad God had tipped his hand - now I knew he was gunning for me, and was at least forewarned of other attempts.

Maybe half the other detainees had returned to their beds. The rest were milling about in the low light trying to figure out what had happened, talking to each other. Two of the other three in my cell had returned to their beds. The third, a huge slab of meat, stalked the small cell in the shadows trying to find someone to vent his wrath on. "You! What did you see?"

"I woke up standing on the floor in the dark, same as everyone else," I said.

"I didn't see you!"

"It was dark and I was behind you. I didn't see anything I could do about whatever it was, so I went back to bed."

He probably could have taken offense to that if he'd really wanted to, but he didn't. His gaze lit on something else, and he left me alone. Eventually, he gave up his search for something to lash out at. But the lights stayed off and none of the guards came to investigate. I hoped things weren't as bad as that omen presaged, but there was only so much my mind could worry the situation without more information, so eventually I fell asleep.

Later, I woke up to the sounds of people replacing the lights in the room. They didn't seem interested in answering a couple of questions other detainees asked, and nothing else seemed to be going on at the moment, so I after half an hour of trying, I managed to get back to sleep.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

"Hello Mark?"

It had been seven years since she abruptly served me with divorce papers and promptly disappeared. "What do you want, Diane?" I replied, not bothering to conceal the hostility I felt. It had been a decent enough day until now.

"I'm sorry, Mark. I know I hurt you, but it was the best thing I could have done. You don't owe me, and I don't have any right to ask, but I'm desperate and there's nobody else to ask. I need a place to stay for a few days. Is there any chance I can borrow your couch? I'll sleep on the floor if I have to. You're not with anyone are you?"

"I pay you plenty to afford a place to stay, Diane. What's this really about?" Being an ex-husband in California wasn't quite like being a field hand in Alabama before the Civil War, but it wasn't far off, either

"Mark, if I go home, they'll kill me. If I use a credit card, they'll find me."

"And this is bad because...?" I asked, callously. I mean, no more alimony.

"I suppose I deserved that," she admitted, "Goodbye, Mark. I wish I could have explained, but I didn't want to drag you in. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

"Wait, Diane," I told her. It was close to ten already. "You can stay here tonight. Tomorrow, you need to find something else." She had to have another friend somewhere. I'd put her on a bus if I had to. I started to give her my address, then stopped. I'd changed my cell number when she left. "How did you get this number?"

"Mark, I'll be there in half an hour. I can't explain much without dragging you in, but what I can, I will. I know where you live. Thank you!" She hung up.

Well, shit. She'd suckered me again. Seven years since she just vanished (well, except for the lawyer that worked the divorce for her). I hadn't been able to make a go of any relationship since, and I knew exactly why, and she'd still suckered me.


She'd said half an hour, but it was only eighteen minutes before she knocked softly. I didn't even finish berating myself for my own stupidity and lack of balls to tell her no and make it stick.

I wanted to just sit there and pretend I wasn't home. But I'd told her she could stay the night. Reluctantly, I levered myself off the couch and slouched my way to the door.

At first I didn't recognize the woman standing there. Honey-blonde hair where Diane had always been a medium brunette, a face that looked like it might have been eighteen but probably belonged to someone younger. Then I took in the green eyes, the pert nose that was somehow smaller but still hers, the immaculately perfect eyebrows, the lips I'd kissed so many times. It was her.

The rest of her looked somehow younger as well. The breasts were perkier and smaller than I remembered, she'd shed a few pounds and looked even more stunning. I knew this woman was forty-two - three years older than me - but she looked like a teenager and I didn't know how.

She saw the recognition in my eyes. "I can't explain, Mark, but it's me. It's been a while."

"You look good," I said, "You hook someone better off than me?" Alimony was until she remarried. Her having a sugar daddy on the side didn't let me off the hook.

"Mark, I never wanted to hurt you," she replied, "I'm sorry that I did, and if there was any other way that wouldn't have made it worse, I'd have done that instead. I'm sorry to reopen old wounds, but I'm desperate and I don't think I deserve to die for what I did to you."

"According to you, someone thinks you deserve to die for what you did to them."

"Mark, I already told you I can't explain. It's all tied together. What I can tell you is this: Cindy told me I had breast cancer. Stage four. Not much chance of beating it, not much time if I didn't. She said she knew somebody who might be able to help me."

"Well, you're still here."

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Luz's office occupied the corner closest to the ocean. The coastline runs closer to westbound than north in that area, but the building had been built so two sides had almost equally good views, and she had the corner between. The floor was the same pseudo-marble as the rest, but the walls were richly paneled in dark hardwood or a converter-produced close facsimile. The chairs might not have been leather, but they looked and felt like it. There was enough mist or fog in the air to limit the visibility, but she still had a view of several miles of the California coast through pristine glassteel. The sun itself was just visible high on my far left as we took seats across the hardwood expanse of her desk. Despite the opulence, the office had a feel of being little-used. My perception showed me seven bugs in various places within the office; I destroyed all of them with matris, not worrying about their provenance.

"This feels like you don't use it much," I remarked.

"I told you Grace, I'm really just a figurehead for Earth. Peter is the general manager; Carmen's husband David does all the real work on the Earth end."

"I've killed the bugs. Are you unhappy about your position?"

"Actually, it suits me well enough. I may look young, but I'm well over two hundred now, and my training never extended to running something this size. A few landscaping crews I can manage, but this is something else. I don't know how Dalia did it."

"Most likely by learning a little bit at a time as it grew."

"Well, yes, but this actually suits Assad and me well. We can take off without worrying if my absence is going to screw up the company."

"Okay, but be warned. I trust David, too. He wouldn't do anything intentionally, but if he makes a mistake, 'I was just a figurehead' cuts no slack with an Imperial Primus. I'd be learning enough to follow the goings-on were I in your shoes."

"I know, I know, but David's been doing a good job for over thirty-five years now... But this isn't why you're here. You said this was family business."

"Yes. You remember what I was like as a teenager?"

"Boy do I! You must have aged Mama and Papi thirty years! But then you pulled yourself together. Always wondered what changed."

"Do you remember Gerry?"

"The ex-Marine, older? Problem with drugs?"

I nodded. "Yeah. He'd been through a lot. PTSD, and he turned to drugs to help. But we were just so right when he was sober, and I thought could save him. Dios, I was a fool." Any Guardian could have saved him - but that was five Earth years before the first Imperial came to Earth.

"Whatever happened?"

"He OD'd. I told myself it was accidental at the time, but later I realized it'd been deliberate. He couldn't fight his demons any longer."

"Oh, Grace, I'm so sorry."

I shook my head. "Old news, even for me, hermana, and I wasn't exactly blameless. I was high, too, when the cops got there. The difference was the hospital saved me. Then they told me I was pregnant."


"Yeah. Dalia and her husband saved me. They persuaded the police they'd put me on what Peter Senior called 'the straight and narrow'. It being my first run-in, and Peter still being a Senior Chief at the time, it worked. They brought me down to live with them. I spent my pregnancy there. I was overweight then..."

"I remember."

"...and the last couple months were winter, so I stayed bundled up. I don't think any of their kids realized."

"Quit. Cold turkey. I decided the day they told me, even before I told Dalia. Peter told me if I relapsed even once he'd kick me out, but it wasn't necessary. I paced, I prayed, I did everything I had to do to break it. Never touched them again. Got a job waitressing. Peter introduced me to a guy he knew, got me started studying chemistry, then I got a better job through him. But I knew I wasn't ready to be a mother, and well, Gerry was..."

"Black. Yes, I remember abuela not liking him because he was black."

"So I knew the family might pretend, but there'd be problems. I understand things have changed now, but this was then." Luz's current husband was descended from Somali refugees. I'd only met him once, when I rescued them from the demonic assault on Los Angeles.

She shook her head. "Papi wouldn't have stood for it. His problem with Gerry was the drugs. Well, that and he thought the man was too old for you. He'd never allow any baby to be blamed for what its father had done."

"But they'd have blamed the baby's mother. It was a cop out, but I didn't make this whole journey overnight, or even in five years. I put the baby up for adoption. Never even held him in the delivery room. Only knew it was a boy because the doctor said so."

"I'm so sorry Grace. But why is this relevant now?"

"Because the Empire notified me that my son has had his adulthood revoked. I'm here to see if I can take custody of him."

"So you're going to have a two hundred year old child?"

"When I'm only seventy-eight by the same measure. He's likely set in his ways, but I owe it to him to try."

"You've got five Seventh Order kids, Grace. From what I remember, all of them well-behaved and above average for their preparation."

"Yes, even by Seventh Order standards Scimtar is happy with them. By the way, Esteban is now adult, and told me he's planning a visit. But kids I was in contact with from the day their minds started working are not the same as someone with two hundred Earth years of set habits."

"I'll be glad to see him again," she said, meaning Esteban. "So do you think you're up to the task of making your other son into a real adult?"

"I'd like to think so, Luz. But I just don't know. I think it will be easier in the Empire, but also more difficult. Asto says we'll do it together."

"That's a bonus. You won't be trying to do it alone."

"But we have four other non-adult children. Even if any of them could pass the adulthood tests tomorrow. And they have special dispensations he won't have."

"The only one without the same privileges as everyone else."


"The only advice I have is to tell him the others have earned those privileges. If he wants them too, he needs to earn them."

"That was my experience, too. There was a time when Ilras was jealous of Esteban, then Imtara had the same problems with Ilora. Alden was easy by comparison when he was too small for what everyone else had done. But someone who's been an adult will present different problems."

"Maybe the people in charge of him now will have some guidance."

The notification from Adulthood Services alarmed. It said the estimate was about six minutes Imperial before my turn. Plenty of time if I didn't waste it. "I could use some. Sorry but I just got notification my turn is soon. Would you rather walk me out or find my own way?"

"I'll walk you out. Not like I have real work to do."

We walked briskly. Luz had to be aware that I had to get there in a certain amount of time, and she knew I was a Guardian, capable of teleporting at least directly to the portal. Not simply teleporting out was a social courtesy. When we reached the elevator, however, she turned to me and said, "Grace..."


"There's no shame in turning this down, if it seems too much once they explain it. It wasn't easy with Shirley; it'll be a lot harder with someone older who used to be an adult. Imperial rules..."

"Imperial rules are something I've been living with for a long time, and I have resources you didn't. I'll be careful. Take care, Luz." And I gave her a quick hug as the elevator opened.

"Take care, Grace!"

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

"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."

Copyright 2020 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

My brother been right; the antigravity stopped working as soon as I was through. The pallet collapsed heavily onto the two axles I'd just installed.

The surface I was on was hard rock. Despite the fact that all I could see or perceive of this place was flat or at most gently sloping, all of the rock appeared to be igneous. Granite, basalt, pumice, etcetera, and all the variants, but absurdly rich in uncommon elements. Crystalline minerals glittered upon the surface in profusion up to the size of my hand or so, and my perception informed me that this was the case below the surface as well. Many of those crystals were precious or semi-precious stones. Pools and puddles of water ranging in size from nothing on up to perhaps a couple ifourths across speckled the landscape, the markings of small streams flowing out of them. This place broke all the rules of planetary geology. At least the rules we thought we knew, and the Empire had seen trillions of planets and planetoids.
Smaller rocks and loose soil were practically non-existent. Nor did there seem to be any sort of indigenous life. No plants at all. I wondered where the oxygen-rich air was coming from.

True to the warning, the dimensionality here was roughly three point twelve. Due to higher dimensionality, material borders were somewhat more difficult to traverse - the fractal surfaces generated more friction with the cart's tires than a strictly three dimensional surface would have.

It seemed that the most recent rain couldn't have been too long ago. I didn't see signs of significant evaporation from the natural limits of the depressions sheltering the water. But what my perception 'saw' was completely unexpected - the water was charged with an energy that reminded me of quantum foam, but tangible in the macroscopic universe, the richest source for matra I'd ever seen, or been told of for that matter. The water literally shone in some of the larger pools, merely glittering in the smaller ones. Perhaps the difference in intensity was a clue to how long it had been?

A trail had been worn onto the rock nearby, and people were following it. How had a trail become worn in a place seemingly devoid of plant life, which by all the rules I knew would have also precluded animal life?
Around me were several different sorts and even different species of what were obviously sentients, although even on the trails, there was plenty of room between individuals or groups. Humans I obviously recognized. There were also human variants, like a group of tall pale white stick-thin people with bright blue or violet eyes and hair that ranged from white to pale blue to pale yellow. It wasn't the thin of starvation or inactivity as they had excellent muscle definition, instead it seemed to be what was natural for them. I did a quick scan; genetically they were as human as I was, which is to say human with a few additions. As I walked, I discovered that there were also an amazing variety of nonhumans, from anthropoid to saurian to insectoid and just about everything else imaginable. As I said, this place appeared to break all the rules I thought I knew.

The trails seemed to follow mostly higher points in the terrain. At irregular intervals, there would be a junction or a branching. Some of them were barely footpaths, others were worn so smooth and wide they might as well have been a paved highway. Gently sloping swaths of bare rock surrounded us, none of them more than a few times human height. Despite the presence of the various sentients within my sight range, there were no permanent structures visible anywhere.

Visibility was low; there was a ubiquitous mist. Vision was restricted to no more than a few minutes' walk at most. At times, it was as low as perhaps sixty long paces or so. Nonetheless, it seemed we were on the inside of what could be most easily described as the hollowed out center of a large rock, the cavern no bigger than I could travel completely around at an easy pace in a few hours. What was holding us to the surface of the enclosing rock wasn't easy to describe. It wasn't gravity, and it wasn't centripetal force like an annular habitat. It seemed to be a byproduct of dimensionality that seemed to increase the closer you got to the center of the cavern. It seemed I weighed no more than half what I had on Nexus, but dimensionality varied from barely more than three to three point eighteen just over the narrow range of elevations I'd already encountered. Up at the very center, it seemed most likely dimensionality would be the full eleven. You could hear water falling constantly; sometimes the trail would parallel a small stream for a distance. Above us, somewhere in the mist, were some kind of multicolored light sources. I wasn't certain how many there were at present but I was certain there was more than one. The thick mist precluded shadows, but there were diffraction patterns in the mist that were beautiful, gold and blue and red and white sparkles. Further establishing the particulars seemed like something that could wait until I was established.

On second thought, maybe what I heard wasn't necessarily water. It was liquid, and the only liquid I'd seen was water, but I couldn't be certain that all of the liquid I was hearing was water. And since my brain had kicked in, I decided that before I wandered off too far I'd better mark my point of arrival and see if I couldn't figure out the translation that had brought me here. An inter-bubble gate was a major working; I should be able to back trace it for some time but it would never be easier than now. No, I wasn't planning to renege on my deal to leave the Empire and stay out, but knowing where I was in relation to the Empire would be useful someday. Besides, if survival necessitated me sneaking back to the Empire at some point in the future, better I was in a position to make that decision based upon practicality rather than have ignorance eclipse one of my options. With that in mind, I began a return to my starting point.

Copyright 2018 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

It's looking more and more like a fifth book will be required, so using "Measure Of Adulthood" as a working title. It may change before publication.


As far as what to do in the interim, I was kind of regretting not bringing the dogs. Given that I'd have to cut it short whenever I got the notification I was third in line, it seemed rude to me to just show up unannounced with family and expect them to make time for me. Still, I sent messages to Luz and Esperanza and to Carmen and David, not expecting a reply. But Luz called almost immediately.


"Grace! It is you! So glad to hear you're on Earth!"

"Only for a few hours, waiting for my turn to talk to a government agency." Imperial hours were 1.7 of Earth's old measure, but still. "I'll be leaving after. Sorry but I have to get back."

"What brings you back to Earth but not long enough to see family?"

I realized she didn't know - Dalia had never told her. "I'll tell you when I get there. Where are you?"

"At the Earth Dogs office. I'm the Dog Lady figurehead for Earth now. David does all the real work. It won't matter if I step out for a while, and he can find me if he needs me."

"Where is the new office?" The Pendleton Zone had been wrecked in the first days of the war, but that was fiftyone Imperial years ago here.

"Same place it was when Dalia ran things. We moved back in as soon as the building could take us. We've got three floors now. I'll meet you at reception."

I set the portal and stepped through, found myself in front of a significantly larger tower than I remembered - probably closer to thirty ifourths than twenty in height, and a larger footprint as well. Other towers of similar size showed to the south and east. I surmised the landlord had decided the demand would support the bigger buildings. Earth Dogs was listed as being on the fifteenth floor; I called an elevator and rode up. The buildings may have been larger than before, but they still weren't big enough to support a portal on every level, let alone multiple portals per level as the much bigger arcologies on Indra and other core Imperial worlds did.

The elevator opened on a lobby looking out over the Pacific Ocean from a height of perhaps three ifourths, which gave plenty of height to see San Clemente Island and Catalina further north. Dalia had never wanted the upper levels of the tower, just something high enough for a little bit of view. The tower might have been rebuilt, but Earth Dogs was about the same height as it had been before the invasion.

Luz was waiting at reception - she looked exactly like she had as a young mother, all those years ago. Maybe three isixths shorter than me, same shoulder-length wavy dark hair, just a shade or two from black.


"Grace! So good to see you!" We hugged, and she asked, "Can I have Brenda take our picture? It'll be good for the newsletter and some other places."

I saw a young-looking woman with her red hair in curls. "Brenda is...?" I expected her to be a family member I didn't recognize. It had been fiftyone years here since my last visit.

"Brenda is our receptionist. Sorry Grace. There wasn't enough family left after..."

"I'm not upset about that. I'm upset that four prime thirtysix of our relatives died. I should have expected you'd have to hire more from outside the family. You've done well, though. Earth Dogs is actually an increasing share of my income."

"Give David the credit for whatever our Earth office has achieved. Peter is the big boss these days, but he's out in the Empire. I'm here because even though David's been married to Carmen for almost two centuries, he's still a spouse." She was talking Earth years; it was approaching five prime Imperial years. I owned a quarter of Earth Dogs, but I hadn't been involved in management since I left Earth. My remaining siblings and other surviving family owned the rest. If they wanted a blood relative as official head or public face of the company, their wishes would prevail. "Did you want a tour?"

"Not really. Just wanted to do what catching up I could in whatever time I have here. Are the Lees still here?"

"Sorry, Grace, none of them survived the demons."

Damn. "Where do you get Chinese food these days, then?"

"Haven't really found anywhere in particular. The younger generation doesn't seem to be as good."

Understandable. They'd grown up with converters and programming rather than meat and vegetables and spices. "What do you recommend, then?"

"Not really hungry, Grace; we just had lunch here." It was noon by the sun or maybe a bit after. "Want to come back to my office and talk? I'll order you something."

"No, that's okay. How about a walk? I think I need to talk to someone." I didn't need to eat. I'd been hoping for good Chinese food while I was on Earth. Now that I knew the Lees were gone, I wasn't hungry.

"Really? You haven't asked to talk to anyone for a couple centuries now. Why not your husband?"

"Because he already knows, and he's not here. Please Luz, I need to tell someone in the family. Dalia knew, but she's gone now."

"The only walk is the memorial along the beach. Too depressing."

I had one of my para pull up the information. It was paved with the pictures of people who'd died in the demonic invasion. The two fourths who'd died in Los Angeles had been the lowest casualty count of the seven major assault points, but they'd included more than four fifths of my Earth family. "Then how about just through the streets of the industrial park? It's not like we're going to get lost or assaulted." I just wanted a plausible illusion of privacy.

"Grace, my private office is what I'll offer. Take it or leave it."

Her private office would be bugged by everyone and their great-aunt Zelda. I doubted Earth Dogs kept someone on staff to keep it clear - it would be a major expense on an Earth where Guardians - or even partly trained operants - were rare. But I supposed I could do something about it for now. "I'll take it."

She led me back through the offices of Earth Dogs. Unlike the cube farms of my youth, the people who worked on-site would have reason to offer guests at least the illusion of privacy. Accordingly, they were corridors lined with small private offices, doors open. Offices on my left had an actual window to the outside and most were larger than the offices on my right, which were internal and barely big enough for the occupant and a couple of human guests and perhaps a furry one or two. Floors were tiled in something that might have been travertine by the look of it, but perception told me it was thicker and more durable. Perhaps it was marble, now that everything came out of a converter anyway. Being the company Earth Dogs was, there were a sprinkling of dogs in with the workers, from some teacup toy mix I wasn't sure of to a big Rottweiler in one of the offices on the interior side.

Luz's office occupied the corner closest to the ocean. The coastline runs closer to westbound than north in that area, but the building had been built so two sides had almost equally good views, and she had the corner between. The floor was the same pseudo-marble as the rest, but the walls were richly paneled in dark hardwood or a converter-produced close facsimile. The chairs might not have been leather, but they looked and felt like it. There was enough mist or fog in the air to limit the visibility, but she still had a view of several miles of the California coast through pristine glassteel. The sun itself was just visible high on my far left as we took seats across the hardwood expanse of her desk. Despite the opulence, the office had a feel of being little-used. My perception showed me seven bugs in various places within the office; I destroyed all of them with matris, not worrying about their provenance.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.


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