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It was hard to believe she was gone.

For over an Earth century, Sephia had been the commander of Bolthole Base. She'd been the one constant, unchangeable thing about the mission on Calmena. The base was four times the size it had been when I started, Calmena itself was utterly changed, but Sephia was changeless - until this morning. She'd had a cerebral hemorrhage at some point overnight and died in her sleep. Her bright blue eyes were forever closed and I could have used a shot of her no-nonsense grandmotherly attitude. But her body had already been fed back into the converter as per standard Imperial procedure; she was one with the universe now.

Section Private Kryphan was senior-most of those in the line of command; therefore he was interim commander. It was unlikely a successor for Sephia would be more than two days in coming - today's courier run would have taken the news to Earth, almost certainly the new base commander would arrive tomorrow. But whoever it was, they'd never replace the grandmother hen who'd watched over us for the last century, kept us focused on the task, held us together through all the setbacks, and kicked us into action when it was necessary.

It had been pointless to Portal back to Bolthole Base, but every single one of the twentytwo teams currently working the Advancement Mission nonetheless made the journey, each of us making a solemn pilgrimage to the door of the base commander's office that had been hers for so long, just standing at the door looking in in silent farewell, bore executing tatzen, the Imperial gesture of respect, before turning and walking away silently. Tatzen was a variable gesture. Fingertips to chin was respect. Fingertips to upper lip was more. Nose to the joining of the ring and middle fingers was the limit of ordinary. Nose to wrist and palm to heart was all that and love and loss and you couldn't get any higher. Anything more than that was simple pretension, and none of us would do that to her. Sephia's absence was a burning hole in all of our hearts. She hadn't had to do anything beyond her job as commander of Bolthole Base, but she'd done everything she could to make our jobs easier as well. She would be missed.

Both Asina and I had last messages from her in our datalink queue. Likely a last farewell and whatever last message she'd wanted us to be reminded of. We'd play them back in Yalskarr. Speaking of which, we'd be missed if we lingered more than a few minutes. Sephia was gone, and not coming back, but we still had our work to do. After a quick chat with Arrel and Dildre, we portaled back to the Calmenan city that had been our home for over sixty Imperial years now.

Yalskarr was a different place, sixty Imperial years on. It had been a port town when we arrived; now it was one of the busiest ports on Calmena as well as an industrial center rivaling anything Earth had had in the mid-twentieth century. Nearly a million people lived in the city itself and another four in the territory it governed, which included the oilfields to the north as well as enough farmland to feed them all. It had its growing pains but Asina as First Captain had done her best to help the area remain livable as well as defensible from demonic incursions. She was retired from that now but still consulted from time to time; administering the industrial conglomerate that built ships, airplanes, and automobiles as well as the engines to power all of them took all of her time while I worked on advancing the technology as fast as I could, largely using the blueprints from Earth's Industrial Age. The time was coming when the lives of every human on Calmena would hinge on how fast we could upgrade.

From the little copy of the Bleriot monoplane that had begun aviation here, Calmena's aircraft industry was ready to transition into the jet age, but that was far from an unmixed blessing. For most of the things that would be needed in repelling large bodies of demonic troops, propeller driven aircraft were more effective. Jets were expensive; the only real need for jet fighters was fighting other jet fighters and I couldn't see the demons fielding fighters that something of that era could fight. Either the demons would copy something like an Imperial Starbird in which case jets would simply be expensive targets, or they wouldn't bother at all, in which case Calmenan jet fighters would be wasting resources that could more profitably be used elsewhere. But it was difficult to explain this to people who'd never been allowed to see Imperial starships and thought jets were the pinnacle of development.

Fortunately, most of the military organizations of Calmena understood who their real enemies were. Thousands of years of oppression and regular waves of demonic legions attempting to reconquer human nations made that abundantly clear. Over on Wilmarglr Continent where we'd started, Bazhen had imperial aspirations but fortunately the demons kept graphically explaining the folly of attacking fellow humans when there were demons trying to eat both them and their intended conquests.

Asina and I each had half an hour of putting out those routine little metaphorical fires that seem to sprout like magic when the boss is away even momentarily. Hers had to do with the supply of metals - both iron and aluminum - that our shipyards and plane assembly required in thousand ton lots. Taman, her assistant, was a good accountant who couldn't be told we had access to more wealth than was apparent, and had tried to scale back or split an order of metal we needed immediately if not sooner. Mine had to do with a design issue on the proposed gunships. Makis understood why the main firepower had to sprout to one side, but Ghent, our liaison, was a former fighter pilot who wanted it all firing forward and tried to coerce a design change from him. I explained to Ghent for the seventeenth time that transports could keep one wing and therefore the guns aligned with it pointed at a target indefinitely, a feature that couldn't be replicated for any forward firing weapons. Ghent may have had experience using fighters to strafe demonic legions; I had access to records from an Earth he didn't know existed, and from the Empire as well, although Imperial tech was tens of thousands of years past anything Calmena could produce. We looted technology from pre-contact Earth because there was no living memory of Imperial equivalents and few designs for their production. The Swass-class transports that were the basic design were an almost exact copy of an Earth transport plane called a C-130 Hercules, and the gunships based upon them had been known as Spectres. I'd been told the new guns for them would be every bit as effective as the original Spectre.

Once the metaphorical brushfires were out, we retired to Asina's office to play Sephia's message on our datalinks. The basic message was what we'd expected - how Calmena was important to the upcoming war, how we were going to make an outsize difference to the outcome, how she knew we'd make her proud. The basic message was one she'd repeated over and over again in our time on Calmena, but it brought tears to our eyes hearing it from her mouth one more time, and we loved her for it. Her straight pale blonde pageboy cut was slightly longer than the last time we'd seen her - it wasn't a recent recording. We checked the timestamp and it was almost ten years old. Asina had loved Sephia as a replacement for the mother she'd lost as a child. I wasn't an orphan, but she'd become a beloved aunt, equal in my affections with Tia Esperanza and Tia Luz and Tia Grace. I made a point of copying the message to archive; I wanted to be able to play this message again someday, a cherished memory of a dear friend.

The message had an update - numbered twelve. Evidently one through eleven had been deleted. It was short and to the point. The Sephia in this message looked a little thinner, her hair a little shorter, and her face more determined. She spoke straight into the screen, bright blue eyes blazing defiance. "Joe, Asina, and the rest of you. They don't want me to tell you yet, but if you're seeing this, I'm beyond any discipline they might impose. Believe me when I tell you that right now your most important concern is ammunition for the weapons you have. Make what use of this information you can."

The timestamp was three days old.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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Our first destination was Bolthole Base, high up in the most inaccessible area of the Collision Range on Wimarglr Continent. A lot of work went into keeping natives from realizing it was there, from holographic projectors to avoidance fields and forbiddings with auros. In the long run, they'd find it, but the general thinking was the long-awaited rematch between the fractal demons and the Empire would be underway before then, rendering it a moot point.

There's a moment on approach when you make a mental shift from thinking you're in space getting closer to the planet to thinking you're on the planet even though you're not on the ground yet. For me, it's when I start being able to make out individual features in the video feed. The nameless mountain in which Bolthole Base was embedded was usually it, followed by the small alpine meadow below the base. The mountain itself - second highest peak on the planet - was perpetually ice crowned, even though it was no higher than Mount Whitney in California and within a couple degrees of the planetary equator. There wasn't time in Calmena's short year of 145 Earth days (136 Imperial or local) for the snow that fell to melt. The lake below waxed and waned with the weather.

The pilot picked up the approach path, and slowing still further apparently headed straight towards the side of the mountain. At the last moment, the illusion of solidity melted and the viewscreen showed a massive cavern holding fifty or sixty Starbirds and cutters. The base and the cavern holding it had expanded in the time I'd been here, but it was still too small for anything bigger than cutters to land.

The base commander, Sephia, was waiting to greet us. Sephia looked like a blonde college coed of my youth, her white-blonde pageboy cut barely ruffling in the sheltered cavern. "Welcome back, my young friends!" she greeted the two of us. As soon as she opened her mouth, her attitude and manner of speaking betrayed the fact that she was old for a natural state human - perhaps a full square by now. I didn't know exactly - what I did know was she'd held a higher rank than she did now at the end of the Reunification, three thousand Imperial years ago. Except for occasional leave, she'd been base commander for over an Earth century now, and she had no intention of applying for promotion. "This is where the next war with the demons will start," she'd told me when I first arrived. Taking a promotion would mean leaving Calmena for her.

"Good to see you, grandmother!" I teased her in return. I was aware the base was busier than it had been in times past. There were more troops visible in the main cavern. I wasn't sure why; it wasn't any of my business. I could ask if I wanted, but I was certain Sephia wouldn't give me a straight answer. The Empire has a habit of keeping operational information to those with a need to know, Asina concurred. I wasn't aware that the combat soldiers were doing any more work but there had to be a reason the Empire had done it. Likely it had to do with the heightened sense that open war with the fractal demons was close. I'd heard rumors of more troops being assigned to Earth as well.

"Staying the night, or just heading on through?" she asked.

"The plan is to take the portal to Tabbraz immediately," Asina responded, "But there's no rush. If you'd like us to stay for some reason, there are ships heading to Yalskarr from there all the time." Tabbraz was on the south coast of Hashiboor, from which passage on a steamship to Yalskarr, at the base of the Karnel Peninsula, would take a few days. We had to be a little more circumspect these days. Rather than just walking out of a portal or setting up a compound in the middle of nowhere, we had to leave something of an arrival trail and something of a departure trail. Calmena was getting civilized. Somebody might ask where we came from - it was important for them to be able to find something of a trail.

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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Imperial vehicles were more like this ship: quiet, and almost too powerful. Thirty meters from nose to tail, roughly twenty six from wingtip to wingtip, with the central cylinder being roughly eight meters in diameter, Golden Hind was reminiscent of one of NASA's old space shuttles. It had the same type of outer hull, minus the rocket nozzles - it was powered by a main siphon that could provide about ten percent of the power of the sun, essentially forever. A converter was attached that could use that power to produce matter in most configurations from machine tools to food. Impellers were capable of about 1200 gravities of acceleration in normal space - from grounded to 99% of light speed in less than seven hours. The Vistula Space Corporation, or VSC, had ordered a standard transport cutter, with a time-jammer addition. The faster-than-light time-jammer was designed and rated for over two hundred thousand times the speed of light. That meant Earth to Barnard's Star in about fifteen minutes at top speed - which would be like traveling to the corner store at Mach speeds. It even had a Vector Drive in case an operant pilot became available. One person could operate Golden Hind, but we had a crew of five.

The titular commander was John Dulles. I wasn't privy to why VSC had named a corporate vice-president to command the ship. I didn't think it was a good idea, but nobody asked me. Earth MBAs didn't have the background I thought likely to make good decisions in that sort of situation. I thought that if he had any brains he'd pretend to think it over and do what Major John Kyle (newly mustered out from U.S.A.F.) - our pilot - suggested. A graduate of the Air Force Academy and former fighter pilot, Major Kyle at least had the kinds of training to understand what was important if we got into trouble. Jayden Smith - a graduate of Johns Hopkins with a decade of solid work in molecular biology with medical application - was our biologist, and William Miyazaki was our astronomer. Will had had a doctorate from CalTech before his twenty-first birthday, and had spent the ten years since expanding Earth's infant science of detecting habitable planets at interstellar distances - technology that had become irrelevant overnight when the Empire arrived to save us from ourselves.

What was I doing here? Well, the family had more than enough people to work the dog business, even the shipborne part involving Tia Grace's two huge spherical transport ships, Earth and Indra. Her husband's family had given them to her to help grow the dog business, and she'd needed cargo handlers, for which she wanted family - me and all the rest of her nephews and nieces. She'd given us datalinks so we could interface with Imperial computers just by thinking, plus they gave us a lot of other capabilities. Think of a datalink essentially like having a tiny super smartphone right there in your brain. Then she'd left us alone on her ships for a week at a time, with nothing to do except work and study. Of course the first things we all learned were the rest of the skills of Imperial space crew. Everything from in-system pilot to power engineer. Which made us pretty unique on Earth after the unification. When a couple Earth consortia got the funds for small spacecraft, the first thing they did was offer an unbelievable amount recruiting us, as the only Earth people with working knowledge of Imperial spacecraft. I had a better understanding of the Imperial technology we were using than almost anyone else. I was engineer, repairman, janitor, and back-up for everyone else. If something broke, I was pretty much the only hope of fixing it. Finally, unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, the Empire essentially required that the command pilot be someone who had passed the Imperial adulthood tests, not just a temporary adult-by-courtesy. That meant I had final authority as far as the ship itself was concerned - I could over-ride anyone and everyone else if I had to. However, I'd get a bonus if I didn't reveal it - VSC's financial backers were Earth business people, steeped in the business traditions of Earth. They didn't want to tell successful professionals with a decade or more experience that the ultimate boss was a twenty-two year old kid who had been working his way through community college a little over year ago. Our family had had over a year to deal with those tests; it had only been about eight weeks since the Imperial arrival notified everyone else.

Some people might gripe about no women on the crew. Cramped living quarters meant we were living in bunk beds about six feet by three with about eighteen inches of vertical space and absolutely no privacy, so Golden Hind had an all-male crew. The offsetting reality was that my cousin Adela was aboard all-female Victoria, headed off towards Alpha Centauri and other stars in that direction. We were supposed to be gone for five to seven days each, each returning in plenty of time for our next turn onboard Tia Grace's ships. That was in fact written into my contract - replacement for wages lost if the ship went past nominal return date.

There had been a lot of interest in us, as if in disbelief that the Empire was really going to let Earth people pilot interstellar ships with no oversight from its own people, less than two months after taking over the planet. I don't know about no oversight, but as long as we stayed within the framework that had been pounded out over the millennia, there wasn't any reason to treat Earth humans as different from any other citizens of the Empire. Golden Hind and Victoria had responsible, qualified adults in charge, so the Empire was fine with VSC's two new interstellar craft. VSC had had a departure ceremony, with speeches by half a dozen people who would have been Very Important Politicians just a couple months before, including the President of the United States and our very own self-appointed luminary Mr. Dulles. Everyone from both crews had less than complimentary pet names for that clown. He talked of the glories of exploration and bringing back treasures. Idiot. Mines, even "pick the pure, no refinery needed stuff up off the ground"-type mines would never compete with siphons and converters. We were looking for livable planets, or planets that could be made livable. Nothing else.

Our actual departure from Earth had been pretty prosaic. We'd used the old runway the shuttles used to land on in Cape Canaveral, for no good reason. Imperial ships could take off vertically and safely from anywhere, with noise about equal to an electric car until you hit Mach. Major Kyle took us up and out of the atmosphere, then out of the plane of the ecliptic preparatory to transitioning to light speed. It wasn't far as in-system distances went, and it really only took about half an hour to get well clear of most of the junk in the solar system. We watched Earth drop away, becoming a blue-white marble behind us before diminishing to a point. We hadn't used maximum acceleration, so we were only about ten million kilometers from Earth - twenty times further than any previous ship manned by Earth humans - when we engaged the time-jammer and went superluminal.

The aforementioned capture buffer built quickly. It didn't matter if we caught a photon that had left Sol before us, or one traveling towards us from one of the stars in the "forward" half of the sky. Photons impacting the bubble entered the capture buffer, and only slowly worked their way loose, resulting in the pretty soft pastels I talked about earlier.

We started off slow and built speed up over the course of an hour or so. It had been planned that we'd peak at about fifty thousand times the speed of light, but Major Kyle ended up ramping more slowly to a lower top speed, about thirty thousand times the speed of light, which we stayed at for about an hour and a half before it was time to start slowing down again. During that time he jogged us three times to miss objects large enough to worry about. A couple of times, Dulles tried to talk to him but Major Kyle said, "If you want to talk, we need to stop first." It wasn't exactly difficult piloting, but you couldn't let your attention wander at all. In one second at thirty thousand times the speed of light, we were traveling about nine billion kilometers, or roughly the entire diameter of Neptune's orbit. There were a lot of reasons why Vector Drive was better, if you had the pilot to handle it. For one thing, when you went directly from point A to point B, there was a lot less to hit.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Connected Worlds is an intentional riff on Zelazny's Amber, Michael Moorcock's Tanelorn, Brian Daley's Cinnabar, and others. It is the setting for my current primary work in progress, working title "Bubbles Of Creation" It's been several years since I worked in the setting, so I'll describe it for you. The first book is "The Fountains of Aescalon" (Amazon link here and Books2Read link here). The second book is "The Monad Trap" (Amazon link here, Books2Read retailer link here)

"Fountains Of Aescalon" is both about exploring the Connected Worlds and an accidental romance. The character of Petra was inspired by Circe from the Odyssey, a demigoddess cursed to seduce and punish men suspected of infidelity. She was intended to be a short term foil to Alexan; instead she stood up and insisted that she had a better plan, and she was right.

Alexan is a complex character. His origin is in the Empire of Humanity, before the Ston Rebellion and Interregnum. It wouldn't be wrong to think of him as a ghost - he began as a splinter, in a time when the Fifteen Families were just beginning to discover splinters and their uses. Once he sorts out who he really is, he knows he cannot stay in the Empire, and his destination is suggested by an ally.

Alexan is a difficult character to write (progress has been slow, but the idea has a hold on me). It's difficult to create opposition of such a nature as to constitute a credible threat to him, but reviews tell me I've done well on that score in the first two novels. "Bubbles of Creation" will likely be the last Alexan story (although I thought "The Monad Trap" would be the last until I had this idea); I have at least one other idea centering on a different character (tentatively titled "The Crazy Lady"), and there is no reason I cannot write as many other stories of the Connected Worlds as I want.

"The Monad Trap" is a story partially about Alexan's self-imposed quest to learn more about Aescalon and environs, and to advance himself and others in the process, and partially about attempts for revenge upon him from beyond the grave.

Aescalon is a small place at the very center of existence. It consists of a cavern on the order of 25 miles (40km) in diameter, with what *appears* to be a neutron star at the center of it. Near the surface of the cavern are 165 First Order Connected Realms (165 is the number of combinations you get when you take 11 dimensions chosen 3 at a time). These are full on universes; the majority of the first story is spent in Migurd, one of the first order Connected Realms which has a pseudo-nordic air crossed with something resembling Arthurian legend, but it's an entire world all by itself and we barely scratch the surface of Migurd in the first book.

There are roughly 20 million Second Order Connected Realms, and even larger numbers of Third and Fourth Order Connected Realms. They are progressively smaller, however.

There is a massive and unparalleled power source centered on Aescalon. Deities and other extraordinary entities are drawn to it - as are those who wish to *become* deities, and as Alexan discovers, there are multiple ranks of deity. However, each and every deity must have a 'divine curse', something that constrains their behavior in a way as to defy volition, at least in that regard. There is also at least one trap for the ambitious but unwary along the way to climbing the divine ranks.

My Author's Brand

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

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

The 'flavor' of science fiction I'm writing is a blend of Golden Age and modern 'human wave'. People are at the center of what I write. Technology may dictate some of the constraints of whatever the protagonists are trying to solve, but humans are in control, not robots or machinery - and people sometimes figure out ways around constraints, whether technical or political.

Second, I want the characters to think. I want you to come away from the book thinking that everyone did what they did for rational reasons or at least motivations real people have. Nobody in my books is evil because it says so on their character card. The antagonists are pursuing their own best interests as best they see them. Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Similarly, I try really hard to avoid violations of the Evil Overlord's Principles (This should illustrate what I'm talking about if you need explanation). If it were possible to game the antagonist with a cheap shot, someone would already have done it. I want you to have the feeling that it took some real thought to plot this story - that all the characters all thought and worked for their chosen ends, and that the resolution reflects this. Nor do I ask you to swallow patent absurdities because it somehow enables a 'Cool Idea'. Cool Ideas should fit within the established framework of how people behave and the world I've built.

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

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

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Ten seconds later, we grounded with a thump-KLANG. Harder than I liked to put my ships down, but with a full hull charge, I had no reason to believe Ugatu had endangered the ship or anyone in it. Weight returned as the impellers went dormant. I stayed buckled and so did Asto; nobody had told us we were getting off here.

A few seconds later, Ugatu came back into the cargo bay and did just that, "Unstrap yourselves and grab your bags. Follow me out in reverse order to how you came in. Welcome to Sharanna Military Reservation Twentythree, the Empire's newest initial military training facility for Guardians. You'll be here until you pass or they allow you to quit."

The lone man who'd been on the opposite side of the ship followed him out first, followed by the left side from front to back, reversing the order we'd loaded in. We debarked on a much larger landing field, with many ships of varying sizes from Starbird all the way up to convoy craft at least, and it was just that I didn't see anything bigger, not that I was certain it wasn't there. First, we trotted at the same speed away from the ship as we had in approaching. This area of Sharanna was a lot cooler and less humid than Fulda or even Sumabad; maybe the equivalent of five degrees Celsius outside. Cold enough for natural state humans to be uncomfortable, and you could feel a hint of rain in the air. Classic towering cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds occupied a good slice of the horizon, approaching rapidly, and you could see the rain approaching. Overhead, the clear sky was rapidly turning to grey. Once the weather got up steam here, it could really move fast and grow powerful enough to make a joke of any Earthly storm. Imperial construction was tough; people just didn't go out when storms were bad. Sharanna was a completely artificial environment, so unless there was an intentionally created barrier, storms could travel millions of kilometers, alternately waxing and waning the whole way until they did run into something that stopped them for good. Kind of like the Great Plains states, or the oceans of Earth, times a thousand or so. My dog farm was in the prevailing wind-shadow of Band City with its massive ten and twenty mile high arcologies spreading across a swath a million kilometers or more in any direction, and no major sources of storms between the city and the farm. I gathered that this place was not so sheltered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I announced myself to Helene and she invited me into her studio. She was working on a voice project for someone else that day; she put it aside and sat with me. "The first question I have to ask, Grace, is how territorial you are about the dog business?"

"If it would get me the people I need to help Earth, I'd sell the dog farm tomorrow. I can make more running cargo around the Empire than I can in the dog business, and be home every night."

"Well, perhaps you ought to do precisely that. My husband has a pair of older size two capital ships that really aren't economical any longer. They've been sitting in a holding yard for years. You should be able to put Interstitials in, maybe even pay an on-board cargo handler. Agree to rent space in the hold to anyone who wants. Class two capital ships have external racks for nine small cruiser auxiliaries, as well as internal space for smaller craft. Inoperants can make sublight runs within the system on impellers. If you simply hold your fees to something the consortium can pay, that would solve most of the problems."

"That seems like it might have merit, but the real point is to get strong Guardians who can fight demons. My satellite has found a jopas, two spraxos, and several nephraim, none of which I'm confident of facing alone."

"Not all operants are Vector pilots, let alone Interstitial pilots."

"I know, Helene, but how many will be interested in Earth?"

"All you can do is ask."

True. Without the Empire behind it, this whole thing was purely voluntary. On the other hand, I didn't have to choose by the method of taking the first eight people - or eighty - who ask. I could explicitly reserve slots for operants willing to fight major demons. Class two capital ships might have been small by the standards of current commerce, but they were over three hundred fifty meters in radius - nearly one hundred million cubic meters of which was cargo capacity. By comparison, the largest cargo ships on Earth are around seven to eight hundred thousand cubic meters. I wasn't certain every stray dog and cat on Earth would fill a hundred million cubic meters. On the other hand, with an internal system for moving stasis boxes, it would make it easy for dog people to bring back a stasis box at a time, and each participant could have boxes and hold volumes marked for their individual use. "Is anyone likely to volunteer just for a demon hunt?"

"I'd say it's likely. There's a lot of bad feeling towards demons over their part in the Interregnum. If I wasn't raising two small children, I might volunteer myself."

That was a shock. Helene was the embodiment of a dignified lady artist. Then I remembered Anara telling me how she used to have two other children, and I realized I didn't know how many other close friends and family she might have lost. Figure every Imperial citizen old enough to have lived through the Interregnum was a good candidate to volunteer, and that included a large proportion of the strongest as well as all of the most experienced Guardians. For the first time, I really understood that learning about history second-hand was a poor substitute for the experience of those who lived through it. "What if I were to simply upload my satellite log?"

"You might have to promote it a bit, and add a location. Perhaps you might have to promise transportation. But the response that would surprise me the least is veterans of the era start recruiting on their own. Everyone lost people they cared about. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I, my husband, and four of my six children survived. By comparison the Baryan lost twenty out of twentytwo adult members and all of their children and spouses, the M'Dorna lost fourteen out of fifteen adults and all their children and spouses, and depending upon your interpretation, ten or eleven of the Great Houses were completely exterminated. The Council actually had a survival rate greater than the Imperial population at large. More than half of all Imperial planets were completely destroyed or sterilized, none kept even half their old population alive. Nobody got through the Interregnum unscathed, and the demons were the enabling factor. Most survivors of the Interregnum don't think we've done anything like even the scales yet. Many will drop anything they can to give them a chance at demons."

"So a two prong strategy, one to recruit volunteers for an assault, one to recruit fellow dog sellers. What is the advantage of the other dog sellers?"

"One person, isolated as you are on Earth, is a lot easier to kill than an ongoing presence. Even if you're the only pilot for the consortium, the other members will have someone who checks on them if they don't return."

So if there were a dozen of us on Earth, killing one of us didn't help them. With Asto behind me, it wouldn't help them even if I was alone, but they'd know it wouldn't help them if I wasn't alone. "Thank you Helene. Am I going to be able to thank Scimtar in person this evening?" She communicated no, so I continued, "Please also tell him thank you for me?" and started to take my leave, but she interrupted me.

"One more thing, Grace. My husband said it's time you had a refresher. I've made reservation for you with the family arms people tomorrow from nineteen zero to twentysix."

Well, dang. I had had plans for tomorrow - it was the only day I'd get in the Empire before I had to head back to Earth. A day and a half here was roughly six days there. Neither she nor grandfather can force you, love, Asto sent, but it really would be a good idea. The skills decay without use. So I agreed, and then took my leave.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

I woke up suddenly in the dark. There was somebody in the room with me. I heard Riley bark once, then go silent. The shape of a woman resolved itself in the closet door. It was dark, but she wasn't much bigger than I was. I grabbed for the little blaster in my bag, but she interrupted, "Don't bother with the blaster; it won't work on me anyway. How did you get it and what happened to my brother?"

"Your brother?" I replied. I hoped she had something to do with ScOsh, but wasn't certain.

"His name was Osh Scimtar. He probably called himself ScOsh. There is a Mindsword in this box that shows his pattern, but he wasn't known to have a Mindsword or be capable of forging one. It's inactive, which means he's dead, and you're operant with at least some training. Did you somehow manage to kill him?"
"First explain what you did to the dog and my parents!"

"They're asleep. Nobody is going to interrupt us. Now start explaining!"

"Oh, I am sorry!" It took a while for my brain to get going sometimes. "I knew there'd be people looking for him, but he told me there were so many people in the empire I never thought it would be family first. He gave me a log for the whomever it was. Have you found his log yet?" She gave a little noise towards the end of the sentence, which meant she had as soon as I mentioned it. I watched her face fall. She must have accessed something that told her ScOsh was dead. It was like a hammer hit her, but she maintained her presence of mind.

After that pause, "Are you Grace?"

"That's me," I replied. Since I hadn't yet given her a name, that meant she read it off the log or out of my mind.

"I'm sorry," she said, "But Osh was close to all of us. A surrogate father whenever Father was gone. I'm Anara Scimtar di Baryan. Call me ScAnara." Unlike ScOsh, she emphasized the connection enough that I caught the soft cee and figured out that the beginning was an informal patronymic of sorts. "To expect him to be here so I can harass him about an error he made, only he's gone, dead, it's just going to take a few moments. He thought a lot of you, evidently. Enough to leave instructions concerning you in his log. Would you like to come to the empire with us?"

"Yes, I would." I had already made up my mind on that score. "How long do I have?"

"We need to verify that he did kill all of the stons that were here. And we're going to run an astral survey, compute a temporal ephemeris, drop a beacon. As long as we're here, let's do what we need to in order to keep track of a planet with seven billion humans. That will also insure you can find your way back, incidentally. Eight hours at least. ScOsh's log says our hours are about one point seven of yours so thirteen and a half hours." I looked at my watch, just to be sure. It was 5 AM. I had until 6:30 tonight to say goodbye.

"Do I need to bring anything?"

"A couple days' worth of clothing might be prudent, but not necessary. Artificial environment shipboard." I turned on the light, and discovered that ScAnara looked nothing like ScOsh had. Her skin actually had a slight orange cast to it, and if she didn't have the brightest head of red hair I'd ever seen, it was close. She also had the build of the smaller, heavily built mindlords rather than ScOsh's tall and skinny. She was about five foot six, looked like she weighed maybe one-seventy, not fat, but rather the sort of muscles that come from hours at the gym. If you'd forced me to guess her ethnicity, I would have said Irish but her accent was pure California.

"Do you have time to wake my parents? I'm an adult, but talking with you might calm their fears."

"I have a few minutes, unless there's an alert."

I went down the hall and knocked on their door. "Papi? Mama, there's someone here you want to talk to."

It took them a minute to wake up, then, "What is it m'ija?" There was definitely sleep in Papi's voice. They were both in pajamas, sitting up in bed.

"This is ScOsh's sister, ScAnara. I'm going to be leaving with her tonight. I'm not certain when I'll be able to come back. Probably at least a couple years their time, maybe more of ours."

Papi: "Huh? Why? We just got you back!"

"Your daughter is operant sir," ScAnara replied, "She needs to learn how to use her abilities. Here, she will never learn it all on her own, there is too much to discover. But we've had billions like her and like me for a hundred thousand years. We've learned how to do a lot that she will never learn on her own, and how to pass it on. When she comes back, assuming she decides she wants to, she will be the start of a new era on your world. We don't die from old age or disease; she'll be able to bring that same knowledge to your world, along with many other things. Have you noticed a difference in your daughter?"

"Si," Papi replied, "She changed a lot since the last time. No glasses, and I haven't seen her fool with contacts either. It's like she suddenly spent two years working out in the space of three days. And maybe I'm getting old, but she seemed smarter and faster as well as younger." Mama also nodded.

"ScOsh did all of that for me in a few seconds Mama. I have to go learn so I can do it for others. And the things they can do - you saw, both of you. They can travel between galaxies and alternate dimensions in the twinkling of an eye. I have to go learn!"

"M'ija, are you sure this is alright?"

Remembering something he'd often said to Esteban when we were younger, "You mean 'tear my arm off and beat me to death with it', Papi? No, I'm not. But it's not because of anything like a cookbook called "To Serve Man" like that old TV show you showed us. It might not be right for me, but it's something I have to try. I'll never know the difference I could have made if I don't."

"It's going to be hard, m'ija, losing you again. Mama and I, we don't know how much longer we have. We don't know if we'll see you again."

Copyright 2024 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2013 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.


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