"That was quite a scene," she said.
I stopped dead. She was both petite and pretty, but she wasn't anyone who'd been at the King's Ball. Dressed too richly to be one of the servants, yet none of the notables who'd been invited. Most importantly, though, my sense of perception stopped dead some distance from her and her mind didn't leak like an unfinished roof. She would have been as out of place in that gathering as I'd been.
I'd intended to re-enter the ball within a minute or two. One of the minor abilities of auros is a kind of mental camouflage that makes you blend into the background so that only another adept - which described nobody in that room - will take note of you. Slowly relax it, and it's like you were there all along.
But this took priority. She was obviously beyond the abilities of any of the wizards who'd taken King Edvard up on his invitation. Beyond Kiltig's abilities, as well. She might well be one of that class of potential threats my brother had been referring to when he sent me here.
"I am called Alexan," I introduced myself.
"Petra," she replied, briefly.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Petra," I said, bowing. Meanwhile, I boosted the power on my perception in her direction to see if I could get any more information. She was alive with the energy of Aescalon, but her control would never have passed muster with my teachers. She was built on a human frame, augmented by the power that was evidently renewed by a fresh Scourging every seven days.
"That was sneaky!" she exclaimed, half admiring, half outraged. I wasn't a tall man, even by local standards, but she came up no higher than my mouth. Her skin was a pale shade of brown, but her hair was so dark the highlights appeared bluish. She might have been a little heavier than most local women, but that simply said she was getting plenty to eat. By the standards of where I came from, she was perhaps thinner than average.
"Did you expect an ultsi to not take an easy opportunity for more information?" I asked. Her surface thoughts were accessible, but I decided not to try any deeper probe. One brash, impertinent gesture seemed a prudent limit in dealing with a demi-god. It nonetheless seemed clear she hadn't trained in auros, at least not to the same degree expected in the Empire.
"Not really. You're not the first of your people to find their way here."
Obviously. There were humans all over the place in Migurd, and I presumed elsewhere among the Connected Realms. "We humans seem to infest a lot of places."
"I'm not talking about humans in general."
Ah. So she could sense the similarity between myself and my 'brother'. "And did my brother leave you with any message for those following him?"
"Your brother looks nothing like you then," she replied, "He was nearly double my height. And thinner."
Interesting. There were two common body types we chose. The one I and my brother chose was perhaps a little shorter than average, but well-padded for energy to fuel muscles in a duel. The other type was a full head or more taller, but with less in the way of fuel reserves, designed for speed rather than endurance. It was possible my brother had altered his body pattern, or at least his seeming to be a 'speed' body while he was here, but he'd never been known to do so before. That implied a third visitor, one whom I knew nothing about. "And what impression did this visitor leave you with?"
"Control. I despised him then, being so cool and calculating and careful. Almost impossibly rational, never a hint of anything human about him until he assayed surviving the Scourging. That was enough to reveal the true being beneath, but he didn't linger once he'd assimilated his experience. It's been almost ten thousand years, and I haven't seen him returning."
Interesting. I had no idea of the time differential. Ten thousand years here might be any period in terms of time back in the Empire. And evidently it was possible to survive a Scourging of Aescalon. "How do I compare?"
"Brash and impatient, barely contained. Young, or youthful. But disciplined far beyond your years in terms of skill."
That was a fair description. My soul was young, but I'd inherited my original's skills and abilities, and he'd been over ten thousand. "Have there been any others of my people who found their way to Aescalon or the Connected Realms?"
"My, you ask questions. Why should I answer you?"
"It is in our nature and our conditioning to seek information. If you do not wish to answer, that is your privilege."
"I didn't say that. The answer is none that I know of but I'm merely an Immortal. It is possible many others have come and gone without my knowledge."
"An Immortal?" There had been a bit about that in Kiltig's journal, but it never hurt to have a second source.
She smiled. "The least of the independent powers. We draw from what is and it sustains us. And that is quite enough for now. I'll not give you all of my secrets for the asking!" And with that, she was gone, although the image of her smile seemed to remain for the blink of an eye.

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A winding residential street. They may not have been mansions on the block, but they were close. If any of them was less than three times the size of my parents' house, I didn't see it.

"That one, Grace." ScOsh crossed the street and headed straight up the driveway of the one across the street. I don't know anything about architecture, but it looked vaguely like some sort of Greek temple, Iron gates across the walk and drive, a little off the street in the case of the drive, hedges or ivy blocking most of the view from the street. I presumed he had a plan to get us past them. I saw no reason why he couldn't just do a short hop through those rather prosaic defenses.

Instead he stopped. "Interesting," he said, "I see alarm mechanisms, but they've been turned off. I love it when the ignorant try to be subtle."

"What are you going to do?"

"You being along makes it a little more challenging. Follow me."

We walked quickly around the perimeter. The neighbor to the left had a huge expanse of lawn, but no fences. There was less obscuring greenery, too. We moved about halfway back on the property line, then ScOsh pulled out a gun of a different sort, changed a setting and cut a hole in the fence, pushing the ironmongery in. "They're going to spring a teleport trap," he said, "Which means they're going to try and overwhelm me with firepower. I don't know where they're going to do it, so I'm building myself a second escape hole just in case." He went back around to the front, cut himself another hole, then opened the driveway gate, propping it open with a piece of the ironwork from his second hole. He moved towards the front door by a circuitous route, never choosing the easy or obvious path. Instead of opening the front door, however, he broke the window next to it, carefully breaking out the remaining glass before entering. Here's Johnny! I remember thinking, like in The Shining. He gestured me up to the porch. I tried to use the same sort of movement patterns he had. "So far, everything is like they're expecting some untrained idiot to just take the easy entrance for granted. However, I want to be ready in case there's someone who knows what they're doing." He deftly pulled the hinges out of the front door on the inside as I gingerly stepped over the windowsill.

He moved to the staircase, which was at least double wide with a large open area at its head, like something you see people making a grand entrance to the ball with. "You can't run an ambush like this without an observer," he said, "I'm blanketing the house with interference. Unless they have someone on the inside here, they can't see what we're doing."

He was on the third step from the top when they hit us. Six manesi suddenly appeared, two at the top, four at the bottom, roaring and screaming like they were having a jet race. ScOsh got the two at the top before I could react; we both turned towards the others. I pointed the gun he'd given me at the lead manes rushing up the stairs, took a breath and pushed the button. A hole appeared on its right side, and it staggered slightly, but kept coming. Grimly, I pushed the button again, and another hole appeared in what would have been the gut on a human. It stopped momentarily, then gathered itself as if for a final rush. I was dimly aware that ScOsh had killed the rest already. Almost in a panic, I touched the button one more time, and another hole appeared dead center in its chest, and it gently collapsed in place, sliding down a couple stairs in the trail of multicolored blood it left behind.

"Good shooting," ScOsh said, "Especially since you haven't had any training and it was your first time under fire." The whole scene was a nightmare of collapsed manesi and their pooling multicolored ichor. It was dripping from the balcony too, and running down the stairs by us.

"You got five to my one, and had plenty of time," I replied, "You could have gotten mine, too. It was getting close."

"You're right, but now we know you can defend yourself if you have to. A surprising number of people can't, without training. They freeze, they run, any of several other things, but for whatever reason, they don't fight when they have to. Now we know for a fact that's not you. I was ready to finish it if I had to." Carefully, picking his way between rivers of surreal blood, ScOsh climbed the rest of the stairs, and I followed. There was a hallway running the depth of the house, front to back, on the right of the stairs. Except for a bannister, it was open to the ground floor once it passed the head of the staircase, with doors to two rooms clearly visible. At the back of the open area was a third door, and as I saw when I moved to look down its length, two sets of paired doors opposite each other, about another twenty feet back and an open door at the end of the hall, probably leading into the master bedroom. The hall itself was at least eight feet wide. "Stay a couple steps behind me, but stay with me. Let me lead." Since I had no intention of doing anything else, that was wasted breath. I was firmly of the opinion that ScOsh was my best chance at living through this, but I wasn't going to be the one springing the booby traps if I could help it.

He moved swiftly, not interested in any of the lesser doors. "Nothing interesting in there," he said when I asked, "I'm looking for two things: ston terrorists and things that can tell me where to find ston terrorists. This house is organized like a fa├žade - people don't really live or work here. I think it's just a convenient place to meet with their tools." We got to the back door into the master bedroom. "Nothing," he said, disgusted, and turned back around.

That's when wave two hit. Smaller but nastier. Four more monsters like nothing ever seen on earth. Three of them were a god-awful fluorescent yellowish green, radially symmetric. Barrel shaped torso with four salmon pink arms at shoulder height, one every ninety degrees and four legs that were so articulated they could turn up to ninety degrees each direction, with the effect that although you'd think something like that could only waddle, it turns out they could really haul. The arms had a three fingered hand each, but also a long serrated bone blade, triangular in cross section, that the hand could either nestle against on its back side, or not. Their heads were the size of a large watermelon, mostly off-white bony, also radially symmetric, with four parrot-like beak mouths, and above that, a conical top that had housed thousands of eyes, faceted like a fly's. They were blocking our way out.

The fourth demon was something else again. It appeared behind us in the master bedroom. Eight feet high and almost human in shape, it might have almost come out of central casting for demons. It reminded me of the big devil in Fantasia, the segment were they have the demons dancing on All Hallows, except it wasn't the G rated version. Naked yes, neuter no - definitely a he. No wings, but the basic shape wasn't too far off. It even had the traditional hairy legs and cloven hooves like a goat. Two more or less human arms, heavily muscled. Except for a hooked spike on each elbow the arms looked like they might have come off human weightlifters. Each arm ended in a hand with seven recognizable fingers, the ones on each end capable of opposing movement like our thumbs. Unlike human hands, though, they had retractable tiger-like claws, steely black and at least four inches long. The horns on the head were turned to spike forward, not inward like most mythological demons. It wouldn't have been able to stand up in my parent's house, with its standard eight and a half foot ceiling.

It was purple, a light, lavender-ish purple, not central casting red. I remember ScOsh warning me about purple demons - "if it's purple, it's a probably a noble and has protections like the stons and I do"

I heard a voice in my head, let the big one take a couple of steps, then front roll and trip him. I'll be there. So I did that. I confess I might have hesitated if I hadn't seen Esteban do it to much bigger boys on the football field. Mi hermano played center on the high school team, despite being only five foot eight. We went to all his games when I was little. Not often, but every once in a while some huge ogre of a lineman would start manhandling him, and instead of meeting it head on, he'd roll and trip the ogre. He never did it more than once, but he didn't need it more than once. After that, the ogre was usually more careful, by which I mean restrained.

The big purple guy started moving, I threw myself at his feet, rolling into a ball but throwing my arms out to make sure I caught him. Damned thing was massive, but down he went. I wasn't sure the hardwood floor was going to survive, but it did, albeit with a couple of holes. I pointed my weapon at it and shot. It actually hit - I saw it hit - but it didn't do much more than nick his side. The demon screamed, mostly in outrage as I could tell it wasn't really hurt. I shot again, aiming for the feet, but I missed. I moved back to the center of the chest, and shot a couple more times. I could swear that I should have hit the damned thing dead center of the chest both times, but the beam was somehow deflected and attenuated. A couple more minor holes opened, one on the side near the first, the other on the opposite leg.

That was all it took. I didn't see what ScOsh had done to the round green demons, but two were down and bleeding, most likely dead, the third was still up but obviously hurt. I had really pissed off the big noble, but he was still trying to get off the floor when ScOsh's sword cut off one of its arms at the elbow, and it roared again, this time in real pain and hurt, and changed its target.

So did I. I figured since I couldn't really hurt the purple one so I'd finish off the other green one. I changed my target and dead centered that disgusting watermelon head, which obligingly exploded. Unfortunately, it turned out to be really caustic. Flying bits of demon head went everywhere. I'd managed to cover my face, but quite a few pieces hit my jeans and my sweatshirt, which started to smoke. I shook and brushed them off, but the acid kept eating at the clothes for a few seconds. I checked my hair, which had also caught a few pieces, brushed it out with my arms, grabbed a couple decorative doilies off a dresser, and used those to help wipe. No time to worry about my hair right then, just about getting the stuff out of my clothes before it burned down to me - whatever the damage, as long as it was just hair, it would grow back. I'd need new sneakers, too.

ScOsh, of course, hadn't been touched by the exploding acid whatever-it-was from the demon's head, damn him. The fourth demon was down, head split diagonally in two with the loose piece still rocking back and forth gently a few feet away, suspended between what was left of a horn and the curve of the rest of the scalp. Down the stairs we went, carefully avoiding the slippery rivers and pools of demon blood. I thought he'd want to leave, but, "I'm looking for a basement," is what he said, "They're trying to soften me up on the easy stuff, wear me out" he said, "Be ready for round three."

"You call that easy?"

"Three brakiri and a terostes? The only challenge was keeping you from getting hurt."

"A little bit of warning about exploding caustic acid heads might have been useful!"

"Sorry, I thought you'd shoot the body and that isn't caustic, as you can see. By the time I knew different, it was too late, and to answer the obvious question, I've got static defenses that handle that kind of minor annoyance. See the heavy arc on the floor? That's where I was at the time. We'll get you some new clothes soon as we leave here."

"The, terostes, you said? I was sure my shots should have been hitting it, dead center. But it was like they were getting deflected and weakened."

"Terostes are minor nobles. Think equivalent to landed knights or maybe minor baron. They do have some of the same protections I do. Not as good as mine, but kind of like a special armor that evolved because it helps them survive. Conditions in the fractal dimensions mostly aren't what we would consider congenial."

He had found the passage leading down to the basement; what initially looked like a broom closet between kitchen and bathroom. I didn't think California houses had basements, but here was one, or at least stairs down. They were steep and narrow descending about 12 vertical feet before the square landing in the corner, then became more normal the rest of the way down, along what appeared to be the long side of the room, which was shrouded but at least fifteen by twenty. "They would have known I would find this if I looked," ScOsh said, "And they should have known I'd look."

He got most of the way to the landing when he turned and vaulted the rail, dropping maybe ten feet to the floor. I didn't see anything, but he was concentrating too hard to be just standing there. He strode purposefully towards the back corner, hidden from my view under the stairs. Sounds of metal on metal rang through the enclosed space. For some reason, instantly I started getting shooting pains of headache. I descended as far as the landing, then craned around for a better look.

He was engaged in combat with a woman. Unlike anything I'd ever seen in the movies, there was no trash talking and no braggadocio that I could observe. No posturing, no snappy one-liners. Just two people trying to kill each other. Even if I could write the story, Hollywood would never be interested - it was too real. I didn't know enough to judge the contest as to who was winning. ScOsh was encased in a ghostly blue, his opponent in a wan orange-pink. The style and distance between them looked more Three Musketeers than Seven Samurai. At a glance, it looked like the swords part of the fight was close enough to a draw. From what ScOsh had told me earlier, I presumed there was some wizardly or mindlord jabbing and parrying back and forth, but I had no way of observing that, and no way of knowing who had the upper hand. Judging by his body language, I would say ScOsh was confident enough, but so was the woman. One of them was wrong, but which?

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Grace I would like to ask you about extending.
The telepathic message was not unexpected. I had twelve days - three Imperial weeks - to go in my twenty year commitment to the Imperial military. In our capacity as Merlon's Eyes, Asto and I had been all over the Empire in that time, from the thinly human Thirtyfifth Galaxy where the aliens were barely more advanced than the Earth where I'd been born, to the Second and Fourth Galaxies, where humans had a more substantial presence for much longer, and the alien species inhabiting them were therefore technologically competitive with the Empire.
I was, and had been, for several years, a Staff Private. The Eyes recruited closely bonded husband and wife operant teams (or the equivalent), valuing the rapport that made such teams work more like two fingers of the same hand. But Merlon's Eyes still had to work within their roles in the Imperial military. An Eye who was a Section Private was a Section Leader with additional duties, as I had been for three years prior to making Staff Private. I would have made Platoon Private by now, except that I was getting close to timing out of the military. Officers selecting for promotion wanted someone with more time left on their contract than I did.
My husband Asto had just made Staff Corporal, three grades above me, but his commitment was not expiring. Asto had agreed to a sixty year commitment when he signed up. I'd initially agreed to ten, extending ten more to justify our selection as Eyes, but that was it. I wasn't making a big deal about my - our - plans, but I'd done my share of pulling the wagon for a while. I wanted to start our family, so I was letting my contract expire.
Which was what First Corporal Whelsed wanted to talk to me about. But that didn't mean I wanted to talk to her about it. I have other plans. In fact, I've already made promises. I'm here for another twelve days, then I'm going home for a visit. Twenty Imperial years was the same duration as fourteen Earth years, but time on Earth ran about four times faster than the Imperial Home Instance. It had been nearly sixty years on Earth since my last visit.
Earth wasn't really home any longer, but it was where I was from. I might not even recognize it any more. Fifty years before I was born, Riverside had been mostly citrus groves. The advent of the Empire was certainly no less of a change than the urbanization of California after World War II.
So go home for a visit, but give me a contract to extend first. We'll write leave of whatever duration you want into the new contract.
That's not the only plan I have, sir. Technical ang was unisex, but English "sir" captured the connotations better than other alternatives. Whelsed was in my direct chain of command - operations deputy for the squadron I was attached to. Roughly the equivalent of a one-star general in the disbanded US Army.
So what are your plans?
With respect, sir, none of your business and you know it. I agreed to twenty years. In twelve days, I will have met that commitment and what I do then is my own business.
Someone wants to select you for Platoon Private but with twelve days left, it's pointless.
People have been declining to select me for Platoon Private for about three years, sir. I've been aware of it the whole time. If I wanted to be a Platoon Private bad enough to extend, I'd have already done it.
The Eyes are stretched too thin. They don't want to lose one of their better pairs.
I've already extended once for the Eyes, because my husband wanted us to be Eyes. Now it's time for what I want, which is out. For at least sixty years.
By which time your husband will be too senior for the Eyes. Asto was something pretty special, even among Guardians. He would be well into the sergeant grades before I considered rejoining the military. Commanders of forty-odd thousand troops or more really couldn't take off for Eyes work. The Empire's command structure was too steep to allow it. In the Planetary Surface troops, any rank other than staff grades went with a specific command assignment. Asto might transfer to Tactical Space or Strategic Space command, but the situation there was no different. You might technically be an Eye forever, but above Company Corporal, only staff grades got actual Eye assignments.
As I said, sir, the Eyes got their pound of flesh.
What?
Sorry, local Earth idiom. I honored my contract, even though I wanted something else. Now are you going to waste my last twelve days trying to persuade me to do something I'm not going to do, do you have an assignment for us, or do I go back to scheduling personnel shuttles?
We have an assignment. It might take more than twelve days.
Then you'd better get them to assign someone else. Because you know as well as I do what happens if you try to hold me over involuntarily. The Imperial military knew full well people took time out between military tours, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of Imperial years. They didn't want to give people an incentive not to come back by holding them past their contract expiration. Officers at grades where they commanded multiple systems could be involuntarily extended, but that pointedly didn't include me, Asto, or even Whelsed. The lowest grade subject to that was thirty-odd promotions away.
They're having trouble finding someone else.
If you assign us the mission, I'll do my best for twelve days. Not thirteen. And that assumes you have transport standing by. I'm even willing to pilot my own way back, if I can leave the ship there. We'd formally enlisted at Fulda Base on Indra. The rule was the military was responsible for returning us there for separation by the time the contract expired.
Grace, work with me here!
I am working with you. I've been working with you these last twenty years. I've honored every last bit of my contract, but you're assuming you're entitled to more of my life than I've contracted to give you. You're not. I might point out that I'm entitled to nearly two prime days of leave I haven't taken. That was 120 days - half an Imperial year - that I hadn't taken because Asto and I had been so much in demand as Eyes. The Empire didn't really do terminal leave like Earth's bureaucracies, where people used untaken leave to take their last several months off. I'd be paid for it on separation, but they had a contractual right to my services up until the moment my contract expired. It's just that most people did get at least a few days because there wasn't an assignment to fit the time remaining. You are entitled to my best efforts until the end of the Imperial day on one-fortyfour. Not one moment longer, and the fact that I have one-fiftyeight (118 in base 10) days of leave accrued and untaken is evidence I've been more than willing to do my part under the contract. Total leave for twenty years was 240 days; I still had almost half of it.
I can't change your mind?
No, you can't, Corporal Whelsed. Tell whomever tasked you with trying that I've been looking forward to this day since the moment I agreed to be an Eye. I've done what I agreed, or at least in twelve days I will have done it. I need to be doing something else after.
Well, I can't force you, so how long do you think you'll need with the shuttle schedule?
I'll be done with it tomorrow, sir. Truth be told I'm mostly fiddling at the edges, anyway. Division will need to make more changes in reaction to events than I will to be happy with it in the theoretical state.
Alright, Grace, we'll be damned sorry to lose you, but you're right. You have shuttle runs on the current schedule through one-thirtynine; I'll cut orders sending you to Indra on one-forty. The commander's staff at Fulda base might have something for me to do the last four days, or they might let me go early. Make that probably would; their shuttle schedule would be as settled as ours was, and it was unlikely they'd find other work for only four days.
Thank you sir!
Thank you, Grace. Whelsed wasn't really a friend, but I was pretty certain she liked me. And good luck.

The event that holds the greatest significance in the recent history of the Empire is the Ston Rebellion and subsequent Interregnum. It may have ended up over 3600 imperial years previously, but there is still significant living memory of them.

During the Rebellion and Interregnum, everyone suffered. The population of humans dropped by a factor of roughly 3000, due to war, dropping below minimal technological maintenance levels, and intentional persecution by stop warlords, exacerbated as the ston warlords fought each other for domination and rule of what was left. All of the major habitats were destroyed, each of them having somewhere over one quintillion inhabitants. Over half of all Imperial planets were sterilized or destroyed completely, and had to be re-terraformed when the Empire was re-established. Starvation took a toll, as well. No Imperial planet managed to maintain as much as half of its pre-rebellion population, and most were left with one sixtieth or less.

During the Interregnum, one thing the newly dominant stons were intent upon was hunting down the remaining cot leaders. By the time it was over, eleven of the Fifteen Houses had been completely exterminated, but seven members of the Great Council survived to re-establish the Empire.

(The Fifteen Houses weren't blameless for the situation - they'd winnowed each other ruthlessly, in excess of 95% being killed within a few years of attaining final adulthood. But it also meant that those who survived were tough. It generally took a dozen or more stons to successfully kill one)

The seven survivors are:

BarAntro (Antro Baryan stu Merlak): Believed to be the strongest operant of all time, at least triple the known strength of any other survivor. Also known as the Blue Prince, he occupies the offices of Merlon and Supervisor. Roughly 20,000 Imperial years of age (14,000 Earth)

BarYerd (Yerd Baryan stu Merlak): Older (half) sister of Antro. Mysterious, keeps out of the public eye as much as she can. She quietly handles the Guardian's Ears, aimed at keeping future rebellions from getting to the point of violence. Sometimes known by a term babaiana that translates roughly as 'Mama Spider'. Roughly 60,000 Imperial years of age.

YokNos (Nos Yokel stu Merlak): Oldest of the seven, last of Merphon's grandchildren. Approximately 105,000 Imperial years of age. Sometimes known by the term dagdadirans, which translates as 'winning the game of isevenths'. He is the most responsible for sponsoring the conditions that lead to economic development.

JeSarba (Sarba JeNor stu Merlak): The youngest of the seven, and most tragic. She is the widow of Imans Baryan, and theirs was the first marriage between two members of the Fifteen Houses (by current usage, two Seventh Order Guardians). The series of events that began the Rebellion were set up by her own father, and resulted in the destruction of the rest of House Jehob. She modified her family name to honor the uncle that tried to support her. That she is Imans' widow means she is Antro's ex-daughter-in-law, and her daughter is Antro's grand-daughter. She was named Guardian after the Restoration. She is approximately 11,000 Imperial years of age.

M'Drashin (Drashin M'Dorna Stu Merlak) Probably the best social actuary in the Empire, known for leading the dissent to the establishment of the ston program, correctly predicting it would destroy the Empire. Approximately 15,000 Imperial years of age.

CorNost (Nost Cor stu Merlak) Unlike the above list, CorNost does not come from one of the families descended from Merphon's first group of sons. His ancestor was the middle son of Merphon's second family of five. Allied with the Yokel because the Cor were traditional allies of the Yokel before the Interregnum, Nost is known for brutal directness. Approximately 15,000 Imperial years of age.

Scimtar (Scimtar di Baryan) Unlike the others of the Seven, Scimtar is not a direct descendant of Merphon. His ancestor was another member of the initial group of operants, Zaius, and his line of descent includes his biological father being essentially a rapist of his mother. Raised by his mother and her husband, nonetheless, he was a long time Baryan retainer, actually being Antro's first tutor in the military arts. Nobody except Scimtar knows what caused his power to blossom, and he isn't telling. Now an independent, he still has ties of traditional friendship to Antro, Yerd, and Drashin. Slightly younger than YokNos, but approximately 105,000 Imperial years of age.

The Imperial military is split into three major combat arms. They supplement and support each other as much as possible, but they are as different as army, navy, and air force. While they have the same rank structure, their jobs are completely different.

Planetary Surface Forces are the ground forces. They are the ones who go down onto a planetary surface - or under it - and root out hostile forces. Pretty much all military personnel start in Planetary Surface Forces - the others recruit by transfer, which generally involves starting anew.

Strategic Space Forces are the people that crew the largest ship classes and their auxiliaries. Post and Capital ships are crewed by Strategic Space Forces.

Tactical Space Forces are the people that crew the smaller ship classes, from Convoy hulls on down through Large and Small Cruisers, Destroyers, Cutters, and Fighters. They probably have the highest level of prestige, and definitely have the highest casualty levels.

Also part of the Imperial military are the Shield units. They're not a major branch, although if you think in single planet terms their numbers are vast. Their reason for existence is the power and coherence of Imperial energy weapons. A shot that can damage a capital ship will obliterate an unshielded planet or a small civilian ship without noticing, and they are capable of doing it at ranges exceeding the size of most galaxies. Their job is after any battle involving military units to make certain there are as few shots as possible remaining from the battle. Their ships are essentially massive metallic rocks with hull charge, protected by capitol ship quality shields, and they intentionally move into the path of shots that have missed and absorb them. It's not a particularly dangerous job, but has high prestige in certain parts of Imperial society.

Two other much smaller units are the Merlon's Eyes and the Merlon's Fingers. The Eyes are intelligence gatherers, the Fingers are assassination and sabotage operatives. They are each composed exclusively of operant Guardians, and neither is a military unit in any kind of traditional sense because each is composed of individuals with other military assignments who also do Eye or Finger work (Their civilian equivalents, the Guardian's Eyes and the Guardian's Fingers, are full time operatives but much fewer in number). Both groups are aimed at external enemies, and strive to have their targets remain unaware that they have done their work, completely unaware that their intelligence is compromised or sincerely believing that the unfortunate event that hamstrung them was the result of some other cause.

There are also a plethora of military forces in the employ of major families or powerful individuals. They tend to be elites ("Imperial blue and gold" is a phrase of some scorn among them). Individually, none of them is large enough to fight the Empire, but if they ever banded together they might be able to defeat Imperial forces. The rank structure for most private forces follows the Imperial structure closely.


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We landed and the pilot popped the forward hatch. We thanked the pilot on the way out. Once on the tarmac, we accessed the base computer. As expected, now that our contract had expired the only access we had was what any Imperial citizen would have had. Which also meant we weren't authorized quarters even in transit. Our choice was outrageously expensive tourist accommodations on Santa Cruz Island, the same thing down by Pellew Base, or housing somewhere off the Imperial reservations. So we took a portal to Channel Islands Base then from there to the Port of Long Beach, where US Customs was located. At least this time there was no difficulty getting Asina into the country. Once through customs and immigration, we contacted my mother.

It was early morning in California, and the June Gloom hung overhead like usual, a low gray overcast that would burn off late morning. I used to hate it, but now I realized it helped keep the days from getting too hot. Otherwise coastal Southern California would have had as many hundred degree days as Arizona. Mom was in her new office, which I'd forgotten all about. "There's a portal here in Pendleton Free Zone, dear," she told me, "Just use it and you can walk over." We'd still be stuck without a vehicle, but the Pendleton Free Zone occupied all of the old Marine base and what used to be the naval weapons center as well. We stopped only to buy datalink access to Earth's internet for a month, then took another portal. We discovered upon arrival that development was starting at the boundary with San Clemente and moving slowly south. Perhaps there was a DMV in San Clemente we could get to and I'd be able to renew my Driver's License.

Stepping through the portal, we saw the narrow strip between the coast and the high rolling hills to the east had three spires on square bases, obviously Imperial construction. They looked like they were maybe three ifourths on a side by maybe twenty high. After all of this time thinking in Imperial or demonic units, I found it hard to stop. Between them, well-watered grass rolled and fountains gurgled. Amazingly enough, the hills above them were greener than I remembered. Perhaps with the Marines gone and other humans not stressing the water table, the area was returning to something more closely resembling its state when the Europeans arrived. The commercial landscaping would be fed either out of purified sea water or by water out of a converter, so it wouldn't be taking from the water table.

According to the maps, the San Clemente DMV was about two ithirds, and that was on the roads we could walk. We checked in with Mom in her new office overlooking the Pacific. She was only on the sixteenth level, but she didn't need a top floor view nor the bill that presumably came with it. Truth be told, I wasn't certain why she'd moved the Earth Dogs office here, but it wasn't my business, either. She was busy with something, so we waved that we'd be back, and walked the three miles to DMV. It was a pleasant, cool morning. We weren't on the beach, but we were close enough to get the breeze from the ocean as we walked.

We discussed our proposal for our next contract as we walked. No matter how we sliced it, the support was not there for intercontinental trade on Calmena. N'yeschlass the nation was the only area on the planet where there was enough excess for significant trade. Everywhere else was trying not to starve to death and intermittently failing. Even the demon-held areas were short on supplies - not to mention that the only things a human trader could accomplish there would be giving the demons both supplies and dinner. Maybe once a few other groups started improving the situation on the other continents, but for now, any thought of oceangoing vessels like Earth had had by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was doomed to failure.

On the other hand, we believed that there was plenty of opportunity on the coasts of Wimarglr and its offshore islands. Cogs and later carracks to carry the cargo along the coasts and short distances up some of the calmer rivers, perhaps galleys or Viking longboats for the river trade, although I didn't want to introduce anything that would encourage slavery as galleys perhaps would. Yes, steam power was within our reach, but the metal for a steam engine was expensive even by N'yeschlass standards, while sails were cheap. Modern triangular sails and other rigs might enhance the usefulness of sails. We ran through the search results, and contacted a yacht designer to see if we could get more ideas to try. Thanks to our datalinks, the proposal was mostly written before we got to DMV.

Mr. Namibi, the yacht designer turned out to be one of those people who love unusual questions. By the time we were done at DMV, he sent us back pictures of spinnakers to enhance downwind performance and jibs and spankers and sail arrangements that would, in conjunction with a keel, allow sailing to within less than thirty (Earth) degrees of head-on to the wind. It might be even better on Calmena as the sea level atmosphere was about three sixtieths more dense than Earth (I told you it was hard to stop thinking in Imperial terms). He didn't even charge us. We finished the proposal by the time we were back at Mom's office.

There I noticed that my mother had taken my advice seriously enough to arm herself. Just a little disruptor, same as I'd carried myself on Tia Grace's advice. That advice had enabled us to escape being captured on Calmena the first time. These days I carried considerably more firepower, but a disruptor would give her a fighting chance if the demons did make the jump to Earth. I was glad she'd gotten it, but I didn't say anything. Earth humans are still uncomfortable with perception.

"So when am I going to get to hold my grandson?" The first words out of Mom's mouth were precisely what you'd expect from a Mexican mother. To be fair, we had been married fourteen Earth years. To her point of view, it was even more urgent because we already had a son in stasis, waiting for us to have time to raise him.

This had to be my battle alone. Asina was still on eggshells with Mom. They'd gotten off to a rocky start, and we'd had precisely one short visit in all the time we'd been married. "Mom, we've already submitted another proposal for a contract on Calmena. If we don't get it, fine. Otherwise, we're going back and it's not going to be a good place to raise children."

"I'm not getting any younger. I'd like to have grandchildren before I die."

"Mom, you have eight grandchildren already, and you're barely sixty. You have at least ten times that in front of you." Due to operant healers, even natural state humans lived hundreds of years if they took care of themselves. Nobody knew how long operants like Asina and I could last if we used the healing discipline correctly. There were living operants over 80,000 Earth years old, and the techniques and knowledge had massively improved. The last known operant death for natural causes was almost 120 Imperial years previous - and there were roughly twenty twelfths operants in the Empire.

"You never know how long you have. That's in the hands of God."

"Yes, Mom. We're going to do one more contract period if we can. After that, we'll discuss getting some sort of regular job for a while so we can raise some kids."

"I don't know why you can't get a job running cargo like your aunt did. It pays good money, too."

"It pays good money because Tia Grace has the money to post most of her cargo bond herself. Not only do we not have that, but neither one of us has Vector or Interstitial qualification. We're thinking about it, but training is expensive and wouldn't serve any purpose if we get our new contract. We're going to take a semi-vacation. I'm going to get my credential as a full Second Order Guardian, Asina's going to work on some technical subjects where she can't get hands on practice on Calmena." Well, not practice where we could afford mistakes, anyway. "We'll probably need to go to Indra to get all the teachers we need. And in a few months when we're done, we'll head back to Calmena for another contract."

"Alright, I'm sure you think you know what you're doing. But you know you've got a job here any time you want it."

"Thanks, Mom." Okay, that was intended to be a little bit double edged. "But we're making good money doing what we do, we're both moderately well off, and we're doing something we believe in that will make a difference to millions of lives. We've already made a difference to millions of lives, and we're looking to improve things at least that much again, planet-wide."

"You know this dog business won't last forever. Maybe another eighty to a hundred years before the market is saturated." She was talking Earth years.

"And this vacation plus the next contract will be fifteen of that," I replied, "If we need a job, it will be after our next contract period. Speaking of which, do you know any good investment managers? We've got three cubes we can put to work for us, and twenty points each." Renting out your service points to a civil contractor could be lucrative. Pretty much all the soldiers did it. Renting your points allowed contractors to bid contracts they otherwise might not have enough points to guarantee. You could lose them (which was the point of requiring them), but the income from twenty points would likely be another thirty or forty prime per year. Each. Not nearly what we were making for our labor, but you could live pretty decently on less, and there were generally penalty clauses for large monetary rewards if a contractor who rented them lost your points for failure to perform to standards. You could rent them out for more without the penalty clauses, of course, but that was a sucker's game.

Mom gave us the name of one investment manager, but it was an American firm. They might have been decent at managing the money; they wouldn't have the client base to manage the service points. We could go down into Mexico, or wait until we got to Indra. I sent Tia Grace a message asking if she had a recommendation on Indra; that's where she was based. It wouldn't go out until the shuttle run, and wouldn't be back until the one after that.

"How's Dad doing?" I figured she'd have news more recent than mine.

"He's still a Team Private, but he's hoping to get a promotion soon, or transfer to Space, probably Strategic Space. He's stationed at some place called Trune, out at the rim of First Galaxy. He's working a homecoming leave into his re-enlistment in a few months. Earth still only gets one class two run per week, which really means seventeen of our days with the time differential. That's fine for the dog business, but not when he's coming home on a short leave."

"Meneas still doing those in Earth and Indra? When's the next run?"

"Joey you just got here. You can't be leaving already!"

"If you tell me when it is, we might be persuaded to wait until the next one. When is it, Mom?"

"Six days."

"Sorry, but we can't afford to wait twentythree days, Mom. Six days is going to have to be enough!"
Asina interrupted me, Joe, she's your mother. You haven't seen her in twenty Imperial years. Enough with the tough guy act - we can wait until the second run. If she'll pay us to work the dog farm, that is, since I presume she wants you to spend time with family.

Okay, I told her, I just thought you wanted to get with Tellea sooner than that. Her biological daughter Tellea was now an almost adult young woman, and her adoptive parents were off in Second Galaxy. We hadn't been able to see her the entire time of our contract on Calmena - it would have been too dangerous to leave our home there unattended more than a few hours. We got regular messages to and from, but it wasn't the same thing. "Change of plans, Mom, looks like Asina is taking your side. We'll stay until the second shuttle run if you'll pay us for working the dog farm on the days we do." That Asina was taking her side wouldn't hurt Mom's opinion of Asina at all.

"I don't have any problem with that," she said. And since most of the family that was still on Earth worked in one or the other of her dog facilities on Earth, that gave her everything she wanted.


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As the capture buffer built up, I double-checked the mission briefing. The briefing file said that Ross 154 was a young star, less than a billion years old, but it hadn't been subjected to the same scrutiny as Barnard's Star because it wasn't the second closest star to Sol. Roughly nine and a half light-years from Earth, it was slightly bigger and more luminous (M3.5 as opposed to M4), but even dimmer as seen from Earth because of the additional distance. It was thought the habitable zone would be from roughly 9.75 million to 18.9 million kilometers, but I expected Will would search a good bit outside that, as he had at Barnard's. The potential deal killer was that it was a flare star, periodically sending out pulses of energy that could double or more its energy output. One recorded flare had been over a hundred thousand times the star's mean energy output. Any planets there were had likely been sterilized on at least one face more than once. On the plus side, if there was a usable planet in the right place, it would likely be completely empty and the Empire could deal with stellar flares.

It wasn't very long before Major Kyle slowed us down and took the time-jammer offline. "I'm sorry, but I'm fried. My mind is starting to wander off task, and you can't take your attention away for half a second without risking disaster." We were about two light-years out from Barnard's Star, roughly forty percent of the way.

"I can take over, Major," I volunteered.

Cabron had to stick his patronizing nose in. "I don't want to insult you, Joe, but this is kind of unique, and no Earth human has done this before. Major Kyle is at least trained for this level of concentration."
"Corporate said to trust him with any piloting he was willing to do," Major Kyle replied.

"No offense, but Joe is what, twenty-two? No degrees, no training, I'm not even certain why he's here."

Like I keep telling you, Dulles was a dumbass. He didn't even bother reading his crew dossiers.
I'd had enough of this nonsense. "Joe is here," I said, "Because unlike everyone else, Joe has actual Imperial qualifications at everything but Vector piloting. That and Joe can use the standard Imperial interface, which means Joe can respond quicker - I don't need the Earth units translation overlay."
Will knew, and Major Kyle. Jayden was beaming, "Right on!" and Dulles looked at me blankly, jaw wide open.

"You think they'd hire an engineer that didn't know anything? Didn't you read the dossier? Dude, they bought you the best available on Earth. The Dog Lady is my aunt, and she hired me as a cargo handler and made me learn everything I could. I've been studying this since a year before anyone else knew the Empire existed. I've got crew experience. I've only piloted time-jammer in simulation, but I've done everything else for real with those half-mile wide ships of hers." Indra and Earth were a little over 393 meters in radius - but the media called them 'half-mile'. They were the biggest ships making regular trips to Earth, though I'd seen much bigger ships on excursion to the Empire. The class two capital ships were spheres a 'mere' 2580 feet tall when grounded out there on Santa Cruz Island, the most important to the Channel Islands Imperial base. I'd also piloted cutters like Golden Hind and Starbirds a few times.
"And until today, simulation was all the time-jammer training I had," Kyle said, "Goddard told me Joe could probably do this mission all by himself, but the board wanted a full crew. Give it a year or so, and there will probably be others like him or even better, but for now, his family is the best Earth has. So get out of the way and let him work. Or wait until I've had another break."

Will chimed in, "Either way is okay with me. I want to get back to Xandra, but they're paying me good."
"Same with me," Kyle said, "I get paid based on mission duration. You getting profitability bonuses, Mr. Dulles?"

That decided him, but the look in his eye told everyone he'd be trying to get even. "Proceed, Mr. Bernard." I kept my mouth shut, and thought about the bonus for not taking over.

I turned off the Earth unit translation overlay on my panel, to demonstrate to Dulles that I knew what was going on. Imperial units, we were about four and a half years from Ross 154. I re-engaged the time-jammer, ran the field up to ten square (36,000). I monitored the far more numerous rocks we didn't need to dodge for a couple minutes Imperial, until I was comfortable I could react to oncoming debris in time, then doubled the speed to twenty square. Major Kyle hadn't had it past fifty thousand c, but once I had an actual dodge under my belt, about five minutes later, I raised it again to thirty square and left it there. That was in accordance with safety protocols developed back in the Empire. It was only another five minutes before it was time to start slowing down to approach Ross 154 (do the math if you don't believe me - 216,000 Imperial minutes to an Imperial year). It didn't take long, but Major Kyle hadn't been exaggerating. You don't know how hard it is not to allow your attention to wander at all until you can't. What may seem counterintuitive is that as long as you're within your reaction time, it's less draining to go faster so you don't have to do it for as long.

I dropped us out of light speed about two Imperial minutes from Ross 154 (the Empire measures distance in terms of the amount of time it takes for light to travel that distance). Imperial minutes are 102 Earth seconds, so we were about sixty-one million kilometers from the M3.5 star. In the solar system, that would be about the orbit of Mercury, but here we were way outside the potentially habitable zone. Class M stars are small by comparison with the sun, and don't put out nearly as much energy. This one had about a sixth of the mass of Sol and put out roughly four tenths of a percent of Sol's energy per second. As a consequence, it would still be burning ten billion years after Sol was gone.

"I'm picking up a sub-jovian at roughly sixty million kilometers. Mass about twelve times Earth - a little less than Uranus. Way too far out for moons to be habitable.... BINGO! We've got a rock, eighty-two percent of Earth mass, about thirteen million kilometers out. Lifeless, thin nitrogen-argon atmosphere, pressure about ten millibars. If I understand correctly, that's what the Empire calls a Category Red World - suitable orbit, lifeless but terraformable. Looks like it's not quite tidally locked yet. Re-spin it, set a big siphon and converter to generating an atmosphere..."

Jayden picked up the thread, "Add bottom level biologicals, give it a few years, and start going outside to sunbathe. Woo-hoo! We all just got our level one bonus!"

"Don't forget to put up a force screen against the flares," Will reminded him.

Jayden ran with it long enough to agree, "Yeah, wouldn't want people popping like popcorn."

"Why not? Just the thing for a hungry carnivore's midnight snack. Go out and pick off the nicely puffed people..."

"Does this carnivore want to be popped just like his prey?" Jayden could turn wet blanket fast when a joke had been carried too far in his opinion.

"I'm going to tap the time-jammer to bring us in close," I announced. I didn't wait for Dulles to say yes or no, but I kept it down to a few multiples of the speed of light for a couple of seconds, just close enough that by the time I'd brought us to rest with respect to the planet, we'd be a few thousand kilometers off. It was a dark brown on my outside display now, with occasional dark red fault lines where the continental plates came together. "Only five kilometers to mantle," Will said, "That's really thin crust pizza!" Now that we weren't superluminal, I had plenty of spare time to let my attention wander, so I checked the on-board library. According to the database, the Empire did have a process for such worlds, but the terse explanation might as well have been in cuneiform. I'd learned Technical, but that didn't mean I understood a hundred thousand years of science Earth didn't have.

This is first draft rough:


So back down the tree I went, to wait out the waning of the river from Aescalon. Teleporting down only required a tiny fraction of the energy of up. Yes, nature's books always balanced, but there was no rule I had to use or internalize the difference in potential energy. I could simply allow it to dissipate into the environment.
As soon as I materialized in my own room, a small task-daemon tried to attack me with a poisoned dagger. Even if it had succeeded, it wouldn't have endangered me, but its target-seeking rebounded off my passive defenses and sent it in search for its creator. I followed it in leisurely fashion, curious as to who had sent it.
It didn't go far. The room Roni and her parents were in. Which meant I had to think this through now.
The first question I had to ask myself was if this was likely to be their last attempt on me. Honestly, I had to conclude that if they survived this attempt, they'd most likely keep trying. I'd forborne to execute them once for their attacks on my person. It hadn't gotten me what I wanted, which was left alone. And if you give even the most incompetent assassins enough tries, they'll get lucky once. Which meant I couldn't rationalize saving them, not to myself. Even if they were the parents of the Queen-to-be.
Perception showed me that Roni was still asleep, though, despite commotion and the racket plainly audible out in the corridor, in the middle of the day, as the servants ran for cover. Can't blame them for not wanting to get caught up in something they knew nothing about. You might not think it of him, but Agran was trying to protect Theana, who was the real target of the kored-guided daemon. She'd sent it after me, therefore she was the target of the rebounded spell. He was doing his best to keep the daemon away from her, and he was screaming in rage, she in terror, yet Roni was still apparently asleep. Which implied a trance of some sort.
Agran finally succeeded in stabbing the daemon, but it wasn't flesh and blood in the way creatures were. All he managed to do was create enough of a threat that the daemon decided he was worth noticing, and stabbed him with the dagger. The poison was nasty stuff, it began eating at him right away and he lost control of his muscles and fell twitching and screaming in pain to the necris augmented poison. Theana had gone out of her way to create a nasty end for someone less defended than I was.
Which made it a rough poetic justice when the daemon stabbed her, not ten seconds later. And kept stabbing her, time and time again, as the poison stole her mind and her control over her body.
Theana fell and began screaming in agony just as her husband had a few seconds earlier. Like him, she was suffering the paralyzation and pain inflicted by the poison she'd chosen. Unlike him, she didn't completely lose control of her body immediately, which meant she had to be augmenting her life energy somehow.
And that's when I knew, and when I looked with Sight through my perception. No wonder Theana looked so well-preserved while Roni was aged beyond her years. Her own mother had been tapping Roni's life force. And stealing her wizardly power as well.
Roni was a wizard.
Only now, in the last moments of her life, did I understand what a sociopath Roni's mother was. I could have discovered it earlier, forcing myself into her mind with auros and reading her like a large print book, but the social conditioning I'd inherited from my original had stayed my hand. She had to have been tapping Roni since infancy, stealing her power and her life-force to augment her own.
Which made some action necessary. Not saving the parents - Agran was within a couple heartbeats of death already, and Theana was headed that direction. There was no time to be subtle - I slammed down a wall of matra, cutting off Theana from Roni's life force and power. A touch of auros ensured that Roni wouldn't awaken for a while. Roni was safe from the daemon, which would dissipate at her mother's death, but I didn't think she needed to witness her mother's dying agony or the immediate aftermath. She'd learn the facts soon enough. That accomplished, I wrapped myself in a cloak of auros and went in search of King Edvard.
"Alexan, where have you been all day? I sent a servant to your quarters but I was told you didn't answer."
"Your Majesty, I was up at near the top of Ygg, watching the runoff from the Scourging. But I have grave news about Veronia and her parents."
"Is Roni dead?" her asked, and I shook my head, seeing his relief.
"No, but her parents are. When I returned from my trip to the top of Ygg, there was a daemon waiting for me. It wielded a poison dagger, but its targeting spell rebounded off my defenses and sent it in search of the wizard who'd sent it after me."
"You killed them?"
"No Sire. Appropriately enough, the effects of her own intentions killed Theana, and her husband as well. I simply didn't intervene on their behalf."
"Reasonable enough, under the circumstances. An entire hall full of guests and servants saw what they tried to do yesterday. But I wish you'd found it within you to forgive them. It's going to make things more difficult."
"Your Majesty, I understand the situation. But yesterday's forbearance was the limit, as I believe I made clear at the time. My homeland is a wonderful place, but our political rivalries are deadly within the ultsi, and one thing we're all in agreement over is that we're not required to help each other train competent assassins by letting failures live. I withheld my hand yesterday out of consideration for you and for Roni despite conditioning going back to my childhood saying that I should have killed them both on the spot. But forbearing to act once was the most I could do. I did save Roni, however. And you need to know, she's a wizard. Her mother was tapping her power and her life force."
"Roni's a wizard? Are you sure?" Edvard replied.
"Yes, I'm certain. Her mother's been stealing her power since she was very young. That's the only thing that explains how even Roni doesn't know."
"Does this change anything? I saw the two of you dancing last night."
"Sire, perhaps it would have under other circumstances, although Roni's almost an infant by the standards of my homeland. Even without what just happened to her parents, however, she's decided she likes you, not me. She and I might have been friends, but given what just happened to her parents that's likely moot. I saved her because she bore no blame for what her mother did, otherwise she would have died with her mother. The spell stealing her power and life force would have kept pulling from Roni to sustain her mother until there was no more."
"For which I thank you. Why did you bring this to me?"
"First, to let you know immediately what had happened. Second, because Roni's going to need help from you when she wakes up. It won't be long - what I did will keep her asleep perhaps another hour."
"I understand," Edvard replied, "Thank you Alexan. I'll do my best to explain the situation to her. I can't have my Queen carrying out a vendetta against my Viceroy."
"Your viceroy?" I asked, amazed at this man.
"Even Storg would be tempted by the power - I've known him for twenty years. I trust him, but he wants power, so he'll be my Marshall and I'll find him a fief for his children and his old age. You don't want power, at least not that kind, or you would have had it. So if something happens to me, you'll be the Regent for any children I might have. The appointment is all drawn up. You won't refuse me, will you?"
I shook my head, "I don't know how long I'll be in Migurd, but for however long that is, I will do as you ask."
"Good," the king said, "I wasn't certain you'd accept. Now if you'll excuse me, though, I have to deal with the situation you've left me, and it would be best if you were not there when Roni wakes." He strode off towards her room, calling for the servants

Excerpt from The Man From Empire

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The Man From Empire

Twenty-three kilometers up, Osh Scimtar felt the explosion through his feet.

More ominously, he immediately realized that he was no longer feeling the full force of Sharanna's acceleration. The building was falling.

Quick probes with his mental abilities and datalink told him all he needed to know about this disaster before it happened. Blue Gold Arcology held fifty-two million people at the peak of the primary business day, and its' support columns had been severed and back up gravity generators destroyed by a series of cutter bombs at the base.

There was no time for anything but trying to save as many people as possible. He commanded all portals within the arcology to lock into emergency exodus mode - they would lock onto the destination chosen by the first person to enter them, and would refuse to accept any incoming traffic. Matos, his superior, beat him by less than a millionth of a second to flashing the emergency via all data channels.

Osh wasn't concerned for his own safety. Like roughly a seventh of the Imperial population, he was capable of generating his own portals. The question was how many he would be able to save with himself.

Next question, what would happen to the mass of Blue Gold as it fell? Either of the destroyed systems would have had no difficulty keeping the Arcology up alone, but with broken supports and no gravity generators, the hull charge on the building wasn't enough to keep it from falling - down or over. That hull charge was the real issue, as it was likely to cause irregular resistance as the massive arcology fell, imparting lateral force to the building as a whole. In short, the hull charge made it more likely the building would fall sideways, into the lesser arcologies surrounding it. The choice was to order the hull charge dissipated and hope it fell straight enough not to hit the smaller but still populous arcologies around it, or keep it on in order to buy perhaps an extra minute to escape with a practical certainty it would fall and hit at least one of its lesser brethren, more likely two or three.

Osh ran a quick mental simulation - the structural systems of arcologies were tough. It would take something more than bare mass to bring them down, but if Blue Gold Arcology still had its own hull charge when it hit a neighboring arcology, there was considerable doubt they'd maintain their integrity. He linked with Matos, his superior, who concurred in his estimate, and Matos ordered the hull charge dissipated. It wouldn't make that much of a difference to those inside Blue Gold Arcology.

Already in the first four seconds, at least a million would have died as the lower floors pancaked, falling ever faster with the force of Sharanna's acceleration. Ironically, the people at the top would have the longest fall, and therefore the greatest chance to find a way to save themselves. More than eight sixtieths of the imperial population were Guardians, and most of them would be able to rescue some non-operants as well - perhaps two or three each. Perhaps another five or six sixtieths might make it through a portal on time. Some few would be close enough to vehicles or spacecraft on the parking levels to get out. Isolated individuals might figure something out that enabled them to escape or be rescued, but already the lowest levels were crushed debris, and the levels above were crashing to ground with ever greater force. Osh estimated than probably eighteen million would die in the minute it would take for the collapse to complete itself - at the end, the top floors would be falling at supersonic speeds. Most of the non-operants were simply too far inside the building to have any hope of escape.

Osh, Matos, and all three of Osh's Primus subordinates were among the Guardians - one of them, Fridalisa, was a known Fourth Order Guardian, and she had already created a portal for everyone in the government office to escape the fall, with a terminus in Leading Edge Arcology, too far away to be endangered by the fall of Blue Gold. Aided by Matos she was expanding it downwards as fast as she could - an escape column in one corner of a building several kilometers on a side. It wasn't much, but it was what could be done. Matos and the Primuses had the situation in hand; that left Osh free to investigate.

He stretched his perception to the now crushed sublevels where the explosion had been. There was a fading Instance Portal not five steps from one of the blast centers. Where it led, he couldn't tell, but it wasn't the home Instance. There wasn't much doubt; the ston terrorist who planted the bombs had fled through that portal. The time for action was now; in the next minute tracking down the exit Instance, let alone a precise destination, would be something that would take a specialist days at least to track down. Osh didn't want to emerge right on top of his quarry, so he applied a small lateral - thirty ififths. He was confident he would be able to sort out the proper Personal Event Line from that distance. He reached his hand into his personal pocket for his main weapon, and projected himself through the portal


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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.

 



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