We headed outside and Zeb handed me a piece of chalk. I knelt down and reached out as far as I could before spinning around slowly in a circle to draw a bigger circle on the driveway, maybe three feet or so in diameter.

It wasn't good enough for Zeb. He pointed to a place where the line crossed what had likely been a bubble in the cement when it was poured. "See that? 's no good. The circle's broke afore ya start!"

"Can it be repaired?" I asked, drawing over the gap with the chalk to the point where there was a continuous line of chalk, just a little bit thinner in that place because of the bubble.

"Yeah, that'll prob'ly work," he admitted, "The important thing is it's gotta be con-tin-was, 's IF you din't pick up yer chalk while drawin' the line. Now le's all look for other holes." Julie and I looked around the line of the circle; it didn't appear there were any other gaps like the first.

"Okay, now, stand inside, put yer drop o' blood on th' circle, 'n' will it to pertect."

I didn't have anything to draw blood handy, and I didn't want to scratch to get one, but it was a summer afternoon, over ninety still and I was in a suit. I'd developed a sheen of sweat; I ran my hand over my face and came away with enough it would probably drip off if I let it, leaned over to almost touch the circle and willed the protection as the drop fell.

I felt it right away, a feeling almost like static electricity. I didn't need to hear Zeb's "Hot damn! Jes' 's strong as yer light 'n' shield! Yer gonna be a helluva sorc'erer when ya get some 'sperience!"

"Okay, so how do I stop it?"

"Jes' step outta the circle! 'T'ill ground out. But don' step on it or smear it, yer wife's gonna use it, too!"

Julie carefully stepped into the same circle, powered it in the same way I had. It worked just as well too, judging by her smile and Zeb's interjection of "Her too! Jes' 's strong! Jumpin' Jee-ho-sa-phat, I wanna see what 's like when you two learn enough ta work together!"

And that was about the time our two favorite detectives drove up. Whitehall and Ramirez. They'd probably been by earlier, asked one of the aforementioned neighbors who thought I was a murderer to call if I came home.

"Mark Jackson, Julie Ingmar, we need you to come downtown and answer some questions."

"Whyever for?" Zeb asked, "The answers 'r' going to be the same right here."

"Detective Whitehall, Detective Ramirez," I said, "RaDonna Adedeji called me this morning to say there'd been an attack on my old office, and told me you were looking for me. At the time, I'd been looking at a property in Pasadena we're considering buying for nearly two hours, with three other people, two of them the entire time. We also met two tenants of the property during that time."

They looked at Julie, "I was in a boring office meeting that should have been an e-mail," Julie said, "But Mr. Silver likes to show off, and he pays my salary."

"What are you doing here?" Ramirez eyed the circle suspiciously.

"'m teachin' 'em to play a game I know." I hadn't known Zeb could be sarcastic, much less that he was good at it.

"Right. Who were these people whom you were with?" Detective Whitehall asked.

"Karen Alder, Jerome Butler, and Rose Houseman, an architect Ms. Alder recommended." I followed with their phone numbers. "The tenants are Harriet and Amanda, I don't know their last names, but they are tenants at the address. The listing agent set up the showing with my agent, Zhou Li." I gave them Zhou's number as well. I wasn't certain of the listing agent, and better the listing agent speak to Zhou or Karen anyway.

He looked at Julie, "Everyone in my office was there except Liz, who was in court."

"Ya heered 'em, they could'na done it!" Zeb almost screamed, "Go 'way and leave us alone!"

For a miracle, they did. Both detectives turned around and returned to their car without another word, got in, and Ramirez drove them off.

"Did you do that?" I asked Zeb.

"Durned tootin'! That one is a right nasty piece o' work! Li'l bit o' mind magic ne'er hurt no one, long's it's the truth! Yer getting married tomorry, right? Ain't got time fer him to be persecutin' his private little war!"

Oh hell. "What's likely to happen when it wears off?"

I'd meant the question for Zeb, but Julie answered, "Well, I'd expect them to be hesitant enough about admitting they were charmed to call the people we named and verify our alibi first, and that's if they didn't do it before Zeb's spell wears off. Then knowing we weren't there, they won't be in a good position to come bother us again without some sort of evidence laying it at our feet. Since we didn't do it, that will be hard."

"What if they don't have any other leads?"

"Zeb's right about Ramirez. He may try to manufacture something. But that's a worry for another day."

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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

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

Item: about thirty thousand dollars in cash. ScOsh had destroyed the rest. Also, what appeared to be a numbered Swiss account with a balance of just shy of six million Swiss francs, as well as various other financial instruments that I might or might not be able to access somehow. Not evidence; too many less outlandish and more morally questionable ways of acquiring it. It would be useful to the extent I could tap into it, which would have to be done carefully, but it wouldn't do anything to convince Papi.
Item: one "logbook" that ScOsh had handed me with Aurora. Problem was, it didn't look like anything more than a small case of some indeterminate material. No display, no readouts I could access. Not impressive. It might be a miracle device for all I knew, but for all I could demonstrate to Papi, it might as well be a paperweight.

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

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

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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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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"Somehow, I thought there would be more for a god to do."

"Why husband, you always seem busy enough," Petra replied.

"Those are my own projects, and I know I spend more time than you would prefer on them. But I presumed the position of being a god came with its own duties and requirements. Thus far, I have found none."

"Husband, we are both Eternals - minor gods as such things go. We know there are at least two tiers above us. I spent ten thousand years and more as an Immortal. Outside of the chains of my creation, I was never tasked with anything. Art thou disappointed?" She'd taken to wearing what I called her Ultimate Lady from The Next Farm Over appearance most of the time we were together. She appeared as a dusky, light brown-skinned young lady with shoulder length medium brown hair, just barely into the first flush of maturity and shapely to the point where she drew eyes from all the men, even now at the end of her pregnancy with our first child. Petra's skin glowed with health, her hair shone with golden highlights in the soft brown. Nothing exaggerated or fancy - her breasts and buttocks were if anything slightly smaller than average, her parts just all fit together perfectly. Her hairstyle was dead simple - straight with just a hint of wave. She never wore complex fashions or glaringly sexual clothes or anything that clung too tightly, just simple and loose, hinting at the lush curves beneath. Nor was she particularly thin. Maybe by some perverse standards she might even be a little overweight. She almost never used cosmetics of any sort. But most women of King Edvard Haraldsson's court hated her for the way she drew male eyes despite everything they did to keep attention centered on themselves. They'd never understand what Petra had spent ten thousand years learning - men liked simple and elegant. These days, Petra was happy and content, and that amplified attraction even more.

"Nay, O Lady of My Heart, I am not disappointed, but happily surprised. The fact it is a happy surprise does not alter the fact it is a surprise. Why does the universe allow us to exist, when it does not require our assistance? Why are we thus privileged? There must be some purpose to allowing us this power."

"Why question thy good fortune, husband?"

"I am ultsi, milady, by habit if not by fact. We are seekers after knowledge, which requires us to be askers of questions, and I'm not explaining myself clearly, so let's approach it from another direction. Have you ever seen a living thing simply exist?"

"Trees. Grass."

"Trees and grass do not simply exist. They're in competition for soil and sunlight and water. All the other trees and blades of grass want these same things, and there's only so much to go around. Where are our competitors?"

"Other gods."

"The niche seems suspiciously empty. One of the rules is populations expand to make full use of resources. Doesn't it seem that with so much energy available, there would be more and more beings clamoring to take it for their own survival? Yet it seems that there's plenty there for all, and there's a disturbing next question."

"I would rather not be disturbed at present, husband, but it does seem that the number of gods is increasing."

I let the next question lie for now. "And our rivals?"

"Kiltig and Klikitit would fit that description."

She had a valid point. Perhaps I came from a place so energy-starved that we'd been forced to learn to make more efficient use - and now suddenly I'd been given access to a place where all the energy you could want was there for the taking, and my competitors simply had less ability to take advantage of that energy? But resource rich environments served as a beacon for organisms from less fecund locales. Aescalon was so energy rich its divinities never learned skills that even the weakest martsi and natsi - ordinary humans with the weakest level of mind power - learned as a matter of course. "Not the same thing, milady. Those are personal animosities. Given the energy rich environment of Aescalon and its fountain of plentiful energy, there should be so many gods clamoring to partake that there is none to spare. I can think of two possible reasons why this is not the case, but I'm unable at the present to test either hypothesis."

"What are those possibilities?"

"First, that the amount of energy has seen a recent increase, although 'recent' in this case is in terms of natural time, and I've insufficient data on the length of divine generations. The second is that there was a population collapse - something caused the number of divinities to drop - and we're still building back up to equilibrium. In either case, resources would seem to be plentiful until the new population increased to fill the niche."

"And how long will it take us to fill this 'niche', husband?"

"Thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands."

"Then does it not seem like thy worry is premature? We shall have plentiful time to solve it."

"A true observation my love, and yet questions of this nature are better answered sooner than late. A full answer would point us to a method of securing needed sustenance for ourselves and our descendants when the resources become strained, and such procurement is much simpler when the resources are easily acquired."

"I have faith in your abilities, milord. In ten thousand years, I have encountered none with so restless a mind."

"But as resources become strained, the quality of competition will necessarily increase as well."

"I thought I asked you not disturb my contented state, milord?"

It wasn't worth the argument at this point. I changed the subject, "How long until you believe yourself ready to give birth, milady?" But that didn't mean I wasn't going to keep pursuing answers. Nor did Petra expect me to - she knew I was ultsi to the core. She just didn't want to be disturbed at the moment. I hadn't even touched upon the most disquieting notion of all: predators. Every ecosystem has predators, and they almost always strike without warning, when they think you're most vulnerable.

Copyright 2020 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The Monad Trap is book 2 of Connected Realms.

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Service points drive rank in the civilian government as well as ability to bid on government contracts.

They are earned in three ways. Members of the Imperial military on active service earn three service points per year, regardless of rank. Certain members of the civil government also earn service points, albeit at lower rates than members of the military.

Successful government contracts - for services or for construction - also earn points. The drawback is that you have to put up points equal to at least five times the value of a successful contract in order to be eligible to win the contract. These points - as well as monetary penalties for failure of execution - can be forfeit in order to fix deficiencies in your performance of the contract. For this reason, people with service points can make a reasonable amount of money renting out those service points to potential contractors seeking government contracts.

Finally, special awards for special circumstances or contributions for deeds of public benefit can also be made by responsible officials.

Points can also be lost for irresponsible, reckless, or damaging behavior, as well as the potential to lose your legal adulthood.

Sufficient numbers of points earn you a grade 'in rank'. In ascending order, these grades are Primus, Secundus, Tertius, Quartius, Quintus, Sixtus, Septimus, and Octus. These grades earn you theoretical eligibility for appointment to actual office at the equivalent grade or lower, save in the case of Octus-in-rank. Octus-in-rank is the only 'in rank' grade with any general authority at all, as it carries not only theoretical eligibility for Octus, Nonus, and Guardian rank, but earning the points for Octus-in-rank carries with it appointment to the Great Council, which is the highest body in the Empire even though the Great Council is too large and unwieldy to be used for anything but the most basic questions of policy (the exact number of members is not general knowledge, but since there are currently at least 6000 Octuses-in-fact and 60 Nonuses, this number is an absolute minimum size for the Great Council).

Earning points for an 'in rank' grade does not mean you have to accept the relevant title. A Quintus-in-rank (or higher) is subject to legal assassination if they have any active appointment, even as a Primus-in-fact. For this reason, most people do not accept promotion to Quintus-in-rank (or higher) even though they may have the service points until it is required by the selecting authority for a prospective appointment. This generally occurs when seeking an appointment as Tertius-in-fact, as a Tertius-in-fact is generally the most senior civil official in ordinary systems of the Empire.

An Octus-in-rank, being a member of the Great Council, always has an active appointment, and is always subject to legal assassination.

'In rank' grades are entitled to wear a small equilateral triangle (two isixths, or just over 2 centimeters on a side) of the appropriate color on civilian or military dress. Primus-in-rank wears blue, Secundus gold, Tertius red, Quartius green, Quintus white, Sixtus purple, Septimus gray, and Octus orange.

An 'in rank' official may apply for 'in fact' grades less than or equal to their 'in rank' designation. Service points are not by any means sufficient qualification for actual appointments - most selecting officials consider education and other executive qualifications and other experience and generally, accumulation of sufficient assets to make good on any potential losses you may cost the government. Appointments to actual 'in fact' Imperial offices almost never take place without at least one successful term of at least ten Imperial years in the military. Nor are appointments typically made to higher offices without at least sixty to a hundred twenty years successfully holding the next lower grade. Despite this, there are generally more than enough fully qualified applicants for offices Sixtus-in-fact and below that the selecting official can be as picky as they want to be. Septimus and Octus-in-fact are generally less applied for, and officials who have been successful at those levels have other options that make as much money for less risk, so competition among successful Septimus and Octus candidates is somewhat less but selecting officials are generally less able to eliminate strong candidates for reasons of personal distaste.

A Primus-in-fact is the sole magistrate and primary economic advocate for a district of approximately 12,960,000 people (60^4). They wear a blue triangle four isixths on a side, with a smaller triangle denoting higher 'in-rank' status embedded within (inverted, vertices to midpoints of the larger triangle). They are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of a Secundus, who is generally responsible for sixty Primuses. Most Primus-in-fact are Tertius- or Quartius-in-rank.

A Secundus-in-fact wears a gold triangle 4 isixths on a side, with higher 'in rank' designation indicated the same way as a Primus. Most ongoing service contracts (law enforcement, investigation, and care for legal children) are awarded at the Secundus level. A Secundus-in-fact is also the primary appeals court for the Primus subordinates. Like a Primus, a Secundus-in-fact serves at the pleasure of their superior Tertius-in-fact, and is expected to be an economic advocate for their area of responsibility.

This pattern continues for higher levels with some differences, especially at the Quintus-in-fact level and higher.

Since there is no 'Nonus-in-rank' or higher, a Nonus is simply a Nonus. Their triangular insignia of rank is brown and always solid since all Nonuses are Octus-in-rank Similarly with the Guardian (the office formerly known as Emperor), whose insignia of rank is black.

The Imperial population has reached two thirteenths (2x60^13, or roughly 260x10^21 people), which is roughly twice the number this system was designed to work with. Most Nonuses are currently overseeing roughly twice the subordinates in the next two echelons down that the system is designed for. Debate is ongoing in The Great Council, with the most favored solution thus far being the addition of a new rank of Decius between Nonus and Guardian, which will allow the Empire to expand by a factor of roughly thirty from its current size before reaching theoretical capacity.

Julie's call was to her firm for both of us, which meant I could use mine to call RaDonna, but she didn't answer. I left a message about what had happened and what little I knew, asked her to apologize to anyone who came to the office, and to relay instructions for John which did not include him talking to clients in case I was here longer than tomorrow morning.
After the phone call, they tried pushing me into an interrogation room without waiting for the lawyer to arrive. Ramirez began, "What was your connection to Richard Shreder?"
I'd met an actor by that SAG name, but he wasn't a client and I didn't even know if that was his real name. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
"What was your connection to Katherine Schreder?"
No idea, other than I presumed some relationship with the first name. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
"What was your connection to Jeremiah Cartwright, a.k.a. Marcus White?"
Again, no idea. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
"What was your connection to Jennifer Steldan?"
Isis. A small amount of light cracked through the window of understanding. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
Ramirez must have seen some flicker in my face, "I knew it! You're in it up to your eyeballs!"
I sat there, silent.
"You and Ms. Ingmar were investigating the death of your ex-wife! There was a name - 'Osiris' - that your ex-wife's doctor blurted out as she died."
"On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
"If you come clean, things will go much easier for you!"
"On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present." I wasn't stupid enough to do Ramirez' job for him. Besides, the image of Ramirez trying to think was hilarious - I didn't think he had it in him. I let the smile show.
"We'll see who's smiling when all this is done, you smug son of a bitch!" He drew back as if to hit me.
I smiled wider. Recordings don't care who they hang, and I was sure the cameras were going. Handcuffed and under arrest, and I was still a better salesman than this nitwit.
He was too mad to care. He punched me in the mouth.
They don't tell you how much that hurts when you have no way to soften the blow. I don't think he knocked out any teeth, but my mouth was suddenly bloody, too. Now I had him for sure. Maybe he was used to getting away with it for average citizens - but I wasn't an average citizen. I'd be doing the public a favor by forcing his removal from the police.
I think he suddenly realized how much trouble he'd just put himself into. But before he could do anything else, in walked a middle-aged man in a suit as good as mine had been before Ramirez started roughing me up. If I had to guess, I'd say his ancestry was mostly black. "How nice of you to observe the Miranda proprieties, Detective," he began, "I see that you have been abusing my client physically, too. If I were in your shoes, I would want to make certain that recording does not go astray, or I will make a jury believe the very worst. Do not make things any harder on yourself than they have to be." Turning to me, "Mister Jackson, I am George Stuart from Morris Silver and Associates. I understand Julie Ingmar is your regular lawyer but she's under arrest as well." His speech was absolutely clear, correct, and careful. I knew successful actors who couldn't have been so precise in their pronunciation.
"Your understanding is correct, sir." My words were a little off - my mouth was sore and aching already, "Have you checked in on her yet?"
"You are the priority right now. Ms. Ingmar is a lawyer and understands what she should and should not do. I require a moment with my client, Detective. Out in the hall away from your recording." He didn't ask, he simply gave me a hand up and walked me out.
"Do you have any idea what this is about?" he asked.
"I recognized one of the names he mentioned. Assuming it's the same person, of course. I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Julie: I'm not stupid enough to jack around my own attorney. If it's what I think it's about, I was there but they accidentally did it to themselves. Nor would I believe what happened if I hadn't been there and seen it with my own eyes. But it would take too long to explain, and you'd probably think I'm crazy until Julie told you the same thing, and then you'd be thinking it's some sort of shared delusion. I will explain it all to you, but at the moment I'm not even sure what they're fishing for."
"I believe that will be enough for me to function effectively for the moment," he replied, and opened the door back into the interrogation room. He gestured for me to sit, so I did. "I believe this has gone far enough," he began, "My client is under arrest for murder, but he has not yet been informed of the identity of the alleged victim. Who was allegedly murdered?"
"We have a couple hundred mummified human bodies," Ramirez said, "And about fifty were still holding the plastic water bottles with either Mister Jackson's or Miz Ingmar's prints on them. There are also several thermal blankets with the same prints. We're still in the process of identifying all of the remains, but the water traces to a grocery outlet where there are recordings of Mister Jackson and Miz Ingmar purchasing said supplies."
"So you are claiming my clients murdered two hundred people then mummified them and issued their corpses water bottles and thermal blankets?"
"Jim Jones gave his people poisoned Kool-Aid."
"Have you analyzed the remnants in said water bottles to determine if there was anything toxic therein?"
"The lab hasn't found anything yet," Ramirez admitted.
"Then it seems far more likely to me that my clients were somehow rendering the best assistance they could under the circumstances."
"Then why didn't they call for help?"
"That may be a question you want to pursue, Detective, but it is your job to discover the answer. Nobody is obliged to deliver it to you gift-wrapped."
"I still want Mister Jackson to answer the question!"
Mr. Stuart turned to me with a gesture that he was passing the question on to me, but I figured out what I was supposed to do, "For the moment, I must plead the Fifth Amendment pending a private consultation with my attorney."
"So you're admitting guilt!"
Mister Stuart took over again, "Not at all, Detective. You know better than that. Mister Jackson requires expert consultation to understand the legal ramifications of what he may have done. There are any number of possible issues. For instance, is he liable to the heirs for the limits of the aid he rendered to the deceased, or for the fact he was unable to prevent their deaths? Perhaps he is concerned that he violated a parking ordinance, or even committed a moving violation in attempting to aid the deceased. He is limited in his understanding of such laws."
"You and I both know bullshit when we hear it, counselor."
"Perhaps you believe yourself unlimited in your ability to perceive truth, Detective, but I have lived enough to have seen the limitations of my vision. You may compare the evidence you gather and then re-evaluate it in the light of known events. My clients are in no way obligated to assist you in fabricating a fiction that results in their criminal convictions."
"I suppose we're done here, then."
"I require a few more moments with my client, Detective. In the corridor, unrecorded."
Once outside in the corridor, "I do not have to know what happened, Mister Jackson, but I hope for your sake you have a coherent explanation because police laboratories are getting better every year at exposing weaknesses and inconsistencies in testimony."
"I'll tell you everything that happened if you want, Mr. Stuart, but it's pretty fantastic. I'm still having a hard time believing it and I was there, and it will likely take a couple hours. We didn't kill those people."
"What did kill those people?"
"A mistake their leader made. It might not have been intentional, but it caused the deaths of everyone who drank from their communal pot."
"Are you saying they accidentally poisoned themselves? If so, what should we have the lab look for?"
"The pot was cooking, but there was human blood in it to my certain knowledge. Other than that, I don't know what was in it."
"Then how do you know there was something toxic?"
"I was told."
"Hearsay evidence. By who? One of the participants?"
"No. That's part of the story I'm having trouble believing myself." Looking around, "As I said, it's going to take a while, and I don't think this is the best place or time. As far as I know, they're still interrogating Julie." Ramirez, for his part, grabbed me by the arm and 'escorted' me to the holding tank as roughly as he could contrive.


Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

A new thing I'm doing is joining BookFunnel promos. These can be a good way to score a free or very cheap e-book on a theme from someone who is good but just starting out.

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Fourth and final book of Preparations For War!

The die is cast.

The demons have mobilized to attack the Empire, and Joe and Asina are behind enemy lines.

For 150 Earth years, Joe and Asina have been clandestinely helping the humans of Calmena prepare for the coming war. In that time, the Calmenans have gone from barely Iron Age to the brink of space. From scattered starveling communities hanging on by their fingernails to proud independent city-states. But now the demons are pushing enough troops through the Seven Gates of Calmena to wipe out the human cities in passing.

Joe and Asina will not allow that to happen.

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Moving The Pieces will release next Monday (April 11th). It will be the fourth and final book of Preparations for War. It takes place in roughly the same time frame as The End of Childhood (in the Politics of Empire series)

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 rivalling 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.

Today through Friday April 8th, Setting The Board will be 99 cents for the e-book, at Amazon and all of the Books2Read retailers (Books2Read also covers three library services so you can ask your favorite library to get it instead, in paperback or e-book).


Joe and his wife Asina were coming home to Hell.

Calmena was a primitive planet where descendants of abductees were enslaved by enemies of humanity, hoping to breed docile servants. It hadn't gone well for anyone. A century ago, the Empire found the planet and began using it to trace the fractal demons back to their home.

Joe and Asina's role has been helping the human slaves throw off the demonic yoke, always careful to camouflage their help as native ingenuity. In that century, Calmena has gone from isolated villages at the demons' mercy to independent towns and cities. But the real power of the fractal demons was never on Calmena. When the fractal demons prepare to strike at the Empire, the Imperial missionaries must blunt or divert the blow, lest it completely crush the nascent Calmenan freedom.

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