Excerpt from Moving The Pieces

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Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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

A vacation. Our contracts had been good to us. We had enough money to last us at least twenty years, more likely sixty. Given the income from renting our service points, we might never have to work again if we didn't want to.

I meant longer-term. Our next professions.

I hadn't thought about it, babe. Visit the kids, do some touristy stuff. I gave her a mental leer Maybe take a year and just rut like crazed weasels.
That was intended as a joke, but even cosmetically aged, Asina was a petite fox. Let her go back to young adult in appearance like everyone else in the Empire, and I could spend a year in bed - a real Imperial sleeping field - just working off the urge. We're both Guardians; we have time and choices. Did you have something in mind?

Not yet. But you know me.

Yes I did. You like vacations, but you can't really enjoy them unless you have a plan for what comes next. A legacy of a childhood spent cold and starving. If money is what's driving you, Tia Grace has made it clear there's damned good money in piloting. Sixty years of that, and work becomes something we do because we want to.

Joe...

I know. It wasn't really money. Or it was, but it was the thought of having more money going out than coming in that made her uncomfortable. Or more money going out than reliably coming in under our control. There would always be a little daimon in the back of her mind worrying about enough. It may have been a legacy from an abused and impoverished childhood that was now close to two centuries in the past, but changing that would mean she was no longer Asina. Besides, her need and drive kicked my lazy butt into action and made me a better person that I'd have been without her. I understand the idea of not working for a period of years is something you're not comfortable with. I will give it some thought. We certainly have the money for any training we might need.

Thank you. But you should know that 'lazy' is not a word anyone should use in describing you, Joe.
That little bit of encouragement from her made my day.
A quick smooch and we went about our tasks for the day.

What Comes Next

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Just spent some time on the websites for Amazon and Books2Read, cleaning up some issues I'd noticed. I also changed the blurb for Fountains of Aescalon to:

The first thing Alexan knew was standing over an impossible corpse with an ichor-stained sword.


Exiled from home for reasons of politics and health, he has to orient himself in a new home, but he still has the skills he was 'born' with, skills which make him a wizard in his new homeland. A blasted, sterile cavern has many portals, but the one he chooses leads to the top of a huge tree, the source of magical power for an entire world.

Power is plentiful in Aescalon, but those who have it want to keep it all for themselves, and the arrival of a new wizard upsets the balance. It seems everyone who doesn't attack immediately wants something from him - including a cursed demi-goddess desperate to escape her fate who thinks Alexan may be able to help her.

But Alexan can't even help himself until he unravels the secrets of The Fountains of Aescalon

So what comes next?

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to do some advertising and put the first two books of Politics of Empire (The Invention of Motherhood and The Price of Power) on sale prices for a few days each. Then I will release The End of Childhood, book three in the series.

I will also put the Preparations for War novels (Preparing The Ground, Building The People, and Setting The Board) on sale for a few days each prior to releasing the final novel in the series, Moving The Pieces.

Meanwhile, work on Gifts of The Mother continues, slower than I'd like due to day job but it is coming. If you want it to come more quickly, tell folks to buy my novels so I can afford to quit!

Happy Thanksgiving

I smiled and waved as they brought Julie into the courtroom for her bail hearing. She looked a little wan, bedraggled from her ordeal, bruises beginning to darken on her face and arms, and completely beautiful. It didn't take long for Mister Stuart to shoot down all of the county's contentions about why a higher bail would be appropriate. In the end, her bail was set as considerably less than mine, and I posted it the minute the clerk got the formal document.

Soon as she was officially 'free', she turned and gave me the best hug I'd had in weeks. She was trembling in fright the whole time but she did it. I tried to gauge what she needed, settled for a good tight hug while carefully avoiding any areas that might frighten her or cause an involuntary reaction. "Scary as it was, I needed that," she said.

"My pleasure. Sorry you got assaulted. How did it happen?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but now that I'm allowed to leave, I want to grab my stuff and leave before we do anything else."

I understood completely. Also, I suspected she wanted to be away before she said anything to antagonize people she might still need to work with. "I guess I'll wait here." She didn't take long to change. I'd been home; we walked to the Porsche and accomplished our usual ritual.

Once we were out of the parking lot, she said, "The women's side is all one big barracks. I woke up and the lights were out, like they were in that Chinese place we went to where the shadow-cat showed up. Then the others all started speaking in unison, something about the Mad God and his vengeance. I don't really remember much between that and the guards pulling them off me, and they took me to the hospital."

"How bad is it?"

"I'm bruised everywhere, and it all aches, but the doctors said nothing serious as far as they can tell. No broken bones, all the organ tests they did came back within limits. They did another pregnancy test, but damage to the baby isn't going to show for a while unless I miscarry."

"I'm sure Mister Stuart would love to represent you in your suit for failure to protect."

"I'm sure he would, but I think the boss is likely to pre-empt him. Mister Silver does not suffer us to be abused by anyone except him."

"A jealous boss?"

"Very."

"Your experience seems to square with something RaDonna told me. The men's side is smaller cells, four bunks to a cell. She said the cell separators are probably what short-circuited the Mad God's attempt to do the same thing to me - and one of the guys I was sharing with was big enough to make me look like a toddler."

"Then I'm glad it short-circuited."

"Me too. I'd have been a small spot on the wall or floor. But when I was speaking to her about other things, I also asked RaDonna if she knew any therapists who understand magic to deal with our particular problem. She went one better and suggested her great-grandmother would be willing to help. She said she needed a couple days to ask, but seemed optimistic."

"Is that good?"

"I can't imagine RaDonna's great-grandmother agreeing to help unless she was pretty certain she'd make a difference. From what I understand, she's an important mage to the Elven holdings on this continent."

"I think I remember RaDonna saying her great-grandmother was out in Iowa just a few weeks ago. How fast can they move?"

"I don't know, but I don't think Ra' would have suggested it if we'd have to wait months. Maybe they move over to this side and drive the interstates. Maybe they even hop planes and fly commercial."

"You need I.D. to get on a plane."

"You're right, but maybe she has one. The point is RaDonna isn't the kind of idiot who'd suggest a solution that we can't use."

"You know her better than I do."
"Best office manager I've ever heard of, in addition to whatever else she does. She's sharp, Julie. She warned me about the Mad God. Evidently, he has power over groups; the larger the group the more he can do."

"Makes sense. The men were split into small groups and it fizzled. The women were all in one room and it didn't. She didn't happen to say anything limitations of this power? Something we can do to forestall it, or break it?"

"Not other than breaking up the groups or dividing them into pieces too small for the Mad God to use. Even that was implied from what she said rather than direct advice.:

"Well, it's a nice caveat, but if the Mad God can raise a riot looking for us and direct it towards us, our days are numbered unless we can think of a counter," Julie realized, "This is L. A. and large groups are part of life here. Baseball will be going for another three months. Football starts soon, and basketball too. Concerts and traffic jams, and so on."

"Point. Just regular traffic probably has plenty of people, at least if he can get them out of their vehicles."
"There's no point in freaking out over every possibility. We need something that can prevent it, or break up a mob if it happens."

"Here's a question: Why hasn't the Mad God used this power to break his rivals?"

"What do you mean?"

"If he can get any group of ten or twenty people to do his bidding," I told her, "He could destroy a lot of property and attack a lot of people, particularly if he could somehow keep them going from target to target, and the momentum would snowball as they encountered more people. Imagine if riots were contagious. There have to be limits of some sort, or he would have destroyed any rival power centers by destroying the rival's worshippers or temples, or the means to pay them. The only reason that makes sense about 'he hasn't' is that he can't. Why not?"


Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Joe and his native wife Asina have spent the last twenty years helping the natives of Wimarglr Continent on Calmena throw off their overlords, both demonic and human.

Now it is time to spread the rebellion to the rest of Calmena, which requires bringing the art of shipbuilding to a world that has never known a boat more advanced than a canoe.

But the demons are not willing to give Calmena up easily, and a counteroffensive is on the way that will rock the free humans to their limits

******

"I'm due to be relieved day after tomorrow. I will not force my successor to accept a plan that they might object to," Platoon Private Markoczi was adamant on that point. She refused to allow us the use of one of the cutters until such time as her successor approved the plan.

"Sir, orbital scans clearly show the immediate area as clear of humans today. That may not be the case two days from now."

"Then you'll just have to wait until the area is clear again."

We had no way to force her to cooperate, and we would need the goodwill of the commander of Bolthole Base. We wanted to get on with it, but sometimes the person in charge makes a decision you have to live with.

Our new contract was considerably more generous than our previous one. We had experience now, and a history of results. It called for each of us to be making twelve prime for every four days we were in the field, but we also received one prime each per day we were required to spend in non-field activities like waiting for a new commander to approve our deployment.

Love, we can't win this argument, Asina told me. "Are you willing to offer your official opinion of our plan?" she asked.

"I see nothing wrong with your plan for deployment, and if I was going to be here even a few days longer I would have no qualms approving it. But my replacement would have legitimate concerns because your plan for deployment stretches into their tenure." Shipbuilding required more tools, and more in the way of raw materials than blacksmithing. The schedule for initial deployment stretched over an eight day period, with room for slippage in the event we were under observation. I had to admit Markoczi had a point but the Empire generally accentuated the authority of the current commander on the scene. "I will recommend my successor implement your plan immediately."

It wasn't practical to haul the whole set of gear - metal, wood, canvas, and tools - the fourteen isquare between Bolthole Base and our chosen site on the northwest coast of Wimarglr. It would take sixties of swass-loads with even a minimal amount of lumber. N'yeschlass was as law abiding a land as existed on Calmena, but that wasn't saying much. The odds were that someone would be tempted enough to try and rob us, and there were only two of us. Also, we wanted some more time to blur "Joe and Asina" in the minds of people we might have encountered before, and the trail out of the Collision Range led right past N'yeschlass the city. We had altered our appearance while off planet. I was now my original Earthly 5 foot 11 and had lightened my skin and hair color, while Asina had significantly darkened her hair and complexion and changed her eye color to gray, but mannerisms are hard to disguise and we didn't want anyone on Calmena identifying us with our former selves. I was going to be working under the cover name of Ossitar, and Asina was going to be known as Tellea, as her daughter's name was a perfectly normal Calmenan name. But since we wanted the use of cutters to shuttle our equipment, we had to have the agreement of the base commander. Markoczi was too close to the end of her tenure, and unwilling to approve it when the majority of the shuttle work would be done on her successor's watch.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Drives:

Faster than light travel has turned out to be one of those things there are many solutions to.

Far and away the most common are Vector Drive and it's newer child, Interstitial Vector. These are essentially instantaneous over even inter-galactic distances (or between instances of creation as well in the case of Interstitial Vector). The drawback to both is computers on their own aren't accurate enough for reasonable accuracy - you need an operant pilot capable of handling multiple simultaneous equations over a short period of time immediately prior to a Vector. This means Vector pilots are expensive as such things go and many things flow from this fact, from the drive for ever larger ships to a need for insystem ship crews to maneuver before and after a Vector, and pilot modules that plug into those ships carrying a Vector pilot.

An alternative for shorter distances is a timejammer. Timejammers can handle speeds of up to about sixty cubed times the speed of light, and they do not require operant pilots. The issues are two: Unlike Vector Drive vessels, they actually must travel the distance involved and they have to be careful not to run into anything at those speeds. They also capture and build up a 'buffer' of photons that tend to attract the attention of anyone looking in the area - timejammers are definitely NOT 'stealth' ships. Even Earth's technology pre-contact had no difficulty picking out the one timejammer that was operated in the system before official contact. Timejammers tend to be smaller ships, run on shoestring budgets within a galactic neighborhood of sixty light-years or so.

Phase One space is a sort of hyperspace where faster speeds are possible sub-light. Very common with less technologically advanced races but only rarely used by Imperial vessels.as timejammers are faster, but it is easier to guard against collisions are you're not exceeding speed of light.

There are fourteen other known methods of faster than light travel, but the ones above are by far the most common.

Finally, it should be noted that modern impellers are capable of interstellar voyages sublight. This is a commonly taught means of recovering from a FTL failure away from civilization where it cannot be fixed for some reason: Crank up the impellers and head for the nearest Imperial system. It'll only take a week or so of subjective time, and if twenty years or so pass in the main universe, that's not an impossible adjustment.

Communications:

Tachyonic communications has a maximum range of about three years (just over two Earth Light-years). In First Galaxy of the Imperial Home Instance, there is a well-developed relay system that works to pass messages at tachyonic speeds all over the galaxy. There are less-developed systems in several other of the more heavily colonized galaxies of the Home Instance. However, bandwidth is limited and therefore it's often cheaper as well as faster to use Vector couriers as the military does.

Both are finished and ready for publication.

This time, I'm going to try a coherent marketing plan and hopefully boost sales. To that end, if you're interested in an Advance review copy, let me know.

Meant to have this up yesterday - but by the time I got various crises dealt with, it was almost 5pm here on the west coast. So moved to today


******


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

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

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

"The guards cannot help you now," a low growling voice issued from every other throat in the room. In the darkness, it sounded sibilant, like a snake. "You have angered the God, and you shall be made to pay."
I'm not going to kid you, I nearly lost control of my bladder I was so scared. But suddenly it was like all the strings were cut; the marionettes broke free. I supposed there had to be limits; they couldn't all have been minions of the Mad God. They hadn't accepted his bargain - he couldn't make them do much.

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

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

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

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

"I didn't see you!"

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The die is cast.

The Empire has caught the fractal demons marshalling troops for assault, and there is no avoiding the decisive Armageddon between humanity and the fractal demons. Both sides have their strengths and there is no certainty about the outcome. While the Empire is free-falling towards open war, Grace is tasked with nudging the odds a little bit, ferreting out traitors to humanity, bribed with the seeming of the most precious gift possible but with a nightmare catch.

Then at the moment of the first skirmishes, personal tragedy strikes, clearing the way for a long-delayed impulse, which results in horror and more personal tragedy.

But out of the disaster, a new Grace emerges - one ready to stand on her own, fully realized as a potent force in her own right.

******

"Nothing in the Game of Houses is certain and nothing is forever. The only guarantee is we all die someday."

I still remember the first time I heard that - Scimtar himself said it to me while training me as a Guardian. Eventually we all make the fatal mistake. That said, the fact it was Scimtar saying it changed the subtext - he'd been playing the game for over thirty square. Just because you were going to die someday didn't mean it had to be today or any time soon. Maybe the metaphorical dice would come up snake eyes for you today. Maybe you had enemies who'd do their best to make it happen. But you got to influence those dice, too. The leaders of the Empire were all masters at loading the dice in their favor, or better yet, controlling the outcome so the dice were never rolled.

But you're not the only one the dice can turn fickle on...

-Graciela Juarez di Scimtar


It never begins dramatically.

It started on an ordinary day, when I'd been doing the perfectly ordinary thing of gathering evidence for a hearing. The case I was investigating had to do with the tort of infringement. In this case the plaintiff was alleging the defendant was generating excessive noise and interfering with the plaintiff's enjoyment of their property. Evidently, the defendant had refused negotiation on the subject and so the case was going before the relevant Primus the next day.

Both were out on the fringes of Sumabad, out in the hills, out where the towering arcologies holding tens of millions each petered out, and the residents generally had reasons to need or want ground space. The plaintiff was an academy for self-defense, with classrooms for hand to hand disciplines and ranges for things like disruptors, lasers, flechette guns, and even the occasional firearm. The other was the Grubaro Club, a nightclub catering largely to the Tumar culture which had a large presence in Sumabad and environs. Tumars liked explosions while they were eating and dancing. Tumars thought loud noises were exciting and envigorating. Unfortunately for their neighbors, these explosions and other noises often reached ear-splitting levels, and it was not only disrupting to the peaceful conduct of the instruction at Hills Academy for Preparation and Discipline next door, many of the patrons and instructors were combat veterans. It wasn't my place to judge, but I was pretty sure the Primus was going to mostly rule against the Grubaro Club - they had a responsibility to see that any noise they generated did not disturb their neighbors, and my spak recording was getting readings consistently louder than an original Learjet on high-power takeoff.

Scimtar himself contacted me. Grace, I have a job if you're interested, or rather a series of jobs. Mixed family and imperial. It involves demonic traces, mostly spraxos and nephraim.

I was no longer the barely trained woman who'd been nervous about facing a terostes by herself, but neither was I a Sixth or Seventh Order Guardian. I was mid-range Fourth Order - albeit trained by House Scimtar. Furthermore, if I were observed taking on spraxos, that could be the end of me pretending to still be Second Order. What's it entail?

We're seeing a surge in the number of demonic traces, not only here in Indra System but everywhere in the Empire. The conclusion is obvious.

The fractal demons were trolling for treason. It's what they did. The vast majority of their troops would be easy pickings for Imperials when the inevitable confrontation came. Unless they could get us to turn on each other, the eventual war would be notable mostly for a lopsided casualty count. They'd seduced the old stons without anyone realizing it until the old Empire was already gone, resulting in a civil war that ended up destroying the Empire - and afterwards, almost the entire human species. This time the leaders of the Empire were alert for their tactics.

The assignment?

Match demonic traces to human contacts by Event Line congruency. Investigate the human contacts by behavior. If you happen to destroy demons, we'll pay a bounty - nephraim are worth three fourths, spraxos thirty. Ancillaries too, although manesi and lemuure aren't worth much. What we're looking for is evidence to convict or exonerate treason, and we'll double your normal rate for results.

The money was nice even if Asto and I could live very comfortably off investments if we wanted, but demonic nobles were dangerous - and they had a habit of bringing in help when threatened. Still, I didn't think Scimtar would be offering me the job if he didn't think I was able to handle myself doing it - I'd given the family five children thus far, all of them above average tracking metrics for Seventh Order Guardians their age thanks to yours truly carrying them naturally instead of using artificial gestation. I'd done it for my babies, not for House Scimtar, but I knew Scimtar valued my efforts.

Grandfather is offering you a way into the Guardian's Ears if you're willing, my husband Asto put in his two cents.

I thought the Guardian's Ears didn't accept candidates born outside the Empire?

Maybe not, but it's worth pursuing if you want to win appointment as a Primus yourself someday.

That was a carrot that had my eye. Most Secundus-in-fact had more applicants for Primus-in-fact than they knew what to do with. Even a 'might be' defect like being born on Earth before the Empire arrived could be enough to make them pass you by. Also, I was a di Scimtar, which had advantages but also carried baggage. I wasn't really qualified yet - but I needed something to counter-balance the possible defect I couldn't cure, and it was never too soon to pick up that extra little something that would put me over the top when I was. I already had work in the Merlon's Eyes to my credit. Add something equivalent to the Guardian's Ears and that might be enough.

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

You've had ten years' experience as an investigator now, and we both know you're Fourth Order. Most of our investigators are Second Order, and weaker than average Second Order at that. They might be able to handle a nephraim, but a spraxos would squash them, and if they stumbled across a jopas it would be hopeless.

If there's a basileus?

You've survived two confrontations with them. There isn't another active investigator who can say that anywhere in the Empire.

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

So be careful and don't confront anything you're not certain of. Scimtar never had any sympathy for getting caught by your own mistakes. If there's the possibility of jopas, basileus, or something even stronger, bring it to my attention and I will use an appropriate agent.

When do you need a decision? I asked Scimtar. Who are you trying to fool, love? Asto asked me. I want to talk to the kids about it, I told him.

Tomorrow, I could tell Scimtar wasn't fooled either, fifteen hours from right now. He knew this was an opportunity as well as a risk. You can bet he thought he was doing both of us a favor. He broke contact without further complication.

Moving The Pieces will be the fourth and final story in the Preparations for War Series, about the Advancement Mission on Calmena, a demon-held planet with a large human population. It will be released in tandem with The End of Childhood, third book of Politics Of Empire, with which it shares some common events.

******

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.

******

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.

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.

Before the kiss broke, I was roughly grabbed, shoved up against the car door, and handcuffed. "Mark Jackson, you are under arrest on suspicion of murder! You have the right to remain silent..." I'm sure you've heard it hundreds of times in mass entertainment. My least favorite overzealous homicide detective - Ramirez - was obviously enjoying himself.

What really surprised me was his partner Officer Whitehall was repeating the same thing to Julie.

She was not taking it well.

To give him credit, he'd started considerably lower-key than Officer Ramirez. He hadn't even touched her to begin with; but he did start off with, "Julie Ingmar, you are under arrest on suspicion of murder...", but she understood what was coming considerably better than I would have. She backed away crying hysterically, "No no no no no no no no!" she kept repeating growing in volume.

I tried to get through to her, but being manhandled by Ramirez wasn't exactly conducive to the task. "Julie! Panic isn't, oof, going to help! Ow! Julie, you've got to calm down OW! Or they're really going to get physical! Julie, oof!" and about that time it must have penetrated Ramirez' BB-sized brain that I was trying to talk her down because he just held on and let me talk. "Julie I know you're scared but if you don't calm down they're going to use force and it's going to be much worse. Julie you keep telling clients to cooperate and once it gets to the courthouse the lawyers will sort it out. Julie, remember what you tell your clients!"

Officer Whitehall was at least somewhere in the vicinity of humanity. He could see she was terrified beyond rational thought; he stopped and said, "Ms. Ingmar, I've got to take you in, but if you cooperate I'll be as gentle as I can and let you walk on your own." He could see she was in heels and wasn't running but she was panicked and not going to be talked down easily.

Ramirez muttered an obscenity and headed for Julie, releasing me in the process. I tripped him, he went windmilling and sprawled on the lawn. I managed to keep my feet and simply stood there waiting for him, trying to reach Julie verbally, "Julie, stop. Nobody's attacking you! The police have to handcuff us; it's how their jobs work, but they don't have to attack if you let them do their job." Finally, since nothing else was working, "Julie, think about the baby! If you make them attack, they might hurt the baby! They don't want to attack you, but they'll do it if you don't calm down!"

Something finally got through. She still had the wild look in her eyes, but she managed to get out a desperate, "Promise?!"

That was about when Ramirez, back on his feet, gave me an elbow to the kidney, following it up with a twist of my (cuffed) arm and something else to the back of my knees. I'd known something was coming; men of Ramirez' stripe do not accept being challenged or thwarted in any way. I managed to keep myself to a pained intake of breath, but Detective Whitehall stepped into the breach, "Promise. If you allow me to cuff you, I won't even touch you other than that, although we will have to have a matron frisk you at the station. I'll let you walk to the car and let you get in on your own unless you need me to shield your head."

"What if she's got a weapon?" Ramirez wanted to know.

"If she had a weapon, she would have used it already," Whitehall replied, "She was frightened enough she didn't care what would happen next. If it bothers you, I'll call for backup and you can ride with Mister Jackson in the other car." Addressing me, "What happened to her?"

I didn't need to see Julie's frightened headshake to know not to discuss that. "Not my secret to tell, detective, but I doubt it's relevant tonight. If it's not too much to ask, what's this about? It can't be a renewal of whatever happened to Diane; Julie wasn't there and we didn't even meet until the next day. You wouldn't be arresting her. So what's it about?"

Ramirez, true to form, did something to my back that hurt like hell. It spasmed, and I cried out in pain. But this time, I knew there would be recordings I could access. Officer Ramirez would be hearing about excessive force in the near future. "Quit playing the innocent! It might have worked last time but this time we know you know!"

Whitehall addressed Ramirez, "Mike, stop it!" When Ramirez looked at him, he glanced meaningfully at one of the surveillance cameras. The whole neighborhood was full of them. Prosperous area, near downtown, lots of homeless and less than scrupulously honest individuals. "Ms. Ingmar, I'm going to ask you to turn around and put your hands behind your back now. I'll be gentle, but the handcuffs are required. I'll take your purse, but I won't touch anything but your hands."

He was good as his word. He gently cuffed Julie's hands behind her and took her purse, but didn't touch her otherwise. Whitehall was black; I guess he had some perspective on the evils of excessive force; he was old enough he might have been around for the last set of riots. Nobody was likely to riot over us being abused, but Whitehall understood there was no point to force in this instance.

Julie calmed down enough to ask, "What's this about? If you're arresting us on suspicion of murder, who's the deceased?"

"With all due respect, counselor, that's going to wait until we get you into an interrogation room down at the station. Suffice it to say there's good enough evidence for reasonable suspicion. Judge Bean signed the warrants."

"Cowboy Roy is not exactly the most careful judge on the bench."

"He's got the duty this week; there's nothing irregular about the warrants counselor."

"I have only your word for that. When do I get to examine them?"

"Soon as we get to the station. What's it going to be, Mike? You bringing the other suspect and riding in with us or do I call for other transport?"

"We'll ride with you." I could hear the unvoiced hope we would be stupid enough to try something. Nope. He'd already done everything necessary to put his career into my hands.

Remembering Julie's warnings from the previous case, I carefully did not listen to what the two detectives said on the ride to the station. Instead I kept my voice low and talked to Julie, beginning with, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do in this situation to help?"

"I think so, now." She was still trembling, but she was no longer being controlled by her fear. Her thinking mind was back in control. "Right now, we have to wait. They'll book us before they question us, separately.

Just like last time, don't say anything without a lawyer present."

"Understood."

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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