This had to be pared drastically to keep the story rolling, but this is the full paranoid passage from a point in the story where the metaphorical Yankee is still in his metaphorical Connecticut. The passage in the finished novel is about a quarter this length.

For now, the most urgent need I had was still a body. I could create an embryonic cell and force mature it as fast as I could convert the mass energy. Two bars per second wasn't close to my limit, I was just charging that slowly in order not to overshoot whatever my total capacity was. In fact, there was no reason to put off beginning a body any longer.

I started with the DNA and began working out. Every atom of the DNA had to be individual and perfect, or it wouldn't fit into the DNA codons pairs. Guanine matched only cytosine, adenine matched only thymine, building the rungs at the same time I built up the rails, of the double helix of DNA, one strand at a time.
When the DNA was completely built into the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, carefully building what was known of the operancy genes into the material, then I moved on to the rest of the chromatin, building up the building blocks of protein so that there would be reservoirs already in place when life began.
Then I moved to build the nucleolus, and the rest of the nuclear structure of the cell. This could go faster because if one atom was out of place, it didn't spell disaster later on in development. Once the nuclear membrane was finished, I moved out to the endoplasmic reticulum that would be the cell's manufacturer of proteins and lipids, the major difference being whether that part of the structure was studded with ribosomes.

Mitochondria, microtubules, filaments, centrioles, lysosomes, Golgi apparatus, cytoplasm, and dozens of other cellular structures I built up slowly, carefully, before finally building and sealing the cellular membrane, finishing the construction of the cell. The cells of an operant human body were very different from cells of a body that wasn't. Operants augmented themselves for speed, control, strength, and most importantly, mental augmentation for speed, acuity, and intelligence. The changes would decay if not maintained, but operant parents were able to do even better for their operant children, changes which would be maintained their entire life. Necris translates as healing, but includes much more.

At last, a touch of mentis, 'reserving the spot' for my own soul. The universe abhors a vacuum, and I was building this cell for me, not for whatever random soul the universe saw fit to install. Nonetheless, I didn't want to enter the body completely, because if it wasn't operant I wasn't certain of my ability to escape. Finally, I released the stasis I'd held it in, and let life begin.

Gently, I began pushing the embryo to develop faster, feeding it from my store of mass energy, which was only now starting to approach an apparent plateau at just above a square. I realized that I could have multiple storage batteries of energy, and all that a second cell would require was the dedication of one of my para to its maintenance. I had plenty of para, so I began a second cell immediately and increased my draw for the moment. Now that I had an idea what my capacity was, there was no point prolonging the draw process. I upped it to one prime per second, shunting most of it to the second cell while topping off the first.
It was also about then I was notified that a package was waiting for me at a nearby public portal. It was only a few ifourths away in the same building, a distance easily walked in a few minutes, but I wasn't in a position to leave my embryo at the moment. I suppose I could have placed my creation in passive stasis, but I didn't want to. I wanted to know if what I had built was developing into an operant body that I could use.
Meanwhile, my primary energy battery had topped out at about one square twelve total mass energy. I decided devoting a second para to power storage meant I could store still more power, and altered the destination of the power I was drawing appropriately.

It took another half hour before it became apparent that the body was not resonating with my operancy as it should have if it were an operant body. There just wasn't any help for it but to destroy the body, a sudden shock of pain running through the mentis link I'd created as the converter dissolved its mass. Nothing operants weren't trained to push past, but the soul link would cause pain to me if it was inflicted upon a linked body.

Well, now was as good a time as any to pick up my package. I walked the eleven ifourths to the portal, identified myself at its package kiosk, and as soon as I'd entered the validation code a small cube, ten isixths (Earth: 11 cm) on an edge. Given that my perception stopped at the surface, it had to be a stasis cube. On the plain wrapping paper around it, the word "yours" was written, quotation included. Other than that, the only markings were a routing from another such kiosk not far off. I used matris to flip the off switch, momentarily allowing my perception to sense what was inside. A small tissue sample, a 3600 of cells or so. I then immediately re-engaged the stasis field.

Whomever had sent me the sample wanted me to believe it came from the human I was patterned after. But I had a thought not to use them for my new body. Why? Because it was possible I'd fail to protect my genetic pattern perfectly, and a sensor that caught my former pattern could be far more threatening than one that caught some completely unknown pattern. The Empire didn't keep precise up to the minute reports of how many citizens it had, but the number was well in excess of a thirteenth (130 times ten to the 21st power). It would take any computer, even one of ours, some time to decide that a genetic pattern was previously unstored, during which time I'd be able to move, and given fuzzing of my event line, make it very difficult for pursuers to catch me. Given a couple minutes' head start, I'd be effectively uncatchable. If whomever was looking for me was looking for me thinking I'd be in a body with the genetic pattern from the cube, then not being in such a body would be an advantage.

As soon as I'd teleported back to my room, I began work on another body, building it up from individual atoms to the cellular level just as I had the first one. But it only took three para to build a cell, and only one to nurture it to a faster maturity. I had plenty of para, so I chose to start building another embryonic cell as soon as the previous cell was complete. The only drawback was that I could only bind my soul to one body at a time, but that seemed to be a small drawback.

It is to be said in my defense that mentis was far and away the least used of our mental disciplines. I knew my skills with mentis were inferior to my other skills. I didn't know why. If asked, I probably would have speculated that the person I was patterned after had simply not practiced those skills as much. It did seem to be the sort of thing that would only see occasional use at most. It's not every day you create a body for a self-perpetuating energy field from scratch. Particularly since there wasn't anything about self-perpetuating energy fields anywhere in publicly searchable data, it seemed likely the subject had never come up before.
It was about this time that my third battery started approaching plateau. I reduced my energy draw from the siphon and decided that the roughly three square worth of mass energy I had stored should be plenty, especially in light of a diminishing returns phenomenon I'd noted. The second battery had reached capacity at just over one square; the third had been in the neighborhood of fortynine prime. I wasn't certain binding another para to energy storage would be worth the likely increase.

As I was forcing body number two through accelerated development, I was already preparing embryonic cell number three, building it up from the DNA outwards like I'd done with the first two. The repetitions were getting faster with practice, but I there was a limit to how fast I could accelerate development past the critical point where an operant body would resonate with my abilities. Too fast, and I would create errors in the coding, errors that would perpetuate and replicate. Let it get too far, and it was more trouble than pushing the accelerated development.

When I finished embryonic cell three, I began developing it without much of a second thought, really, and began forcing its development as well as body two's, while beginning to build a fourth embryonic cell. No, I wasn't bound to it via mentis, but I could take it over later if it was operant. I had a deadline, whether I intended to get out of the Empire or not, as failing to do so would likely trigger conflict with whomever was pretending to be my brother, even if he actually was my brother. My first attempt at a body hadn't been operant, despite the fact it should have been according to the best theory I had. I needed all the time I could get to allow my operant body to grow and mature. After I made a body that actually was operant, that was.

While I was building embryonic cell number four, I asked myself, "What benefit can I get out of the tissue sample that was sent to me if I don't use it?" The answer came to me: if it was indeed from my original, I could use it to obtain information about that body's history. Auros, spak, matra, and kored could be combined to give me information on my original, if the sample was indeed from my original, just like investigators with a crime scene. If not, it would give me information on whomever it was from. I thought it likely I'd be able to determine whether the history of this cell sample matched my skills and what knowledge I retained sufficiently well to determine whether it actually was my original.

I don't know what caused me to not to begin cell number five. I finished cell number four and released the stasis, beginning life, but by then body number two was approaching the point at which the resonance test for operancy would be definitive. Besides, it seemed like three staggered processes was enough to be managing at one time. So I decided to wait, a decision for which I'm grateful.

Body number two failed the test for operancy, so I dropped it into the converter. There was a flash of pain as the first time, not anything like unbearable but definitely indicative that there was a verifiable link between body and soul. Again, nothing that the Empire hadn't known for 3600s of years, since the first operants began experimenting with their abilities. Proving the existence of the soul was one of the first changes to human society we'd wrought. I started cell number five at that point.

Body three was definitely developing faster than bodies one and two had. So was body four for that matter. They were cooperating better with accelerated development than the first two bodies had. Three and four were still tiny little things, three about the size of a finger joint, four about the size of a fingernail, but they were taking the energy and materials I was feeding them and developing much faster. Body three had a working nervous system before cell five was complete. It was ready to test for operancy.

The test was positive! Body three resonated! I had my new body!

Or so I thought. The first indication I had of an issue was when my mentis push to take over this new body took ten times more power than I was expecting it to. Then when it succeeded, it felt like I was being hit with an insubstantial but palpable flood of all the vile, disgusting, decaying slime in the universe. It was revolting on the level of my soul, and then the little body went into anaphylactic shock. The cells froze, the membranes between them swelled up to twice the previous size, and the tiny body died before I could even begin to meaningfully heal any of the damage. Another flash of pain as it died, but I was still overwhelmed by the rancid soul-slime generated by what I'd done.

If there was such a thing as sin, I'd just maxed out the meter. That the error was due to being unaware of what I was doing was small consolation. Damn! It felt vile. If it had been possible for me to explosively vomit in reaction, I had no doubts I would have, no matter how good I was at controlling my body. But since I didn't have anything in my non-existent stomach, I was spared that indignity. The body was dead, and it was still my soul was swimming through a sea of putridity. I managed to get the poor little thing into the converter, and the quick flash of pain as the body was destroyed felt at least a little bit cleansing. Slowly the vile taste of everything around me diminished. It was still enough to make me hate myself.

Well, damn.

That hadn't worked out like I hoped. To have success in my grasp and so unforeseeably ripped away was discouraging. I was an adult, I'd get over it. But it was frustrating. Also, I'd done something horribly wrong - murdering an innocent soul for my own benefit, when a little more patience, working more slowly, would have prevented the abomination I'd committed. Also, I'd have had my operant body if I'd simply had that small amount of patience not to let life begin until I was ready and able to take possession of it.

I wasn't about to repeat my mistake with body four. I checked with mentis, touching the new life as lightly as I could. Yes, there was another soul in there. Since I wasn't going to repeat my mistake with another innocent, I might as well not have bothered creating it. Instead, I stashed body four in the stasis box provided by my alleged brother, simultaneously extracting a small sample of a couple sixties of cells from what he'd sent me.

The backwash of my mistake with body three gave me a strong reason to understand why the discipline of mentis was less developed than the others. There were powers in the universe stronger than gravity and subtle enough to forestall all attempts to identify them directly. When a simple mistake gave rise to something that made it that clear you'd done something the universe didn't like, a rational person would not be eager to work any mentis that might result in such a reaction.

Cell five was ready to begin life. I bound it to me with mentis and began accelerating its development. But now I also had a template that I knew would come up operant, so I began creating a duplicate of body three's genetic structure in cell six while I forced body five through development as fast as it could comfortably go. Once complete I held cell six in stasis. There was no point in creating any more cells, because I was certain cell six would work, but if body five worked first, I'd have what I needed faster.
It took about an hour to get body five to the point where I determined that it wasn't operant. So I disposed of body five, bound cell six to myself, and began forcing body six's development along. Now that I was certain was going to get what I was after, I was more conservative, taking more time than I had done with any of the other bodies.

Having nothing else to keep my para occupied, I figured now was as good a time as any to find out about who I was. Spak, aided by auros, matra, and kored would give me a history of what I had done and who I had been. Or the history of this tissue sample anyway. I'd have to figure out whether it and my skills were a good enough match to believe.

The first thing I discovered - with perception before I even engaged my back trace of the event line - was that there were some non-human features to the cells. They appeared to have something to do with an ability to generate and store energy, and others I wasn't certain of. All of the primary genetic material was human, but something else appeared to have been added as well. This was allegedly from my original. Was my original not quite human? Was he augmented in some way that other operants - even ultsi - were not?

The second thing I discovered was that the past of the sample was being obscured. It wasn't part of what I was obscuring; I could have gotten past that. Someone else was obscuring the past of this person. I went back two days - still obscured. There just wasn't a need to obscure that far back, and it had to be using a lot of energy to do it. I went back two additional days, and the obscuration faded. Not only did the obscuration fade, my doubts vanished.

The tissue sample was from the Emperor himself. And yes, that was me - sort of. My skills matched his, but when I added mentis to the mix of skills tracing the event line, my soul didn't.

The Emperor's soul was old and complex, as you'd expect. He was known to be three square ten (11,400) or thereabouts; considering he (and evidently I) was ultsi, the highest degree of operant, the soul I observed in him fit those parameters. Mine did not; it was comparable with the souls of newborn ultsi, but I knew far too much for that. Something had to have happened to either him or me, but the soul I had was brand new.

So here I had a fourth part to the mystery of what had happened to me: What had happened to cut me off from the Emperor's soul? It was believable he'd be able to create something like a self-perpetuating energy field for an independent consciousness, being one of the strongest and best integrated operants in the Empire. Not everything found its way into public data immediately. But there couldn't be many who could, and they couldn't have created very many like me, or someone would have encountered one and put it into public data. It was only a matter of cranking numbers.

The discontinuity between the two souls might explain my peculiarities of memory - why I still knew about generic information and skills, but had no personal memories. The more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. Personal memories and personal deeds and experiences were tied to the soul - they shaped almost all of it. But a skill or a generic piece of information wouldn't be. Memories of child rearing were conspicuous by the absence, even though the Emperor had children. Public data said he'd been married for nearly a square and a half, but those memories weren't there either. I could tell you anything generic you could ask for about raising children, even raising ultsi children, but had no memories of any specific events in the emperor raising his children. I could tell you about making at least a reasonable success out of a marriage, but I couldn't have told you a single thing about the relationship between the Emperor and his wife. I couldn't have even told you what she looked like or what her name was without getting into the public databases.

But there was no known way for souls to split off like mine obviously had. I wasn't denying the evidence of my senses; it had obviously happened. I was trying to reconstruct what had happened so it explained my other questions. Both the Hypothesis of Leasts and the skills I'd inherited from the Emperor agreed. Attributing something to coincidence was most likely the result of dangerously lazy thinking. Especially where the Fifteen Families were concerned.

One thing I knew: Whoever had sent me the message and the money and the tissue sample, they were right. I did need to leave the Empire. The Emperor couldn't afford for my existence to be known. If our commonality became general knowledge, it would create problems for him. For all I knew, my supposed 'brother' was the Emperor himself, who understood the situation I was in but needed to insist upon me leaving the Empire, and the fewer connections between him and I there were, the better for both of us. Matter of fact, better for him if he killed me, but he obviously hadn't.

I left the question of 'why not?' for later. Body six was ready for resonance testing to confirm operancy. But instead of confirming operancy, the resonance test failed. Body six wasn't operant, in defiance of every reasonable expectation!

The easiest hypothesis was that I'd made some kind of mistake during fabrication. Either I'd misremembered my original creation, or I'd made a mistake during DNA creation. Fortunately, there was an obvious test for that. The same test that had given me the history of the tissue sample could verify my accuracy in re-creating the genetic code for body three. Since body three had been operant, if the code was identical it stood to reason that body six should have been operant as well.

However, the spak of body three showed no errors in the construction of the code for body six. I was thorough - it was the same right down to the lipid templates. If the genetic codes were the same, it had to be something else. Right now, the only difference I knew about between the two was that six didn't have a fully bound soul. Or perhaps it wasn't the right soul. Perhaps there was something of the divine in the determination of operancy.

Whichever it was, I didn't have unlimited time here. I was on the Emperor's sufferance as it was. He was in the much stronger position, and even if it came down to a duel, I was certain he'd be much stronger than I was. In his position, I couldn't have afforded to grant someone who might be my equal this much indulgence.

I had an experiment available to me to check. I opened the stasis cube, extracted body four from storage and began accelerating its development. It took me an hour, but at the end of that time, there was no doubt. There was a soul within body four, and body four was operant. I extracted a cell from the three isixth body (3 cm), and augmented it into an embryonic cell without changing any of the template. I replaced body four within the stasis cube, bound the new body to me with mentis, and began to accelerate its development like all of the previous efforts. While I waited, I extracted a couple sixties more cells from the tissue sample of the emperor. This process was going to be a little more involved, because I had to cross-check to make sure the genetic codes were without error. Living cells have mutations, mis-copies of genetic information from several different sources. Even those of operants. We could fix them if needed, but it wasn't generally a good use of resources to continually monitor all the billions of cells in a human body for copy errors. As the template for a new organism, however, I had to be certain what I was creating was the same as the person who had been my pattern.

The method for that was old when the first operant was created, twentyeight square ago. One copy will likely have errors. Compare two copies and where they differ, you have to somehow deduce which one was correct, and if you didn't have an outside reference, your error rate would be equal to the same base error rate. You might guess right in half the cases, perhaps a little more, but with twice as many chances for error, there would be twice the number of errors. If, however, you compared three copies, and unless you had the same error happening the same place in two of the copies, you had an excellent chance of determining what the correct pattern for the code was. Make it five copies, and your model eliminates most of the few errors that might remain at three copies.

I compared the patterns between fifteen cells. At that level of error checking, it was all but certain the code was perfect. The mathematical model put the probability of any uncorrected errors under an ifortieth. You don't get more certain than that in the real world.

By the time the cell copying the Emperor's genetic makeup was ready, body number seven (the one copied from body four's code) was ready for resonance testing. As I expected, it failed, despite being a copy of an operant body. There had to be a soul or mentis related reason why body six and body seven were not operant, because it wasn't anywhere in the genetic code. The two leading hypotheses were that the soul wasn't fully bound into the body, or that the wrong soul was bound into the body.

I did not want to end up fully bound to a non-operant body. That would be bad; almost certainly fatal. Such a body might become operant later, or it might not. More important though, if I were fully bound into a non-operant body, I didn't know what the result would be. I might not be able to escape the binding, whether back into my current state or into another body. I might not be able to use my operancy. I might not even be operant any longer. Given my situation, none of those possibilities was good. If I couldn't use my operancy, my new body wouldn't be ready to travel before the Emperor's deadline. He'd be able to extinguish me as easily as thought, and there was nothing I could do to stop him.

I dropped body seven into the converter, and the flash of pain further burnt the miasma still lingering from what I had done to the innocent in body three. Before I allowed body eight, based on the emperor's tissue, to begin life, I carefully split the cell into two, then built both back up. I reserved body eight for my own soul with mentis, keeping its identical copy cell nine in stasis, just shy of the point life was ready to begin.

I had an hour or so ahead of me with several para free to think while body eight developed. So why hadn't the Emperor killed me already? Compassion was the only thing that made any sense, and I couldn't see someone who'd fought the Outsider Alliance for nearly three square (10,800 years) risking an civil war that could kill billions if I decided to challenge him after I got a body. Were our roles reversed, I'd have killed me without hesitation. Especially since I wasn't technically 'alive' yet. A self-perpetuating energy field like I was could obviously be sentient and have a soul, but I wasn't alive in any biological sense of the word.

Perhaps the Emperor didn't know? That didn't make sense. How could he not? He had to have been the one that created me. Knowing that creating things like me was possible, I could think of at least three different ways to try to do it myself, but for any of them, creating a version of someone else would be like drilling into their mind and looting it. Invasive, painful, and if you somehow got past those challenges, it would cause their mind to fail its own integrity checks. Maybe it could be done to a non-operant. I didn't think there were any humans strong enough and integrated enough to be successful on even the least powerful and skilled operants, and the Emperor was one of the most powerful and best integrated operants ever. Even if one of the powers of the universe was somehow motivated enough to bend all of their abilities to the task, I didn't think it would work on the Emperor, and I couldn't see such a power doing that. The powers kept a low profile. When they got involved, it was subtle enough that even auros augmented humans didn't see the evidence for years. Since it was impossible to create me without his knowledge, the Emperor had to know I existed.

Maybe the Emperor had created me, but now someone else was watching me, claiming to be my brother? That one made a little more sense. If an ally, they wouldn't want to destroy a potentially valuable agent. If an enemy they wouldn't want to risk the Emperor's anger for destroying me until they were ready. Now that I knew who I was, I could get the Emperor's attention directly, and they wouldn't want that. Furthermore, direct confrontation would be risky. I might be weaker than the Emperor who had provided my template, but I was still strong, even for an ultsi. Except for YokNos himself, I couldn't think of a rival family operant who was likely to win a duel with me. Not at their publicly known power, anyway.

One thing I was certain of. Whoever it was had me completely under their control. Otherwise, he never would have risked contacting me. Furthermore, it was getting to be more difficult obscuring my event line from potential enemies. If I couldn't move, I had to keep obscuring my event line back to when I'd arrived, and that was more than a day at this point. But if I moved, I had to make certain that my alleged brother could still figure out where I was, because if he thought I was trying to evade him, I didn't think I'd live through it.

And no, body eight wasn't operant. If I had infinite time and infinite resources, I'd never have done what I did next, but my situation was such that not taking risks meant I was going to run out of time. I'd been given twentyfour days, not forever. If I didn't take some risks, my 'brother' would kill me when I missed the deadline, and I decided this route was my best chance at creating a body. I set the room's converter on a slow drip production of an organic 'soup' I could use for building blocks with minimal energy expenditure, then I destroyed body eight, and fully bound myself into body nine, just before I released stasis on it.
It was a tight balancing act. Once in, there was no going back, and no drawing more power until and unless the body was proven operant. I had to have enough reserve to hold myself through the development process. Once that energy was gone, it was gone. If I had enough in reserve and decided to destroy my body, maybe I'd be able to survive. But I might not, too.

Once fully bound to the body, there wasn't anything to do but accelerate the maturity and hope. The universe had shrunk down to my new body and the organic soup around it, which I was using to develop the body according to its template as fast as I was able to do so efficiently.

However it became obvious within a few minutes that my new body was operant.

Which was a very interesting datum, if one was of the opinion biology was everything. Body eight had been demonstrably non-operant. Body nine, genetically identical, was operant. But body nine had a tightly bound soul, which body eight had lacked. Bodies three and four also had tightly bound souls, while body six and seven had not. More experimentation was definitely required, if ever someone else was in the same position, but preliminary results were that the presence of a soul somehow made operancy at least a possibility, while the absence of one precluded it. There were likely other factors, like how good of a match the soul was for the pattern. That was why I'd chosen the Emperor's pattern, as his soul was operant with that pattern, and my soul had to have at least some similarities or it would not have been matched to an energy pattern that had previously matched the Emperor's. That was the largest reason I had chosen to use the Emperor's genetic pattern despite the fact that doing so would make me easier to find.
Courtesy of my operant body, I was able to tap into the siphon again to fill up my energy reservoirs. My body was barely an isixth (roughly 1 cm) length, but operant was operant, and my skills hadn't left me. I fed mass into development as fast as the cells would absorb it. Within another hour, my body was nearly three isixths in length, another hour after that, eight isixths (9cm). I was running about six days of normal development per hour, a ninety to one ratio. At that rate, it would take me about three Imperial days to get to normal human development at birth, and after that, things could proceed as fast as I could add mass.

These ranks have the same sort of legal status that NCOs and Warrant Officers have in the US Army - their commissions are delegated, given by more senior ranks within the Imperial Military.

Delegated Commissions are important within the military of a given star system. Depending upon the importance of the system, one rank or another of delegated commission is generally the most senior officer in the system, and any one of them might be the senior officer on duty in the event of an attack. Since attacks in the age of Vector Drive are brutally intense and can destroy planets or other important installations in seconds, they have to be on top of the situation at all times. A few of the most important systems may have more senior officers assigned, and a few of the least populated systems may have someone still in the sergeant grades for a system commander, but in the vast majority of systems, the senior military officer is in the Ensign, Lieutenant, or Captain grades.

The vast majority of these officers are in Tactical Space or Strategic Space units, because it's a spaceborne assault and defense that decides the outcome of the vast majority of all battles. Most Planetary Surface units are assigned a space within a larger type of unit subordinate to a Tactical Space or Strategic Space commanding officer. Delegated Commissions in Planetary Surface units are rare, and turnover is comparatively low.

Ensign candidate wears a white square on a black tab. These officers are in training for their new roles in these leadership echelons. They shadow a Planetary Surface, Tactical Space, or Strategic Space Officer within these ranks, who is charged with instructing them in the practicalities of what they need to know. An Ensign Candidate is heavily tested before being allowed to progress. They are technically in the line of command, but are often intentionally bypassed by senior officers in that line of command. This is the only command grade Delegated Commission that does not go with a specific command assignment.

Staff Ensign white square on white is a staff grade, out of the line of command.

Ensign green square and is the executive/operations officer of a Brigade of three groups in Planetary Surface forces

Brigade Ensign red square commands a brigade in Planetary Surface, usually a mixture totaling around twelve cubes (appx 2.5 million) combat troops in Tactical or Strategic Space

First Staff Ensign quartered white square on white is a staff rank

Master Ensign gold square executive/operations in a Division of five Brigades in Planetary Surface

Division Ensign blue square Commanding officer of a Division in Planetary Surface, or roughly a fourth of combat troops in the space branches (12,960,000) In terms of precedence, this officer ranks with but after an active Primus; officers above this rank have precedence over a Primus although outside of combat they must still accept instructions from whomever the civil government may be, even a Primus.

Lieutenant wears 2 purple squares in planetary surface, is the executive/operations officer of a Field Division of four Divisions

Field Lieutenant wears 2 green squares and commands a Field Division, or roughly four fourths in the space branches (51,840,000)

Staff lieutenant 2 white squares on white is a staff rank

first lieutenant 2 red squares executive/operations in a Corps of three Field Divisions.

corps lieutenant 2 Gold Squares Commands a Corps, or roughly twelve fourths of troops (155,520,000) Over time, corps have evolved to being one of the most important levels of command and operation. This is almost always the ultimate rank for any pure Planetary Surface officer.

master lieutenant 2 blue squares, executive/operations officer in a Field Corps of five Corps

Field Captain 3 purple squares and commands roughly a fifth of troops (777,600,000) In terms of precedence, this rank is equal to but after an active Secundus. Officers above this rank precede a Secundus.

Captain 3 green squares Operations/executive of an Army of four Field Corps

army captain 3 red squares commands roughly four fifths of combat troops (3,110,400,000)

staff captain 3 white squares on white is a staff grade

first captain 3 gold squares operations/executive of a Field Army of three Armies

master captain 3 blue squares commander of a Field Army of roughly twelve fifths of combat troops (9,331,200,000) plus staff. Over time, this rank has become somewhat romanticized in the way that captains of independently operating capital ships have in our culture, as this person is generally the most senior commander in one of the Empire's most mature systems, and has to be extraordinarily sharp in the event of a threat to their system. If they fail, the repercussions are generally widespread. The Empire is always looking for sharp master captains; it seems the supply never equals the demand because the good ones get promoted to higher command. This is also the highest grade NOT subject to involuntary recall, and therefore it is more socially acceptable for master captains not to apply for higher ranks or to decline promotions beyond this point.

The Common Ranks

What our military calls 'enlisted' or 'non-commissioned officers' are called common ranks in the Empire. The etymology for the three brackets is analogous to our words for 'private' 'corporal' and 'sergeant', so that is the translation. Each of the three brackets has various grades or ranks within it, graduated by color of the insignia

Privates wear a single disc or 'pip' of rank, 2 isixths (a little under an inch) in diameter. As with all ranks, they are backed in black epaulets for line troops, in white epaulets for staff troops. There are explicit staff grades scattered throughout the rank structure, out of the line of command regardless of seniority. The Empire does things in this manner to require senior personnel to fill staff grades on their way up the ladder, and as one preventative measure to keep staff from taking over the organization - staff that want a promotion have to earn their way through several command grades to reach the next staff level. In general, the hardest promotions to get are the ones from staff grade to command. All line of command ranks are explicitly attached to specific line of command assignments. In Planetary Surface, you're not a team private unless you're in charge of a team of eight - you revert to Senior Private or Trained Private as appropriate. Everybody starts as a Trained Private - there are no officer candidate schools as we use the term. Nobody is put in command of troops without having been one of those troops, at least briefly.

Trained Privates wear a Black pip
Senior Privates wear a purple pip. In Planetary Surface, they are the second and third in command of a team of eight. In Tactical and Strategic Space, there are too many possible assignments to mention.
Team Privates wear a green pip. In Planetary Surface, they are in command of a team of 8, making them roughly equivalent to a US Army Sergeant or Staff Sergeant. All future assignments and grade equivalents are for Planetary Surface Troops, as space forbids description of the possibilities in Tactical or Strategic Space
Squad Privates wear a red pip. Command a squad of four teams, making them roughly equivalent to a 2nd Lieutenant.
Section Privates wear a gold pip, and command a section of three squads, making them roughly equal to a 1st Lieutenant
Staff Privates wear a white pip. The rank is between Section and Platoon Private, but out of the line of command. A Staff Private commands no one. An order given by a Staff Private has no legal authority except what is given to it by troops in the line of command.
Platoon Privates wear a blue pip, and command a platoon of four sections, making them roughly equal to a US Army major (400 combat troops). (Platoons are also the smallest unit with attached staff)

Corporals wear two discs or pips of rank

Troop Corporals wear purple pips, and command a troop of three platoons. Roughly equivalent to a lieutenant colonel (1200 combat troops)
Staff Corporals wear white pips and are staff
Executive Corporals wear green pips, and are generally executive or operations officers for a company (it's the same job)
Company Corporals wear red pips, and command companies of three troops (3600 combat troops). Roughly equivalent to a full colonel or brigadier
First Staff Corporals wear quartered white pips, and are staff
First Corporals wear gold pips, and are executive or operations officers for a squadron
Squadron Corporals wear blue pips, and are commanders of a squadron of four companies (14400 combat troops), making them equivalent to a major general

Sergeants wear three discs or pips of rank.

Sergeant wears three gray pips, and is executive/operations of a battalion
Battalion Sergeant wears three purple pips, and is commander of a battalion of three companies (43,200 combat troops)
Staff Sergeant wears three white pips, and is a staff grade
First Sergeant wears three green pips and is exeutive/operations of a regiment
Regiment Sergeant wears three red pips, and is commander of a regiment of five battalions (216,000 combat troops)
Master Sergeant wears three gold pips, and is executive/operations of a group of four battalions
Group Sergeant wears three blue pips, and is commander of a group, consisting of four battalions (864,000 combat troops)

Above Group Sergeant, the System Officer grades start, about which more in the next article. Guardian Class, the very largest class of military capital ship is commanded by a Group Sergeant, meaning that everything above this point in the Tactical and Strategic Space branches are fleet commanders. It is worth mentioning that the Guardian class of ships are damned few in terms of numbers as compared to all other classes, and pretty much always serve as the flagship for a significantly larger unit of troops.

At this point, the working title is "Facts of Empire", but I'm working on a better one

Ilras, quit trying to squirt your sister with ketchup. The inverse square law is on her side.

But mom! I'm just trying to teach her defense! Meanwhile, baby Imtara giggled in delight at frustrating her brother's dastardly plan.
Dear, even if she was asleep, she'd have plenty of time to wake up and divert the stream. She's well past that drill. All you're doing is giving the dogs a mess to clean up.
Ilras didn't realize it, but his sister had ally. Esteban, the oldest at six Imperial years of age (just over 4 Earth), scooped together a good-sized dollop with matris, stealthed it with a buffer of matra and brun, and flung it at his younger brother. I usually expected better from Esteban, but under the circumstances, I let it slide.
Splat! It caught Ilras right on his jawline. No fair! Ilras cried indignantly, then had the awareness to look bashful when I gave him the mental equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. Ilras wasn't ready for the drills Esteban was doing yet, and Esteban had just made use of that fact to slip a counter-attack his brother wasn't ready for under his defenses. Given the impetus of an older brother who wasn't above using his advantages, I suspected Ilras would learn quickly.
Meanwhile, Mischief, our English Cream longhair miniature dachshund, gave a plaintive whine that she'd been deprived of her snack, most of which was now plastered across Ilras' face, and looked expectantly at Esteban for a replacement. Her name really was doubly appropriate; we ended up calling her Miss Chief about half the time. How she knew Esteban was responsible for her deprivation, I don't know, but no replacement was forthcoming. Scarecrow, our chocolate and tan shorthair male, gave a muted but pre-emptory bark informing us he wanted ketchup, too. We were at the table; we studiously ignored them.

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Of course, Mama heard me crying. She'd be summoned as if by cosmic reflex by any of her children crying. The back light came on, "M'IJA!" she exclaimed joyfully, hugging me in her bathrobe, her golden cocker Candy dancing around her heels. It was all I could do to not allow her to touch Aurora accidentally. "Don't do that to me! They told me you were dead! I kept trying your cell phone, but you didn't have it with you!" Papi's old black lab Riley started doing his wiggle dance for me. I reached over to pet him, briefly, before I got up.

There was never a doubt I would tell Mama and Papi the truth. "Mama, it's a long story, and it's going to be hard to believe. Right now, I need some rest. It's been two days since I really slept, and a lot has happened. When I wake up, I promise I'll tell you everything." Papi was following her out, the happiest man on the planet at this moment. "Of course, m'ija. You can have your old room. Let me take that." He started to take the sweatshirt wrapping Aurora. I hugged him with one arm, as carefully as I had Mama.

I dodged his grab, went into the house, through the family room, and started up the stairs to my old room. Riley followed me. "Uh, Papi, not a good idea. Let me hold onto it; I understand how to handle it safely. It is dangerous if you don't know how. Just make sure to keep visitors and young ones out of the room while I sleep." Never knew when family might drop by.

"M'ija, are you in some kind of trouble? Do you need a lawyer?" As I said, they'll never stop thinking of me as their baby.

"I don't think so Papi. I haven't done anything wrong. I will tell you the whole story when I wake up, but I am too tired and strung out now to deal with the questions you will have. If things are the way I think, it's mostly good things I'll be telling you." Realizing that ScOsh's allies might arrive any time, "If someone comes looking for me or a man named Osh or ScOsh, they need to talk to me. Let them in, please, and come get me. They will help me tell you what's happened." If there were any stons left on Earth, my parents couldn't protect me and trying would only get them hurt. But if ScOsh's allies arrived, I didn't want them leaving without the full story and I still wanted to go if I could.

"You were crying, m'ija. Are you hurt?" Mama and Papi had followed me up the stairs, plainly wanting to hear more. I opened the door to my old room - it was a guest bedroom now, and paused in the doorway.
I was still crying, but they weren't going to mention that. "Really Papi, I'm fine. A very good man died doing something important and I liked him a lot, but physically I'm fine. I will tell you the whole story when I wake up. I really need some time, okay?" I was pleading for special dispensation from the head of the family.

I didn't ask for favors much, so he decided to grant it. "Okay, m'ija. Just let us know if there's anything we can do."

"Just give me some time, for now. I probably need to cry some more, then I need some sleep, and maybe more crying later, but I'll tell you what happened, I promise." And with that, I closed the door. I dropped Aurora on the floor of the closet along with my other stuff, and closed the closet door. I pulled the nightstand over to block the door, just to keep my nieces and nephews from accidentally doing something fatal if they came around before I could wake up, curled up on the bed, and quietly cried myself to sleep.

Just finished The Fountains of Aescalon, my first fantasy. Want to read it over one last time, but will be shipping it off to the beta readers in a day or two.

Wrote the climactic battle scene last night. Have one more follow-on scene and then a denouement. Should be done within another week or so, and off to the beta readers!

"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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