Preparing the Ground is the first book in Preparations for War series. The fourth (and final) book will be Moving The Pieces, which is with the beta readers right now.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.


It started innocently enough. Joe was the engineer on one of Earth's first explorations beyond the Solar System, using borrowed Imperial technology. Captured on a hostile planet, he has to make a plan for his crew to escape - and then he discovers his real mistake!

He becomes a Missionary of Civilization on a primitive planet caught between massive empires - and the enemy has to think it's all native ingenuity!

******

It didn't take very long before Jayden sang out, "I've got a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere!" and both he and Will directed their full observational prowess on that globe. Mass .96 Earth, mean radius 6108 kilometers, density 6020 kilograms per cubic meter, distance to star 74 million kilometers, so it actually got a little more energy from Epsilon Indi than Earth got from Sol. Rotational period 25 hours and 38 minutes (Earth) - almost exactly one Imperial day. The local 'year' was 145 Earth days and change (136 Imperial or local). Surface gravity would be a bit higher than Earth, 10.27 meters per second squared, but 1.047 Earth gravity was very reasonable. I'd weigh not quite four extra kilos. Two noteworthy moons, one about 1% Earth mass (roughly 80% the mass of the moon) at about 24 iprime (204,000 kilometers), roughly half the distance from Earth to Moon. The second was about a tenth of that mass three times further out. Water covered seventy-eight percent of the planetary surface. Mean surface temperature was about 20 Celsius, roughly 5 degrees warmer than Earth. Four continent sized land masses, three of them mostly north of the equator, one south, plenty of islands. Sea level pressure 1060 millibars, nitrogen eighty percent, oxygen eighteen, argon, helium, water vapor, and carbon dioxide making up the rest.

We'd found a twin to Earth.

There was no measurement we took from space that said, "Humans can't walk around in their shirtsleeves," but we had no intention of landing. That was for an expedition with more resources. Like, say, a trained Guardian to be the first actual guinea pig to breathe the atmosphere. We were just surveyors. Then we saw our dreams of the big bonus go up in smoke.

Jayden broke the bad news, "I'm sorry guys, but I'm seeing large scale cultivation."

You don't have to see individual structures from orbit to get the clue it's inhabited. Cultivated fields don't look like uncultivated grasslands, even from orbit. Night side, get a couple hundred torches for a town of ten thousand or so, and you can see a town from orbit. City folks - of which I'm one - mostly have no idea how sensitive human eyes are to light. I looked it up later. In a dark room, humans can see light equivalent to striking a match 200 miles away. Remember, also, that there aren't many natural sources of light on a planet. There's bioluminescence, auroras, lightning, natural fires, and whatever artificial sources there may be. Looking down from space, the whole night side of a planet is the equivalent of that dark room.

Once we focused the cameras on the surface and zoomed in, it didn't take but maybe half an hour to confirm sentient habitation. They were bipedal, anthropoid, and looked human in the best images we could capture from the edge of space. Earth was still coming to terms with the fact we were descended from an Imperial ship that crashed or landed (we weren't certain which) roughly fifty thousand years ago in what is now Eastern Turkey, but there had been at least two periods in the history of the Imperial home instance alone when large numbers of people piled into any ship they could find and took off for the unknown because it was likely to be better than what they left behind. A few millennia ago, there'd been a revolution in the Empire that overthrew it and continued to tear things up so bad that the population plummeted by a factor of 3000 before the survivors of the old Imperial government reasserted themselves. And before the Empire, there'd been another great diaspora brought on by military conquest. The Empire was used to re-integrating lost colonies; it wasn't uncommon for explorers to find them.

But for us, it meant no super-sized bonus from discovering an empty planet suitable for colonization. The Empire's thinking was manifestly clear - even uninhabited parts of an inhabited world belonged to the people of that world. In some circumstances, other planets in the system as well. On Earth, the Empire had bought uninhabited islands from the legal owners in order to house their bases.

"Let's see what they have to trade," said Dulles.

Writing Project Status

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If you've read the previous post, you might have a pretty good idea I've finished the first draft of Moving The Pieces, and you'd be correct. It got sent off to the betas about three days ago.

What I'm doing right now is fixing some issues the betas brought to my attention with the first draft of End of Childhood. I do not believe this will take long, as I've already fixed the biggie. (Grace's son Ilras is a fun character to write about).

I'm looking for cover art for Moving The Pieces (or more properly, a cover artist). I'm also trying to hone the blurb as what I have thus far needs to be 'grabbier'.

Once everything is in place, the two releases will be done as close together as I can manage.

The next project after that is still planned to be the sequel to "The Gates To Faerie", working title "Gifts Of The Mother"

Last night I finished the climactic scene of Moving The Pieces, the fourth and final book of Preparations For War.

I suppose I can tease you with a little detail: Yes, it was hijacked by the characters again. The original plan called for the protagonists to die valiantly in such a way that tactical defeat ensured strategic victory. The more I looked at it, the more contrived it seemed, and then one of the protagonists stood up and told me, "I thought of something better," and he was right. Again.

I've got a little more to do finishing up the end, so it's not 'done' yet - even 'first draft done'. But I anticipate I'll be ready to ship it off to the betas within a week, and polish End of Childhood while they look at this one. The hardest part is done; finishing the rest of the first draft is easy by comparison.

Yesterday was a good day.

It wasn't too long before patrols that had encountered lemuure started showing up. Their attitude was resentful at the new requirement, "We've been told there's some new crap we've got to get checked for. I tell you that damned white thing never got close to any of my men!" the patrol leader complained.

"That's great, but if you're not checked, you could be harboring the ghul virus," I explained.

"Can't give us a virus if it didn't touch nobody!" one of the other members exclaimed.

"Absolutely right you are!" Asina replied, "But this virus causes people to lose control and attack others. You wouldn't want to be killed for something you can't help, would you?"

"What are you going to do? Quarantine us?" It was obvious he intended 'quarantine' as a euphemism. To be fair, nobody in the Advancement Mission had gotten around to antibiotics yet, so plague procedures were often merciless.

"No, my wife and I are agaani," I explained, "We're originally from Windhome Bay, but when these creatures attacked Yarvahs a couple sixty-fours ago, the agaani found a way to cure it. The two cities are so close, her parents learned how, and they taught us. If you've got it, we can cure you."

"Cure us? We thought you were going to shoot anyone who had it!"

We both shook our heads, chuckling. "We need everyone who can help keep the demons out! You can't patrol the city for demons if you're dead."

"We're hoping to find other agaani in the city who know how," Asina added, "If you'll spread the word, maybe someone will hear."

"More important is please tell the other patrols you encounter that the cure isn't shooting people who have it!" I said, "If the people on patrol think that, they won't come in - and then we'll lose the city when they go crazy after about a third of a day."

"But you were correct - nobody in this group is infected," Asina finished, "Thank you for coming in and please tell everyone the truth."

When they were gone, I asked Asina, "Can you handle this here for about an hour? I didn't have a chance to explain to my workers." I had effectively vanished on them - not a good habit for a leader to be in.

"Not right now," she replied, "No matter my reputation, I look like a little old lady. You may look just as old, but you're big enough to still prevent a lot of trouble. You saw how suspicious those people were."
I had to agree. We didn't want to get into violence with people afraid to be checked for the ghul virus. Besides, I had perfect company.

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.

******

Our own lessons complete, the boys and I moved to the side in order to watch Asto's splinter take on his grandfather's. Asto was seven years younger than I was, but he'd been learning from his grandfather since he was old enough to hold the lightest practice blade, and his mind was better than mine - faster and more focused. The result was that Asto could give his grandfather a real opponent, somebody he had to work to defeat.

Unlike the practice blades the rest of us had been using, titanium rang when the two rods met. Asto's lessons were more of a limited duel between himself and his grandfather than what the rest of us needed. Unlike the children, Asto had enough practice to rate as a master, even by Imperial standards. His lessons were real world application, and he didn't make the simple mistakes. Neither did Scimtar.

The tempo of the lesson was wildly variable. They'd stand barely outside the other's reach, not moving at all or moving only their blades, 'shadow fencing' looking for a transient advantage, and when they thought they had one, they'd launch an attack. Neither one of them seriously expected to hit the other with their initial assault; they were attacking with the goal of hitting on the counter-riposte or later. The object was to draw or force the other's blade out of line enough to give them a straight shot to their opponent's body, and the two blades would ring off each other in irregular staccato bursts until either a touch was scored or one of the two combatants chose to retreat, starting the whole process all over again.

It was nothing like you see in the movies. This wasn't choreography designed for an ignorant audience. This was practice for when lives were on the line. Neither of them turned their back on the other. Footwork was mostly short steps in and out, advances and retreats such as the Musketeers or Florentines might have recognized, tightly controlled. Binds where the other had control were dangerous. Not to allow your enemy control of your blade was a cardinal caution, and more often than not, the one who wasn't in control of the exchange realized it and stepped out of reach before it was too late. Sometimes the other followed in time, sometimes not. And sometimes allowing the bind was itself a trap. You never knew until afterwards which would succeed in controlling the bout.

Blades moved, more from out of immediate reach than otherwise. The engagement didn't begin until one of them thought they had an advantage. They sidled from side to side, as well - Imperial troops still practiced holding a close quarters line of battle, but I didn't think it had been used since before Scimtar was born. Guardians were still only about one seventh of the Imperial population; the other six sevenths had no innate defenses against energy weapons or projectiles, and the natural state humans I'd served with had my utmost respect. It took far more courage than I'd ever needed to step onto a battlefield against opposing Guardians when you weren't one yourself. In a lot of ways, it was like fighting a battle against a two-armed opponent - when you didn't have any arms yourself.

That didn't apply to Asto or his grandfather, though. Scimtar had clawed his way up by talent, determination, persistence, and a little bit of luck; Asto had been fated to be born among the Seventh Order elite by being Scimtar's grandson. They both possessed the capstone of Guardian abilities I was aware of: the creation of splinters such as strove in front of me as proxies for their own body. Independent energy fields, possessing links to their main body so that the Sixth and Seventh Order Guardians who could create them were as in control and aware of what their splinters did under most circumstances as of their little finger. The 'real' Asto was on fleet exercises and I had no idea where the 'real' Scimtar was, but each of them had splinters here in the melee arms room. Depending upon how they were created, splinters could be 'ghosts' or pass for human - at least to natural state humans. But if something happened to destroy the splinter, it didn't damage the original. Nor were they vulnerable to most material weapons. On the other hand, even the strongest splinter had only a fraction of the creating Guardian's power.

That didn't mean this bout between two splinters was pointless, however. Everything that happened between them would be mirrored in a 'real' bout between Scimtar and his grandson. This was a way to practice without worrying about actually damaging your opponent. But they were both deadly serious about it.

Most of their mutual passages at arms resulted in no touch. The titanium rods they were using in place of swords clanged off each other in furious ringing succession, parries coming faster than a rock drumbeat, each parrying all of the other's attacks, and one or the other would step out of reach before it came to a conclusion. This didn't always signal an imminent defeat; at least twice one of them stepped away despite what I thought was an advantaged position. However, my husband was among the Empire's masters of the blade and his grandfather was among the Empire's best, so perhaps they had a better appreciation than I did. My link with Asto gave me just enough information to tantalize; his mind worked faster than mine.

Every few passes would end with a touch somewhere that wasn't critical. A touch on the hand or arm could be healed, even had they been present in their 'real' bodies. The weapon could be transferred to the other hand long enough to heal the primary. Sometimes even that wasn't necessary. A hit to the torso represented the possible drain of more of their body's resources; in a real duel those needed to be healed faster. Hits to the legs were more serious - if it impacted your opponent's mobility he couldn't retreat from a losing pass - but you still could. However, it was a temporary advantage that would vanish once your opponent healed themselves. The only duel-winning hit was a hit to the head that disrupted brain function.
That was the object of the bout - a hit that would have meant defeat. The two splinters were playing by a complex set of rules that seemed to simulate the conditions of a real duel. After a hit, the 'wounded' party would pretend an injury for about the length of time required to heal that injury.

And then it was over. Scimtar scored a hit to Asto's right knee, then after two more phrases, on his third subsequent attack scored a hit to Asto's hand and then immediately riposted to Asto's head before Asto could transfer the weapon. Duel over. The entire sequence had taken less than a quarter second.

Asto's splinter saluted his grandfather, then told the boys it was time to go home and get cleaned up. I followed suit. The Empire - at least its overculture - was casual about mixed sex nudity. It had taken a little getting used to at first, but twenty years in Planetary Surface Forces had gotten me past any remaining prudery regarding bathing with men. Yeah, some of them used the opportunity to gaze appreciatively. So did some women - even me, a time or two. But nobody touched, and in my current career I'd investigated a very few incidents pursuant to criminal complaints. Enough to know that the fine points of etiquette would be explained mercilessly to any violators, with penalties more than enough to persuade potential violators to pursue appropriate venues and consent instead - such incidents were single digit occurrences in a district more than twice the population of the United States of my youth. Esteban and Ilras were my children; I'd raised them right. Neither would think of molesting Mama in the shower. Or anyone else.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

While things have not been going as fast as I would like, the first draft of Moving The Pieces (Book Four of Preparations for War) is now over 55,000 words and moving towards the climax/conclusion of the series. I think another fifteen or twenty thousand words will see it finished.

End Of Childhood (Book Three of Politics of Empire) has been back from the betas for some time. It will need a small amount of work, but I have the cover and it's otherwise ready to go. I will polish it soon as the first draft of Moving The Pieces is complete, while it's with the betas.

Since these two books share some events - mostly in background - the plan is to release them separated by no more than two weeks.

Once those are done, it is my current intention to write Gifts Of The Mother, the first follow on to The Gates of Faerie. Yes, we're going to hear a lot more from Ol' Zeb and RaDonna, as well as new folks.

I also have a third Connected Realms book (Fountains of Aescalon) in the plotting stages, although I must warn you it does not involve Alexan as a main character. Working title: The Crazy Lady

I'm also considering a book with Urona Scimtar (Grace's cousin by marriage) as the viewpoint character. She's been born into a situation which cannot help but make demands upon her that she is unhappy with, and how she comes to a realization and a solution. Sort of inspired by Brave in the same way The Forever War was inspired by Starship Troopers - but unlike Heinlein, Disney didn't have the guts to tell the story it should have.

If you have questions, comments, suggestions, etcetera, you can email me: danmelson (at) this domain name, or at my social media pages:

https://www.facebook.com/Dan.Melson.Author

https://mewe.com/i/danmelson

https://parler.com/#/user/DanMelson


Comments here are welcome but for some reason haven't been working like they should.

Working the Trenches is the fourth and final book of Rediscovery, a sequel to the original 'tight' trilogy.

Graciela Juarez di Scimtar has saved Earth from itself. What will she do for an encore?

Become a real hero, as well as demonstrating that the Empire has earned her loyalty.

Along with her husband, she joins the Imperial Military. But she and her husband have unique talents - the military will not let them go to waste

******

You don't have to do this.

It was our last night together for a while. We were in the sleep field in our apartment in the family residence, twenty kilometers above the surface of Sumabad, on Indra Prime. The family dinner was behind us; our dogs Lady and More were in their beds. We had already made love and were just basking in the glow of each other's touch. We watched the wakes from the pleasure craft in the strait in the soft glow from the new habitat overhead. The glow was about equal to 'a couple minutes after sunset'-level twilight on Earth; the wide ribbon of habitat overhead went all the way around the system's star and reflected a lot more light. One of the major planned cities was visible, a bit ahead of our orbit. Hard to believe there were already hundreds of times more people on the habitat that had been finished only a few years before than on this planet that had seen a hundred thousand years of civilization.

The plan was we were both going to start military training the next day, and Asto was telling me that he would understand if I didn't want to.

How many of the spouses in the family haven't spent time in the military? It was a rhetorical question. We both knew the answer was zero.

How many of them were born outside the Empire? Other than me, that answer was also zero. He was saying that if I didn't feel the loyalty yet, it was understandable.

The Empire saved us. Without the Empire, Earth would be on the way to a new Stone Age. That's if there were any humans left on Earth. The war between China and Russia that went nuclear and killed nearly a billion people had been only the leading edge of the troubles we'd been heading for. The United States had been in the process of fiscal collapse, the European Union had disintegrated into constituent nations, and world trade had been falling apart when the Empire stepped in. Even if no other nukes had been detonated - which no one rational believed - the damage done would have snowballed badly if the Empire hadn't stepped in and cleaned it up. That was nearly three Imperial years ago; longer on Earth due to the time differential. The radioactivity had been cleaned up, and Earth's standard of living was improving every month. The Primuses and Secunduses assigned to Earth had been doing their job well.

Asto replied, Earth is doing fine, now. It was the government, not the people, who were screwed up. And that was kind of the point. I didn't know that I wanted to get into the Imperial government ever, but I might. Asto definitely would; the Great Families might as well have been holding a blaster to each other's heads on that point. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. To help Asto and the rest of his family if nothing else. I was part of the Scimtar family now and they would be my children's family as well, the friends and allies they could count on without reservation. But no matter who you were related to, nobody got rank in the Empire without earning it themselves. Not military rank and especially not civilian government. Even the Guardian's daughter started at the bottom. There was no formal requirement for military service in order to be appointed a Primus-in-fact, but in reality, the people running the Empire wanted to see evidence you were willing and able to serve; take orders and take your chances and put the interests of the Empire above your own. It was more likely they'd let an office go vacant rather than appoint a non-veteran. Coming from a United States where service had been increasingly rare for fifty years, I understood why.

The result was that if I ever wanted to get into the government, I had to have military service. And looking ahead, I didn't see a better time to do it. For one thing, Asto was joining for his first period of service. Waiting for any other time would double the time apart for initial training. Well, not apart exactly, as our rapport went on constantly, but while we could communicate on levels no inoperant knew existed, there was still no substitute for kissing your husband. If we have to be separated once, I don't want to be separated twice. And you know I do feel grateful and indebted for what the Empire did. I've also seen how the Empire treats its citizens. The Empire earned my loyalty. It continues to earn my loyalty.

Every day, I saw how the way the Empire worked treated its people better than the United States ever had. People respected the government; they didn't live in fear of it. Back home, EPA and IRS and FBI were words to conjure fear, along with "Child Protective Services" and DEA and dozens of others. Here, most of them didn't even have analogs, and anyone abusing official authority was dealt with quickly and very thoroughly. As a result, people lived far more comfortably and with far fewer problems. You didn't have to worry about used raw tea leaves in your garbage causing a massive armed invasion by government agents because someone thought it might be marijuana. There might have been a dozen police on duty in Sumabad; they were only dispatched if a situation was violent or had the clear potential to become so. In a population of several hundred million - the arcologies were huge - they rarely did. People expected the Empire to sort it out correctly, they expected the consequences - and that's if they were lucky enough to survive that long. Less than half of attempted criminals survived the attempt. Rough odds, if you were that criminal. Pretty nice, if you were anyone else. People stupid enough to commit crimes didn't last long, so there weren't very many of them, and people who might have been willing to try a life of crime if the odds were better instead steered clear. You could count the actual criminal statutes in the Empire on your fingers with some left over. If you did something non-criminal your neighbors didn't like, the recourse they had was a lawsuit and their own actions were scrutinized as heavily as yours. You got a polite visit from an Imperial investigator, and a chance to tell your side and present your evidence in front of your Primus or a mutually agreed private arbitrator. Getting justice didn't require spending more money than most people made in ten years.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do this. It was one way of doing something concrete to pull my weight as an adult. I was enjoying the ride. As an adult citizen, I should spend some of my time helping to pull the sled. It wasn't a requirement, but it was something most Imperial citizens did because it was something adults did. Also, the military could be a wedge into a way to learn some skills that were valuable in commercial concerns, it was a way for citizens from newly acquired planets to earn hard currency, and it was essentially required if you eventually wanted to become a Primus (or higher)-in-fact. Finally, it would be another point of bonding with Asto and his family. There was a very strong tradition of service, from Scimtar himself on down. Everyone in the family spent time in the military and went back periodically for more. It wasn't unique to the Scimtars, either - all of the other Great Families had the same tradition in varying forms. The more important a family was, the more likely periodic stints of military service were expected.
Promise me you'll be as careful as you can? There was an undercurrent of fear to the question. My husband didn't want to lose me.

I promise. Will you? I sure as hell didn't want to lose him. Four fertilized eggs in storage and the help of his family was no substitute for my Asto. Combat actions were rare as far as individual troops were concerned, and most saw light casualties if any. But the exceptions were pure nightmare - Imperial units were designed and expected to keep functioning in the face of losses that would break any military unit back on Earth. Casualties among trained Guardians like us were also generally lower than natural state humans. But we were rolling the dice.

I promise, Grace. I want to come back to you. I also want you to be there to come back to.

Even if I'm not, come back for our children. Growing up without either of us would be bad.

I will. But having you to come back to is all the motivation anyone could want. In Concept, the operant language of pure thought, a thought followed that could be abbreviated as "I love you," but it was so much more. It was desire and need and completion - a statement that without me, a piece of him would be forever missing. There aren't words in English, Traditional, Technical, or any language of humanity to express it. I returned the thought, with interest, and we each grabbed for the other. This time our lovemaking had an undercurrent of desperation, and making it last. When it was over and we were spent, we made love a third time, gently and tenderly, then subsided back into a satisfied mutual embrace and put ourselves into a sleep, setting ourselves to waken at thirtythree thirty.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Working The Trenches and the other novels of Rediscovery are available at Amazon and the other Books2Read retailers worldwide.

The leader of the picket was twice the size of the others - one of the new breed of manesi bigger than an African Elephant. The resources that went into them would probably have been better spent elsewhere, but the demons thought that if big massive centauroids had worked for so long, then bigger faster more massive centauroids would work now. Come to think of it, Earth's military had been subject to the same sort of thinking.

One of the ordinary manesi tried grabbing Asina, but the 'super' manes wasn't having it. It slapped the hippo-sized smaller demon down. The smaller manes was thrown completely off its feet and dropped Asina as it fell. She rolled away, pretending the fall had somehow damaged her.

I had just enough time to think that maybe we might be okay when the super manes grabbed me instead. I guess I was the bigger piece of meat. It just reached out a massive paw and grabbed me by the right shoulder, lifting me off my feet towards its open maw, lined with triangular, shark-like teeth.

Well, there was no hope of escaping a conflict now, but the hold the big demon had me in made things more difficult. I had to twist to get my left hand into my kored pocket where I'd stashed my Calmenan pistol.

I was a crappy shot with my left hand, but BLAM!, Asina put a shot directly into the demon's paw, and it obligingly dropped me. I engaged full undertime, calmly switched hands and BLAM! BLAM! put two .55 caliber hollow-points right into its braincase on the way to the ground. The big super-manes obligingly dropped right where it stood. Before I'd even touched the ground, BLAM! I shot another of the picket's members.

Meanwhile, Asina had shifted into full undertime as well. Soon as she knew her first shot cause the biggest demon to drop me, BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! five more shots accounted for five more manesi before the slide locked back on the empty weapon and she dropped the first magazine out. BLAM! I shot the patrol's final member before Asina could reload.

Now what? I asked her. Both of us were reloading, automatic reflex action.

The western corner of the kiwana grove. Leave your metal bar, put your pistol back in the kored pocket, just make sure your auros broadcast is in place and act normal! Soon as we arrive, find a place to hide for a few moments quick as you can. We'll be approaching from a different direction, so even if any of the demons saw, we won't have anything to do with those humans who killed the pickets.

Blink!

The western corner of the kiwana grove was about what you'd expect. The trunks of the trees weren't big enough to conceal a human, so I dived into a drainage ditch, mud and all. Asina did the same. When no immediate outcry was raised, we stuck our heads up to look around.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The stons were dead, but that left Grace alone to try to learn to control her new abilities. When a solution presents itself, she begins learning just how far there is to go on the new journey she started. A new family, a new home, and learning to adapt to a completely different environment.

But for greater challenges, she also discovers there are greater rewards - and the universe always has a greater challenge in store.

******

I was just coming out of the bedroom when there was a chime. It seemed like a doorbell so I went to the front door, and I was right. There was a man standing there, maybe a couple inches taller than I was. He looked gray and faded somehow, with the unworldly air of a college professor. On Earth, I would have said he was between twenty-five and thirty, but his frizzy hair was gray, his clothes were a different gray and even his shoes were a nondescript brown pair that looked for all the world like an ordinary pair of loafers. He was carrying two small objects. "Graciela Juarez di Scimtar?" When I answered yes, "I'm Ferugio Torgonos, the training master. I understand you're newly operant? I have here your datalink and interim infertility implant. Would you like to have them implanted out here or in the bedroom?"

What the...? "I don't know about that. If you're messing with my brain, shouldn't you have some sort of sterile field and an operating room? And I'm not sure I want or need an infertility implant. My plans don't include any of that kind of activity for the foreseeable future."

"Come, now, you can hardly expect a Nonus-in-fact to neglect his basic responsibilities, can you? My instructions are that you are to have both immediately." Ferugio had a prissy, didactic way of speaking. He reminded me of a professor that lives in their own ivory tower.

I remembered my conversations with ScOsh: "Childhood pregnancy is rare because our children are routinely given birth control when they reach sexual maturity" and "We don't permit children to have or raise children." I was legally a child for now; not yet competent to manage my own affairs as far as the Empire was concerned. Clearly, my new foster family realized that unplanned pregnancies happen because unplanned sex happens, and they could lock me away in a monk's cell or they could do this. The monk's cell wouldn't work; this would, at least until I knew enough to reprogram my own body, and I for one had zero intention of reprogramming for children until I was well established with a husband of my own. At least this seemed an indication they weren't planning to enforce abstinence upon me. This was the way the Empire did things, I could leave the Empire or I could adjust. "I didn't see a bed in the bedroom, perhaps the couch would work."

"No bed? I'm sure this apartment had one when DelMartos was here. Well, a chair should be enough for either. The datalink requires the right side of your head near the base of the skull; the implant can go anywhere. Most people use their upper arm or shoulder."

It really was almost that simple. Yes, the datalink wired itself into the brain, but it turned out Ferugio was one of those born operants with no ambition to become a Guardian or advance in the government or military. Still, he was competent enough as a healer, I never felt a thing with either the datalink or the implant. The datalink started some sort of initialization cycle about two seconds after Ferugio let go of it. It was a small addition to the right side of my neck for now, smaller than a flash drive; perhaps operants had a way to cause it to internalize. "The datalink will take a couple minutes to initialize, when it tells you 'ready' you can start giving it commands. The first you should know is 'help' - it should give you a list of available commands and accesses in a given area; the list is quite extensive. You can delimit that with additional terms - for instance, 'help sleep' or 'sleep help' should direct you to your sleep field unless someone has removed it. Follow me, please," and without waiting for an invitation he strode into the bedroom. "You have a sleep field right there," he said, pointing at the low platform I'd noticed earlier, "Your datalink is set to control everything in this apartment, so if you want temperature changed, or air circulation, do it. And now, I understand that you'd probably like some rest as ScAnara informs me that you've been awake for over fourteen hours. If you want to set a timer, think 'help timer'. The family dinner is at fortyone thirty; it's thirtyfive fortytwo now, I would suggest setting the timer no later than fortyone zero zero. We'll start setting your course of study tomorrow morning at fortyeight thirty." With that, he walked out, closing the door as he went.


Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

I left them to it. I didn't have time to waste with hand-holding. There were supply chain problems I had to deal with. Taman was a good enough accountant, but he was an accountant, not a production manager. We needed fuel and sheet metal and rivets and screws and nuts and bolts and washers (Oh my!) and everything else under the sun, and we had to keep getting deliveries even while the demons marched on the city. It was nearly as exciting as watching paint dry and completely without drama unless you're the sort that gets a thrill from baroque mathematical word problems, so I won't go into details. The big problem was that the pipeline and rail lines were likely to be cut before the demons reached the city, so I had to arrange for ships from Tabbraz and other ports to carry what we needed - and even assuming the city hadn't fallen before they got here, those ships weren't likely to get much of a return cargo, except maybe people desperate to escape the city, and we wanted at least the adult men to stay and fight. The supply chain problems ate most of the day.

About an hour before sunset, I got a call from the front gate. Seems there was a mob of people building who wanted passage out of Yalskarr. I couldn't really blame them, but there was only one ship in the Lesser Harbor at the moment - Yonshall's. Which was full, mostly of children. I didn't expect there'd be a whole lot of ships left in the Great Harbor, either. "Get me a microphone and a loudspeaker," I told them, "I'm on my way."

Security was in a line of uniforms when I got there; all of them armed with the Calmenan AK-47 knockoff. We didn't often have the need for violence in our yards, but when we did, there was no sense being half-assed about it. Since a goodly number of the crowd would be armed as well, I didn't want to start anything. It would turn into a bloodbath on both sides, and the only ones 'winning' would be the demons. I turned the microphone on and tapped it to test; it was working fine. This wasn't a wireless set up like back on Earth; I had to be careful with the cord. I stepped in front of the security line and spoke, "I'm here because you seem to want something from us that we don't have ourselves. If you'll appoint a spokesperson or line up with your concerns, I'll be happy to answer all of them."

Some of them began yelling even more angrily and pushing against the gate harder, so, "Lock and load!" Our security folks chambered a round from their magazines, "If you want to talk about the situation, it's possible I can help you. If you decide to get violent I guarantee everyone leading the charge will die. We might be overrun in the end, but it won't be by anyone in the front ranks. If you want something I can give you, the first thing you need to do is calm down and start talking. You can always decide to die later."

"We want out!" a young man in the front row yelled, "The demons are coming and we want out of the city!"

"They'll let you out any of the roads," I replied, "I haven't heard of any orders issued to prevent leaving the city. Even if I'm wrong, there are no roads out of our Yards and the only ship is already full of children and a few women, and they've cast off awaiting sunset anyway. Even if they were still at the dock, we'd have to throw at least one person off for every person we let board. Are you telling me you're such a coward you want us to throw off two or three kids in order to let you escape?" And I stared him down, contempt in my eyes, "Nobody here inside the gate is getting out on a ship. Not me, not these guards, not the workers I still have building bombers and repairing Guard vessels in the hopes of doing enough damage to the demons to keep the city alive. All you can do is force us to kill each other. If you want to live, there are better ways."

I knew I was nobody's idea of a great orator, but a little touch of auros can help with crowds - especially if none of them have any Imperial training. "If you want to get out by the Tabbraz Road, I'd suggest starting soon. The fuel stocks along it have been gathered up and are returning to the city. You might get a couple eight legions of paces before you run out of fuel, and it's about a three eight-day walk with the demons coming hard behind you. If the city falls - or even if it doesn't - my guess is you won't make it two days before they catch you. Personally, I think we've got a better chance here in the city, trying to keep the demons out."

"Aren't you building any more ships?" someone asked from back in the crowd.

"The question asked is whether we're building any more ships," I repeated to make sure everyone heard, "The answer is 'not at the moment.' They're all at least an eight-day from seaworthiness; our workers' efforts will be better spent repairing damaged Guard vessels. Those can bombard the legions from the sea or the Great Harbor. Every demon they kill at range is one we don't have to kill while it's trying to eat someone on the walls. Next question," I pointed to a woman with her hand up.

"I'd rather ask my question privately," she hinted,

The time to take that bull by the horns was now. "Whether you're offering money or sex, the answer is 'no." I'm not throwing anyone off the ship we have loaded, and I don't have any more places to give anyone, no matter what they offer." Privately, I hoped she had the sense to clear out fast before her neighbors could realize what she'd done. But if I said anything, she'd never escape their wrath in time, so I changed the subject.

"I'm assuming everyone here would like to survive?" I was greeted by an outburst of emotion shouting things that all amounted to 'yes!'

"Then go back to the walls and prepare them for the defense, or find some other contribution you can make, like making ammunition, or preparing food for the Guardsmen and anyone else aiding them on the walls. Get a weapon and carry it everywhere in case you meet a noble that's Gating them in without taking the walls. If they take us down here, there will be nowhere that is safe. You will be running for the rest of your lives, which will not be long. They're using all of Calmena as a conduit to pass their armies through to elsewhere. But they carry few supplies with them. If we hold them off for a very few days, they'll start eating each other. Their nobles will have no choice but to take them where they might find easier meals. Your best hope of survival is to do everything you can to keep Yalskarr from falling, and persuade every adult that can to make their own contribution. Now go do something to help us all live and let me return to doing what I can to keep Yalskarr from falling and keep us all out of the demon's bellies!"

"Is there really a hope of holding them off?"

"If there wasn't, I'd already be on gone, not here in the city, and definitely not standing here telling people who should know better that you can't outrun the demons - you have to outfight them and out-think them. My wife is out there with the Guard; she says nearly three-quarters of the Guardsmen defending First Wall were saved and are falling back to the City, and we have three fresh legions here defending the City. The demons can't do what they did to First Wall here - there is no outflanking these walls! They go all around the city! Now go build up those walls, or I understand most of the ammunition makers are begging for helpers, or find something else constructive to contribute. The longer I have to stand here talking, the less time I have to do things that might keep us all alive!"

A final push with auros, and the crowd started breaking up. Some of them were muttering, but they were leaving, heading back into the city. Not a minute too soon, either, because the two Nhadragh prototypes were returning from their first mission, and I didn't want to explain that they didn't have the range to make any of the other cities with a hope of beating back the demonic advance. I hijacked a forklift and headed off to the military area to hear from the pilots.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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