The first warning they had was the general alarm.

WARNING, MINTARA IS UNDER ASSAULT. DEMONIC FORCES AT LEAST TWENTY FIFTHS IN NUMBERS HAVE GATED ONTO THE PLANETARY SURFACE. MOST SEEM TO HAVE ARRIVED IN AREAS NEARBY BUT OUTSIDE MAJOR CITIES. SPACEBORNE UNITS ARE ENGAGED, PLANETARY SURFACE UNITS ARE RESPONDING TO INCURSIONS BUT ARE SIGNIFICANTLY OUTNUMBERED. EXPECT TO BE ON YOUR OWN FOR AT LEAST THREE HOURS. ARM YOURSELVES AND SHARE INFORMATION. STAY ALIVE!

"Evada, wake up!"

"I'm awake, Gorsh. I got the same announcement you did!"

"What are we going to do?"

"I've got a laser pistol, don't you?"

"Yes, but we've practiced what, twice?"

"Better than not at all! No reports of any fighting here in East Ridge."

"That's good. Do we have any spare magazines?"

"No. Let's see if we can find a converter program."

"Searching ... found one for our model, but it requires the specialty converter!"

"Better the specialty converter than nothing. Glad we bought the same model!" The small specialty converter began to hum, printing the capacitor atom by atom. The small flat module would fit in either of their hands. Within a few heartbeats, it was already mostly complete.

"Tell it to keep printing. I think we want as many as we have time for."

"No argument from me. Charge them up, too. We can always feed them back into the converter later."

"How safe are we?" They were on the twelfth level. Mintara was a comparatively new colony; the arcologies were small for the Empire.

"Looks like there's no such thing as really 'safe'. They generally move in strength with one of their noble caste gating their way. Anywhere from a couple sixties up to a square or so at a time."

"We can't fight off more than a few on our own. Let's see what the neighbors say."

"Looks like this Antara is a former Troop Corporal in Planetary Surface. She says walls aren't going to stop them. She suggests meeting up at the park on the next level, we can combine our firepower. She also says most of the combat demons are big; takes about half again default power settings to reliably put one down."

"Let's set them for that then. I suppose that means we won't get as many shots."

"About forty per fully charged magazine. How many we got?"

"Finishing the fourth one now."

"That'll have to do. Food and water might be good, and some warm clothes in case we have to go outside." Mintara was a cold world, newly settled. The Empire hadn't yet built orbital heaters to warm the planet up. "I'll make us up some Life and water." The regular converter began to hum.

"Yuck! Do we have to eat that?"

"It's nutritious, it's easy to carry, and it doesn't ruin easily, just in case. I don't like it either."

"I'll go grab our pockets."

"Got everything?"

"Food, water, body wraps, pistols, charged spare magazines."

"I think that's it. The body wraps charged?"

"Yeah. I did it after that last hike. Throw them in the pockets and let's go."

"Keep your pistol out. Might need it in a hurry."

"Right. Let's see if there are any programs so we can put them somewhere we can get to quick."

"Here's one. Adjustable holster, made of Nemourlon. Even has spots for the spare magazines. Looks like the regular converter can handle it."

"Well, we can afford a few more seconds. Print them out, and dig your magazines out of the pocket."

"Yes, let's do that."

"How do we put these on?"

"I'm not sure, but we can figure it out once we're there. Let's go."

The technology can move ships millions of light-years in quantum time, keep people young and healthy indefinitely, or destroy planets almost without noticing. But people are still human - or a little bit more.

******

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.

*****

A Guardian From Earth is Book Two in the four book Rediscovery series. It is available in e-book and paperback from both Amazon and all the Books2Read retailers and library services.

The first warning they had was the general alarm.

Fulinia's datalink brought her out of deep sleep, WARNING, TEFRIN IS UNDER ASSAULT. DEMONIC FORCES AT LEAST THIRTY FIFTHS IN NUMBERS HAVE GATED ONTO THE PLANETARY SURFACE. MOST SEEM TO HAVE ARRIVED IN AREAS NEARBY BUT OUTSIDE MAJOR CITIES. SPACEBORNE UNITS ARE ENGAGED, PLANETARY SURFACE UNITS ARE RESPONDING TO INCURSIONS BUT ARE SIGNIFICANTLY OUTNUMBERED. EXPECT TO BE ON YOUR OWN FOR AT LEAST FOUR HOURS. ARM YOURSELVES AND SHARE INFORMATION. STAY ALIVE!

Checking the well, she saw reports that demonic forces had entered Red Splines Arcology, where she lived. "Vadha, get up!"

"What? Just another voluntary drill." Her speech was slow and confused. Vadha would sleep through anything if Fulinia let her.

"I don't think so! For one thing, the others all said they were voluntary drills. This one didn't. And I just checked the well and there are reports of manesi, terostes, and lemuure in the building!"

"Calm down! The building is five ithirds on a side and five high. We're right in the middle. Let's stay in; we'll be fine."

"Are you sure? The warning said there were at least thirty fifths! That's nearly as many as there are people on Tefrin!"

"I'm sure! Nothing is going to challenge the Empire, and it's not like we're in one of the newly settled galaxies. This is Fifth Galaxy; there were colonies here twenty prime before the Interregnum!"

The sound of muffled crumps reached them from somewhere.

"Vadha, I just checked again! There's fighting reported at the portal! If we get moving right now, maybe we can get to the next portal before it gets to us!"

"We don't have any weapons, Fulinia. They can't check all the units; there's too many of them! Just sit here and be quiet and nobody will bother us."

No sooner were the words out of Vadha's mouth, however, than the main door shuddered from an impact. Something big. Then again. The outside camera showed a manes and a couple of smaller demons, the manes' mottled dark bluish gray hide armored with metal of some sort.

"Quick, close the bedroom door! Maybe they won't look inside!"

"That might have worked if we hadn't both screamed!"

"Got any better ideas?"

"Hide?"

They both ran into the bedroom, hiding in the back of the closet. Unfortunately for them, the manes was not only capable of battering the door down, it could also - with difficulty - squeeze through. Once in the apartment, their smells were fresh, and the demon was hungry. Unlike the noble castes, manes did not torture their food, they simply consumed it efficiently. It found Vadha first, catching her by the arm. Her struggles and screams were no serious impediment to the manes' superior strength. It was a small mercy that it fed Vadha headfirst into its shark-like gullet, lined with cutting, triangular teeth. It bit Vadha squarely in two, crushing her head in the process.

Screaming Fulinia was not so fortunate.

The likahn scouts consumed what the manes left.

The Man From Empire Teaser

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Kusaan del: It means 'finger of fate'. When it points at you, do you step up or do you quietly step aside?

******


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Man From Empire is available in paperback or e-book from both Amazon and all of the Books2Read retailers. It is the first of four books in the series Rediscovery.


Sorry I've been so long between postings here. Been trying to come up with something unique for it, and thus far, failing.

-----------------------------

We are linked for Vector, Squadron Commander.

It was hard not to simply assume control of the squadron. Asto was a better pilot and navigator than Davrilo, the Squadron Commander, and everyone knew it. Including Davrilo. But it wasn't about who was the best navigator, it was about responsibility for the results. Unless and until Davrilo delegated control to his operations officer, Asto was along for the ride.

Operations! The Squadron is yours for Vector. Adhere to the master count from Group.

Adhere to the master count, aye! All Elements, transfer control to Fulda for Vector!

Technically, it was an Interstitial Vector, but the phraseology was time-honored. Interstitial Vector as a practical mass-use technology was less than sixty years old - and the service he was a part of had a history more than thirty prime times that. Nor was said wording wrong, simply imprecise in this case. All units confirm Interstitial Vector availability. That was a required differentiation in the ritual - an Interstitial Vector required capability that a traditional Vector did not.

The flood of acknowledgements came back from the squadron's eight City-class carriers and their lesser escorts, mostly small cruiser and destroyer profile ships of one size or another. Not that City-class carriers were major vessels, but their primary design function was getting a load of Starbirds into and out of combat. They weren't supposed to mix it up with other Convoy hulls in direct beam or missile combat. Some Tactical Space squadrons had a sub- or pocket battleship assigned, but not this one. The feed from Group was steadily counting down the seconds until the planned jump that would put them in position for their assigned targets for the assault Discontinuity in fifteen - MARK!

Even the Group - sixty squadrons - was only a small part of this assault. The idea was to destroy the demonic ability to make war, and intelligence from the Merlon's Eyes and Fingers had been definite on the point that all rationality aside, the demons had almost all of their industrial base in this one Fractal, labelled 'Industry' in the best imaginative tradition of all militaries. The Empire didn't believe in love taps - it would swing the most massive hammer it could, subject to the limitation of not wanting to get in each other's way. There was a full Field Corps - a fifth of troops - allotted to the initial space-borne assault, and another Field Corps of Planetary Surface would make the initial landings, followed up by as many more as necessary. Industry Fractal was a massive domain, nearly ten minutes across at the thickest point, and had more demons living in it than many major habitats back home - tenths at least. It was one of the most important demonic holdings, and key to the demonic empire, having permanent gates to many other demonic habitats.

Asto carefully balanced the energies that the various ships of the squadron would be contributing to the movement as the countdown from Group passed ten. The squadron was in a formation better than five ithirds across - not as big as the mass haulers Grace had learned to handle once upon a time, but still with significant control delay issues and increased uncertainty in the result. The squadron was a couple sixties of discrete units, even with the Starbird fighters still tucked in the launch bays. They were mass-linked for Vector, which meant they would jump as a unit, but it also mean that if he or one of the other squadron pilots blew it, the entire squadron might emerge in the middle of the fractal or overlapped with another squadron.

The counter ticked under five, and Asto locked down the contributions from the outermost of the squadron's elements, mostly destroyer profile vessels that looked like missiles with four outsize fins each. Roughly an ifourth in length in one of four sizes, carrying crews of thirty to sixty each, destroyer profile ships were the largest vessels that did not carry native auxiliaries of their own.

At two, the parameters for the jump were fixed enough to lock down the energy requirements from the small cruisers, vaguely whale-shaped, but more than twice the size of any blue whale ever, two ifourths or more in length.

One. The eight carriers at the core would carry the balance of the energy load. They were the biggest ships, so they had the most variability in their discharge capacitors. The requirements curve and the availability curve were matching within a few square, and the balance of expected difference was within the capabilities of Fulda alone to correct at the critical moment.

Forty iprime. The redband stress spiked, and the gravband eased. If redband kept spiking, hitting the target at the chosen velocity would be outside the capabilities of Fulda alone. The price of linked Vectoring - sometimes the metrics ganged up to push things outside bounds. Even Shalmirane was nearly an ithird distant, which meant Asto had to set it ahead of time and hope the curve matched, but Diaspar and Lys were nearly as close.

Twenty iprime. The redband stress eased, and grayband rose, compensating for gravband. Just enough time to reset to the prior settings within the time constraints. The requirements curve fell gracefully to match the availability curve and he throttled down Fulda's discharge capacitors just in time for...

Blink

"What do you mean, Asto's ship has been destroyed?" I don't lose my composure much, but the death of my husband, the father of my five underage children, my companion for the last fifty years - and I'd hoped, the rest of my life - was a justifiable reason.

Anara was the one to tell me, in person and verbally. "I mean it was reported destroyed by surviving witnesses."

"And you're okay with your son being dead?"

"No, Grace, I'm not 'okay' with my son being dead - if he is. But reports are clear the ship was crippled and fought on several minutes in that state. Furthermore, there was a survivable environment known to be close enough for even a mid-range Second Order Guardian to teleport, and it reported it was maneuvering to lower the energy differential. Unless Asto was directly caught in a catastrophic failure, he had opportunity to escape. I escaped a less favorable situation when my ship was lost in combat. It is probable Asto is still alive."

"Still alive - but marooned in a hostile environment with no food and being hunted by demons of every caste! I fail to see how this is an improvement!" Better if he'd gone out quick, in an exploding ship.
"Grace, I keep forgetting that even though you've been with us for fifty years, you still don't really understand everything Seventh Order Guardians can do. Assuming he escaped the destruction of the ship, it is probable he'll find his way back to the Empire. Tastimuno Instance is a potentially a single transform away."

"And he knows how to get there?"

"Do you not remember how ScOsh got to your Earth? He was only Fourth Order. Do you think I'd send my son into trans-Instance combat without preparing him all I could? I taught him how to make a portal between Instances before he was twenty, and even if he didn't know before, he had plenty of opportunity to look up the closest Imperial outposts in the ship's navigational database. He might be dead, but if he isn't, he can find his way home, and he'll bring any other survivors he can with him."

"Any idea how long? Before we know?"

"The only way we'll be sure is if he's restored to us. But I would expect him within two or three weeks of his subjective time. I'm sure you can figure out the less optimistic scenarios from there."

Yeah, I could. Hanging on for years, never sure if I was a widow, until I finally gave up. Probably just before he turned up, knowing the universe.

Okay, so maybe I was in pre-emptory denial. But my kids and I deserved the best answer we could get. So I asked Asto's splinter, Have you any idea if your original is still alive?

Since he is outside the Instance, I have no more means of contact than anyone else. If I understand correctly, without periodic re-synchronization, I will eventually begin to drift from my current state. That's all I know. The Great Families who know the most about splinters...

Aren't telling anyone else what they know. But that doesn't mean Scimtar doesn't. Unlike the rest of his family, Scimtar had been able to use splinters without risking his cover for at least a square and a half - thousands of Earth years. Maybe he could answer some questions.

Anara was still right there however. "Mother, thank you for telling me as soon as you knew. Right now, I'm in shock, trying to hold it together for the kids and wondering what's going to happen. I'm going to ask Scimtar if he knows of any way to use a splinter to find the original in another Instance."

"No, there isn't Grace. Splinters can be thought of as puppets following a complex program in the absence of the puppeteer. There is a special connection, but it goes from original to splinter, not vice versa. The only way I'm aware of involves someone with a Mindsword. Father would have made sure we knew if there was."

Wait a minute! "Maybe the splinter doesn't have a special connection to Asto, but I do. Our hard link will re-establish when I enter the same Instance, so all I have to do is Interstitial Vector into the Instance, and I will know where he is."

"It's not as easy as you think, Grace. The place where Asto was lost is complicated. There is a 'normal' three dimensional bubble we use as a staging area, but the place itself is a fractal. It's got peninsulae along seven different dimensional axes and we're finding out that two way telepathy can be problematic, even though its overall dimensionality is only two point fiftyfive. The battle is still ongoing as well, but the place is one the demons must hold; almost all of their brakiri and their industry is there."

Since I'm working on the third novel in this series, might be a good idea to bring people up to speed on the set up

The Price of Power is the second novel in the series. It has been about six years Imperial since the events of The Invention of Motherhood. As the novel opens, Grace is near the end of her fifth pregnancy, having decided to carry all of her previously stored fertilized eggs naturally. Her husband Asto is still in the military. Since preserving the family secret of the Scimtars requires she not live in military housing with him, she has been (with the aid of her niece Tina) working as an Interstellar pilot while raising her family.

This is the opening scene:

******

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 (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 behavior 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 abashed 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.

I felt a muted thunk as Tina, my assistant, slid us into the control plug of my latest contract, followed a few seconds later by a datalink message of control verified, ready for Vector. I'd chosen Tina for the job because she was my niece and already a fully qualified in-system navigator, but despite my hopes after six years nearly constant exposure to the kids, she hadn't gone operant yet, so I still had to do all the Vectoring. I relieved her, re-computed the Vector for confirmation, performed it, verified position, and (because our next pickup was in this same system) transferred the helm back to her for in-system maneuvering to our next job. It had taken all of six seconds, and I'd still had a couple of para to keep the peace at the dinner table.

Mama, how long until we can play with baby Alden? Ilora wanted to know again.

About three more weeks, honey, I told her. Truth be told, despite all the advantages of being a Guardian, I was ready for my last pregnancy to be over. Next time, I would plan on one child, two at the most. But I really had only myself to blame - I could have just used artificial gestation for Esteban, same as everyone else, and then most of the Empire wouldn't have known about the advantages of operant mothers carrying operant children themselves. I'd introduced Alden to his older siblings on several occasions, but most of the time, kept him swaddled away where only I or Asto could interact with him. Since Asto was a First Corporal, assigned as executive officer of a squadron of Planetary Surface troops out in Ninth Galaxy, that didn't happen as often as any of us liked. The rank was an almost exact match to Brigadier General in the old US Army; a squadron was 14,400 combat troops plus their support staff of roughly another 3600.

Alden, for his part, wanted out into the great wide world. It took two of my para full time to keep him occupied and learning, and he still wasn't satisfied. Can I play with Ilras and Esteban, Mom? It was tempting to just blow off the last three weeks of this pregnancy, knowing any physical defects could be fixed later, but neither I nor Asto was ready to experiment with Alden's emotional development. The Empire had tens of thousands of years of evidence children were more able to deal with the world after a full gestation, even in an artificial womb. Neither of us wanted to experiment more than we'd already done with our own children, carrying them naturally as I'd done.

Dinner was just about over, winding down with chocolate ice cream for everyone, when Asto told me, It's official!

Children, some news. Your father is getting a new assignment. He's going to be a Staff Corporal assigned to maintenance and repair in Indra System! We're going to go live in the Residence, where he can be home every day!

Why is he getting demoted? Esteban wanted to know. Staff Corporal was a four grade drop, although two of them were staff grades, out of the line of command.

Because he's transferring to a space unit. You always transfer from Planetary Surface to Strategic Space or Tactical Space at a lower rank. He'd be expected to absorb an entirely new set of protocols; but a maintenance and repair assignment meant he'd henceforth be eligible for direct transfers or promotions within either of the space-borne branches.

It was a necessary move if he wanted to advance. He could wait until the sergeant grades if he wanted to, but above that, slots in Planetary Surface Forces were few and rare. The higher you went the harder it was to transfer and the bigger a demotion you'd probably have to take. All the important commands went to Tactical or Strategic Space Officers, because they all involved spaceborne warfare. Planetary Surface troops were important, but battles and wars were won in space. The Empire really didn't like to destroy habitable planets or even functioning bases, but they'd do it if they had to. Nobody talked about it much, but when even a one-man fighter could blow apart an unshielded planet, there weren't any defenses that could hold off a determined assault. Imperial planets were shielded against accidental or inadvertent destruction, or perhaps against small groups of madmen, not an intentional fleet action. Asto needed to move over to a Space assignment to continue his advancement, so taking the demotion was something that we'd known about for a while. But Asto was sharp; he probably wouldn't lose more than five of the much shorter Imperial years regaining his former rank. And by taking this particular assignment, he enabled us to be together as a real family. At least for a little while, and with the kids being young, that made it even more worth the cost.

So what are you going to do, Mom? Esteban wanted to know. He'd figured out the concept of consequences - when you drop a rock in a pond, the ripples always spread. And Aunt Tina? What's she going to do?

You're going to have to ask your Aunt Tina what she intends to do. I'd love to keep her on, but there are a lot of reasons it's a bad idea for me to keep being a Vector Pilot under these circumstances. She signed on for the benefits to her career as insystem crew the job would give her. Tina loved the kids; maybe she'd stay a while. But she shouldn't have any trouble landing a job as an insystem merchant ship's commander if she wanted - this was the sort of chance insystem crews usually only got in the military. That was the prize she'd had her eye on when she signed on. Well, that and the speculative chance of going operant.

But that was dodging the real question. I'd been the Dog Lady on Earth, but ever since I'd left, I'd been a Vector Pilot, the Imperial equivalent of an intergalactic trucker, broken only by a stint in the military. I really didn't know what I'd do when that option was off the table. Maybe I'll just concentrate on raising the five of you for a few years. Across the millions of light years between us, Asto sent me a mental snort indicating I was lying to myself. The universe knew Asto and I had plenty of money. We never needed to work again if we didn't want to. But that's not the way either one of us was programmed, and we both knew it. I'd think of something; I just had no ideas at the moment.

But I did have to break the news to Tina. She deserved to know as soon as I could tell her in person. After dinner, I gathered the kids and headed up to the piloting station. The dogs followed as a matter of course. They went where their people went. "Tina, I have some news that affects you, too. Asto got the berth in maintenance and repair, so we're going to be living in the Residence to be with him. I'll gladly keep you on at your current pay level and get you an apartment in the Residence, but I know it's not what you had in mind when you took the job."

Miss Chief demanded to be picked up by scratching Tina's pants; she knew there was no reason Tina couldn't pet her while piloting. Tina ignored her for the moment. She was a tallish willowy brunette, just dark-skinned enough that people in our California childhood knew she was Mexican and not white, not that it made any difference in the sort of schools we'd both gone to. She kept her long, dark wavy hair pinned up while she was piloting.

"I haven't made up my mind yet, Tia. When do you have to know?" She gave in to Mischief's importuning, bending to help the little golden dog up into her lap. Mischief and Scarecrow loved the kids, but the kids were kids and sometimes startled them. Tina and I and sometimes Asto were their real people for now. Esteban was learning; Scarecrow could see that he was the best chance for attention now, and made his own overtures for attention there.

"I'll be selling the pilot module, but you can just move into the Residence until you make up your mind what you want to do. Take your time." It wasn't like Tina couldn't have decided to move on at any time. After five years working with me, she'd had the career boost she'd wanted for some time.

Since I'm working on the third novel in this series, might be a good idea to bring people up to speed on the set up

Grace and Asto have been married about twenty-five Imperial years (17 Earth) at the beginning of this series. They enlisted in the military together, and now Grace is coming to the end of her enlistment, while Asto still has another forty Imperial years in his term of service, but Grace nonetheless wants to start their family now. The overarching theme of the series is that Grace will be raising that family while becoming more aware of the situation she has thrust herself into by marrying into House Scimtar.

******

Later, Asto and I were in our quarters. He's a tall, thin Guardian; the body type sometimes known as 'hound' on Earth. Six feet six, broad shoulders, long legs, and thin as a whip, except for tiny little bulges here and there, intended to give him a reserve of energy if he needed it. He'd changed his skin color, darkened it slightly and added a touch more bronze than when we married, so it looked rather more like what my Earth family would think of as pure indio rather than mestizo, but his face was still on the aristocratic Northern European mold, hawk-faced and sharp, with eyes that were always alive with light whenever I saw them.

That was amusing, love, he told me, watching Whelsed try and talk you out of something you've had your mind set on for most of twenty years.

It was a tribute to my resolve, of sorts. Ending my commitment at twenty years had been part of our agreement with each other to work as Eyes. They might move him to solo work as a Finger, but he wasn't so much as going to hint at me changing my mind. We kept our promises to each other, always.

You do seem amused, I observed.

We've been in rapport for twentyfive years now, love. I know better than to try to wiggle out of an agreement, but I do confess I was less than fully convinced you wouldn't agree to what someone else pretended to need from you. You do sometimes let yourself be led astray by others' expectations.

Guilty as charged, I said. Of course, if I hadn't been, my life would have been completely different, and much poorer. I would never have met my wonderful husband, for instance. I take it I passed the test?

Can't ask a better score than perfect, he replied. The mental subtext was playful, and I gathered he'd changed his mind about starting early. If you still want to, how about adding one to the head of the line? he asked.

He hadn't wanted to before. He'd been concerned I might change my mind when they tried to persuade me to extend, and then I'd be pregnant with more time to serve. I could always transfer the baby to artificial gestation or halt development - I was a Guardian and just as capable as any other healer - but both had their drawbacks. We had four fertilized eggs in storage, just in case. In the Empire, it was standard to use artificial gestation, but being a barbarian from Earth I didn't think I could look my sisters in the eye and call myself a mother if I hadn't done it the same way they had at least once. Besides, I'd like to surprise Anara and Gilras (and Helene and Scimtar) with an extra child to the four we had planned and in frozen storage.

What else could I do? I attacked him before he could change his mind.

Afterwards, we lay there in happy communion making certain the newly fertilized boy would be healthy, adding the last little touches to what he would become. When we were satisfied, we made love again, slow and passionate, each possessive of the other in a way that said both 'mine' and 'yours' simultaneously. We belonged to each other in ways that no Earth human would have understood before Imperial contact. We might live separate for years at a time - given that he was remaining in the military and I wasn't, we'd have no choice on some occasions - but for me, 'home' was where Asto was. And vice versa. We weren't necessarily all demonstrative about it out in public, but we didn't need to be. Our rapport, a constant mental connection to each other, left no doubts. Not that we shied away from demonstrations, either.

The ideas for this character and another associated one have been in the back of my mind for a while. I thought I was going to do a viewpoint shift in my Work-in-Progress, but I've decided to do something different. Nonetheless, I'm probably going to do something with this character eventually

------


"We have an Empire-wide alert. The fractal demons have begun massive assaults on Imperial systems throughout the Empire. The Empire is now in a state of war. There are no protected areas in this war, and Earth is one of the most exposed planets. The demons have a major marshalling point only seventeen years distant. Be prepared, be alert. We will do our best, but our resources are limited and demonic nobles can appear anywhere and bring troops with them. Your best defense is yourself."

-Announcement made by Brigade Ensign HoshTeremas, commander of Sol system defenses

UHURA JACKSON:

It caused an almost planetary panic.

Despite the Empire's brutally frank acknowledgements that war was coming, and that it was likely the Earth would be the target of an invasion force the limited numbers of troops in the system would be unable to contain for a century prior to the war, the actual start of hostilities caught almost everyone unprepared.
The hollowed-out brigade assigned to Earth was more than we should have had, by a strict accounting. Even a group - one fourth the troops - would have been generous. But that didn't mean people were ready for what happened.

I was better prepared than most. I'd spent thirty years in the Imperial military. When separated, I'd used part of my savings to purchase my combat suit from the Empire. I'd been strict about keeping it up to maintenance standards in the time since, too, and kept a full load of expendables on hand. When I'd settled near San Onofre, in the old Camp Pendleton Enterprise Zone, I'd even found a group of like-minded veterans and we'd practiced together in the simulators a few times per Imperial year. It was what we had time for.

I had good reason to keep myself in shape, too. I'd become a prostitute.

Pick your damned jaw up off the floor. For that matter, courtesan was probably more accurate. I was born on Earth, and I liked Earth, but I'd learned some of our attitudes were... provincial. By the time I'd been discharged, I had no qualms whatsoever about ignoring them. I wasn't going to be so careless I got pregnant, and a session with a healer could kill any disease known to the Empire - and Momma was a Guardian even if I wasn't, as well as my mentor in 'the business'. If anything had come up, she'd have been happy to heal me - not that it ever did. When first I returned to Earth, I'd had to keep physical side of my operations to the Pendleton Zone and the Channel Islands Military Reservation or south of the border in what used to be Mexico, but when the old United States finally voted to disband, I no longer had even those minimal concerns.

I was valued, too. My base rate was forty luc per Imperial hour, and it was a rare customer I probably wasn't going to see again that didn't volunteer more. I even enjoyed the 'work.' Since Earth was still dirt poor by the standards of the rest of the Empire, my clientele consisted mostly of off-worlders, I lived well on a couple hours 'work' per week - I had a ten prime ififths squared condo on the third-highest level of one of the San Onofre highrises, a four-seat Starbird of my own even though I was only an in-system pilot, and other investments totaling over forty fifths - perhaps nothing special in most of the Empire, but here on Earth I was the equivalent of a billionaire. Most of my customers were here because they were assigned or passing through for some reason either business or charitable. The native churches didn't care for us much, but Imperial Viceroys didn't answer to voters or elections, so those who would have made trouble had seen their power evaporate as thoroughly as all the other old splinter special interest groups who'd thrived off the threat of making fifty-one percent into forty-nine. Served them right. Momma named me Uhura, after a character on an old entertainment before contact. She told me it meant 'freedom,' and I was damned if I was going to fall short of that name. Great-Grandmama might have been an enslaved 'comfort woman' but I chose to do what I did. It suited me for now. Maybe someday it wouldn't - but I had plenty of other skills, and the Planetary Surface forces would be right glad of an experienced Squad Private anytime I wanted - especially now.

So despite over three prime of warnings from the Empire that war was probably going to hit Earth, most of the planet was still dreaming that nothing would ever happen. They said a good definition of humanity was 'an otherwise sentient species known for its unwillingness to plan ahead,' and the reaction proved them right. Near as I can tell, roughly three fifths - two billion plus by the old numbers - tried demanding free passage offworld on Earth's one commercial run that might have held a cube or even two - if they'd jammed 'em in with a shoehorn. Never mind that the destination systems would have been just as liable to get hit. Both the transport company and all the Viceroys laughed at them, of course.

Most of the rest of Earth's fourteen fifths - eleven billion - tried the old adage, 'when in danger or in doubt, run in circles scream and shout.' It was not a pleasant experience for those few of us more inclined to solving our own problems. But I suppose that's why they weren't all rich, and why Earth still absorbed way more charity than planets with four times the people. Close on two Earth centuries since Imperial contact, and the planet was still working through all the crap I remembered from my youth. Damn but we were crazy back then! Almost made the rotten bastards that had enslaved Great-Grandmama in Korea look sane! Least they were willing to work at what they wanted, instead of having it handed to them! Maybe it would've been better if the Empire had just let the old folks die off, instead of healing them all and giving them another life. But since that saved Momma and got her training as a Guardian, I'm just as glad they didn't

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

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

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

-Graciela Juarez di Scimtar

It never begins dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The assignment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

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

If there's a basileus?

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

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

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

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

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

What do you think? I asked Asto.

I think this is a good opportunity for you. The kids are taking care of themselves, and we've got my splinters to provide any parental supervision they actually need.

You know being a parent isn't just about supervision.

They can talk to you as easily as I can, anytime. It's not like they have music recitals or hadul games you have to attend.

I don't want to miss Mom stuff. When I'd had each child, I'd committed myself to thirty years of being Mom before anything else. As much as I needed to get away a few hours a week, I enjoyed it. Unlike the situation on Earth before contact, I could expect plenty of lifespan after - Guardians lived until something killed them. According to personal duration, I was 98 Imperial years old - 69 Earth. I kept myself healthier and looking younger than I had the night ScOsh stepped through the portal back on Earth. Even among the natural state humans, that was the way things were in the Empire. I hadn't seen anyone who looked middle-aged or old since my last trip back to Earth. At somewhere over 80,000 Earth years of age, Scimtar himself looked no older physically than the college students of my youth.

You won't miss it. Things will just be a little different for a while.

I had to admit he was right. Thanks to our situation, even ten year old Alden was beyond what I could teach him about most subjects. At sixteen Imperial, Esteban was starting to show glimpses of the amazing man he would become - even if his voice had just started to crack. Ilora, Ilras, and Imtara, between them in age, were all starting to show specific interests and dispositions. I appreciated Ferugio - Scimtar's teaching master - more now than I had when under his tutelage. The kids' physical training was also more advanced than Asto had been at their age, as Scimtar himself had dedicated a splinter full time to teaching the family self-defense and dueling. Even Amras and Iaren - the oldest of his surviving children, each well over a square in age and formidable opponents in their own right - took lessons from their father occasionally. But the upshot was that my kids - and my husband and even I - were better prepared to defend ourselves than otherwise. His splinter might literally be a shadow of Scimtar himself, but it knew everything he'd learned in his long and adventurous life.

Will you be home tonight?

I did tell you that our schedule was for thirty hours of fleet exercises?

Yes, but I could hope for a change. His splinter would still be there, but his splinter wasn't Asto.

I love that you're always ready to hope the universe will be kind.

I love that you humor me. I'll talk with the kids tonight.

 



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