It never begins dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The assignment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

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

If there's a basileus?

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

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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!

Copyright 2018 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Measure of Adulthood Update

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Got the files back with feedback from the beta readers, and done going through them. The interior of the book is now essentially finished, just waiting on my cover artist (which was officially due on the 11th, but I'd told him the 18th was fine so I'm standing by that.)

No, they didn't make me fly myself back to Indra. Another Staff Private flew the cutter so he could bring it back. I didn't stand on ceremony. As soon as the cutter grounded, I thanked him, unstrapped, grabbed my gear bag, remote-walked my combat suit out after me, and headed for the base personnel office, through a nearby portal. While walking, I reported in via datalink. Staff Private Graciela Juarez, reporting on terminal assignment.

You're on our list of those scheduled for today. Eight days was plenty of time for my records to arrive. You have plenty of leave, and we don't have any pressing needs in your qualification areas. Unless you have some objection, we can essentially discharge you right now. Were you intending to buy your combat suit, Private?

I am not. Some people timing out did go more or less directly into private armed forces, and some wanted to keep their suits 'just in case.' I wasn't planning anything in civilian life that might require one, and I could always buy one later. A Planetary Surface soldier always had a combat suit, from the time they were issued in initial training until officially separated. Fulda was a training base for natural state humans; they'd reassign my suit to someone else when I was officially out. Until then, I was required to have access to it and maintain it.

Five minutes later, I'd surrendered the suit and had my discharge orders, which put me on leave for the last four days of my contract, "subject to recall for the needs of the Empire" after which I was a civilian again. I was still subject to military discipline until the end of my contract, expected to wear appropriate uniform while in public - essentially the standard dress uniform, equivalent to office wear for the military: tunic, trousers, belt, and hat, all in the gold-trimmed blue of the Imperial military. The Empire and its military believed in showing the uniform. No matter where you went, there was always at least a thin smattering of uniforms. If I was going to be getting dirty for some reason, I'd switch to work uniform, the equivalent of fatigues.
It had been a while since I was on Indra, and twenty years since I'd been through Fulda. Instead of teleporting, I caught a portal to Sumabad, several thousand kilometers south and west, where it was still the middle of planetary night. Overhead shone the span of Indra Habitat One, the closer of two annular habitats encircling Indra's star. When I'd first been here, the framework was just going up, now it was rapidly filling with people. It was so close, it felt like you could reach out and touch it - the six Indra Rosette Worlds orbited only two Imperial seconds (just over a million kilometers) inside the huge band - less than half the width of the habitat, close enough to watch storms and identify seas and major cities. It didn't really get dark on the Rosette Worlds any more, with the habitat shining more brightly than a dozen full moons on Earth. It looked like we'd be passing in front of Habitat Two, orbiting perpendicular to Habitat One ten seconds further out, in a few more days.

Fulda was a small town by Imperial standards - only a few million people. The spires of Sumabad, by comparison, held somewhere over a billion, facing the Sumabad Strait. Sumabad was literally older than the Empire; it had grown up as a port city during the dark ages of Imperial prehistory. When the Empire reached Indra, it had already been the largest city on the planet. It hadn't been one of the Empire's largest cities in a long time, but it was impressive for what it was. Twenty kilometer high arcologies, each five to eight kilometers on a side, each separated from the others by about five kilometers of jungle style greenbelt studded with berths for the great spherical ships that were the largest freighters. Scimtar's former flagship Response In Will was permanently grounded in front of the closest, a thirty-five hundred meter sphere of dark gray metal looming over the jungle but in turn miniaturized by the spires around it.

I turned and entered the arcology. I wasn't strong enough to teleport twenty-three kilometers straight up in one jump, but the arcology's portal system could handle it just fine. It had been a while since I'd been back; caution seemed called for. I chose a destination just outside the official Residence, and emerged into a brightly lit corridor. It wasn't packed by any means, but there were people moving along it, moving with the air of those on their way somewhere. I left the receiving portal platform as I accessed Residence security and submitted my identity for scan.

Residence security agreed that I was cleared for the Residence and admitted me. I got about two steps before my perception said someone was there and I was swept up in a big bear hug by Scimtar himself.
"Welcome home, daughter!" Scimtar was the definition of larger than life - a full seven feet tall, wearing the uniform of his own family - gold trimmed with blue, reversing the Imperial colors. I'd never seen him anything other than in complete control of a situation. Scimtar was Asto's grandfather, the head of the family, a legend throughout the Empire, and, at nearly thirty square (108,000 Imperial or 75,000+ Earth years) one of its oldest citizens.

I hugged him back, "Good to be home, grandfather!" then stepped back and saluted. He returned it, twinkle in his eye.

About then Anara - Asto's mother - also zoomed in for a hug. "Congratulations! Asto told me you already started!" She was in civilian dress, but she was wearing the gray triangle of an Octus-in-fact. She was much younger than her father, barely past her first square (3600 Imperial years or 2500 Earth). My baby was her first grandchild. Not far behind, her husband Gilras was more restrained in his hug. I noticed he was wearing a uniform with three purple stars of rank - a First General - but white staff epaulets rather than the black of active command. Unusual as First General was a command grade, not staff, but I was no connoisseur of what went on at those exalted ranks.

Asto's Aunt Anana was close behind, and Helene, Scimtar's wife, his grandmother, then Ononi and Imre, Scimtar and Helene's youngest children, screaming "Aunt Grace!" Well, technically, they were my aunt- and uncle-in-law, but they'd been children when I met them. Now, they were the family's youngest adults. "Lady and More are waiting in your apartment!" they told me, a reference to the two dogs Asto and I had adopted. I was tempted to let the dogs out to greet me, but first I wanted to get the family under control. Parnit was the last of the adults to join the gathering, together with his brood of four children ranging from ten year old (7 Earth) Imar up to twenty-one year old (15 Earth) Anesto, with two girls, Urona and Anosha, in between the boys. Anesto had been just over a year old when Asto and I enlisted; we didn't know the kids well. That would have to change. I had plenty of practice being 'Aunt Grace'.

Earth natives wouldn't have thought any of them were related to each other. Scimtar was tall, dark-skinned like some Earthly South Asians and hawk-faced, like his grandson Asto. Anara looked like a fair-skinned Celt with fiery red hair and was a foot and a half shorter, the same height as me. Anana could have passed for my sister, medium-dark brown hair and skin of that shade that can be found on tanned Anglos, Mediterranean people, or lighter-skinned Mexicans. I was slightly darker, but close enough. Helene always reminded me of a young Katherine Hepburn with the grace and dignity of the same actress much later in life. Imre was tall with skin the color of dark chocolate, while his fraternal twin Ononi was my height and fair, like her older sister Anara except blonde. None of Anana and Parnit's kids looked especially like either one of their parents. But they were a family. Imperials, especially Guardians, could easily determine their own appearance. I was at the lower end of the modification scale - all I'd added was a couple inches of height and about sixty pounds of dense, augmented muscle. I think Scimtar himself was fairly close to what nature had given him, but there was no way to know other than asking him.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

I was so relieved to have this done Saturday I got the clean-up draft finished last night, and already this morning I have sent it off to my beta readers and got a cover artist I've worked with before started.

******

"I have the helm," Asto told Sergeant Trimza.

"I am relieved," she agreed, transferring control to him.

"Condition Gold. Launch Starbirds."

"Condition Gold, Launching Starbirds," First Corporal Vidos, responded. Wandering River had a full platoon of fighters despite being a Strategic Space vessel; the auxiliary bays were the single largest allocation of her volume. Shaped like a fat bullet, the ship was fifteen ifourths in length, roughly four ifourths in diameter. It was a post craft's length that qualified her for this mission; yesterday Asto had had three crews in suits crawling over the outside of his ship, laying down three strips of exotic metal out of a specialty converter the length of the cylindrical two-thirds of her hull, connecting them to the ship's power grid and installing a new program for reading the results.

"Any idea how we got so lucky, ang?" Battalion Sergeant Masgera, the ship's head engineer, had asked sarcastically.

"I know exactly how it happened. My mother asked for me, and the rest of our post ships came along for the ride." he'd replied.

"I'd forgotten you're a Scimtar. What's the idea?"

"She's an Interstitial physicist. Instead of trying to put a whole detection array on one ship, Mom and her team decided to try dividing them up among several ships to increase the size of the baseline for measurements and as well as allowing a broader angle of dispersion. It's also cheaper and allows us to use existing ships rather than custom building ships the size of a big moon. Ours is a prototyping configuration. The hope is detecting demonic infestation across the full eleven dimensions at a range I think is incredible, but I only have a six rating; she's probably the top researcher in the Empire right now, and Dad's a nine, as well. She thinks we'll be able to use any number of sensing elements within about a two year range of each other, but we'll need test data to confirm. I imagine whatever the results, there will be assault missions to confirm within days if not hours."

"So our big break in finding the scaly djhanta?"

"Let's hope so. It's become a lot more urgent - the demons may have found a strategy that that shifts the balance their way."

"So why did she ask for you?"

"Because she knows I know enough, and am a good enough Interstitial pilot, to demand correct spacing and get her the quality of data she needs to make a real determination of the limits of the system."
"She's not coming?"

"She isn't replaceable at the moment, so no. The Merlon put her on Safety Reserve; none of us can see an appeal being successful."

"Must be nice."

He hadn't bothered explaining he'd been in the military fiftytwo years under war conditions because it was safer than being fully exposed to political rivals of his family; those outside the Great Houses never really understood. It had claimed the life of his younger brother despite the protection of being in the military. Instead, "She's not happy about someone else gathering the data for her. Said if I wasn't careful about it, it'd set us back five years. Said she'd remove my adulthood and force my wife to divorce me. Nothing was said about our children."

"She can't really do that? Never know with you Oranges." The Great Houses were a rule unto themselves, but in an Empire of over two thirteenths, there were still less than twenty prime of Seventh Order Guardians - and that counted those still legally children.

"No, but she was making a point. I will be careful."

Asto brought himself back to the present as Corporal Vidos reported, "Status Gold achieved, ang. All Starbirds mass-linked."

"Have our partners confirmed the position data and references?"

"Affirmative."

"Then signal control we're ready to begin the mission."

"They say Vector when ready."

"Aye, counting down from five....four....three...two...one..."

A single large ship with auxiliaries of comparatively negligible mass was about as easy as mass-linked Vectors got; all of the power was coming from Wandering River, and the small surrounding masses tended to help even out the stresses rather than accentuating them. Green band rose slightly and red band was falling off, but nothing that any Vector pilot couldn't have managed. Gray band and gravband were almost steady. As Grace says, easy peasy.

Blink.

The outside cameras showed the interstitial media dimly backlit, a thin, smoky, fog-like substance not unlike dark nebulae inside an instance. There wasn't enough light to see any color in it. The few sources of light didn't really illuminate unless they were close, cosmically speaking. "Confirm position!"

Asto himself was helm; that made him responsible for the most important piece of that confirmation. Bearings were fuzzy due to the interstitial medium, but peak readings on sources of radiation showed the correct angles of divergence. Their position was less than an ithird from plan. "Auxiliary release mass link!" he ordered, cancelling velocity as well as he could, precessing slowly to line up with the most prominent source of radiation. "Shields off! I say again, shields off! Strobe the interstitial probes!"

Engineering fed small amounts of power into the three strips of exotic metal newly installed on the hull, in carefully measured sine waves. The point was signaling ready to their five cohorts; when all six were strobing the program would take over. Unfortunately, it would also be a signal potential enemies could home in on. Shields had to be off; otherwise they'd absorb the energy the ships were trying to sense. That was what gave the mission its pucker factor, and why the auxiliaries were on high alert. Hull charge limited the damage; it didn't stop it from happening entirely.

"Two strobes, ang! Three! Ranges nominal, one year forty-five. Five strobes confirmed! Program engaging!"

Asto took over, "Emissions zero!" The ship's other active sensors needed to be off to sense the echo.

"Countdown to pulse! Three...two...one...pulse."

Even on the scale of a post craft, whose primary weapon put out the energy of several hundred G-type stars, the pulse energy was significant. "Capacitors at twentytwo iprime!" Engineering reported, "Siphons at full draw...forty iprime...capacitors full; banking siphons!"

Asto was watching the returns. Like primitive radar, the returns started almost immediately. The fastest returns were the closest objects, and returns would be ongoing as long as anyone was there to sense them. Unlike radar, the scale wasn't a single planet and the velocity of the pulse was more than sixty to the fifth power times faster than the speed of light. Theory said a galaxy-sized return in eleven dimensions could be painted in under thirty minutes; the longer they could hold position like this, the bigger the volume they'd get data on. His mother told him the theoretical limit to the range was over a fifth but nobody expected them to hold position that long; mission instructions were to return in four days even if they encountered no fractal demons. He hoped the fractal demons wouldn't realize what they were up to. Failing that, he hoped the Empire's adversaries didn't get a good location. Not a very strong hope, that. Were the situations reversed, Asto would have expected to be in energy range of a demonic ship he was hunting within a minute. However, the demonic gremlin caste technicians were known for slip-shod results. Just have to hope their brakiri masters aren't on the spot.

Now we wait.

It was lonely, being the only ship of any size for over a year in any direction. The other five post craft could support them or vice versa - if they got a message off and survived long enough. Starbirds were small enough their non-combat power was negligible, but the main ship would be the first target, and they were sitting in what could be demonic territory with no active sensors and shields off, waiting for the return off their searching pulse. From the returns, Asto was assembling a picture of the limited return they'd gotten off the strobing phase of emission. It was low power, therefore with limited range, but no demonic fractals were showing up within it. That was a good thing for Asto and his shipmates, not so good for the mission, which was to find demonic fractals so they could be destroyed.

The first significant return happened eleven minutes into their wait, a projected distance of seven square years fortytwo. "I need a courier," he told Corporal Vidos. Assuming that the test was valid and it was the closest demonic realm, there was enough distance that the demons might be a while, and passive sensors might notice their approach in time to give warning. Asto realized there was no reason he was aware of the ships sending the pulse had to be the ones receiving it. In other words, once the pulse was sent, there was no reason for the ship sending it to wait for the return - which could be sensed by an entirely different set of ships in stealth mode anywhere within two years or so. Ships which hadn't sent out a universe-spanning energy pulse to call attention to their position. The Empire has all the post-size craft it could want. But we're committed for this test. Better to hope they don't realize what we're up to yet. But demons are lazy, not stupid, and I suspect we'll be doing this many times in the future.

"Courier assigned. Activating reserve." Even a ship with a crew of several squares didn't have an unlimited number of Interstitial qualified pilots, and most of them were already out in the Starbirds, flying cover.

"Return to base with the location of that demonic realm. Advise them I advise an immediate attack in at least division strength, and request an update on whatever action is performed." These days, the mission was always destruction, and that was cheaper than conquest. The demons weren't linking their new domains any longer; there was no longer a reason to pay the higher costs of conquest rather than destruction.


Copyright 2024 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Measure Of Adulthood

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Finally finished the first draft of Measure Of Adulthood, fourth and final of the Politics of Empire series.

Things dovetailed better than I thought they would; the rough draft comes in about 53,000 words, a short novel. We'll see how things go when I go back through it for continuity and clean-up.

If I decide to write more about Grace or her children (most likely Ilras if any), it will be the start of a new series. This will move me away from the particular window I also wrote the Preparations for War series in; I've been working there since 2015, and the last few thousand words did not want to come. I'm working on a standalone novel called A New Embassy, also set in the Empire of Humanity, and trying to decide whether I want to work on The Crazy Lady or Bubbles of Creation (both Connected Worlds novels) or the third Gates to Faerie novel (so far untitled) in tandem with it.

Right now, most of my time was being spent developing the gunships based upon Swass-class transports. I'd designed in a bomb bay for napalm bombs, as even the extended range flamethrowers required being too damned close to the terrain - call it two sixty-fours of paces, local measure. Two Gatling-style machine guns firing our standard rifle round and two high-velocity automatic grenade launchers and the ammunition for them filled the rest of the cargo area, firing off the left side of the plane so the pilot could see what was happening. The problems were weight and balance - first, the firing platform had to be reinforced, and then we had to make certain that neither the weight of the platform nor the recoil of the weaponry unbalanced the plane. Then we had to ensure our pattern for feeding ammunition worked also. It appeared they weren't major problems, and I'd checked my solutions through computer simulations at Bolthole Base, but we'd never be certain until the first time we tested them under conditions as close to combat as we could devise. The first prototypes would be ready in a couple more days - if the demons waited that long. Speaking of which, "Makis, spread the word that putting in extra time is encouraged and will be paid at higher rates on the new Nhadragh planes. I've got a feeling we'll be needing them soon."

"Right, boss. Can't wait to see if it all works." He'd been born a farmer's son outside Yalskarr. He was big and brawny, at least by local standards. He'd helped crew one of the Vickers machine-gun knock-offs we'd used to defend Yalskarr from the last big demonic incursion, and stuck around to learn the aircraft business as it grew from the first primitive plane to what it was today. These days, he looked older than I did, but he'd become one hell of a designer and project manager. He'd probably contributed more actual original ideas to the Nhadragh than I had. Once upon a time, he'd asked where I was getting the designs for our planes from. I'd told him, "I can't tell you that yet. Trust me." He'd never asked again, but the look he gave me now was eloquent enough. He knew the designs were coming from somewhere that wasn't Calmenan in origin, but he also knew how much what Asina and I were doing had benefitted Yalskarr and the rest of Calmena.

"Soon, Makis. I'll be able to tell you soon."

"Suddenly, I'm chilled. Like a likahn digging up my grave." He wasn't stupid. In fact, he was probably the smartest natural state human I knew.

"I understand." No need to tell him the demons were on the way in such numbers as to constitute a tsunami that would wipe away all life where it reached. "But there are wonderful things coming as well."

"Hope my grandchildren will be alive to enjoy them."

What to say? I couldn't guarantee the next week to anyone living on Calmena - myself and Asina included. The only thing I could do was nod. "Let's get this plane ready. Quickly."

It was his turn to nod. "I'll tell the assembly line managers to push production, too."

"All deliberate speed," I agreed, "It will do no good to send out four aircraft that fall apart rather than two or three that work like they should."

He nodded again in understanding - there'd be no time to repair mistakes.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Yalskarr was nothing impressive to look at - yet.

Docks, blocky wooden warehouses, and the occasional stone or brick edifice rising three or four stories off the ground. It was Calmena's answer to Houston at the dawn of the petrochemical age.

This time, the hard work of setting up the station had been done for us. Yalskarr had been one of Hashiboor's first seaports, and for nearly thirty years, a rail hub as well. Asina's daughter Tellea and her husband Fittorn had built it up from nothing, one small bit at a time, over the past fifty local years, as they worked to nurture the nascent petrochemical industry of Calmena, currently centered north of Yalskarr. In one of the many ironies of the Calmena uplift, we were playing the part of Tellea's daughter and son-in-law to enable them to 'retire' and return to the Empire - both were approaching a public age that would make continuing the masquerade difficult, and they'd been on Calmena for eighty Earth years or so. It was time for them to take a break. The result was that we were 'inheriting' an ongoing business. As a result, the Imperial gear was already well hidden, nearly an ifourth below ground level, and the hidden quarters Asina and I would occupy had all the improvements that could be hidden from the natives.

Things were a little more complicated now than they had been. At the end of our first assignment, we'd simply told everyone else that our replacements were our inheritors, and walked out of town with no trouble to our replacements, then or after. But things were done formally now; the transfer would take longer and the local government would extort a certain amount in exchange for official recognition of the transfer. It wasn't to protect anyone; the purpose was the avarice of those in control of the local government.

Tellea's eyes were hazel now, her dark brown hair was sprinkled with grey, and her somewhat Polynesian appearance was weathered and wrinkled, a concession to what the Calmenans expected from someone who had spent the last forty Earth years - 100 local Calmenan - working with chemicals and shipping and everything else. Her husband Fittorn looked like he could have come from nineteenth century Holland or Belguim - light brown hair, blue eyes, and tall for Calmena, similarly weathered. But the appearance was only skin deep; Tellea was actually in her first days of pregnancy with what would be Asina's first grandchild. They'd be looking like any other young adults in the Empire within a day or so of arriving at Bolthole Base for transport out. Mother! Uncle Joe! she greeted us, good to see you even if it is only for a couple weeks! Asina and Tellea hugged; Asina hadn't actually seen her daughter in a year.

Asina wanted to inspect the new baby, and Tellea let her do so with perception. Looking good so far. Any idea if he's operant?

Not yet. We've built in as much augmentation as we could, but so far no sign. Augmentation would decay unless maintained by the baby after he was born, and more than a certain amount could be a threat to him if he wasn't operant. I'll shift to artificial gestation if there's no sign of operancy at ten weeks.

We've got a building for the casting works almost completed, Fittorn advised me, and we've got the land for the airfield, too. You can start clearing it when you're ready.

That will probably be a couple years. Marine diesels can be cast with steel. We need Asina to lay a little more groundwork with aluminum before we're ready to use it in airplane engines, and she needs to work on refining better grades of fuel for them, too. I was thinking about something a couple grades above the Wright Flyer; similar but with true ailerons and rudder controls as well as a lighter engine. Enough for a proof of concept, enough to encourage the interest of potential competitors. Our mission wasn't to make money; it was to advance Calmena so they could defend themselves and inconvenience the fractal demons. The best way to do that was show potential competitors how to get to a point where they could build something others would be willing to pay for. That would also help them be ready to assimilate into the Empire when the time came.

Marine diesels - diesel engines in general but marine diesels particularly - were more important than aircraft. Look up how Germany's manufacturing in World War II kept increasing despite allied air raids until allied troops started capturing the means of production in 1945. I'd once taken a drive with my dad up old Interstate 84 alongside the Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington line. I'd seen a long line of semis completely dwarfed by a single train - all of which was in turn dwarfed by a smallish barge headed up the river. Multnomah Falls is beautiful, by the way. But the point is which moves the most freight the most economically. The sooner we gave marine diesels their starting push, the sooner and more powerfully they'd work their economic blessings. There was nothing that could compete with them until impellers got strong enough.

You're the folks who've been studying it, Uncle Joe, Fittorn conceded, but the longer you take, the more pressure you're going to feel from people wanting to use the land for other things. It was difficult buying everybody out and fencing it off. People will try moving back in whenever they think they can.

We can afford to pay people to keep the land clear, Asina replied, we can even afford to maintain a grass runway until we're ready to use it.

She was right that we could afford it - our converters could create all the precious metals we might need. But that will cause people to wonder what we intend to use that runway for, my love. Which will tell every observer that we knew what we designed would need it long before we built it. We know the demons have agents and they are watching. They probably even have likahns in the area. We can't telegraph our intentions like that. The demons are lazy, not stupid.

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

It was barely thirty seconds later that Tellea herself appeared out of one of the satellite personnel portals. She and Asina squealed like a couple teen-age girls from Earth and hugged each other for a good thirty seconds while I told Hunor, "She's here, thank you again for your generosity. We'll try and keep you advised of our plans so that you can forbid anything that doesn't fit your parenting decisions."

"That would be welcome," Hunor said, "Enjoy your time together!" and broke the circuit.

About that time, Asina and Tellea broke their embrace, and it was my turn to get hugged, "Uncle Joe!" She gave me every bit the hug one of my own aunts or sisters would have, too. Maybe once she was a legal adult, I'd be able to arrange a visit between them.

"When can I make arrangements to visit you on Calmena?" was her first question.

"Calmena is still under Interdiction," I told her, "You have to be assigned there or to a mission with transit rights."

"Why would you want to go back there?" Asina asked.

"Because you're there," she said, and then changing into telepathy with both of us, and I want to do something to help the people who weren't as lucky as we were. Even with my minimal exposure to Imperial culture, it was amazing how often a sense of self-imposed duty to others kept cropping up, and how strong it was. Most charities in the Empire had more money than they had real things to spend it on. It really was a qualitative, not merely quantitative difference from the United States of my youth. I'd passed the Imperial adulthood tests, but it seemed I'd be forever outside looking in on this aspect of the Imperial psyche.

Tellea, you're not a legal adult yet, I started.

I can change that in the next few minutes, she replied. She could, too, by passing her remaining adulthood examinations. I wasn't sure if she only needed Implied Responsibility, or if she'd been holding off on Explicit Responsibility as well.

What Joe's trying to say, Asina broke in, is that it's not an easy life. I know I couldn't do it without Joe. I'd wait until you find someone who can join you. Because you'll get awfully lonely on your own for twenty years at a time. Even if you find someone you like among the natives, you can't tell them. You'd be forever apart.

Oh, Mother, she said, it's just sex!

No, isn't just sex, we told her together, like we some old Earth stereo recording. I let Asina continue alone, When you find someone you really belong with, you'll know that sex is sex but love is something so much more. It keeps you going when the universe is against you. The only way to get that on Calmena is to bring it with you. I maybe could have got through my contract without Joe; I was young and not qualified for much and didn't have any better choices. But Joe made all the difference.

I'd put up with worse than Calmena if that was the only way I could be with your mother, I explained. I was having sex with a different woman every few days in Bolthole Base before she got there, living in comfort comparable to the rest of the Empire. Giving that up to be with your mother was the best decision I have ever made.

When you can say the same thing, you might have a partner that will help you survive Calmena, Asina continued.

What I will do, I said, is make arrangements for you to visit the Calmena Sanctuary on Indra once you're adult. You'll be able to learn what it's really like, prepare yourself if you decide it's still something you want to do, and you might even meet someone to partner with. When you're ready, someone will offer you a contract. They need more teams like us.

On our private link, Asina thanked me for thinking of that. Asina had never had a chance to be a child or a teenager. Growing up on Calmena wasn't easy, and my wife had had it worse than most. Orphan, sex slave, slowly dying from internal injuries and malnutrition. But I understood more of the adolescent mindset, having had a typical middle-class American childhood. Flatly tell a teenager "No!" and be prepared for a fight to the death and willful disobedience into the bargain. Tell her you'll help her get ready, and that leaves her room to back down gracefully when it turns out things aren't as they thought. And if they still persist, they will be ready for what follows.

Thank you Uncle Joe! Tellea responded. I had said I'd help her get ready for what she wanted. Never mind that her interpretation of that was different than ours. I'd happily sponsor her at the sanctuary if it meant only that she'd be going in with her eyes open as to the difficulty involved.

I can agree with that, Asina told her daughter, but keep in mind, you have to be an adult first. Ayorsi and Hunor and the rest of your parents want to see you take adulthood in the normal course of things, not rush into it. Haven't they earned that much from all their love? Let her keep her legal childhood the full normal period. Once you were adult in the Empire, there really wasn't any going back. Most Imperials intentionally held off their last test or two until about their thirtieth birthday; the later part of legal childhood was a cherished time to most of the Empire like it had been to pre-contact Earth. Not just the children; the adults too. It was a time for mutual bonding as the relationship between parents and their children shifted.

You're right, mother, Tellea capitulated, They have been wonderful to me. I should show my appreciation to them.

We ourselves probably won't be going back for about a year, I told her, we're hoping for another twenty year contract when we do, so that's plenty of time for you to find a project and a partner. Now, enough of that! Let's plan some fun!

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

I woke up about five hours later when Dulles came and got me. Our next run was one of our longer ones for this trip: a touch over sixteen light-years (23 Imperial) to what everyone agreed was our best hope to find a truly Earth-like world: Tau Ceti, a yellow G8 star. Will and Jayden were in their bunks, I noted as I climbed down. I don't think either one was asleep, but they were at least giving sleep a chance. I didn't blame them. Major Kyle had gotten us about four light-years out from Ross 154, but it was obvious he was at the end of his endurance. His eyes were red sores. "You take it, Joe. I'm crawling off to get some shut-eye."

I checked the ship read-outs and said, "I got it." I nodded to him as he got up. He'd done a hard day's work, even if it was sitting in a chair. It was obvious VSC needed to give more weight to people who could pilot the ship on the next run. Unlike the NASA missions, we needed someone awake and piloting constantly. Dulles was basically taking up space we could have used for another full-time pilot, and there was no reason Major Kyle or another pilot couldn't have led the mission. I'd done some basic oversight functions, but hadn't done much maintenance - I'd been too busy piloting. To be fair, as long as nothing malfunctioned we probably didn't need an engineer either, and Imperial gear was so reliable that even the best Earth gear was garbage by comparison. But if something did break, you couldn't call for a mobile engineer to come fix it - tachyonics had a range of maybe two light-years. Back in the Empire, they had relay networks, but not here.
Dulles was trying his damnedest not to fall asleep. "You might as well turn in for a while," I told him, "I'm going to run basic checks on the essential systems before I engage the time-jammer again."

"Let me know before you start up the time-jammer again," he said, "That's an order." Yeah, big man in a small pool. He was snoring in the chair within thirty seconds. Meanwhile I was checking that the impeller alignment was still good and there were no problems in the power circuits. Inertial integrators were fine, and the time-jammer itself was straight nominal down the line. Main siphon was not likely to be a source of grief, but I checked anyway. Shield circuits were nominal, capacitors were holding full charge, emergency siphon was functioning. Life support was theoretically Jayden's to oversee, but I double-checked his work. Six minutes Imperial (a little over ten Earth), and I was ready to go, reassured that everything was working as it should.

I tapped Dulles on the shoulder, said, "I'm getting ready to start the time-jammer." He stirred, mumbled something like, "Okay," then shimmied himself more comfortable in the chair and resumed snoring. Okay, whatever you say, Mister Commander Sir. I put my attention firmly on the forward sensors, engaged the time-jammer, and ran it quickly up to ten square (36,000). After a couple minutes of watching rocks that weren't particularly close crawl by to make certain I was awake enough, I started increasing the dilation again, up to thirty square (108,000). At that speed it would be about 25 Imperial minutes (46 Earth) to Tau Ceti, but I took us down out of light-speed after about five minutes. I stood up and stretched, moved my arms and legs a bit, then sat back in my chair and repeated the process. Maybe a trained Guardian could do it uninterrupted all in one session, but I thought it better if I did it in several short legs. Being a natural state human with less than perfect control over my mental state, better to stop and take a break before my attention started to wander of its own accord. At thirty square, we were crossing the full diameter of Neptune's orbit more than six times per Imperial second. At that speed, we might have a little over a second and a half warning. Kind of like running your car down the freeway at two hundred miles per hour with a visibility of under a tenth of a mile. Unlike that situation, we knew we could dodge - the metaphorical freeway didn't end and we weren't going to run off the edge - but you had a very limited time in which to react. You didn't have to worry about stopping or running out of maneuvering room, which was good. You weren't going to stop in time, but then, you weren't going to run out of lateral maneuvering room either. I was generally turning down the dilation on the time-jammer until I knew we had dodged - akin to stepping on the brake while yanking the steering wheel, only you didn't have to worry about either one causing you to lose control. Allowing your attention to wander while piloting a time-jammer was practically begging the universe to throw rocks at your blind side. All it took was one.

After about five minutes, I got back in the pilot's chair and resumed our forward progress. I wondered if it was better to just start out at thirty square, but chickened out and worked it up to that point over a couple of minutes, just like before. I left it going for about seven Imperial minutes at full speed, then eased off on the dilation factor and took another break. I figured I'd gone four Imperial light years this turn, as opposed to about three and a quarter the time before. Not bad at all; in less than half an hour Imperial, the ship had moved almost half the distance Major Kyle had left me to get to Tau Ceti. I got up and took another attention break; there was nothing to worry about at subluminal speeds for hours at least. As I got the blood pumping and smoothed out the muscle kinks, Dulles snored away in his chair, completely oblivious. Of course, if either I or Major Kyle let our attention wander and broadsided a rock, the offender and the rest of the crew would die instantly. The more I thought about it, the gladder I was that I was one of the drivers. If I was going to die, at least it would be because I screwed up. Conversely, of course, I had the opportunity to not die by not screwing up, an opportunity the passengers did not have. I'd hate to die from being along for the ride when someone else screwed up.

The third time, I let the time-jammer run a little longer but dialed it down hard when I caught myself distracted by a stray thought. Probably two more runs at this rate - can you imagine trying to explore the galaxy at these speeds? Ten thousand light years or more in little spurts of three and four light years at a time? If there was one thing Imperial records were clear on, it was that there were more rocks between star systems than most people thought. Sure it was still mostly empty space, but when you actually have to travel the distance, even small ships were "sweeping out" an awful lot of volume. I computed with my datalink that Golden Hind had thus far "swept through" over one point five times ten to the fifteenth power cubic kilometers on this trip. Nearly twice the volume of Earth. And that's if you felt comfortable missing rocks you were passing by at a hundred thousand times the speed of light by the width of a hair. I wasn't, and nobody else was, either. Official corporate protocol said anything less than a thousand kilometers was unacceptable. By that standard, we'd swept through a volume of roughly six times ten to the twentieth cubic kilometers, sixty million times more. Gives you either an entirely new perspective on the pilots of those old science fiction starships, or an appreciation of how much the authors had handwaved. Sol's Oort Cloud was thought to contain over a trillion rocks big enough to worry about, and where Sol's Oort Cloud left off, the next star's Oort Cloud began.

Personally, it gave me an appreciation for Vector Drive, which went from point to point without occupying the space between. This nonsense of watching the instruments like a hawk with obsessive compulsive disorder and we all die if my attention wavers at the wrong moment was bullshit. Even if Vector Drive meant I'd never pilot a starship again.

The fourth run, I thought about pushing the dilation factor even higher, but decided against. Let pilots risking only their own skin be the ones to test that - any other decision was rank arrogance. What I was doing was within well-established parameters of performance. Starting out at ten square and pushing it to thirty when I established my mind was sufficiently concentrated upon the task. When I disengaged the time-jammer a few minutes later, we were nearly four Imperial years closer to our goal. Tau Ceti was starting to be something a little bit more than the brightest star in the sky.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

 



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