Gifts of The Mother will be the follow-up to The Gates to Faerie.

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

******

Zeb's companion was unearthly beautiful.

No, he hadn't already found the woman of his dreams. He'd brought along his mentor, a Star Elven woman named Mistyreali. She had long silver hair down to mid-back, curled just enough to notice, flawless alabaster-colored skin, and a build to inspire anyone who was into the thin athletic type. Or even those who weren't. She was six foot six or six foot eight, lean and hard like a long-distance runner. Even her pointed ears and deep violet elongated eyes added to the appeal. Her tunic and trousers of some light gray colored material hung like it was personally tailored to cling to her form like a wet t-shirt might have, but it didn't seem to have problems with stretching as necessary. For some reason she just didn't appeal to me, a thing I was starting to wonder about, but I could see the effect she'd have on most men. The legendary goddesses Artemis or Aphrodite couldn't have done much better. Heck, Zeb himself kept sneaking glances at her as if she hadn't noticed. I could tell she knew she was attractive, intentionally so, and likely even willing to act on the lust she so clearly inspired, but she acted like it just wasn't important right now.

"Zeb, would you like to introduce us to your companion?"

"Oh, pardon! This here's Mistyreali, one o' m' mentors. She's a Star Elf, if'n yas hadn' already figgered 't out.. Mistyreali, this 's Mark Jackson 'n' 's wife Julie."

I noticed Zeb had carefully pronounced her entire name, so I followed suit, "Pleased to meet you Mistyreali. What brings you here this fine evening?"

"My people have services to sell, and we've been told both of your efforts in ending the abuse of The Mother's ritual and that you have some prowess in the form of sales."

I did not say, "I'm all ears" even though it went through my mind. "I shall endeavor to be worthy of your time and trust. What is the nature of your services?"

"We can control the weather to a large extent. We've discovered that your people's farmers might be willing to pay for such services."

Holy shit if that wasn't a minefield! I looked at Julie. I could see she was just as pole-axed as I felt. "Please, I need to talk with my husband for a moment," she said, gesturing to the furniture, "Make yourselves comfortable. If you think it might help, we have a couple of stools in the kitchen that might be easier or more comfortable for someone of your stature, Mistyreali."

"Such a stool would be welcome."

I fetched one of our tall barstools from out of the kitchen, set it next to the couch, and retreated with my wife to the master bedroom.

"Don't do this," she advised, soon as the door was closed, "Even if you somehow get people to believe it and it works, it's an invitation for everyone else to sue for ruining their weather."

"The reason I love women with brains is they stop you from making stupid mistakes, even if you miss the obvious pit gaping in front of you."

"Good that you figured it out, too. The reason I love men with brains is they don't fight the obvious."
"Allow me to let them down gently?"

"That will allow you to accept them as clients for something else, so it's only good sense." She opened the door, I gestured for her to precede me.

Moving The Pieces is the fourth and final novel of Preparations for War. The Calmenan Advancement Mission has enabled the natives to largely throw off their fractal demon overlords, and live in city-states which ally with each other for common protection. Technology is mostly mid-twentieth century, but time has run out - the fractal demons have mobilized to attack the Empire of Humanity, and the seven Gates mean Calmena is a strategic stop on their route.

*******


The jungle in this part of Karnel Peninsula was two levels of canopy. I found myself in a densely shaded area between tree trunks, but smaller vegetation was more sparse than you'd probably expect. The level of light was about equal to having thick curtains over your windows in the middle of the day. It was light enough to know the sun was out, but less than if you'd turned on an ordinary room light, and it was all filtered through vegetation that was slightly yellower than Earth's. Tree leaves overhead, vines, and bugs. Anything bigger had learned to flee humans and demons or gone extinct. Bushes were rare on the jungle floor; the trees blocked too much of the light. It was almost silent; there were no bird analogs on Calmena.

After shrugging out of my parachute, the first order of business was finding Makis, so I headed northwest. He didn't take long to find, although his parachute had caught a tree branch and he was hanging about ten paces up - high enough that just cutting himself loose would result in major injury if not death. He'd started rocking to swing himself back and forth, trying to bring a tree within his grasp. He'd been lucky his parachute hadn't ripped and that the branch he'd caught on poked out far enough so he hadn't been thrown into the tree trunk on impact.

"Makis!"

"Be down in a minute, boss!"

"Not intact you won't. That trunk is too big to get your arms around and if your parachute rips, you'll fall the whole distance. Wait a minute and let me think about this."

He stopped pumping the swinging motion he'd built up, "Don't take too long, boss. The parachute's going to rip sometime."

He was right. My options were limited: I could climb the tree somehow - or make it appear I had by going up the far side and using matris. He knew I was what Calmenans called agaani - gifted - and the local operants were reasonably proficient with that part of matris, but once again he'd expect it to exhaust me. I could tell him to cut himself loose and 'catch' him enough to break his fall. Or I could do what I did.

It was a dirty trick. I ripped his chute myself using matris, but limited how fast I allowed him to fall by pulling upwards on the cords - exactly as if the parachute itself was only ripping slowly. "Ahhhh!..." his panicked cry rang out through the jungle, while the fabric-ripping noise of the parachute was barely audible under it. But it brought him down at a controllable speed into the trunk of the tree and then scraping against the rough bark the rest of the way down, and it didn't require me to pretend to be exhausted because he had no way of knowing I'd used matris.

He ended up sitting in the mud at the base of the tree, parachute cords taut above him to where the remains of the 'chute were still hanging above. His clothes were ripped, he was scraped and bloody and probably had enough splinters to make a good-sized sapling, but he was essentially intact. "You done thinking about it, boss?"

"Yes," I said, deadpan. "Let's get you cleaned up and get out of here. Not necessarily in that order."

He stood up, wobbly, visibly surprised his legs held his weight. "Guess I got lucky." He wriggled out of the harness.

"That you did. You able to walk? The demons behind us aren't going to waste any time."

"You know how to motivate a man. What about the others?"

"If they can't stay ahead of the demons, the two of us aren't going to make a difference." The reality of the war between human and demon on Calmena was harsh, but irrefutable. There was no sense adding a couple more people to the demons' pantry. "Asina knows where we are. If we can get to the road, she'll have a vehicle for us as soon as it can get here." At that point we might be able to run away if we encountered a cohort of manesi, and it wouldn't be suicidal to go back.

"Boss, how did you get out of the plane?"

Setting The Board is third of the four book series. The Calmenan Advancement Mission has enabled the natives to largely throw off their fractal demon overlords, and live in city-states which ally with each other for common protection. Technology is mostly late nineteenth century, edging into the early twentieth.

*******


We were pleasantly full when we took the Portal to Tabbraz, which was a good thing. Food on Hashiboor Continent wasn't a sure thing yet. We had a few bars of Life in our small packs in case it became an issue on the voyage to Yalskarr. Between the safe house in Tabbraz and our new station, we'd be the same as any other passengers on board whatever ship we chose.

The blue sky seemed a little more purple than Earth, and the sunlight streamed a little more orange. It was about forty degrees Celsius, and saturation level humidity. The waterfront stank of excrement and various chemicals. All in all, mid-afternoon on a nice summer day in Tabbraz. Sailing vessels and steamers crowded the docks - it was part of our mission this time to advance the technology to marine diesels. We found a shipping agent to inquire about vessels heading to Yalskarr; the custom was two coppers to the clerks for leads. Ships for their part would register with all the agents because it brought them both cargo and passengers. Everybody came out ahead.

Our first lead was a three-master that would have been recognizable to those who sailed the clipper ships of the 19th century on Earth. The tall masts would be full of sails under weigh, and the hull was designed to cut through the water, outspeeding any steamer. There was something about a sailing vessel catching the wind that spoke to the poet in all of us. This pseudo-clipper and its kind were doomed, but while they lasted they were among the most beautiful of any oceangoing vessels ever made. "Who do I speak to about passage?" Asina inquired of one of the sailors grooming its sides.

"The Captain," he pointed us to a weather beaten man in late middle age - probably early forties, Earth reckoning. This was a working vessel - the Captain was known to his crew. Beautiful uniforms were for passenger liners and the military. His garb was the adapted cotton we'd had engineered to pass for a native plant on Calmena, new and scarce enough that it was the sign of someone prosperous enough to afford it. Nonetheless, his clothes had seen as much hard use as his body. Officers on a working commercial vessel were not gentleman overseers.

"My husband and I would like passage to Yalskarr, Captain."

"Passenger or working?" he asked.

"No objections to working passage," I replied, "I've several years at Windhome Bay as a builder, and my wife as well." I gestured to her clothes. The three small huts we'd built so long ago were now the greatest shipyards on the planet, and those willing to work were well paid for their exertions. The revolution we were going to unleash at Yalskarr would change shipbuilding, but Windhome Bay would still be one of the biggest builders on the planet.

"You're what - Five eights? Five eights and four?" The captain was expressing skepticism in the form of telling me we weren't old enough. The younger age was about sixteen Earth years.

"We're agaani. I'm sixty-four, eight, and three," Asina replied. The operants of Calmena weren't up the standards of Guardians, but they'd been making progress in learning how to handle not only aging, but the wear and tear of hard environments and brutal work. "But we can pay if you need passage money more than crew." She batted her blue eyes at the Captain. It wouldn't go anywhere, but it was still a useful negotiating trick. She turned heads on Earth, where anyone could look young and attractive.

"Three gold each for passage."

"My husband said we worked at Windhome Bay, not that we owned the Yards. Two for the pair of us."

"Two and four each."

"You going to feed us like the Lords of Yarvahs, and give us a palatial cabin? We were looking for common passage. Two and four for the pair of us, and we eat with the crew."

"Two each. You'll displace cargo I can charge for."

Both of us laughed at that, "Not on any ship I've ever seen. You lash it down, and crew and common passengers find sleeping places around it. Two and four, and we eat with the crew."

"Three for the pair. If you're agaani, you'll eat like four crew each."

It was a fact that operants ate more than natural state humans - energy is never free. "With the slop you feed your crew, we'll get worms. Two and six, if your crew can vouch that the food isn't infested. You'll still profit like a water merchant at the Crossroads."

"Agreed. Two and six. Welcome to the Shimarr. We sail at first light."

It was a lot for what shouldn't be any more than a three day passage, but the fleet sailing vessels like Shimarr would be two days faster than the steamships. At this latitude, the prevailing winds blew out of the southeast. Shimarr should be sailing within a few (Earth) degrees of straight downwind to Yalskarr, and we wouldn't have to worry about food for the voyage. If what he fed the crew was too bad, we could eat Life if we had to. Asina checked in with Tellea, We have passage on a vessel named the Shimarr, out of Yalskarr. She's a fast sailer, should be there in three days. I checked in with Staff Private O'Hare, who Sephia had assigned as our contact, with the same message.

Then, we waited. There wasn't much else we could do. We could have wandered around Tabbraz - as Guardians, we'd have been safe enough from the locals, but trouble might have caused us to miss our ship. At least we didn't have a need to go into the city to buy food for our voyage - we were eating with the crew. We found an area between crates in the hold, spread our sleeping mat, and curled up together, Asina a pleasant warmth on my left side as well as a welcoming presence in my mind.


Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

The forges of N'yeschlass began their beat at dawn, every day without fail. Things had changed since we began.

The town had never been officially named. The name had grown from the unofficial motto of what my wife and I and the original group of refugees cowering in the jungle had begun not quite twenty Imperial years ago. The demonic tongue of Calmena had no word for freedom. N'yeschlass translated literally as "no slaves." It was a promise to all - come to us and be free. It didn't appeal to everyone, as it included freedom to fail and freedom to starve, but those were simply the terms of life everywhere on Calmena. In the portions run by the fractal demons, slaves were eaten when they began to show signs of aging. Where the pseudo-feudal human agaani held sway, grinding poverty and recurrent famines were almost as brutal. Only in N'yeschlass and its confederated territory was there a significant chance of a human being alive on what an Earther like me would consider their fiftieth birthday.

I still worked my smithy a couple hours per day. It had seen upgrades since the day we'd built it - it was probably the equal of a mid-19th century forge on Earth now. But these days, the metal was mined out of the Collision Range and I didn't have to pretend to cart it in while pulling most of it out of a converter. We still had the secret room with all the technological conveniences underneath our forge, but these days I bought all of the metal I used. I might create the gold and silver I used to buy it out of the converter, but the metal I actually worked was honestly mined by miners who were part of our new nation. N'yeschlass the nation held better than a third of Wimarglr, the North America sized continent we'd called Continent One when we discovered Calmena, including most of the Collision Range.

There were probably twentyfive square people in N'yeschlass the city these days. After better than twenty years of thinking alternatively in demonic and Imperial systems, the former for everyday interactions with Calmenans and the latter for reports and planning to our Imperial sponsors, the decimal system and all the other standards of measurement I'd grown up with on Earth was almost alien to me now. 90,000 was a fair number of people for a city to have with this level of technology, and N'yeschlass the nation probably had four or five cities that were bigger now. N'yeschlass the city was the gateway to the mining regions in the Collision Range, a name that had stuck when I'd used it inadvertently in conversation with a Calmena native. "Collision" didn't mean anything in demonic; they just thought it was a good name. Probably half the place names on Earth came from circumstances not too different.

N'yeschlass the city had a very European feel to it. I don't mean the architecture was similar, it wasn't. That looked like nothing in my experience. By any reasonable definition, construction here was mostly wooden squalor. But the streets had grown organically rather than planned. Asina and I still owned a good bit of land, but these days most of it was in use. I spent more time managing others than working metal myself. The city was where more metal was smelted than anywhere else on Calmena. Iron, nickel, copper, tin, lead and even small amounts of aluminum and others. N'yeschlass' metallurgy was probably late eighteenth century equivalent on average. Not bad. Asina and I owned a good bit of the production, and had shown everyone else how to do it.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Win a Fabulous Prize!

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(Well, a verified purchase amazon review, as well as posting it on my author blog and social media)

Noticed my TBR stack list is getting low. Hoping to find a new author worth following, because so much of what is out there could have been written by a bot with a cookie cutter.

So my proposed solution is this: Submit a link to a published work (Doesn't have to be yours, but Indie authors are specifically encouraged to post theirs). You may post ONE of your stories and ONE of someone else's (If I like it, I'll buy more). You may post additional details along with the book link if you so desire. Standalones or first book in a series, please. I am willing to consider short story collections, but not serializations.

Genre: Science Fiction or Fantasy, any subgenre EXCEPT erotica.

The bar you have to clear: Convince me this is a story I want to read. Some sub-genres will be harder than others. I don't mind sex, but prefer no explicit description of the action, and if sex is the point of the story, I'm not interested. Foul language is okay, but if curse words are more than a small percentage of your writing, I'm going to lose interest fast. Covers don't sell me, but they can push me away. Your writing and quality control is more important. I generally read the blurb, followed by (if available) the first page or so of the preview, and make my decisions off that.

Good characters are a definite plus, but what is an absolute necessity is a plot that engages my interest. What I'm really looking for is interesting new ideas and new takes on old ones. Be internally consistent - live within the constraints you set yourself and the characters. Flavor Of The Month type books are going to find it harder to attract my interest.

Caveats: My schedule is irregular - I'll likely buy right away if I do, but I'm not going to promise a time frame for the reviews. I give honest reviews only. If I have your contact information, I'll (usually) give you the option of not posting it. But I also try to make my feedback useful, something you can use for improvement as well as something prospective readers can use to help them make a decision.

Calmena (Epsilon Indi A II) is a planet filled with humans descended from the Imperial 'Lost Colony' of Earth (Sol III). The Fractal Demons discovered Earth in its barbarous Stone Age state, and decided to see if they could domesticate humans. The experiment was not a success. There were a few lines or families that responded well to comparatively good treatment, but the demons' own nature worked against them. Furthermore, the 'special' families' own efforts were bent more towards preserving their own relatively privileged status than actually improving their capabilities or performance, and they never amounted to serious competition with their Imperial peers. The rest of the descendants of abducted humans were servants, slave laborers, and eventually, food.

The demonic society itself is built around a caste system, with a descending order of precedence and power enforced by genetic programming, as Fractal Demons are an ancient race - at least a billion Earth years old in their present form. They conduct bloody wars between each other and their minions, as well as more subtle means of each advancing their own interests. The lower castes breed prodigiously, the noble castes somewhat less so but their descendants also struggle with each other over over positions of power, as well as cooperating - grudgingly - in conquering or destroying other developing races. This was the point of their contact with the Empire of Humanity.

Lost Colonies led the demons to the Empire. The Empire was in a vulnerable stage. It had recently expanded the option of activating the mind powers originally bred thousands of years earlier at hideous cost in defectives. Despite long generations, the DNA for those powers were present in all but a tiny splinter of the Imperial population, and there was demand for expanding the pool of operants beyond those who were born operant or became operant later through natural means. From less than a twentieth of the Imperial population being operant, the majority of new births were technologically activated, while the number of new births also increased as prospective parents were apprehensive the option might be removed in the future.

Unfortunately, power corrupts, and the Empire had insufficient numbers of adult operants to teach the new generation about the constraints upon their power. The Fractal Demons found the new 'ston' operants fertile ground for their seduction. Revolt followed, and its success was followed by a series of conflicts between the victors that left the former Empire with roughly a three thousand to one population crash, accompanied by an inability to maintain its former technological base. No former Imperial planet managed to keep as much as half its former population levels, and every single one of the major habitats was functionally destroyed. When the survivors of the old Imperial hierarchy declared themselves, the Empire was essentially re-established within twenty years, and had no significant human-based competitors within another twenty. But they realized the role the Fractal Demons had played in the chaos of the Revolt and Interregnum.

Against this background, the Empire 'discovered' Earth and soon after, Calmena. Calmena, with its Gates was a particularly useful tool to them to trace the Fractal Demons back to their own habitats in preparation for a future war with the demons that was all but certain, and a small base was established in a remote area of Calmena to support those efforts.

Left to their own devices, some of the Calmena humans had managed to escape demonic captivity. Some, led by the operant agaani ('gifted' in Demonic, the only language the Calmenans had left) established fortress-towns capable of withstanding local demonic attempts to re-subjugate them. Others became primitive hunter-gatherers in small communities and as individuals, scratching a meager living but free from the domination or either the demons or agaani.

Into this situation, an Imperial charity is organized led by a man named Folsogon with the goal of teaching the natives to advance their own capabilities, with the idea that a more capable native population means difficulties for the demons. The constraint put upon them is that the new technology must be in believable increments for the natives to have done it themselves.

The major continuing characters are:

Joseph Bernard ("Joe") an Earth human, discovers Calmena inadvertently during Earth's first expeditions beyond its own solar system in hopes of finding colonization or terraform-able worlds.

Asina - a native woman 'rescued' by Joe during his initial mis-adventure upon the surface of Calmena. She began life as a 'breeder' in an agaani fortress-town.

Sephia- An Imperial officer in the Planetary Surface Garrison on Calmena, a veteran of the Reunification of the Empire nearly three thousand years previous who re-enters the Imperial forces.

Folsogon- never comes on camera but the man who administers the charity funding Joe and Asina's activities upon Calmena.

Preparations for War is a complete series of four books, Preparing The Ground, Building The People, Setting The Board, and Moving The Pieces. It is available from Amazon here and from all the Books2Read retailers (B&N, Apple, Kobo, etcetera, including two library services) here

Julie's call was to her firm for both of us, which meant I could use mine to call RaDonna, but she didn't answer. I left a message about what had happened and what little I knew, asked her to apologize to anyone who came to the office, and to relay instructions for John which did not include him talking to clients in case I was here longer than tomorrow morning.

After the phone call, they tried pushing me into an interrogation room without waiting for the lawyer to arrive. Ramirez began, "What was your connection to Richard Shreder?"

I'd met an actor by that SAG name, but he wasn't a client and I didn't even know if that was his real name. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."

"What was your connection to Katherine Shreder?"

No idea, other than I presumed some relationship with the first name. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."

"What was your connection to Jeremiah Cartwright, a.k.a. Marcus White?"

Again, no idea. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."
"What was your connection to Jennifer Steldan?"

Isis. A small amount of light cracked through the window of understanding. "On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."

Ramirez must have seen some flicker in my face, "I knew it! You're in it up to your eyeballs!"

I sat there, silent.

"You and Ms. Ingmar were investigating the death of your ex-wife! There was a name - 'Osiris' - that your ex-wife's doctor blurted out as she died."

"On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present."

"If you come clean, things will go much easier for you!"

"On the advice of counsel, I decline to answer any questions without my attorney present." I wasn't stupid enough to do Ramirez' job for him. Besides, the image of Ramirez trying to think was hilarious - I didn't think he had it in him. I let the smile show.

"We'll see who's smiling when all this is done, you smug son of a bitch!" He drew back as if to hit me.
I smiled wider. Recordings don't care who they hang, and I was sure the cameras were going. Handcuffed and under arrest, and I was still a better salesman than this nitwit.

He was too mad to care. He punched me in the mouth.

They don't tell you how much that hurts when you have no way to soften the blow. I don't think he knocked out any teeth, but my mouth was suddenly bloody, too. Now I had him for sure. Maybe he was used to getting away with it for average citizens - but I wasn't an average citizen. I'd be doing the public a favor by forcing his removal from the police.

I think he suddenly realized how much trouble he'd just put himself into. But before he could do anything else, in walked a middle-aged man in a suit as good as mine had been before Ramirez started roughing me up. If I had to guess, I'd say his ancestry was mostly black. "How nice of you to observe the Miranda proprieties, Detective," he began, "I see that you have been abusing my client physically, too. If I were in your shoes, I would want to make certain that recording does not go astray, or I will make a jury believe the very worst. Do not make things any harder on yourself than they have to be." Turning to me, "Mister Jackson, I am George Stuart from Morris Silver and Associates. I understand Julie Ingmar is your regular lawyer but she's under arrest as well." His speech was absolutely clear, correct, and careful. I knew successful actors who couldn't have been so precise in their pronunciation.

"Your understanding is correct, sir." My words were a little off - my mouth was sore and aching already, "Have you checked in on her yet?"

"You are the priority right now. Ms. Ingmar is a lawyer and understands what she should and should not do. I require a moment with my client, Detective. Out in the hall away from your recording." He didn't ask, he simply gave me a hand up and walked me out.

"Do you have any idea what this is about?" he asked.

"I recognized one of the names he mentioned. Assuming it's the same person, of course. I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Julie: I'm not stupid enough to jack around my own attorney. If it's what I think it's about, I was there but they accidentally did it to themselves. Nor would I believe what happened if I hadn't been there and seen it with my own eyes. But it would take too long to explain, and you'd probably think I'm crazy until Julie told you the same thing, and then you'd be thinking it's some sort of shared delusion. I will explain it all to you, but at the moment I'm not even sure what they're fishing for."

"I believe that will be enough for me to function effectively for the moment," he replied, and opened the door back into the interrogation room. He gestured for me to sit, so I did. "I believe this has gone far enough," he began, "My client is under arrest for murder, but he has not yet been informed of the identity of the alleged victim. Who was allegedly murdered?"

"We have a couple hundred mummified human bodies," Ramirez said, "And about fifty were still holding the plastic water bottles with either Mister Jackson's or Miz Ingmar's prints on them. There are also several thermal blankets with the same prints. We're still in the process of identifying all of the remains, but the water traces to a grocery outlet where there are recordings of Mister Jackson and Miz Ingmar purchasing said supplies."

"So you are claiming my clients murdered two hundred people then mummified them and issued their corpses water bottles and thermal blankets?"

"Jim Jones gave his people poisoned Kool-Aid."

"Have you analyzed the remnants in said water bottles to determine if there was anything toxic therein?"

"The lab hasn't found anything yet," Ramirez admitted.

"Then it seems far more likely to me that my clients were somehow rendering the best assistance they could under the circumstances."

"Then why didn't they call for help?"

"That may be a question you want to pursue, Detective, but it is your job to discover the answer. Nobody is obliged to deliver it to you gift-wrapped."

"I still want Mister Jackson to answer the question!"

Mr. Stuart turned to me with a gesture that he was passing the question on to me, but I figured out what I was supposed to do, "For the moment, I must plead the Fifth Amendment pending a private consultation with my attorney."

"So you're admitting guilt!"

Mister Stuart took over again, "Not at all, Detective. You know better than that. Mister Jackson requires expert consultation to understand the legal ramifications of what he may have done. There are any number of possible issues. For instance, is he liable to the heirs for the limits of the aid he rendered to the deceased, or for the fact he was unable to prevent their deaths? Perhaps he is concerned that he violated a parking ordinance, or even committed a moving violation in attempting to aid the deceased. He is limited in his understanding of such laws."

"You and I both know bullshit when we hear it, counselor."

"Perhaps you believe yourself unlimited in your ability to perceive truth, Detective, but I have lived enough to have seen the limitations of my vision. You may compare the evidence you gather and then re-evaluate it in the light of known events. My clients are in no way obligated to assist you in fabricating a fiction that results in their criminal convictions."

"I suppose we're done here, then."

"I require a few more moments with my client, Detective. In the corridor, unrecorded."

Once outside in the corridor, "I do not have to know what happened, Mister Jackson, but I hope for your sake you have a coherent explanation because police laboratories are getting better every year at exposing weaknesses and inconsistencies in testimony."

"I'll tell you everything that happened if you want, Mr. Stuart, but it's pretty fantastic. I'm still having a hard time believing it and I was there, and it will likely take a couple hours. We didn't kill those people."

"What did kill those people?"

"A mistake their leader made. It might not have been intentional, but it caused the deaths of everyone who drank from their communal pot."

"Are you saying they accidentally poisoned themselves? If so, what should we have the lab look for?"

"The pot was cooking, but there was human blood in it to my certain knowledge. Other than that, I don't know what was in it."

"Then how do you know there was something toxic?"

"I was told."

"Hearsay evidence. By who? One of the participants?"

"No. That's part of the story I'm having trouble believing myself." Looking around, "As I said, it's going to take a while, and I don't think this is the best place or time. As far as I know, they're still interrogating Julie."

"You have a point. It will be morning at least before bail will be set, so you are going to spend the night here in jail. Try not to arouse any of the other inmates. If necessary, pretend to be some ordinary person picked up for an unremarkable offense like traffic tickets. Do not call attention to yourself and do not tell any of your fellow inmates anything of your real predicament. Many of them will willingly inform on you, and given the nature of this case, the police will make a special effort to recruit informers. Understood?"

"Understood."

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

We'd found a twin to Earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I don't think that's a good idea," said Jayden, "We're not equipped to deal with anything there may be in the atmosphere. Allergens, bacteria, viruses - any number of things could be deadly to us. Let the Empire make first contact. They can bring ships with multiple airlocks, isolation wards, and operant healers."

"Let's get a closer look! At least see if they're human or only humanoid!" Nobody argued - there wasn't any reason to argue with a closer look. "Mister Smith," he addressed Jayden, "How close do we need to be to determine if they're human?"

"Can't tell absolutely without a genetic makeup. But to make a preliminary judgment by appearance, the cameras could certainly tell us at two miles or so."

"Major Kyle, take us down to ten thousand feet. Minimal noise, please." Unlike the space shuttles we looked like, Imperial ships were whisper quiet. We weren't at the mercy of atmospheric braking, so we could be as quiet as we wanted. Actually, the translation overlays were metric, but 3000 meters was close enough.
"One zero thousand, minimal noise, roger." The pilot's response was deadpan, "Where do you want us?"

"Bring us in from the west end of this peninsula." The peninsula in question was a western projection from towards the northerly end of continent two. Think Cornwall, that finger of southernmost Britain that points west towards the New World, attached instead to the continental mainland a little further north. It was late afternoon in the area, so I had to admit that it was a pretty good choice, even if it was "John Full-up" making it. We could hide in the setting sun, and as quiet as we were, nobody should see us.

It took close to half an hour to actually perform the maneuver. If you don't mind scattering sonic booms everywhere, an Imperial ship can get down from orbit in just a couple minutes, but we were trying to sneak in and not be noticed. Major Kyle did a wonderful job, bringing us down over the ocean to the west, then bringing us towards land at about ten percent under the local speed of sound, slowing as we approached landfall. There was a fair-sized town on the southern side of the peninsula, maybe thirty kilometers up from the tip, with what looked like a castle right out of Earth's history. Oh, there were little curlicues of difference, but the basic idea was defending a particular point and projecting power on the territory around it. Given a certain range of technological capability, the idea of a castle made so much sense it was practically inevitable. It was surprisingly small, too. I'll bet that an anthropologist could have told all kinds of things about the inhabitants and their environment from the construction of the castle and the town, but none of us had that training.

As we approached the town, Jayden announced, "They're human. I'm as certain as I can be without running a gene scan." He brought up pictures of the inhabitants. The ones who hadn't been disfigured by something or another wouldn't have looked out of the ordinary on the streets of Southern California. Or many other places on Earth. Well, except for the fact that most of them were emaciated wretches. Most of them were lighter-skinned than me, although a lot more weathered. We didn't have a definite scale to judge by, but they looked shorter than most people I knew. Then I realized I was being an idiot, and had the computer superimpose a scale, and was proven right. Most of them were under a hundred seventy centimeters - roughly five feet seven. Their clothes had a very rough look to them, and animal hides were a large proportion of what they wore. Streets were dirt, or, to be technically accurate, mostly mud. It looked like most people lived in tiny one room thatch or plain, unpainted wood dwellings, probably with dirt floors. You could see that the doors were ill-fitting, and I saw no glass in any windows. Indeed, there weren't many windows, and I'd hate to try and do anything constructive inside one of those buildings. I didn't realize it until later, but I wasn't seeing chimneys, either.

"Okay, I think we can take it as given that these people don't have anything worth trading for," I said.

Then everyone on the ground turned to face us, almost all at once. Looking back now, I see how eerie that was in my mind's eye, but at that moment, it felt both right and normal. "No point in hiding, they've seen us," I remember Mr. Dulles saying. In retrospect, that ranks at the top of dumbest things I've ever heard him say, and that is saying something, but just then it seemed reasonable and rational. Major Kyle set us down just outside of town, and popped the hatch. After seventy-odd hours in a tin can, we didn't exactly smell of roses, but an odor you have to smell to understand immediately assaulted our sense of smell. We ignored it as John Dulles led us all out the hatch. Fool that I was, I followed him.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All RIghts Reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How bad is it?"

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

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

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

"A jealous boss?"

"Very."

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

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

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

"Is that good?"

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

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

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

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

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

"You know her better than I do."

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

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

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

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

"Point. Just regular traffic probably has plenty of people, at least if he can get them out of their vehicles."

"There's no point in freaking out over every possibility. We need something that can prevent it, or break up a mob if it happens."

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

"What do you mean?"

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

"Good question. Answer it and we'll have something to fight him with." She stopped a moment and asked, "How did we get into this?"

"A favor for a friend, and trying to help some people," I reminded her.

"Let's hope they're feeling grateful, because we're going to need help if the Mad God took it personally."
"Seems to me the question of whether he took it personally has been answered."

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Another operant was waiting for us, a woman in a uniform like none I had seen before. It was Imperial forces field uniform, but with a large white tabard over each shoulder, like enlarged epaulets, as if she were staff, only more so. On each, an insignia of rank the size of my hand was emblazoned, about four times the normal size. It was a private's circle of rank, split by a horizontal white line. Below the line was purple, as in a Senior Private, above was green, as if for a Team Private. "This is Instructor Jereya," Ugatu told us, "She will take you to your barracks and your training units." Then without further ado, he headed back for the cutter.

"This way," the woman said, moving us quickly behind a safety line. As soon as we were all over the line, the cutter was off in a trailing vortex of wind, no sign of its presence remaining. "We're going to start with military discipline now. You jondats will keep step and interval as you follow me. You're all operant, so there's no excuse for violating a ninety isixths interval or getting out of step." The distance was just shy of one Earth meter, a little over three feet. "Each pace is seventy-five isixths, always step off with your left foot. First Step is four paces per second, Third Step is six." Eighty-two Earth centimeters, roughly thirty-two inches per step. Imperial seconds were 1.7 Earth, so first step was about 140 paces per Earth minute - a brisk walk - while third step would be 210 or so, a moderate trot about equal to what we'd done with Ugatu. "Third Step, march! Left-right-left!" she called the pace for three steps, by which time everyone was with it and she ignored it thereafter.

She yelled over her shoulder as she moved. "I am Instructor Jereya! Instructors are specialists, utilized at need to help instruct you pathetic losers in hopes of achieving a marginal competence. We are technically civilians, but unlike Staff, Instructors and Leaders are in your chain of command until you are promoted to Trained Private! All recruits are to treat Instructors as superior to Senior Privates, subordinate to Team Privates! Similarly, Leaders are superior to Team Privates, subordinate to Squad Privates! You will have one Leader to a squad, learn your current Section Leader and otherwise let the Leaders sort out who's a Section Leader! There is one active duty Section Private assigned to command each platoon; they will have final say in all matters having to do with your training. You must have your squad Leader's permission before initiating contact above that squad Leader."

Jereya took absolutely no notice of the impending storm. I didn't believe for a moment she hadn't noticed, but she didn't show that she had. We trotted past several boomerang-shaped assault cruisers and empty, recessed berths in the white pavement intended to hold others as large raindrops started splattering on the pavement and on us. Within minutes, it had become solid rain with occasional sheets, and we were all soaked. She trotted on, apparently oblivious, as the wind began driving the rain into our right side. After perhaps fifteen minutes, we came to a portal, which she programmed and led us through.

We emerged into the middle of a multistory building, kind of an atrium without glass. The light was artificial. Around us, snowflake-like, six wings of barracks in six levels. "This is Operant Training Barracks Two, your new home! Each bay holds one section in three squad rooms! The squads I am now assigning you to will be your place here until you are otherwise notified! The assignments have been made at company level and are not subject to appeal! Your squad leader has been apprised of your joining their squad and has your records! Your first assignment will be to stow your gear, change your wet disgusting clothes and report to your squad Leader! Move"

My datalink informed me I was being assigned to Third Squad, Third Section, Fourth Platoon, First Troop. What that meant was I was in Bay Six on what Americans like myself would describe as the fifth floor. When I informed Asto of that, he said he was in Second Squad, First Section of the same Platoon, in Bay Four of the same floor. Well, it could have been worse. We'd known they wouldn't put us in the same squad, no matter what. At least he was only two bays over, when he might not have been in the same building or even at the same base. I saw a couple other recruits teleport up to their new assignments, and nobody called them on it, so I followed suit. I walked into Bay Six, found Third Squad's room, noted that one bunk of the sixteen bunk beds was empty, along with the corresponding footlocker. No sleep fields here. I used perception to check my bunkmate's use of her locker, peeled my wet field uniform off along with the underclothes, dressed in another outfit, identical to the first. My civilian clothes went under the stack of neatly folded clean uniforms on the right of my locker, then I went into the squad bathroom to wring out my soaked used set before depositing it on the left side of my locker. Perhaps eight people would be comfortable in that bathroom. Too bad it had to serve thirty-three. The squad room as a whole looked like it had all the privacy one could reasonably expect in building full of operants. Unless the double doors into the section bay were open, nobody could see in. Of course, being operants, everyone else around me had a sense of perception, too, and even if that had not been the case, there was absolutely no privacy from other members of your squad. I'd had a few years to get used to the fact that the Empire didn't segregate by sexes, or I might have been really taken aback. The only ripple from Asto at the notion was mild amusement at the fact I still wasn't completely acculturated on that point. It also looked like eating was permitted in barracks - there was a large, neatly stacked pile of Life bars, next to a similar, even larger pile of water cubes.

That accomplished, my datalink told me my squad was doing something called obstacle course three. Well, I'd seen army movies back home, so I thought I might have some idea of what that entailed, and silently damned Instructor Jereya for telling me to change out of one soaked uniform in order to promptly soak another. I escalatored myself down to the main floor by jumping over the railing and slowing my fall with matris. It seemed the fastest way down. The portal refused my request, so I took off out the front door of the barracks at a run, headed for where my datalink told me my squad and its Leader were. I teleported twice when I could see far enough to make it worth my while. Even so, it took a good five minutes - about eight and a half Earth - to get to where I was going, by which time I was soaked again.

Copyright 2014 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

 



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