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We landed and the pilot popped the forward hatch. We thanked the pilot on the way out. Once on the tarmac, we accessed the base computer. As expected, now that our contract had expired the only access we had was what any Imperial citizen would have had. Which also meant we weren't authorized quarters even in transit. Our choice was outrageously expensive tourist accommodations on Santa Cruz Island, the same thing down by Pellew Base, or housing somewhere off the Imperial reservations. So we took a portal to Channel Islands Base then from there to the Port of Long Beach, where US Customs was located. At least this time there was no difficulty getting Asina into the country. Once through customs and immigration, we contacted my mother.

It was early morning in California, and the June Gloom hung overhead like usual, a low gray overcast that would burn off late morning. I used to hate it, but now I realized it helped keep the days from getting too hot. Otherwise coastal Southern California would have had as many hundred degree days as Arizona. Mom was in her new office, which I'd forgotten all about. "There's a portal here in Pendleton Free Zone, dear," she told me, "Just use it and you can walk over." We'd still be stuck without a vehicle, but the Pendleton Free Zone occupied all of the old Marine base and what used to be the naval weapons center as well. We stopped only to buy datalink access to Earth's internet for a month, then took another portal. We discovered upon arrival that development was starting at the boundary with San Clemente and moving slowly south. Perhaps there was a DMV in San Clemente we could get to and I'd be able to renew my Driver's License.

Stepping through the portal, we saw the narrow strip between the coast and the high rolling hills to the east had three spires on square bases, obviously Imperial construction. They looked like they were maybe three ifourths on a side by maybe twenty high. After all of this time thinking in Imperial or demonic units, I found it hard to stop. Between them, well-watered grass rolled and fountains gurgled. Amazingly enough, the hills above them were greener than I remembered. Perhaps with the Marines gone and other humans not stressing the water table, the area was returning to something more closely resembling its state when the Europeans arrived. The commercial landscaping would be fed either out of purified sea water or by water out of a converter, so it wouldn't be taking from the water table.

According to the maps, the San Clemente DMV was about two ithirds, and that was on the roads we could walk. We checked in with Mom in her new office overlooking the Pacific. She was only on the sixteenth level, but she didn't need a top floor view nor the bill that presumably came with it. Truth be told, I wasn't certain why she'd moved the Earth Dogs office here, but it wasn't my business, either. She was busy with something, so we waved that we'd be back, and walked the three miles to DMV. It was a pleasant, cool morning. We weren't on the beach, but we were close enough to get the breeze from the ocean as we walked.

We discussed our proposal for our next contract as we walked. No matter how we sliced it, the support was not there for intercontinental trade on Calmena. N'yeschlass the nation was the only area on the planet where there was enough excess for significant trade. Everywhere else was trying not to starve to death and intermittently failing. Even the demon-held areas were short on supplies - not to mention that the only things a human trader could accomplish there would be giving the demons both supplies and dinner. Maybe once a few other groups started improving the situation on the other continents, but for now, any thought of oceangoing vessels like Earth had had by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was doomed to failure.

On the other hand, we believed that there was plenty of opportunity on the coasts of Wimarglr and its offshore islands. Cogs and later carracks to carry the cargo along the coasts and short distances up some of the calmer rivers, perhaps galleys or Viking longboats for the river trade, although I didn't want to introduce anything that would encourage slavery as galleys perhaps would. Yes, steam power was within our reach, but the metal for a steam engine was expensive even by N'yeschlass standards, while sails were cheap. Modern triangular sails and other rigs might enhance the usefulness of sails. We ran through the search results, and contacted a yacht designer to see if we could get more ideas to try. Thanks to our datalinks, the proposal was mostly written before we got to DMV.

Mr. Namibi, the yacht designer turned out to be one of those people who love unusual questions. By the time we were done at DMV, he sent us back pictures of spinnakers to enhance downwind performance and jibs and spankers and sail arrangements that would, in conjunction with a keel, allow sailing to within less than thirty (Earth) degrees of head-on to the wind. It might be even better on Calmena as the sea level atmosphere was about three sixtieths more dense than Earth (I told you it was hard to stop thinking in Imperial terms). He didn't even charge us. We finished the proposal by the time we were back at Mom's office.

There I noticed that my mother had taken my advice seriously enough to arm herself. Just a little disruptor, same as I'd carried myself on Tia Grace's advice. That advice had enabled us to escape being captured on Calmena the first time. These days I carried considerably more firepower, but a disruptor would give her a fighting chance if the demons did make the jump to Earth. I was glad she'd gotten it, but I didn't say anything. Earth humans are still uncomfortable with perception.

"So when am I going to get to hold my grandson?" The first words out of Mom's mouth were precisely what you'd expect from a Mexican mother. To be fair, we had been married fourteen Earth years. To her point of view, it was even more urgent because we already had a son in stasis, waiting for us to have time to raise him.

This had to be my battle alone. Asina was still on eggshells with Mom. They'd gotten off to a rocky start, and we'd had precisely one short visit in all the time we'd been married. "Mom, we've already submitted another proposal for a contract on Calmena. If we don't get it, fine. Otherwise, we're going back and it's not going to be a good place to raise children."

"I'm not getting any younger. I'd like to have grandchildren before I die."

"Mom, you have eight grandchildren already, and you're barely sixty. You have at least ten times that in front of you." Due to operant healers, even natural state humans lived hundreds of years if they took care of themselves. Nobody knew how long operants like Asina and I could last if we used the healing discipline correctly. There were living operants over 80,000 Earth years old, and the techniques and knowledge had massively improved. The last known operant death for natural causes was almost 120 Imperial years previous - and there were roughly twenty twelfths operants in the Empire.

"You never know how long you have. That's in the hands of God."

"Yes, Mom. We're going to do one more contract period if we can. After that, we'll discuss getting some sort of regular job for a while so we can raise some kids."

"I don't know why you can't get a job running cargo like your aunt did. It pays good money, too."

"It pays good money because Tia Grace has the money to post most of her cargo bond herself. Not only do we not have that, but neither one of us has Vector or Interstitial qualification. We're thinking about it, but training is expensive and wouldn't serve any purpose if we get our new contract. We're going to take a semi-vacation. I'm going to get my credential as a full Second Order Guardian, Asina's going to work on some technical subjects where she can't get hands on practice on Calmena." Well, not practice where we could afford mistakes, anyway. "We'll probably need to go to Indra to get all the teachers we need. And in a few months when we're done, we'll head back to Calmena for another contract."

"Alright, I'm sure you think you know what you're doing. But you know you've got a job here any time you want it."

"Thanks, Mom." Okay, that was intended to be a little bit double edged. "But we're making good money doing what we do, we're both moderately well off, and we're doing something we believe in that will make a difference to millions of lives. We've already made a difference to millions of lives, and we're looking to improve things at least that much again, planet-wide."

"You know this dog business won't last forever. Maybe another eighty to a hundred years before the market is saturated." She was talking Earth years.

"And this vacation plus the next contract will be fifteen of that," I replied, "If we need a job, it will be after our next contract period. Speaking of which, do you know any good investment managers? We've got three cubes we can put to work for us, and twenty points each." Renting out your service points to a civil contractor could be lucrative. Pretty much all the soldiers did it. Renting your points allowed contractors to bid contracts they otherwise might not have enough points to guarantee. You could lose them (which was the point of requiring them), but the income from twenty points would likely be another thirty or forty prime per year. Each. Not nearly what we were making for our labor, but you could live pretty decently on less, and there were generally penalty clauses for large monetary rewards if a contractor who rented them lost your points for failure to perform to standards. You could rent them out for more without the penalty clauses, of course, but that was a sucker's game.

Mom gave us the name of one investment manager, but it was an American firm. They might have been decent at managing the money; they wouldn't have the client base to manage the service points. We could go down into Mexico, or wait until we got to Indra. I sent Tia Grace a message asking if she had a recommendation on Indra; that's where she was based. It wouldn't go out until the shuttle run, and wouldn't be back until the one after that.

"How's Dad doing?" I figured she'd have news more recent than mine.

"He's still a Team Private, but he's hoping to get a promotion soon, or transfer to Space, probably Strategic Space. He's stationed at some place called Trune, out at the rim of First Galaxy. He's working a homecoming leave into his re-enlistment in a few months. Earth still only gets one class two run per week, which really means seventeen of our days with the time differential. That's fine for the dog business, but not when he's coming home on a short leave."

"Meneas still doing those in Earth and Indra? When's the next run?"

"Joey you just got here. You can't be leaving already!"

"If you tell me when it is, we might be persuaded to wait until the next one. When is it, Mom?"

"Six days."

"Sorry, but we can't afford to wait twentythree days, Mom. Six days is going to have to be enough!"
Asina interrupted me, Joe, she's your mother. You haven't seen her in twenty Imperial years. Enough with the tough guy act - we can wait until the second run. If she'll pay us to work the dog farm, that is, since I presume she wants you to spend time with family.

Okay, I told her, I just thought you wanted to get with Tellea sooner than that. Her biological daughter Tellea was now an almost adult young woman, and her adoptive parents were off in Second Galaxy. We hadn't been able to see her the entire time of our contract on Calmena - it would have been too dangerous to leave our home there unattended more than a few hours. We got regular messages to and from, but it wasn't the same thing. "Change of plans, Mom, looks like Asina is taking your side. We'll stay until the second shuttle run if you'll pay us for working the dog farm on the days we do." That Asina was taking her side wouldn't hurt Mom's opinion of Asina at all.

"I don't have any problem with that," she said. And since most of the family that was still on Earth worked in one or the other of her dog facilities on Earth, that gave her everything she wanted.

Preparing the Ground Amazon Link

As the capture buffer built up, I double-checked the mission briefing. The briefing file said that Ross 154 was a young star, less than a billion years old, but it hadn't been subjected to the same scrutiny as Barnard's Star because it wasn't the second closest star to Sol. Roughly nine and a half light-years from Earth, it was slightly bigger and more luminous (M3.5 as opposed to M4), but even dimmer as seen from Earth because of the additional distance. It was thought the habitable zone would be from roughly 9.75 million to 18.9 million kilometers, but I expected Will would search a good bit outside that, as he had at Barnard's. The potential deal killer was that it was a flare star, periodically sending out pulses of energy that could double or more its energy output. One recorded flare had been over a hundred thousand times the star's mean energy output. Any planets there were had likely been sterilized on at least one face more than once. On the plus side, if there was a usable planet in the right place, it would likely be completely empty and the Empire could deal with stellar flares.

It wasn't very long before Major Kyle slowed us down and took the time-jammer offline. "I'm sorry, but I'm fried. My mind is starting to wander off task, and you can't take your attention away for half a second without risking disaster." We were about two light-years out from Barnard's Star, roughly forty percent of the way.

"I can take over, Major," I volunteered.

Cabron had to stick his patronizing nose in. "I don't want to insult you, Joe, but this is kind of unique, and no Earth human has done this before. Major Kyle is at least trained for this level of concentration."
"Corporate said to trust him with any piloting he was willing to do," Major Kyle replied.

"No offense, but Joe is what, twenty-two? No degrees, no training, I'm not even certain why he's here."

Like I keep telling you, Dulles was a dumbass. He didn't even bother reading his crew dossiers.
I'd had enough of this nonsense. "Joe is here," I said, "Because unlike everyone else, Joe has actual Imperial qualifications at everything but Vector piloting. That and Joe can use the standard Imperial interface, which means Joe can respond quicker - I don't need the Earth units translation overlay."
Will knew, and Major Kyle. Jayden was beaming, "Right on!" and Dulles looked at me blankly, jaw wide open.

"You think they'd hire an engineer that didn't know anything? Didn't you read the dossier? Dude, they bought you the best available on Earth. The Dog Lady is my aunt, and she hired me as a cargo handler and made me learn everything I could. I've been studying this since a year before anyone else knew the Empire existed. I've got crew experience. I've only piloted time-jammer in simulation, but I've done everything else for real with those half-mile wide ships of hers." Indra and Earth were a little over 393 meters in radius - but the media called them 'half-mile'. They were the biggest ships making regular trips to Earth, though I'd seen much bigger ships on excursion to the Empire. The class two capital ships were spheres a 'mere' 2580 feet tall when grounded out there on Santa Cruz Island, the most important to the Channel Islands Imperial base. I'd also piloted cutters like Golden Hind and Starbirds a few times.
"And until today, simulation was all the time-jammer training I had," Kyle said, "Goddard told me Joe could probably do this mission all by himself, but the board wanted a full crew. Give it a year or so, and there will probably be others like him or even better, but for now, his family is the best Earth has. So get out of the way and let him work. Or wait until I've had another break."

Will chimed in, "Either way is okay with me. I want to get back to Xandra, but they're paying me good."
"Same with me," Kyle said, "I get paid based on mission duration. You getting profitability bonuses, Mr. Dulles?"

That decided him, but the look in his eye told everyone he'd be trying to get even. "Proceed, Mr. Bernard." I kept my mouth shut, and thought about the bonus for not taking over.

I turned off the Earth unit translation overlay on my panel, to demonstrate to Dulles that I knew what was going on. Imperial units, we were about four and a half years from Ross 154. I re-engaged the time-jammer, ran the field up to ten square (36,000). I monitored the far more numerous rocks we didn't need to dodge for a couple minutes Imperial, until I was comfortable I could react to oncoming debris in time, then doubled the speed to twenty square. Major Kyle hadn't had it past fifty thousand c, but once I had an actual dodge under my belt, about five minutes later, I raised it again to thirty square and left it there. That was in accordance with safety protocols developed back in the Empire. It was only another five minutes before it was time to start slowing down to approach Ross 154 (do the math if you don't believe me - 216,000 Imperial minutes to an Imperial year). It didn't take long, but Major Kyle hadn't been exaggerating. You don't know how hard it is not to allow your attention to wander at all until you can't. What may seem counterintuitive is that as long as you're within your reaction time, it's less draining to go faster so you don't have to do it for as long.

I dropped us out of light speed about two Imperial minutes from Ross 154 (the Empire measures distance in terms of the amount of time it takes for light to travel that distance). Imperial minutes are 102 Earth seconds, so we were about sixty-one million kilometers from the M3.5 star. In the solar system, that would be about the orbit of Mercury, but here we were way outside the potentially habitable zone. Class M stars are small by comparison with the sun, and don't put out nearly as much energy. This one had about a sixth of the mass of Sol and put out roughly four tenths of a percent of Sol's energy per second. As a consequence, it would still be burning ten billion years after Sol was gone.

"I'm picking up a sub-jovian at roughly sixty million kilometers. Mass about twelve times Earth - a little less than Uranus. Way too far out for moons to be habitable.... BINGO! We've got a rock, eighty-two percent of Earth mass, about thirteen million kilometers out. Lifeless, thin nitrogen-argon atmosphere, pressure about ten millibars. If I understand correctly, that's what the Empire calls a Category Red World - suitable orbit, lifeless but terraformable. Looks like it's not quite tidally locked yet. Re-spin it, set a big siphon and converter to generating an atmosphere..."

Jayden picked up the thread, "Add bottom level biologicals, give it a few years, and start going outside to sunbathe. Woo-hoo! We all just got our level one bonus!"

"Don't forget to put up a force screen against the flares," Will reminded him.

Jayden ran with it long enough to agree, "Yeah, wouldn't want people popping like popcorn."

"Why not? Just the thing for a hungry carnivore's midnight snack. Go out and pick off the nicely puffed people..."

"Does this carnivore want to be popped just like his prey?" Jayden could turn wet blanket fast when a joke had been carried too far in his opinion.

"I'm going to tap the time-jammer to bring us in close," I announced. I didn't wait for Dulles to say yes or no, but I kept it down to a few multiples of the speed of light for a couple of seconds, just close enough that by the time I'd brought us to rest with respect to the planet, we'd be a few thousand kilometers off. It was a dark brown on my outside display now, with occasional dark red fault lines where the continental plates came together. "Only five kilometers to mantle," Will said, "That's really thin crust pizza!" Now that we weren't superluminal, I had plenty of spare time to let my attention wander, so I checked the on-board library. According to the database, the Empire did have a process for such worlds, but the terse explanation might as well have been in cuneiform. I'd learned Technical, but that didn't mean I understood a hundred thousand years of science Earth didn't have.

This is first draft rough:

So back down the tree I went, to wait out the waning of the river from Aescalon. Teleporting down only required a tiny fraction of the energy of up. Yes, nature's books always balanced, but there was no rule I had to use or internalize the difference in potential energy. I could simply allow it to dissipate into the environment.
As soon as I materialized in my own room, a small task-daemon tried to attack me with a poisoned dagger. Even if it had succeeded, it wouldn't have endangered me, but its target-seeking rebounded off my passive defenses and sent it in search for its creator. I followed it in leisurely fashion, curious as to who had sent it.
It didn't go far. The room Roni and her parents were in. Which meant I had to think this through now.
The first question I had to ask myself was if this was likely to be their last attempt on me. Honestly, I had to conclude that if they survived this attempt, they'd most likely keep trying. I'd forborne to execute them once for their attacks on my person. It hadn't gotten me what I wanted, which was left alone. And if you give even the most incompetent assassins enough tries, they'll get lucky once. Which meant I couldn't rationalize saving them, not to myself. Even if they were the parents of the Queen-to-be.
Perception showed me that Roni was still asleep, though, despite commotion and the racket plainly audible out in the corridor, in the middle of the day, as the servants ran for cover. Can't blame them for not wanting to get caught up in something they knew nothing about. You might not think it of him, but Agran was trying to protect Theana, who was the real target of the kored-guided daemon. She'd sent it after me, therefore she was the target of the rebounded spell. He was doing his best to keep the daemon away from her, and he was screaming in rage, she in terror, yet Roni was still apparently asleep. Which implied a trance of some sort.
Agran finally succeeded in stabbing the daemon, but it wasn't flesh and blood in the way creatures were. All he managed to do was create enough of a threat that the daemon decided he was worth noticing, and stabbed him with the dagger. The poison was nasty stuff, it began eating at him right away and he lost control of his muscles and fell twitching and screaming in pain to the necris augmented poison. Theana had gone out of her way to create a nasty end for someone less defended than I was.
Which made it a rough poetic justice when the daemon stabbed her, not ten seconds later. And kept stabbing her, time and time again, as the poison stole her mind and her control over her body.
Theana fell and began screaming in agony just as her husband had a few seconds earlier. Like him, she was suffering the paralyzation and pain inflicted by the poison she'd chosen. Unlike him, she didn't completely lose control of her body immediately, which meant she had to be augmenting her life energy somehow.
And that's when I knew, and when I looked with Sight through my perception. No wonder Theana looked so well-preserved while Roni was aged beyond her years. Her own mother had been tapping Roni's life force. And stealing her wizardly power as well.
Roni was a wizard.
Only now, in the last moments of her life, did I understand what a sociopath Roni's mother was. I could have discovered it earlier, forcing myself into her mind with auros and reading her like a large print book, but the social conditioning I'd inherited from my original had stayed my hand. She had to have been tapping Roni since infancy, stealing her power and her life-force to augment her own.
Which made some action necessary. Not saving the parents - Agran was within a couple heartbeats of death already, and Theana was headed that direction. There was no time to be subtle - I slammed down a wall of matra, cutting off Theana from Roni's life force and power. A touch of auros ensured that Roni wouldn't awaken for a while. Roni was safe from the daemon, which would dissipate at her mother's death, but I didn't think she needed to witness her mother's dying agony or the immediate aftermath. She'd learn the facts soon enough. That accomplished, I wrapped myself in a cloak of auros and went in search of King Edvard.
"Alexan, where have you been all day? I sent a servant to your quarters but I was told you didn't answer."
"Your Majesty, I was up at near the top of Ygg, watching the runoff from the Scourging. But I have grave news about Veronia and her parents."
"Is Roni dead?" her asked, and I shook my head, seeing his relief.
"No, but her parents are. When I returned from my trip to the top of Ygg, there was a daemon waiting for me. It wielded a poison dagger, but its targeting spell rebounded off my defenses and sent it in search of the wizard who'd sent it after me."
"You killed them?"
"No Sire. Appropriately enough, the effects of her own intentions killed Theana, and her husband as well. I simply didn't intervene on their behalf."
"Reasonable enough, under the circumstances. An entire hall full of guests and servants saw what they tried to do yesterday. But I wish you'd found it within you to forgive them. It's going to make things more difficult."
"Your Majesty, I understand the situation. But yesterday's forbearance was the limit, as I believe I made clear at the time. My homeland is a wonderful place, but our political rivalries are deadly within the ultsi, and one thing we're all in agreement over is that we're not required to help each other train competent assassins by letting failures live. I withheld my hand yesterday out of consideration for you and for Roni despite conditioning going back to my childhood saying that I should have killed them both on the spot. But forbearing to act once was the most I could do. I did save Roni, however. And you need to know, she's a wizard. Her mother was tapping her power and her life force."
"Roni's a wizard? Are you sure?" Edvard replied.
"Yes, I'm certain. Her mother's been stealing her power since she was very young. That's the only thing that explains how even Roni doesn't know."
"Does this change anything? I saw the two of you dancing last night."
"Sire, perhaps it would have under other circumstances, although Roni's almost an infant by the standards of my homeland. Even without what just happened to her parents, however, she's decided she likes you, not me. She and I might have been friends, but given what just happened to her parents that's likely moot. I saved her because she bore no blame for what her mother did, otherwise she would have died with her mother. The spell stealing her power and life force would have kept pulling from Roni to sustain her mother until there was no more."
"For which I thank you. Why did you bring this to me?"
"First, to let you know immediately what had happened. Second, because Roni's going to need help from you when she wakes up. It won't be long - what I did will keep her asleep perhaps another hour."
"I understand," Edvard replied, "Thank you Alexan. I'll do my best to explain the situation to her. I can't have my Queen carrying out a vendetta against my Viceroy."
"Your viceroy?" I asked, amazed at this man.
"Even Storg would be tempted by the power - I've known him for twenty years. I trust him, but he wants power, so he'll be my Marshall and I'll find him a fief for his children and his old age. You don't want power, at least not that kind, or you would have had it. So if something happens to me, you'll be the Regent for any children I might have. The appointment is all drawn up. You won't refuse me, will you?"
I shook my head, "I don't know how long I'll be in Migurd, but for however long that is, I will do as you ask."
"Good," the king said, "I wasn't certain you'd accept. Now if you'll excuse me, though, I have to deal with the situation you've left me, and it would be best if you were not there when Roni wakes." He strode off towards her room, calling for the servants

Excerpt from The Man From Empire

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Excerpt from The Man From Empire, only 99 cents in e-book form (to get you hooked so you'll buy the next three)!

The Man From Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Empire and Earth Amazon

I announced myself to Helene and she invited me into her studio. She was working on a voice project for someone else that day; she put it aside and sat with me. "The first question I have to ask, Grace, is how territorial you are about the dog business?"

"If it would get me the people I need to help Earth, I'd sell the dog farm tomorrow. I can make more running cargo around the Empire than I can in the dog business, and be home every night."

"Well, perhaps you ought to do precisely that. My husband has a pair of older size two capital ships that really aren't economical any longer. They've been sitting in a holding yard for years. You should be able to put Interstitials in, maybe even pay an on-board cargo handler. Agree to rent space in the hold to anyone who wants. Class two capital ships have external racks for nine small cruiser auxiliaries, as well as internal space for smaller craft. Inoperants can make sublight runs within the system on impellers. If you simply hold your fees to something the consortium can pay, that would solve most of the problems."

"That seems like it might have merit, but the real point is to get strong Guardians who can fight demons. My satellite has found a jopas, two spraxos, and several nephraim, none of which I'm confident of facing alone."

"Not all operants are Vector pilots, let alone Interstitial pilots."

"I know, Helene, but how many will be interested in Earth?"

"All you can do is ask."

True. Without the Empire behind it, this whole thing was purely voluntary. On the other hand, I didn't have to choose by the method of taking the first eight people - or eighty - who ask. I could explicitly reserve slots for operants willing to fight major demons. Class two capital ships might have been small by the standards of current commerce, but they were over three hundred fifty meters in radius - nearly one hundred million cubic meters of which was cargo capacity. By comparison, the largest cargo ships on Earth are around seven to eight hundred thousand cubic meters. I wasn't certain every stray dog and cat on Earth would fill a hundred million cubic meters. On the other hand, with an internal system for moving stasis boxes, it would make it easy for dog people to bring back a stasis box at a time, and each participant could have boxes and hold volumes marked for their individual use. "Is anyone likely to volunteer just for a demon hunt?"

"I'd say it's likely. There's a lot of bad feeling towards demons over their part in the Interregnum. If I wasn't raising two small children, I might volunteer myself."

That was a shock. Helene was the embodiment of a dignified lady artist. Then I remembered Anara telling me how she used to have two other children, and I realized I didn't know how many other close friends and family she might have lost. Figure every Imperial citizen old enough to have lived through the Interregnum was a good candidate to volunteer, and that included a large proportion of the strongest as well as all of the most experienced Guardians. For the first time, I really understood that learning about history second-hand was a poor substitute for the experience of those who lived through it.

"What if I were to simply upload my satellite log?"

"You might have to promote it a bit, and add a location. Perhaps you might have to promise transportation. But the response that would surprise me the least is veterans of the era start recruiting on their own. Everyone lost people they cared about. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I, my husband, and four of my six
children survived. By comparison the Baryan lost twenty out of twentytwo adult members and all of their children and spouses, the M'Dorna lost fourteen out of fifteen adults and all their children and spouses, and depending upon your interpretation, ten or eleven of the Great Houses were completely exterminated.

The Council actually had a survival rate greater than the Imperial population at large. More than half of all Imperial planets were completely destroyed or sterilized, none kept even half their old population alive. Nobody got through the Interregnum unscathed, and the demons were the enabling factor. Most
survivors of the Interregnum don't think we've done anything like even the scales yet. Many will drop anything they can to give them a chance at demons."

"So a two prong strategy, one to recruit volunteers for an assault, one to recruit fellow dog sellers. What is the advantage of the other dog sellers?"

"One person, isolated as you are on Earth, is a lot easier to kill than an ongoing presence. Even if you're the only pilot for the consortium, the other members will have someone who checks on them if they don't return."

So if there were a dozen of us on Earth, killing one of us didn't help them. With Asto behind me, it wouldn't help them even if I was alone, but they'd know it wouldn't help them if I wasn't alone. "Thank you Helene. Am I going to be able to thank Scimtar in person this evening?"

She communicated no, so I continued, "Please also tell him thank you for me?" and started to take my leave, but she interrupted me.

"One more thing, Grace. My husband said it's time you had a refresher. I've made reservation for you with the family arms people tomorrow from nineteen zero to twentysix."

Well, dang. I had had plans for tomorrow - it was the only day I'd get in the Empire before I had to head back to Earth. A day and a half here was roughly six days there.

Neither she nor grandfather can force you, love, Asto sent, but it really would be a good idea. The skills decay without use. So I agreed, and then took my leave.


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