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Grace I would like to ask you about extending.
The telepathic message was not unexpected. I had twelve days - three Imperial weeks - to go in my twenty year commitment to the Imperial military. In our capacity as Merlon's Eyes, Asto and I had been all over the Empire in that time, from the thinly human Thirtyfifth Galaxy where the aliens were barely more advanced than the Earth where I'd been born, to the Second and Fourth Galaxies, where humans had a more substantial presence for much longer, and the alien species inhabiting them were therefore technologically competitive with the Empire.
I was, and had been, for several years, a Staff Private. The Eyes recruited closely bonded husband and wife operant teams (or the equivalent), valuing the rapport that made such teams work more like two fingers of the same hand. But Merlon's Eyes still had to work within their roles in the Imperial military. An Eye who was a Section Private was a Section Leader with additional duties, as I had been for three years prior to making Staff Private. I would have made Platoon Private by now, except that I was getting close to timing out of the military. Officers selecting for promotion wanted someone with more time left on their contract than I did.
My husband Asto had just made Staff Corporal, three grades above me, but his commitment was not expiring. Asto had agreed to a sixty year commitment when he signed up. I'd initially agreed to ten, extending ten more to justify our selection as Eyes, but that was it. I wasn't making a big deal about my - our - plans, but I'd done my share of pulling the wagon for a while. I wanted to start our family, so I was letting my contract expire.
Which was what First Corporal Whelsed wanted to talk to me about. But that didn't mean I wanted to talk to her about it. I have other plans. In fact, I've already made promises. I'm here for another twelve days, then I'm going home for a visit. Twenty Imperial years was the same duration as fourteen Earth years, but time on Earth ran about four times faster than the Imperial Home Instance. It had been nearly sixty years on Earth since my last visit.
Earth wasn't really home any longer, but it was where I was from. I might not even recognize it any more. Fifty years before I was born, Riverside had been mostly citrus groves. The advent of the Empire was certainly no less of a change than the urbanization of California after World War II.
So go home for a visit, but give me a contract to extend first. We'll write leave of whatever duration you want into the new contract.
That's not the only plan I have, sir. Technical ang was unisex, but English "sir" captured the connotations better than other alternatives. Whelsed was in my direct chain of command - operations deputy for the squadron I was attached to. Roughly the equivalent of a one-star general in the disbanded US Army.
So what are your plans?
With respect, sir, none of your business and you know it. I agreed to twenty years. In twelve days, I will have met that commitment and what I do then is my own business.
Someone wants to select you for Platoon Private but with twelve days left, it's pointless.
People have been declining to select me for Platoon Private for about three years, sir. I've been aware of it the whole time. If I wanted to be a Platoon Private bad enough to extend, I'd have already done it.
The Eyes are stretched too thin. They don't want to lose one of their better pairs.
I've already extended once for the Eyes, because my husband wanted us to be Eyes. Now it's time for what I want, which is out. For at least sixty years.
By which time your husband will be too senior for the Eyes. Asto was something pretty special, even among Guardians. He would be well into the sergeant grades before I considered rejoining the military. Commanders of forty-odd thousand troops or more really couldn't take off for Eyes work. The Empire's command structure was too steep to allow it. In the Planetary Surface troops, any rank other than staff grades went with a specific command assignment. Asto might transfer to Tactical Space or Strategic Space command, but the situation there was no different. You might technically be an Eye forever, but above Company Corporal, only staff grades got actual Eye assignments.
As I said, sir, the Eyes got their pound of flesh.
Sorry, local Earth idiom. I honored my contract, even though I wanted something else. Now are you going to waste my last twelve days trying to persuade me to do something I'm not going to do, do you have an assignment for us, or do I go back to scheduling personnel shuttles?
We have an assignment. It might take more than twelve days.
Then you'd better get them to assign someone else. Because you know as well as I do what happens if you try to hold me over involuntarily. The Imperial military knew full well people took time out between military tours, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of Imperial years. They didn't want to give people an incentive not to come back by holding them past their contract expiration. Officers at grades where they commanded multiple systems could be involuntarily extended, but that pointedly didn't include me, Asto, or even Whelsed. The lowest grade subject to that was thirty-odd promotions away.
They're having trouble finding someone else.
If you assign us the mission, I'll do my best for twelve days. Not thirteen. And that assumes you have transport standing by. I'm even willing to pilot my own way back, if I can leave the ship there. We'd formally enlisted at Fulda Base on Indra. The rule was the military was responsible for returning us there for separation by the time the contract expired.
Grace, work with me here!
I am working with you. I've been working with you these last twenty years. I've honored every last bit of my contract, but you're assuming you're entitled to more of my life than I've contracted to give you. You're not. I might point out that I'm entitled to nearly two prime days of leave I haven't taken. That was 120 days - half an Imperial year - that I hadn't taken because Asto and I had been so much in demand as Eyes. The Empire didn't really do terminal leave like Earth's bureaucracies, where people used untaken leave to take their last several months off. I'd be paid for it on separation, but they had a contractual right to my services up until the moment my contract expired. It's just that most people did get at least a few days because there wasn't an assignment to fit the time remaining. You are entitled to my best efforts until the end of the Imperial day on one-fortyfour. Not one moment longer, and the fact that I have one-fiftyeight (118 in base 10) days of leave accrued and untaken is evidence I've been more than willing to do my part under the contract. Total leave for twenty years was 240 days; I still had almost half of it.
I can't change your mind?
No, you can't, Corporal Whelsed. Tell whomever tasked you with trying that I've been looking forward to this day since the moment I agreed to be an Eye. I've done what I agreed, or at least in twelve days I will have done it. I need to be doing something else after.
Well, I can't force you, so how long do you think you'll need with the shuttle schedule?
I'll be done with it tomorrow, sir. Truth be told I'm mostly fiddling at the edges, anyway. Division will need to make more changes in reaction to events than I will to be happy with it in the theoretical state.
Alright, Grace, we'll be damned sorry to lose you, but you're right. You have shuttle runs on the current schedule through one-thirtynine; I'll cut orders sending you to Indra on one-forty. The commander's staff at Fulda base might have something for me to do the last four days, or they might let me go early. Make that probably would; their shuttle schedule would be as settled as ours was, and it was unlikely they'd find other work for only four days.
Thank you sir!
Thank you, Grace. Whelsed wasn't really a friend, but I was pretty certain she liked me. And good luck.

The event that holds the greatest significance in the recent history of the Empire is the Ston Rebellion and subsequent Interregnum. It may have ended up over 3600 imperial years previously, but there is still significant living memory of them.

During the Rebellion and Interregnum, everyone suffered. The population of humans dropped by a factor of roughly 3000, due to war, dropping below minimal technological maintenance levels, and intentional persecution by stop warlords, exacerbated as the ston warlords fought each other for domination and rule of what was left. All of the major habitats were destroyed, each of them having somewhere over one quintillion inhabitants. Over half of all Imperial planets were sterilized or destroyed completely, and had to be re-terraformed when the Empire was re-established. Starvation took a toll, as well. No Imperial planet managed to maintain as much as half of its pre-rebellion population, and most were left with one sixtieth or less.

During the Interregnum, one thing the newly dominant stons were intent upon was hunting down the remaining cot leaders. By the time it was over, eleven of the Fifteen Houses had been completely exterminated, but seven members of the Great Council survived to re-establish the Empire.

(The Fifteen Houses weren't blameless for the situation - they'd winnowed each other ruthlessly, in excess of 95% being killed within a few years of attaining final adulthood. But it also meant that those who survived were tough. It generally took a dozen or more stons to successfully kill one)

The seven survivors are:

BarAntro (Antro Baryan stu Merlak): Believed to be the strongest operant of all time, at least triple the known strength of any other survivor. Also known as the Blue Prince, he occupies the offices of Merlon and Supervisor. Roughly 20,000 Imperial years of age (14,000 Earth)

BarYerd (Yerd Baryan stu Merlak): Older (half) sister of Antro. Mysterious, keeps out of the public eye as much as she can. She quietly handles the Guardian's Ears, aimed at keeping future rebellions from getting to the point of violence. Sometimes known by a term babaiana that translates roughly as 'Mama Spider'. Roughly 60,000 Imperial years of age.

YokNos (Nos Yokel stu Merlak): Oldest of the seven, last of Merphon's grandchildren. Approximately 105,000 Imperial years of age. Sometimes known by the term dagdadirans, which translates as 'winning the game of isevenths'. He is the most responsible for sponsoring the conditions that lead to economic development.

JeSarba (Sarba JeNor stu Merlak): The youngest of the seven, and most tragic. She is the widow of Imans Baryan, and theirs was the first marriage between two members of the Fifteen Houses (by current usage, two Seventh Order Guardians). The series of events that began the Rebellion were set up by her own father, and resulted in the destruction of the rest of House Jehob. She modified her family name to honor the uncle that tried to support her. That she is Imans' widow means she is Antro's ex-daughter-in-law, and her daughter is Antro's grand-daughter. She was named Guardian after the Restoration. She is approximately 11,000 Imperial years of age.

M'Drashin (Drashin M'Dorna Stu Merlak) Probably the best social actuary in the Empire, known for leading the dissent to the establishment of the ston program, correctly predicting it would destroy the Empire. Approximately 15,000 Imperial years of age.

CorNost (Nost Cor stu Merlak) Unlike the above list, CorNost does not come from one of the families descended from Merphon's first group of sons. His ancestor was the middle son of Merphon's second family of five. Allied with the Yokel because the Cor were traditional allies of the Yokel before the Interregnum, Nost is known for brutal directness. Approximately 15,000 Imperial years of age.

Scimtar (Scimtar di Baryan) Unlike the others of the Seven, Scimtar is not a direct descendant of Merphon. His ancestor was another member of the initial group of operants, Zaius, and his line of descent includes his biological father being essentially a rapist of his mother. Raised by his mother and her husband, nonetheless, he was a long time Baryan retainer, actually being Antro's first tutor in the military arts. Nobody except Scimtar knows what caused his power to blossom, and he isn't telling. Now an independent, he still has ties of traditional friendship to Antro, Yerd, and Drashin. Slightly younger than YokNos, but approximately 105,000 Imperial years of age.

The Imperial military is split into three major combat arms. They supplement and support each other as much as possible, but they are as different as army, navy, and air force. While they have the same rank structure, their jobs are completely different.

Planetary Surface Forces are the ground forces. They are the ones who go down onto a planetary surface - or under it - and root out hostile forces. Pretty much all military personnel start in Planetary Surface Forces - the others recruit by transfer, which generally involves starting anew.

Strategic Space Forces are the people that crew the largest ship classes and their auxiliaries. Post and Capital ships are crewed by Strategic Space Forces.

Tactical Space Forces are the people that crew the smaller ship classes, from Convoy hulls on down through Large and Small Cruisers, Destroyers, Cutters, and Fighters. They probably have the highest level of prestige, and definitely have the highest casualty levels.

Also part of the Imperial military are the Shield units. They're not a major branch, although if you think in single planet terms their numbers are vast. Their reason for existence is the power and coherence of Imperial energy weapons. A shot that can damage a capital ship will obliterate an unshielded planet or a small civilian ship without noticing, and they are capable of doing it at ranges exceeding the size of most galaxies. Their job is after any battle involving military units to make certain there are as few shots as possible remaining from the battle. Their ships are essentially massive metallic rocks with hull charge, protected by capitol ship quality shields, and they intentionally move into the path of shots that have missed and absorb them. It's not a particularly dangerous job, but has high prestige in certain parts of Imperial society.

Two other much smaller units are the Merlon's Eyes and the Merlon's Fingers. The Eyes are intelligence gatherers, the Fingers are assassination and sabotage operatives. They are each composed exclusively of operant Guardians, and neither is a military unit in any kind of traditional sense because each is composed of individuals with other military assignments who also do Eye or Finger work (Their civilian equivalents, the Guardian's Eyes and the Guardian's Fingers, are full time operatives but much fewer in number). Both groups are aimed at external enemies, and strive to have their targets remain unaware that they have done their work, completely unaware that their intelligence is compromised or sincerely believing that the unfortunate event that hamstrung them was the result of some other cause.

There are also a plethora of military forces in the employ of major families or powerful individuals. They tend to be elites ("Imperial blue and gold" is a phrase of some scorn among them). Individually, none of them is large enough to fight the Empire, but if they ever banded together they might be able to defeat Imperial forces. The rank structure for most private forces follows the Imperial structure closely.


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