Blurb and First Draft Excerpt from End of Childhood

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The die is cast.

The Empire has caught the fractal demons marshalling troops for assault, and there is no avoiding the decisive Armageddon between humanity and the fractal demons. Both sides have their strengths and there is no certainty about the outcome. While the Empire is free-falling towards open war, Grace is tasked with nudging the odds a little bit, ferreting out traitors to humanity, bribed with the seeming of the most precious gift possible but with a nightmare catch.

Then at the moment of the first skirmishes, personal tragedy strikes, clearing the way for a long-delayed impulse, which results in horror and more personal tragedy.

But out of the disaster, a new Grace emerges - one ready to stand on her own, fully realized as a potent force in her own right.


Our own lessons complete, the boys and I moved to the side in order to watch Asto's splinter take on his grandfather's. Asto was seven years younger than I was, but he'd been learning from his grandfather since he was old enough to hold the lightest practice blade, and his mind was better than mine - faster and more focused. The result was that Asto could give his grandfather a real opponent, somebody he had to work to defeat.

Unlike the practice blades the rest of us had been using, titanium rang when the two rods met. Asto's lessons were more of a limited duel between himself and his grandfather than what the rest of us needed. Unlike the children, Asto had enough practice to rate as a master, even by Imperial standards. His lessons were real world application, and he didn't make the simple mistakes. Neither did Scimtar.

The tempo of the lesson was wildly variable. They'd stand barely outside the other's reach, not moving at all or moving only their blades, 'shadow fencing' looking for a transient advantage, and when they thought they had one, they'd launch an attack. Neither one of them seriously expected to hit the other with their initial assault; they were attacking with the goal of hitting on the counter-riposte or later. The object was to draw or force the other's blade out of line enough to give them a straight shot to their opponent's body, and the two blades would ring off each other in irregular staccato bursts until either a touch was scored or one of the two combatants chose to retreat, starting the whole process all over again.

It was nothing like you see in the movies. This wasn't choreography designed for an ignorant audience. This was practice for when lives were on the line. Neither of them turned their back on the other. Footwork was mostly short steps in and out, advances and retreats such as the Musketeers or Florentines might have recognized, tightly controlled. Binds where the other had control were dangerous. Not to allow your enemy control of your blade was a cardinal caution, and more often than not, the one who wasn't in control of the exchange realized it and stepped out of reach before it was too late. Sometimes the other followed in time, sometimes not. And sometimes allowing the bind was itself a trap. You never knew until afterwards which would succeed in controlling the bout.

Blades moved, more from out of immediate reach than otherwise. The engagement didn't begin until one of them thought they had an advantage. They sidled from side to side, as well - Imperial troops still practiced holding a close quarters line of battle, but I didn't think it had been used since before Scimtar was born. Guardians were still only about one seventh of the Imperial population; the other six sevenths had no innate defenses against energy weapons or projectiles, and the natural state humans I'd served with had my utmost respect. It took far more courage than I'd ever needed to step onto a battlefield against opposing Guardians when you weren't one yourself. In a lot of ways, it was like fighting a battle against a two-armed opponent - when you didn't have any arms yourself.

That didn't apply to Asto or his grandfather, though. Scimtar had clawed his way up by talent, determination, persistence, and a little bit of luck; Asto had been fated to be born among the Seventh Order elite by being Scimtar's grandson. They both possessed the capstone of Guardian abilities I was aware of: the creation of splinters such as strove in front of me as proxies for their own body. Independent energy fields, possessing links to their main body so that the Sixth and Seventh Order Guardians who could create them were as in control and aware of what their splinters did under most circumstances as of their little finger. The 'real' Asto was on fleet exercises and I had no idea where the 'real' Scimtar was, but each of them had splinters here in the melee arms room. Depending upon how they were created, splinters could be 'ghosts' or pass for human - at least to natural state humans. But if something happened to destroy the splinter, it didn't damage the original. Nor were they vulnerable to most material weapons. On the other hand, even the strongest splinter had only a fraction of the creating Guardian's power.

That didn't mean this bout between two splinters was pointless, however. Everything that happened between them would be mirrored in a 'real' bout between Scimtar and his grandson. This was a way to practice without worrying about actually damaging your opponent. But they were both deadly serious about it.

Most of their mutual passages at arms resulted in no touch. The titanium rods they were using in place of swords clanged off each other in furious ringing succession, parries coming faster than a rock drumbeat, each parrying all of the other's attacks, and one or the other would step out of reach before it came to a conclusion. This didn't always signal an imminent defeat; at least twice one of them stepped away despite what I thought was an advantaged position. However, my husband was among the Empire's masters of the blade and his grandfather was among the Empire's best, so perhaps they had a better appreciation than I did. My link with Asto gave me just enough information to tantalize; his mind worked faster than mine.

Every few passes would end with a touch somewhere that wasn't critical. A touch on the hand or arm could be healed, even had they been present in their 'real' bodies. The weapon could be transferred to the other hand long enough to heal the primary. Sometimes even that wasn't necessary. A hit to the torso represented the possible drain of more of their body's resources; in a real duel those needed to be healed faster. Hits to the legs were more serious - if it impacted your opponent's mobility he couldn't retreat from a losing pass - but you still could. However, it was a temporary advantage that would vanish once your opponent healed themselves. The only duel-winning hit was a hit to the head that disrupted brain function.
That was the object of the bout - a hit that would have meant defeat. The two splinters were playing by a complex set of rules that seemed to simulate the conditions of a real duel. After a hit, the 'wounded' party would pretend an injury for about the length of time required to heal that injury.

And then it was over. Scimtar scored a hit to Asto's right knee, then after two more phrases, on his third subsequent attack scored a hit to Asto's hand and then immediately riposted to Asto's head before Asto could transfer the weapon. Duel over. The entire sequence had taken less than a quarter second.

Asto's splinter saluted his grandfather, then told the boys it was time to go home and get cleaned up. I followed suit. The Empire - at least its overculture - was casual about mixed sex nudity. It had taken a little getting used to at first, but twenty years in Planetary Surface Forces had gotten me past any remaining prudery regarding bathing with men. Yeah, some of them used the opportunity to gaze appreciatively. So did some women - even me, a time or two. But nobody touched, and in my current career I'd investigated a very few incidents pursuant to criminal complaints. Enough to know that the fine points of etiquette would be explained mercilessly to any violators, with penalties more than enough to persuade potential violators to pursue appropriate venues and consent instead - such incidents were single digit occurrences in a district more than twice the population of the United States of my youth. Esteban and Ilras were my children; I'd raised them right. Neither would think of molesting Mama in the shower. Or anyone else.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 16, 2021 8:59 AM.

Status Report - Current and Future Writing was the previous entry in this blog.

First Draft Excerpt from Moving The Pieces is the next entry in this blog.

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