October 2021 Archives

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.

******

"Nothing in the Game of Houses is certain and nothing is forever. The only guarantee is we all die someday."

I still remember the first time I heard that - Scimtar himself said it to me while training me as a Guardian. Eventually we all make the fatal mistake. That said, the fact it was Scimtar saying it changed the subtext - he'd been playing the game for over thirty square. Just because you were going to die someday didn't mean it had to be today or any time soon. Maybe the metaphorical dice would come up snake eyes for you today. Maybe you had enemies who'd do their best to make it happen. But you got to influence those dice, too. The leaders of the Empire were all masters at loading the dice in their favor, or better yet, controlling the outcome so the dice were never rolled.

But you're not the only one the dice can turn fickle on...

-Graciela Juarez di Scimtar


It never begins dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The assignment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why me? I asked Scimtar.

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

If there's a basileus?

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

I'd rather not risk it a third time.

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

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

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

Moving The Pieces will be the fourth and final story in the Preparations for War Series, about the Advancement Mission on Calmena, a demon-held planet with a large human population. It will be released in tandem with The End of Childhood, third book of Politics Of Empire, with which it shares some common events.

******

The die is cast.

The demons have mobilized to attack the Empire, and Joe and Asina are behind enemy lines.

For 150 Earth years, Joe and Asina have been clandestinely helping the humans of Calmena prepare for the coming war. In that time, the Calmenans have gone from barely Iron Age to the brink of space. from scattered starveling communities hanging on by their fingernails to proud independent city-states. But now the demons are pushing enough troops through the Seven Gates of Calmena to wipe out the human cities in passing.

Joe and Asina will not allow that to happen.

******

It was hard to believe she was gone.

For over an Earth century, Sephia had been the commander of Bolthole Base. She'd been the one constant, unchangeable thing about the mission on Calmena. The base was four times the size it had been when I started, Calmena itself was utterly changed, but Sephia was changeless - until this morning. She'd had a cerebral hemorrhage at some point overnight and died in her sleep. Her bright blue eyes were forever closed and I could have used a shot of her no-nonsense grandmotherly attitude. But her body had already been fed back into the converter as per standard Imperial procedure; she was one with the universe now.

Section Private Kryphan was senior-most of those in the line of command; therefore he was interim commander. It was unlikely a successor for Sephia would be more than two days in coming - today's courier run would have taken the news to Earth, almost certainly the new base commander would arrive tomorrow. But whoever it was, they'd never replace the grandmother hen who'd watched over us for the last century, kept us focused on the task, held us together through all the setbacks, and kicked us into action when it was necessary.

It had been pointless to Portal back to Bolthole Base, but every single one of the twentytwo teams currently working the Advancement Mission nonetheless made the journey, each of us making a solemn pilgrimage to the door of the base commander's office that had been hers for so long, just standing at the door looking in in silent farewell, bore executing tatzen, the Imperial gesture of respect, before turning and walking away silently. Tatzen was a variable gesture. Fingertips to chin was respect. Fingertips to upper lip was more. Nose to the joining of the ring and middle fingers was the limit of ordinary. Nose to wrist and palm to heart was all that and love and loss and you couldn't get any higher. Anything more than that was simple pretension, and none of us would do that to her. Sephia's absence was a burning hole in all of our hearts. She hadn't had to do anything beyond her job as commander of Bolthole Base, but she'd done everything she could to make our jobs easier as well. She would be missed.

Both Asina and I had last messages from her in our datalink queue. Likely a last farewell and whatever last message she'd wanted us to be reminded of. We'd play them back in Yalskarr. Speaking of which, we'd be missed if we lingered more than a few minutes. Sephia was gone, and not coming back, but we still had our work to do. After a quick chat with Arrel and Dildre, we portaled back to the Calmenan city that had been our home for over sixty Imperial years now.

Once the metaphorical brushfires were out, we retired to Asina's office to play Sephia's message on our datalinks. The basic message was what we'd expected - how Calmena was important to the upcoming war, how we were going to make an outsize difference to the outcome, how she knew we'd make her proud. The basic message was one she'd repeated over and over again in our time on Calmena, but it brought tears to our eyes hearing it from her mouth one more time, and we loved her for it. Her straight pale blonde pageboy cut was slightly longer than the last time we'd seen her - it wasn't a recent recording. We checked the timestamp and it was almost ten years old. Asina had loved Sephia as a replacement for the mother she'd lost as a child. I wasn't an orphan, but she'd become a beloved aunt, equal in my affections with Tia Esperanza and Tia Luz and Tia Grace. I made a point of copying the message to archive; I wanted to be able to play this message again someday, a cherished memory of a dear friend.

The message had an update - numbered twelve. Evidently one through eleven had been deleted. It was short and to the point. The Sephia in this message looked a little thinner, her hair a little shorter, and her face more determined. She spoke straight into the screen, bright blue eyes blazing defiance. "Joe, Asina, and the rest of you. They don't want me to tell you yet, but if you're seeing this, I'm beyond any discipline they might impose. Believe me when I tell you that right now your most important concern is ammunition for the weapons you have. Make what use of this information you can."

The timestamp was three days old.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Before the kiss broke, I was roughly grabbed, shoved up against the car door, and handcuffed. "Mark Jackson, you are under arrest on suspicion of murder! You have the right to remain silent..." I'm sure you've heard it hundreds of times in mass entertainment. My least favorite overzealous homicide detective - Ramirez - was obviously enjoying himself.

What really surprised me was his partner Officer Whitehall was repeating the same thing to Julie.

She was not taking it well.

To give him credit, he'd started considerably lower-key than Officer Ramirez. He hadn't even touched her to begin with; but he did start off with, "Julie Ingmar, you are under arrest on suspicion of murder...", but she understood what was coming considerably better than I would have. She backed away crying hysterically, "No no no no no no no no!" she kept repeating growing in volume.

I tried to get through to her, but being manhandled by Ramirez wasn't exactly conducive to the task. "Julie! Panic isn't, oof, going to help! Ow! Julie, you've got to calm down OW! Or they're really going to get physical! Julie, oof!" and about that time it must have penetrated Ramirez' BB-sized brain that I was trying to talk her down because he just held on and let me talk. "Julie I know you're scared but if you don't calm down they're going to use force and it's going to be much worse. Julie you keep telling clients to cooperate and once it gets to the courthouse the lawyers will sort it out. Julie, remember what you tell your clients!"

Officer Whitehall was at least somewhere in the vicinity of humanity. He could see she was terrified beyond rational thought; he stopped and said, "Ms. Ingmar, I've got to take you in, but if you cooperate I'll be as gentle as I can and let you walk on your own." He could see she was in heels and wasn't running but she was panicked and not going to be talked down easily.

Ramirez muttered an obscenity and headed for Julie, releasing me in the process. I tripped him, he went windmilling and sprawled on the lawn. I managed to keep my feet and simply stood there waiting for him, trying to reach Julie verbally, "Julie, stop. Nobody's attacking you! The police have to handcuff us; it's how their jobs work, but they don't have to attack if you let them do their job." Finally, since nothing else was working, "Julie, think about the baby! If you make them attack, they might hurt the baby! They don't want to attack you, but they'll do it if you don't calm down!"

Something finally got through. She still had the wild look in her eyes, but she managed to get out a desperate, "Promise?!"

That was about when Ramirez, back on his feet, gave me an elbow to the kidney, following it up with a twist of my (cuffed) arm and something else to the back of my knees. I'd known something was coming; men of Ramirez' stripe do not accept being challenged or thwarted in any way. I managed to keep myself to a pained intake of breath, but Detective Whitehall stepped into the breach, "Promise. If you allow me to cuff you, I won't even touch you other than that, although we will have to have a matron frisk you at the station. I'll let you walk to the car and let you get in on your own unless you need me to shield your head."

"What if she's got a weapon?" Ramirez wanted to know.

"If she had a weapon, she would have used it already," Whitehall replied, "She was frightened enough she didn't care what would happen next. If it bothers you, I'll call for backup and you can ride with Mister Jackson in the other car." Addressing me, "What happened to her?"

I didn't need to see Julie's frightened headshake to know not to discuss that. "Not my secret to tell, detective, but I doubt it's relevant tonight. If it's not too much to ask, what's this about? It can't be a renewal of whatever happened to Diane; Julie wasn't there and we didn't even meet until the next day. You wouldn't be arresting her. So what's it about?"

Ramirez, true to form, did something to my back that hurt like hell. It spasmed, and I cried out in pain. But this time, I knew there would be recordings I could access. Officer Ramirez would be hearing about excessive force in the near future. "Quit playing the innocent! It might have worked last time but this time we know you know!"

Whitehall addressed Ramirez, "Mike, stop it!" When Ramirez looked at him, he glanced meaningfully at one of the surveillance cameras. The whole neighborhood was full of them. Prosperous area, near downtown, lots of homeless and less than scrupulously honest individuals. "Ms. Ingmar, I'm going to ask you to turn around and put your hands behind your back now. I'll be gentle, but the handcuffs are required. I'll take your purse, but I won't touch anything but your hands."

He was good as his word. He gently cuffed Julie's hands behind her and took her purse, but didn't touch her otherwise. Whitehall was black; I guess he had some perspective on the evils of excessive force; he was old enough he might have been around for the last set of riots. Nobody was likely to riot over us being abused, but Whitehall understood there was no point to force in this instance.

Julie calmed down enough to ask, "What's this about? If you're arresting us on suspicion of murder, who's the deceased?"

"With all due respect, counselor, that's going to wait until we get you into an interrogation room down at the station. Suffice it to say there's good enough evidence for reasonable suspicion. Judge Bean signed the warrants."

"Cowboy Roy is not exactly the most careful judge on the bench."

"He's got the duty this week; there's nothing irregular about the warrants counselor."

"I have only your word for that. When do I get to examine them?"

"Soon as we get to the station. What's it going to be, Mike? You bringing the other suspect and riding in with us or do I call for other transport?"

"We'll ride with you." I could hear the unvoiced hope we would be stupid enough to try something. Nope. He'd already done everything necessary to put his career into my hands.

Remembering Julie's warnings from the previous case, I carefully did not listen to what the two detectives said on the ride to the station. Instead I kept my voice low and talked to Julie, beginning with, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do in this situation to help?"

"I think so, now." She was still trembling, but she was no longer being controlled by her fear. Her thinking mind was back in control. "Right now, we have to wait. They'll book us before they question us, separately.

Just like last time, don't say anything without a lawyer present."

"Understood."

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

Blurb for Moving The Pieces

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Calmena was Hell, a primitive planet where the fractal demons tried to breed the descendants of abducted humans into docile slaves with operant abilities, but it hadn't worked.

Joe and his wife Asina have been clandestinely helping the Calmenans throw off the demonic yoke for 150 Earth years, bringing them from barely Iron Age onto the threshold of space, from scattered starveling communities to strong independent cities where humans can live free of the demons.

But now there is no more time - the fractal demons are on the march against the Empire, and Calmena is caught between them like a nut in the jaws of a cracker. The demons have prepared Calmena for use as a way-station for assault on the Empire, and Joe and Asina must help the Calmenans hold off the demonic assault or watch their life's work be wiped out.

Joe and Asina will not allow that to happen.

Copyright 2021 Dan Melson

******

Moving The Pieces will be the fourth and final book in the Preparations For War series. The other books in the series are

Preparing The Ground

Building The People

Setting The Board

 



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