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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.

Everyone was there on time. Us, Mom, Julie's parents (her mom was matron of honor), RaDonna and her husband. Judge Jefferson came through to say he would be right back, and went back into his chambers.

That was about ten seconds before the blood-curdling scream.

We all froze for a few seconds. I was the first one to snap out of it - just before this ugly gray-brown thing that looked like a cross between a toad and goblin came through the door. Huge mouth that stretched halfway across its head, filled with tiny little teeth. Big bug-eyes, pebbly skin, crouching bipedal stance, and black razor claws at the end of its 'hands'. "Havva!" I jumped back while performing the banishment spell. Julie and RaDonna were almost simultaneous to me, while Roland was perhaps half a beat behind - but his spell was different, and his voice had dropped a couple octaves. No matter; it vanished. Roland stopped his incantation mid-word.

"What the hell was that?" Mom screeched at the top of her lungs.

"No idea!" Julie and I chorused before RaDonna said, "Trog. One of the weaker demonic minions."

"Did you say demonic minions?" Mom screeched.

"Yes, Mom, she did. Because that's what they are. But screaming isn't going to help, and panic definitely won't." I was vaguely conscious of Julie dealing with her outraged parents; at least I wasn't outnumbered in trying to control my mercurial mother.

Suddenly, Mom's eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in a heap on the carpet. "Don't use that one too often," RaDonna said, "But when I need it, comes in right handy. She'll sleep awhile. Most likely won't remember what she saw when she wakes up, or she'll think it was a dream."

"Ra' you are full of surprises." Now to help Julie with her parents, as I heard her say, "No, Mom, Mark did not get me involved in gang activity. Did that look like a gangbanger to you? It's a long story and now is not the time for it. Dad, trust me when I say I had every bit as much to do with why that creature was after us as Mark!"

"Will that trick of yours work on a couple more targets?" I quietly asked Ra'.

She shook her head no, "Not like it worked on your Mom; they're not nearly so agitated. You're going to have to talk them down the normal way."

Roland helped us out, "SILENCE!" he ordered. He was much better than I was at intimidation; Julie's parents shut up. "Your daughter and her fiancée were asked to try and help our people. Beyond all hope, and at some cost to themselves, they succeeded, but doing so made them an anonymous enemy with some ability in the arcane. I and my wife and every other member of our people is indebted to them, and would like to aid them in defeating this new enemy. But now is not the time for recriminations, nor for detailed explanations."

"Thank you, Mr. Adedeji," I replied, hitting record on my phone and headed back towards the judge's chambers. I had a pretty good idea what we'd find. "If someone could please call 911? And Julie, if you know who's in charge here in the courthouse on the weekends, it would be a good idea to get them involved sooner rather than later. A second witness to what I'm afraid I'm going to find wouldn't be amiss, either."

"I shall accompany you," Roland followed, and RaDonna pulled out her cell phone, dialed and put it to her ear. Julie grabbed her Mom and headed out the door; her father hesitated, then followed his wife and daughter when Ra' made to follow her husband and I.

Inside was about what I'd expected - the judge's body was lying in a still expanding pool of blood. I didn't investigate closely, but it was slowly leaking out four long ragged parallel gashes in his chest, leaking rather than spurting with the beats of a heart. Although it hadn't been more than a few seconds, the judge's heart was already trying to pump air. He didn't stir when I tried to find a pulse on his neck. If the pain of being slashed like that had sent him unconscious, it was likely a blessing because there was no way anything I could do would save him.

I cursed under my breath. I'd just met the judge for the first time so not getting married today was the big result for me, but Julie must have been on good terms with him. Nuts.

"Police and paramedics on the way," RaDonna said, "Not that the paramedics are going to be able to help with that."

I stopped recording. "Okay, so what are we going to tell the police?"

"Pretending we didn't see the trog is probably our simplest and best option," Roland opined.

"I don't know if either Julie's parents or my mother will go along with that version of events."

"Your mother probably isn't going to remember a thing," Ra' told me, "The spell I used is a kind of magical judo; it used her own agitated energy against her."

I resolved to ask her to teach it to me; or at least inquire of Zeb. "That leaves Julie's parents, and if my mother does remember, good luck trying to shut her up."

"So we treat her as somehow misremembering due to her level of excitement, assuming we can get Robert and Miriam to agree," Roland replied.

"That shouldn't be too difficult; most folks want to pretend such things don't exist," RaDonna added. It seemed she and her husband both had experience with people given inadvertent glimpses of life behind the metaphorical curtains.

"If Julie's parents don't agree?"

Roland was practical, "We cross that bridge if we come to it."

"Any ideas why it attacked the judge?"

"I presume your wife and yourself are applying a shielding spell every morning?" I didn't correct him; he and Ra' had been raised within an elven culture, and elven culture considered pregnancy a marriage.

"Yes, we are."

"Then it seems likely that whomever sent the trog knew where and when, but was unable to pierce your shielding." I hadn't interacted much with Ra's husband in the past; but his grasp of the situation illustrated some of what Ra' no doubt saw in him. In less than fifteen minutes, he'd earned my respect several times over.

"So either they were someone we told the specific time and place of our wedding, or someone we told informed them."

"That would seem logical."

So now I had to figure out who the mole was, and whether the information being shared was inadvertent, in ignorance of the receiver's hostility, or intentionally supporting people who meant to kill Julie and I.

Copyright 2022 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

 



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