February 2023 Archives

I'm starting to lean towards "Measure Of Adulthood" as a title, especially if I end up having to go to a fifth book to finish the series.


I had basically no information on my other son beyond his name, identification number, and the fact he was operant. I was pretty sure he hadn't been born operant, but I had no idea how long he'd been operant. The Empire was better equipped to recognize and enable it than Earth had been, pre-contact. Given the fact that time on Earth ran about four times faster than in the Imperial Home Instance where I'd spend most of the last prime twelve years of my personal duration, he was likely five prime of age while I was just under two, so I'd be trying to mother a son who was considerably older than I was. Assuming I really did decide to take the job on. Theoretically, failing to do so was a clear failure of implied responsibility, but the Empire had been forced to realize there were practical limits. My son must have managed to pass the adulthood examinations at some point, demonstrating he had a mental understanding of the requirements.

Why was I responsible at all? The Empire allowed responsibility to be delegated, but never avoided. Even taking into consideration that I'd been an irresponsible fool at the time, I was adult now. Adults took responsibility for past deeds. I'd given him up for adoption, but I couldn't break the chain of responsibility. Only an Imperial Viceroy sitting in judgment could do that. Maybe there was a little bit of gray in that the adoption had taken place before Imperial contact with Earth, but adults didn't plead technical details. The only thing shielding me from responsibility was that my son had demonstrated mental understanding by passing the adulthood tests at some point. Because he'd passed those tests, the law required that he be treated as a responsible adult until he demonstrated he wasn't, and therefore nobody else could be held responsible for his actions between the two events.

Sitting around Indra wasn't going to get the situation resolved. I considered requesting a cutter - maybe my son would have stuff to haul - then rejected it. Siphons and converters meant anything bulky could be duplicated easily, and if there were health issues I could heal them myself. A two-seat Starbird would be plenty, and if I were wrong, I could afford to ship whatever it was. I borrowed the aforementioned Starbird from the Residence pool, went through the checklist, and requested departure. Asto wished me luck as I applied thrust to the impellers. Two minutes and one Interstitial Vector later, I was contacting Solar System Traffic Control.

It had been thirteen Imperial years since my last visit, four times as long on Earth. Earth wasn't home any more, but it would always be where I was from, and my eyes got a little misty when I made the Vector assigned to a height of about an iprime above surface - evidently I'd hit a moment of peak traffic for the area, and I was number seven in the arrival queue. Few Imperial ships had windows, but knowing the camera feed is live was still something. It would have filled forty-five or fifty (Earth) degrees of the sky had I been outside to look - but not close enough to see anything beyond continents and oceans. I found the beacon path and my traffic, and turned to follow the beacon path Earthwards.

Once I'd landed in a parking level and paid, I bought access to Earth's internet and looked up Adulthood Services. After the fractal demons destroyed the Los Angeles basin in the opening days of the war, the political and social center of the area had moved southward. South of the old border had been solidly built up long before the United States voted to disband, so the new development had centered on the northern side of the border in what had been rough terrain south and east of the historical suburbs of San Diego. The arcologies were small by the standards of the core worlds, but they were still two or three ithirds in height by six or ten ifourths square, each one housing ten or twenty square people, with portals and parking garages for Starbirds and Cutters, and freestanding berths for everything bigger on the ground in between. I'd never been in this area before, but I imagined the hills had been steep and rugged once upon a time. They'd now been contoured for surface conservation and hardened, but it looked like the ravines and arroyos were still five or six ifourths below the level of the ridgelines. The arcologies themselves tended to follow the ridgelines more or less, even though most residents wouldn't have an outside window. Some of them were sunk thirty levels or more deeper into the ground on one side than the other. There were streams everywhere, and thriving vegetation. I took a portal to my destination.

I'd never dealt with Adulthood Services from this angle before. The various Primuses I'd been working with and Secundus Yeriala herself had put a stream of people into Adulthood Services, but I'd never wanted to pry someone loose from their custody before. My electronic query hadn't gotten much of a response - just 'all inquiries about individuals committed to our care must be handled in person.' I inquired about an appointment, and discovered the soonest available was over a week out - but 'walk ins' were accepted at all times. The estimated wait was currently just over an (Imperial) hour. I checked in, received a spot in the queue, and was told I would be notified when I was third in line, but that I must present myself in person at their office promptly upon that notification. So the obvious thing was to portal in to set the location in my mind, then occupy myself with something until notified. I sealed the Starbird on anti-tamper, walked to the nearest portal, and instructed it to deliver me to the portal closest to my destination.

Adulthood Services was an unassuming office in the interior of one of the arcologies just north of the old border. It was more than an ifourth in from the outer walls, far from any real windows, but it still had artificial ones, looking out over what had once been the town of Tecate to the southeast. It was a satellite office as the Secundus for North America was based in Mexico City. Over five prime Imperial since the Empire had taken over Earth, and it still had more than double its share of failed adults. Most of it was because life expectancy was now something like twelve prime, but a significant amount was younger people refusing to let go of self-serving rationalizations created by power-hungry demagogues and spread by official propaganda for decades before the Empire arrived. Earth may not have been the planet with the highest rate of adulthood failure in the Empire, but it was up there. You could educate the masses and require them to use the correct answers on the adulthood tests or in court, but you couldn't force them to internalize those answers.

As far as what to do in the interim, I was kind of regretting not bringing the dogs. Given that I'd have to cut it short whenever I got the notification I was third in line, it seemed rude to me to just show up unannounced with family and expect them to make time for me. Still, I sent messages to Luz and Esperanza and to Carmen and David. But Luz called almost immediately.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Yalskarr was a different place, sixty Imperial years on. It had been a port town when we arrived; now it was one of the busiest ports on Calmena as well as an industrial center rivalling anything Earth had had in the mid-twentieth century. Nearly a million people lived in the city itself and another four in the territory it governed, which included the oilfields to the north as well as enough farmland to feed them all. It had its growing pains but Asina as First Captain had done her best to help the area remain livable as well as defensible from demonic incursions. She was retired from that now but still consulted from time to time; administering the industrial conglomerate that built ships, airplanes, and automobiles as well as the engines to power all of them took all of her time while I worked on advancing the technology as fast as I could, largely using the blueprints from Earth's Industrial Age. The time was coming when the lives of every human on Calmena would hinge on how fast we could upgrade.

From the little copy of the Bleriot monoplane that had begun aviation here, Calmena's aircraft industry was ready to transition into the jet age, but that was far from an unmixed blessing. For most of the things that would be needed in repelling large bodies of demonic troops, propeller driven aircraft were more effective. Jets were expensive; the only real need for jet fighters was fighting other jet fighters and I couldn't see the demons fielding fighters that something of that era could fight. Either the demons would copy something like an Imperial Starbird in which case jets would simply be expensive targets, or they wouldn't bother at all, in which case Calmenan jet fighters would be wasting resources that could more profitably be used elsewhere. But it was difficult to explain this to people who'd never been allowed to see Imperial starships and thought jets were the pinnacle of development.

Fortunately, most of the military organizations of Calmena understood who their real enemies were. Thousands of years of oppression and regular waves of demonic legions attempting to reconquer human nations made that abundantly clear. Over on Wilmarglr Continent where we'd started, Bazhen had imperial aspirations but fortunately the demons kept graphically explaining the folly of attacking fellow humans when there were demons trying to eat both them and their intended conquests.

Asina and I each had half an hour of putting out those routine little metaphorical fires that seem to sprout like magic when the boss is away even momentarily. Hers had to do with the supply of metals - both iron and aluminum - that our shipyards and plane assembly required in thousand ton lots. Taman, her assistant, was a good accountant who couldn't be told we had access to more wealth than was apparent, and had tried to scale back or split an order of metal we needed immediately if not sooner. Mine had to do with a design issue on the proposed gunships. Makis understood why the main firepower had to sprout to one side, but Ghent, our liaison, was a former fighter pilot who wanted it all firing forward and tried to coerce a design change from him. I explained to Ghent for the seventeenth time that transports could keep one wing and therefore the guns aligned with it pointed at a target indefinitely, a feature that couldn't be replicated for any forward firing weapons. Ghent may have had experience using fighters to strafe demonic legions; I had access to records from an Earth he didn't know existed, and from the Empire as well, although Imperial tech was tens of thousands of years past anything Calmena could produce. We looted technology from pre-contact Earth because there was no living memory of Imperial equivalents and few designs for their production. The Swass-class transports that were the basic design were an almost exact copy of an Earth transport plane called a C-130 Hercules, and the gunships based upon them had been known as Spectres. I'd been told the new guns for them would be every bit as effective as the original Spectre.

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.

We were pleasantly full when we took the Portal to Tabbraz, which was a good thing. Food on Hashiboor Continent wasn't a sure thing yet. We had a few bars of Life in our small packs in case it became an issue on the voyage to Yalskarr. Between the safe house in Tabbraz and our new station, we'd be the same as any other passengers on board whatever ship we chose.

The blue sky seemed a little more purple than Earth, and the sunlight streamed a little more orange. It was about forty degrees Celsius, and saturation level humidity. The waterfront stank of excrement and various chemicals. All in all, mid-afternoon on a nice summer day in Tabbraz. Sailing vessels and steamers crowded the docks - it was part of our mission this time to advance the technology to marine diesels. We found a shipping agent to inquire about vessels heading to Yalskarr; the custom was two coppers to the clerks for leads. Ships for their part would register with all the agents because it brought them both cargo and passengers. Everybody came out ahead.

Our first lead was a three-master that would have been recognizable to those who sailed the clipper ships of the 19th century on Earth. The tall masts would be full of sails under weigh, and the hull was designed to cut through the water, outspeeding any steamer. There was something about a sailing vessel catching the wind that spoke to the poet in all of us. This pseudo-clipper and its kind were doomed, but while they lasted they were among the most beautiful of any oceangoing vessels ever made. "Who do I speak to about passage?" Asina inquired of one of the sailors grooming its sides.

"The Captain," he pointed us to a weather beaten man in late middle age - probably early forties, Earth reckoning. This was a working vessel - the Captain was known to his crew. Beautiful uniforms were for passenger liners and the military. His garb was the adapted cotton we'd had engineered to pass for a native plant on Calmena, new and scarce enough that it was the sign of someone prosperous enough to afford it. Nonetheless, his clothes had seen as much hard use as his body. Officers on a working commercial vessel were not gentleman overseers.

"My husband and I would like passage to Yalskarr, Captain."

"Passenger or working?" he asked.

"No objections to working passage," I replied, "I've several years at Windhome Bay as a builder, and my wife as well." I gestured to her clothes. The three small huts we'd built so long ago were now the greatest shipyards on the planet, and those willing to work were well paid for their exertions. The revolution we were going to unleash at Yalskarr would change shipbuilding, but Windhome Bay would still be one of the biggest builders on the planet.

"You're what - Five eights? Five eights and four?" The captain was expressing skepticism in the form of telling me we weren't old enough. The younger age was about sixteen Earth years.

"We're agaani. I'm sixty-four, eight, and three," Asina replied. The operants of Calmena weren't up the standards of Guardians, but they'd been making progress in learning how to handle not only aging, but the wear and tear of hard environments and brutal work. "But we can pay if you need passage money more than crew." She batted her blue eyes at the Captain. It wouldn't go anywhere, but it was still a useful negotiating trick. She turned heads on Earth, where anyone could look young and attractive.

"Three gold each for passage."

"My husband said we worked at Windhome Bay, not that we owned the Yards. Two for the pair of us."

"Two and four each."

"You going to feed us like the Lords of Yarvahs, and give us a palatial cabin? We were looking for common passage. Two and four for the pair of us, and we eat with the crew."

"Two each. You'll displace cargo I can charge for."

Both of us laughed at that, "Not on any ship I've ever seen. You lash it down, and crew and common passengers find sleeping places around it. Two and four, and we eat with the crew."

"Three for the pair. If you're agaani, you'll eat like four crew each."

It was a fact that operants ate more than natural state humans - energy is never free. "With the slop you feed your crew, we'll get worms. Two and six, if your crew can vouch that the food isn't infested. You'll still profit like a water merchant at the Crossroads."

"Agreed. Two and six. Welcome to the Shimarr. We sail at first light."

It was a lot for what shouldn't be any more than a three day passage, but the fleet sailing vessels like Shimarr would be two days faster than the steamships. At this latitude, the prevailing winds blew out of the southeast. Shimarr should be sailing within a few (Earth) degrees of straight downwind to Yalskarr, and we wouldn't have to worry about food for the voyage. If what he fed the crew was too bad, we could eat Life if we had to. Asina checked in with Tellea, We have passage on a vessel named the Shimarr, out of Yalskarr. She's a fast sailer, should be there in three days. I checked in with Staff Private O'Hare, who Sephia had assigned as our contact, with the same message.

Then, we waited. There wasn't much else we could do. We could have wandered around Tabbraz - as Guardians, we'd have been safe enough from the locals, but trouble might have caused us to miss our ship. At least we didn't have a need to go into the city to buy food for our voyage - we were eating with the crew. We found an area between crates in the hold, spread our sleeping mat, and curled up together, Asina a pleasant warmth on my left side as well as a welcoming presence in my mind.

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

Tonight the family meal was something I'd never had before. Had no idea what it was called, but it tasted like I imagined a too-spicy rat stir-fry would. One of Helene's rare misses. From the way Scimtar ate, though, I'd guess it was a childhood favorite. I had a few bites to be polite to Helene, then got a double cheeseburger and fries out of the converter.

I won't say the mood was grim at dinner that evening, but it was restrained. It was a common mood these days. The major offensives against the fractal demons were over - successfully. Every demonic holding we'd known about when the war started, and many we'd discovered since then, had been eradicated. But it was a big cosmos, and the demons could reproduce faster than we did. We had to keep the pressure on - or everything we'd won would be in vain - but major battles were getting fewer and further between. Meanwhile, they were still dangling out the prizes of false operancy to induce turncoats, and they'd adapted their strategy to raids that were intended to kill people and destroy industrial capacity, rather than conquer and hold territory. A nephraim would lead a few prime of manesi on a raid of an Imperial planet or habitat, kill a couple square humans do a couple fourths of damage, and be gone (usually with captive humans for later consumption) before organized resistance could respond. It took the Empire at least thirty years to produce a new citizen, and a lot of opportunity cost. The demons could toss off an adult manes much faster and for almost no opportunity cost.

When we could find a demonic holding, superior Imperial technology would enable clearing it at casualty and expense ratios that would be conclusive in the setting of a war with another human polity. But the fractal demons didn't work like that. Bottom line was they were born with everything they needed to wreak havoc. Humans weren't. We were winning the war, but it wasn't as one-sided as you'd think, and the Empire was under a noticeable strain. This showed in the social atmosphere, here more obviously than most - many of the family were directly involved, and everyone knew the issues.

Corella and Anara were talking about the issues with building a detection array, enabling the Empire to locate demonic holdings directly.

"It seems you want to build something like the fixed tachyonic network that connects First Galaxy and a lot of our more thickly settled holdings," Imtara asked, "Could you please explain why you can't make them mobile?"

"It's not that we can't make them mobile," Corella explained to her, "It's that it adds a lot of expense to a given unit. The array range is dependent upon physical size." Given that she was talking about something that searched eleven dimensions, a halving of the range meant you'd need over thirty prime times the number of units for the same capacity.

"Wouldn't it drastically cut the number of units required?" Imtara asked, "It's not like a new demonic holding is going to be dangerous in an hour or even a day, and if they're mobile, each array can cover many such locations. Do we really need continuous monitoring at all station posts?"

"We haven't got anything big enough to move the sensor arrays intact."

"Do they need to be intact to move? Even if the answer is 'yes', Mom told us about how she was working mass haulers for a while." That had been all of three days, ending with a duel that had damned near killed me and Esteban as well.

"I need some time on this," Anara broke in, "Mounting the arrays on a ship would help us ameliorate a production bottleneck. But I need some time to program simulators." Anara was the multispacial specialist between them; she and her husband Gilras had participated in the patent that made Interstitial Vector commercially viable. Corella was more of a talented production engineer. For all I knew, Anara already had one of her other splinters working on the idea, but so far as I knew, Corella couldn't make splinters any more than I could. She might have a couple of para working the problem internally, but no external splinters.
Right there in the middle of dinner, a priority message came into my queue. Thinking it was from one of the support types I worked with over on the military side of the Residence and could simply deal with it via one of my para, I accessed it. But it was a much bigger bomb than that, from Adulthood Services back on Earth.

It seemed my bastard son had lost his adulthood and named me as a potential parent.

Copyright 2023 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.

(I may have to extend this series into a fifth book, rather than the originally planned four. We'll see when this one is done)


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