Excerpt from The Price Of Power

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Speaking of the dogs, Children, it's time for a treat. We're going to the park for an hour. Save your lessons; you can come back to them later. Tina helped by carrying Imtara; the baby could walk but her legs were still too short to keep up. The real point of the exercise was a treat for Mischief and Scarecrow; excursions out of the pilot module had been rare. When you're trying to hide from rival houses, you don't give them easy ways to find you. But here in the Residence our defensive strategy was different, which allowed for family excursions as long as I didn't allow them to become predictable. The two dachshunds followed us out, unsure of what was happening but secure in the fact they belonged with their people.

Everyone remember what Case Blue means?

Yes, mama! they chorused, obey now, explanation later. Children from the Great Families learned early about the dangers to them. Outings had been rare when we were aboard the ship, but even Imperial ships had life-threatening events.

Enroute, I used my datalink to purchase access to the park for all of us and Asto for an Imperial year. It didn't take long to get there; into one portal and out another, a short walk of maybe a minute from the destination portal brought us into a park within the arcology. The ecology of the park might be described as temperate mountain meadow - if you used an Indran definition of temperate. It was a warmer planet than Earth on average, so the park was kept somewhere in the eighties, Fahrenheit scale. Humidity was higher than an Earth native like me preferred as well. Perhaps half of it might have been yellow-green grasses, well-manicured in the same manner as Earthly lawns of my youth. Small clumps of three or four trees each broke up the expanse, the grasses becoming sparse to non-existent within a pace or two of each trunk. Most common was a shortish, gnarled variety no more than two to three times human height with vaguely circular leaves. The entire park was indoors and fenced; it had been seeded with small wildlife that put me in mind of rabbits and squirrels and ducks.

There were other dogs in the park, of course. Earth Dogs' second outlet had been opened in Indra System, over on Habitat One, and of course we'd had dogs in the Residence before that. There were about thirty dogs in the park including a couple other dachshunds; Imperial housing arrangements favored smaller breeds and dachshunds had been one of the first breeds I'd started working with. I didn't follow the business closely but I was pretty certain dachshunds and cocker spaniels were still the two most popular breeds. Mischief was in her 'Miss Chief' mode; she wanted to establish dominance but I kept her firmly in check as she sniffed the other dogs. Scarecrow was lower key about it; he wasn't the top dog and he knew it so he was happy to play with a little black cocker and a yellow chihuahua that greeted him.

The kids infested an unused hadul emplacement. Hadul was the closest thing the Empire had to a mass spectator sport - a configurable three dimensional volume, perhaps a little smaller than a football field in terms of footprint but three dimensional up to an altitude of about half the length. At varying altitudes, plates and cubes and spheres (among other shapes) were placed within, and gravity within was variable from one standard imperial gravity (slightly stronger than Earth's) to minus one. Neither I nor Asto were fans. All I really knew was that it was a simulated wargame, and the salient features were that the playing field wasn't fixed from contest to contest and there was a budget in terms of total player time on the field. But it was a great place for the kids to play and explore and meet the other children who were here. I judged the oldest three to be completely safe in terms of not hurting themselves (and I could heal them if they did), and even baby Imtara was really in no danger - she understood how to save herself with matris, same as she'd used it to save herself from Ilras flinging ketchup at her. Still, I needed to keep them under observation. The Scimtars were wealthy and important. Kids were safe from the other major families but there was always a chance someone had a grudge or thought they saw an opportunity for profit. Besides, it was fun to observe them playing the games kids play while exploring new territory. There were forty or so kids playing in the hadul volume and it seemed to me that close to half were operant. A higher ratio than most of the Empire, but not unexpected close to the Residence, where many of Scimtar's assistants and subordinates were themselves strongly operant.

I told the dogs stay where you can see me, and they reluctantly complied. Mischief pretended it was her own idea, sauntering over in all her imperious dignity. Scarecrow, reluctant at first, broke off from his two playmates of the moment to slink slowly in our direction. It reminded me of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, until the cocker and chihuahua decided to bring the game over to Scarecrow, where they were joined by a couple other dogs. Our chocolate and tan wiener dog perked right up as the game re-joined him, and then Mischief decided to join in, also. We were keeping them young, essentially fully grown puppies that hadn't settled into adulthood yet.

Some of the kids had evidently looked up the rules for hadul; the majority of the children present joined into a more organized activity. Esteban may have been only six, but he was a holy terror - he'd had as much physical and Guardian training as I could give him in the pilot module, and that would expand now that we had access to the Residence. I expected Scimtar himself would be tutoring the kids as well in all the major forms of survival through violence. For right now, though, Esteban was organizing the other kids into something like a hadul game in progress. Hand-to-hand combat was built into hadul, any touch by another player had a sliding scale of consequences in the actual game. Nor were there allowances for what's euphemistically called 'friendly fire'; it was a simulated war game. Even though the gravity field wasn't on, that didn't stop the kids from behaving as if it were. They swarmed over the field in a mobile clump that moved with the main action. It seemed Esteban was the primary ringleader, but Ilora and Ilras were in it, too. The dogs followed the action on the ground, barking as if to say, "We want to play, too!"

It was oddly restful watching them. Imtara needed her own supervision, but the other three reliably could keep themselves from getting hurt if they fell, so except for baby Alden's interface to the world, I could relax and let them play. Tina was watching, too, although she wouldn't be able to do anything but yell for me if something happened. It was restful watching the four of them do the same thing that didn't require constant "Mom!"

And then it was shattered.

Grace, get the kids back to the Residence! Etonas may be dead!

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on September 11, 2023 7:00 AM.

Excerpt from The Invention Of Motherhood was the previous entry in this blog.

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