First Draft Excerpt from Measure of Adulthood

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As we entered the family dinner that evening, Lemarcus realized how out of place he was.

He'd dressed for an Earth culture that had seen its peak before Imperial contact. Flamboyant clothes in bright purple and orange with yellow accents, heavily ornamented in gold chains and medallions, sunglasses even though it was long past sunset. His shoes were the only part of his wardrobe even vaguely sensible, and that was because there were no patterns for what he wanted in the converter's database.

"Why don't you just wear a shirt that says 'Shoot Me First'? had been Ilras's comment when he and Asto's splinter got home from the range. Ilora, arriving home to change for dinner, took one look and said, "If flamboyance is all you've got, you're going to be disappointed." When requested for support, Alden had replied, "Well, it does scream you're only the distraction. Still, the distraction leads back to the perpetrator, too." In the confusion, Josan escaped unnoticed by Lemarcus, and Imtara's simple "Just stab their eyes out - it'll be less painful," also went home unremarked.

The Scimtars at dinner, by contrast, were understated. Several of the adults, including Scimtar himself, were in military uniform - tunic and trousers in House colors, pale gold accented with a sapphire blue, or the dark blue Imperial uniform accented with gold. But House uniform or Imperial, Imperial uniforms were simple. Insignia of rank was the only decoration on the field uniform, and even the dress uniform only added branch of service, achievement bar (Most of us had service points enough for Primus-in-rank or better, and all of the adults were Guardians) and possibly military decorations denoted by ribbons similar to those once worn by Earth's armed services. The difference was that Scimtar himself, with something over twenty square years of service, had exactly seven ribbons, and none of the others more than four - all for outstanding valor or ingenuity in a combat situation. My late brother-in-law, retired out of the US Navy as a Senior Chief, had had five or six rows of them, only one of which was a combat decoration.

The Scimtars in civilian dress didn't all wear their achievement bars, most of which carried three badges: Earned title was almost always the seniormost (mine was the red triangle of Tertius-in-rank), followed by most recent military rank (single white pip of a Staff Private for me - lowest in the room except for Anesto's splinter), and finally, Guardian status (mine was a green triangle with stick figure denoting a Fourth Order Guardian). Wearing an achievement bar was mandatory for those in the military or wielding government authority, whether direct or derivative, but private individuals could choose to wear them or not. Most of the civilian women wore a piece or two of small jewelry - I had on my wedding ring, Helene a pair of earrings, and so on. Civilian clothes tended to be nondescript, covering everything from feet to neck, and in muted colors or patterns.

Lemarcus, by comparison, was wearing at least five prime-weight of gold chain, several large flashy rings with huge stones, a large earring, and a medallion about the size of my hand embedded with several bar-weight of diamonds. Mass is mass to a converter, and the cost in wear-and-tear was minimal, so there really wasn't a reason to have an argument over it. He wasn't hurting anyone else with how he wanted to dress.

"Been a while since I've seen those colors," was Scimtar's remark. He was present only by splinter tonight. I told him I didn't understand.

"Purple and orange were House J'Pit colors."

That was a name I recognized. J'Pit had been the fifth and youngest surviving son of Merphon's first batch of spawn (I won't dignify the situation with the term 'family'). He'd been the military specialist, but just as much a piece of work as his four littermates. His descendants had been the fifth of the Fifteen Great Houses before the Interregnum, but none were known to have survived the bloodshed of that time. Still, J'Pit and his descendants had been a prominent fixture of the Empire from its founding until comparatively recently. Scimtar had lived most of his life in rivalry with them, even though they'd now gone the way of Carthage and Tyre.

I resolved to have a word with Lemarcus over changing his color choices until Scimtar sent, Not important now. Let it go. You ready for assignment?

Never removed myself from active; just took a few hours off duty. I'll be back on by zerothree, sooner if you have a priority assignment.

Strong trace, likely spraxos near Osh City but possibly a jopas.

Probably the majority of my assignments were in the environs of Sumabad, a consequence of it being the seat of a Nonus, but this was one of the others. A jopas was second in power only to a basileus, now that the Great Uniques were gone. Even if it was a spraxos, it was likely to be an old and canny one rather than a more recent spawn. I can go now.

It's already gone. After dinner is soon enough to trace its contacts.

"What's he mean?" Lemarcus wanted to know what Scimtar was talking about with House J'Pit. Sometimes, operants got ahead of Natural State humans because we'd augmented our mental speed and telepathic exchanges were nearly instant.

"He means you're wearing colors declaring yourself allied to a former rival family. Even if they're extinct now, it's declaring yourself ignorant at best."

"I happen to like these colors. They make me look good."

"Your choice when not attending a family gathering. Here at dinner, either learn what color combinations declare an allegiance or wear family colors." It was less important now - which meant it wasn't actively looking for trouble. This wasn't the era of the Fifteen Families, and in the last twenty years over forty new families had publicly admitted attaining the capabilities of Sixth and Seventh Order Guardians. But Imperial politics could still turn deadly. Asto's younger brother Etonas and Iaren's daughter Onta had been killed in the last House War. Wearing rival family colors was still gauche.

"Dang you keep addin' to the load. Is there any end to it?"

"You can tell me to notify Adulthood Services any time you want out. But you might start by understanding the situation you're in. In an Empire of two thirteenths, you're in the home of one of the five or six most important people. Scimtar and the family are among the Empire's wealthiest, he's one of the most important Nonuses, and probably the second or third most senior military commander as well as high on the list of strongest Guardians. Don't make his life more difficult - especially not while under the jurisdiction of Adulthood Services. All he has to do is order your exile moved out of suspense, and you'll be gone before you can blink. He's playing host to you voluntarily, but understand the only thing restraining Scimtar is himself. Certainly none of us here can." Not to mention that nobody else would want to. Defying the head of your family was something nobody would do without a much better reason.

"You make him sound like a monster."

"He's not. He understands why he shouldn't abuse his power. But give him a reason and the only reason he'll notice rolling over you - or me, if it comes to it - is that he's a sharp observer. He's almost perfectly self-controlled - he's had about eighty thousand Earth years to practice that control. But don't push him. He might regret it because he values me, but he will do whatever he thinks he has to in order to protect the Empire or his family. And he's always three or four steps ahead of anything I or Asto can manage yet. Respect him, and not just because he's dangerous. He's earned it. Look around you. Nobody handed him all this. Yeah, he was in a good position during the Restoration - but he made it all happen. Anyone else could have outhustled him and his family, but no one did."

"But don't push him."

I nodded. "He's got a lot of patience. But when necessity strikes, he's completely merciless. So is everyone else in government. They're inclined to give potentially productive citizens every opportunity - else you wouldn't be standing here. But if it comes to the welfare of the Empire or humanity, they're harder than bondsteel. Right now the Fractal Demons have us hard pressed. We think we're winning, but there's not as much slack as there might be at some other time."

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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on September 25, 2023 7:00 AM.

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