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Our first destination was Bolthole Base, high up in the most inaccessible area of the Collision Range on Wimarglr Continent. A lot of work went into keeping natives from realizing it was there, from holographic projectors to avoidance fields and forbiddings with auros. In the long run, they'd find it, but the general thinking was the long-awaited rematch between the fractal demons and the Empire would be underway before then, rendering it a moot point.

There's a moment on approach when you make a mental shift from thinking you're in space getting closer to the planet to thinking you're on the planet even though you're not on the ground yet. For me, it's when I start being able to make out individual features in the video feed. The nameless mountain in which Bolthole Base was embedded was usually it, followed by the small alpine meadow below the base. The mountain itself - second highest peak on the planet - was perpetually ice crowned, even though it was no higher than Mount Whitney in California and within a couple degrees of the planetary equator. There wasn't time in Calmena's short year of 145 Earth days (136 Imperial or local) for the snow that fell to melt. The lake below waxed and waned with the weather.

The pilot picked up the approach path, and slowing still further apparently headed straight towards the side of the mountain. At the last moment, the illusion of solidity melted and the viewscreen showed a massive cavern holding fifty or sixty Starbirds and cutters. The base and the cavern holding it had expanded in the time I'd been here, but it was still too small for anything bigger than cutters to land.

The base commander, Sephia, was waiting to greet us. Sephia looked like a blonde college coed of my youth, her white-blonde pageboy cut barely ruffling in the sheltered cavern. "Welcome back, my young friends!" she greeted the two of us. As soon as she opened her mouth, her attitude and manner of speaking betrayed the fact that she was old for a natural state human - perhaps a full square by now. I didn't know exactly - what I did know was she'd held a higher rank than she did now at the end of the Reunification, three thousand Imperial years ago. Except for occasional leave, she'd been base commander for over an Earth century now, and she had no intention of applying for promotion. "This is where the next war with the demons will start," she'd told me when I first arrived. Taking a promotion would mean leaving Calmena for her.

"Good to see you, grandmother!" I teased her in return. I was aware the base was busier than it had been in times past. There were more troops visible in the main cavern. I wasn't sure why; it wasn't any of my business. I could ask if I wanted, but I was certain Sephia wouldn't give me a straight answer. The Empire has a habit of keeping operational information to those with a need to know, Asina concurred. I wasn't aware that the combat soldiers were doing any more work but there had to be a reason the Empire had done it. Likely it had to do with the heightened sense that open war with the fractal demons was close. I'd heard rumors of more troops being assigned to Earth as well.

"Staying the night, or just heading on through?" she asked.

"The plan is to take the portal to Tabbraz immediately," Asina responded, "But there's no rush. If you'd like us to stay for some reason, there are ships heading to Yalskarr from there all the time." Tabbraz was on the south coast of Hashiboor, from which passage on a steamship to Yalskarr, at the base of the Karnel Peninsula, would take a few days. We had to be a little more circumspect these days. Rather than just walking out of a portal or setting up a compound in the middle of nowhere, we had to leave something of an arrival trail and something of a departure trail. Calmena was getting civilized. Somebody might ask where we came from - it was important for them to be able to find something of a trail.

Copyright 2019 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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The forges of N'yeschlass began their beat at dawn, every day without fail. Things had changed since we began.

The town had never been officially named. The name had grown from the unofficial motto of what my wife and I and the original group of refugees cowering in the jungle had begun not quite twenty Imperial years ago. The demonic tongue of Calmena had no word for freedom. N'yeschlass translated literally as "no slaves." It was a promise to all - come to us and be free. It didn't appeal to everyone, as it included freedom to fail and freedom to starve, but those were simply the terms of life everywhere on Calmena. In the portions run by the fractal demons, slaves were eaten when they began to show signs of aging. Where the pseudo-feudal human agaani held sway, grinding poverty and recurrent famines were almost as brutal. Only in N'yeschlass and its confederated territory was there a significant chance of a human being alive on what an Earther like me would consider their fiftieth birthday.

I still worked my smithy a couple hours per day. It had seen upgrades since the day we'd built it - it was probably the equal of a mid-19th century forge on Earth now. But these days, the metal was mined out of the Collision Range and I didn't have to pretend to cart it in while pulling most of it out of a converter. We still had the secret room with all the technological conveniences underneath our forge, but these days I bought all of the metal I used. I might create the gold and silver I used to buy it out of the converter, but the metal I actually worked was honestly mined by miners who were part of our new nation. N'yeschlass the nation held better than a third of Wimarglr, the North America sized continent we'd called Continent One when we discovered Calmena, including most of the Collision Range.

There were probably twentyfive square people in N'yeschlass the city these days. After better than twenty years of thinking alternatively in demonic and Imperial systems, the former for everyday interactions with Calmenans and the latter for reports and planning to our Imperial sponsors, the decimal system and all the other standards of measurement I'd grown up with on Earth was almost alien to me now. 90,000 was a fair number of people for a city to have with this level of technology, and N'yeschlass the nation probably had four or five cities that were bigger now. N'yeschlass the city was the gateway to the mining regions in the Collision Range, a name that had stuck when I'd used it inadvertently in conversation with a Calmena native. "Collision" didn't mean anything in demonic; they just thought it was a good name. Probably half the place names on Earth came from circumstances not too different.

N'yeschlass the city had a very European feel to it. I don't mean the architecture was similar, it wasn't. That looked like nothing in my experience. By any reasonable definition, construction here was mostly wooden squalor. But the streets had grown organically rather than planned. Asina and I still owned a good bit of land, but these days most of it was in use. I spent more time managing others than working metal myself. The city was where more metal was smelted than anywhere else on Calmena. Iron, nickel, copper, tin, lead and even small amounts of aluminum and others. N'yeschlass' metallurgy was probably late eighteenth century equivalent on average. Not bad. Asina and I owned a good bit of the production, and had shown everyone else how to do it.

Copyright 2017 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved

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Imperial vehicles were more like this ship: quiet, and almost too powerful. Thirty meters from nose to tail, roughly twenty six from wingtip to wingtip, with the central cylinder being roughly eight meters in diameter, Golden Hind was reminiscent of one of NASA's old space shuttles. It had the same type of outer hull, minus the rocket nozzles - it was powered by a main siphon that could provide about ten percent of the power of the sun, essentially forever. A converter was attached that could use that power to produce matter in most configurations from machine tools to food. Impellers were capable of about 1200 gravities of acceleration in normal space - from grounded to 99% of light speed in less than seven hours. The Vistula Space Corporation, or VSC, had ordered a standard transport cutter, with a time-jammer addition. The faster-than-light time-jammer was designed and rated for over two hundred thousand times the speed of light. That meant Earth to Barnard's Star in about fifteen minutes at top speed - which would be like traveling to the corner store at Mach speeds. It even had a Vector Drive in case an operant pilot became available. One person could operate Golden Hind, but we had a crew of five.

The titular commander was John Dulles. I wasn't privy to why VSC had named a corporate vice-president to command the ship. I didn't think it was a good idea, but nobody asked me. Earth MBAs didn't have the background I thought likely to make good decisions in that sort of situation. I thought that if he had any brains he'd pretend to think it over and do what Major John Kyle (newly mustered out from U.S.A.F.) - our pilot - suggested. A graduate of the Air Force Academy and former fighter pilot, Major Kyle at least had the kinds of training to understand what was important if we got into trouble. Jayden Smith - a graduate of Johns Hopkins with a decade of solid work in molecular biology with medical application - was our biologist, and William Miyazaki was our astronomer. Will had had a doctorate from CalTech before his twenty-first birthday, and had spent the ten years since expanding Earth's infant science of detecting habitable planets at interstellar distances - technology that had become irrelevant overnight when the Empire arrived to save us from ourselves.

What was I doing here? Well, the family had more than enough people to work the dog business, even the shipborne part involving Tia Grace's two huge spherical transport ships, Earth and Indra. Her husband's family had given them to her to help grow the dog business, and she'd needed cargo handlers, for which she wanted family - me and all the rest of her nephews and nieces. She'd given us datalinks so we could interface with Imperial computers just by thinking, plus they gave us a lot of other capabilities. Think of a datalink essentially like having a tiny super smartphone right there in your brain. Then she'd left us alone on her ships for a week at a time, with nothing to do except work and study. Of course the first things we all learned were the rest of the skills of Imperial space crew. Everything from in-system pilot to power engineer. Which made us pretty unique on Earth after the unification. When a couple Earth consortia got the funds for small spacecraft, the first thing they did was offer an unbelievable amount recruiting us, as the only Earth people with working knowledge of Imperial spacecraft. I had a better understanding of the Imperial technology we were using than almost anyone else. I was engineer, repairman, janitor, and back-up for everyone else. If something broke, I was pretty much the only hope of fixing it. Finally, unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, the Empire essentially required that the command pilot be someone who had passed the Imperial adulthood tests, not just a temporary adult-by-courtesy. That meant I had final authority as far as the ship itself was concerned - I could over-ride anyone and everyone else if I had to. However, I'd get a bonus if I didn't reveal it - VSC's financial backers were Earth business people, steeped in the business traditions of Earth. They didn't want to tell successful professionals with a decade or more experience that the ultimate boss was a twenty-two year old kid who had been working his way through community college a little over year ago. Our family had had over a year to deal with those tests; it had only been about eight weeks since the Imperial arrival notified everyone else.

Some people might gripe about no women on the crew. Cramped living quarters meant we were living in bunk beds about six feet by three with about eighteen inches of vertical space and absolutely no privacy, so Golden Hind had an all-male crew. The offsetting reality was that my cousin Adela was aboard all-female Victoria, headed off towards Alpha Centauri and other stars in that direction. We were supposed to be gone for five to seven days each, each returning in plenty of time for our next turn onboard Tia Grace's ships. That was in fact written into my contract - replacement for wages lost if the ship went past nominal return date.

There had been a lot of interest in us, as if in disbelief that the Empire was really going to let Earth people pilot interstellar ships with no oversight from its own people, less than two months after taking over the planet. I don't know about no oversight, but as long as we stayed within the framework that had been pounded out over the millennia, there wasn't any reason to treat Earth humans as different from any other citizens of the Empire. Golden Hind and Victoria had responsible, qualified adults in charge, so the Empire was fine with VSC's two new interstellar craft. VSC had had a departure ceremony, with speeches by half a dozen people who would have been Very Important Politicians just a couple months before, including the President of the United States and our very own self-appointed luminary Mr. Dulles. Everyone from both crews had less than complimentary pet names for that clown. He talked of the glories of exploration and bringing back treasures. Idiot. Mines, even "pick the pure, no refinery needed stuff up off the ground"-type mines would never compete with siphons and converters. We were looking for livable planets, or planets that could be made livable. Nothing else.

Our actual departure from Earth had been pretty prosaic. We'd used the old runway the shuttles used to land on in Cape Canaveral, for no good reason. Imperial ships could take off vertically and safely from anywhere, with noise about equal to an electric car until you hit Mach. Major Kyle took us up and out of the atmosphere, then out of the plane of the ecliptic preparatory to transitioning to light speed. It wasn't far as in-system distances went, and it really only took about half an hour to get well clear of most of the junk in the solar system. We watched Earth drop away, becoming a blue-white marble behind us before diminishing to a point. We hadn't used maximum acceleration, so we were only about ten million kilometers from Earth - twenty times further than any previous ship manned by Earth humans - when we engaged the time-jammer and went superluminal.

The aforementioned capture buffer built quickly. It didn't matter if we caught a photon that had left Sol before us, or one traveling towards us from one of the stars in the "forward" half of the sky. Photons impacting the bubble entered the capture buffer, and only slowly worked their way loose, resulting in the pretty soft pastels I talked about earlier.

We started off slow and built speed up over the course of an hour or so. It had been planned that we'd peak at about fifty thousand times the speed of light, but Major Kyle ended up ramping more slowly to a lower top speed, about thirty thousand times the speed of light, which we stayed at for about an hour and a half before it was time to start slowing down again. During that time he jogged us three times to miss objects large enough to worry about. A couple of times, Dulles tried to talk to him but Major Kyle said, "If you want to talk, we need to stop first." It wasn't exactly difficult piloting, but you couldn't let your attention wander at all. In one second at thirty thousand times the speed of light, we were traveling about nine billion kilometers, or roughly the entire diameter of Neptune's orbit. There were a lot of reasons why Vector Drive was better, if you had the pilot to handle it. For one thing, when you went directly from point A to point B, there was a lot less to hit.

Copyright 2016 Dan Melson. All Rights Reserved.


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