Dan Melson: June 2018 Archives

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the opening of my work in progress, tentatively titled "The Price of Power". It is a sequel to The Invention of Motherhood.

Ilras, quit trying to squirt your sister with ketchup. The inverse square law is on her side.

But mom! I'm just trying to teach her defense! Meanwhile, baby Imtara giggled in delight at frustrating her brother's dastardly plan.

Dear, even if she was asleep, she'd have plenty of time to wake up and divert the stream. She's well past that drill. All you're doing is giving the dogs a mess to clean up.

Ilras didn't realize it, but his sister had ally. Esteban, the oldest at six Imperial years of age (4 Earth), scooped together a good-sized dollop with matris, stealthed it with a buffer of matra and brun, and flung it at his younger brother. I usually expected better behavior from Esteban, but under the circumstances, I let it slide.

Splat! It caught Ilras right on his jawline. No fair! Ilras cried indignantly, then had the awareness to look bashful when I gave him the mental equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. Ilras wasn't ready for the drills Esteban was doing yet, and Esteban had just made use of that fact to slip a counter-attack his brother wasn't ready for under his defenses. Given the impetus of an older brother who wasn't above using his advantages, I suspected Ilras would learn quickly.

Meanwhile, Mischief, our English Cream longhair miniature dachshund, gave a plaintive whine that she'd been deprived of her snack, most of which was now plastered across Ilras' face, and looked expectantly at Esteban for a replacement. Her name really was doubly appropriate; we ended up calling her Miss Chief about half the time. How she knew Esteban was responsible for her deprivation, I don't know, but no replacement was forthcoming. Scarecrow, our chocolate and tan shorthair male, gave a muted but pre-emptory bark informing us he wanted ketchup, too. We were at the table; we studiously ignored them.

I felt a muted thunk as Tina, my assistant, slid us into the control plug of my latest contract, followed a few seconds later by a datalink message of control verified, ready for Vector. I'd chosen Tina for the job because she was my niece and already a fully qualified insystem navigator, but despite my hopes after six years nearly constant exposure to the kids, she hadn't gone operant yet, so I still had to do all the Vectoring. I relieved her, re-computed the Vector for confirmation, performed it, verified position, and (because our next pickup was in this same system) transferred the helm back to her for insystem maneuvering to our next job. It had taken all of six seconds, and I'd still had a couple of para to keep the peace at the dinner table.

Mama, how long until we can play with baby Alden? Ilora wanted to know again.

About three more weeks, honey, I told her. Truth be told, despite all the advantages of being a Guardian, I was ready for my last pregnancy to be over. Next time, I would plan on one child, two at the most. But I really had only myself to blame - I could have just used artificial gestation for Esteban, same as everyone else, and then most of the Empire wouldn't have known about the advantages of operant mothers carrying operant children themselves. I'd introduced Alden to his older siblings on several occasions, but most of the time, kept him swaddled away where only I or Asto could interact with him. Since Asto was a First Corporal, assigned as executive officer of a squadron of Planetary Surface troops out in Ninth Galaxy, that didn't happen as often as any of us liked. The rank was an almost exact match to Brigadier General in the old US Army; a squadron was 14,400 combat troops plus their support staff of roughly another 3600.
Alden, for his part, wanted out into the great wide world. It took two of my para full time to keep him occupied and learning, and he still wasn't satisfied. Can I play with Ilras and Esteban, Mom? It was tempting to just blow off the last three weeks of this pregnancy, knowing any physical defects could be fixed later, but neither I nor Asto was ready to experiment with Alden's emotional development. The Empire had tens of thousands of years of evidence children were more able to deal with the world after a full gestation, even in an artificial womb. Neither of us wanted to experiment more than we'd already done with our own children, carrying them naturally as I'd done.

Dinner was just about over, winding down with chocolate ice cream for everyone, when Asto told me, It's official!

Children, some news. Your father is getting a new assignment. He's going to be a Staff Corporal assigned to maintenance and repair in Indra System! We're going to go live in the Residence, where he can be home every day!

Why is he getting demoted? Esteban wanted to know. Staff Corporal was a four grade drop, although two of them were staff grades, out of the line of command.

Because he's transferring to a space unit. You always transfer from Planetary Surface to Strategic Space or Tactical Space at a lower rank. He'd be expected to absorb an entirely new set of protocols; but a maintenance and repair assignment meant he'd henceforth be eligible for direct transfers or promotions within either of the space-borne branches.

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Meal concluded, the same private escorted us back to more hours of waiting. One more operant inductee joined us, and then the same Trained Private came in with an operant Staff Private. Addressing us, he said, "This is Staff Private Ugatu," gesturing at the Staff Private, "He will be escorting you to your training facility and turning you over to your unit Instructor. Follow his instructions." Why was a lowly Trained Private instructing us to obey a Staff Private, several grades higher? Because staff ranks were not part of the chain of command. Yes, a Staff Private was senior to us, but wasn't normally entitled to give orders, to us or to anyone else. Technically speaking, if we obeyed an order from a Staff Private without such an instruction, we'd be responsible for the consequences. "There are reasons for everything the Imperial military does," Parnit had explained over and over. "You might not understand or even agree with those reasons. You might think they are pointless, even counterproductive. The reasons are never explained, for reasons that won't be explained to you, either, at least not until you achieve your first staff rank. But every single one of them has been field tested and cross-checked over thirty square (75,000+ Earth years) of successful operations covering an incredible volume of space and situations too varied for you or even me to imagine."
The Imperial solutions were definitely different than the ones the US military had employed. My older sister married a Navy Senior Chief, so I thought I understood what sorts of things to expect. I was wrong.

"Grab your clothing bags," he said, "Form a single file line starting here. Follow me. When we get to the ship, move aft to the cargo section. First one in, move to the left side of the ship and all the way back, one to a seat, fill that side then fill the right in the same manner. Place your bag under your seat and strap in." Asto and I were third and fourth in line; if it was a standard cutter we'd be sitting together in the two front left cargo seats. If we were headed for a different type of hull, we'd have been given different instructions. Destroyer hull seating was in front-facing rows, like an airliner on Earth. I didn't know of any Starbirds able to seat eight or more, and their cargo section wasn't separate from the flight deck.

We didn't walk; it was more like a trot. It wasn't a difficult pace to keep; about eight kilometers per hour. No, they weren't trying to march us or wear us out, yet. Maybe fifteen minutes later (twenty-five Earth), we came to the edge of a landing field that looked like it could land an assault cruiser or fifty, as the white pavement stretched at least a kilometer in each direction. There were actually three assault cruisers I saw, as well as sundry other craft, but our destination was a cutter, landed in 'belly down' mode near our edge. Think of something shaped like the old NASA shuttles, roughly thirty meters long by twenty-six in wingspan, with no rockets on the rear.

The first woman in started to move left in the cargo bay, Ugatu barked out, "Ship's left!" and she corrected her mistake, moving to our right. I didn't see what difference it would make, but my opinion didn't count. Ugatu hadn't said anything abusive, from his tone of voice I gathered he didn't think we were worth it. It wasn't quite a standard cutter, as there were two rows of six seats each facing each other across the cargo bay, as opposed to the more usual four per side, at least on the models I'd been in. There was still plenty of room, and it meant Asto and I were actually close enough to hold hands. The last man in line was left all by himself on the right side of the ship, all the way in the back. I threw my bag under my seat and pulled out the star-shaped five point harness that would be recognizable to most Earth pilots, if different in the details. I strapped myself in and put on my passive waiting face.

No, there wasn't a passenger's telemetry feed I could access. I tried both with my datalink and via telepathy, and was locked out both times. Ugatu came into the cargo bay, looked straight at me and said, "Stop trying to compromise my piloting! You're cargo! You will be told what you need to know!" I hunched down a little in apology, and responded, "Yes, Sir!" The Technical term ang was actually sex-neutral and translated as "person who is my direct superior" but in English, "sir" captures the feeling better.

They want us off-balance for now, love, Asto cautioned, accept the situation. Things will need to change later.

I know. Parnit had shown us evaluation criteria, both for passing training and for promotions. To say they didn't reward robots or blind obedience was an understatement. Then I saw what Asto was doing. Thanks to auros, perception, and a knowledge of onboard systems, he was able to build up a picture of what the cutter was doing without a feed from the control link. The advantages of more practice and being a stronger Guardian. He would have shared, but I wanted to be able to do it for myself. It was a horrible confusing mass of data, so I started with propulsion. We were still on the ground, but not for long. With Asto's help, I found I could follow enough of what the propulsion system was doing. Then I realized what this implied - Guardians could issue control instructions to Imperial vessels without having piloting authorization!
Yes and no, he said, there is crosschecking built into the system. I could probably issue a control instruction, but it would get cancelled as soon as the pilot realized the ship wasn't doing exactly what he told it. After that, he would go into interference mode. Didn't EnIlas make you practice that?

I remembered something about it, Once, I told him, it slows reaction and makes you repeat everything.
Exactly. And if I managed to master that?

Enforced approval. Then feedback loops. All intended to increase the advantage of the authorized pilot over the interloper.

Would this keep someone good enough from over-riding your control?


No, but someone that good could take you over and directly force you to relinquish control. And the pilot could be enlisting other crew to aid in defense of the ship.

That was the story with Imperial technology and their abilities, over and over again. It wasn't that the safeguards would absolutely stop such interference, it was that they would put all of the advantages they could on the side of the legal pilot. The only circumstance where I envisioned the control interference having critical effects was combat - and Guardians strong enough to make that sort of difference were too valuable to waste for that trivial a gain.

A few seconds later, I watched instructions to the impellers spike as weight fell away. Evidently, we were making this trip with shipboard gravity on "enforced null". Roughly three seconds up, the Vector system pulsed, but I didn't have enough capacity left over to monitor ship's sensors. I asked Asto if he knew where we were, and he said, "Yes. Only one system looks like this," as he shared the view with me. I saw an image of a large sphere, all but totally enclosing a star - Couldn't see them from here, but I knew there were small gaps near the poles. We were at Sharanna.

The ship's Impellers started up again, then the Vector Drive pulsed again. Asto shared the new picture - we were inside the sphere now. Nothing too unusual; I'd done it myself on many occasions as there wasn't an outside spaceport convenient to my dog farm, but one assumed that a major military facility would be built with port facilities in mind. Maybe they were, and a cutter was simply too small to make it worth mixing it up with massive capital ships. There was roughly a half-million to one volume and mass disparity between this ship and a size four capital ship, which in turn was the smallest of the cargo carriers in common use.
The impellers spiked again. Ugatu was bringing us in hot. Evidently he was on a tight schedule of some kind. The impellers were only a little below maximum power. Suddenly, we reversed, flipped end for end and the impellers flared all the way to their limits. Outside, my perception could feel atmosphere rushing past, thickening fast, scattering sonic booms through the atmosphere of Sharanna. He cut power to just a couple gravities as we dropped subsonic. My perception wasn't strong enough to feel the ground yet, but I didn't think we were very high.

Ten seconds later, we grounded with a thump-KLANG. Harder than I liked to put my ships down, but with a full hull charge, I had no reason to believe Ugatu had endangered the ship or anyone in it. Weight returned as the impellers went dormant. I stayed buckled and so did Asto; nobody had told us we were getting off here.

A few seconds later, Ugatu came back into the cargo bay and did just that, "Unstrap yourselves and grab your bags. Follow me out in reverse order to how you came in. Welcome to Sharanna Military Reservation Twentythree, the Empire's newest initial military training facility for Guardians. You'll be here until you pass or they allow you to quit."

The lone man who'd been on the opposite side of the ship followed him out first, followed by the left side from front to back, reversing the order we'd loaded in. We debarked on a much larger landing field, with many ships of varying sizes from Starbird all the way up to convoy craft at least, and it was just that I didn't see anything bigger, not that I was certain it wasn't there. First, we trotted at the same speed away from the ship as we had in approaching. This area of Sharanna was a lot cooler and less humid than Fulda or even Sumabad; maybe the equivalent of five degrees Celsius outside. Cold enough for natural state humans to be uncomfortable, and you could feel a hint of rain in the air. Classic towering cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds occupied a good slice of the horizon, approaching rapidly, and you could see the rain approaching. Overhead, the clear sky was rapidly turning to grey. Once the weather got up steam here, it could really move fast and grow powerful enough to make a joke of any Earthly storm. Imperial construction was tough; people just didn't go out when storms were bad. Sharanna was a completely artificial environment, so unless there was an intentionally created barrier, storms could travel millions of kilometers, alternately waxing and waning the whole way until they did run into something that stopped them for good. Kind of like the Great Plains states, or the oceans of Earth, times a thousand or so. My dog farm was in the prevailing wind-shadow of Band City with its massive ten and twenty mile high arcologies spreading across a swath a million kilometers or more in any direction, and no major sources of storms between the city and the farm. I gathered that this place was not so sheltered.

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.

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I announced myself to Helene and she invited me into her studio. She was working on a voice project for someone else that day; she put it aside and sat with me. "The first question I have to ask, Grace, is how territorial you are about the dog business?"
"If it would get me the people I need to help Earth, I'd sell the dog farm tomorrow. I can make more running cargo around the Empire than I can in the dog business, and be home every night."
"Well, perhaps you ought to do precisely that. My husband has a pair of older size two capital ships that really aren't economical any longer. They've been sitting in a holding yard for years. You should be able to put Interstitials in, maybe even pay an on-board cargo handler. Agree to rent space in the hold to anyone who wants. Class two capital ships have external racks for nine small cruiser auxiliaries, as well as internal space for smaller craft. Inoperants can make sublight runs within the system on impellers. If you simply hold your fees to something the consortium can pay, that would solve most of the problems."
"That seems like it might have merit, but the real point is to get strong Guardians who can fight demons. My satellite has found a jopas, two spraxos, and several nephraim, none of which I'm confident of facing alone."
"Not all operants are Vector pilots, let alone Interstitial pilots."
"I know, Helene, but how many will be interested in Earth?"
"All you can do is ask."
True. Without the Empire behind it, this whole thing was purely voluntary. On the other hand, I didn't have to choose by the method of taking the first eight people - or eighty - who ask. I could explicitly reserve slots for operants willing to fight major demons. Class two capital ships might have been small by the standards of current commerce, but they were over three hundred fifty meters in radius - nearly one hundred million cubic meters of which was cargo capacity. By comparison, the largest cargo ships on Earth are around seven to eight hundred thousand cubic meters. I wasn't certain every stray dog and cat on Earth would fill a hundred million cubic meters. On the other hand, with an internal system for moving stasis boxes, it would make it easy for dog people to bring back a stasis box at a time, and each participant could have boxes and hold volumes marked for their individual use. "Is anyone likely to volunteer just for a demon hunt?"
"I'd say it's likely. There's a lot of bad feeling towards demons over their part in the Interregnum. If I wasn't raising two small children, I might volunteer myself."
That was a shock. Helene was the embodiment of a dignified lady artist. Then I remembered Anara telling me how she used to have two other children, and I realized I didn't know how many other close friends and family she might have lost. Figure every Imperial citizen old enough to have lived through the Interregnum was a good candidate to volunteer, and that included a large proportion of the strongest as well as all of the most experienced Guardians. For the first time, I really understood that learning about history second-hand was a poor substitute for the experience of those who lived through it. "What if I were to simply upload my satellite log?"
"You might have to promote it a bit, and add a location. Perhaps you might have to promise transportation. But the response that would surprise me the least is veterans of the era start recruiting on their own. Everyone lost people they cared about. I was extraordinarily lucky in that I, my husband, and four of my six children survived. By comparison the Baryan lost twenty out of twentytwo adult members and all of their children and spouses, the M'Dorna lost fourteen out of fifteen adults and all their children and spouses, and depending upon your interpretation, ten or eleven of the Great Houses were completely exterminated. The Council actually had a survival rate greater than the Imperial population at large. More than half of all Imperial planets were completely destroyed or sterilized, none kept even half their old population alive. Nobody got through the Interregnum unscathed, and the demons were the enabling factor. Most survivors of the Interregnum don't think we've done anything like even the scales yet. Many will drop anything they can to give them a chance at demons."
"So a two prong strategy, one to recruit volunteers for an assault, one to recruit fellow dog sellers. What is the advantage of the other dog sellers?"
"One person, isolated as you are on Earth, is a lot easier to kill than an ongoing presence. Even if you're the only pilot for the consortium, the other members will have someone who checks on them if they don't return."
So if there were a dozen of us on Earth, killing one of us didn't help them. With Asto behind me, it wouldn't help them even if I was alone, but they'd know it wouldn't help them if I wasn't alone. "Thank you Helene. Am I going to be able to thank Scimtar in person this evening?" She communicated no, so I continued, "Please also tell him thank you for me?" and started to take my leave, but she interrupted me.
"One more thing, Grace. My husband said it's time you had a refresher. I've made reservation for you with the family arms people tomorrow from nineteen zero to twentysix."
Well, dang. I had had plans for tomorrow - it was the only day I'd get in the Empire before I had to head back to Earth. A day and a half here was roughly six days there. Neither she nor grandfather can force you, love, Asto sent, but it really would be a good idea. The skills decay without use. So I agreed, and then took my leave.

 



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