Chapter Two continued

"You mentioned Second Order Guardian. Explain that."

"Well, it’s possible for natural state humans – inoperants — to fulfill a specific list
of tested qualifications. Those are First Order Guardians. Even among those
who want to be able to defend themselves, most natural state humans don’t
bother with all of the requirements – the sword requirement is silly for First Order
– but there’s a certain prestige to the title even now. First Order Guardians are
natural state humans with extensive training, but no special abilities. They are as
vulnerable to ranged fire as anyone else, and they’re just not a threat to the
higher orders with a sword. It’s a carryover from a long time ago, when operants
– we were called mindlords until about 2800 years ago – were rare and the
training they took wasn’t so good or extensive. But that was when my father was
young – long before I came along. These days, people who pass all the tests for
First Order Guardians are rarer than Fourth or Fifth Order. Most inoperants opt
for a truncated course of study aimed at skills which are more likely to make a
difference. I should note that while about six sevenths of the Imperial population
is inoperant, pretty much everyone carries the genes to become operant should
the right circumstances occur. I would wager that holds true on Earth as well."

"A Second Order Guardian is someone who carries the mindlord gene and, like
me, the switch that turns the mindlord abilities has been somehow switched on.
They have not only become operant, they have met certain standards as far as
skill and power. You’ve got to have command of the entire skill set, you have to
have at least a minimum amount of power, and you have to demonstrate an
acceptable level of control. This is the symbol for a Second Order Guardian," he
gestured to a small golden triangle on the right breast with a stick figure human
embedded, where a pocket flap would be on a shirt that had one. An important
distinction, though, is that Second Order Guardians were not born operant.
Those who are born operant and meet those standards are called Third Order
Guardians. Being wired for operancy from conception gives the Third Order a
known advantage. The Second Order is also the vast majority of all Guardians,
about seven sixtieths of the imperial population, while all other Guardians are a
combined total of two sixtieths. I should admit there’s nearly another sixtieth who
were born operant and should be Third Order never qualify, preferring to stay
outside the system. They are mostly regarded as wastes of opportunity." Trust
funders everywhere
, I thought.

"Some Second Order Guardians get enough stronger over time that a qualitative
change happens: Instead of wrestling the universe into subdual, I’m told it’s like
the universe suddenly wants to do what you want it to. Almost nobody takes the
actual test, but eventually too many people figure out you’re really good enough
for Fourth Order and it becomes both pointless and socially unacceptable to
represent yourself as being Second when everyone knows you’re Fourth. Fourth
Order Guardians are a leap beyond Second as far as external power and control,
but for most every day internal things, including just thinking, they’re about the
same. Third Order Guardians become Fifth Order at a slightly higher threshold.

"There is another qualitative level of change, and I’m told that only people who
are close to that level of power and control can really understand what it is. On
rare occasions, Fourth Order Guardians go through another ceiling, barrier or
threshold, and they become Sixth Order Guardians. Only one has ever taken the
actual test – a special case. It becomes a matter of social expectation and it
being pointless to pretend you’re not Sixth when everybody knows you are. My
father hit that level sometime after I was born. Sixth Order Guardians are the
rarest of all. They rose from inoperant to be one of the strongest operant minds
around. There are nineteen known to be living, including my father. All of their
known children have been born at the Fifth Order power level"

"Seventh Order Guardians are a little different. All current Seventh Order are
descendants of Merphon, the most successful of the experimental children, in
unbroken line of Seventh Order Guardians back to him. He had fifteen children
who survived, although the competition got pretty fierce among them. For
millennia, the probability of them dying within five years of their adulthood was
almost unity, thanks to the rivalries between them and their descendants. One of
the Fifteen Houses never got above three adult members, although things are a
little more relaxed now. There is one Seventh Order Guardian still alive that is
Merphon’s grandson, others go as far as seven generations down. They do bear
the same relationship to Sixth Order Guardians as Fifth to Fourth, and Third to
Second. It is thought there is a threshold of power for the Sixth Order such that
children will be born Seventh as well, but if father has hit that level, my brothers
and sisters hide it well. So far nobody has claimed to be such an example. It is
also possible to upwardly progress in power through Third and Fifth Order and
become Seventh, but there are no known living examples."

"And you are bringing your war to Earth precisely why? We have enough
troubles of our own!"

"It’s a long story, Grace."

"Then the sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll be done!"

He paused for a moment. "Here is the absolute minimum version. We have a
group of rebels, called stons, we’ve been fighting for about 4300 years. They
actually beat us for a while, and were in charge for almost 1500 years, but that
ended about 2800 of our years ago, due to the horrific wasteland they made of
the Empire. Wars and other mismanagement that left us with entire sectors
wiped out and one 3000th the population remaining are the things I’ll mention.
Some of the stons, have never given up, they mostly fight as guerillas, aided by
some allies from the fractal instances – places that didn’t get the same structure
we did. So for almost 2800 years we have been fighting occasional skirmishes
with them and their allies, even while we rebuilt the devastation they left. Some
of those campaigns have been brutal, but the opening of this one is the nastiest
yet. A civilian arcology with almost fifty-two million people in it was destroyed by
"cutter" bombs. I followed before we could count the casualties, but I’d estimate
eighteen million died."

New York plus Los Angeles dead. "I think I understand why you’re upset with
them," I said, "But why aren’t you a democracy?"

"Not to offend, but we live a long time. Democracy has an unacceptable mean
time to failure, and the incentives are all stacked in the direction of that failure.
Every universal sovereignty system suffers the same set of defects. It’s as good
a system as Earth has discovered, but we think we’ve done a little better. One
failure in 80,000 of your years, and we won’t repeat it. But I’m not here to
discuss political theory."

He was right. 80,000 years with only one government failure was incomparably
better than anything Earth had ever seen. Speaking of which, "Are you going to
conquer the Earth?"

"I’m only a Secundus-in-fact, not someone with authority to speak for Imperial
policy as a whole. But my take is that I think you’re enough beyond our borders
for now that we wouldn’t be interested, and even if you were on our borders and
we were determined to bring you within our sphere, I would recommend against
military action except against a few psychotic dictatorships. We’d be better off
waiting until you petitioned us for citizenship. I told you I’d been a researcher,
but to be precise my primary qualification is as a social actuary. I have a lucrative
consulting practice. Having my father as one of the seven leaders who brought
the Empire back gives me even more perspective on how the thinking runs"

"What is a Secundus?" I was trying to get an idea of what their system was, to
see if maybe I’d gotten myself mixed up on the wrong end of the conflict. It didn’t
occur to me at the time that if it were the wrong end, they might not let me un-
volunteer.

He pointed to a golden equilateral triangle on a black background about an inch
on a side on one shoulder, with a green triangle embedded within the golden,
points touching the mid-points of the larger golden triangle’s sides. The twin to it
was on the other shoulder. "A Secundus-in-fact is the second rung up the ladder
of civil government, responsible for civil administration of a block of about sixty to
the fifth power citizens. Think of me as Governor to province of seven hundred
seventy seven million, six hundred thousand, except I report to the Tertius who
selected me, who is responsible for my performance, as I am responsible for the
performances of the sixty Primuses under me. Above him is a Quartius, then
Quintus and so on up to the Guardian, who would be called a Decius if we didn’t
change the label for the one person in charge."

"How did you get to be a Secundus?"

"Service record. Most people start with military service. Regardless of rank,
each year is a few points. The idea is that before you can give orders, you
should have to take them for a while, as well as being willing to put your life on
the line for the Empire if needed. It isn’t written into law, but I can’t imagine
anyone being selected for governmental authority without some military service.
Government contracts completed successfully are also worth points as well as
money, but defective contracts cost at least triple the points for success, plus you
have to pay to make it work as it should have. When you gain a certain number
of points, you automatically become a Primus-in-rank and theoretically eligible for
office. Then you have to apply for a vacancy and convince the Secundus making
the selection that you’re the best candidate. So you had better have appropriate
other qualifications. There are about a hundred and twenty relevant criteria.
There are far more people with qualifications than there are posts at the levels
from Sixtus down. Most Primus-in-fact are Tertius-in-rank, and more are higher
rather than lower than that. Selecting officials can be as selective as they want –
they will suffer almost as much as you if you fail. Once you have 120 years or so
as a successful Primus-in-fact, you might be considered for a Secundus post.
And so on."

It was like finding the President of the US on a covert mission – except his district
was over twice the population of the US. On the flip side, he wasn’t the head of
state or anywhere close to it. He was eight levels down a steeper hierarchy than
anything on Earth. Given the numbers, there would be roughly sixty to the eighth
Secunduses, so there were a lot more Secunduses than there were people in his
district. I couldn’t do the raw number in my head, but I could divide sixty to the
eighth by sixty to the fifth easy enough – at his level, he was actually below the
midpoint on the ladder, no matter how you sliced it. Still, you didn’t just send
someone like that haring off on a James Bond type mission. "So what are you
doing here? As opposed to someone more expendable?"

"I should correct that mistake immediately. I am not less expendable than
anyone else. That I am a Secundus is simply not relevant in consideration.
Even if I were Antro Baryan – the Blue Prince himself – it would not cause me to
hesitate to do a necessary job. If BarAntro were to ask my opinion, I would hope
he would be cognizant of the unique value to the Empire he does have, and not
place himself at risk for returns that couldn’t possibly justify it, but I am not
BarAntro, nor am I worth a tiny fraction of his value to the Empire. And we have
had roughly eighteen million citizens murdered, and destruction of property
valued at least in the trillions of labor hours. If this perpetrator and his allies are
not stopped, I have every reason to believe he will repeat his crime. I’d have to
be more arrogant than a god to place a value like that on my life. If I used my
entire worth, and labored my whole life, even if I never died I’d never be able to
make the interest payment on that. In Traditional, we have an ancient
expression, kusan del, that translates loosely as ‘Finger of God’. I was the most
available person for the task that had to be done right then from among those
present. In Technical, we have another saying, ji da to pront, meaning ‘part of
the price.’ I agreed to the bargain when I applied, so I will pay the price required.
Don’t you have any adults here on this planet?"

As he had responded to my last, I realized I had made a real mistake that caused
him to drastically lower his opinion of me. And I was more certain all the time
that I wanted his good opinion. "I’m sorry. Yes, I think we do, but evidently I’m
not one of them." I saw his point perfectly, intellectually. It’s just that it’s damned
hard to imagine someone who’d jump into a hole like that, with risk like that on a
moment’s notice, simply because it was necessary or expected under the
circumstances. It would be necessary to change some of my most basic
thinking. "Yet," I added, chastened.

Just then he moved. And I don’t mean lazily like he’d done with the gangbangers
last night. I think this was really the best he was capable of. "Ahhh!" I started,
frightened, but bit down on my tongue. I actually did poop my panties a little, it
was so sudden and so fast. I wasn’t even certain of the direction he’d moved,
but my guess was correct. The sword I’d seen last night was in his hand. I saw
a blue swirl start to form over the dining table, three dimensional, the dirty ugly
dark greyish blue you sometimes see between small gaps in storm clouds when
it’s getting to be really late in the afternoon. By the way ScOsh reacted, I could
tell the gangbangers were a day at Disneyland.by comparison. A body started to
coalesce, a body like nothing seen on Earth except maybe drawings from some
demented horror artist somewhere. It stood mostly upright, and it was kind of
symmetrical but that was where any semblance to anything Earthly ended. It had
five arms, three on its right side and two on its left, and they were offset by
apparently random small amounts from the line you’d think of as the appropriate
‘side’ – as if a man had an arm sprouting from near his nipple, and another from
back near the shoulder blade. It had four legs, but the arrangement wasn’t
anything like square or rectangular pattern of Earth animals. It was more like a
trapezoid, large side to the creature’s right. Each arm had a different
arrangement or implement or both on the end, and most of them were large
nasty-looking claws. As far as I could see, the legs were solid and club-like, no
toes or hooves or even feet. There was no neck and the head was weighted
heavily to the creature’s left. The ugly blue that had marked the swirl was its
primary color, shading to a sandstone reddish color at the end of the limbs, with
ridiculous bright green fluorescent tufts of something that looked like a cross
between feathers and hair here and there based upon no scheme I want to figure
out. I’m pretty sure I screamed somewhere in there and finished the job I’d
started in my panties, and I’m not at all ashamed of it. You think you can do
better in equivalent circumstances, be my guest, but don’t get me involved. Then
it opened its mouth – a gaping maw that hadn’t been visible before then at the
bottom edge of its head – and I saw a nightmare of teeth and I’m not sure what.
It stood a bit taller the ScOsh and about five times his mass, by which I mean it
crushed my dining room table without me even having a chance to hope it would
trip over the pieces. It made the start of a noise that can only be called a scream
crossed with a roar at about 160 decibels. ScOsh stood waiting behind it until it
started moving, then calmly and without wind-up cut it into two from side to side
just above mid-"torso", then reversed his cut and cut through the head in a
downwards motion, pulling out when he met his first cut. As I have said, he was
fast when he wanted to be. The thing just about had time to realize it was dead
as it crumpled, bleeding two colors, the ugly blue and an equally ugly color that
reminded me of a dull forest green.

I was standing there mesmerized by the spectacle trying to process what had just
happened and ScOsh said, "The rules of the game just changed, Grace. They
wouldn’t have sent a manes if they had known I was here, but they’ll investigate
when it doesn’t come back. They’re worried that you might know something.
We’ve got to leave, right now, and you’re coming with me. Assuming, that is, that
you want to live." I was still standing there like a deer in the headlights. "I’m
sorry, Grace, and I will try to make amends as best I can but your life has been
disrupted by forces outside my present control." There I was, still dazed and
confused, trying to make a plan, "Grace, go change your pants," he told me, "Put
them in the bathtub, take 30 seconds to clean up if you need to but not one
second more. Grab your purse, drop your cell phone out of it and come back to
me. Move!" he ended with a command that left me no doubt he’d been in the
military. He was right behind me, taking a spare blouse out of my closet and a
bra out of the drawer. I gestured for him to leave the room, but he didn’t budge,
"Your safety is now my responsibility. I’m not moving one inch further from you
than absolutely necessary. Pretend you’re 4 years old and I’m your Papa helping
you dress because Mama is helping your sister." I complied. He turned on the
water in the tub, took the soiled clothes from me as soon as I had them off,
arranged them in the bathtub with the ones he had selected, then some changes
started happening. Something was growing in the clothes. I paused, fascinated,
my first leg halfway into the pants. "Grace, please move. Your life and maybe
mine depend on speed – we have to get gone, and I will blur our trail as best I
can." I concentrated on doing what he told me to. Since I didn’t think I was
coming back, I stuffed a couple handfuls of the $100 bills into my biggest
handbag, then put my regular purse in with it. The remaining bills started to do
something like melt when I turned away. "Leaving as few clues as possible,"
ScOsh said, pushing the bathroom door off the hinge, "It’ll look like the manes
caught you in the bathroom. You fell into the tub where you were killed. The
manes then made a mess trashing your apartment but hurt itself breaking the
table." I could see that the body and most of the blood were now gone. In the
distance, I heard sirens. From closer by, I heard a muffled rosary from next door
– a couple of boys, undergrad slackers who affected a bohemian style that would
have been insulted by any hint of religion in more normal times. I almost giggled
for a moment. With casual force, ScOsh moved through the apartment breaking
things. "I sent the manes‘ body away. They will sometimes return home when
injured. It may buy us a little more time." The thing in the tub was looking like a
human body – my body – as ScOsh shut off the water, made one final
adjustment that made the water turn blood-red, and took a step towards me,
enfolding me in a protective hug. The surroundings suddenly changed. We were
in an alley somewhere. The buildings on one side looked like older houses,
those on the other looked commercial. I was pretty certain we were still
somewhere in the area not more than a few miles from my apartment. "Stay with
me and act natural," ScOsh prompted.

The excerpt ends here. For more, see the Amazon link