Demons of the Past: Revolution

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Sasham Varan was a patriot, a true believer in the Reborn Empire. But after a secret project both gave him outlawed psionic powers and revealed that Prime Monitor Shagrath, head of the Monitor Corps and right hand of the Emperor, was a monster hiding behind a human face, Varan became a fugitive and the most-wanted man in the Empire. With the aid of the enigmatic trader The Eonwyl, reptilian psi-scientist Sooovickalassa, and the immense and far too dangerously cheerful astrophysicist Guvthor, Varan must discover the true nature of Shagrath and his invisible allies – and a way to fight them.

And back home, in the center of the Empire, Taelin Mel’Tasne – Varan’s closest friend – begins his own perilous quest to work his way to the center of Shagrath’s plans… without even understanding what he faces!

Varan will meet new allies, old enemies – and eventually must seek out a world that became nothing but legend and myth eighteen thousand years before, to find the answers he must have… before returning to face an even more terrifying danger!

Taelin:

He slammed his travel case down on the table. “It’s too sinking late to argue it, Trey! We arranged that meeting of the Greater Families a year ago in Osea, and that’s not getting changed, and you’re up for running it!”

That much I’m not arguing.” He winced at his wife’s voice, once constantly warm and supportive, now cold, with more than a hint of contempt. “But there’s no reason for you to come along. I can take the Valabacal myself.”

He yanked up the case again and started striding for the launch area. “You’re welcome to your meeting, I’m not coming along for that. I—”

“Of course you aren’t!” she flared, walking with tight, controlled steps that seemed filled with anger. “You’ve been avoiding every single Family responsibility you could for months! You’re coming to Osea because of that killuk race—”

“—The Osean Seven Stars is not just a race any more than a warship is a lifeboat, and you know—”

“Oh, please, please, be quiet, Taelin!” Her voice was near to tears and Taelin was taken aback. He could also see, out of the corner of his eye, some of the staff staring at them. Whispering. “I don’t know why, but you’ve given up, as though what happened with Sash—”

“Don’t you even dare say that name!”

She cut off, swallowed, looked away. “I … Fine, Taelin. We don’t have any more time to waste on this. And there’s more than one cabin on Valabacal, anyway. But I just don’t know who you are, anymore. They’re talking kattasi and you don’t even seem to care!

He said nothing to that; she’d take it as either assent or simply ignoring her. Valabacal lay ahead like a gold and silver dagger whose guard was two sharp arrowheads with mighty engines embedded within, a shape that seemed to be in flight even now, sitting on the ground with two pearl-gray ramps reaching down from the sides. But now that beauty that usually lifted his heart seemed hidden behind a grim veil.

She took the right-hand ramp with a glance that told him he had best not even use the same entrance to the yacht as she did.

He gave a theatrical and insulting gesture that went all the way back to the pre-Imperial days and finally responded to her last sally. “Why should I care? That’ll keep me out of all that waste of time, eh?” he shouted after her, then laughed, and skipped his way lightly up the ramp, aware that his parting shot must have been overheard.

He dropped the case to the deck without even bothering to bring it to his cabin, feeling the weight of gloom settling on him like a dark and freezing night. Kattasi; complete Family disgrace. They’ll be forced to kick me out, take my name off the rolls of the Five. If it’s bad enough, I may even be listed to a Lesser family. I won’t go farther down than that … probably … because of prior service. But I’ll be out of Councils, forbidden speaking privileges … my codes revoked.

Taelin threw himself into the pilot’s chair and sat immobile for a minute, gathering his will. I knew this would be bad. But knowing it … and living through it … that’s something really different. He took a deep breath, brushed his long golden hair out of the way, and put the carefree expression back on his face as he opened the channel. “This is Valabacal, Mel’Tasne estate, requesting clearance and departure vector.”

Even Oro Control’s response sounded chillier than usual. “Destination, Valabacal?”

“Osea system, for a Greater Families annual meeting.” While he was going for the races, even his self-centered new persona wouldn’t rub that in the faces of outsiders, especially when there was a perfectly legitimate and vastly more respectable reason the ship was departing.

The chilliness seemed to have faded with such a clear and official reason. “Valabacal, you have clear sky on Vector 15-30 with a wide margin. Seven Standing.”

“Standing and Unfallen, Control.” He touched the controls and sent the yacht climbing along the precise indicated vector. “Valabacal, enroute.”

And probably my last trip as a member of the Five Families … unless Lukhas and I actually win, somehow. This would be an ideal trip to make the decision, declare kattasi. He’d be far away from the capital, he could be allowed to keep the yacht as long as he stayed far away—much more convenient than having him kicked off their estates, and Trey could of course get home any number of ways, even buy herself a new yacht. He’d be able to disappear unless his goal was to embarrass the others, but they all knew that wasn’t the case; no matter how much they felt he’d changed, they knew he wasn’t malicious.

Mother would be devastated but not surprised, not now, and Trey had just made HER attitude abundantly clear. Without any other close members of the family, there wouldn’t be anyone to fight it; Lukhas, of course, intended him to follow this course.

But it’s so very hard, especially now, with Trey…

Still … if they were right, he wasn’t taking half the risk of Lukhas, let alone Sasham Varan. His best friend’s name was becoming a whisper of fear now; rumor had it he’d been sighted out on the border, destroyed an armed and ready patrol vessel, then disappeared. Rumors of course just enlarged the fear and the tales, but if you believed the secret official recordings, the truth was bad enough, with former Captain Sasham Varan displaying a terrifying level of telekinetic and telepathic power, wielding it in the classic fashion of a human psionic whose power was driving him ever more insane.

Of course, if he and Lukhas were right, the truth was even worse. Varan might or might not be a psionic, but he wasn’t the one who’d betrayed the Empire. That honor would be reserved for Prime Monitor Shagrath—the man most responsible for the security of the Empire, the right hand of the Emperor, the second most powerful man in all of the Reborn Empire. And unfortunately, the only evidence they had were deductions based on the few things they knew that Shagrath did not, including three cryptic words from the now-reviled Varan.

Valabacal reached the conversion limit, and Taelin set the course and watched as the sky flared and transformed to moving darkness and streaming light of conversion space. He sighed and stood up. Back to the play.

He turned. Just then, the door to the control room slid open and Treyuusei stepped in, looking just as grim as she had when they got on board. He decided it was best not to say anything, just let her take the room for whatever she wanted. He could head back to his cabin.

“Taelin.” Her voice did not allow for the possibility of ignoring her, and—truthfully—neither his real self or the kattasi-doomed version he was playing would.

“Yes, Trey?” he asked, turning to face her instead of stepping all the way through the door.

A bomb seemed to explode under his jaw. He staggered back and fell limply against the wall, sight glazed over with red. He shook his head, trying to clear it, blinking up through a ripple of pain-generated tears at Trey, who was rubbing her fist either because the impact had hurt … or she was getting ready to punch him a second time.

“What in the Emperor’s name was that for?”

Her lips tightened. “For not trusting me.”

As he tried to grasp that, she reached down and hauled him to his feet, her strength reminding him that she was every bit his equal—not a surprise, given the reputation of the Dellitamas, her own family. Her eyes were suddenly softer, shimmering with tears of their own. “I don’t know why you and Lukhas are doing this, but if he were here, I’d lay him out too!”

He blinked stupidly. “You … you knew?” He did not even attempt to deny it. There was nothing stupider than clinging to a blown cover. Oh, in some cases the cover wasn’t completely blown, you might be able to recover—at least enough to escape. But this was not one of those times.

“Taelin, I…” Treyuusei managed a tiny smile. “I didn’t know, not right away. But I knew you, and no matter what happened—even with what happened to Sasham—I just couldn’t believe that was the way his loss would affect you.”

Sort of the same reason Lukh and I didn’t buy Shagrath’s story about Varan. Evidence said one thing, but we knew Varan too well to believe it. “Okay, you’re right, Trey. But we wanted to keep you out of it.”

“The fewer who know the less chance of leaks, yes, of course.” She was no less familiar with the practicalities. “But now I can help you.”

The fear was stronger now, because he suddenly envisioned the danger she had just gotten herself into. But too late to keep her out. Now she has to come all the way in, if any of us are going to have a chance. “And you waited until now because in conversion space no one can be spied on.”

“Exactly.”

He looked at her grimly, and saw his expression get her attention. “All right, Treyuusei. But you have to keep everyone and I mean everyone—my sister and mother, your parents, your uncle, everyone—in the dark. We’re going to play through the argument at Osea, and I’m guessing I’ll be kattasi before that trip’s done.”

She nodded slowly.

“Then here’s what we know.” He told her everything, from Varan’s behavior to the three terrifying words hidden in associative code to the fateful images contained on the records of the Teraikon—and the even more terrifying conclusion that those images must have been faked. “And if you follow all the evidence, that means it’s either Shagrath himself … or one of his immediate subordinates. And I really don’t think any underling could hide this kind of thing under Shagrath’s nose.”

“Towers…” she breathed as the truth began to sink in. “Poor Sasham! He’s alone and being chased by—”

“Worse than that, Trey, much worse. Right now, wherever he is—and we both are pretty sure he’s alive—he’s being used by Shagrath and his company as a shadow enemy, as something to drum up fear and uncertainty. There’s always been agitation for increased power to protect us from various things, and psis are the obvious target and excuse. If Sasham’s gotten far enough away, that doesn’t help us—they can then accuse him of causing just about anything they want.”

“And without evidence…”

“…we don’t know enough to know what—if anything—we could use our codes on that would give us the evidence we need. We only have a few hours if we use them unilaterally.”

She sat quietly, thinking, for a few minutes. Then she smiled, and reached out, touching his cheek more gently than she had in a month. “And we’re going to have to go through with this. You’re going to be the ignored disgraced son … who’s a spy. Yes, I see where Lukhas is going with this. I don’t like it, but I see it, and it’s necessary. You’re going to be careless, a Lesser Family once of the Five, making his way by curiosity, peddling his little influence, an ego twice too large … Oh, Taelin, how hard that’s going to be for you.”

“I can’t pretend I’ll like it much. The hardest part will be making it look like I do like it.”

“And looking for clues as to what’s really going on. But I can help.”

“How?”

“Well, first, our argument can finish things perfectly. But after that … people know how we used to be. It wouldn’t be hard at all to imagine me meeting you once in a while…”

He grinned suddenly, with a vision of occasional, brief joy to illuminate the grim future ahead. “…and if we then fought during or after, still you’d be a perfect way to get information back to Lukh … even better than associative code in some ways.” He winced slightly as his jaw made clear that Trey hadn’t pulled her punch. “Ow.”

She looked satisfied. “You deserved it. But here, let me take a look.”

“I suppose I sort of deserved it. But Lukh and I … we were trying to protect you.”

She ran some quickheal over the bruise. “I am of the Five, Taelin, and you two should have remembered that. If you didn’t trust me, that’s one thing—I suppose I can’t actually trust anyone else either. But we are the Five, and we don’t need protection from anyone. Even Shagrath knows that. He’s doing this because he knows.”

Taelin laughed and suddenly reached out, pulled her close. For a long time they kissed as they hadn’t ever since his path had become clear, and Taelin felt a sick, tight knot relaxing. He’d feared what his mother might think, shuddered at the words that would be spoken by his other friends in the Five and Great Families … but he had almost not dared to think of what it would mean to have left Treyuusei behind and hating or despising him.

Now I won’t have to.

She smiled, and he saw she understood that. “And when we get to Osea,” she said gently, “you can do what you’ll have to do.” She kept hold of his hand, but turned towards the door that led towards the cabins. “But that, my love, is almost four weeks away.”

It was a short reprieve … but as Taelin followed her, he felt his strength and courage returning. Short enough … but though she is now in danger, neither of us will die with the other thinking something hateful.

And that’s more than our friend can expect, if we fail.

Varan:

“You’re good at that.”

I glanced toward my feet and a little outward—carefully, to keep from bashing my head against the access hatch—to see the Eönwyl looking up at me. “I’ve seen a fair amount of action out on the border, and a lot of it before I was commanding. Replacing shield coils and crystal matrices gets to be pretty much a habit.”

That won a quick, bright smile from her. “A duty, but one that a lot of people aren’t conscientious about, especially in the civilian world. And there’s still more difference between someone doing it out of habit and doing it right.”

I realized I had no idea when she arrived, as I’d been doing this for an hour and a half, at least. “How long have you been watching?”

“Long enough to see that you were resonance-balancing each unit as you placed them—and rejecting some of them because the balance wasn’t perfect. Believe me, I can’t trust even shipyard overhaul people to do that unless I watch them.”

Which of course told me that she’d been checking up on me specifically to find out how good a tech I was. I couldn’t blame her. “And you obviously do watch them, and a good thing, too. I was very suitably impressed by The Eönwyl.” I was speaking of course of her ship, but the same sentence could easily apply to its eponymous owner and pilot.

“Thank you.” She kept watching as I went on with the few remaining matrices that had been burned out in our head-to-head battle against the Marjaav-class patrol ship Lalam. “Are you almost finished?”

“Two more to go,” I answered, fitting in the third-to-last and checking the resonance imagery. The miniature crystalline structure showed mostly green, a little blue at some intersections but nothing outside of milspec. Good enough. “You need me for something else?” I wouldn’t be surprised if she did; a civilian independent trader going up against even the smallest of warships would be lucky to get away at all, let alone without significant damage.

“No more repairs, if that’s what you mean. I’d like to talk to you a bit, Captain … that is, Sasham Varan.” She stumbled over my rank—not surprising, as I felt the same little jolt every time I realized I no longer could be addressed that way. Technically I had a few other titles that I hadn’t lost—even as a renegade from the Empire they couldn’t say I wasn’t a qualified engineer, for instance—but none of them felt at all the same.

“I’ll be at your disposal in about five minutes, Eönwyl.”

It was actually only about three before I packed away the remaining components and dropped down the shaft to the narrow corridor that was in the center of The Eönwyl’s port-side crescent pylon. “Done.”

She nodded and turned to lead the way down the corridor. We moved along in a silence I found unsurprising—given that she probably spent the majority of her life in this vessel, alone, she was probably very much out of the habit of making small talk except in some kind of trading setting. I found it less oppressive than I might have elsewhere, though there was still some tension in wondering what she had in mind.

In a few minutes we reached the small kitchen/dining room located near the center of the main body of the ship. It was a place Guvthor could never reach unless he was willing to worm his way through corridors barely large enough for his massive shoulders, and that held little to attract Dr. Sooovickalassa’s interest. The Eönwyl walked over to a cabinet and took out a jar. “I’m having samahei—want a cup?”

I found samahei a little sour for my taste, but you could always add something like pelam syrup, and it was sure good for giving you a little boost. “Yes, thanks.” With the offer I relaxed a bit. This wouldn’t seem to be a discussion of an immediate problem or of some misgivings about the job we’d hired her for—which would be potentially disastrous.

She set the shaved bark in the steamer, which sent live steam whistling through, stripping out the aromatics and condensing in the connected tubing to drip into the pot. It took only a few minutes to make two cups; I noticed she already had a syrup dispenser out, so we obviously took it the same way.

She sat down at the little table, across from me, and watched quietly as I finished mixing my cup to taste. I glanced at her. “Well, Captain, you called this meeting.”

She nodded. “Yes, I did. Sasham … I need to know something more about our passengers. You’ve given the story of what happened to you, but I’m still a bit wary of your friends.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Not of me—renegade psionic and former Navy officer?”

She shook her head, laughing for a brief moment before the serious expression came back. “No, surprising though you may find it … or, to be honest, surprising as I find it. I had only met you the once, yes, but it was … rather striking how many people I met who had something to say about you, and almost all of it good. And you paid a debt many might have forgotten, or who might have decided to repay in a less risky fashion, and did so even when you really could not afford to draw attention to yourself. So … no. I think you are the same man I met in the hospital of Tangia Station, only … more so, if that makes any sense.”

“I’m not sure it does, and that sounds somehow like embarrassingly effusive praise even though it … well, isn’t, quite. But thanks.”

Her smile was just a hair more relaxed. “You’re welcome. So I was hoping to see what you thought about your companions—and if you have any second thoughts, either about them or our destination.”

I nodded, and thought about it as I nursed my cup of samahei. “All right. As long as I can ask some questions about you.”

She gave a wry smile. “Trading with a trader. Fair enough.”

I leaned back and looked at the white and silver-trimmed ceiling. “Well, I’ve known Vick a lot longer than I have Guvthor … but in some ways I suppose you’d be right to say I still don’t really know him. But I do trust him. I had to. I’m not sure you really understand just how much I was in his hands.”

The head with that fantastic sunburst of hair nodded. “Oh, I think I do. But on the other hand, once he recognized what sort of monster he was working for, he had a personal interest in making you into a weapon he could use—and a tool to get the treatment applied to himself. All his actions could have been motivated by pure self-interest, no more.”

“If you dig deep enough,” I pointed out, “all motivations are pure self-interest. It’s what you define as your self and your interest that matters.”

“A point, I suppose; even altruism at its base comes from feeling better about yourself because you’re doing what you think is right,” she conceded. “But what do you know about Dr. Sooovickalassa’s motives?”

“A lot and a little at once. I’ve only seen flashes of his thoughts—he’s even more private than I am a lot of the time. But I know this: to him and, I think, the R’Thann, his people, the universe is filled with tests—tests of courage, tests of will, tests of survival, tests of honor. They gauge each other by the ability to pass various tests, and by his standards—he has mentioned more than once—I have met and passed an impressive Testing indeed, and that Testing involved giving my trust to a being who offered me hope, but no other reason to trust him with my mind, my soul, and my life.

“By his views, if I understand him right, he is immensely indebted to me for that, and now more so because I have helped him to gain the powers that should have been his from birth—and the lack of which caused his exile. I don’t know if he’s capable of being the sort of friend that you can feel … comfortable with, but my gut tells me that he is bound by that debt—that for him not to help me to achieve my own goal would be complete and utter dishonor.” I remembered the conversation just after the three of us had made our escape from Shagrath. “And now that I think about it, he only really got angry at me once: when I got discouraged and talked about what I’d lost. His words … well, they only told half the story. The real problem was that I had failed to give credit for what I had gained—him as an ally.”

A contralto chuckle accompanied her smile. “Very aware of his importance, I see. Still, that is useful to know, and at least now I have some idea of what to expect from him, and your impressions fit with those I have had so far.”

“What of the Thovian?”

I cast my mind back over the last several months, ever since the day the immense Guvthor Hok’ Guvthor had stepped aboard the Teraikon with an archaic axe slung over his back and several tons of advanced scientific equipment stacked behind him. “You know … now that I think of it, in some ways he’s more of a mystery than Vick. I’ve met people from primitive worlds before, and they’re not … exactly … like him at all.” I paused, trying to figure out how to put it. “Obviously there’s nothing that says that a creature whose native culture is pre-spaceflight—or, judging from the files on Thovia, pre-industrial—has to be any less bright than the rest of us, and as I said, I’ve met several who had been brought from primitive worlds and educated and were doing very well in the Empire.

“But … well, they still had the same air about them of amazement, even if they hid it well. They still had reactions to our technology that showed how their people thought of things as miracles, as potential tools of the gods, or as threats. If they weren’t raised in the Empire from the time they were very little, they still saw the universe in their hearts as though through the eyes of that same primitive.

“Guvthor … he’s got none of that. It’s not just that he’s a scientist-engineer, it’s that he seems perfectly comfortable in this E-steel and electronics world, despite the fact that his people live in ornamented caves and log structures built from native trees and don’t have a single electrical device among them other than those given away to them by Imperial contact teams.”

“That matches my impression,” agreed the Eönwyl.

“In fact…” I trailed off, thinking about our recent discussion that had led to our decision to set course for Thovia in the first place. “…in fact, the more I think about it, he almost sounds like a member of a Contact Team himself.”

She raised her eyebrows. “A Contact Team with the Reborn Empire? So, what, you think he’s some sort of super-being, like in Torline’s Quest?”

I burst out laughing. “You watched that old thing too? It was my favorite imageplay when I was a kid.”

She looked embarrassed, but I thought the very slight darkening of her cheeks actually looked pretty. “Well … yes, it was one of the few sets of imagechips we had in my family.”

“Don’t make it sound like a shameful secret; I had copies on board Teraikon that I had to leave behind!” I returned to the subject at hand. “No, I don’t. He’s got some kind of secret, but … I don’t think he was lying about being in a lot of danger when Frankel and I were fighting. He may be resistant to psi probes, but that won’t protect him or anyone else from being squashed by someone throwing even more steel than he can lift down onto his head. And I never got the feeling that he thought we were actually primitive. Vick sometimes gives me that feeling, and, come to think of it, some of the Ptial did when I worked with them during the Uralian incident, but not Guvthor.”

She pursed her lips, then shrugged. “We all have secrets, I suppose. So you trust them both.”

“I think I—and you—have to, unless something happens to change our minds.”

“I suppose you’re right. Given that, are you still sure of our destination? Just because you trust them is no reason you have to follow either of them, and—speaking perfectly bluntly—I consider you the leader. If you wish to change course, we will do so.”

Change course. I hadn’t really thought about it much, not once we’d made the decision. But … “The only alternative I can see is Thann’ta, Vick’s homeworld. We can’t go anywhere in the Empire and I don’t have many contacts outside … well, there’s the Ptial; they respect me. But there’re … complications to trying to negotiate there.” I recalled the invitation I’d gotten from the Hyarale, the High Priestess of Narleya, after my tour of duty, and what the transfer had entailed. I had declined, for some obvious reasons and some not quite so easy to define, and there were those in my command who’d thought I was insane to turn her down. Still … Definite complications. Not quite that desperate. “What about you?”

She looked intrigued by my comments about the Ptial, but shook her head. “I have none useful for this little problem, no.”

“Then I don’t see I have very much choice,” I said regretfully. “Either Thovia or Thann’ta, and there’s no way I’m going to choose Thann’ta—and not just because it’s a place that kicked out someone like Vick simply because he wasn’t born a psi. I heard through Taelin in a couple of letters—before I had to leave—that Thann’ta was enough of interest that the Monitors and Security both were keeping an eye on them. That’s not a direction the most-wanted fugitive in the Empire should be going.” I didn’t of course know for certain that I was the most-wanted, but—being honest with myself—I couldn’t think of anyone else that would out-rank a renegade former Imperial officer who happened to also be a potentially ultra-class psionic for that dubious honor.

“Thovia it has to be, then. Let’s hope our large furry passenger’s mysterious hints turn out to have as much substance as he implies.”

“So,” I said, that subject having been closed, “I was wondering about you. Where do you come from? Rumors fly in all directions and of course you’ve never confirmed any of them. I can guess you must’ve been pretty poor, if you only had a few imageplay series on chip. Border family?”

“Not … exactly.” She looked reluctant, and I think she almost turned away at that point; but something, probably her promise to let me ask some of these questions, kept her from doing so. “I was … my family is … contract workers.”

“Family?” I know that sounded stupid, but The Eönwyl was such a lone and singular figure I’d never thought about her having had family, although obviously she must have had someone. “So you worked out your Contract?”

She started to laugh, then cut herself off with an apologetic glance at me. “Sasham … I really shouldn’t laugh. One of the things I did … and do … find admirable about you is that you still have a touch of innocence and faith. But after what you’ve found out, I hope it won’t come to you as a complete shock that … in many cases … it is not nearly so easy to actually work off the Contract as popular image supposes. Especially on certain worlds.”

I tried not to look scandalized, even though I felt the anger at such an accusation try to burn its way outward. I guess she’s right, I am still innocent. Or more accurately stupidly naïve and clueless. Contract Worker was an option for anyone who had no job for whatever reason and needed one, though some worlds had almost none and others used a lot. Of course both companies and Imperial government agencies used Contract to fill positions that were difficult or dangerous or otherwise not in high demand, but the Contract was supposed to be something like a variant of military service; yes, you might be put in boring, dangerous, and/or strenuous work depending on your abilities, but at the end you’d work off your contract, have experience and recommendations to your credit, and probably a good sum of money in your pocket.

I shouldn’t be surprised if that, too, is something that’s been corrupted. “And I suppose your world is one of those.”

“My world,” and her smile was cold, her eyes looking into the distance at something I could not see and was suddenly glad I couldn’t, “is the defining example. Most of the workers there are at least third-generation Contract.”

I restrained the involuntary protest, and instead felt utter horror. At least three generations? Generations of people living under Contract, never getting out? Slavery is outlawed, yet this … this would be slavery. “Where in Torline’s name was this?”

“Fanabulax.”

I remembered a black city, fallen buildings of alien design—conical towers, indented-sided pyramids, sweeping arcs not quite right for human design—under a sky as black as the crumbling walls, a sky that must once have been blue but one whose air had been torn away by some catastrophe of unimaginable proportions; and I remembered the dark foreboding that followed me from that quick sight inside, not departing even in the brightest light of the corridors, and how inexpressibly relieved I’d been to leave that system behind. “Torline’s Swords. You lived there?”

Her grim expression lightened in surprise. “You know it?”

“Been there once, part of some secret cargo transfer to Oro direct from that hellhole.” I couldn’t quite suppress a shudder. “I thought the excavations were worked almost entirely by automatic! The surface of that place is frightening enough.”

The cynical smile made her look a lot older. “Oh, most people—who think about it at all—think it’s run by automatics too. But … automatics don’t work well for long on Fanabulax. Sometimes people don’t, either, but … we replace ourselves, after all.”

I stared at her for a moment. “How … how did you ever get out, then?”

She laughed. “I didn’t, not by myself. It was a cosmic joke played at Borell Dellitama’s expense.” She leaned back, and at least now the smile wasn’t entirely bitter. “About fifty years or so back, my uncle was a contract worker like the rest of us. But one day there were a bunch of important people brought in to view … one of the excavations. Uncle Rall was … I guess you’d call him a foreman on the excavation, so he was there to do some of the show-and-tell.

“As the group reached the main showpiece, there was a cave-in, and my uncle ended up throwing himself in the way of some of the fall to keep it from hitting one of the tour group. Saved her life, no question of it, though it was a stupid move; Uncle even said so himself, saving people who probably wouldn’t so much as look at him with gratitude.

“But he’d just saved Thelassy Dor’Kane.”

I burst out laughing. “By the Towers!”

She echoed the laugh. “Exactly. One of the Five Families, and from my Uncle’s account one who’d been getting a more and more sour expression throughout the tour, as though she didn’t like what she was seeing. As soon as she was sure Uncle Rall—well, he wasn’t Rall then, he was MIN-22/EXCA-2-Voln-19—was going to recover, she bought out his contract. In full. And then asked him what he wanted to do with his freedom.”

“Wait a minute. He didn’t have a name?”

“It’s considered easier to give us category designations and specific subdesignates,” she answered, the bitterness returning full-force. “We can invent our own nicknames, and consistency of designation ensures it’s easy to keep track of us. Where was I? So, anyway, Uncle Rall takes himself a name and tells Thelassy that what he wants to do is be an independent pilot. And she hands him enough money so that he could’ve retired right there. ‛If you want to, you can go live a life of luxury without all that work,’ ” she said, ‛or you can use that to become what you want.’ ”

I nodded. “That’s Five Families for you. It’s a test of character; do you really want to work, or do you just want the results? So your Uncle Rall took up the challenge.”

“He got the hull and started building onto it, got a big ongoing contract to help establish a new colony, learned the ropes while he was doing their ferry work, yes. Twenty years ago he finally finished paying back everything to Thelassy. And announced he was going to start working to get his entire family off Fanabulax.” She smiled, with a reminiscing expression that held a startlingly gentle fondness. “He used to drop by for visits without warning; my mom and dad would try to keep it quiet, but he’d always drop off gifts, tell us stories, and I’d sneak out of bed to listen to him talking to my parents all the time. I used to get in trouble for that, too.”

“So The Eönwyl is—was—your uncle’s ship? What happened?”

She hesitated, and for a moment—despite all the shielding, and that strange sensation I sometimes felt around her—I sensed somehow that in that hesitation were some secrets she was not ready to tell, perhaps not ready to think about. But finally she spoke. “When my uncle died, it turned out that he’d left everything—including complete freedom—to me. Borell hated that—I … was really good at my job and he really couldn’t afford to lose someone who’d spent eighteen years in the mines and not had a single day lost to shadow-madness. But there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it, since the will itself had been witnessed and countersigned by old Thelassy herself before she died. When I stepped into that ship, I stood in the hatchway and told him three things: that my name was The Eönwyl, that I would be coming back for my parents, and that I hoped he’d live just long enough to see that happen and not one second longer.”

There were a thousand more questions that story raised with me—questions ranging from that eerie and frightening term “shadow-madness” to whatever was behind her hesitations—but I could see she’d already said as much as she meant to say, maybe more. “Thanks. I know you never talk about yourself, but if we’re travelling this far…”

She was silent for a moment, and then she looked up with a small smile playing about the corners of her mouth. “I promised. A fair trade. And perhaps not a bad one. I know your secrets, now you know some of mine.”

“And I have something new to fight for along the way,” I said wryly, realizing that now that I understood what drove the Eönwyl I could hardly ignore it.

Her eyes widened for just a moment, and at that glance I felt something in me respond, as though awakening under that incredibly blue gaze. “You mean that.”

“Of course I do,” I said, part of me still confused by my own reaction. “Hey, if I’m going up against the entire Empire, I might as well plan on cleaning up everything while I’m at it!”

She smiled at the lighthearted way I phrased that. “I suppose you might as well, yes.”

But just for a moment her eyes met mine again.

Shagrath:

You have still not located him. The thought was a statement, not a question; Shagrath knew that his allies would have told him instantly had they even a guess where Varan was. The point was to drive home the fact that though many things were going according to plan, there was still a dangerous random factor going unchecked.

Not located. Departed for unknown destination, galaxy is wide, wide, and none of our pieces have seen the ship or any of its passengers. The shrieking, multilayered mindvoice was soothing to Shagrath’s sensibilities, and especially when it carried the undertone of defensive nervousness. Only now were they beginning to recover from their losses due to Varan and his unexpected allies, sustained over a month ago, and they were still all too aware that Shagrath’s power outmatched theirs, especially now.

The galaxy is wide, yes, but his choice of destinations is exceedingly narrow within the Empire, and not tremendously abundant outside of that, he reminded them.

No more are we, his allies reminded him, not without a hint of bitterness. Dispersed, scattered across the Reborn Empire, stretched and weak. Perhaps others of Us exist, but they will have their own Nexus. Will you support us against them?

That was indeed a point he had not considered in some time. This group had been terribly weak when he had found them, but it was quite possible—even probable, he supposed—that another nest of the beings already existed somewhere in the galaxy, and by their nature two separate groups would be very much unlikely to cooperate.

He could not afford the loss of these allies; not when those of his own people numbered less than the fingers of his current hands, and most of those were tending to other indispensable duties. Yes, I shall. I shall of course give them the option to simply join forces, but if they do not, I will not permit them to destroy you. As long as you serve me faithfully, you need not fear that, at the least.

He could sense their gratitude, cold and self-serving as it was, and he smiled inwardly. They might suspect, but could not know, that he hadn’t the slightest intention of letting any of them survive in the long run; their powers were much too dangerous even to one such as he, especially if they understood enough about what they faced, and in the end this group would understand enough. That is settled, then, but your difficulties are noted. Still, there are those areas outside of the Empire he may go.

The Zchoradan Meld?

He thought about that. Perhaps. A bold move that would be, indeed … but one that I believe is hopeless, and I think he would think so as well. His name is already known to them, and not kindly, and in the current circumstances … well, the Vmee Zschorza would use him as a bargaining chip with us. He knew the ruling body of the Zchoradan Meld only through official communications, but had little doubt how they would react to a renegade psionic coming to them with a fantastic story of some kind of treacherous super-being manipulating the Empire.

It is well, for we would be all too likely sensed there, not in our power, not strong to hide. Same, as well, for Ptial. There we will not go.

That was a bit more of a concern, for there he would not go either, not if he had any choice. Though they were vastly fallen from what they had been in ages past, separated from their main forces when the PtialianPtialians had fled from the Fall into the intergalactic depths, still they had certain … connections that he was very loath to test. Earth was fallen, and mostly secure, though some of his people reported disturbing activity in the last few centuries. Ptial remained an unknown factor. Understood. Some of your people will be in the forces that picket the Ptialian border, but I ask none of you to travel to their worlds.

He also wouldn’t ask them to even attempt to spy on the R’Thann; that was a place they would not go until their strength had peaked. But… A thought that had been nagging at him for days finally broke through, and he cursed in a language older than the Fall. There is one other place.

They were neither stupid nor slow, and he did not even finish forming the thought before they understood. Thovia! The clouded world.

Yes. The untouched yet thrice-fallen.

The shrieking thought patterns were grim. We shall send a part of us thence immediately. Clouded they are, but they have little to sense us directly and know not of us to seek. But we like that world little, it disturbs us nearly as much as the Black Place.

One of the few pieces of commonality between all species. Shagrath had found no one—not even himself—who found Fanabulax pleasant. He doubted he ever would. Thovia disturbs me as well, for reasons you know. But all I need from you is the knowledge that Varan is there.

It shall be done. He shall be found, be it on Thovia or on any of the thousands of worlds of the Empire.

 

He allowed himself a tiny smile as he strode to the small bathroom and checked his appearance. Keep watching. But for now it is not a terrible problem. His absence has certain benefits. But we must discover him sooner or later, and I would much rather it be sooner. He cut off communications; he would be entering mind-shields soon enough anyway.

This was the unfortunately inevitable downside to this approach; by increasing fear and paranoia of psionics, one could indeed drive all sorts of useful changes in the way the Empire ran things, but that also meant that anyone who was anyone would have at least one mind-shield active around any installation of note, and would be trying to get something installed on their vehicles and anywhere else. Were it not for the absolutely prohibitive energy drain, every city in the Empire would be clamoring for city-wide shielding. Even Dimensional Tap technology had its limits in that area.

As he passed from his private quarters back into the main secure area of Silan-Luria, he felt the constricting weight of the shield drop upon him like a suffocating blanket. Mind-shields everywhere. He was thus severely restricted in his capabilities within most Imperial domains, and certainly in any of the Five Families’ holdings (which posed some rather amusing difficulties for Borell Dellitama and others who were now Shagrath’s allies and much more dependent on the powers of the mind than even Shagrath). Oh, he could always call on the ancient powers if he had to, but that was definitely something for true desperation, or for very long-planned deep policy.

Fortunately, the wealth of interrogations and executions could be used for more than one purpose; in the next few months he expected he would regain all of that power he had expended in rewriting the knowledge and records of the Teraikon and her crew. If he could maintain the current schedule, he might well achieve a level of power that had not been seen in the galaxy in millennia.

But tend to the present first, for the future will follow in its own time, he reminded himself, and entered the conference room.

Somewhat to his surprise, the Emperor himself was there, seated at the far end of the goldwood-panelled room in the high chair, almost a throne, reserved for him. The Emperor was showing some signs of age now—he was nearing two hundred, after all—but his black, rather curly hair was still thick (if touched with gray), his dark brown skin only beginning to wrinkle, and his brown eyes still sharp. I suppose it’s just as well, he thought. In accordance with operations I’d have had to go and brief him on the meeting; this saves time. He performed the Six-and-One with military precision and saw it returned, then performed a more perfunctory salute to the others at the table, who returned it with equally casual gestures—all except one, who returned it with flair and emphasis. Lukhas Mel’Tasne, naturally.

“Thank you for waiting, your Majesty, milords,” he began. All the others present were technically nobility; he, Shagrath, was the only one who might be considered ordinary in rank, something he had chosen deliberately—but that still, sometimes, chafed him. Still, he had more power than any of them save the Emperor … and the Emperor would not be a problem.

“No thanks needed, Prime Monitor,” Lukhas said gravely. “You implied there were issues of great importance to discuss, so a few minutes matters little.” A quick smile (perhaps with a hint of mockery? It was very hard to tell, and given Lukhas’ current position he’d be taking quite a risk). “And the Emperor had some most exquisite delicacies served while we waited.”

Did he, now? “Importance indeed. Unfortunately not news of joyous import. You know, of course, that following the increased security probes we located a significant number of psispies whose allegiances were hard to determine, even under … rather extensive questioning.”

Heldan Khardan grunted, an uncouth noise from so small and delicate-looking a man. “But with certain … subtle indications, based on what little back history we could determine.”

“Subtle indications no more, I am afraid.” He activated the projector.

“Based on several tips directed to us by Imperial Security,” he nodded to Lukhas, “we raided Missitrill Base on Vhelekin, a Chakron colony located near Tangia sector. The report arrived only a few hours ago; this is what we found.”

The image had the sharp yet amateurish look that field recorders always gave these kind of reports, but for those present—used to seeing such reports—that very quality brought home the immediacy and reality of the imagery, and that made the impact even greater.

Even without it, the events unfolding would have held most of them spellbound; armored troops of the Empire pushed into the base, but found themselves opposed by dozens, hundreds of Chakrons also in Imperial armor. More, waves of invisible force hammered into the strikeforce; some of the men staggered, screamed, fell without so much as a mark on them. The firefight intensified, Imperials slaying Imperials with their own weapons, then a wall of impossibly intense flame materialized within the attackers’ ranks, incinerating a dozen of them—and several of the centipedal defenders as well. Despite this the defenders kept fighting.

The commanding officer ordered a secondary force to do a flanking maneuver using override codes through the next section of the base; the report switched to the secondary force’s commander. His force managed to use swift movement and a precision strike from one of the support vessels to out-flank the main body—and come directly in contact with the source of the preternatural forces: several Chakrons, or so it appeared, in a fortified interior bunker. Flames and ice and phantom force slaughtered most of the strike force, but the commander managed to reach the secondary control panel and override central command, bringing up the psi-shields inside the base. A final volley of fire silenced the beings within the bunker.

“And here we have the truly crucial part of the report,” Shagrath said quietly, as the recording crew inspected the bunker, to find some disquietingly familiar equipment hidden within … and the camera focused in tightly on the remaining bodies, particular parts of their exoskeletons, patterns, angles…

“Fallen Towers. Those aren’t Chakrons, they’re Zchorada,” Lukhas said suddenly.

“Precisely so, White Controller. And many of the troops involved never knew it. Our people killed each other and, for the most part, both sides were fighting the good fight as far as they knew.”

“You are saying,” the Emperor said slowly, “that one of my bases, one of my military bases, was in the control of Zchoradan psis?”

He bowed his head. “I am afraid that is precisely the case, Majesty.”

“This is absolutely intolerable. It is an act of war in any possible definition,” Ralia Ha’Ni Rishak said after a horrified pause. “And the loss of security … What have they learned from this?”

 

“It is far too early to tell exactly what information may have been sent back,” Shagrath said, keeping the grave, regretful expression on his face; it was sometimes difficult to manage that when the real expression would be … quite inappropriate. “Especially since the Zchorada went to considerable lengths to make their connections with the homeworlds vague indeed. It would seem obvious that such a thing could not possibly have been done without the knowledge and direction of the Vmee Zschorza … yet we cannot prove it.”

The Emperor looked at him with a cold glare. “Are you telling us that the Zchorada have infiltrated and controlled one of our bases, and that we should do nothing because we cannot prove it?”

“Not at all, Majesty,” he said quickly. “I am saying, however, that despite—as Milady Rishak said—the intolerable nature of this offense, we could not actually prove it an act of war. And in truth, we are not fully prepared for war against the Zchorada. We need more time to prepare the proper forces, to determine the full nature and extent of their current alliances, and so on.”

Lukhas was frowning, but not at his words. I think you see some of what lies ahead, human. How you react to it—both now, and in days to come—will tell me whether you can be used, or are a threat to my plans.

The others were whispering amongst themselves, and Khardan finally spoke. “We can at least lodge a strong protest. They may deny it, but if we send some very powerful forces to the border, it might put more appropriate fear into them, especially since we’ve uncovered such a well-covered plot.”

“I agree,” the Emperor said, “and it shall be done. However, Prime Monitor, I believe I see a much greater problem.”

“Yes…” Lukhas said, very slowly. “Chakrons.”

Shagrath allowed an expression of relief to show as the Emperor nodded. “I did not wish to bring that subject up alone. But yes. If the Zchorada have succeeded in this, I believe it demonstrates something that we have been afraid of: that they can use this species, so similar to their own, as cover, and perhaps some of them are deliberate traitors. There were at least a few such in Missitrill Base; in addition, of course, many of them were mind-controlled and of those some may never be the same—may never be trustworthy again, through no fault of their own.”

“What are you saying?” Kyrell Dellitama said, face going pale. “That we must lock up each and every Chakron in the Empire?”

“No, no!” Shagrath said hastily. “We must hope and pray it would never come to that. But we must be aware that Chakrons are a higher-risk group. They may not be what they appear, or they may sympathize with the Zchorada, or be mind controlled—even with the extensive current use of mind shields. I simply think we need to alert our forces to be more aware of Chakron activities, keep a closer eye on them. For their own good as well—most of the Chakron are loyal and valuable citizens of the Empire; they don’t want their good name and their appearance used against them.”

The Emperor looked somewhat torn; several others of the Five Families’ representatives wore similar expressions. Lukhas, however, simply tightened his lips, then nodded. “We will need to phrase things very carefully, at least at first. Additional security surveillance can be added in increments, once the initial shock is past.”

My, my, my, what truths are now revealed. He had always suspected that even the apparently noble Lukhas Mel’Tasne harbored the same ambitions and desire for power and control that the prior White Controller had possessed; after all, he didn’t believe anyone sought such positions if that wasn’t one of their essential features. But so gratifying to see him stepping forward to defend his Empire with such vigor that he will destroy an entire species’ freedom in the name of protecting them. He considered whether, perhaps, Lukhas might not have reacted this way a few months ago … before he was forced to declare his little brother Taelin kattasi and reduce him to a member of the Great Families … with every likelihood that he’d have to demote Taelin even farther soon. Such losses harden a man; when you sacrifice your beloved brother, what care you for the sacrifices of others a thousand lightyears away?

Perhaps we can indeed reach an accord, Lukhas Mel’Tasne. Perhaps we can.