Revelation (Demons Of The Past 01) – Chapter 17
For the third time I entered the huge, enclosed sub-laboratory which seemed to be solely the domain of Sooovickalassa. The second time had been a few days ago, to run some additional tests which hadn’t taken nearly as long as the first set. I had been able to talk with the reptilian scientist for a while, these tests apparently being much more a matter of having me present to be scanned rather than having me actually DO anything. While he was still pretty close-mouthed about his past, he did give me the pretty strong impression that he was basically an exile from his own home, and none too happy about it either. If so, that explained why he was working here. Long experience had shown the Empire that one of the best ways to gain a loyal follower was to show welcome to those that others had driven out.
This time, the Prime Monitor was there. “Monitor Shagrath!” I said, and gave him the Sign. He returned it, looking gravely serious. His manner was quite changed from the cheerful, almost casual attitude he had radiated at our first meeting.
“Commander.” He said. “We have been over the results, and I have conferred with the Emperor several times. Did you enjoy the Assembly, by the way?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that, given the potential political angles, but I remembered Shagrath’s pointed emphasis to me on honesty the last time he asked me questions. It was easier to tell the truth anyway, even if it might give me some trouble later. “It was an honor to meet the Emperor again, sir, and the ceremony was very beautiful, if pretty overwhelming, but… it was also awfully long and seemed a little pointless after a while. I’ve been to livelier parties in the past few days.” I also had found the occasional glances comparing me with that Towers-damned fifteen meter high stonecolor image of Torline to be awfully embarrassing. It feels almost like I’m doing something profane, even though I know I’m not. But I wasn’t going to be quite as honest as all that; it was a private embarrassment. But why in the name of the Fall did that image, set in the Imperial Audience Hall, have to be one of the ones that looked almost like a mirror to me?
I didn’t know if Shagrath thought there was anything I was leaving out, but apparently my answer was good enough. He gave a soft chuckle, then motioned me to a seat. “Yes, I understand that the Mel’Tasne and Dellitama have advanced your Nomination already.” He held up a hand. “I know, Commander, it is not really your Nomination, but that of your friends.” He sighed. “But I did not come here to discuss your social or political standing. Rather, I have a much more serious matter to deal with, which these results have made pressing.”
That sounded ominous. I suppose my concern must have shown on my face. “No, no, Commander, not serious in that sense. Rather, I have to ask you to assist me in something which may be extremely dangerous, and which is and must remain utterly secret — even from your family and friends, even from your fellows in the Navy. And even if you refuse to cooperate — which is indeed your right and privilege, for I cannot in good conscience order anyone to do the job I am going to be asking you to do — you will be still utterly bound to secrecy.”
I nodded after a moment. “Prime Monitor, I swore to serve the Empire as best I could for all my life. If you think that what you’re going to ask of me is the best way I can serve the Empire, then I’ll do it.”
He gave a smile, but one that still seemed troubled. “I of course expected no less from a man with your record, Commander Varan. But I must warn you that it is possible that you will find some of the specific material unsettling and disturbing. I also want you to understand that you do not have to stay and hear me out. You have already given us considerable assistance simply by the data we have gathered in these tests. You may get up this minute and walk out the door, and you may continue your career undisturbed — a career which will undoubtedly be successful.”
I thought it over. Warnings like this weren’t to be taken lightly, and he was trying to make it as easy as possible on me. Shagrath was making sure that I knew that nothing was forcing me into whatever mission he had planned, and that there would be no consequences if I decided I wanted to just jump out and go back to my old job. And that in his view some part of the job he wanted me to do would not sit well with me, and would have to be kept secret even from Taelin and the Families, let alone my own family. But… “Sir, the questions I have are pretty simple: is the job you have in mind something that other people can do, and will I be serving the Empire better by doing it than by going back to my regular career?”
Shagrath nodded. “Reasonable questions, Commander. Can other people do this job? Perhaps. Almost certainly, given time and effort; few people are so unique that none can be found to take their place. However, I will be honest with you and say that at this time I know of no one else who would be anywhere near as appropriate a candidate as yourself, not in all the people we have surveyed — and that has been a considerable number, Commander.
“And, again in all honesty… no, I do not think you would serve the Empire as well as an ordinary Navy officer as you would by taking on this assignment. It is that important.”
“Then,” I said firmly, “I will hear the details of this assignment, Prime Monitor Shagrath. And if, for whatever reason, I decide not to take the assignment, I will still remain completely silent on whatever you tell me. In the name of the Emperor and the Six and the One.”
It was odd. He seemed to both relax and grow more tense at the same time. “Very well, Commander.” He leaned forward. “Commander, what exactly do you know about psionics? Take your time; I want to know everything, whatever you have heard, whatever you have guessed, whatever you know.”
Psionics clearly had something to do with this project — that had been obvious from the beginning — so I made sure I had my thoughts in order before I spoke. “Psionics, or in the language of Atlantaea rannon, are special abilities of certain beings to affect the world around them through no instrumentality other than their own minds. These abilities are divided, roughly, into four main categories: mind-focused powers, such as telepathy, empathy, memory alteration, mindshields, and so on; powers of broad material effect such as telekinesis, cryokinesis, pyrokinesis, combat shielding, and the like; self-enhancement abilities that permit the boosting of strength, speed, and other abilities to superhuman levels; and spacetime-affecting abilities like teleportation. The Atlantaean records that we have, fragmentary though they are, indicate that they had a very detailed nomenclature for these capabilities, and some people have suggested that it was really psionic power which was the so-called magic of the ancient culture. This seems very unlikely, however.”
“And why is that, Commander?”
“Well, there are a lot of reasons from my point of view, but from a purely scientific view, it’s because the psi power in human beings is either physically damaging, causing organic brain damage, or has some effect on the presumed nonphysical component of the mind; either way, the result is megalomania and sociopathy — usually more pronounced with greater power. We don’t know which type of damage is actually responsible, because we simply haven’t had the chance to study many human psis; they’re generally too dangerous to even attempt to capture in most areas. It may be related to the kind of damage we see around people who have been inadvertently exposed to a very poorly tuned DT generator.” I glanced at him; he nodded. “That’s because one of the few things we know about psionics is that it’s somehow related to the Dimensional Tap effect. It’s obvious that the human body can’t generate enough energy through the brain alone to do more than move an ID card around, let alone incinerate a city like the Black Dragon did thirty years ago. Psis get their power from elsewhere; a miniature, controlled Dimensional Tap appears to be the only reasonable mechanism, although just how it works we’ll never be able to say without extensive research. It’s something inborn, though; you can’t study to become a Psi, and we can’t generate the same effects with machines — well, not without having a machine that thinks, and there’s definitely a cure that would be worse than the disease. Psionic shields and nullifiers proved that the effect was dimensional related; they project a dimensional distortion around the area in such a manner as to disrupt whatever control the psis have.”
“Well described so far. Go on. Tell me about ultras.”
“Psionic individuals come in different strengths, just like any other group of people will vary in their abilities.” I said. “Most psis tend to be able to do a very limited set of tricks, though they may be pretty strong in one or two of them. But whatever they’re born with is all they get; if they start out as a telepath with no telekinetic ability, they’ll never have telekinesis.
“A very few psis have wide-ranging powers, covering three or even all four general categories of psi power. And every once in a while, someone comes along who is, well, the equivalent of a supergenius compared to the average thinker. Where a practiced telekinetic of the wide-ranging sort may be able to levitate and move a skycar, one of these super-psionics, which are generally called ultrapsis or ultras (the Atlantaean word was probably terrannon) could lift and throw the building that the skycar was parked on. The Black Dragon had to be fought on the scale of a warship, not like any ordinary living being. The same’s true of any ultra — Jiilna, Maldron the Earthshaker, Poitrettan, and so on. They’re strong in just about everything, but in some particular talent they’re almost unimaginably powerful. Portable psi-screens are of barely any use against them; you need a base-scale generator to hold one off.
“The main problem for the Empire overall is that some races — the Z –zchorada,” I stumbled slightly over the name, with all its hateful associations, “the Ptial, the Uralians — not the Ghek’Nan, thank Torline and Niaadea! — have psionic capabilities that don’t create psychopathy. We don’t know why; some theorize that psi in humans was an incomplete mutation, or a botched attempt by someone way back in history — maybe even in Atlantaea — to give humans these powers. As the vast majority of our citizenry — 90% or so — is human or humanoid, this means that we have no effective psi resources to draw upon. Being totally honest, with our experiences most of the Empire fears and hates psionics, to the point that we don’t even have any significant member races with psi capability; the Chakron, for instance, diverged from the Zchorada in such a way that they apparently have almost none of that potential left, except the species-specific bonding found in their nests. And that, alone, is still enough to make many people afraid of them.” I was able to speak about this dispassionately, though it caused several twinges of guilt to think of the fact that I now found the thought frightening, when before I would be around Zakhla without even really thinking of the fact that he had some inherent psi ability. I went on.
“Unfortunately, a psi can’t be sensed, except by another psi, can’t be fought, except by another psi, and if he’s powerful, can’t be stopped easily at all. You can’t put psishields all over the place — they’re too energy intensive, can break down pretty fast if something goes wrong, and so on. Ordinary people could barely lift even the smallest psi-screen. I suppose a Chakron or — um, what was that race, the new one I’ve seen a couple of, the furry ones… anyway, a really big sentient could carry a personal generator, but for the most part they’re restricted to powered armor, armored vehicles, and critical installations. Especially since they’re D-interference based, and that tends to seriously impact all our other D-technology, including communications, weapons, and regular shielding, without careful balancing.”
“An excellent summation, Commander. Which contains one slight untruth. We now have on record one man who has, in fact, successfully fought a quite powerful, though admittedly not Ultra-level, psionic, without either shielding or personal psi abilities.” I said nothing to this; I considered it at least partly luck, but I couldn’t argue that the situation was definitely unique. “Your summation also leaves out a few facts, not because you neglected to address them, but because you were unaware of them. Some men in your position would have guessed it long since, but you are something more of a patriot and less of a cynic than many others. Which, as I have said, is precisely the sort of man I had hoped to find.
“Commander Varan, the Empire cannot afford this vulnerability. Zchorada can pass as Chakron, as you well know, and this gives them the ability to infiltrate psispies into the Empire. Other races can do similarly. While we make every effort to secure our bases, we cannot keep all of those who know vital secrets constantly in screened compounds. We cannot ban entire species from serving the Empire in whatever capacity they are suited without risking their alienation and defection to another stellar nation.
“Therefore, for quite some years now, the Empire has been making use of psionic agents to ensure our security.”
I stared at him, feeling cold. “But… what about…”
“… insanity, megalomania, and paranoia? Exactly our current problem, Commander. We need these people — make no mistake about it, Commander Varan, they have saved the Empire from countless dangers over the years. And many of them begin as loyal citizens. We recruit them when we can, give them at least a chance to do some good before the rot sets in, and give ourselves a chance to detect their breakdown early and keep them from becoming public dangers themselves.” He sighed and shook his head. “We are not, I am afraid, always successful. And the more powerful and useful a psi agent is, the more easily he or she can conceal their degeneration until they are ready to act. This has proven extremely costly on occasion. One of which you have already mentioned.”
“Torline’s… Swords. The Black Dragon…?”
“…Was one of our best agents. Until he decided he was powerful enough to set up his own little empire, disappeared, and was uncovered some years later as the absolute dictator of some unfortunate backwater world. It took two fronts of warships, a year, and over five million lives to first force him off that planet and then catch him between sufficient firepower to take him down.” He was silent for a moment. “The most … horrible thing about this, Commander, is that even with such costs — speaking as a man of policy and strategy, and not one of feeling — the use of psionic agents has still been worth it. We simply cannot afford to be completely unarmed against an entire class of direct and indirect weapons.”
I suppose I should have realized all of this long ago. The political and strategic necessities were clear. But everyone knew what human psis were like. They weren’t agents. They weren’t military heroes. They weren’t really even human any more, just monsters in human form, as much demons as the things that had brought down the Seven Towers. But here was Prime Monitor Shagrath, telling me that they were indeed still human, human enough to put their few months or years of sanity to work for their people, knowing that as soon as they started to show signs of the inevitable their own government would have them blasted to ashes. It was horrible, and tragic, and repellent. “So…” I said finally, “What is it that I can do?”
“As I am sure you now realize,” Shagrath replied, “Dr. Sooovickalassa is studying the nature of psionic abilities. He does so from a rather… unique perspective. Doctor?”
“Psionic all of R’thann are. Cripple defective I am, mindblind. Exile for that am sentenced to. Intellect unaffected psionic absence by, knowledge bring Empire to of psionics, welcomed then.” The green-and-gold alien said after a pause.
Well, now I didn’t have to guess any more. No wonder Shagrath said that there were ‘serious questions’ about how peaceful the contact between Thann’ta and the Empire would remain. The entire race psionic, to the point that they considered people without the ability a useless cripple! The latter didn’t speak well to their culture, either. The Empire doesn’t go around exiling cripples. “So you had both a lot of specific knowledge of psionic science, and a sinking-sure reason to want to work with us.”
“And,” Shagrath continued the thought, “As we do have psi agents — not many, but a few at any given time who are still sane — we have been able to start and continue useful studies of human psi abilities, and compare them with Dr. Sooovickalassa’s knowledge of how his own species’ abilities function. It was his theory that psionic abilities existed in potential for a far greater number of human beings than actually manifested the powers, and that such people should show at least some resistance to psi activity. If they could be located, he believed that he could awaken those dormant abilities in a controlled and directed fashion so as to create a stable human psionic, one who would not slowly go insane.”
The R’Thann exile took up the narrative in his own mangled version of Oron. Some candidates had been located by our psispies through careful examination of the reaction of thousands of people to covert mindprobes. Some were deemed trustworthy enough to bring into the project — clearly it wouldn’t do to just drag random people off the street and subject them to experimental processes, especially ones designed to tamper with the most basic functioning of the mind. A few had actually undergone the process.
“And… did it work?”
“To an extent.” Shagrath said. “Some of the early subjects… died. They knew the risks, but it made the results no easier for any of us. Once Dr. Sooovickalassa understood what was causing the fatalities, he adjusted the process and the next subject survived. She developed significant telepathic abilities, which then faded after a few months; she appeared to suffer no undue side effects of these powers, aside from perfectly normal exhilaration at first gaining them, and some depression after losing them. A combination of continuing experimental work showed similar effects in the other subjects we have tried thus far; repeat treatments have no apparent effect at all.”
“Cause possible theory revised demonstrated.” Sooovickalassa continued. The test subjects, he explained, did have some psionic potential, but the tools that brought out that potential had limits that were based directly on the potential to be brought out. In a sense, it was like trying to stamp a design into some target object. The test subjects so far were like gelatin. They COULD hold a shape, unlike, say, water, but if your shaping tools were limited to the same strength, you were trying to shape the gelatin with jellylike tools; at most you made a temporary impression, a set of dents that smoothed themselves out in time.
“Well, what about just modifying something that’s already shaped? Why didn’t you use this on one of your current psi agents? Then they’d be able to continue working for you and everyone would be happy.”
“Do you think we neglected to think of that? In point of fact, that was the first experiment I ordered — against Dr. Sooovickalassa’s advice, I will confess. And he was entirely right, although he was not able to describe clearly the reason it was doomed to failure until after he was able to examine the readings from that ill-fated test.” Shagrath frowned, broodingly. “We lost one of the Empire’s best agents that day.”
The problem, Dr. Sooovickalassa said, was that the process was trying to force a completely different pattern onto something that already existed. “Interference destructive psionic extant powers creates.” I nodded. Tree-sculptors came to mind. If you took a tree and pruned it and bent it and guided it as it grew, you could create a towering sculpture in living wood. But if you tried to take a tree that had already grown and force it into the same shape, you’d end up with a lot of shredded and broken wood.
“So,” Shagrath said, “we have been attempting to locate people with greater potential which has, in fact, never been awakened. Why it awakens naturally in some people, we don’t know. Possibly specific environmental influences, or the number of copies of a particular gene, or any one of a number of other possibilities, we just do not know. We have been searching for some time… and then in came the report of the action on Outpost Tangia, and the quite extraordinary story of a certain Commander Sasham Varan.” He nodded gravely at me. “After his examination, Dr. Sooovickalassa has determined that you do have greater potential than any of the people tested to date — far greater. If, as the analogy said, our prior subjects were varying firmnesses of gelatin, you appear to have the potential of steel, at least. And steel tools on steel will leave very lasting impressions indeed.”
So there it was. He didn’t need to be explicit. They wanted me to undergo a process to turn me — me — into a psionic. Into one of the human monsters I’d heard of since I was a kid. I hadn’t said anything about it, but I suspected Shagrath knew that my uncle had been present during the final battle against the Black Dragon, and the stories he told were enough to leave me awake nights; seeing friends going up like incendiary bombs when their personal shields failed, walking through a warship that should have ten thousand crewmen on board and finding only slag and ashes… and I had had my own encounter now, with a mind inside my own, trying to crush out every bit of resistance and thought. Was that something I wanted to become?
“S… sir. Could I think about this for a while?”
“Certainly, Commander. But understand that you have now entered the realm of subjects which you may discuss with no one outside of this lab, not even your closest friends and family. Your own reaction should tell you why.”
“Yes, sir.” I gave the Sign to both him and Sooovickalassa, and left.
I doubted I would get much sleep that night.