Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 04
“Sasham, are you sure this is entirely wise?” Guvthor inquired.
I shrugged. “The Eönwyl and I discussed it for quite a while, and neither of us sees any likely risks.”
We could, nonetheless, remain safely in Conversion. What is the benefit that justifies even the unlikely risk?
“Up-to-date information,” The Eönwyl answered. “We’re about to leave Imperial space, and we’ve crossed most of the Empire in complete isolation. Given that the Imperial Relay network is set up to send information directly to and from Oro via Nexus drive wherever possible, and given my own experience, I’ve picked us a system that’s less than one day from a Relay system – close enough that they always have a courier with news going back and forth.”
“And since Imperial News Updates are automatically broadcast for passing vessels,” I continued, “we don’t have to land or even come close enough to be identified. And this way we get a full update on what’s happened up until about a week ago rather than over three months. Which is bound to be a lot.”
Guvthor nodded thoughtfully. “A most efficient method of distributing information, given the limitations. All Stellar Nexus points are required to have courier or messaging ships on station, then?”
I grinned, as The Eönwyl turned to prepare for Tach Downbreak. “Not quite THAT efficient. That’d be expensive, keeping a synched messaging connection open, or having Nexus vessels always waiting. There’s regular update schedules, usually once a week. If there’s some really VERY important event – Imperial coronation, declaration of war, something like that – all seventeen Nexuses in Oro system will have synched connections open before the announcement and the announcement gets transmitted in real time.”
“Seventeen?” The involuntary exclamation showed how startled Guvthor was; he was usually the most controlled individual I knew, even if his demeanor tended to make it seem more simply easy-going.
“Seventeen. One of the major reasons we chose Oro as the capital, actually. Now, some of the systems on the other end of the Oro Nexuses will also have synched relays to other systems, but not all of them. Still, those announcements go out very fast. Given that a lot of connections have to ferry across to other nearby systems – not all systems have a working Nexus point to any usable system – average speed to a given Imperial world is usually about ten or fifteen times greater than a straight flight with a fast TC courier.”
“Downbreak in two minutes. Everyone take your places,” The Eönwyl said, cutting the discussion short. “I don’t expect trouble, but we don’t want to be unprepared for it, either.”
Shortly the screeching, diminishing whine of Downbreak resonated through The Eönwyl and the viewplates cleared to show the normal star-dotted space as seen from the unremarkable system of Rullat.
I activated the D-Comm system. “INU system shows active… accepting query ping…”
The Eönwyl was quiet, watching all other sensors for any sign of interest. Rullat was a common through-stop system, a short distance from several major systems, and thus one more vessel should be completely unnoticeable… but we had no idea what level of resources Shagrath had to watch for us, specifically, or how good they might be. The screaming-voiced things would undoubtedly recognize us even from a huge distance if even a hint of our minds could be sensed through the screens, and there was so far no telling how many of those monsters Shagrath had at his command.
“Date range determined… Parameters of interest accepted… downloading data now.” At that, I saw The Eönwyl begin setting up the next Conversion jump – presumably, direct to Thovia itself.
Several minutes went by; D-Comms have unfortunately somewhat limited bandwidth over long in-system distances, and we were getting a lot of info even by restricting it to some fairly narrow parameters – though not narrow enough to signal who we were, in case someone had set up alarms for people searching for a particular set of circumstances, subjects, or individuals. “Update complete!”
She didn’t wait for me to say anything else; the hum rose to a whine and The Eönwyl lunged forward into the streaming opalescence of Conversion space. “No sign of any interest in us whatsoever,” she reported with quiet satisfaction.
Then we have your news and are on our way?
“We do indeed,” I said, opening and decompressing the data package. “Enough to keep all of us busy looking for anything interesting, at least until our next dinner-and-questions, and maybe for the next several days.”
“Ahh, it’s good to have new things to occupy us,” Guvthor said cheerfully. “After all, we have yet another three months ahead of us. But I am glad you all still seem to find value in the Togron Gon Roltav.”
“Togron Gon Roltav” was the phrase which Guvthor said referred to an ancient Thovian tradition and translated roughly as “Dinner-and-questions” or possibly “Dinner of interrogation”. It was the way in which separate groups – I got the impression of anything ranging from clans to large tribal or even primitive nation groupings – of Thovians would learn of each other and begin conducting negotiations. Representatives of the groups would have a dinner together and each would in turn relate some incident of their past which they felt might interest or enlighten the group. I got the impression of something that combined competitive bragging, veiled threats, honest history, and rule-of-thumb psychology to allow all sides to gain an insight into the kind of people they were facing.
“Of course,” Guvthor had said, with a sharp-toothed grin that was clearly meant to be unsettling, “If the story is offensive, the meaning is hostile, or some of the food is poisoned, it may proceed to Voltan Hok Roltav – Feast of Combat – immediately.”
Fortunately, we had managed to avoid that in the three Dinner-and-Questions so far. It was overall a really good idea, I had to admit, and even The Eönwyl had agreed after an initial reluctance; the four of us might be bound together by necessity, but we needed to really understand each other – probably both the good and bad – before we could be united, and I thought we needed to be united.
But right now, the news was the important thing. As it was now available over the main ship systems, we all could search through it to see what items of interest might be seen.
It comes as no surprise that the murderous psionic Sasham Varan is a major news item, Vick said dryly in his telepathic voice. At least you may be pleased to know that you remain the very best at what you do; you are considered by far the most-wanted criminal in Imperial space.
I said nothing, but I felt a sting of tears I refused to shed. I had known this would come, but there was still a tearingly painful wrongness at seeing myself displayed under the Imperial Fugitive: Most Dangerous code as I had seen so many others. Not for the first time, I wondered now how many of those others had been something other than what they were claimed to be. None? One? Dozens? I supposed I would never know, until and unless we managed to defeat Shagrath and his allies.
“Now that is… interesting,” Guvthor said slowly, some time later. The word “interesting” was said in the same way one might use it when coming across an infestation of Ghek-nan in your hometown.
“The update contains a full transcript of the records of the Teraikon,” he said, pointing us all to the relevant section. “It shows the entire battle between you and Monitor Frankel. Except that what it shows is not what happened.”
“So they faked it; this is no great feat,” The Eönwyl said, unimpressed. “Of course they’re going to have all sorts of faked evidence to back up their story. We have the actual recording you brought with you.”
I felt my mouth going dry with horror as I examined the files. “Torline’s Swords. That… That should be impossible.” At her confused glance, I beckoned her over to my screen. “It’s not just the video record, Eönwyl. It’s the actual record transcript. It’s got the full authentication embed layers, all of them, and they all check out perfectly.”
Now she went pale and said something under her breath that translated to something like “collapsing tunnels” – an expression that made a lot of sense now that I knew she’d been a contract miner. “You’re right. That should not be possible.”
But it obviously is possible, so waste no more time in incredulity, Vick thought coldly. We now gain a greater insight into the capabilities of our foe, and see that we were even more justified in fleeing than we had thought. See here, testimony from all of the crew. All of them have had their memories re-written.
“That frozen-hearted tzil.” I ground my teeth at the thought. “So everything we went through to convince them is completely wiped out.”
Perhaps not completely, Vick said after a pause. The soul does not forget, its history is recorded thereupon. But the mind and brain can be more easily changed, and if the brain does not support your memory, it is hard indeed for the soul’s knowledge to be expressed as anything other than vague feelings and the occasional dream.
We continued going through the news summary. The fall of Missitrill Base was noted and passed on by The Eönwyl, and as I read the commentary and preliminary reactions, I felt a hollow pit opening inside me, aching and empty. “Towers, no.” It was made even worse by seeing the name attached to many of the new security directives: Lukhas Kaje Mel’Tasne, White Controller.
And my name was being cited there. And in more detail under a resolution for more anti-psi research. And yet again, with pictures of a devastated, pillaged city and witnesses claiming I’d directed the entire attack, with my two alien lieutenants Sooovickalassa and Guvthor.
“Two?” inquired Guvthor.
To our surprise, there was almost no mention of The Eönwyl. It was as though our escape had been described specifically to make it so that I was personally responsible for the destruction of the two hangars plus a Marjaav-class patrol vessel. “But why in the name of the Emperor would they just leave you out?”
The Eönwyl shrugged, clearly as puzzled as the rest of us. It was Vick who finally came up with an answer.
They wish to know when you are found. When you are seen on some world. But ideally they wish to capture or destroy you themselves, not through other agents. So they keep the precise identity of your transportation to themselves. Shagrath knows. Trusted agents – your Monitors – will know. But the general population will not. This allows them to make some use of the general population, spotting you, myself, or the Thovian, but not allowing anyone but their agents to be able to identify you via a specific vessel at a distance. Thus, no mention in the public release of The Eönwyl, but tremendously many of you.
My name, it turned out, was the third-most-common significant search term in the entire data feed, after “Emperor/Empire/Imperial” and “The Five”.
Skimming the rest, feeling almost numb, I caught mention of another familiar name, moved back. “Well, what do you know. There’s some good news. Taelin won the Osean Seven Stars!”
Our two alien scientists didn’t appear to recognize the name, but The Eönwyl turned. “Really? That’s very good even for one of the Five.”
“Taelin is very good, even for one of the Five.” I grinned as I continued to read, and then felt the grin – and my momentary cheer – drain away.
The Eönwyl was – surprisingly – next to me. “Sasham? Sash, what is it? You look like you’re going to cry!”
I tried to speak, but I found I just couldn’t; all I could do was point.
The Eönwyl read aloud: “Taelin Ardan’s victory must have felt like a deliberate and studied insult to the Empire, as The Five had declared Taelin Ardan Mel’Tasne kattasi only one day previously. In accordance with the declaration, Taelin dropped the Five-name and is, at least temporarily, going only as Taelin Ardan.
“There is speculation as to whether he will join one of the known Great Families. However, the grim tragedy which seems to have broken what was once one of the Five’s most shining lights – the discovery that one of his closest friends, newly-elevated by his own actions, Captain Sasham Varan, had become a psychopathic ultrapsionic whose first act had been to kill one of their mutual friends – continues; unless Taelin Ardan takes up his responsibilities again, even the Greater Families will be forced to reject him…” she trailed off.
I got up slowly. “I… need to be alone now.”
My cabin was no comfort, but at least there I could scream my rage, smash my fist into Atlantaean hull with futility and pain, even cry. There were other ways to interpret the desperate message I’d sent Taelin those months ago, but he would have trusted me, maybe, even if he knew I was a psionic… but not now. Not when he could see what I’d done to Frankel, not when he could check the authentication codes and see that this was nothing but truth, that in one year his friend had become a monster.
In some ways, seeing this – that the irrepressible, ever-cheerful, ever-resourceful paragon of the Five, Taelin, was now shattered – was the worst thing Shagrath had done. And it explained Lukhas’ behavior, too. Lukh had lost his brother and me, and all that was left was to protect the Empire… from me.
I could almost hear Shagrath laughing.
Finally I rose from my bed and took a deep breath. I won’t let this break me. I won’t let him win.
“You hear me, Shagrath?” I shouted at the empty air. “I won’t let you win. Someday I’ll find Taelin and let him know the truth. Someday I’ll talk to Lukhas face-to-face and he’ll know he’s been had.
“And when that day comes, Shagrath,” I said, my voice still raw but iron hard, quiet, certain, “when that day comes, the Five will trap you, the Five will corner you and your monsters, and then I swear, by Torline and Niaadea, by the Six and One, by the Eternal King and by the Reborn Empire, I will be the last living thing you will ever see.”
The words fell into empty air… but somehow they filled my heart again, because I meant those words. I didn’t believe Taelin could be forever broken. I didn’t believe Lukhas could be forever fooled, that Shagrath could keep playing this game with the Five Families and not have them catch him.
More, I knew that the very fact he was spending this much effort to do it meant that he was very, very worried about me, about Sooovickalassa and Guvthor and The Eönwyl taking Captain Sasham Varan somewhere he did not control.
And so the most important thing in the Galaxy was that I never, ever let him break me.
There was a knock at my door. “Sasham?”
I opened it, and as The Eönwyl’s concerned gaze met mine, I felt everything click back into place, and I smiled. “I’m all right,” I said, and saw lines of worry smoothing out beneath that starburst of hair.
Without quite knowing why, I took her hand and gripped it between mine. “Now I am. He wants to break me. He’s afraid of me, somewhere deep down, I think. And as long as I keep myself, as long as I don’t let him break me… then maybe I can keep him afraid.”