Demons Of The Past 03 – Retribution – Chapter 12
“Thanks for letting me steal a ride, little brother!” Lukhas said, dragging his travel cases up the boarding ramp of Valabacal.
“You’re always welcome,” Taelin said. “After all, there’s enough room to keep you out of our way.”
“But why do you need –“
Lukhas rolled his eyes. “I don’t need to, but you and Trey are already headed near Karanis, and barring one of the cramped messenger ships there’s no other ship that’d get me there any faster.”
“Oh. Makes sense.”
“Glad you agree. Hi, Trey, am I interrupting anything?”
“We were planning on a private trip,” Treyuusei said, trying to look severe and failing; she gave Lukhas a hug instead. “But come on, let’s all get inside. Takeoff in a few minutes.”
Lukhas made sure the doors sealed behind them and followed to the control room. “So a second marriage flight, was that the plan?”
Trey wrapped one arm around Taelin, who echoed the gesture. “Why not? Once the shockwaves of my return settled down, of course me and Trey –“
“Like the two of you weren’t seeing each other anyway,” Lukhas said dryly.
“What? How –“
“Please, Taelin, I am Imperial Security. And you two weren’t that discreet.”
Taelin flushed slightly, then pulled away from Trey as they reached the control deck and slid into the pilot’s seat. “Strap in for takeoff!”
The usual ritual of clearance and permissions led to a smooth climb into the sky. Once they were well clear of Oro, Taelin unstrapped. “All clear, and we’ll be into Conversion in about three hours. I don’t know about you, Lukh, but I’m going to go unpack everything; this is going to be a couple of weeks’ trip, you know.”
“True enough. I’ll see you all in a bit, then.” Taelin didn’t miss the fond grin as Lukhas saw Trey take Taelin’s hand and both left the control room together.
Unpacking, setting up their cabin, and various other activities took up a few hours; finally, he felt the faint jolt of Valabacal making the jump to T-Space. He and Trey immediately made their way forward.
“Took you long enough,” Lukhas said, turning from where he’d been watching the opalescence of conversion streaming by.
“I found nothing. I assume you already did your own security survey.”
“Both of us did one.”
“Good. Then we’re secure. If something can spy on us in Conversion, we’re in serious trouble. Though our real key to being undetected is to keep them from suspecting us.”
“That’s not really possible,” Trey pointed out. “Not for you, anyway, Lukhas.”
“Well, they’ll always be worried about me, but my efforts are intended to keep that on a mundane level. Make them mostly concerned with keeping me properly directed so that I follow their script when the time comes.” He frowned, lines drawn into his face that hadn’t been so clear only a couple of years before. “And the time’s coming soon.”
Taelin felt a faint chill down his spine. “How do you mean ‘soon’?”
“No more than a year before it all goes straight to a second Fall,” Lukhas said bluntly.
“Emperor’s Name, Lukh. How sure are you?”
“Too sure, Taelin. Remember, I get all the reports — well, those that go through any channels I get to see, anyway — and knowing we’ve got a whole network of traitors or worse hiding in the Empire puts a whole different spin on what those reports say. On the surface it looks like the Empire’s just being pressured from a lot of other directions, with maybe some overreaction internally. But with what we know about Shagrath and his allies? You can tell that something’s very, very carefully playing every faction off against the other, ratcheting up the tensions in a coldly-calculated manner.”
“But why? You’ve got to have some kind of idea by now of what Shagrath’s after. Complete conquest of the Empire?”
Lukhas’ face was so grim that Taelin’s mouth went dry, and he saw Treyuusei bite her lip. “Nothing so sensible or mundane. I don’t see the Empire surviving this, Taelin, Trey. Not the Reborn Empire, not the Zchoradan Meld, not the Ptialians, not even the other groups on the fringe like the R’Thann.”
“But . . . then what . . .?”
“The only thing that makes sense of what Shagrath’s doing — even though it’s otherwise completely insane — is that his goal is to destroy every single galactic civilization within reach. He doesn’t want to rule; he doesn’t want to leave anything to rule. He’s orchestrating an explosion of conflict that will cause everyone within fifteen or even twenty thousand lightyears to engage in all-out warfare and collapse the economies and eventually even the infrastructure of every star nation we know of in that volume.”
Taelin felt as though a huge abyss had opened up beneath him, an abyss filled with incomprehensible horror. “But . . . why? I mean, it makes sense to try to take something over, and the occasional psychopath might want to smash everything, but he’s got an entire set of alien allies working with him. Are they some . . . invading empire, maybe? That would make sense, they’re going to knock us down and take over.”
Trey shook her head. “If they were, they’re an empire we’ve never heard a thing about. How would Shagrath have managed all this without even Lukh hearing anything about the source of these . . . psionic allies of his?”
“But what kind of group — one big enough and old enough to do this kind of thing — deliberately sets out just to wreck everything? That’s . . . that’s a child with a tantrum, or a madman, or a demon, not something that . . .”
He trailed off, feeling that icy sensation spreading. “Fallen Towers.”
Lukh looked at him. “What is it, Taelin?”
“I think I might be going crazy,” he said slowly. “But . . . something you said, something I said . . . put them together and I can make an insane kind of sense out of it, especially when I think about Sasham.”
Treyuusei and Lukhas both thought about it for a moment; their eyebrows suddenly shot up at the same instant, but Trey spoke first. “You can’t be serious, Taelin!”
“It makes sense. Insane sense, but if Lukh’s right the whole situation is insane. He said we’re heading for another Fall. And I said that only demons seek destruction for its own sake. Well . . . what if I’m literally correct? Then –“
“Then Shagrath and his allies are the Demons,” Lukhas breathed with a sort of horrified revelation. “Some kind of alien race that did exist back when Atlantaea did, worked with them, and then once it got a chance somehow took the whole civilization down. And now that we’ve seen how it’s working here, it’s all too believable. Psionic allies and manipulation on a grand scale . . . add extreme longevity to that, so that our adversaries can take centuries to work on a project? Yes. Yes, that would all work.”
“And Shasham’s faith . . . our faith, the research and belief in Atlantaea, that’s probably what drew them back out,” Trey picked up. “If you’re right, they destroyed Atlantaea, for whatever reason, and we’re trying to revive all that we can. So naturally we’re targeted.”
“By the Seven,” Lukhas said emphatically. “No wonder it was so hard to recognize. Invasion plans make sense. We’re always trying to figure out the motives of our opposition, but we expect their motives to be ones we would understand. Now that I think of it this way, everything makes sense.”
“And even harder for us to explain,” Taelin said, feeling the weight of depressing certainty. “We can’t talk about the Demons as if they were facts without sounding like a Believer nutcase, worse than Sash. Not without having a Demon, whatever they really are, for exhibit.”
“Worse than that,” Lukh said somberly. “The fact is that we have a swiftly-shrinking circle of people that we could tell. Most of the Five Families are compromised badly, so are most of the Greater Families, and there’s starting to be extensive . . . conversion, I suppose we could say, of the Lesser. We need to get word to Sasham — I am certain he’s still alive and uncaptured — but not in any way that will draw attention to us. And we need to prepare some kind of countermove.”
Taelin thought a moment, then grinned. “I think I’ve got a way to get a message out. And an ally or two I can contact, if I do it right.”
“Canta, that’s who. We used associative code together years back, and while he wasn’t nearly as good as me or Sash, I’m sure he’ll still catch a simple couple of messages.”
“He is under surveillance, you know. All of Varan’s old associates are, except you — and that’s only because of the way you got kicked out and re-accepted.”
“Yeah. That’s an issue, but I think Sash will try to contact him, and if we prep Canta for it in advance . . .”
“I like it. Remin Canta’s also due for rotation to duty in Oro system fairly soon, so we may be able to use that.” Lukh suddenly froze, struck by another thought. “And so is Commodore Morno.”
“Veshdar Morno? Why in the Hells do you say that as though it’s a good thing? I remember the beating he gave Varan –“
The grin spreading across Lukh’s face startled Taelin into silence. “Well, what you don’t know is that Varan managed to return the favor . . . on board Commodore Morno’s own flagship . . . during a Ptialian-triggered honor challenge. And Morno let him go.”
Taelin tried to put that together; it took a few minutes, because making sense of that sequence of events meant changing his outlook on the former bully. “Morno captured him. He knew what the Navy said Varan was. And yet he let him go. Which means . . .”
“I think so, yes. His report emphasized that he had been given directives that maintaining peaceful cooperation with the Ptial was paramount, and that he thus had to both accept the challenge and abide by the results, and that’s true . . . by the book. But Dragon Strikers aren’t very by-the-book people usually, and Morno’s record doesn’t show him to be usually some slavish rules-addict. He could just as equally have justified the possible political break by relying on the general directives on psis.”
“So Sash somehow convinced him that . . . what? He wasn’t crazy?”
“At the least, I would say. And the fact that none of that showed up on the reports and such means Morno’s keeping a very close rein on any of the facts surrounding the event.”
“Okay, so maybe we can make use of that. But . . . it all comes down to somehow pulling off Shagrath’s mask, or that of his allies, so that everyone will know.”
“I know, little brother. And how we do that I’m not sure. But once we do know that we’ll need to be ready to act. And for that part of the plan, I have some very definite roles for you and Trey to play . . .”
As Lukhas outlined that key part of their last-ditch effort to save the Empire, Taelin felt that grimness descending upon him once more. Their enemy was worse than they had imagined, they had no idea as to how to prove he even existed . . .
. . . and at best, when the time came, they would have one — and only one — chance to save the Empire. Because if they made even the smallest mistake, it would be their actions that would trigger a war of complete annihilation.