Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 02
“You’re good at that.”
I glanced toward my feet and a little outward â€“ carefully, to keep from bashing my head against the access hatch â€“ to see the EÃ¶nwyl 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 â€“ 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 EÃ¶nwyl.” 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.Â 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, Captainâ€¦ that is, Sasham Varan.” She stumbled over my rank â€“ 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 â€“ even as a renegade from the Empire they couldn’t say I wasn’t a qualified engineer, for instance â€“ but none of them felt at all the same.
“I’ll be at your disposal in about five minutes, EÃ¶nwyl.”
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 EÃ¶nwyl‘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 â€“ 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 EÃ¶nwyl walked over to a cabinet and took out a jar. “I’m having samahei â€“ 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 â€“ 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. Sashamâ€¦ 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 â€“ 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 itâ€¦ or, to be honest, surprising as I find it. I had only met you the once, yes, but it wasâ€¦ 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. Soâ€¦ no. I think you are the same man I met in the hospital of Tangia Station, onlyâ€¦ more so, if that makes any sense.”
“I’m not sure it does, and that sounds somehow like embarrassingly effusive praise even though itâ€¦ 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 â€“ 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 Guvthorâ€¦ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ he has mentioned more than once â€“ 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 â€“ 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 feelâ€¦ comfortable with, but my gut tells me that he is bound by that debt â€“ 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 â€¦ well, they only told half the story. The real problem was that I had failed to give credit for what I had gained â€“ 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 knowâ€¦ 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 notâ€¦ exactlyâ€¦ 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 â€“ or, judging from the files on Thovia, pre-industrial â€“ 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.
“Butâ€¦ 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.
“Guvthorâ€¦ 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 EÃ¶nwyl.
“In factâ€¦” I trailed off, thinking about our recent discussion that had led to our decision to set course for Thovia in the first place. “â€¦ 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. “Wellâ€¦ 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, butâ€¦ 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 â€“ and you â€“ 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 â€“ speaking perfectly bluntly â€“ 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. Butâ€¦ “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 outsideâ€¦ well, there’s the Ptial; they respect me. But there’sâ€¦ 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. Stillâ€¦ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ before I had to leave â€“ 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 â€“ being honest with myself â€“ 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 â€¦ 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 wasâ€¦ my family isâ€¦ contract workers.”
“Family?” I know that sounded stupid, but The EÃ¶nwyl 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. “Sashamâ€¦ I really shouldn’t laugh. One of the things I didâ€¦ and doâ€¦ 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 thatâ€¦ in many casesâ€¦ 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 naÃ¯ve 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 thisâ€¦ this would be slavery. “Where in Torline’s name was this?”
I remembered a black city, fallen buildings of alien design â€“ conical towers, indented-sided pyramids, sweeping arcs not quite right for human design â€“ 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 â€“ who think about it at all â€“ think it’s run by automatics too. Butâ€¦ automatics don’t work well for long on Fanabulax. Sometimes people don’t, either, but â€¦ we replace ourselves, after all.”
I stared at her for a moment. “How â€¦ 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 viewâ€¦ one of the excavations. Uncle Rall wasâ€¦ 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 â€“ well, he wasn’t Rall then, he was MIN-22/EXCA-2-Voln-19 â€“ 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 EÃ¶nwyl is â€“ was â€“ your uncle’s ship? What happened?”
She hesitated, and for a moment â€“ despite all the shielding, and that strange sensation I sometimes felt around her â€“ 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 â€“ including complete freedom â€“ to me. Borell hated that â€“ I â€¦ 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 EÃ¶nwyl, 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 â€“ questions ranging from that eerie and frightening term “shadow-madness” to whatever was behind her hesitations â€“ 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 traveling this farâ€¦”
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 EÃ¶nwyl 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.