Demons Of The Past 03 – Retribution – Chapter 13

Chapter 13


Twin mandibles slashed at me, and I parried, reinforcing my parry with my psionic strength. I was still under the damper fields, yes, but it remained an edge that allowed me to hold the Grasper at bay just long enough to flip up and let the pressure on the blades squirt me higher, a seed shot from between two fingers, and somersault in midair. I landed on the Grasper’s back and laid the vya-shadu across her eyes. “I win, I think.”

A buzzing laugh. “You do, Captain Varan. A very impressive showing. I am not sure whether I am learning more of your people than you are of mine.”

“I’d guess it’s an even match there. I don’t know how you were trained, but I know that most of what I knew about Zchorada was how to kill them, preferably at a distance, and something about your usual tactics and strategies. Your culture, or even personal combat preferences, weren’t much discussed.”

“It is . . . not that different for us,” she admitted, and rattled around me; sounds told me she was opening the refrigerator of this training room. “Catch, Captain!”

I sensed the small object coming, reached out my hand and caught it without even looking around. Then it suddenly dawned on me:

A Zchorada had just walked behind me. Had just thrown something at me without warning.

And I felt not the slightest rise in my pulse, not the faintest hint of concern. A smile touched my lips, grew, and I threw back my head and laughed with a feeling of such joy and relief as I had hardly known, a cleansing rush of rightness that I had feared would never be mine again.

“What amuses you so, Captain?”

I turned to her and gave her a full Six-and-One. “Grasper, though your people neither planned nor knew it, you have done me a service beyond price. The hrizz-zamiza as you call it, the unthinking fear, the phobia I had of your people . . . it is gone. I no longer look about me and see evil and fear, no longer find the sound and movement and shape of Zchorada a horror impossible to bear. I am . . . myself again, and only through this imprisonment — this forced, inescapable exposure to that fear — have I found my way past it.”

The mandibles fluttered in a pleased way. “This is a wonderful thing, Captain. That so cruel a necessity would produce such a marvelous result is . . . proper, it seems to me. It is what you deserve, at the least. I hope that means your remaining time with us will be somewhat less unpleasant.”

I laughed again. “It will be immeasurably less unpleasant. Even pleasant, leaving aside the locked doors and psi-screens — not that I truly object to them. It’s what we’d do in your place.” Much less than what we’d do, especially with Shagrath in charge. “I just hope my friends get back soon.”

“As do I. We are well past the halfway point of their allowed term.” She shook herself with a clattering of chitinous armor like a dozen plates clashing. “Well, shall we attempt another passage at arms? I am –“

A low buzzing and a glow from her first thoracic segment cut her off. She cursed mildly in Zchoradan, but touched the comm; immediately the faint sounds of another Zchorada became audible, speaking the native language.

Something’s wrong. I thought that before I was able to consciously recognize why I did. The Grasper of Sealed Holes was stiffening, slowly but clearly, her body unconsciously straightening as she listened to who was at the other end.

“Enough — I will come at once.” She tilted her head at me, then called to the watching guards, “Bring our honored prisoner back to his room; I must attend an emergency meeting.” Without even waiting to ensure I was properly under control, she scuttled out of the door.

That damped down my elation. Something terrible had happened, and given the circumstances, I couldn’t think of too many candidates for that which wouldn’t end up being bad for me.

Had Shagrath finally completed his maneuverings? Were we simply too slow? Was it now war?

No. It couldn’t be. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I didn’t think he could be ready — not when Taelin, Lukh, and Trey were working against him. No matter how many people he’d suborned with his Kaital allies, I was sure that my friends would have found a way to avoid it, and with Lukh running Imperial Security, it was an absolute Towers-damned certainty that he’d find a way to slow down anything and everything Shagrath did.

I felt better even as I thought that. I knew Taelin, and he’d actually seen through Shagrath’s lies on his own. I’d sent him just three words, and he’d not only read them, he’d accepted them and believed in me — and apparently so had Lukhas and Trey, if no one else. They were what the Five Families were supposed to be, and that meant that there was no way in all the Hells that they’d let the Reborn Empire fall. Not that fast.

But that did leave me with the mystery of my hosts’ current problem. I shrugged after a few moments; there was literally no way for me to answer the question (short of breaking out or trying to read their minds, neither of them very diplomatic actions). So I sat down and began clearing my mind and preparing to practice my psionic skills again, as best I could under the pressure of the psi-screens. A while back they’d seemed to get even stronger, but things were a bit easier now; apparently they’d decided to back off on the pressure.

The practice lasted more than an hour, and still the Grasper had not returned, nor had anyone called. Perhaps the problem was more an internal one? A jailor, or more accurately the officer in charge of a prison, could have many things happen that would lead to a lot of worry and confusion. Despite her earlier discussion of how they tried to run their jails with kindness, I could easily imagine a prison break taking place. And that would surely be something to call the officer or warden out of their practice duel with a star prisoner.

Massaging my temples a bit, I walked over and tapped the door. “Is it time for lunch yet?” I asked.

“Momentarily, Captain,” Hurrzador, my usual guard, replied. “I called it down ten minutes ago.”

“Thank you very much, Hurrzador. I appreciate the thought.”

“Your thanks are accepted; the service was minor.”

Sure enough, within a few minutes my lunch arrived and I was able to start eating, having finally banished speculation about my hosts’ current issues from my mind. I was just contemplating the dessert — a surprisingly tempting fluff-pastry with redfruit and cream filling — when the door gave its warning buzz and opened.

The Grasper stood in the doorway, and I could tell just from the rigidity of her mandibles that things were very, very bad. “Grasper? What is wrong?”

She entered, stiffly, slowly, her feet whispering in a subdued scraping on the deck. “The Empire knows.”

“Knows? Knows what?”

“The Empire knows that you are here.”

I heard my breath whistle in past my teeth. Torline’s Swords. The Empire knows the Zchorada have me? “How? How could they possibly know?”

“That they have not told us; a spy we have not yet caught, perhaps. But when they contacted our people, it was with absolute knowledge. They could even tell us which cell you were held in.”

I swallowed. This was about as bad a situation as I had ever imagined. “And . . . what do they want?”

“You, Captain Varan. They ask that the Zchoradan Meld turn Captain Sasham Varan, known psionic and renegade, over to the Empire for trial and, presumably, execution.”

Sinking Towers, no. “And what does the Vmee Zschorhaza say to this?”

“They have attempted to dissemble and negotiate. Apparently the first contact was a few weeks ago. The emergency call . . . well, the Empire has run out of what minimal patience it has displayed of recent. They are sending an emissary to retrieve you. If we do not cooperate . . . it is strongly implied that this will begin the war we have been so desperately trying to avoid.”

My mouth was dry. They can’t afford to go to war yet. They haven’t even accepted what their true enemy is; without that they haven’t got a chance. “How long?”

“Based on the messages?” The Grasper paused, then looked down. “The emissary’s vessel will arrive in-system in three weeks.”

Three weeks.

My deadline was a lot closer than I had thought . . . and there was no way to let my friends know.

And if this “emissary” did get me on board his ship . . . I was pretty sure that “deadline” would become, very suddenly, literal.