Demons Of The Past 03 – Retribution – Chapter 19
“Taelin? Taelin Mel’Tasne, what in the Emperor’s Name are you doing here, you picture boy?”
Taelin turned around, already feeling the grin starting. “And that has to be Remin Canta, the Imperial warning symbol for ‘think once, act twice!'”
Canta — only slightly taller than Taelin but outweighing him more than two-to-one with his heavyworlder build — caught up Taelin in an exuberant hug that sent Taelin’s breath whooshing from his body. “This can’t be an accident, not in the whole breadth of the Galaxy! What’re you doing here, Tae?”
“Ugh! Let me get my breath back first!” As Canta released him, Taelin let his arm slide down, bringing the mind-shield bracelet into momentary contact with Canta’s hand. Thank Atlantaea . . . no reaction. He didn’t even notice. He saw Trey’s face relax just the slightest fraction, reflecting his own immense relief.
Now sure that Canta was truly himself and not . . . something else, Taelin surveyed the blocky Guardsman; the black eyes matched the hair, but there were a couple of lines on the square face that hadn’t been there ten or twelve years ago, and a fine white scar stood out from the medium-brown skin, running from the cheek down to the corner of the jaw. The rank wheel glittered with a rainbow of color, with red uppermost. Full Guard Force command — two thousand or more under him.
Canta noticed his glance. “Yeah, you believe that? And me the guy everyone had to keep coaching back in the Talanda.”
“Not because you had trouble leading, though. I always figured you’d get there if you kept focused.” He gestured behind him. “Canta, you remember Trey, right?”
Canta gave a huge, exaggerated Six-and-One and grinned at Trey, giving her a wink. “You think I could forget? She dumped me for you, remember?”
Treyuusei grinned back. “Can you blame me?”
“Ouch! Well, no, he’ll look a lot better in the family portraits. Anyway, me and Amalandi have been married for eight years so it’s not like I never dated again.” He glanced more narrowly at Taelin. “But you didn’t run into me by accident.”
“No, we didn’t, but it’s nothing bad. I know, the way things are in the Galaxy everything we didn’t expect looks like a danger, but don’t worry. It’s a good thing. Come on, I’ll brief you.”
“My people will be –“
“I sent word on ahead that you’ve got an important meeting with the Five Families. No one’ll question it.”
“Families’ business? Great, just what I tried to stay out of.” Despite the grumbling, Canta looked intrigued, and paced next to Taelin and Trey as they headed away from the Intrijia Base entrance.
“You’ll like this business,” Trey said. “It gets you a trip to the Capital. With your whole Force.”
Canta stopped dead, and Taelin couldn’t help but laugh at his dumbfounded expression. “Wha . . . you can’t be serious!”
“Come on, Canta,” Trey said. “We’ll answer all your questions when we get to Valabacal.”
“Wait, what, your starship? We’re not –“
“We have to head home anyway,” Taelin said, enjoying watching Canta try to deal with the sudden disruption to his routine. “But not another word until we’re in private.”
Canta maintained silence — with an expression that indicated constantly-rising pressure — as they took the fast shuttle to the spaceport. But when he saw obviously-familiar cases being loaded into the ship, he couldn’t remain silent. “What in the . . .? Taelin, I don’t care if you’re Five Families or not, I am still just a Guardsman, and I can’t just go running off to –“
“Remin,” Taelin said, with another grin, “Do you think I don’t know that? This was already cleared with your superior. They know you’ve got a priority call from the Families, even if they don’t know the details. Now up the ramp, Guardsman!”
Canta glanced at the two of them suspiciously, then turned his hands up and looked skyward. “Torline’s Will, I suppose,” he said with a sigh, and walked up and into the waiting ship.
The three of them reached the control room a few minutes later, and Taelin glanced down at the telltales. “Loading’s almost done. Ours was completed earlier, anyway.”
“Now can you tell me what’s going on, or do I have to beat it out of you?” demanded Canta.
“We have to get you to Oro in time for your Security interview,” Treyuusei said.
“Security?” Canta looked suddenly nervous. “Wait, now. I haven’t done anything to draw Security’s attention. Or I sure hope not!”
“Not true at all. But it’s the good kind of attention. Your unit’s been decorated four times in the last seven years, and despite seeing a lot of combat your attrition rate’s been very low. No scandals in your ranks — and when you’ve got a couple thousand people below you, that’s pretty impressive. Multiple awards for personal heroism in your command, too, both for your people and a couple for you–“
“–I just pulled my people out of the crap when it got too deep and they gave me a medal for it.”
That attitude was so familiar that Taelin felt a touch of painful nostalgia. “And there is why people thought you and Sash were alike.”
At the mention of Varan, Canta looked suddenly downcast. “Yeah. I guess.”
The control light went green; Taelin touched the panel and sealed the lock, then checked all the security indicators to make sure there hadn’t been any unwanted additions. “Intrijia Control, this is Valabacal. Requesting a departure window.”
“Valabacal, this is Intrijia Control, you may depart from your current berthing location in four minutes thirty seconds, with a five-minute window.”
“Thank you, Intrijia.”
Canta’s brows had been drawn down, the very picture of the Guardsman trying to think something through, and just as Taelin clicked the D-Comm off, his expression cleared. “An interview for a posting. On Oro. That’s what you mean!”
“And not just any posting,” Trey confirmed.
“But why the racing speed? They could’ve sent for me through regular channels –“
“Because there’s five other Forces who want the post, that’s why, and all but one of those are in the inner systems. So four of them can get in on the interviews and politics easy. Sending for you through channels? They might already have picked someone by the time you got there. Probably would. You’d get your interview, but unless you turned out to be the reincarnation of Torline it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Canta stared at the two of them. “So you’re . . .”
Taelin slapped him on the shoulder. “Paying back a promise. Told you I wouldn’t forget what you did for me and Sash on Xaltine, you and Diorre. Now hold on a couple.”
While Taelin finished prep and, a few minutes later, launched Valabacal into its home element, Trey absented herself. She came back into the cabin as the little starship settled into its maximum-automatable drive speed, pushing eighty percent of the speed of light on its way to the safe conversion limit. He saw her give a tiny nod, and relaxed.
“So,” Canta said slowly, “you’re going to get me to Oro in a couple weeks instead of a month or two. Still, that won’t guarantee much.”
“By itself, no,” Taelin conceded. “But who does the interview, and what they say, will make a difference, and in this case you’re going to get interviewed by the man at the very top.”
Understanding dawned on Canta’s face. “Ohhh. You mean that your brother, Lukhas, is going to personally conduct the interview?”
“Targeted that one dead-center,” Trey agreed. “And unless you completely lose your head, Canta, Lukh will give you top rating. No one except Shagrath or the Emperor Himself would be able to overrule him, and they’re not likely to. So you should probably start thinking about what it’s going to be like to be the man in charge of the Palace Protectorate.”
“Palace Protect . . .” Canta swallowed his obvious disbelief. “The main Guardsman force protecting the Imperial Palace? My people are going to be the Protectorate for the next cycle?”
“That’s the plan.”
“I sure hope Lukh knows about this plan!”
“You think we just came up with this on our own? Security whittled the candidates down themselves over the last year. What happened was that Lukh recognized your unit in the set of final candidates; knowing I owed you, he let me learn that little fact and that he’d be willing to do the interview. Assuming I thought you could handle it.”
Canta had the look of a man just recovering from a concussive blast. “Protectorate. Handle it? Atlantaea’s Sinking, I don’t know. That’s . . . that’s the highest post for a Guardsman Force there is.”
“And the way things are going these days, it might not be a quiet one. That’s why I want you around, Canta. Your group is tops in battle readiness and combat experience; some of the others are good but they’re a lot more inner-system types.”
Taelin could see Canta understood what he meant; Canta’s Force hadn’t just faced minor riots or other civilian disruptions, but actual military assaults. If unrest or war came to Oro, the Emperor was going to need a Protectorate that knew how to deal with the big things. “And the fact that you’re pretty tight with the Emperor means I’ll be able to keep an eye on you and yours, too. But what about Amalandi?”
That’s a different problem. But hopefully not for too long. “She’ll probably be able to join you later, once they offer you the post and you’ve accepted. You’ve been on traveling duty quite a while, it’s about time they let you have some sit-down time.”
Another light blinked on the board, and Taelin activated the TC Drive. The distant high-pitched whine sounded, and abruptly the screens went dark with Conversion space.
Canta looked up as Taelin’s grin shifted. “And now,” Taelin said, “we can really talk.”
“I got your messages. I think. Something about Varan . . .” he hesitated, watching their faces, “. . . not being a monster?”
“Towers. But the recordings –“
“Faked. We don’t know how.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be impossible?”
“Yes, it is,” Trey said. “But it’s happened just the same.”
Canta leaned forward. “Sasham’s not a killer psi? But your brother’s own office is pushing the –“
“Because whoever’s behind this is at the top,” Taelin said quietly.
Despite common protestations, Canta was not, actually, stupid in any way, shape, or form. His face went noticeably paler. “But . . . the Prime Monitor?”
“And maybe even the Emperor, now. Look, Canta, this is going to be a dangerous assignment. The most dangerous you’ve ever been put on. Your message back in associative code said you’d do whatever you had to, but . . . well, you’re not nearly as good at it as me and Sash are. We’ll have to practice it more on the way, but first we have to fill you in.”
Canta did not ask any questions as they told the story — from the time of Varan’s delivery to the Prime Monitor, to his departure, the mysterious three-word message, and other events. But Taelin could see his old friend’s features hardening like setting pourstone.
Finally, they finished. Canta sat silent for a moment, then stood, looking out the port at the faintly-twisting scene of Conversion Space. “So Varan’s demons were real after all,” he said finally.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense of everything,” Trey said.
“And what do you think’s going to happen?”
“You know Sasham. He’s still alive out there. He’s doing something, and Lukh’s sure that whatever he’s doing is keeping Shagrath nervous. The Empire’s right on the edge of destruction. I want the right people on-site to help, so that if there is anything we can do, we’ve got our best chance. The fact that Shagrath’s made Varan the biggest psi threat ever tells me Varan is out there doing something big. He’s going to try to stop Shagrath somehow, and I think it’s going to come down to a war.”
Canta cracked his knuckles as he thought, a habit Taelin remembered from their childhoods. Finally he turned to them. “It is going to be a war,” he said slowly. “Anyone can see it’s coming. But if you’re right, it’s not going to be fought out there on the Rim; it will be fought on Oro.”
He bowed, and his Six-and-One was rock-steady and perfect. “I’m in. Varan protected our backs when we were young; we’ll cover his now.”
Taelin felt a fierce joy and relief burn through him. Canta would make a huge difference. “Then let’s begin!”