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"…and then you came up behind Canta as he was trying to get in and did a crystal-perfect imitation of a windwailer!" Taelin laughed again as he remembered. "He almost jumped out of his snowsuit!"
I chuckled. "Oh, yeah, it seemed real funny to you. If you remember the rest of it, once he came back DOWN from the roof he almost killed me."
Taelin poured another glass of Oron jucilla, a sort of creamy fermented juice concoction that he loved and I couldn't stand. "Well, it was funny, especially when my Dad went out and pulled you both out of the snow like a couple of ten-year-olds caught arguing over the desserts."
I couldn't counter that; it had been pretty humiliating for both me and Canta at the time, but in hindsight it must have been an awfully funny sight. But I remembered that one of the people watching had been Diorre. I felt the smile fade and looked around. Numilla Landing, the best restaurant on the station (and not a bad restaurant by any measure) was almost empty. We'd been drinking, eating, talking, reminiscing, and generally having a good time for… well, a good part of the day. I felt ten times better.
"Yeah. Sorry about your dad. I heard about it just before they sent me out…"
He bowed his head but waved it away. "It's been four years. I've dealt with it. Damned mind-crawlers… I'm glad you managed to get one. It's something like a little revenge."
"Got one? He almost got me. I just got lucky."
"No such thing as luck with a mind-raping psi. One comes after you, you're dead, unless you have a shield… or you're a psi yourself. And if you're human, being a psi means you might as well be dead, because you'll be a psychopath in a few years."
I stared at him, a twinge of nausea starting as his words sank in. "Taelin, you can't think I'm a psi!"
He looked startled, then laughed. "What are… oh, demons, no, sorry about that. You don't understand. If I thought you were a psi," and for a moment his eyes were glacier ice, "we'd be talking in a very different setting, if I wanted to talk to you at all." He relaxed and chuckled. "No, we don't think you're a psi. I guess it is time for us to talk some business though, now that the subject's come up.
"Sasham, your Exsheath suit's combat records survived intact—kinda surprising, actually, given the damage your suit took. They would've been filed away after a routine scan if it wasn't for the fact that the whole attack was so surprising and the Monitors wanted to go over it for Intelligence. Everyone assumed that you'd managed to survive because you had full armor with psi-shielding—"
"—and Diorre didn't. Yeah." Saying her name still hurt. But it would hurt a lot more to try never to say it again.
"But that assumption turned out to be wrong. They'd brought in one of their best psis, a first-class mind-crawler who knew the limits of our suits. The readings showed that he pushed past the shield's limits pretty fast. You should've been frozen solid. But you managed to get yourself moving again, even though the shield got weaker and weaker and eventually failed."
"That was the general reaction everyone had. Your suit's shield went completely down a full two seconds before you blew that blogharth straight back to Firstworld. But there wasn't any trace of you exerting active psi inside the shield."
That set me back on my mental heels, thinking. What Taelin had said earlier was just plain truth—everyone knew it. Psis could detect psis. Psis could fight psis. If you weren't a psi, you were helpless, unless you had a shield. And human psis all went insane, sooner or later—usually sooner. So if what he was saying was true… "Oh."
" 'Oh'??" Taelin repeated. "That's all you have to say, 'Oh'? My brother Lukhas says that when Prime Monitor Shagrath saw those results, he used language that got him a stern lecture from the Emperor."
This had been a good day for some healing laughs (though my ribs would disagree). I'd met the Emperor once and remembered him well, a tall, silver-haired man with skin darker than mine and an unfailingly polite and refined manner that brooked no rudeness in its presence. "I can imagine. So that's why you're here."
"I'm supposed to personally transport you to Oro for top-secret detached duty with the Monitors. Apparently whatever you did matches something in one of their research projects, and Shagrath wants you there immediately—or sooner." He looked momentarily unsure.
Taelin didn't answer for a few moments, just sipped at his jucilla. Finally he looked up. "Probably nothing. It's just… I don't feel comfortable around Shagrath."
"Lots of people don't feel comfortable around the Monitors," I said. "But you're one of the Five Families, so I guess it must be kinda unusual for you to have that reaction."
"Exactly. I usually trust my people sense. But there's no way anyone reaches Shagrath's position without going through more checks on their loyalty, more voluntary conditioning, and more tests of moral character than you could count, so he's got to be okay. It just bothers me."
"I'll be sure to let you know my impression. I think I saw Shagrath that one time, when I met the Emperor, but I can't be sure. I know I wasn't introduced." I finished my own drink, noticed that the bottle was empty, and waved for a refill. "So, when do I have to head out?"
"I have to get the doctors to certify you as fit to travel," he answered. "Once they do that, as soon as you can get packed. So I'd suggest you get packed tonight."
I glanced at the clock. "There's not that much night left." I realized that I was feeling exhausted now. Better in my heart, but I wasn't all that long out of convalescence. "You're bringing me yourself?"
"By the personal direction of the Emperor. I think he thinks—and he's probably right—that if the Zchorada or anyone else sniffs this out, they'll be trying to grab you for themselves, by any means necessary, including suborning the crew members on the vessel taking you to Oro."
I still couldn't quite accept the idea that I was suddenly an interstellar commodity, but there were upsides to the situation. "Well, in that case we'll have time to reminisce until we're sick of it. Even if you've figured a course that manages to use nothing but Nexus drive all the way, it's seven days to Oro. And I happen to know that there IS no pure Nexus course to Oro, unless you found a new one, so it's a two-week flight. I think I'd better pack it in for the night."
"You're starting to sound like a sensible old soldier." Taelin said. "Where exactly did you put my friend Sasham?"
I tried to reply with the same lightness, but realized I'd run out of banter, even with Taelin. "He's not quite back yet. But a lot closer, now. Thanks."
He nodded. "See you in the morning."
I headed for my cabin, wondering exactly what the Emperor and Prime Monitor thought I could do for them.
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