Authors: Gregg Vann
“My name is Nedol Cedef,” he said. “Grand Editor of the Vade Mecum. And this, is Major Kline.”
“You can release them now,” Kline directed his men. “And then wait outside with the others.”
Tana rubbed her wrists as the restraints came off, and then she glowered at Cobin.
“I didn’t turn you in,” he said defensively. “A few hours after I started asking around about the pistols the Wardens just showed up.”
“So you are Tana Neng,” Cedef said. “Somehow, I thought you’d be larger…more formidable.”
“Where are the police?” Tana asked him, already resigned to her fate. “And what’s with all the Wardens?”
Tana knew the situation was bad…very bad. This much attention meant the guns belonged to someone really important. But the apartment she’d found them in wasn’t
“Whose pistols were they?” Tana said.
“They are mine,” Major Kline answered. “And I’m delighted to have them back.”
“Oh shit,” Tana blurted out.
She looked over at Sri and saw that she was on the verge of tears. And Tana knew why. They were both going away for a very, very long time. Stealing from a Collective pretender who kept ceremonial pistols as a keepsake was one thing, but taking them from a Warden was one of the highest crimes imaginable. During graduation from their exclusive academy, the Wardens were presented with actual firearms brought by the First Ones during the colonization—irreplaceable, historic treasures.
?” Tana asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” Major Kline answered, “they were. So now you understand just how bad this situation is for you?”
“I do,” Tana replied somberly.
“Excellent. Then you’ll also understand how magnanimous the offer I’m about to make is.”
“Offer?” Tana said, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.
“I’m still not convinced, Major,” Cedef interrupted. “Are you certain that
is the one?”
“I am,” Kline replied confidently. “She’s good, Cedef…very good. She easily defeated the complex security system I have installed in my apartment, leaving no trace. And I’ve done some checking around—she’s smart and discreet as well. Which is exactly what we need in this situation.”
“But you know how important this could be if the Vade is right. It would mean—”
“Say nothing of that!” Kline snapped.
Nedol Cedef fell silent, and Tana saw a brief flash of fear in the man’s eyes. As an editor of the Vade…
editor, he wasn’t accustomed to listening to anyone. But when a Warden spoke, everyone listened.
Major Kline turned to Sri and instructed her to wait outside; she shot Tana a hopeful glance before departing. Then the Warden motioned for Cobin to join her, and stepped aside to let him pass. When the door closed behind them, Cedef and Kline both walked out from behind the counter to stand in front of Tana.
“If you accomplish a task I have for you,” Kline began, “I will forget all about the theft of my pistols. You will also receive a large payment commiserate with your efforts, and your friend Sri will get a full pardon.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then neither of you will ever taste freedom again.”
Tana could sense that Kline wasn’t an evil man—he carried himself with the same level of respect and honor that all Wardens did—but he clearly meant every word he said. If Tana didn’t agree to his terms, her life was over, as was Sri’s.
She shrugged defeat. “What do you want me to do?”
“Actually,” Cedef replied, “we want you to steal another set of pistols. A very special pair.”
“What’s so special about them?” Tana asked.
“They belong to Sergeant Barent,” Kline said.
Tana’s jaw dropped and she was left completely speechless. Break into the Tomb of the Great Betrayer and steal his
weapons? It was madness. Not only did the tomb sit right in the middle of the Central District, it was also one of the most heavily protected places in the city. If not
But wait a minute,
Tana thought to herself.
It was guarded by…
“Forgetting about why you even want them for a moment,” Tana said, “the Wardens provide security at the tomb. You could just walk in there and take the pistols, and no one could stop you.”
“That is not entirely accurate,” Kline replied. “The Collective took that responsibility away from us some time ago, and they gave it to the regular military. They’ve been slowly leeching away our duties over the years because they feel we’re too popular with the people, and because we openly oppose many of their policies. The only time the Wardens watch over the Great Betrayer now is during the annual ceremony celebrating his life…today, actually.”
“So take them
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Kline said. “The tomb will be swarming with Collective military as part of the celebration. But we can use all of that activity as a distraction to sneak someone into the compound—then they can hide out until later in the evening when everything is over. Once everyone’s gone, the infiltrator can circumvent the tomb’s security precautions, and then remove Barent’s pistols from the coffin before escaping the complex.”
Kline looked straight into Tana’s eyes. “That is my plan, Ms. Neng. And I believe that
have a better chance of pulling it off than anyone else in the city.”
Tana’s shoulders sank. “I always thought the Wardens were above these types of things, Major. When Barent formed your group during the Pardon War it was to ensure that everyone was treated the same: the prisoners, the colonists, and even the original guards that oppressed our ancestors. But now you’re just as bad as the politicians—doing everything you can to disrespect Barent’s memory. And for what? So you can keep his pistols as prizes?”
“I see that you’ve read the histories.” Kline grinned. “You needn’t worry, Ms. Neng, we are still above common politics. But it’s come to our attention that the Collective plans to remove the pistols from the tomb anyway, and then claim they were stolen under our watch. It’s their final maneuver to have the Wardens disbanded once and for all. The people still think we guard the Great Betrayer, as you yourself believed, and the theft will make us seem weak and ineffectual. It will be the end of our order.”
“But I still don’t get it,” Tana said. “You’re
of the Collective.”
“No!” Kline replied, much more forcefully than he’d intended. “We are apart from them. We’ve witnessed the Collective twist Sergeant Barent’s beliefs—watched as social and economic inequality blossomed during their tenure. And throughout the years, we’ve exerted our influence to stem their perversions whenever possible. But the Collective has the full power of the military behind them, and if they can make us look inept to the populace, we are finished. And all of Le’sant will suffer for it.”
“So let me get this straight,” Tana said. “You want
to steal the pistols so the Collective can’t?”
“Precisely,” Kline replied.
“And what do the editors of the Vade have to do with any of this?” she asked Cedef. “Where do you stand?”
“With the Wardens, of course, and in defense of Barent’s original wishes. The Vade holds the truth for those who wish to know it.” Cedef paused and gave her a tight grin. “I’ve even read a few interesting things about you in the great book, Tana Neng.”
She was surprised that someone had mentioned her in the Vade, but then Tana realized it probably wasn’t by name. She’d most likely been referred to as
the thief who stole my…
But the revelation told her something much more important—that Nedol Cedef had done a great deal of research trying to pinpoint Tana’s crimes, and to ascertain her abilities. The effort no doubt helped along by Cobin’s purchase records, and the police reports and other official documentation the Wardens had access to.
These two have been very busy.
“Despite your clandestine proclivities, Ms. Neng,” Cedef continued, “I know that you are a believer; you respect Barent’s legacy. That’s another reason you were chosen for this undertaking.”
Tana looked over at Kline. “Can you at least provide me with information about the security systems installed at the tomb? Or the placement of troops at the facility?”
“Nothing at all,” Kline replied. “Once our ceremonial retinue leaves the facility at 17:00 hours, we’ll have no way of knowing how many Collective troops remain stationed there—or exactly where they’ll be positioned in the complex. Our original security installations were replaced by the Collective long ago, so we also have no idea what they have in place now as far as electronic defenses.”
“That…is not very helpful,” Tana said.
what we know. Do you agree to my proposal?” Kline asked her. “Will you do it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No. You don’t.”
“Then count me in. Sri—”
“Will remain sequestered in your apartment—under guard—until your return. You can retrieve what equipment you need from your place now, and take your pick from among Cobin’s things as well. And we’ll provide you with anything else you require—anything at all—you need only ask for it.”
“A reprieve, if I get captured by the Collective?”
“Except for that,” Kline said. “If you’re caught or killed, we will disavow any knowledge of you. But we’ll still release your friend; you have my word.”
Well, at least Sri will be safe,
“So assuming that I actually survive this and manage to get the pistols, what then?”
“I’ll provide you with a meeting point in the Central District, and we’ll make the exchange there.”
“The pistols for your payment. After which, you should have more than enough money to finally move to the Middle District.”
Tana’s eyebrows shot up.
How the hell did he know about that? Maybe I wasn’t quite as invisible as I’d always believed.
But despite her relief in having a way out of this mess—one that actually played to Tana’s strengths, and might even help secure her future—Tana’s face still displayed a great deal of apprehension.
And Major Kline saw it.
“I know how hopeless a task this seems,” he said.
“You’re right about that,” Tana replied. “But that’s not what’s bothering me. Breaking into Sergeant Barent’s coffin…touching his body…it just seems so—”
“I understand completely,” Kline told her.
“As do I,” Cedef agreed. “It’s as close to sacrilege as one can venture.”
“But Barent’s ideals are far more important than his remains,” Kline said. “The Wardens must survive if we ever hope to one day enact his wishes.”
Tana looked at Kline’s face and knew he believed every word of that. And so did she. Cedef was right. Tana
“But you must go, now,” Kline continued. “We have much to do, and very little time in which to accomplish it all. I’ll be attending the ceremony at the tomb myself in just a few hours—at the conclusion of the parade in the Central District. And I’ll use my personal vehicle to slip you inside the complex then.”
Tana indicated she understood and Kline turned toward the door. “Corporal Filo!” he yelled.
One of the Wardens flew inside, immediately snapping to attention. “Yes, sir.”
“Escort this young woman to her apartment so she can gather up what she needs, and then bring her back here. You have one hour. Leave two men behind at the residence, and keep the other girl there until I say otherwise.”
Kline nodded to Tana and she followed Corporal Filo out. When the door shut behind them, Cedef spoke in a low voice.
“You lied to her.”
“Almost everything I said was true.”
“And what I left out wouldn’t have helped her anyway. Even she knew it. You must admit, that plot by the Collective sounds just like something those devious bastards would do.”
Kline turned to look at Cedef, noticing his distant stare. “What is it, Nedol? We’ve known each other for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so worried.”
“Can you blame me?” he replied. “And I’m not the only one, Major. I know that you haven’t shared this news with the other Wardens, so you must have your own reservations as well.”
“You’re right. I do.”
Cedef shook his head slowly and focused in on the other man’s face.
“Major…what if the information my scribe found in the Vade really
true? Can you imagine the ramifications of such a discovery?”
“No, Nedol. I really can’t.”
“I suppose not,” he replied.
“Neither can I…”
Tana couldn’t believe her luck.
It had actually gotten worse.
Major Kline was as good as his word, and Sri was safely waiting back in the apartment, under guard. He’d also provided Tana with everything she’d asked for—without question or complaint—and she couldn’t imagine being more prepared for a job. Unfortunately, Tana couldn’t imagine a worse setup for one either.
She was perched in a dark alcove near the top of one of the guard towers, and less than three meters above her, two Collective soldiers diligently watched for trouble on either side of the fifteen-meter-high walls. Each corner of the ornately decorated complex held an identical tower, and the thick faux-stone walls connected all four of them together to form an impenetrable rectangle. Remarkably, these impressive fortifications were designed to frame and protect only a single building—sitting right in the middle of the interior courtyard.
The tomb of Sergeant Barent.
The Tomb of the Great Betrayer.
Tana always felt the title given to him was a bit unfair, even though the people celebrated the actions he’d taken to earn it. If Barent hadn’t betrayed his fellow guards and opened up the armory to the prisoners, eventually leading them to victory in the Pardon War, Tana’s ancestors would have never gained freedom. For what
was worth. In the end, they’d just traded the guard’s brutality and disparate treatment for a new set of masters. The only difference was that these came from the prisoner’s own ranks. But if Barent had lived things would have been much different, or at least that’s what everyone always believed.