“The hall records show that after she killed Farad Sinter and incapacitated the guards, Vara Liso went to the Hall of Dispensation and threatened Hari Seldon,” Major Namm said. His head was encapsulated in a regeneration helmet. He would be weeks recovering from the brain damage Liso had inflicted on him outside the office of Farad Sinter. “We believe these others used many varieties of subterfuge to enter the hall and protect Seldon. They apparently knew Seldon was in grave danger.”
“And we did not?” Linge Chen asked. He leaned forward slightly in his chair, arms tight by his side, his gaze somewhere over the major’s shoulder.
“There were no directives issued for Seldon’s protection,” General Prothon reminded the Chief Commissioner. “If these others had not arrived, Vara Liso could easily have killed him with the neural whip or her peculiar talents. Yet she was the only one authorized to be in the Courts Building and Imperial Sector. It is not clear how she died, but I am glad she is dead.”
“For the last three days, everyone in Imperial Sector has suffered tremendous headaches. Haven’t you felt them?” Chen asked.
“I usually suffer from headaches, Commissioner. It is my lot in life,” Prothon said cheerfully.
Chen scrutinized the video summary of events in the Hall of Dispensation. He was looking for something, someone, a ghost, a shade, a clue embodied. He pointed to the tall man standing by the strong-looking woman at the end of the summary. “Individual file on this one?”
“There is none,” General Prothon told him. “We have no idea who he is.”
Linge Chen looked away from the informer display for a moment, and one side of his face tensed as he clenched his jaw. “Bring him to me. The woman with him as well.” He shifted his attention to the magnified image of the stocky man holding the body of Vara Liso. His expression softened for a moment. “And this one. Hari Seldon is to be released to his colleagues or to his family. I do not wish responsibility for him anymore. Keep the young Dahlites in custody for the time being.”
Major Namm seemed unhappy. Chen lifted an eyebrow in his general direction. “You have a comment?”
“They all violated palace security-”
“Yes, they did, didn’t they?” Chen asked pointedly. “And you are part of that team which ensures palace security?”
The major straightened and said no more.
“You may go,” Chen told him. Quickly, the major departed.
General Prothon chuckled. “Surely you won’t blame him,” the general said.
Chen shook his head. “We have very nearly made the biggest blunder of our careers.”
“How?” Prothon asked.
“We nearly lost Hari Seldon.”
“I presumed he was expendable.”
Chen almost frowned, but his face quickly returned to impassivity. “This man here…do you recognize him?”
“No,” Prothon said, squinting at the magnified image.
“Once he was known as Demerzel,” Linge Chen said.
Prothon drew his head back and narrowed his eyes dubiously, but did not contradict the Chief Commissioner.
“He never dies,” Chen continued. “He goes away for decades at a time, then he returns. He has often been associated with the interesting career of Hari Seldon.” Chen, for the first time that day, smiled up at Prothon. That smile was peculiar, almost wolfish, and Chen’s eyes glittered with mixed emotions. “I suspect he has been directing my efforts in various ways for years now, always to my advantage…” He said again, musing softly, “Always to my advantage…”
“Another machine-man, I presume,” Prothon said. “I am glad not to be privy to that history.”
“No need for you to have known,” Chen said. “I myself can only suspect. He is, after all, a master of camouflage and prevarication. I will enjoy meeting with him and asking a few questions, one master to another.”
“Why don’t you simply execute him?”
“Because there could easily be others to take his place. For all I know, they are right here, in this palace.”
“Klayus?” Prothon asked, his grin almost invisible.
Chen sniffed. “We should be so lucky.”
“Why would it have been so bad to lose Seldon, a thorn in the Empire’s side?” Prothon asked.
“Because this Demerzel of old might spend another thousand years trying to raise up another Hari Seldon,” Chen said. “And this time, all would probably not go well for me, or for you, my dear Dragon. Seldon said as much, and for once, I believe him.”
Prothon shook his head. “I can more easily believe in machine-men than in Eternals. I’ve met robots, after all. But…as you say, Commissioner, as you say.”
“You may return to your smoke-filled cave for now,” Chen murmured. “The young Emperor is sufficiently cowed.”
“Gladly,” Prothon said.