The small ship ran close to silently, the only noises it produced being the occasional dings and beeps of system updates. The pilot, a tall, lean, bald human with very pronounced bone structure and an engineer’s uniform, sat at the helm, quieter even than the ship, moving only occasionally to make adjustments.
Mary watched the other occupant of the ship, a tall woman with dark skin and pale golden hair as she flipped through screens of information. Her frame was likewise lean, her neck long as long and graceful as her arms, her movements deft and confident. Her uniform had the blue trim of the Research Corp, and the chevrons she had displayed earlier marked her as being Journeyman First Class.
The open ports in the front of the ship displayed the yellowish sun, larger than a large star at this distance but still small and unimpressive, and a large gas giant with an impressive multitier ring structure towards the right. The rings were their destination, though in truth that was only part of the purpose of their expedition.
At length Althea turned around and sat down on the swivel chair that she had been ignoring, across from Mary. Her nose was small, her lips thin, and her eyes seemed downcast at the outer corners, giving her an almost sorrowful look, or so Mary thought. She examined Mary’s face again as though it was her first time meeting her and nodded gently towards her.
Mary frowned, then raised her eyebrows expectantly. They were quiet like this for a moment, the three of them, and then Althea broke the silence.
“We’re in a safe place to discuss what I brought you here to discuss, Mary. There are no recording devices currently working in the Cabin, and Davis won’t repeat anything he hears, will you, Davis?”
The pilot shook his head distractedly.
Mary nodded, feeling a little awkward. “What did you want to discuss?”
Althea raised an eyebrow and her lips quirked into a brief smile. “What do you think? Larry told you to wait after your assignment was complete. He told you that you’d be contacted, am I right?”
Mary frowned. “Larry?”
Althea laughed. “He never told you his name?” She shook her head. “Larry, Larry, Larry. We only put up with him because we need him. We especially need him in the position he is in. He works as a bartender? He asked you to kill a SCAPE agent?”
Mary stiffened and looked around reflexively. Not like there’s anywhere to go, she thought. “I’m sorry… what are you talking about?”
“It’s okay to talk about it, Mary. I work with Larry. So does Davis. We’re all part of the same concern. Consider this your interview.”
Mary frowned again. “But you’re not wearing…” She trailed off.
Althea frowned right along with her, looking genuinely puzzled. “Wearing what?”
Mary held up her hand. When Althea just shook her head, still looking confused, Mary said, “The ring?”
Althea’s confusion dissolved and was replaced with a look of amused comprehension. “Oh, the ring, right. That’s not… that’s not a badge or something. Hmmm, how do I explain?” She tapped her fingers against her knee, looking up for a moment. “The ring that he wears, he showed it to you when he was first recruiting you, right? It’s there in case someone spots someone like you, someone who needs help. Then we can tell them, ‘Go to this bar and talk to the bartender with this ring.’ We don’t all wear some signature thing. People would spot it! No, it’s Larry’s ring, we just tell people to look for it if we think that they’re good candidates.”
“But Larry said that I would earn one if I joined.” Mary said, puzzled.
Althea rolled her eyes. “Larry says a whole lot of things that aren’t right. I think maybe I need to set things straight for you, no?” Mary did not object, and Althea continued. “We are a group, a concern, a private guild if you will, for psychics who do not want to deal with SCAPE. We help people escape the Strainers, or live privately, and help them learn how to hide their gifts and use them in subtle ways.
“You were given a rather grievous test to pass to enter, no? Part of the test was whether you would do it. The other part was how. We know that you did not kill Rell, just his shell. We know that that was deliberate. It could not have been otherwise; everyone knows that Awakeners tend to keep their mass in the head and chest cavities of their Vessels. Even if you did not, Larry made sure that you knew how to kill him, yes? Of course he did.”
Althea looked expectant. Mary cleared her throat. “So, why did you bring me out here?”
“As I said, this is an interview. My position in our organization is one of responsibility. Davis and I have the opportunity to watch you in close quarters, and to let you know about us and answer any questions that you might have.”
“All right.” Mary pondered for a moment. “Well, what do you call yourselves?”
“Nothing.” Althea gave an almost mischievous grin. “We have no name for our group. A name, like a badge, can be traced. We have no identity, no strict structure, and very few hard and fast rules. Many of us come to think of our group with a certain name, but that would just throw the Strainers off more, if they find and question one of us. So far, this has not happened.”
“Well, that’s good.” Mary said, feeling lame. “What will I be doing if I join?”
“Well, you will be yourself and do what you want to do. You will learn tricks from me, from Davis, maybe from Larry and the others to protect what is inside your mind and keep yourself from getting into trouble. Maybe we will ask you for help with one of our projects, or to help watch out backs, and maybe you will say yes or no. Unless it has to do with a threat to our organization, there is nothing compulsory.
“You will keep an eye out for others and refer them to Larry, or to someone else if you decide to move away. I have connections in both the Collective and our network, I can get you reassigned if you need. You’ll keep an eye on the Strainers and the Awakeners, and let us know if you see them doing anything unusual.”
“The Awakeners?” Mary asked. “Do we have any Awakeners in our group?”
Althea shook her head and Davis made an odd clicking noise with his tongue. “No,” Althea said. “No Awakeners, no non-humans. Other species have other rules. The Zig, they have some psychics, but they don’t have a problem with SCAPE; their laws regarding the use of psi are the basis for a lot of the Collective and the Society’s regulations anyway. The Mauraug might make good allies, but we can’t trust them, and if their Inquisition ever found out about us it would threaten all of humanity. The Great Family is insular; I bet there are a dozen groups like ours among them. They watch out for their own interests. The Tesetsi , well, they don’t tend to care about psi all that much. If you haven’t heard, the Ningyo have psi, but we can’t communicate with them, nor they with us – they are very, very different. As for the Awakeners, they are hiding something. Something ugly. You’ll learn more as we go, hopefully. Maybe you can help us figure it out.
“So no, we are just humans. We are all right with this; other species have their own problems and their own solutions.”
“What is it that the Awakeners are hiding?”
Althea shrugged. “We don’t know for certain, yet. All we know is that the more we explore the outskirts of their space, the more strange things happen. People losing memories, acting strangely, even sometimes disappearing. Psychic signatures changing and things like that. We believe that there is something that they are hiding from the rest of the Collective. And since Lotus Station is being constructed on the edge of their territory, it’s a prime observation post. We aren’t all altruistic, but we do want to watch out for our own kind, no?”
Mary sighed back into her chair and considered what Althea had just said. Althea, for her part, just waited patiently.
“What about SCAPE? Why should we hide from them?”
Davis made the odd clicking sound again and Althea laughed incredulously. “Look, little sister, I was a SCAPE agent a decade ago. No longer; don’t worry, but you have no idea the amount of trouble that I had to go through to escape from them. Suffice it to say that you would not even come close to recognizing me from those days, not at all. These laws that the Collective makes – even in places run under Generic Law, there are very specific bylaws and rules about psi usage. Just because anyone can develop psi doesn’t mean that everyone can be good at it, and it’s hard for a lot of people. A lot of people are scared; they want their thoughts to be private and their actions to be their own. I cannot blame them, can you?
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As a SCAPE officer I was involved in the apprehension and punishment of too many, way too many people who were doing no harm with their abilities. The law is not forgiving when it comes to mind-crime; it is very draconian. I was tired of hurting children who did not know better, or hurting people who were not causing trouble. Many members of the Society become bitter, distant, or cold. Many psychics do in general, because of all of the garbage that they see and experience in the minds of others. Larry was not always as he is now. Perhaps he was never an angel, but the things that he has experienced and seen have colored him with a darker palette.
“The Society exists to protect average people from having to think about psychics. They achieve this goal through cruelty and manipulation. I hesitate to call them traitors, but they allow themselves to be complicit in harming people just like themselves.” As Althea spoke, she grew more impassioned, her eyes widening, the cadence of her speech falling into a different pattern and her pronunciation sliding into a different accent. Mary took careful note of this and said:
“You sound like a revolutionary or an activist.”
Althea sat up straight in her chair, a cold gleam filling her eyes. “Yes, Mary, I am. Others join our group to protect themselves. I joined to help. Our people need help; what is being done now is not right. The Society will blind the Collective to many dangers and resources in the name of maintaining a comfortable ignorance for its majority.” Her expression warmed briefly and then fell, reminding Mary of a tragedy mask for a moment. “It is only causing harm, and someday it may cause doom. I cannot sit by and let this happen. You do what your conscience calls you to, even if it is nothing; I will not judge you. But my conscience says that we must act, that we must change things, before they are changed for us.”
The ship was silent again for a few minutes. Althea seemed lost in painful memories and Mary was absorbing and trying carefully not to think about certain things. Davis might as well have been part of the ship.
That thought made Mary raise her head again. “Althea? What’s the deal with Davis? No offense, Davis, but you haven’t said anything.”
Davis didn’t respond, but scowled a bit, making the clicking sound again, but more faintly. Althea said. “Davis is a blocker. That’s where his talents lie. He is good at not listening to what he hears, and he is good at keeping his mind shut as well as his mouth. If you need his help, by all means go to him, he will not ignore you. But he will ignore things if you ask him to, and sometimes it is very helpful to know someone who is good at ignoring things. And he does talk, doesn’t he?”
Davis turned around and gave an almost-sheepish grin. “Yeah.” He said, and turned back to his panel.
“I guess that I don’t have any other questions right now. I’m still kind of absorbing. Wait, what about the test? Shooting the Strainer?”
Althea nodded. “Yes, we discussed that.”
“But you said that I passed?”
“Yes, you passed. And by the fact that you tried not to kill Rell, we know the sorts of things that you are, and are not, willing to do. And that’s okay. I wouldn’t have either.” She seemed very matter-of-fact about this. Mary shrugged.
“So what if I was to say that I didn’t want to join now?”
Althea took a deep breath and looked grim. Davis made the clicking sound again. What the heck is up with that? Mary wondered.
“Mary, you know too much for us to just let you go out and be caught by SCAPE. We would need to make sure to do things, things that would ensure that you did not talk about this to anyone – or know about it.”
“You’d kill me?”
Althea tossed her head back and groaned. “No, Mary, if you disappeared that would be no end of trouble. Also, I don’t like killing. We would just have to make sure that you wouldn’t remember anything of import. We can do that, I know that they say that it’s not possible, but believe me, we can.”
Mary contemplated this, and reached out gently, feeling for the emotional signatures of the others on the ship. Althea was there, and she felt the tang of curiosity but little else from her. Davis may as well have not been there. He was, for all intents and purposes, psychically invisible.
“I know that it’s a lot to absorb. We have three days to talk about it in safe space.” Althea gestured around her. “When we return to Lotus Station it will be a bit more difficult; I cannot get you assigned to work for me too often without arousing notice if not suspicion. We have ways to relay messages safely, places that we frequent at certain times. It can be a lot to keep track of, to be honest, but having this freedom and safety is worth it. Trust me.
“Part of the reason that I have the position among us that I do is that I am good at predicting. You know how stories and legends speak of people reading the future? I don’t read the future, but I do know how to submerge myself in the thought streams and perceptions of those around me and notice bigger trends. Things that many people notice but don’t think much become obvious to me. From this, I know that you will be a benefit to our organization.”
Very suddenly, Mary felt the pressure of direct contact from Althea. <<Even though I know that you are not who you say you are.>> The pressure withdrew as quickly as it had come, and Mary shifted, trying to warm herself against the sudden chill she felt.
Mary nodded again, still considering. “Can you teach me to do what Davis does?”