Saturday, November 26, 2016

Update: NaNoWriMo and the Publication Plan

Work on the Empyrean Dreams print books is proceeding steadily. 

Remember how I mentioned each volume would include at least one original story, not previously published on this site?  To that end, I challenged myself to write several stories as part of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month (http://nanowrimo.org).  I won the challenge with only two stories: a new tale of the Scape Grace (#3, "A Change in Plans") and an original short story, "An Apostate's Dilemma", which explores the Mauraug Apostasy from the inside. 

So those are ready.  However, I'll have to break one promise, a little.  The Scape Grace story is longer than expected.  Fitting all three stories in one volume (much less four, if I included the related tangent, "A Bureaucrat's Tale") is a bit much.  So, I'm planning to make "The Wreck of the *Untranslatable*" a stand-alone introductory volume, with "Escape from Grace" and "A Change in Plans" together in the second volume.

Book number three should have three stories about Stchvk, Private Investigator: "Bad Egg", "Broken Record", and an as-yet-unwritten third story.  There's my next task!

That makes book four the compiled, separate short stories of Empyrean Dreams, now additionally including "An Apostate's Dilemma", along with another unpublished story, "Labyrinthine", and all my prior short stories from this site.  We'll also include any and all short stories from Laine that she selects...

...which means I could be wrong again.  If the short stories pile up too high, we'll have to split them into two volumes!  In that case, I'll split the new tales across the two books.

So this three-book project is now four books and possibly five.  I can't say I'm sad about having more to offer.  It just means that finishing everything won't happen as fast as I originally hoped.  Apologies, but we probably won't have an Empyrean Dreams book available for your holiday gift shopping.

Early next year, though!  That's the plan!


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Update: A Space Station for Now

with apologies to RJD2 for the title...

I wanted to let readers know what's happening with Empyrean Dreams.  Posting has slowed down again, but there's activity behind the scenes.  I've written another long story in the Empyrean setting, titled "Labyrinthine".  It won't appear here, since I'm still trying to publish it in a science-fiction magazine.

The problems with selling our already self-published work and our new stories specifically set in Empyrean have started Laine and I thinking... why not keep doing it ourselves?  We're planning out several volumes of the stories we have already, plus one or two new, unpublished tales for each book.  For example, in one volume, I would put together all the Scape Grace space pirate stories, adding one of the new stories I've had planned for ages.  That way, you get the reading convenience of print (or electronic copy), plus new content, as an incentive to purchase.

Another book would contain all the Stchvk detective stories; a third would be short stories from both Laine and I.  If "Labyrinthine" doesn't sell, it becomes the bonus content for the short story book.

We're just getting started, compiling existing material and seeing how long each book would run.  The next step will be editing and layout, not to mention writing and polishing the new stories.  We'd love illustrations, but if that doesn't happen, it won't be an obstacle. 

We'll also be comparing publishers to get the best bargain on printing and promotion.  Any feedback would be welcome, though if you are selling publishing services, please don't spam.  Over-insistent salespeople have turned me away from more than one company already. 

If all goes well, though, we might have books available for purchase sometime next year.  I'm planning to put some copies on shelves at local bookstores, to start, as well selling online.  It will be a learning process, but it's worth the trouble for material we already have written and love sharing.  If people want to pay money for it, that's a bonus.

This plan will mean fewer content updates on the site, for which I apologize.  We won't disappear entirely, though.  We'll give progress updates as the project continues, and there might be some stories posted as side-effects of the process.

Watch this SPACE.

-Nathan

Monday, September 5, 2016

Darkness, My Friend

          Blindness is not usually a trait that saves your life.

          Unique situations happen, though, especially out here on the edge of known space. Even a so-called disability can become an asset. That’s going on my résumé, by the way.

           Sure, sometimes, being blind can endanger your life. It makes life a regular parade of nuisances, most days. At best, being blind gains you a little attention and patience from people who would otherwise walk right by… but that benefit is countered by the number of people who walk by even faster, irritated or even disturbed by your handicap. I suspect most sentients get tired of adjusting to my perspective. I know they get tired of adjusting the shared environment to accommodate my needs.

           Well, those needs saved my life. And not sharing my disability cost my colleagues their lives. So I’m doing my best not to feel superior, for a change.


           Those colleagues were all dock workers aboard the KelVaTinLi, cheap labor scooped up by the siliceous
Zig to work their station freight. We were skilled wage slaves willing and able to handle the hazardous cargoes even the lowest-caste Zig can’t safely touch. I’m a firmware engineer, but I had to sell my services at a discount thanks to the accident that torched my retinas. I was saving up for synthorganic or maybe cybernetic replacements. After this incident, I may rethink those plans.

           KelVaTinLi orbits a blue dwarf at the edge of Zig territory, which means it sits at the rim of their slice of the galactic pie. Cargoes come in from neighboring systems, some of which have only tenuous membership in this galaxy. At least one trading partner, the Cuttle, barely participates in the same dimensional frame as the rest of us. That’s where this winding tale starts.

           ‘Cuttle’ is a Terran name, the one we Humans use, at least on KelVaTinLi. I’m sure there’s a more dignified label for them catalogued back home in Terran space. They’re officially called ‘Species-Culture Tuch’ by the Zig, with typical lack of imagination. But the Cuttle have big triangular heads with black ball eyes on either side and long, thin-limbed bodies. Like cuttlefish. So, Cuttle.

           I have all this description on hearsay, of course. All I know is that the Cuttle smell sort of like grapes and talk like a migraine, and their cargo is so ionized you have to handle it while wearing a grounding wire. Their freight is a special sort of problem for the loading lifts I program, because the whole lifting contact structure has to be isolated from the main circuits of the API… that’s Artificial Pseudo-Intelligence, if you’re not caught up on the latest acronyms.

           Doing tricks like that isolation is one of the reasons the Zig keep me on payroll. Fixing the loaders on the fly, when my tricks don’t work right, is the reason they keep me close to the action when Cuttle cargo is being moved. So that’s why I was right there, in Cargo Bay Hek, when one of the damn stasis crates worked loose from its clamp and tumbled to the deck.

           After the crash and clatter, lots of curses went up, including mine. I didn’t need to see the mess to know something was broken. Nobody panicked, though, not at first. Even the ones who could see the crate didn’t know how badly it was damaged.
         
           The Cuttle generally know what they’re doing, but either this crate was faulty or else we’d discovered a hidden flaw in its design. Either way, that drop damaged the stasis controls. The contents of the crate were dropped from an artificially slowed time-frame into our normal time stream.
         
           And those contents were angry. Or hungry. Or both.

           I was busy listening to diagnostics, so I didn’t hear the exchange down on the lower deck. What I assume was that the brute lifters -- Hervé, Jumah, and Wilhelm -- approached the crate to right and reload it onto the lifter. Our shift supervisor, a female
Hrotata named Shorullt, was probably checking the video feed to see if the lift operator, Michael, did anything obviously wrong.

           Now, I don’t mind Shorullt. For a conniving, supercilious little mink, she’s at least competent and fair in her assessments. Don’t think that’s an insult. Hrotata literally look like a mix between a seal and a mink, and their culture and politics are so convoluted that ‘conniving’ is a survival skill. Their females have a natural superiority complex, even toward one another, much less their own males, and doubly so toward alien males like the dock crew. As an alien female, I’m spared only half of her scorn. My blindness hardly registers in her eyes (ha ha) compared to my other flaws.

           That said, she didn’t deserve what happened. Nobody deserves that.

           I heard a pop of decompression, followed by my inner ape screaming OH SHIT. I dropped to the floor, pressing the textured rubber mat into my cheek. I assumed there had been an explosion of pressurized gases. I thought I was dodging shrapnel.

           Turns out, I was already protected from the worst.

           The next thing I sensed was a wave of electromagnetic disturbance, something like the ripple you get off a Cuttle crate if you walk too close. It makes your body hair stand up and your nerves tingle. Except this blast was twice as strong and many times bigger, washing over us like… well, like an ionic wind.

           After that, everyone else started screaming. Again, at first, I thought they’d been hit: by flying debris, by radiation, maybe just by an energy source. But I hadn’t heard any crash or ricochet like physical objects smashing around. I wasn’t hurting, myself, so it wasn’t hard radiation… maybe. Even if it was, it’d have to be a high dose to hurt anyone right away. I hadn’t felt any heat or direct current, either. What was I shielded from, such that it injured everyone else -- even Shorullt up on the opposite riser -- without touching me at all?

           I was thinking along the wrong lines. I wasn’t protected by any physical barrier, unless you count the gap in transduction from my lenses to my optic nerve. Everyone else saw something.

           I’m not sure whether they saw something so horrible that the sight damaged their minds, or something so intense or untranslatable that it damaged their brains. Given their actions afterward, I suspect the stimulus was more like a jamming signal, overloading their sensory apparatus with sights no Human, Hrotata, or Zig was meant to see.

           I didn’t. I couldn’t. I don’t know if my lack of sight did anything more against that assault than just closing your eyes might, but I didn’t need any reflex. Plus, if I could have looked, I might have been tempted to take another peek… which would have been fatal. It kept firing off its pulse, over and over. You can look for yourself, in the security recordings. It’s like an anti-Gorgon, sending sapients into mindless seizures rather than paralyzing them.

           Gorgon. It’s a mythical Terran monster. Its gaze turns victims to stone. Forget it; too much explanation required.

           Anyway, besides screaming, my co-workers were also thrashing around. I could hear them smacking into obstacles, control panels, and each other. In her spasms, Shorullt triggered several commands through her control panel. I heard the loader start moving, then collide with something organic. Don’t tell me who; I really don’t want to know.

           The loader’s movement spurred me to action, though, in a way the other sounds couldn’t. I could do something about that threat. I jumped to override the improper commands and disabled the loader. My action didn’t stop the chaos in the loading dock, though. At best, I reduced the disorder slightly.

           The creature, meanwhile, was producing more entropy on its own.

           I know it attacked Jumah next, because his wails of pain and terror momentarily coalesced into intelligible words: “It’s got me! Help, someone help!” Then, there was another wash of electrical potentials and a sizzling noise. Jumah went quiet.

           The other screams died down to whimpers at that point, overlaid by the thump and whoosh of multiple people running. I couldn’t tell which of the other two lifters, Hervé or Wilhelm, was the sole survivor below. Given a quiet room and a calm moment, I might be able to tell their gaits apart. The conditions weren’t ideal for that trick.

           There were plenty of competing noises. I heard the click and hiss of Shorullt moving, her long, low body propelled by short, churning legs. Multiple booted feet were hauling their babbling, crying owners in various directions: Michael and Lorna and Li Min. Impacts against heavy plastic and metal objects indicated that either victims or attacker were knocking over storage crates in their haste.

           I was mostly concerned whether anyone -- or anything -- was moving in my direction. It didn’t sound like that was the case. As a result, I froze.

           I probably wasn’t any less afraid than anyone else on that dock. But I was rationally afraid. I wasn’t mentally scrambled by whatever hit everyone else. Holding still, staying out of the way, and not joining the melee made sense at the time. If I misjudged, I might have made myself an easy, stationary target.

           In hindsight, both fears were valid. The creature did pursue whatever moved, first. There were several more bursts and crackles. Some of the running noises ended after each. Afterward, though, the thing started to come after the victims who chose to hold still and spasm in place.

           I could hear Shorullt screaming from her station: “What is it? Help us! Great Lady protect me!” I couldn’t tell who she was talking to, except for the obvious prayer to some Hrotata deity. I wondered if she was on comms calling for help, but I doubted it. Like everyone else except me, she seemed to have lost the sense to take proper protective measures.

           I was the one who signaled Security. With some doubts about my own sanity, I also triggered the inner locks on the deck’s access doors. Whatever was in there with us wasn’t going to get out unless someone let it out. I suppose if it was intelligent enough to hack the doors or persuade one of the crew to unlock them, it might have bypassed my defense measures. But it didn’t seem likely that anyone else was in any shape to open a door.

           Nobody seemed to be trying to escape through the actual exit doors. They were just running around, hitting the edges of the dock area, then getting caught and… I’m not sure. Flash-fried? Disintegrated? Bent around the edges of another dimension? I’m really hoping for some answers, after we’re done here.

           I suspect even you, official inquirers, don’t know what got loose down there. I doubt the Cuttle properly registered what they were transporting. It’s not even clear whether they fully understand our registration protocols. They might consider whatever-it-was a cuddly household pet. Or a form of entertainment. Or a kitchen appliance. Who knows?

           What I know is that it is fatal to Humans and other forms of sapient, carbon-based life.

           After about a minute -- two hectads, if you prefer -- the running had mostly stopped but the attacks had not. My verbal feedback from the deck sensors indicated three live, respirating, stationary lifeforms and one energetic, mobile anomaly. Then there were two, plus one.

           Holding still was not going to preserve my life. I had to get to the door. But I was still too terrified to move.

           My computer reported that the anomaly was moving again. It was moving toward the opposite side of the room, toward the other remaining lifeform. I had a chance.

           It’s possible I condemned Shorullt to die. She might have managed to escape if I hadn’t saved myself. But I doubt it. Nobody seemed to be in their right minds; no one except me. I doubt Shorullt could have managed the clarity of mind to reach the opposite door and issue the proper commands to open it… even with the lights still on. I certainly hope not.

           Otherwise, I’d hate myself forever for turning out the lights.

           It was an easy command to issue: Disable all illumination. Lights off. My strategy might not have accomplished anything; the predator might not be using the same visible spectrum we… you other sapients employ. But I had to try. I had already seen how fast the thing could move. Unless I slowed it down somehow, it could finish off Shorullt and run me down before I even reached the exit.

           And, as you’ve likely realized by now, I didn’t need the lights to find my way out.

           After several standard weeks working the same standardized dock layout, I knew the placement of every step, every walkway, every guide rail and every walkway. I even knew where the charging outlets were. Making my way to the exit was simple. I could do it running. I literally did.

           Once the lights were out, I bolted as fast as I dared toward the far door. I could hear crackling sparks behind me, accompanied by Shorullt’s dying gasp. Then came footsteps: the sizzling taps I identified with the entity’s movement. It sounded like it was far behind me. It also sounded like it was moving slowly: slower than it had before. I’d like to think I bought some time with my maneuver.

           Or maybe, it wasn’t sure what to do with me. I wasn’t screaming and flailing and panicking like its other prey. Maybe it was confused by the ineffectiveness of its usual trick, like an angler fish seeing a blindfish ignore its brilliant lure.

           Blind fish or blind woman, I wasn’t ignoring my potential death. I was getting away as quickly as I could manage. Hearing my footfalls echo against the approaching door, I shouted: “Door override: Hek Tuch Vi Ti Lo, Elizabeth Kern.”

           Hearing my override code, the security computer opened the exit door, just long enough for me to race through. I managed to breathe out, “Close!” and it sealed shut as quickly as super-magnets could drag the door panels together.

           I heard the thing smack up against those bulkhead doors with a crackle of frustrated charge. My continued existence is the evidence that it couldn’t find a way through.

           I mean, those doors can withstand vacuum and a huge range of temperatures, not to mention blocking most forms of radiation. But I didn’t know what that creature was. I was only betting that it couldn’t get out. I didn’t know what it was capable of. I still don’t. For all I know, it might have capabilities that standard physics doesn’t allow. What I do know is, it can’t cope well with darkness… or blindness.

           So, sometimes, the lack of an ability can be asset unto itself. I don’t know yet how well that discovery translates outside of this particular work environment… but I’m planning to find out.

           I wish you well catching the thing again. I’d suggest contacting the Cuttle and asking how they got it into their stasis crate in the first place. It’s better if you make that call. I might say something undiplomatic. If absolutely necessary, I’ll stick around KelVaTinLi long enough to implement their solution, if my engineering expertise is needed.

           Remotely, that is. I won’t be going back there personally. While my lack of ability might be useful, you’ll have to replicate that trait for yourselves.

           Good luck!



[Thanks to Sonyja Lerulv Freyjadottir for reading and commentary assistance. -NL]

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Update: Publication and Cross-promotion

Greetings, Empyrean Readers!

    I'm pleased to announce that one of my non-Empyrean short stories, "The Morrison Hotel", has been accepted for publication in an upcoming edition of The First Line literary magazine ( http://www.thefirstline.com ). 

    This good news is Empyrean Dreams related in several ways.  First, there's the fascinating coincidence that my first commercially published story shares a common theme with my first self-published story, on this site: Artificial Intelligence.  Take a look at "AIIA", if you haven't read it already.  I was actually thinking about Pangur Ban, the protagonist of "AIIA", when I wrote about the eponymous Morrison Hotel, so they're practically half-siblings.

    Second, there's a chance the publication will mention this site in my biography.  If you're reading here, now, thanks to The First Line, then welcome!  I hope you'll find much to enjoy among my past writings in this shared setting.  I also hope you'll read and enjoy the work by my co-creator, Laine. 

    For those who were already readers here, take a look at The First Line.  The journal itself is a fascinating concept and you'll find many more short stories to enjoy there. 

    I'm already working on a story for the Winter issue, though, so if you think of submitting, you'll have some competition. 

-NL

p.s. I'm actually working on an Empyrean story for a different competition, in a different publication.  If that one is accepted, I'll post another update with a pointer.  If not... I'll self-publish it here!


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Update: Temporarily Exiting Empyrean Space

Hello readers!

Once again, thank you for following the stories at Empyrean Dreams. 

As I've warned before, the conclusions of my past two stories, A Bureaucrat's Tale and Broken Record, mark the beginning of a hiatus from this site.  I'll be devoting my time to other writing, with the aim of seeing something finally in print... not to mention seeking other employment if available. 

Unless Laine finds time to continue past stories or start new ones, this site will be quiet for several months.  I expect I won't be contributing again until after the Summer. 

That's not to say I don't have more Empyrean stories demanding to be told.  The first chapter of a new Stchvk detective story has already been written, and outlines of that story and two others wait on my hard drive.  One of those is the next journey of the Scape Grace

I'm not even done with science fiction, although my next work in that genre will be scientifically 'harder' than Empyrean's pulp-ish space opera.   Another project is a live action diplomacy game.  Who knows?  If that project takes off, we might get the opportunity to realize the original goal of Empyrean Dreams: an original ray-guns and rocket-ships RPG, suitable especially for live play.  LARP with aliens. 

I call dibs on playing Stchvk.  I already know where I can get a suitable dinosaur mask.

-Nathan

Broken Record - Chapter 21 - "Skipped Track"

         “He’s coming up… he cracked it.  I told you this one would pass.”

          “It took him six days.”

          “Subjective time!  Even if I grant that standard, you can’t count the imposed time lapses.”

          “Fair enough, but what about all the wandering around?  He even had somatic cues to work with.  Someone didn’t titrate their dosages properly.”

          “I did so.  You try to balance multiple hormonal systems in a Vislin while he’s dealing with mortal threat, mating urges, and pack loyalties... while covering up a fractured rib!  I can paralyze the extremities, but you can’t immobilize a ribcage while someone’s breathing!”

          The voices were probably talking about me, given the throbbing ache in my flank and the numb heaviness of my limbs.  Given my recent adventures, waking up in the hospital – my most likely location – was preferable to not waking up at all.  Then again, from what I remembered, I should be suffering from more injuries than just a rib fracture.

          What did I remember?  A confrontation with Pkstzk.  Murder – her mate’s, hers, and her attempt on my life.  Something else… a falsely accused Taratumm.  A confrontation with… a Hrotata?  Krrutoki.  Going out a second-story window in frenzied terror.

          The events of the last few days blurred together with the events of the other last few days, until I woke up enough to separate the narratives.  My current injuries were consistent with the storyline where I jumped out a window.  That would normally suggest that my more recent set of memories happened earlier, but then why wasn’t I crippled – at least – from the injuries I sustained in that first sequence?  In the case involving Krrutoki, I remembered moving fast, with no prior leg injury.  But I didn’t remember any reference to the greasy little Hrotata in the timeline with Pkstzk, so his case couldn't have happened first.

          The discrepancies, taken together, suggested that Pkstzk's case, and possibly everything leading up to it, was part of a false memory.  If that case was a dream, it had been a hell of a detailed dream.  Long, too.  At least that would explain the missing time and the intrusion of my aching ribs.

          Wait a second.  The voices talking about “covering up” my pains spoke after I started waking up.  Those weren't imaginary.  I stopped floating between drowsing and wakefulness and snapped myself fully alert.  My eyes popped open and took in what I hoped were my real surroundings. 

          What I saw was mostly ceiling: pale grey concrete.  Around the periphery were bright overhead lights, glinting off silvery steel appliances hanging from the ceiling and suspended from my bed.  I was definitely in a bed; something soft was supporting my spine.  Something not-so-soft was cradling my neck and shoulders.  When I started to turn my head to see more, I encountered cold, spiky resistance.

          “Oh, hey, he’s moving!  Don’t move yet, all right?”  The voice I heard had the soft liquidity and accent of a Hrotata, but was too pleasant to belong to Krrutoki.  I heard padded footsteps approaching, then fuzzy paws brushed against my cheek and neck.

          Turning my eyes that direction, as far as they could go, got me an image of red-brown arms working on some kind of circlet attached to my temple.  I felt a stinging pain in that area and tried to jerk away, but the restraints kept my head in place.

          “Fros…” I mumbled, slurring the curse slightly.  My mouth was dry and my jaw slow to respond.

          “Sorry, sorry.  Just hold still while I get the leads out.  No real damage done, it just tweaks the nerves when you disengage them too fast.”  The speaker was doing his best to be reassuring, despite the disturbing words he was using.

          I managed to calm down and obey, if only because struggling was unpleasant.  There were a few more stabs and prickles as my attendant worked, then the click of a latch being released.

          I felt pressure disappear from my neck and skull, a pressure I hadn’t realized was present until it was gone.  Tentatively turning my neck, I found that I had gained a few centimeters’ range of motion. 

          Now I could see the Hrotata speaker, a red-brown male of uncertain age.  He had a long muzzle and elongated eyes, traits uncommon among his species in Layafflr City.  He smiled at my scrutiny, flicking his tail into view and watching my eyes track its tip.

          “Almost lucid,” he announced to someone across the room.  I turned my head the opposite direction, but whoever he was talking to was outside my limited visual arc.  I was pretty sure the other speaker was Vislin, but I hadn’t been listening closely enough to pick out any other clues.

          “I… I’m lucid,” I protested, “Let me up.”

          In response, my bed started to shift, lifting my upper half slowly upward.  My view of the room shifted correspondingly, letting me see the rest of the ceiling, then the far wall.  The white-finished metal walls supported my guess: it still looked like a hospital.  I was wearing a simple gown, which covered enough for modesty’s sake, but was pretty embarrassing even so.

          This hospital wasn’t Vaktrri Medical, or my local clinic, or even, I suspected, the hospital nearest to Isstravil.  It might have been a prison clinic, but I thought not, given its cleanliness and modern-looking equipment.  For that matter, the sheer volume and variety of equipment surrounding me argued against this being any simple medical facility.

          I couldn’t start to identify the devices installed around the rectangular space.  The various instruments seemed to be centered on me, in a bed in the center of everything.  The ‘circlet’ I had been wearing was connected to a monitor system with wires stretching both upward and outward.

          Above me was some kind of funnel-shaped apparatus with a cylindrical barrel angled toward the spot where my head previously rested.  It actually looked like the business end of a plasma thrower, a comparison that made me immediately tense and queasy.

          Other monitoring devices were attached to my wrists, chest, and neck, with bundled wires draping over the sides of my bed and running outward to the walls.  These sensors presumably joined the readouts from my head, displayed on terminal screens near where the Hrotata stood.  As I became agitated, something blipped on his monitor, and he reacted by lecturing me.

          “Don’t panic,” he suggested.  “You’re safe here.  Trying to move too much at first will hurt, not to mention give you more vertigo.”  His delivery sounded like he was giving a rehearsed speech, like any experienced medical technician.  Medical?  Or laboratory tech?  The space looked less like a hospital room and more like a cybernetic workroom, the more I saw of it.

          I ignored his recommendations and tried to sit up further.  I discovered that my legs wouldn’t move.  They were further restrained in heavy bindings over top of mesh casts.  Why was I so immobilized?  Was I really a patient, or a prisoner?

          “SSsss!” I complained, “Why am I locked into this bed?  Where am I, for that matter?”

          My struggles made my side hurt worse.  It was a sharp pain, a real pain, not a blurred ache like I’d been experiencing for… days?  Subjective days?

          I looked at my arms.  Other than several adhesive pads attached to my wrists, they looked unmarked, aside from the usual few missing scales.  No bullet wound.  My back also didn’t hurt all over.  My legs, though… if I wasn’t being restrained in some bizarre way, it looked like my legs had been broken, and recently.

          That injury fit with the fall from Krrutoki’s apartment.  I vaguely remembered snapping both ankles.  So that was the real, or at least the recent, timeline.  Either I’d healed up my shot arm without any scarring or else that injury never happened.

          I put the pieces together myself before the techs decided on their explanation.  I had been dreaming.  More than that, I’d been dreaming a very detailed, very directed story, a fiction with greater precision than any nightmare.

          I thought about virtual environments at first, but what I’d experienced was even more detailed than any VR simulation.  I’d tried out a few immersive entertainments in the past, when my curiosity and finances coincided.  While impressive, those projections would never fool a viewer into thinking they were real.  There were still too many discrepancies, too many departures from true perception, to be overlooked.

          But there was all that equipment around, plausibly the right appliances to directly manipulate a nervous system.  Maybe these were the geniuses who had cracked perfect VR: imaging beamed straight to the brain and coded well enough to bypass any warning systems.  But then, why were they using it on me?  Why concoct that particular scenario? 

          My dream hadn’t been enjoyable, much less entertaining.  I was still shuddering from the thought of it, although no longer feeling the side effects – or even the aftereffects – of frenzy.

          The more I thought about it, the angrier I became.  Whether deliberate or accidental, if these jokers had put me through all that trauma, then I owed them equivalent pain in return.

          This facility couldn’t be official.  Surely, this planet couldn’t have become so corrupt that citizens – even criminal suspects or convicts – could be kidnapped and subjected to non-consensual, agonizing experiments.  Even as a punishment for an actual crime, what I had just experienced would be considered unusually cruel.  My worst fears, instincts, and hatreds had been pulled out and laid bare for me to retch over.  It had been the emotional equivalent of flaying, of vivisection.

          “LET ME UP!” I screeched.  “I want my armor, I want my gun, I want my freedom, and I want a frosted good explanation, in whatever order is fastest!”

          Now the Vislin technician came around to my view, walking quickly from behind my bed to my left front.

          It was a male, patch-scaled and slight.  He raised his claws in supplication as he spoke soothingly.  “Please try to relax and trust us.  Believe me that our intent is not to cause you harm.  In fact, getting up will indeed hurt you.  If we explain too much, too soon, or too poorly, that could hurt you as well.  We are waiting for our superior, who will answer all your questions and do so in the best possible way.”

          His voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it.  Was it someone I knew from reality or from the dream?  His measured tones did their job well, convincing me to at least settle down and give them a chance to explain.  It had better be a good explanation, though.

          The Vislin moved further across the room, checking a wall-mounted computer screen.  He toggled a comm program and spoke aloud: “Could Doctor Ruktpah please hurry to the simulation lab, a bit faster?  Our guest is fully awake and becoming agitated.”

          A female voice of indeterminate species answered him, “Understood.  I will advise Ruktpah to avoid delays.”

          “Yes, thank you,” the Vislin answered.

          Thank you, mistress,” the Hrotata tech teased his colleague.  He had backed away to the monitoring station to my right rear, settling there on his haunches.  Now he rose and moved to a separate device.  I noticed that a tube led from that box to my legs, somewhere underneath the restraints and wrappings.  It was clear plastic, probably hollow and carrying fluid.  What kind of fluid?

          “Are you giving me drugs?” I demanded.  The Hrotata looked up with a trace of guilt on his furry features, if I read them correctly.

          “Well, yes, analgesics to manage your pain.  And a hypnotic, while you were being induced…”

          “Could you wait for Ruktpah, please?” asked the Vislin, interrupting his colleague in irritated tones. 

          “He’s going to get the idea soon enough,” the Hrotata protested.  “No reason to act all mysterious and secretive now.  In fact, research suggests that denying information just boosts the resistance index…”

          “Don’t cite Vkzprt to me, egg-breath,” the Vislin screeched back.  The argument didn’t sound too serious, like the banter of co-workers rather than violent dispute.  He added, “I was commenting on her research before you’d even seen your first psychograph.”

          I stayed quiet.  Even in my agitated, disoriented, apparently drugged state, I realized that letting them ramble could tell me more than interrupting to demand answers.  They sounded less like evil scientists and more like post-graduate students.  Granted, they were treating me more like a lab animal than a valued participant, but at least I wasn’t a captive hero tied to the Torture Machine.

          Yes, I watch some very bad entertainments, on occasion.

          “I’m just saying, we’re more likely to screw up his reactions by stalling than by saying something the wrong way.  He’s a resilient psyche; you’ve seen the ‘graphs.  We’re not going to do any long-term damage by choosing the wrong trigger word.  Worst case, Ruktpah can correct the misstep.”

          A resilient psyche, was I?  I supposed he was right, for all that I felt my psyche badly bludgeoned and as fragmented as my legs.  I was already assembling a rational storyline out of my various experiences.  Now that I was no longer having portions of my past blocked off… probably by their frosted drugs and machines… I was putting together an increasingly believable explanation for what had happened.

           I had been pursuing a Hrotata, Krrutoki, who somehow drove Grust of Herd Torbur into a violent Taratumm frenzy in public, pushing the stomper into attacking the mate of Krrutoki’s unattainable love interest.  I may be a perverse, romantically overdriven dupe, but Krrutoki was a twisted extreme of that mania.  His manipulation got Grust arrested, on trial for attempted murder.  Herd Torbur hired me to exonerate their hapless member, which put me... eventually... onto Krrutoki's trail.

          My confrontation with Krrutoki resulted in the revelation that he was psychically gifted, able to induce extreme emotional states in victims.  It seemed that his projective empathy was limited to the feelings he himself was experiencing at the time: lust and jealousy transferred to Grust, violent rage to the Taratumm who attacked me in a bar where I annoyed Krrutoki, and finally, panicked terror transferred onto me, when I confronted Krrutoki in his home. 

          It was an unproductive revelation at the time, since as soon as I knew what was happening, I was already running away, leaping out of Krrutoki’s open window to crash to the street below.  Tttt, that memory finally explained the familiar feeling during the 'simulation', when I went out of the window at Taburket’s. 

          I was dealing with psionics.  That might explain why the simulation was so complete, so detailed, and so convincing.  I wasn’t sure about that explanation, though.  Suspiciously little information on psychic ability circulates in the public sphere - likely deliberately so - but I was fairly certain nobody could project so much information, for so long, into another sapient’s mind.  It would be a major public hazard if any sapient could generate such powerful illusions.  You could completely paralyze or control someone with that kind of mirage.

          The machines were a clue.  Combine VR with psionics… and what?  Could you pull off the spell I’d experienced with those two integrated components?  And if you could, why keep it secret?  Why use it this way?  Why use it on me?

          The Vislin tech answered his counterpart as I mused: “You aren’t cleared for those decisions, nor am I.  Even if you’re right, our wiser course is to remain silent and allow the senior professional to work.  That way, we avoid censure… not to mention, worse consequences should you be wrong.”

          “I’d listen to Kzshtst, myself,” came a third, rumbling voice.  Definitely Taratumm.  I knew that even before its owner entered the room, stepping in from a doorway in the room's far left corner.

          While the name I’d heard, Ruktpah, roughly fit the Taratumm naming pattern, it was ambiguous enough that I’d assumed Vislin or Hrotata.  Surely, the senior researcher, the superior in a research laboratory… a psychic research laboratory?... wouldn’t be a dull stomper.

          Yet the new arrival neatly disemboweled my prejudices.  He was a massive male Taratumm, thick of limb and crest, but clearly not thick of mind.  He wore a neatly tailored suit of synthetic armor, the kind of garment that suggested wealth, taste, and the good sense to leave protective functions intact while not flaunting their defensive nature.  The armor’s color, a silvery lavender, even complimented the wearer's natural coloration, a bluish grey, like fireplace ash.

          “Doctor Ruktpah?” I presumed.  “Glad you finally made it.  Your colleagues here were having trouble dealing with me.”

          The Taratumm superior plodded to the foot of my bed and stared down at me, not threatening or hostile, just considering.  I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be intimidating or just came by it naturally.  His expression seemed to be neutral, maybe even a bit unhappy, but certainly not angry.

          Finally, he spoke, adjusting his volume to something comfortable for my proximity: “Private detective Stchvk.  Glad to finally meet you, in person and awake.  I understand you have had a difficult few days… some of which I need to apologize for.”

          “Which days?” I asked sarcastically.  “The fake ones where I nearly went out of my mind... or the real ones where I tracked down a psychic criminal without any help?”

          He blinked, faster than I’d ever seen any part of a Taratumm move.  Then he raised his head and bobbed slightly in place, the Taratumm equivalent of a Vislin crest flip.  I’d amused him, somehow.  What was so funny?  I wasn’t joking.

          He wasn’t laughing, either, and answered me soberly.  “All of them, then, I suppose.  Although I won’t apologize for Krrutoki’s existence, nor your foolhardy confrontation with him.  Your injuries are largely your own fault.”

          I began to protest, but he raised a forehand to forestall me.  “Your actual injuries, less so your fictional ones.  I see that you’ve put together much about your situation.  But allow me to place your partially assembled puzzle in its proper frame... and to insert the missing pieces.”

          He called back toward the Vislin: “Kzshtst, could you get me a chair?  This conversation may last longer than my knees.”

          Without protest, the chastened Vislin tech left the room.   By the time Ruktpah had finished speaking his next few sentences, Kzshtst returned with a suitably oversized, padded stool, which Ruktpah settled into with unexpected grace.  While all this was happening, the Hrotata tech remained quiet at his station, continuing to read out whatever vital data I was projecting.

          “So, Stchvk.  Investigator.  You’ve spent years solving puzzles, seeking out hidden truths, and helping sapients… some of them paying clients, some not.  We have your public record, of course.  I examined it myself when you were noticed working the Grust case.  We were looking into it from our angle – the psychic angle – once the public trial started, but you got to the real story before we did.”

          “Did I?  It was Krrutoki, in the Thunder Bar, with the psychic frenzy powers?” I japed.

          “It was.  The constables picked him up, thinking he’d thrown you out of his window.  He tried to flee Layafflr City, but one of our agents was in with the arresting squad.  Consequently, he couldn’t hide and he couldn’t scare them off.  We might have missed him without your intervention.  Thank you, I suppose.”

          “See?  Even my bad ideas are secretly good.”

          “That’s what we’ve been seeing.  You see, we wanted to know if your success there was dumb luck or possibly a sign of real talent.  Some investigators wouldn’t even have considered the psychic angle.  You only gave it slight credence, but still managed to find the right culprit, using purely mundane… even low-budget methods.  Professional custodial investigators didn’t crack this case, with all their training and tools, but you did.  Because you considered all the possibilities.”

          “And you were so impressed, you decided to kidnap and torture me.”

          Doctor Ruktpah rolled his eyes and paused, finally showing some signs of annoyance.  I have that effect.

          “If your verbal choices weren’t part of your ‘talent’, I’d be more offended by that,” he rumbled.  “But please don’t mistake me for a suspect you need to provoke.  I’d like to convince you that I’m an ally.  My praise is genuinely meant, not a tactic of manipulation.  I’m just explaining the circumstances that led us to this point.”

          “If you’re psychic, then you know why I’m on the offensive… and you wouldn’t need words to manipulate me.”

          “You see, that’s a common misconception.  Psionic talent is diverse; not all are gifted in the same way, and we specialize further by training.  I myself cannot read your mind, not without augmentation, nor do I particularly indulge in projective empathy.”

          His matter-of-fact discussion threw me off balance.  Maybe it was meant to.  For all his protests, this eggheaded stomper was pretty good at turning a conversation.  He was good enough to quiet me down and get me to actually listen, if only by the promise of substantial revelations.

          When I didn’t snipe back, he settled into his seat and his narrative.  “We needed to know how much you knew: if you had psychic ability, yourself, or a gifted informant who reinforced your suspicions.  A cursory inspection proved that neither was the case.”

          I admit, I was a bit disappointed to fail the psychic test.  Then again, my investigative skills would be less impressive if I had help from hidden mental powers.  Whatever I’d accomplished, I did it with my own five senses and deductive skill.

          “We brought you back here, performed the necessary medical treatments to fix your injuries, and kept you out of the claws of the constabulatory… you are welcome for that, incidentally.  Perhaps you can weigh that against the discomfort you experienced during our inspections.”

          As my expression darkened, he corrected himself: “All right, the pain you endured during our interrogation.  But I assure you, the process was carefully managed and quite necessary.  When we couldn’t find any obvious reasons for your success, we set up a scenario that would evaluate your professional and natural skills… not just as an investigator, but as a sapient capable of noticing and managing psionic situations.”

          He forestalled further protests by continuing quickly.  “If you had proven incapable, you would suffer from no memory of our simulation.  You would be deposited back into a standard hospital, healed in mind and body, with a cover story explaining how you got from Krrutoki’s apartment to there.  And yes, it would be a better cover story than we used to block out that experience the first time.  We needed you unaware, with no memory of prior events to make you suspicious about the simulation itself.”

          “Because I would have been,” I pointed out.  “And I was suspicious about a lot of things in that scenario.  The beachfront vacation.  The memory lapses.  The sudden fatigue and unconsciousness.  The fact that I still had credit in my account.”

          “Yes, you were.  And that was part of the test,” Ruktpah confirmed.  “How much discrepancy would your mind accept, before you started to rebel against unreality?  How far could we rewrite the narrative until you became frustrated, no longer able to accommodate the weight of anomaly?  You actually had me worried; your imagination is extraordinarily resilient, able to fit together the most bizarre coincidences and illogical factors into a coherent theory.  I suppose that is a consequence of criminal investigation: there always has to be an explanation, no matter how strange or convoluted.”

          I signaled silent agreement.  He wasn’t wrong there.  But I still wondered: why push me so hard?  What did they want out of me?

          Ruktpah must have sensed my conflict, either psychically or through old-fashioned social cues.  He oozed compassion as he continued: “But you did notice.  Your perceptivity is also quite high, either as a natural asset to your chosen profession, a consequence of its practice, or both.  You pick up on oddities and coincidences.  They mount and conjoin and are rarely discarded.  That is not a common skill.  Most sapients overlook the discontinuities around them, either to conserve attention or preserve their peace of mind… or because the details rarely matter to their needs.”

          “So I’m fixated on minutiae and prone to fantasy,” I deadpanned.  “I could have told you that.  Why run a mock-up like this?  To confirm my traits for yourselves?”

          “Exactly so,” Ruktpah answered, still unflappable.  “People say a great deal about themselves, good or ill, but their true reactions in a real situation are the only certain test of character.  Our evaluation program tells us precisely how a subject will react under certain stresses, not to mention how their thought processes work.”

          I suddenly felt very naked and even a bit violated.  They had watched not only my behavior but also my thoughts during my most vulnerable moments.  Everything I had sought to keep secret about myself, about Pack Vzzrk, about my past cases, had been laid bare.  Not to mention, all my tendencies, deviancies, and secret drives had been watched by these voyeurs.

          “Subject, ttt?  Doc, if my legs weren’t broken and restrained, I’d be tempted to claw out your guts right now.”

          “Then you haven’t been listening… or rather, you have been listening selectively.  Did you notice the part where I mentioned we deal with psychic criminal acts?  You were there when a rogue actor, untrained, sent you frenzying out of a window.  You can imagine how much more difficult it would be to detect, resist, and disable a more experienced psychic criminal.  We can’t use... or trust just anyone.  Genuine assets are rare.  If you possessed a lesser mind, we’d have deposited you back at home, ignorant and possibly a little richer for your trouble.  I’ll mention again, in case you missed it: you wouldn’t remember any of this, not the simulation, not the arrest, not the fall itself.  You would never know you'd suffered any pain.  We can manage that much, at least.  A simple chemical amnestic suffices, complimented by an augmented scan to make sure no stray memories remain to interfere with the erasure.”

          “That’s a lot of power.  Who controls all this?” I demanded.

          “Exactly what I mean: you go straight to the point.  The simple answer is: the Great Family.  We’re unofficial, both due to the nature of our operations and the potential for panic among the populace.  But we do report to the greater interplanetary government.  If you accept our offer, you can look at the organizational charts yourself.”

          “Wait, if I accept?” I asked, in still-angry confusion.  “Who said I’d want to join or even help you, after this treatment?”

          “Actually, you said.  Before we started the evaluation.  You asked if we were hiring, or words to that effect.  You can review the recording, if you like, but I’m sure you could dismiss it as a fabrication if you really resist the idea.  It seems the amnestic cleared out that conversation, along with the hour or so beforehand.”

          It sounded like something I’d say… at least, before knowing what the job interview would be like.  I said as much: “I doubt you explained what the hiring process would involve.”

          “And I can counter that we did, in fact.  Ttt, we didn’t go into great detail about the method used for evaluation, but you were informed that we’d need to confirm your mental ability and potential liability.”

          “I’m sure murdering my childhood love was somewhere in the fine print.”

          Ruktpah shifted uncomfortably; I’d struck something painful.  He grunted, “That outcome was not originally intended.  Your near suicidal episode was certainly not intended.  For that, you have my deepest apologies.”

          “Mine too,” the Hrotata technician chimed in, sounding properly contrite.  “That was terrible.  We should have ended the program way before that.  I’m the one who told them you were hitting bottom, though.”

          I stared at Ruktpah a long moment.  “You apologize?  It wasn’t intended?  Let me tell you, Doctor, your program has a serious flaw if it includes unintended effects like that.”

          He shot back, defensively, “The program is guided by a combination of scripted events and probabilistic reactions to your thoughts and actions.  It follows the lead you establish, conforming events to maintain maximum credibility while still nudging circumstances toward choice points which will evaluate your decision processes, value judgments, and selected actions.  So in a manner of speaking, you led our program into that particular dark alley.  Your refusal to back off, your willingness to see the worst in both your enemies and allies, and your persistent avoidance of authority… not that any of these are flaws, in our eyes...” he tailed off, holding up a hand to forestall my reaction again.

          He added, “I’m not blaming you, just pointing out that, given the initial starting conditions, our evaluation parameters, and your particular mental makeup… bad things happened in that world.  Perhaps they might happen so in the real world.  I’d like to think that reality is considerably less malleable, more beneficent, and more mundane than in our mock-up… but you and I both know that the world out there is often full of conspiracies, stupidity, malice, and even utter surreality, at times.  My job is a case in point.”

          “What, malice and stupidity?”  I couldn’t help seizing on the opening, though my accusation lacked any real venom.

          He actually seemed amused by my remark.  “Sometimes, but only when found in the targets we track and capture.  We are the conspiracy… though there have been historic occurrences of psionic cabals.  Far more often, rogues are either ignorant or malicious or both, using their abilities to cause harm because they don’t know any better.  And you’ve seen the surreal part.  Too many otherwise unexplainable events have a hidden psionic cause: emotional manipulation, illusions, telepathic espionage…”

          “Now I’m tempted to explain away all my failed cases as the work of secret psychics,” I quipped.

          “Only one that I know of,” Ruktpah shot back.  “No, I’m kidding, likely none.  Psionics are rare.  Very rare.  Maybe a dozen or so that we know of on Spore.  Now thirteen, until Krrotoki is evaluated and assigned.”

          “Assigned?  You mean, to a prison?” I asked.  Despite my earlier fury, his torrent of information was having the promised effect: I was listening.  I was getting answers.  I hoped they were true answers, but if they could rewrite my memories, why bother to lie?  For that matter, if they could bend my emotions, why bother with a recruiting speech?

          “Perhaps.  But for all the harm he’s done, he’s not irredeemable.  An immature, emotionally unstable fool, certainly.  But young.  Surely you wouldn’t argue that it’s impossible to grow beyond the errors of our youth?”

          Being reminded of my exposed past was a low strike, and I stiffened in reaction, preparing a curse in reply.  But he was essentially correct.  Krrutoki seemed like a pathetic, selfish, deranged creep, but those were all qualities that could be repaired.  His rehabilitation was doubly likely with psionic wardens and therapists involved.

          I hissed but stayed quiet otherwise.  Ruktpah correctly took this for agreement and continued, encouraged.

          “So yes, we have Krrutoki in custody.  You’ll be happy to know, also, that he made an acceptable, suitably edited confession attesting to his guilt in the case of Grust of Herd Torbur.  Grust has been exonerated and released.  If you like, we can even update the official report to mention your role.  Fascinating designer drugs were found in his apartment, by the way, supporting your original suspicions.”

          It felt like a severe ethical compromise, but what else could be done?  At least the innocent stomper had been freed and the guilty party named.  Covering up the actual method of the crime was a secondary concern.

          I still grumped, “As long as I don’t have to lie directly about what happened.”

          “That’s up to you, but consider: you’d have no way to prove your claims.  For the reasons I’ve stated, we have to conceal some degree of information about psychism from the general public, at least until official studies and legislation catch up.  Can you imagine the prosecutor’s case, trying to prove that a Hrotata psychically drove a Taratumm into frenzy?  What would the court accept as evidence?  And even if the state somehow succeeded in making its case, what would be the public response?”

          I could complete the thought: the public would be half disbelieving, half hysterical.  As my own reactions proved, the idea of mental control was a terrifying one, particularly when you didn’t know who could do it or how it worked.

          Ruktpah made sympathetic noises while I worked out the implications myself.  At length, he spoke again: “Another point to consider: you passed our evaluation.  Despite the catastrophic ending, your performance showed that you have overcome your spotted past.  You are not immune to its existence, but its effects upon your present behavior seem largely positive.  In fact, it may be because of your past difficulties, not in spite of them, that you function so well in the present.”

          “I knew that, too,” I countered.  “But I’m not so sure about the functional part.  Maybe if I felt more mentally stable or could earn more credit, I’d agree more.  And as far as the existence of my past, that’s always a risk.  I’m not sure whether to run from it - leave Layafflr City or even the planet - or stay here, close and ready to stamp out that fire whenever it relights.”

          “Well, we can help on all those counts, as it turns out.  We have very good ideas how to help you regain your equilibrium… if you allow such therapy, of course.  We can also help keep your past hidden and its actors absent, to some extent.”

          “Pkstzk,” I interrupted.  “Where is she, actually?”

          “Alive,” he answered, making a weak joke that he realized fell flat.  He amended, “But in prison.  Embezzlement from her employer.  Very recently, in fact, only two cycles ago.  We were surprised your knowledge was that out of date.”

          “I don’t keep up on most of the old gang.  Maybe I should.  What about Rsspkz?”

          “In prison still, along with Vztrrp.  We did our research to make sure everything would conform with your expectations about those ‘characters’.”

          “And Tklth?”

          “No idea.  About her, at least, you know as much as anyone else.  She’s vanished into the great wilds of space.”

          I finally relaxed a little, having accepted Rukhpah’s general goodwill, if not his methods.  I considered what I was being offered.  More knowledge was a good thing.  Being able to make a difference would be nice, also.  If I could put my talents to good use, I didn’t mind working within an organization, even a secret government organization.  But I definitely didn’t like the feeling of impersonal power that I was getting.  I’d be getting involved with some dangerous people, with a lot of dangerous powers and tools, and some questionable ideas about how to use them.

          But the alternative was not getting involved: going back to my old life, ignorant as ever, with the same threats still active.  I thought, also, that this particular conspiracy needed someone like me, someone who would criticize and act as a conscience.  Kkk, I flatter myself... but I never would have played with someone’s mind like they did mine, even for technically noble reasons.  Some things, you just don’t do, even for good purposes. 

          Like framing someone for murder, even to save a life.  Despite my revulsion about having ‘killed’ Pkstzk, I was proud of myself for holding fast against the plot to frame Shtvtsk.  I was proud, also, of escaping the virtual snares and seductions laid during my evaluation.  I hadn't compromised, hadn't inflicted undeserved harm, and hadn't despaired, at least until the end.

          I was temporarily proud of having survived the various traps laid against me, but then realized I was meant to survive.  Nothing in the scenario would really have ‘killed’ me, which was why I was wounded but never really endangered or completely crippled. 

          In fact, I was spared the worst consequences of every error.  No outcome would completely stop me from proceeding until they had all their data.  Reality wasn't so forgiving. 

          Still, in simulation just as in reality, what was important was that I kept trying, kept looking for escapes, and kept coming up with ideas.  I managed that much, at least.

          I also kept my integrity.  If that was an asset in my favor, then these psychos had to accept my criticism along with my competence.

          “Before you get too full of yourself, bear in mind that you have a few negatives we’d need to work on,” Ruktpah interrupted.  I realized that he’d interrupted my thoughts, with no other transition from his earlier remarks to the latter one.  I squinted at him and snapped my beak nastily.  Not reading my thoughts, indeed.  The old leaf-licker wasn’t fooling me.

          He continued on, ignoring my reaction: “Your distractibility is a consequence of your perceptiveness.  This couples with your libido to slow down your progress toward resolution.  There’s a reason I dismissed our female psychometric technician before you woke up.  Though to make my point, I almost considered having her deliver the debriefing... but she’s not trained for it.”

          The cute one with spots.  I remembered her happily, then became annoyed with Ruktpah for having read me so accurately.  I definitely would have been looking at her, if she were still there.  Ruktpah might have secured my goodwill more easily with her present, but that just proved his point again.  Frost my gonads.  No, don’t, but you get the idea.

          “You’ll also have to curtail your tendency to boast and to recruit bystanders,” Rukhpah persisted.  “With witnesses and with constables.  If you’re working for us, you won’t be able to tell anyone… except us… about your cases.”

          Again, I saw his point.  That had been the point of Tskksk’s involvement: both her original assistance and her subsequent kidnapping.  They wanted to see my reaction when a bystander, a witness, was pulled into a dangerous situation.  I imagined hostage situations might be common with a psychic criminal; they could enthrall innocents more easily.

          Thinking of Tskksk, I was first relieved that she wasn't actually in any danger... then depressed that she had never existed at all.  I had started to bond with a fictional character.  Ttt, it happened sometimes, but rarely with such intensity.  I wondered if Tskksk were at least based on a real person... maybe that cute female tech?  Frost, the way my day was going, she was probably scripted by the Hrotata over there.

          What was I thinking about, again?  Ttt, that's right, psychic criminals and the need to keep civilians uninvolved.

          Ruktpah continued to anticipate my line of thought.  “Bystanders are a problem with empaths or projective telepaths,” he cautioned.  “If you thought Shtvtsk was a powerful seductress, imagine her augmented with the ability to induce lust.  You couldn’t dissuade Pkstzk from her anger; now imagine if that manipulation were amplified, with a random bystander... or a beloved acquaintance... aimed toward you as a weapon.”

          He scored again.  I could imagine those horrors with particular clarity, thanks to my recent encounters in the virtual world.  I could almost forgive the programmers for making me experience those events, realizing how appropriate they were to the real situations I might eventually face. 

          Was there any psychic influence, in the simulation?”

          “Yes and no,” Ruktpah answered.  “Your emotions weren’t directly altered in any way.  Shtvtsk was created as an amalgam of the traits you find most attractive, your ‘ideal female’.  As such, it’s particularly notable that you resisted her allure in favor of doing your chosen duty.”

          At this rate, my ego was going to get rubbed raw.

          “Pkstzk’s indoctrination could have been accomplished through mundane means as well,” Ruktpah continued, “but the program made certain she would never accept your arguments.  You were supposed to forestall her, perhaps disarm her manually, or escape.  We really didn’t expect you to go for the laser.”

          “Why not?” I demanded.  “Given the situation, that was my best option.”

          “Really?  She missed because she was programmed to miss,” Ruktpah argued back.  “I doubt that in reality you would have survived that encounter.”

          “I sure wouldn’t have survived it trying to grab her gun,” I griped back.  “How many of you have actually tangled in a close-quarters gunfight?  I’m guessing not many.  Wait, how many ‘mundane’ field agents do you have?  How many have to do their job without benefit of psionic ability?”

          “On Spore?  None, yet,” Ruktpah admitted.  “You’d be our first.  You can see why, considering how difficult it was to find you… and how difficult it is to evaluate and then persuade a candidate.”

          “Sss, frost, do you ever need my help,” I concluded.  “No wonder your program went sideways.  I’m programmed to deal with real situations, having dealt with them.  When you put that up against a script that includes certain inaccurate invariables…”

          “Garbage in, garbage out,” Ruktpah completed for me.  “Careful, though: your good evaluation is predicated on your performance in that program.  Question its validity too strongly, and we have nothing to base our estimates on.”

          “You have what everyone else gets.  Your judgement, the evidence of my actions, and a little trust.  Kktkrkz sit on my head, I’ve got a lot to do here.”

          “So I take it you’re agreeable,” he replied.

          “Provisionally.  Let’s take it in steps.  I’ll see what I learn, make sure I like what I see, and decide if this is actually something I can do.  You have a lot of data on me, but I’m a little short on details about your operation.”

          “You talk like someone in a strong position, rather than the only non-psychic in a building full of them, with his ankles broken and casted, and his psychometric diagram being displayed on a screen nearby,” Ruktpah cautioned.

          “Everyone's psychic?  Even him?” I asked, pointing to the Hrotata.

          “Yes,” the tech answered for himself.  “I can make dour matrons lift their tails.”

          Ruktpah grimaced at the vulgarity, but confirmed, “Thrussetl, like Krrutoki, is a projective empath.  He is also under working probation for that sort of behavior.”

          The red-brown mammal only grinned in response, turning back to his displays.

          “Lucky furball,” I muttered loudly enough for him to catch.  Ruktpah rolled his eyes but did not comment further.

          “But yes, I do have some leverage,” I resumed, “you clearly need my help, otherwise why do all this work?  Regardless of your ‘evaluation’, I can identify, track, and maybe even apprehend rogues like you talk about, without radiating psycho-neutrons or whatever they might pick up on.  I have practical experience, particularly here on Chttkttp.”

          “I noticed that,” Ruktpah mentioned.  “In fact, there’s an interesting track line over your thoughts of this planet, particularly this city.  Did you see it, Thrussetl?”

          “Of course,” the Hrotata tech answered.  “A self-associative line like that is hard to miss, especially in my case.  Usually you see a line that strong for a mother.  Or a mate.  Or a pack mate.”

          “I get it, I get it,” I waved them down.  “I love this horrible, filthy city.”

          “Not just that,” Ruktpah insisted.  “Try to imagine leaving it for a long period, perhaps forever.”

          I obliged him and found what they were talking about.  It hurt to consider leaving.  Seriously thinking about leaving Layafflr City behind and never returning felt like pondering which limb to give up.  I hadn’t ever thought of moving away, not even when things got bad.  I joked about it, sure, but never seriously.

          My expression told them enough, even without empathy to read my feelings.  Ruktpah’s eyes creased in sympathy.

          “That factor explains a great deal about your progress toward maturity and your resilience to adversity, despite some significant emotional complications,” he quietly diagnosed.  “I’m no therapist, not precisely, but it’s not unbelievable that your bond to your pack has been transposed to a much bigger pack, one that is more difficult to serve but less likely to demand specific services.”

          “So what, I’m bonded to the city?”

          “Might as well be,” Ruktpah confirmed.  “And that’s not a bad thing.  Vislin within our organization sometimes show the same affiliation to their coworkers, or to psychics in general.  They’re also some of our best agents, utterly impossible to compromise.  Frankly, anything that tries to turn you against this city or its citizens has a difficult obstacle to overcome.”

          I wanted to laugh.  Me, Stchvk, scoundrel of the ages, mated to law and order.  It was the kind of joke that you realized was true, even as you tried to laugh it away.

          That recognition was what decided me.  These might be a bunch of secretive, privileged, inhumane bastards, but they knew their business.  I’d learn a lot here, and not just about psionics itself.  If I thought I was a good judge of sapients before, I’d be unstoppable with such professional training… not to mention some of those ‘augmentations’... maybe a psychic sidekick…

          First things first, Stchvk.  Get out of bed.  Take the tour.  Meet the psycho co-workers.

          “All right, all right,” I said aloud.  “I’m in.  What do we do next?”

          Ruktpah rose slowly, stiffly, resting his bulk for a moment before coming fully upright.  “You rest and heal.  Even with regeneration, you’ll need a few days before you can stand comfortably.  From there, we’ll give you the outline of operations.  You’ll probably be disappointed in terms of workload; we don’t have any investigations currently active.  In all likelihood, you’ll get some training courses, then go back home to wait until you’re needed.  After that, it depends on what comes up."

          It figured.  After all that trouble, I wasn’t even getting hired full-time. 

          The mention of home did brighten my mood.  My home.  It was just fine.  My beautiful hand-carved desk was still there, unburned.  My good armor was in the closet, not shot full of holes.  My heater… was somewhere.

          “Hey!  Where’s my heater?” I asked as Ruktpah straightened up to leave.

          “Around here somewhere,” he answered.  “You’ll get it back when you’re cleared to leave.  No point before then.  The kinds of threats you might face around here, you wouldn’t get a chance to shoot.  Might make you shoot yourself.” 

          I assumed he was kidding… maybe.

          “And what about pay?” I called as he turned away.  “I’m no good if I starve to death while waiting for work.”

          “You’ll get a modest monthly stipend,” Ruktpah replied over his shoulder, “enough to live on, but not so much as to raise suspicions.  Get used to the idea of pretending to have clientele… or maybe drum up some more regular business, yourself.  Being choosy is fine, but you’ve got a streak of laziness there that could be improved.”

          Great.  A boss who could read your mind and personally tailor his critiques.  If the fringe benefits weren’t so appealing, this might be the worst job I’d ever heard of.

          Stchvk, private psychic detective.  At least the title sounded… stupid, actually.

          I’d keep it like it was.  It saved the cost of reprinting my business cards.