Wednesday, April 6, 2016

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.

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