Los Angeles. July, 2117.
Stevie Campbell nervously wrung his hands backstage. Five minutes till his entrance on the DiPeso show, watched by millions - maybe even billions - across the world.
He could hear the comedian cracking jokes for his opening monologue.
Something was wrong.
"... so he says, how does a telepath feed a dog? And I said, pretty well, if you grind him up fine enough!"
The crowd howled with laughter. Stevie watched as the comedian reclined on a couch, holding his martini glass like he owned the whole world and didn't give a shit who lived or died.
A few "boos" came from the audience, but they were of the "what a bad joke" variety.
Stevie looked around nervously. There was no backing out now.
DiPeso moved on to a few equally tasteless jokes about sex. Telepaths and sex.
Stevie squirmed. The producers had assured him - and his parents - that he was invited to the show to tell his story, to help educate the public. They had assured the family that despite DiPeso's usual coarse - even controversial - style, this show would be different: this time, the show would be sensitive. An Earth Alliance senator had personally arranged for this segment to happen. He wanted to humanize telepaths, so the public could better empathize with them. He wanted to stop the violence.
It seemed that DiPeso didn't get the script.
Stevie waited in the wings as DiPeso introduced the senator, and made even more tasteless jokes about telepaths and sex. Then an actress, Anna Keck, spoke briefly. Some bird his mum liked. They played the trailer for her new movie - about a drunk couple arguing and driving across America. Yuck. Who cared?
Ms. Keck told the audience that she had no idea she was a "telepath" until the test came back positive.
"I didn't know until I took the new screening test. I always knew I was good at understanding people - at knowing how they felt - but I've never heard words or anything. Most telepaths can't, really - it's a false stereotype. I can't read your mind, Alex."
"Well, thank Buddha for small favors. Whew. 'Cause I'm sure there must be some sort of law. Well, this is-"
"This isn't about me," Anna interrupted. "We still have a segment for that, right? Because I do want to talk about Arkansas Traveler. But first I'd like to let the senator introduce everyone else."
One of the stagehands signaled to Stevie - and the others - that this was their cue to enter.
They stepped out into the blinding lights. Saw the hundreds - thousands? - in the studio audience.
And the cameras. The whole world was watching.
Stevie's mouth was dry. He'd carefully rehearsed his speech many times, but what if he forgot it? And what if his still-changing voice broke into a squeak?
All eyes were on him and the others. This was his big moment. He gathered up his courage. He was doing this for the greater good, he reminded himself, so no one else would ever have to go through what he went through.
The host turned to the first in line - a lad in his twenties who walked with a limp.
"Well, by all means - but I think I know this young man," DiPeso was saying, gesturing at the young fellow with the Apollonian profile. "Aren't you that fireman...?"
The senator smiled like a snake, if one could smile. Oily. Stevie knew that look. That was the look the salesman gave his father before selling him a rubbish groundcar.
The senator clapped the young man on the shoulder, with a broad, false grin. "This is Guy Guillory," he told DiPeso. "Most of your viewers will remember him as the young man who saved thirty people in the San Francisco earthquake last year. Guy came to us voluntarily when - well, I'll get to that in a moment. Guy's telepathic ability enabled him to find those trapped on the collapsed sixth floor of Trombles. I might add that Guy is just now able to walk again - his body was covered with third-degree burns on his fifth trip in, two trips after the building caught fire."
Guy nodded nervously. He opened his mouth to speak, but the senator patted him on the back and talked right past him.
The senator moved down the line to another woman in her twenties or so, a slight blonde with a pleasant, but not beautiful, face. "This is Clara Suarez," said the senator. "She used to be a stock trader until she voluntarily quit when she learned she had metasensory powers. She now uses her abilities for the International Trade Commission to find less honest telepaths still tradin'."
He didn't let her speak, either. He moved onto Stevie.
"Stephen Campbell. Stephen didn't know he was a telepath either, just that he had a lot of luck hittin' what the pitcher threw. Steven was beaten within an inch of his life and left to die on the street in Edinburgh. And this - come here, sweetheart."
Just like that, it was over. Stevie wasn't going to get to speak, was he?
He looked out at the audience. He felt like a mannequin on display in the shop window, or an animal at the zoo.
The senator motioned to the five-year-old girl who was last in line. The audience let out a collective "awww!" as the little girl with the cute brown bob ran right over to the senator and into his arms, like he was her favorite uncle.
"This is Constance," said the senator. "Constance is five, and last year she watched her whole family slaughtered execution style. She herself was shot, hacked with a machete, and left for dead. We found her under the corpse of her mother."
Who is 'we'? Stevie wondered. The senator kept talking about a "we." He doubted the senator himself had found her. Either way, he'd somehow got that poor wee lass to trust him completely, like some stranger offering candy.
Stevie didn't like it one bit.