“John! Good news!”
John’s boss approached him in the hallway, broadly grinning. John braced for anything but actual good news.
“I’ve arranged it for you and your wife to come to our company gala this weekend. On us, of course.”
The corporate gala? That made no sense. What was he getting at?
“That’s very generous of you, sir, but are you sure it’s an appropriate place for a telepath? A gala isn't not an official business setting. People might think I’m up to no good–”
“John, most business doesn’t take place in an ‘official setting.’ Lighten up, loosen up. You’re coming, right?”
John didn’t see any way out of it. It felt like a bad idea – since his brother's wedding debacle, he had come to realize that Maria was right, that telepaths didn’t belong at normals’ parties, even though they worked side by side during the day. But he simply could not afford to say no to his boss.
“Sure, I’ll come.” He faked his best smile.
“Excellent! I knew we could be buddies!” His boss slapped him lightly on the back and walked away.
John figured his boss had to be up to something, but it wasn’t clear. Did he actually think he and John could be "buddies"? John and his boss had only ever interacted in strictly professional settings, so John had no idea what the man was like outside of work. Was this a friendly gesture, or a trap? John wasn’t entirely sure what the slap on the back meant, either – on one hand it meant his boss wasn’t scared to touch John, which was a good thing, but on the other, did he think he owned Jon's personal space? Or was John just over-analyzing everything? Maybe his boss just wanted to be friendly.
Or maybe he was up to something.
He thought about his wife. Obviously, she wouldn't go. She'd tell him he was an idiot. There were no other telepaths going - this was going to be another disaster.
But he didn't see any way out, either. Somehow, he had changed - day after day, week after week, year after year, he did what normals told him to do. Eventually saying "no" felt impossible.
The gala itself was a lavish affair, held in a banquet hall of a posh hotel downtown. John was, of course, the only telepath there, but he was used to that – what he wasn’t used to was socializing with normals again – or at least attempting to.
He stood mostly with his boss, trying to duck out of every conversation after pleasantries were exchanged. For the most part, people ignored him – they wondered why he was there, but most didn’t ask that aloud.
A few did. "Nelson! What's your telepath doing here?"
"Nelson! You starting a new trend, bringing telepaths to parties?"
"Nelson! This is a gala! We're all trying to relax here! Leave the telepaths at the office next time, eh?"
John did his best to blend in, but it was hopeless. No one was comfortable around him – and he wasn't comfortable, either. At least, he mused darkly, that his presence was backfiring on his boss, too.
But his boss didn't seem to care. He downed drink after drink and kissed up to all the senior execs. His wife, covered in expensive jewels, exchanged a few pleasantries with John, asking the ages of his children and so on, but then ran out of things tp say, and excused herself. John was relieved; he wanted to get through the evening and speak as little as possible.
As his boss slowly became increasingly inebriated, John sensed his thoughts change texture, becoming less their usual high energy and crisp, and more fluid, liquid. Unfortunately, as his boss drank more alcohol, his sense of boundaries and propriety also began to slip. He started trying to involve John in political conversations, a topic John had learned to steadfastly avoid after joining the Corps. One slip-up there, and he'd be in hot water.
John pulled out his usual tactics for dodging a conversation:
“Oh, that’s very interesting sir.”
“Oh, is that your position, sir?”
“That really is fascinating, sir.”
“Yes, I see how that must be so frustrating!”
His boss would not be swayed from his current course, however – he had somehow convinced himself that it was his place to involve John in the conversation.
“You know what I think?” he blurted out to a group of colleagues after he’d had a few more drinks, “I think it’s a damn shame that they don’t let telepaths into EarthForce. John’s kind here could really do a lot for our boys and girls in uniform. What do telepaths think about this, John?”
The worst part about the situation, John realized awkwardly, is that his boss didn’t even believe what he was saying – it was just a position he was trying on for the moment to see how his colleagues would react, and to get a “lively” conversation going. John could quickly tell that none of the others in the group agreed with this position – a few were deeply against it and a few were more neutrally curious – but his boss was prepared to argue this side for the “fun” of it.
“I don’t have any idea, sir… I’ve never given it any thought before.”
This drew curious and skeptical looks from everyone, but that was better than any of the alternatives.
“Oh come on, John, you don’t really expect me to believe that! Surely you have something to add on the subject.”
“No sir. I would have to give it careful thought. Why don’t you tell us all more about what you think?”
This was not what his boss wanted to hear, because he really didn’t want to argue for that position if it wouldn’t draw some interesting tidbit out of John. His boss just awkwardly restated the position, and then changed the subject, to everyone’s relief.
After another fifteen minutes or so, and an especially boring conversation about investments, he pulled John aside.
“Say, John… can I ask you a favor?”
“Um, sure… what is it?”
John’s boss pointed to a group of finely dressed people chatting five or ten feet away. John knew his boss was pointing to a certain tall man in the group, who John recognized from occasional meetings. John didn’t immediately remember his name, but he recalled that the man’s company sometimes did business with theirs.
“See that man there, the tall man with the gray suit? The one laughing?”
"His name's Connors. I think he and his people are plotting a hostile takeover.”
“Shhhh. That’s the scuttlebutt. Do you think you could find out for me?”
“…Are you asking me to do something illegal, sir?”
“No, no, not illegal, just… bending the rules a little, do you know what I mean?”
“If you’re asking me to scan him, that’s definitely illegal, sir.”
His boss rolled his eyes. “John, I thought we were buddies. We’ve worked together for six years, you know me, would I ask you to do something illegal? I’d never do that. I just want to know if it’s true.”
“I can’t do that.”
“What do you think I invited you here for tonight, to stand around and look pretty?”
“No no, I mean, I can’t do that. I’m only a P3. I can very reliably pick up someone’s surface thoughts, but my ability to scan people from a distance is… well, shall we say, very limited.”
“You can't, or you won't?”
John’s boss swore under his breath and looked around, frustrated, as if his whole lovely secret plan had all just fallen apart due to this newly discovered “defect” in John’s usefulness.
"They let you in the Psi Corps even if you can't tell what someone's thinking across the room?"
"You didn't ask me what he's thinking," John replied, agitated, trying not to speak too loudly, lest anyone hear him over the din of the room. "He's talking about football! You asked me to scan him!"
Every business telepath had heard the stories - someone couldn’t afford to risk losing their job, and their employer pressured them till they did it, and then they rationalized it and figured they’d never be caught, and it would be just that once. The next thing they knew, it was expected of them regularly, and they couldn’t get out, and they got caught after all. Maybe that's what had happened to Delia. She'd disappeared that night, and never come back.
It was technically illegal to ask (or blackmail) a telepath to do an illegal scan, but normals were outside of Psi Corps' jurisdiction – prosecution was left up to the mundane authorities, and they rarely got involved. That was the business world – everyone wanted an edge over someone else, and you could always hire another telepath.
“OK,” said his boss, “you can pick up on his thoughts without scanning him, right? And that’s not illegal, right?”
“-so why don’t you just tell me if he happens to think about a hostile takeover?”
“He's talking about sports, and the wonderful time he had watching a recent game from his private viewing box!”
“Oh. Well, um, if anything changes, will you let me know?”
John nodded, and his boss walked off. John wondered whether he had any ethical obligation to tell his boss even if he did notice the man thinking, or for that matter talking, about a hostile takeover. John decided he didn’t. He had enough problems in his life already, and had no intention of getting mixed up in anything else.
After the cocktail hour, there were speeches, and then there was dinner, and awards. People began to say their goodbyes and thanked each other and sucked up some more, pretending to have had such a lovely time talking to people who bored or irritated them. Some people smoothed over business deals. Some were drunk. Many were thinking about what good food they had just eaten.
John just wanted to get home.