A cup of coffee saved Crystal’s life.
On the company transport from Mars, waiting for the jump back to Earth, she had stepped out of the conference room to get something to drink. She’d picked up her cup and turned to leave when something exploded.
The ship rocked, the lights went out, alarms blared, and the hot coffee spilled over the floor and down the front of Crystal’s suit. She screamed, lost her balance and fell to the floor.
People ran through the corridor, past the break room, shouting orders to each other.
“Fire! Fire in the conference room!”
Company security rushed to put it out, their boots thudding as they ran. Crystal huddled in the back corner against the wall, heart beating wildly in her chest. It took all her strength to get her mental walls back up in place. She couldn’t be of much help to anyone else if she didn’t look after herself first.
The ship filled with panic and smoke. Through the fear and screams and pain, she could barely feel herself think at all.
“This is the captain speaking,” a male voice boomed over the intercom. “We have an emergency. Please remain calm and alert security personnel if you or someone near you is injured, and do not move about the ship unless absolutely necessary.”
Outside the door to the break room, the shouting continued, unaffected by the captain’s words.
Alone, and uninjured, Crystal sat quietly, trying to block out the panic all around her. She was only partially successful. Every minute felt like an hour. She looked at the grey walls, at her black gloves, at the greenish tiles on the floor, at the company logo on the coffee cup, at the stain down the front of her shirt. She thought about home, about her cadre, about her husband, about her young son.
“This is the captain again. The fire in the conference room has been extinguished. I repeat, all fires have been extinguished and the situation is under control. Police and medical personnel have been notified and are on their way.”
With concentration, Crystal sorted through the cacophony in her mind.
A bomb had gone off. The fire was out, but there were bodies everywhere – blood, gore, charred flesh. She saw the images through the eyes and minds of the witnesses, and felt waves of nausea, horror, shock. Her boss was dead. The other company telepaths were dead. Everyone who had been in the conference room was dead.
She sat, her back to the wall, crying, and praying for a miracle.
In vids, normals are always right.
Beta Erani III, an Earth-like colony deep in space. A man staggers back to town, on the verge of death, and collapses in the street. A dashing young prospector named Colby Cross brings him a flask of water. The villager tells Cross that a band of outlaws is hiding out in the mine, preparing a raid on Cross’ town. With great difficulty, the villager tells Cross that he overheard their plans, but the outlaws shot him and left him for dead.
Cross asks the man for more information, but he passes out, cold. “Someone fetch Mariska!” he shouts to his friends. Mariska comes running. She is the only telepath in town, and she always does whatever the normals ask of her.
“Quick!” orders Cross. “Please Mariska, this man is dying. You have to scan him so we can stop the outlaws!”
After some urging, she complies. The man dies in her arms. Shaking, she tells Cross and his friends everything they need to know.
They stop the attack.
Justice always prevails.
Mariska disappears, to wherever it is she goes until they need her again.
Crystal sat quietly on the floor. Normal police and paramedics arrived on the scene. According to another of the captain’s booming announcements, the company was investigating the attack as a possible act of terror.
Martian history, Crystal knew, had always been one of war, starting with the very first civilian colony, destroyed a mere eight years after its founding in a sneak attack by Earth Isolationist terrorists. Since the beginning of the century, all of the violence on the red planet had been home-grown.
She thought of the Colby Cross vids. Mars wasn’t a distant colony like the fictional Beta Erani III, but it was its own “wild west.”
And now these same outlaws had bombed her ship.
She waited quietly as the police began to investigate the attack, and as medics triaged the victims, tallying up the living, the injured, the dying, the dead.
One of the police officers found Crystal.
“Hey, I found a telepath!” he barked.
Crystal didn’t move. He was a big, burly man, young, strong, with light brown skin and a mind that felt like polished steel.
“You injured?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Get up, I have a job for you.”
Crystal stood, obediently, feeling she had no choice. She was the only telepath left. She had become Mariska.
“We think the ship was targeted by terrorists,” the cop was saying, as they made their way past injured people and busy medics, through screams and pain, “but we don’t know the details. All the other telepaths are dead, blown apart – we didn’t think any made it through alive.”
She nodded. She didn’t tell him that she already knew – better than he did. Only her shaky mental shields, and the psychological boundaries afforded by her gloves, separated her from the chaos.
The cop was emotionless as he spoke, matter-of-fact. Like most normal cops he was unshakeable, able to respond to highly emotional situations, even crises, with all the warmth of a duracrete wall. He didn’t need mental shields – little from the outside got through into his mind, anyway.
“The bomb went off in the conference room,” the cop continued. “The Executive Vice President happened to be meeting with his telepaths when it exploded.”
“His” telepaths? Crystal wondered. Did she belong to him? She worked for the company – she didn’t belong to the executives like a pet.
“I went to get a cup of coffee,” she told him.
“Ah, so that’s why you were in there. Well, it’s a good thing you drink coffee, Ms…?”
“On my mom’s side. My father is Japanese.”
“Huh, that’s right, you people take your mom’s names.”
She nodded. “It’s been customary in the Corps for generations. Since before the Corps, in fact.”
Crystal tried not to look at the bleeding passengers as she passed them, and focused instead on the feel of the silk lining of her gloves against her skin. She had boundaries, she reminded herself. She was safe.
They stopped in front of an injured man, unconscious on the floor. He was young, maybe in his late twenties, not much older than Crystal. His clothes were torn or burned away, revealing gashes and charred flesh. A trickle of blood streaked across his face, down his cheek, onto the floor. His breath came in short, uneasy gasps. His eyes were closed.
“This guy,” the cop said, pointing. “He’s not on the manifest. He’s got no identicard. We think he’s a stowaway, and that he had something to do with the attack.”
Crystal didn’t like where this was headed. “Then we’d better get him stabilized and to a hospital,” she said, carefully.
“He won’t make it. The medics say his wounds are too serious, and he’ll die within the hour. Internal bleeding, punctured lungs and liver, broken ribs, bad concussion – you name it. He’s in shock. He probably didn’t even intend to live this long – there was a second bomb that didn’t go off, one would have blown a hole right through the hull, killing everyone onboard.”
The cop’s words were too horrible to sink in.
“What about medical facilities on Mars?” Crystal asked, desperate. “They’re much closer.”
“He won’t make it. The paramedics say if we try to transport him, he’ll die even quicker.”
She knew what he was asking her, and didn’t like it. This wasn’t a Colby Cross vid – there would be real consequences to her choices. “Sir, there’s no telling what will happen if I scan him. What you’re asking is dangerous – if I don’t break off soon enough, I could die with him. It’s happened to telepaths before-”
He interrupted. “Ms. Bonville, we need to find out who was behind this attack, who he’s working with, how this was planned and funded. This man is the only one who knows that. We need this information, and we have no time to waste.”
“Officer, Psi Corps has protocols for situations like these. I’m not rated for necroscans.” It wasn’t entirely true – her rating wasn’t relevant – but Crystal gambled that the mundane cop wouldn’t know anything about Psi Corps regulations, or telepath ratings.
“You’re, what, a P5? You’re telling me a P5 can’t do necroscans? That’s absurd, I’ve seen it done.”
She was actually a P6, but telling him so wouldn't help.
“No sir, I’m saying that the Corps has protocols. We maintain a list of telepaths who have volunteered for that work. The Corps can’t force anyone to do one. It is very dangerous, as I said-”
“We don’t have time,” the cop barked. “Even if we call the Corps right now, it may be hours before they can get someone out here.”
She tried another angle. “Sir, if you think this man was behind the attack, then he has due process rights. It would be a violation of Psi Corps regulations to scan him without his consent. And you know that anything I find in his mind will be inadmissible in court…”
Unfortunately, that tactic didn’t work, either. “Ms. Bonville, I’m sorry to ask you to do this,” the cop lied. “I don’t have the authority to demand it of you, because you’re not security personnel – you’re with Psi Corps, assigned to the company. But someone just killed your boss and over a dozen of your coworkers. All the other telepaths are dead. Our only suspect is dying. We need to conduct a terrorist investigation, and right now you’re our only chance.”
A medic interrupted. “We don’t have much time,” she said, looking up from her position crouched over the unconscious man. “He’s going into cardiac arrest.”
The cop’s eyes met Crystal’s. “Our suspect is dying, Ms. Bonville. It’s now or never!”
Crystal hesitated. She thought about Mariska. She thought about her mother. Oh my God, I’m going to end up like my mother.
There was no escape. She was on a spaceship. She had nowhere to run.
“This is it,” the cop said forcefully, disdainfully. “What’s wrong with you? Do you support the underground?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Then you gonna help us or not?”
It wasn’t a real choice.
Crystal felt screaming in her mind, from passengers in the transport all around her. Everyone was barking orders, everyone was in pain. She smelled blood and smoke, felt the thud of her heart beating wildly in her chest.
“Now!” the cop was screaming. “Didn’t you hear me? I said now!”
Against her better judgment, Crystal knelt down and took off one of her gloves and touched the dying man’s face. All she had to do was look into his mind, and she was sucked downward.
She’d heard stories, but none of the descriptions came close to the thing itself. There was a tunnel, there was a gateway – at first far off, but moving closer, faster. Time and space became distorted, changed… and she stood by as he was pulled beyond the gateway, while she remained outside.
A part of her went with him.
When the door closed and she found herself kneeling on the floor of the ship, she saw, as if from far away, that she was shaking. She felt numb. Her cheeks were wet. She felt at least a decade older.
“Well?” the mundane police officer was asking from behind her, over her shoulder. He seemed as far away as Earth itself.
Her voice cracked. “His name is Malcolm Blackburn. He used to work for this company, in the Mars office. He… hates the company for a variety of personal reasons. He was laid off some years back… He sympathizes with the underground, but he’s not with them. He’s a lone wolf.”
Damn planet of war.
The cop swore, and turned and started talking with some other normals about completely different things. Crystal had served her purpose, and no longer mattered. The medics ignored her, too, as they attended to the severely physically injured.
She put her glove back on. She felt cold, empty, disposable. She sat staring at Blackburn’s body until they forced her to move.