A P2 enters a bar, looks around, and sees a few telepaths chatting in the corner - telepaths in the Corps. She recognizes one of them.
"It's just not fair, that's what," she says, with no preamble, not hiding the bitterness in her voice. She looks her once-friend in the eye. "You're there and I'm here because why? Because I'm not good enough? Because I have trouble telling whose thought or emotion it is, because I struggle to know what's mine and what's someone else's? Because it's not as clear for me as it is for all of you? I still feel it, you know."
"I don't make the rules, you know that," her once-friend says, as everyone at the table looks at each other awkwardly. "The Corps makes the rules."
"The Corps threw me out! You all got your gloves, but when I manifested, they sent me to live with mundane cousins I'd never met! Like mundanes knew what to do with me! They'd hardly ever met a teep!"
Is she a teep? she feels them wondering, not because she can feel their thoughts clearly, but because she knows the look on their faces. She's seen it before, too many times. Yes - she's a P2 - but no, she's only a P2. Yes, she was raised in the Corps, but no, she's not highly rated enough to be in the Corps. She's a telepath, but she's not a full telepath-
The Corps telepaths look at each other, not sure what she can feel them thinking.
It would be rude to say she wasn't a teep, they know, but she isn't strong enough to be in the Corps, and no real telepath would be making a public scene like this, fighting with other telepaths in front of normals-
She's carrying on like an entitled mundane-
Who does she think she is-
"We don't make the rules..." her once-friend offers, again.
"None of you even looked back!"
"We didn't know where you were!"
She isn't listening. "Mother and Father, oh? You abandoned me!"
Her once-friend looks around the bar, sees the look of fear in the eyes of the mundane patrons. Telepaths never fought in front of normals, never. If she didn't quit yelling, they would all have to leave.
Her once-friend pulls out a chair. Tries to be friendly. Tries to diffuse the situation. "Come. Sit with us. We'll buy you a beer. Really."
She turns and huffs out of the bar instead.
A P3 stirs her coffee while she chats with a P5 coworker in the break room. There's so much "downtime" in the Business Division - they're lucky if they work four hours of an eight hour day.
"Mr. Sullivan up on the sixth floor," she says. "I've had it up to here with him. He's always telling me it's not fair this or that. It's not fair that I'm a telepath. Like remember that jerk at the last company? The one who was always calling me a fraud? He said telepaths don't 'really exist' and we get paid to do nothing and put on a show for the clients, that it's all an act, while he has to do real work, and it's not fair. I've had it up to here."
"Oh, I knew a guy like that," says her friend. "There's always someone who doesn't believe what we do for them. Every day for three years I went by his office and answered the question he was about to ask, but hadn't yet. Every single day, just to piss him off. It took three years, but I think he got the picture." She grins.
The P3 stares into her coffee uncomfortably. Yes, she can pick up on surface thoughts reliably enough to be in the Corps, yes she passed the cut-off and got her gloves and insignia badge, but some days, inside, she feels like she is a fraud anyway. She doesn't always pick up on everyone's surface thoughts, she doesn't always know what someone's going to ask before they do, and she couldn't intentionally "scan" someone if she tried. She wants to one-up all the mundanes who judge her - she wants to pull something dramatic to "show them" up, or at least shut them up - she knows people who can, people who would - but she knows she can't.
She's "good enough," but she's never good enough.
Mars. A P3 from Earth and a P5 from Mars meet for a blind date in a mundane restaurant in Xanthe Terra.
"Look at them, behind me," the P3 says. "They won't say anything, but I can feel them hating us."
"Mundanes? Fuck 'em. Just block it out."
She looks at the menu awkwardly. She can't, at least not like her date can. He's stronger - he can filter in and out whatever he wants - while she just has to deal with it. "Back on Earth, she says, "I have a friend, and he's blind. And we're having dinner in this little place, and the restaurant didn't have a Braille menu or a talking menu or anything so I had to read him the menu. And it's all fine till these mundanes in the booth behind me... till this guy behind me starts getting really mad that I'd reading every fucking word of the menu, like I'm doing it just to piss him off. So I'm sitting there like, what do I do? Do I go over to him and tell him to quit it, my friend's blind, so I have to read the menu? Do I ignore it?" I can't block it out like you can.
"I'd just drop him," says her date. "Fuck 'em. I'd knock him out cold."
"Telepathically?" she asks, hardly believing her ears. Yes, mundanes can be obnoxious as hell, and they can be inconvenient, but what?
"Sure. He wouldn't know. He'd hit his head on the table and wake up later with a terrible headache. Welcome to Mars. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, you know? About a year ago a mundane tried to mug me. I knocked him out flat." He sips his drink, like this is the most ordinary conversation in the world.
Her jaw drops. She's jealous. She's confused. She doesn't know if this is Marsie machismo or... or what.
She doesn't even know what she's feeling. Is she horrified with how casually he breaks the law and puts mundanes in their place - or is she attracted to him for how casually he breaks the law and puts mundanes in their place?
She's heard a P5 can make a mess of a normal, but she's never before met one who actually did.
Talia Winters and Al Bester are standing in the Zocalo.
She doesn't hear what he hears - she sees his expression suddenly change, sees him stop and listen to something with great interest.
"What's wrong?" she asks.
"You didn't hear that?"
"What?" she asks, confused.
"Open up. Drop walls," he says. "Listen."
She does, but whatever he's hearing, she can't hear. She can feel the press of minds in the Zocalo - both human and alien minds - but that's all.
"It's all static," she says, apologetically.
"Oh, that's right. You're only a P5. You need proximity. Line of sight."
"I was right," he says. "They're here."
She doesn't know what he's talking about.
Fifty-five years earlier, in Geneva, Al Bester stood as punishment as a "statue" in the quad of the Psi Corps flagship school.
Lunch period arrived, the time of day when the older, academy students had their way with him.
He had thought, after three days of punishment, that he had inured himself to their taunts. They always seemed to think it was funny to dress him up. Today it was a leprechaun outfit - green hat, a little Kerry vest, a pipe he had to hold clamped between his teeth. They ate in front of him, too, first passing the food beneath his nose and then 'casting the very taste of it to him as they ate. He didn't block it; he had blocked all day the first day, and paid for it all night and the next day with a seething headache.
The academy students finished their meal, and one of them - a girl maybe sixteen years old, two years Bester's senior - got up and strode toward him. "Look what we have, my friends," she said. Her vowels had a crisp purity, an accent he couldn't place. She was beautiful, with hair and skin nearly the same shade of cinnamon-brown, amber-tinted eyes. He had noticed her before. She stepped closer, looking up at him.
"Preach us a sermon, Mr. Cadre Prime. Tell us how great you are, how you are the heart and soul of the Corps, how everything we poor laters do is just catch-up."
He said nothing.
She waited a second or two. "No sermon, huh? But you look like one, a living sermon, your jaw all stuck up in the air, a regular portrait of a preacher. The Corps is mama, and you are a mama's boy, aren't you? Run back to mama, little boy, and she'll tell you how great and strong and wonderful you are, how proud she is of you - after she makes you stand out here, rain or shine, for a few weeks." She suddenly jumped up on the podium next to him.
"My name is Alfred Bester!" she shouted, imitating the speech the Corps had given him to recite. "I'm up here because I'm such a short, scrawny, tight-assed little fellow that I thought I would impress everyone by being a big, brave Psi Cop! I thought they would be so impressed, and yet look what they did to me! And so I see now that I really am a short, scrawny, tight-assed, self-important little fellow!"
Her companions hooted and cheered, and she did a little curtsy.
His body hummed like a tuning fork, he was so angry. It was a flavor of anger he had never tasted before, savage, visionary. He saw himself punching the girl in the face, again, and again, until that smug smile went away, until she admitted that she was wrong, until she understood that he was better than her. That she should be praising him.
His anger congealed at the touch, but did not cool.
Do. Not. It was Dr. Sandoval Bey, probably standing behind him. Dr. Sandoval Bey, who had saved his life in Paris, yet who - despite his claims - seemed to know nothing of justice but everything about torturing Alfred Bester.
He would show everyone some day! Bester vowed - Bey included. They would all regret treating him this way.
In the meantime, he stood there, and endured.
Two days later, as he began his private lessons with Dr. Bey and learned to see things through others' eyes, he learned more about the young woman who had taunted him so cruelly - her name was Fatima Cristoban. She was a later - she hadn't come into her psi until she was thirteen. Raised as a normal, she missed the mundane world, was uncomfortable in the academy, and had a deep dislike for anyone who grew up in a cadre, especially Cadre Prime.
A few days later, Bester's former cadremates passed in the distance and waved at him, just as Fatima was standing up on the pedestal next to Bester, putting lipstick on him. She saw them - the other students formerly in Cadre Prime with Bester, the most elite cadre - and their existence pained her like a jolt to the gut. She made a face - the thin compression of her lips was perfectly consistent with the sudden spike of anger in her surface thoughts.
No, Bester realized, it wasn't just him Fatima hated. She hated Cadre Prime. She hated Corps-raised telepaths. She hated the Corps. She hated herself.
Then there were the others, those who had stood below and laughed as Fatima mocked him. Jeffer Powylles: He wished he had the guts to do what Al had done, running away from school to chase rogue telepaths in Paris, at only fifteen years old - fourteen by normal reckoning. On another level, though, Jeffer knew he would never have the guts - and if he couldn't, then nobody should exist who did. And Jiri Belden: He liked helpless things. Seeing Bester standing "statue time" made him feel less helpless.
The simple truth, Bester realized, was that the joke wasn't on him - it was on all of them.