"What do you think?" The tall gaunt man in the grey suit said, jamming his hands in his pockets. He stared at his companion, who regarded him coldly from the shadows, his back resting against one of the columns of the parking center they stood in. Below them, the city glowed and pulsed like neon fire.
His companion lit a cigarette, his face briefly illuminated by the fire from his lighter.
"You've got my attention," he said quietly. "Who's the target?"
"Her name is Lethe," The gaunt man said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "She used to work for us."
"As what? Courtesan? Working girl?"
"No," the man replied. "An assassin. Of a sort."
"Assassination is a pretty straightforward job," the other man replied. A light from a passing craft bathed the deserted level in light for a moment, revealing him for a moment, holding his cigarette between his red-gloved fingers.
"Not here on Marius," the gaunt man said, walking past him to the edge of the level, looking down on the city below. "The local syndicate and the police have an arrangement--they leave us alone in exchange for a cut, we police our own. There hasnt been a gang war, a murder, or so much as a mugging for over seven years on this colony.
"That's the most important rule, of course--no violence. Of course, in our profession, there are still difficult people who need to be dealt with, so we employ people like Lethe to . . .neutralize them."
The man stepped out of the shadows, keeping his eyes on the gaunt man. With his free hand he brushed his long braided hair off his shoulder.
"She's an esper?"
The gaunt man turned to him and nodded. "Her skill was in stealing people's memories, or in extreme cases, deleting their entire mind. She's actually the most powerful esper I've ever seen. She could tag a person by their brainwave pattern, follow them for days if she had to. Then, just like that, they're erased, and no longer a threat."
The man stiffened, his body outlined in the light streaming from the city below.
"Certainly cleaner than using a bullet," the gaunt man, said. "Unfortunately, while traditional assassins can be dealt with fairly easily when they become . . .difficult, Lethe has become a liability, and enough of a liability that we've commissioned you."
"Youre afraid she'll give you up to someone?" The man replied. Another light passed by and for a second his golden skin and emerald eyes seemed to flash into reality before the light passed and he faded back into darkness.
"If she's been absorbing memories, she must know enough to bring you down by now. The entire syndicate, I dont doubt."
"That's actually our secondary concern," the man admitted. "As I mentioned before, Lethe is the most powerful esper I've seen. So powerful we had to wire her brain so she could control and direct her talent. That implant's starting to break down. In a week, maybe two at the outside, it will kill her."
"So why not wait for the implant to kill her?"
"Because we're not certain what will happen if we just let her burn herself out," the gaunt man said. "Our eyes on the street have already seen her--acting totally unlike herself. She went after the man who installed the implant in her, trying to find a way to fix it, I suppose. We found him dead a few hours later. Massive cerebral hemorrhage."
"So you want me to kill her before she self-destructs?"
"We can't take the risk of her going further out of control," the gaunt man said. "If she's so far gone she cant use her ability without killing someone, we have reason to believe her death would be like setting off a psychic bomb in the colony, and something like that . . ."
" . . .Would certainly jeopardize your agreement with the police."
"You see our problem," The man said, offering his hand. "Will you take the commission, Mr. Ademetria?"
Kienan Ademetria tossed his cigarette aside, nodded, and shook the man's hand.
* * *
"You've trained yourself to your physical peak," the tall woman said, pacing around Kienan as he knelt quietly before her. "That you fight with precision and skill, that thought an action are one to you. That armed or unarmed, you can fight and kill, and you attack without fear or self-preservation? Am I correct? Answer."
"Yes," Kienan said. "I've fought aliens several times my strength unarmed and prevailed. In the bloodmatches--"
"Yes," the woman said curtly. The yellow pupils of her obsidian eyes regarded the small human with clinical detachment. "The bloodmatches. A barbaric physical contest."
"He said you might say that," Kienan said.
"He was correct," the woman said, brushing her long white hair from her eyes. "That is why you were sent here. Your physical gifts are impressive, and yes, even your fighting spirit does you credit.
"But there are certain things that cannot be solved with fists alone, or with weapons, or with blades," she said. "You must go beyond the physical if you are to achieve your full potential."
"I dont understand."
She made a noise, stepping behind him and drawing his knife. While in his hands it was a formidable weapon, in hers it was tiny, like a butter knife.
"I am told this is your trophy, a symbol of victory in these bloodmatches? Asnwer."
She turned it over in her hands, bending down in front of him.
"What is it? Answer."
"The Midare-Giri, the--"
"Not what is it called, I asked you what it is. Answer."
"It's . . .a kinfe?" Kienan asked.
"Excellent. Yes, this is a knife. Knives are forged from raw metal, shaped and honed into deadly instruments. While true, it would be easier and handier perhaps to simply batter someone to death with the raw ore . . .sometimes this is not an option. And in times like that the time and patience spent honing and tempering demonstrate their value. Correct?"
"At the moment, you are a piece of raw ore, in my hands," she said, standing before him straight as an arrow. "But I will temper you, teach you, hone you to an edge you never knew possible. Assuming the effort does not kill you, of course. Shall we begin?"
Kienan remained knelt, head down, saying nothing.
"You do not answer?"
"You didn't tell me to," he said.
She smiled, for the first time ages.
"Excellent," she said. "Then you are already learning. That is good."
* * *
"Mary?" The young girl said. "It's Jonathan."
The older woman stared at the young girl with eyes of granite. She didnt have time for pranks this morning, and especially one in such poor taste as this.
"Why are you looking at me like that? Dont you recognize your own husband?"
Mary put her hand on the doorframe to steady herself. She was shaking with anger. "Look, young lady," she began tersely. "I dont know who put you up to this, but I want you to stop it right now. This is a horrible trick to play on someone. I have things to see to this morning and I dont have time for hateful tricks."
"Mary, I'm certainly not young and not a lady," the girl said, her mad staring eyes looking at the older woman's with the quiet pain of a wounded animal. "Look, cant I just come inside and we can talk this out--"
"NO!" Mary said, slamming the door so hard she thought it might splinter. The young girl stopped and stared at it for a moment, then blinked a few times, as if she were coming out of a kind of stupor.
Oh God, she thought. It's happened again. Who was I this time?
She went through the memories in her mind, the neat little boxes where she'd stuffed everyone she'd stolen, and where, thanks to the machine in her brain, they'd stay forever.
Except the machine wasn't working so well, and neither was she.
Jonathan Haldane, she thought. She remembered now. He'd managed to accumulate an enormous gambling debt and planned on skipping out on his wife and the debt.
She remembered catching him just as he was about to board a shuttle off-colony. She pulled him into a secluded alcove, grabbed him by the throat, and in an instant, reduced him mentally to the level of a baby.
She remembered the look in his eyes after she'd finished--so hollow, open and stupid. Had he started drooling right then or had she just told people he had when she'd laughed about it later that night? So hard to remember now.
I used the money I made to buy a car, she thought.
I cant remember that car anymore.
She took a deep breath and tried to get her mind under control. That seemed harder and harder to do. The pain was more and more intense, a blinding white-hot light behind her eyes that kept blanking her out, kept shoving her to the back while one of those neatly-boxed memories (which weren't so neatly boxed anymore) crept out and took over.
She walked along the streets, her head flashing with pain as she tried to blot out the noise from the people around her. Reading minds was a curse, like having two radios strapped to your ears at full volume, picking up every single station at once.
Inside her head, the voices from those boxes were whispering to her, getting through the walls she put up to block the noise outside.
Can't keep this up forever, a voice said, a woman's. They're going to get you.
The refrain was picked up by a few more of the voices, growing from an annoying refrain to a jeering chorus only she could hear.
The face of that woman haunted her. The anger, the silent accusation in her eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of every one of those voices.
I had a family! A man's voice shouted inside her head. You took them away from me! Who gave you the right?
You stole everything I was!
You made them forget me!
I cant remember them anymore!
You erased me from my family's memory. Why did you do something so horrible?
Lethe wrapped her arms around herself and walked a little faster. Maybe if she found a quiet place she could get herself under control enough to remember where her house was.
* * *
"Now pay attention, Lethe--this is going into your skull, after all," the wizened old doctor said, tapping the printout on the clipboard. On the board was a picture of a small device, like a coiled spring with a small sphere at one end.
Lethe looked at it sighed, chewing and smacking her chewing gum idly. She didnt really want to be here, but Acheron had insisted. Something about not being happy with her performance, worried about her, that sort of thing.
She blew a bubble, rolling her eyes. I wonder why he bothers lying to me, she thought. I know it before he says anything.
"Why do I need this?" Lethe asked. "It's not like the drugs dont work."
"This is better than the drugs," the doctor said. "Certainly a more effective solution to your problems. Now do you want to hear about what it does or shall I just anesthetize you, put it in while youre under, and explain it after the fact?"
She pouted and sat back in her seat. "Whatever."
The doctor took a moment to compose himself and returned to the chart. "The machine is a series of resistors--they'll help you filter out telepathic noise without so much effort or the drugs. It will also have the added benefit of focusing your telepathic abilities."
She cocked an eyebrow. "Focus? How?"
"I've been studying your EEG readings while you've been scanning. Apparently the limits on your abilities are due to the fact that your mind has to allocate a certain amount of energy to filter out the noise. That's why you get headaches when you use it. This will do that work for you, in addition to cushioning you against the various stress using your telepathy has put on your mind by releasing a proportionate amount of endorphins to counter the stress."
Lethe looked at the clipboard. "So, when you put this thing in my head . . .I'll be more powerful?"
The doctor rubbed his chin. "Not . . .exactly. It's more like you'll have more power available. Theoretically it should at least improve your range--you wont need to be in a direct line of sight of another mind to scan them, for instance. I really can't be more specific than that. This is, after all, the first time I've had an esper strong enough to experiment with. We'll have to do a whole new set of readings once it's in and calibrated."
Lethe took all that in, cracking her gum as she did. The idea of being more powerful was appealing. She'd always had a love-hate relationship with her telepathy before--before she gained any control over it, her life was taken up with noise and headaches.
Even when she'd gained some amount of control the noise and the headaches had still been a problem. She'd had to develop habits to focus herself and block them out. Chewing gum, drumming her fingers or pencils, they helped tune it down, but never enough.
And the drugs, well . . .they only worked for a little while, and never as well the next time.
This could give me control, she thought, looking at it and blowing another bubble. I could read anyone's mind, learn anything, and no one would stop me. Maybe if I practiced hard enough with it I could even . . .
The bubble popped and she noisily slurped it back into her mouth. She looked up at the doctor and smiled, nodding.
* * *
The man in the freshly pressed blue uniform looked at Kienan Ademetria with a feeling of equal parts dread and awe. Awe because of Kienan's reputation as an assassin, the so-called "deadliest man in the galaxy," an assassin without equal. It was said, that anyone he was contracted to eliminate was as good as dead, the only questions then were how long it would take him to find them.
That awe was wrapped in dread, because if Kienan was here, in peaceful Marius, that meant something bad was about to happen. And that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, even as they stood on this quiet side street together.
"Acheron told me you were the man to talk to," Kienan said. "About Lethe."
The policeman regarded him silently. Kienan certainly seemed to do justice to his reputation. Even unarmed and clad in a white silk suit, there was something about him that suggested danger, like the certain smell in the air before the sky breaks into storms.
A walking bad omen.
"Lethe," he said. "I heard she'd come undone. He asked me to keep a man on her once she stopped going to her apartment. That was a few weeks ago."
"You think she left the colony?"
The policeman shook his head. "I've had a man at the spaceport. No sign. We thought she'd found some other way out until about 6 this morning. Got a complaint from a local resident that a woman was harassing her on her doorstep."
He handed Kienan a data pad with the information from the report encoded on it. His cold emerald eyes surveyed the information.
"You think it's her?"
"The woman's name was Mary Haldane," the policeman said. "Married to a Jonathan Haldane. The woman claimed this girl was claiming to be Jonathan, and seemed to be completely serious about it. Trouble is, at the time, Jonathan was sitting in the front room staring into space waiting for his baby food."
"Do you know if Haldane was a target of hers?"
The policeman shook his head. "We wouldnt know. Part of the truce--they don't interfere with us, and we dont interfere with them, provided it's an internal matter. I heard he was into the syndicate for quite a bit of money, though. Planned to skip out on the check when crooking one their houses went sour. It makes sense to assume he was."
Kienan passed the data pad back to him without saying a word. The policeman drummed his fingers on the back of the pad and looked at him.
"Hey, uh . . .why you?"
Kienan's eyes narrowed. "Why me what?"
"Why'd Acheron get an assassin? I mean, if Lethe can read minds, she'd be able to pick out your intent and wipe you out before you could even draw your gun, right?"
Kienan looked at him as he reached into his jacket pocket, producing a thick envelope and handing it to the policeman.
"Thanks for your help," he said, turning on his heel and walking away.
"No problem," the policeman said. "But you didnt answer me."
Kienan looked over his shoulder.
"It's a fair contest," he said. "We'll both only get one shot at the other. Whoever's faster wins."
* * *
"Today we will test your ability to withstand repeated psychic assault," the tall woman said, striding to the center of the small circular room. In the center, on a small dais was a small square device with a glowing orb on top of it.
"This is a synaptic resonator," she said, gesturing to the device. "It will generate a frequency at the precise level your brain operates at. Initially, it will be a minor irritation, but after thirty seconds, you will experience pain. That pain will magnify until you either complete this task or your brain hemorrhages."
"Then I'll die," Kienan said, as she crossed the room to him.
"Yes," she replied calmly. "That would be a very disappointing result."
Kienan nodded. "So what do I do?"
"Very simply, you will cross the room and take . . .this," she said, reaching behind him and drawing his knife, walking away from him. "I will hold it here and wait for you to cross the room."
"You're not going to move?"
"Why would I?"
"It hardly seems like a fair contest," Kienan said. "This room's not that big. Even with your brain jammer, it doesnt seem that hard."
She smiled tightly. "Yes, I could see as you would assume that. Begin."
Kienan took a step. The orb on top of the device began to glow. He felt pressure in his temples begin to throb as he took another step and hit the floor.
"I may have neglected to mention," she said, holding his knife in her hands. "I have increased the gravity in this room. With every step, it increases by one-half. The longer it takes you to cross, the more it will tax you physically."
Kienan tried to rise and took another step. It felt like he had weights dangling from his body. He took another step, the pressure beginning to weigh on his chest and make breathing difficult. Worse yet, the jammer was beginning to set the nerves in his brain alight. He was close enough to touch the dais and leaned forward, taking another step.
He fixed on her eyes, cold and taciturn as he took another step. Sweat poured from his body. She pursed her lips. Two more steps and he would be there. She saw blood trickling from his nose and ears, mixing with the sweat as he took another step, and fell forward, knocking the blade from her hands and into his.
She shut off the gravity and made for the jammer to shut it down but Kienan was too fast for her. He lunged forward and drove the knife into the device, exterminating it in a shower of fire and sparks.
He turned to look at her, and she bowed her head to him.
"Excellent," she said. "You may rest for a moment. Then we will try again."
* * *
Later that night, Lethe sat in a corner booth, nursing a strong tumbler full of Altairian Whiskey. Around her people were having fun, gambling, singing, drinking, happy together. Lethe couldnt have been more separate from them had she been walled off. Separate from the teeming crowd, high on the action, the liquor and the moment, but she wasn't alone.
I cant believe you did that to my wife this morning, Haldane shouted in her head. Hurt her all over again. Reminded her what you did to me.
"Maybe I should have wiped her out too," Lethe said, powering back the rest of the tumbler. Blearily she reached for the bottle, nearly tipped it over, then grasped it firmly, as if willing her mind to clear enough to where she could hold it steady enough to pour again. "Then you two could live happily ever after in my brain."
Dont do me any favors, Haldane said. This is just what you deserve. You think I dont remember how you laughed when you erased me? You think I dont know how you mocked me in front of your boss and flapped your arms to show him just what youd done?
"Shut up," she said, taking another sip. "You were planning to leave her anyway. I don't have to listen to you. As far as I'm concerned, you got what you deserve."
She blinked as the whiskey burned its way down her throat. It was so powerful it made her damn near unconscious, but it seemed to help. Sometimes if she drank enough she could keep the voices quiet. Haldane had finally shut up.
Her headache was a little better too, but it had been replaced by the awful sour feeling in her stomach. Altairian Whiskey was powerful enough, but on an empty stomach, it made one pray for death.
But feeling like death's a small price to pay for being able to think by myself again, she thought. It's so much . . .easier when it's quiet.
How had she managed before? She'd never had headaches before when she erased people--it was the noise, the random thoughts people let float out of their skulls perpetually that caused the problem.
To erase someone's mind, you needed to concentrate--to force yourself into their consciousness completely for a few seconds and do whatever damage you could before their mind was able to force you back out.
It was messy stuff. At first, Lethe had tried her best to delete specific memories and leave the rest untouched, but sometimes she just hadnt had the time. So all she could do was smash and grab--pull a chunk of memories out, cross a few synaptic wires, and trust that she'd shattered the persons mind to such a degree whatever they knew or whatever they'd done, they'd be suffering far too much for anything to be done about it.
But that wasn't enough, was it, Lethe? A familiar voice in the back of her head said. It wasn't enough that you did that to people, and were so sloppy my machine had to focus you. You found a way to use that for your own selfishness.
"I didnt ask for that thing in my head," Lethe said, pouring the last of the whiskey into the tumbler. "Besides, if you were so damn good, why is it breaking down and taking me with it?"
Because it was only meant to cushion you against the backlash from telepathic assaults by stimulating your endorphins. When you started using it for recreation . . .
"Recreation," Lethe said. "Is that what you call it? You think this is fun for me?"
You didn't think someone would notice that the population of mentally defective citizens in this colony started jumping into the double digits? All because you got tired of waiting for jobs and were so eager to sink your teeth into another fresh brain--
Lethe blinked. The whiskey usually drowned the voices, but it didnt cut them off so abruptly.
No, her head was clear. No voices. No sound. It was like something was muffling them. Something nearby. A dead zone in the ceaseless cacophony of telepathic noise.
Yes. Very close. She could feel it pressing against her mind, a void, a calmness, like the eye of a hurricane. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, expanding her perception outwards. Light telepathic fingers glided over the crowd in the club, past the man at the blackjack table who didnt know he was being cheated, the woman who warbled some old song about a girl who's microchip was overloading, past the young naïve kid who was striking out with a girl at the bar . . .
Sort of. Whatever it was, it was impenetrable, but it was noticeable by what it repelled. She couldnt see anything from her booth so she began to slide out along the seat, her feet letting her know her legs may not be steady enough to hold her.
She leaned against the wall, trying to look inconspicuous as she tried to put a face to what she felt in her mind. Nothing seemed different--being a local herself she knew most of the people in the bar, but a few newcomers weren't uncommon. In fact, there was someone she didn't recognize at the bar.
And he just happened to be in the middle of that void she could sense in her mind.
* * *
Lethe lay awake in her bed, eyes angry fixed on the ceiling. The bedroom was opulent and quiet. When she'd put the money down for this apartment, the cozy bedroom, with the large soft bed she now lay in had sold her almost immediately.
If there was anything she enjoyed more than her work, it was sleep. Sleep was the only time she relaxed, unless she was erasing someone. The "braingasm" (her word for it, much to the dismay of her doctor) was more fleeting, however, and always a very temporary rush that often left her even more tired once it abated.
But so long as she'd had a good night's rest, she could just about hold it together.
So long as The Lovers next door are having such fun, that's not going to happen, she thought, the repeated banging of the headboard against the thin wall just behind her head beginning in earnest.
Every damned night they're like this. If it's not the stupid Lovers, it's that awful woman and her filthy sticky-mouthed children that leer at me when I come home. Why can't they shut up? At least be quiet about it.
She sighed and folded a pillow around her ears. The noise is bad enough, she thought. But their thoughts are so intense I cant block them out. God, shut up. I dont need to hear what you want him to do to you there.
She blinked. She'd never seen the need for physical intimacy, herself. The lack of it had never bothered her, at all. In fact, she hated it when people touched her, even accidentally.
She desperately needed sleep. Acheron wanted to speak to her about another erasure job and she needed to be sharp, and she needed them to shut the hell up.
She blinked again.
Wait a minute. If I can "hear" them . . .maybe I'm close enough to . . .
She concentrated. The rhythm of the headboard became faster and now there was some ecstatic yelling as well.
She smiled. All right, she thought. I wanted quiet, and I'll get it.
But first, some fun.
She concentrated. The pounding of the headboard stopped. The yelling didnt, but it began to sound a lot less ecstatic. There was slapping, then shouting, then punches, then something shattered. Something hit the wall one more time, and then quiet.
Lethe turned over and gathered the covers around her.
She slept like a baby that night.
* * *
"What'll ya have?" The young bartender said, his pale hands polishing a glass. The man with the cold green eyes in front of him looked down curtly, as if leading his eyes somewhere.
"Khephren Cielah," the man said quietly, resting the butt of his pistol on the bar. Concealed as it was in the inside of his jacket, it seemed to anyone but the two of them he was merely leaning on the bar a little too much; a lush working on one too many again.
"Act natural, dont attract attention. That's how accidents happen."
The bartender turned, taking from the rack behind him an elegant bottle filled with a shining gold liquid. He filled the tumbler, slid a napkin underneath and slid it to the man, turning around to face him again.
"Cielah's supposed to be served with ice," Kienan said, keeping the barrel on the bartender. "I'm afraid this'll figure into your tip. Now, I want you to answer my questions quickly with a nod or a shake of your head. These are easy questions, so don't spend a lot of time thinking it over. If you do, well, then I do something unfortunate. Nod if you understand."
The bartender nodded.
"Good. Have you worked here long?"
"Long enough to pick out the regulars?"
The bartender nodded again.
"Long enough to recognize them on sight?"
The bartender nodded again, slowly, this time. Kienan pushed the pistol forward a bit.
"Youre thinking too much," he said. "That'll get you killed. Now--Lethe. I was told she comes here every night. I want you to tell me if she's here tonight."
"I told you not to lie to me. Dont let the last thought that goes through your brain be dishonest or I'll be forced to push it out of your skull with my first shot. Understand?"
He nodded quickly.
Kienan kept his eyes on the bartender, following his eyes, which had suddenly moved off of him and his gun when he'd mentioned her name.
The bartender nodded again. Kienan smiled thinly.
Tagging my "scent," Lethe? Or am I just conspicuous by my "absence?"
Kienan put his pistol away and slid the bartender some money. He downed the tumbler of Cielah in one gulp, turning on the barstool to face the woman with mad staring eyes.
He smiled and asked the bartender for a refill. The bartender noisily filled the tumblers with ice, spilling some of the gold liquor as he held the bottle in trembling hands. He slid the glass along the bar to Kienan, who looked at the woman staring at him and raised his glass to her.
* * *
Kienan pulled the blindfold from his eyes, sweat soaking his clothes. He gasped as he held his knife in his hands once again.
"All right," Kienan said, gasping for air. "How many more of your brain jammers do I have to wreck?"
She smiled. "None. You have succeeded in this exercise."
She crossed to the dais in the center of the room, studying the telemetry readout on the device.
"Incredible," she said. "I would not have believe it possible, but the resonator never locked onto your brain pattern. Not this time, nor the last ten times we have done this."
"But . . .I felt it."
"Did you? Or did you feel its presence without the pain?"
"The resonator broadcasts waves that are the basic component of telepathy," she said, shutting it off. "The carrier wave for the telepathic information. If you can block out the base signal, and it appears as if you can, you have taken the first step to building a resistance to telepathy."
"The . . .first step?" Kienan said.
"Then what was the point of doing this over and over again? Adding more gravity, blindfolding me, binding my hands and legs so I had to crawl along the floor?"
"Simply to get you to focus," she replied. "A telepath gambles that their target is constantly thinking, their mind so full of constant chatter that they can slip in through the cracks. It was necessary to restrict your conscious thoughts and develop and awareness based on instinct."
Kienan blinked. "Not sure I understand."
"It was necessary to facilitate a way for you to do without thought," she said. "The Oneirans call it the "no-mind state"--raw instinct, which nevertheless can be directed and shaped. As I have done with you. No telepath can touch you or read you. You are a void to them, because your thoughts are sublimated to the level of instinct. Do you understand now?"
"Good," she curtly. "I dislike explaining things over and over. Come. The second part of your training begins."
* * *
What's he doing? The voice of a young woman who was not Lethe shouted in her head.
"I dont know," Lethe said quietly. "I cant read him. He's just . . .not there."
I thought you could read everyone, Haldane sneered. I bet they've sent him after you.
"They . . .wouldnt," Lethe replied. "They dont want to kill me. They can't. Id know."
You dont even know your own name anymore, a child's voice hissed hatefully in her ear.
He's right, Haldane said. Lethe grimaced. He was being awfully mouthy lately, and every time he shouted her head hurt just a little bit more.
I mean, just how stupid are you? This new man shows up, you cant read him and you think he's not after you? No, he's going to get you. He's going to sneak up on you and put a bullet in that brain you're so damned proud of and there's not a thing you can do about it.
Just like when you took us.
"Stop it," Lethe said, beating her fist against the wall.
We're going to drag you down to hell with us. We're going to make you suffer, just like we have ever moment we've been locked up inside your mind. Youre going to pay.
"Shut up," she demanded, hitting the wall a little harder now.
Finally youre going to--
"SHUT UP!" Lethe shouted. A few people at tables nearby her looked in her direction and she suddenly felt embarrassed. She shot them hateful glances as she moved out towards the bar.
As she approached the young man in the white suit she glared at him with white-hot hatred. He was doing this. Stirring up the voices, making her doubt what she could do.
He smiled back, taking a sip of his drink.
You are such an idiot, the woman said quietly in the back of her mind. He knows you cant read him. Maybe he's got the same thing you have, maybe he's been trained to resist, but he knows, Lethe.
Lethe's fists clenched, knuckles white, fingernails cutting into the palms of her hands.
He knows you cant do a thing to stop him, Haldane said.
Lethe began to shake all over. The voices were bad enough but the placid smile on the man's face infuriated her. A flash of memory came to her then--better times, when she had things under control. When she could walk into a room and no one would dare look at her like that, because she'd know and make them forget, or jam a nightmare into their brains.
When she was feared.
Didnt he know enough to be afraid?
"Are you taken by a vision?" The young man said.
Lethe blinked. "What?"
The young man gestured to the empty seat next to him.
"I thought we might have a drink together."
* * *
"It's not working anymore," Lethe said. "That's what's wrong. I can feel it messing up . . .my brain. I'm reading everyone, it's harder and harder to focus, and the voices . . ."
The doctor passed the scanner over her head and frowned as he downloaded the readouts into the data pad at his desk.
"It's breaking down," the doctor said. "The capacitors have all blown out and theyre leaking chemicals into your brain. It's having the opposite effect now--in the short term its enhancing your telepathic skills, but you'll burn yourself out at this rate."
"So? FIX IT!"
The doctor sat back in his chair. "I'm afraid I can't," he said. "I cant fix it, or replace it--taking it out would kill you, and if I replaced it . . .what would be the point?"
Lethe blinked. "What are you talking about?"
"It should have lasted forever, that machine," he said. "Should have kept you sane and kept the voices quiet forever."
"It's my fault you made a faulty piece of machinery?"
"The machine didn't fail, Lethe," the doctor said. "You failed it. I'm sorry--Even if I wanted to, I cant help you anymore. Acheron--"
"I've already heard from Acheron," she said. "He said they were cutting me loose. I expected that from him, but from you? I was your guinea pig for this thing--" she angrily tapped the side of her head. "And more than that I knew what you were thinking every time I sat across from you here. What you wanted."
The doctor's face tightened and he pushed his chair back from the desk a bit.
"You should go now."
"I'm not going anywhere until you fix this thing in my head."
The doctor glared at her. "I couldnt fix anything that was wrong with you and I was a fool to try. Please leave."
Lethe began to tremble. Tears began to gather under her eyes.
"I'll take it from you if you say no," she said. "You know I can do it. And I'll make it hurt."
The doctor took of his glasses and set them on the desk.
"I know youre scared that's what I'll do."
"It wont do you any good," he said. "You can't operate on your own brain."
"I could tell someone--"
"How many brain surgeons do you know? You won't live long enough to find another."
"Then you should get to work."
Lethe slammed her hands on the desk and hopped onto the top of it, grabbing him by the lapels of his coat.
"I dont want to HEAR "NO," ANYMORE!"
She concentrated and slammed her way inside his mind. There was a rush of endorphins, followed by a hard electric shock as she searched his mind for the information "seeing" everything in compound vision, like an insect.
No, she thought. It's not there . . .not there . . .where is it?
She frowned. He's fighting me. I warned him about that. I told him Id make it hurt.
There was a feeling of expanding in the doctor's mind. Lethe found it useful when doing this to imagine when she used to chew gum. How she'd open the whole pack and chew it up, then blow a bubble and see how big she could make it, then when it was big enough, apply a little pressure and . . .
The doctor's body twitched, the blood from his ears and his nose soaking his shirt and his lab coat. He was dead. She'd blown his brain apart because he'd fought back, and in all the confusion she'd forgotten to look for anything that could help her with the machine.
* * *
Lethe pulled up the barstool right next to him, trembling all over as she did. Close to him as she was now, the void where his thoughts should be was overwhelming, like being on the edge of a black hole, a hair's breadth away from a force that could smash you out of existence.
"What's that?" Lethe asked, pointing to his glass.
"Khephren Cielah," Kienan said. "Good smooth liquor. I was looking for Altairian Whiskey, but they seem to be out."
"I drank it all," Lethe said. "I . . .wanted to be sharp."
Kienan snorted. "Hell of a way to sharpen up."
Lethe gestured to the bartender, who eyed Kienan nervously as he poured her a tumbler of Cielah.
"Who are you?" Lethe asked.
"Does it matter?" Kienan replied. "I think you know why I'm here."
Lethe's eyes fell to the glass. In her mind, laughter echoed.
"I . . ."
"I'm here to kill you, yes," Kienan said quietly.
Lethe's brow furrowed. "Then why are we drinking together if youre going to kill me?"
"I didn't see it as a reason not to be sociable," Kienan said. "Besides, there's nothing you could do to me right now, is there?"
She stared at the glass. "I could shatter this," she said. "Try and slash your throat."
"But you won't."
Lethe scowled. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because I know you," Kienan said quietly, finishing his drink and pushing the glass forward. "I can see that those mad staring eyes of yours used to be the eyes of a killer. Someone who took what she wanted, did what she wanted without fear of reprisal.
"But things have gone a little too far and gotten away from you, havent they? Maybe it was greed, maybe it was sheer bloody-mindedness, maybe it was just the bottomless avarice of a spoiled girl, but you went too far and cant get back. And now there's no way out.
"And all I see when I look at you right now is the eyes of someone who cant believe they went so wrong. Powerless to stop what's happening to them. I rather like the idea that youre feeling that right now. Whatever's going to happen . . .you can't stop it. You cant stop me.
"How does that feel? For the first time, I mean, after being on the other side?"
Lethe's hand tightened around the glass. More than anything she wanted to be able to will him to pull the gun she could see outlined in his jacket pocket, put it to his head, and blow his own brains out.
But there was no way in.
"Would it help if I said I was sorry?"
"Why?" Kienan said. "Really, youre not sorry at all. Youre only sorry things went wrong. If things were a little different youd still be erasing people's minds, torturing them for fun."
Lethe stiffened. She felt very frightened all of a sudden. Not because of what Kienan was telling her, but because there was an eerie silence in her head. The voices were quiet inside, and the noise outside was just as quiet.
"I could run," Lethe said.
"You dont have anywhere left to go," Kienan said quietly.
"That's not true," Lethe said quietly. "I could . . ."
What, she thought? What's left? Turn myself in? Try to escape? Wait here until the machine gives out and I finally drop dead?
Lethe closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Can I finish my drink?"
"You've had enough."
Lethe opened her mouth for a second. She wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind. All of a sudden she could see, as if she were exploring someone's mind again, following the thread of their thoughts, branches that branched out into infinity.
Only this was her mind, and there were no branches. Nowhere to go, no way back, and no way out.
And this was her own mind, telling her this.
Where are the goddamned voices? Lethe thought, squeezing her eyes shut and biting her lip. They should be cheering, now. Because even I know there's no way out, and I'm crazy. Where are they?
Were they even there in the first place?
"What do you want me to do?"
"Go outside," Kienan said. "There's an observation deck a little way up. I'll be out in a minute."
There was another silence. Lethe stared into the cold emerald eyes, trying to read his intent, his emotions, if he even felt anything about what he was going to do.
She couldn't. She'd never learned how.
Lethe quietly pushed back from the bar and stood up, her face blank with a dull kind of shock.
"I always hated . . .eyes," she said. "I hated people looking, and not knowing why they were or what they thought. I always felt so superior, because I did know, maybe even better than they did. And I could pull it out of their minds, just like that. It was so satisfying. There was no secret I couldnt know.
"I thought, even if I lost everything . . .Id have that. I'd always be superior. Id always . . .I'd always know."
She walked away slowly, as if she were sleepwalking through it. Kienan watched her weave quietly through the crowd and out into the chilly darkness outside. He threw the bartender a few extra credits as a tip and followed along after her.
* * *
"I didn't think you'd actually come," Kienan said, walking up behind her. His pistol was raised at a spot just between her shoulder blades. One shot from here would punch right through her spine into her heart and out the other side. Raising his hand a bit would catch her in the base of the skull. Either way, she was going to be just as dead in a few moments.
"I may be crazy, but I can accept the inevitable," Lethe said. She looked out at the city below and a thin smile crossed her face, leaving creases and framing her mad eyes in a way that nature had never intended her face to hold.
"Besides, I needed the walk. I've come to a few decisions."
"Don't tell me youre going to try to erase me?" Kienan said, raising the pistol for a headshot. "I really dont recommend it. The last esper who tried punching through my mind spent months reliving his least favorite nightmare every moment of every day for a year."
"What would be the point of that?" Lethe said. "After all, they'd just send another one of you after me, and another."
She turned slowly to Kienan, her eyes hollow, her skin pale, but in her mad smile an insane defiance.
"You know what I did once?" Lethe said. "I'd . . .Id just moved into this townhouse on the Thanis colony . . .small place, pricey, but I could afford it. I was doing work for big companies, lie detection, espionage, that sort of thing. Anyways . . .I moved into this place and hated it. Full of normals.
"I hated them. The place was fine--oh, it had the most comfortable bed--but I hated those people. Have you ever been trying to sleep and you could hear someone arguing or making love or playing music in the next room and they kept you awake? This was like that a hundred-fold. So one day I just decided Id had enough of their stupid thoughts, their stupid little lives, and decided to have a little fun."
"You erased them?"
Lethe shook her head. "I took control of the whole damn building. Every single mind I took and made them do whatever I wanted. Pranks, mostly--showering with their clothes on, beating their head against the wall until it's bloody, counting the drips of a leaky faucet, made all the kids run back and forth through traffic. One woman who lived down the hall from me I made parade around naked in the street. She was self-conscious, you know, that's why it was funny.
"I never had trouble sleeping in that place again, and every time I went out or passed them in halls, every single one of them looked at me and I knew they were terrified. I'd walked right in and made them act whichever way I wanted to and I could do it at any time I felt like."
Kienan's hand tightened on his pistol.
"You kill people, but you'll never know what that felt like, how good it felt," Lethe said. "You can't hope to equal what I've done. Youre too normal. And youre not going to kill me, or punish me or anything.
"I wont let you."
Kienan frowned. "You know you cant get away."
"I dont intend to," Lethe said. She closed her eyes and leaned against the balcony. "I'm going to wipe myself out. Erase myself. In a few minutes it'll be like I'm someone else. Everything I was, everything I did will be gone. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it, because I'll have done your job. And you'll have to live knowing you watched me erase myself and walk free, innocent."
Kienan stared at her. "That's a long way to go for narcissism," he said quietly. "And it seems to hinge on one assumption."
Lethe stared at him, blood trickling from her ears and nostrils, the mad smile still etched on her face.
"You think I wont kill an innocent?"
Kienan pulled the trigger. Lethe's kneecap exploded and she fell to the pavement with a scream, her ears still bleeding.
"What are you doing?!"
Kienan pulled the trigger again. Lethe's other kneecap burst and she fell on her stomach.
"No . . .I didnt do anything . . .I dont remember . . .I dont deserve this . . .why are you hurting me?"
She looked up at him with a face streaked with blood, tears, and confusion. Her eyes were wide open now, as opposed to the mad gaze she's first laid on him back at the bar. She'd done it all right, he thought. Erased her own mind as one final gesture of defiance. So determined that she'd be the one to decide when it's all over and hoping that if she did this, she'd get a free pass and never be punished.
She lurched over on her stomach towards him with a pitiful and penitent crawl. Lethe had quit using words now, all that was left were shrieks and sobs and moans. Like a dying animal that couldn't understand what had happened and why. With the last of her strength, she raised herself on the palms of her hands and looked into Kienan's eyes.
She had just enough time to blink before the bullet caught her between the eyes.
* * *
The one thing Lethe had been taught was never to stay too long in someone else's mind. Most of the time, with erasure, it wasn't a danger--the natural elasticity of consciousness would "bounce" her out before she could stay too long, but sometimes, with more intricate work, there was always a danger of staying too long, and getting dragged into blankness, or worse, death.
Death in someone else's mind was a trap--there was always a chance you could get caught in someone's dying neurons and drown, like a swimmer catching their legs in seaweed.
Death was the only thing she'd never experienced. She'd heard all the stories about how your life passed before your eyes before you died, and how there was this long dark tunnel with this white light at the end of it that you went down, but she'd never seriously thought about it.
It had to be a lie, she thought. Like love or something. Just an illusion your mind creates.
And yet, here she was, floating down this long dark tunnel. There was a white dot at the end, pulsing and glowing, and calling her to it. Around her, the dark walls of the tunnel swirled and waved dark tendrils that seemed to lazily reach for her like sea anemone on a coral reef.
She couldn't feel anything in her mind but herself. It was even quieter than before. It felt . . .strange for things to be so silent and not be able to reach out.
The light was closer now and was so bright it was almost unbearable. But despite how close the light was it never illuminated the dark walls of the tunnel. Walls she was growing ever more certain were alive somehow.
The closer she got the more aware she was of a noise coming from the walls, a low rumble, like thunder.
Lethe wondered what was on the other side of that light. Was it the peace other people talked about? Heaven? So close now, she could reach out and touch it. She nervously put her hand out towards it.
Just as her hand reached into the light, something grabbed her foot. She looked down at what was holding her. It was as if the darkness in the wall had come alive and was holding her. No, all over now--her arms and legs both were tethered now, and the quiet din was resolving itself into something she could understand:
". . .told you we'd drag you down . . ."
Lethe began to feel a tearing at herself. The light, which had been so close, winked out as if someone had flipped a switch, and only this clutching, suffocating darkness surrounded her.
". . .never escape . . ."
". . .going to get you . . ."
Lethe screamed silently for a half-second, then ceased to exist altogether. The darkness around her laughed as it ripped her apart.