Read Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant Online

Authors: J. Gregory Keyes

Tags: #Space Opera, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Telepathy, #General, #Media Tie-In

Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant (4 page)

“One other thing, Alfred.” Al’s throat tightened.

Had he been caught?


“Things may-change… after I’m gone. Remember who you are. Remember how you were raised. It’s important. The Corps is important. It has a purpose more important than anyone can possibly dream. Can you remember that?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Remember this, too, then. Watch for the Shadows. Watch, and beware.”

When the director said Shadows, something seemed to form in Al’s brain, an image, kind of like a spider. Then it sank into something and was gone.

“Good night, Alfred. And good-bye.”

Chapter 3

“Hey, Alfie,” Brett called from across the common room.

“What do you think the Grins really are?”

Al looked up from his book toward the little knot of kids around the table. He had been trying to tune their conversation out.

“What? How should I know?” Brett shrugged and Julia giggled.

“What’s funny?” Julia seemed to sober, but it was Milla that said, “Because you’re kind of like a Grin, Alfie. Nobody can ever tell what’s up with you.”

Al sighed and laid his book down. He decided to ignore the comment.

“First of all, they’re called monitors, not Grins…”

“Vid-flash!” Brett snorted.

“We all know what they’re called. That’s not the question.”

“Well, it’s not for us to wonder about who they are,” Al said.

“They’re Corps, and they’re here to help us. That’s all that matters.”

“See what I mean?” Milla said.

“Okay. What do you think they are?”

Al responded, drawing himself up. At twelve, he was still the shortest boy in the room, and shorter than most of the girls, but he knew some of the others still found him physically intimidating. He had given some of them reason to.

“Robots,” Julia opined.

“Humaniform robots are illegal. The Corps wouldn’t have robots.”

“That’s what I say,” Brett agreed.

“Besides, who ever heard of a telepathic AI? So what are they?”

AI considered them all for a moment, then lowered his voice.

“I think they’re brain-wiped criminals.”


“Rogues who couldn’t be reeducated. Students that asked too many of the wrong questions. They wipe their brains and program them to do what they do.” Julia shuddered

“You really think so?”

“What I think is that we shouldn’t be talking about it,” Al responded

“It’s not our business. If the Corps wants us to know what they are, they’ll tell us.”

“Maybe we’re supposed to figure out what they are. Maybe it’s another test did you ever consider that?”

There had been a lot of tests lately, with Minor Academy admissions coming up.

“I think I know a test when I see one. Unlike some of you.”

Julia and Azmun paled They knew who he was talking about.

“That wasn’t nice, Alfie,” Brett said.

“You don’t have to be such an ass about things.”

Like any of you are nice to me, Al thought. Like any of you care how I feel.

But he kept it blocked and locked He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that they could hurt him. After all, they were just jealous. Even Brett couldn’t outdo him on the tests - except in some of the normal stuff, like running, and then only just barely. He just shrugged, knowing that would annoy them more than any verbal response.

The final tests started tomorrow. Those who passed would move to the Minor Academy. He would be one of them, and he would finally be where he ought to be. In the Minor Academy people would appreciate him. He wouldn’t let Brett and the rest distract him from that goal. From finally escaping them.

“Take a few minutes to get ready, Alfred. Simon,” Teacher Roberts said, with an absent air.

He made a few marks on his notepad.

AI opened his envelope and glanced at the photograph inside. It depicted a brick-red ground-car, a Cortez Jump-Point. He closed his eyes, held the image for a moment to make sure he had it, then sealed the envelope and laid it on the desk in front of him.

Ten meters away, across the room, Simon did the same. Al took a moment to size Simon up. He was the same age, twelve, but from a different cadre. Fox-faced, auburn hair to match.

Al closed his eyes again and took deep, slow breaths as he shut the world down. The telepathic white noise was the first to go, that sort of distant ocean sound produced by the millions of minds in the Greater Geneva area. Layered above that were the hundreds of thoughts near enough to be half intelligible - a word here, a few brushstrokes from a landscape there, traces of mood like aromas, some sharp, some subtle.

Gone. Leaving only the nearest thoughts, investing themselves in his brain almost with the ease of his own thoughts.

He remembered himself as a child, wondering, am I really thinking that, or is it someone else? It was the most dangerous confusion a telepath could face.

Deep slow breath in, deep slow breath out. The voices going out like stars at sunrise, till only one was left - Simon’s. You couldn’t really see a mind, of course, but to Al, Simon’s appeared for the moment as a hard black sphere, encased by larger, silver-translucent balls, nested within one another. Al had never really imagined this required any sort of explanation, but Teacher Roberts had talked about it often enough. He liked explaining things that didn’t seem to need explanations.

“Basically, we’re just fancy monkeys,” he’d told them, the first day of class.

“Our ancestors didn’t evolve like wolves, or horses, or whales, specializing their digits into claws or hooves or flippers. Nope, evolution left us with the same feeble five digits that our reptilian ancestors had. General, not specialized. All of the primates followed that pattern-never committing to specialization, always trying to stay the jacks-of-all-trades.

“The only real change from the lizard hand to the monkey hand was opposability, the ability to grasp-and we needed that, running around in treetops. The other thing we needed were eyes in the front of our heads, bifocal, so we could triangulate, see depth-be able to actually catch that next branch when we jumped at it.

“But that turned out to be a big change, after all. Our bifocal eyes needed all this new hardware to nun. As a result, primate brains got bigger. Sight got better, hand-to-eye coordination got better, and the other senses suffered, but so what? Because with those big brains came unexpected benefits.

“For sixty million years or so, primate brains have been built around vision-vision and manipulation of our generalized, lizard hands. As a consequence, we learned to express ourselves with pictures first. Words came later.

“Telepathy is a very new evolutionary step, and evolution always has to work with what it’s given. Birds didn’t just grow wings-their forelimbs were modified. Likewise, we do telepathy with those same old monkey brains, and the primary modality is still visual. So we “see“ the unseeable, picture the unpicturable.

“Think about dreaming. Dreaming is caused by random surges in neuroelectricity. These jolts go through the brain and release images; our brains then try to organize these images, make sense of them, release or build more images to fill in the gaps. When we awaken, we try to assign linear, logical meaning to them. We don’t `see’ random surges of electricity jolting into our brains-we see ourselves, sitting in class in our underwear or running in slow notion from angry Grins.

“When a rogue tries to fry your brain with a mind-blast, you won’t `see’ an inchoate, deadly force, or a pattern of electrochemical reactions triggered in your neural net. You’ll see a sword coming to cut your head in two, a car about to run you down, the sky falling. That’s fine, because that’s how we work, we fancy monkeys.

“The trick is to not get confused, and that’s a big deal. We relate to things we don t know in terms of things we do know-by analogy. If you’ve never seen a snake, but you do know worms, you will see the snake and think, “Aha! It’s like a big worm“. But if you make the mistake of thinking that a cobra is an earthworm, you make a very foolish-and terminal-mistake. If you actually think that a mind-blast is a sword - well, I can take you to see some people who made that very mistake. You can take turns spoon - feeding them and changing their diapers.”

He tried to keep that in mind, as he focused on the sphere that signified Simon’s psyche. As he watched, the translucent shells began opaquing. He was confident that his own blocks were in place. They were familiar friends. Still, general blocks were of only so much use in this test.

“Proceed,” Teacher Roberts said.

Simon came at him in a storm front, a roaring, crackling mass. Amused by the crudity of that approach, Al met him force for force, and they collided like twin hurricanes. Jagged blue-white bolts condensed into coruscating ball lightning’s, eddying, sputtering out, sometimes erupting into whirls of purple fire. Simon couldn’t beat him like this, and he must know it. What was he up to?

A terrible fear gripped him. Then a sense of defeat. The best was already over. Somehow Simon had already found his hidden image, was about to tell Teacher Roberts what it was…

No. Simon had been clever. The frontal assault was a feint; the real attack was this awful despondency, sneaking down the slow, tropical river of his limbic system. Emotion so basic and colorless he hadn’t recognized it wasn’t his own. But to project despair so well, Simon must own some of it.

Al tightened the feelings, intensified them, and launched them back to their source, in a fluid bolt that dug quickly through the outer shells of Simon’s mind. It stopped short of the inner sphere, but like an oil strike in reverse, started pooling there, flooding and poisoning Simon’s outer blocks with gloom. As his own false sense of failure faded, Al caught a surge of panic from Simon.

He worried fm a moment this might be another feint-an attempt to exaggerate his confidence-but his deepest instinct told him it was real. The acid of Simon’s attack was dissolving his own guards. Simon’s psionic thunderhead boiled away, but Al’s was still there, and finding itself suddenly unchecked, it hurled toward the deconstructing blocks. One, two, three shells cracked and sublimated, and Al snatched greedily at the glyphs leaking through, as bright and effervescent as oil on a sunlit pool.

Simon attempted to distract him one last time by triggering an involuntary motor response - a desperate move because if discovered, it was easily reversed It was a clumsy attack, and Al simply reflected it without knowing what it was. The last of Simon’s blocks shattered, and his secret stood revealed: a photograph of a knight in armor. Laughable. Al opened his eyes.

“It was a photograph of a knight,” he said, briskly.

“Fourteenth century, I think.”

Simon’s eyes were wide and dazed. He was looking vaguely at his lap, and as Al caught the scent of ammonia, he suddenly realized what motor response Simon had been trying to provoke. Served him right, then.

“Very good, Alfred,” Teacher Roberts said “And good try, Simon.”

“May I be excused, sir?” Simon choked out.

“Yes, perhaps you’d better.”

When Simon was gone, Teacher Roberts’ lips twitched in a little grin.

“That was well done,” he said.

“Now, I didn’t see what was in the envelope you chose. I still don’t know what your image was.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m coming for it. Now.”

Before Al could blink, an egg of molten pain cracked against the nape of his neck. He had already relaxed his battle guards, of course, and this smashed through his habitual ones as if they weren’t there.

Desperately, he tried to enfold the pain, but Teacher Roberts’ Humpty-Dumpty would not be put together again. Instead, he just gritted his teeth and swallowed it. It was only pain, and nothing real was happening to his body. Nothing real, though he felt his hands clutch and spasm with the force of it.

Teacher Roberts’ mind didn’t look much like Simon’s. It was part spider and part octopus, spinning out a hundred tentacle-legs of black concertina wire. One of these was already wrapped around his neck, razoring into it, and more were enveloping him.

Vision and manipulation. The two shaping forces of telepathy. He pushed back his fear and hesitation, grasping the scalpel strands with imaginary hands, knotting them to each other. Many faded as he did so, but not quickly enough. More came, splitting like roots digging into loose soil, now tipped with throbbing green scorpion stings. He couldn’t stop them all, and he knew it. More wrapped around him, and pain was a hot filament through his axis. Don’t be confused.

He was letting Teacher Roberts control the imago. The instructor’s mind was no more a monster than Simon’s had been a spherical fortress, but Al had let himself be convinced it was, tried to fight the metaphor on its own terms-treating the tentacles as if they were real. He twisted his perspective, twisted it again, and the radial monster collapsed around itself, formed the knight from Simon’s photograph , save that it had four arms instead of two, each equipped with a massive sword. This was a perception he could deal with a bit more easily; one of the weapons was buried in his neck, but he slid off of it, made each of his fingers a rapier and flicked them out.

The knight fell back beneath the onslaught, sparks striking on his armor from Al’s needlelike fingers, then lashed back even stronger than before. Three of the blades grew longer and heavier as the fourth condensed away. They hammered at his rapiers, shattered them, and Al was forced to replace them with bucklers just to fend off the merciless battering.

Still, he was planning a new attack when he suddenly noticed that the fourth “sword” hadn’t vanished at all, but merely reshaped itself into a gun. It winked a red eye, as Al threw everything he had-everything-into a final, impossible defense. Something in his skull seemed to explode, and silence followed. He blinked his lids open. Someone was patting him on the cheek. The rasping in his head was his own breath, and his lips had a salty taste on them. The bright copper smell of blood clogged his nose.

“Sorry about that, Alfred.”

It was Teacher Roberts, with a concerned look on his face.

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