Ketorai paused, the glass of Firone whiskey halfway to her mouth. Something nudged against her in the spiritual realm of the Jadoua. It snagged her spirit, filling her with anxiety, like an itch under her skin. Setting her glass down, she pivoted her chair to view the other inhabitants of the tiny, public house.
Three thick-boned Lacohrans shared it with her. They all wore their hair long, tied behind them in the signet of honor and loyalty to their ruling religious sect, Sonomo Ve, or Twin Circle as the Earthers had dubbed it. Their heavy eyes all held that same beaten-down look that she had learned to associate with the Lacohrans who had settled here, on Firone.
Ket opened up to the Jadoua and the emotions within the room. The waves of desire, pain, and hope swelled into her with their ebb and flow. Narcotic like the whiskey, they became more and more real to her, pushing her perception of the rest of the room into a background haze. The moods came in colors, filling her mouth with the shape of their passions.
The uniformed miner in the corner roiled with the stench of betrayed love and injured pride. It encapsulated him in purple swirling mists. She’d lay odds he’d want her to make a fantasy illusion later. That was something she’d rather not do, if she could avoid it. She just hoped this new sensation brought better money than what the miner would probably offer.
Fear billowed in smoky clouds from the woman near the door. She almost panted audibly from it. She wore no jewelry, but she had a gaping scar on her jaw where a bonding cuff had been wrenched out, doubtless by an angry bond mate. On Idyah, Ket’s homeworld, anger like that wouldn’t be tolerated.
Idyah. How long had it been? Ket’s throat tightened, and her eyes burned with tears. A lot had changed since then. She’d changed. She shook her head to halt the onslaught of memories before they started, and took a gulp of whiskey, letting the fire of the liquor burn the tears into the past again. She focused her attention back onto the stream of the Jadoua.
The owner of the public house clinked bottles in the corner of the public house. Satisfaction rolled off him like the melody he hummed while he worked, his heavily boned forehead reflecting the lights like a mirror.
She still felt that desperate need moving around inside her. It hadn’t come from anyone within the public house, so it had to be from someone outside. She closed her eyes and cut the miner’s murmur and the clinks of the bottles out of her mind. Then she shut out all other emotions but the one need and tracked it to its owner.
Inside the person’s mind, she found a wall, bright and shiny. It encircled almost all of his feelings, holding them silent. The wall had no seams, no openings. She whispered across the surface of the wall. It felt like smooth cold metal to her, but the desperation was strong enough it seeped through like whey through a cloth. Only a very powerful emotion would be able to do that. And it was gaining strength, which meant the owner was getting closer. She would wait and see what happened.
Ket grinned and left the Jadoua. That wall promised to be a fun challenge. And she needed fun almost as much as she needed money. If she could find out what secrets made the owner of this new wall so desperate, she could sell the information for more than what most Corporation-employed empaths earned in a year. Then she could abandon Firone. What a mistake coming here had been!
Before she came to Firone, she researched the Lacohrans and the fungus trade. Lacohre was another planet within this solar system. The explorers from there discovered the fungus that grew in the mountains on Achshomi’s moon, Firone. Settlers learned to coax the plants into a sweet and high-bodied whiskey. It was what made Firone famous, and the Lacohran whiskey merchants rich. She’d hoped to make enough money here to take her somewhere she could retire.
She swirled the amber liquid, and the lights of the room danced across the drink, reflecting from the cut edgings of the glass to the quiet silver of her hand and back into the drink again. Shapes of light pirouetted across her table. Some of the whiskey splashed over the rim and onto her long, thin fingers, and she sucked at the golden drops. If things went well with this new ‘wall person’, she’d buy a few bottles of this to accompany her on her trip.
Ket felt the surge of desperation again and glanced up in time to see a Terran stranger move past the door of the public house, return, and step in. She focused on her drink, listening to him stop and ask the owner for her in a low voice. Then the stranger walked over to her table. “Psych?”
Only people from one of the Earth colonies or stations used that name. Why would someone from Earth want her? And what did that wall hide? She didn’t answer, but took another sip from her drink. She would play cat and mouse with him. Many high commerce business dealings used the very same principle. Hide and scurry, pounce and parry. She grinned to herself. It was her favorite game. At least he spoke English. She could understand that. The Lacohran language was difficult for her to wrap her mouth around.
The pasty stranger darted his blonde eyes around the bar. He pulled the opposite seat out from the table, scraping it across the ridges on the floor. A gold bracelet glinted on his wrist. He said, “My name’s Michael Strode. I’m from Earth Science. Or perhaps you already know that?”
He had money. That bracelet and that eye color didn’t come cheap. Ket guessed the deep scent of his cologne didn’t, either. Whatever secret hid behind that wall could mean a lot of money, either from a buyer, or from this man to keep her silent. Either way, she could get off of Firone with plenty to retire on. This is what she was hoping for. She sat still, like a cat, waiting, her eyes following the swirling drink in her hand. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught his glance over his shoulder at the owner, who shrugged. Strode pivoted back to her and began again.
“I’ve been authorized to hire you-“
“And pay me an exorbitant amount of money?” She put on her best disarming smile. His tailored suit didn’t have a speck of dust on it. He’d have to have just changed into it, so he must stay somewhere nearby. He was an Earther, not a Terran. Earthers believed they owned everything and everyone, theirs being the sole superior species. Terrans knew better.
Strode’s smile looked forced. He answered, “We’re working on understanding telepathic relays ––”
“I’m empathic, not telepathic. Do you know the difference?” If he didn’t, she had seriously misjudged him.
He flushed a deep rose color and cleared his throat. The heat from the blush caused his cologne to lift to mix into the tang of the room. He stared at the far corner of the room. After his coloring returned to normal, he nodded and continued. “I do. But you’re also a Projective Visual Telepath, a PVT. That’s a very rare commodity.”
He did, indeed, know the difference between the psychic abilities. Further, that word ‘commodity’ meant he would be willing to pay well for her services. She smiled at him again and slipped back into his mind, watching the wall as he continued to speak. Ripples coursed across it like a breeze across a mirrored lake of water. Then it smoothed out again as the last of the ripples reached the edges. Interesting. Something Strode said had keyed it.
“–– The fact is, we think we can study your abilities, and, compared with similar data from other candidates, we can ‘turn on,’ if you will, the switch in your brain – any person’s brain – to become telepathic, empathic, whatever.”
There. When he’d said ‘telepathic’ and ‘empathic’ the wall had rippled. A trickle of fear seeped through the waved surface. It tasted like salt to her. She reached toward the wall in the Jadoua. What was hidden behind there? Just as she met with the smooth, cool surface, it solidified again.
“Psych?” he stooped down to look into her eyes.
Ket snapped back to the conversation. The kitty had been caught napping. She snatched at the trail of his words. Something about turning a switch. “Why?”
“Why…?” He frowned.
“Why do you want to turn on telepathy in a person’s brain?” She slipped back to the wall, ready to pounce.
He laughed. “Telepathic space relays, of course.” The wall gave a bare shimmer. Before she could react, it smoothed again. If she only knew what lay behind there! She needed more time to get in than a split second. He was too tense. If she could get his mind off the procurement of her services, he might be willing to talk more about telepathy. Then she could breach the wall. She would have to make the deal, so he would relax.
“Space relays. I hear there’s a lot of money in that.”
He smiled and relaxed in his chair. “Your part will pay two million Earth Dollars for just a few hours of work.”
The wall didn’t move, but his body language had shown his confidence. He thought he had her hooked. Hah! Not on Earth dollars he didn’t. Passenger ships that docked on Firone were hard to find, and the few outbound cargo ships that had offered to take her in the past charged a rate she couldn’t afford, especially with Earth dollars. She needed to know what Strode’s secrets might be worth. How high would he be willing to go? If the kitty pretended to go away, sometimes the mouse came out of the hole. “I’m not sure I’m interested at that price.”
She tapped her empty glass on the table in front of her. The owner ambled toward their table with two glasses of whiskey, his multi-colored bonding cuffs jangled against each other. He had seven bond mates, one for each cuff. Ket winked at him, and he nodded in return. If she made this deal, he would get a healthy cut of the money. And he needed it with those wives.
In the background, the Lacohran woman stumbled out the door, yellow clouds of dried fungus playing tag with her heels. The dust floated upwards around the lamps, singeing on the bulbs within. Ket hadn’t been on Firone long, but she’d already learned to respect the force that drove the dust everywhere. When she had bargained with the owner for the right to do business in his public house, he’d warned her about the storms that whipped the dried fungus into every pore of the planet. He’d warned her to never let herself be caught in one. He said, “Bashanov ri.” Through the course of head shakings and gestures, Ket discovered his phrase meant “Nothing sacred”.
As the owner left the table, Strode took a swallow from his whiskey, and then said, “I know you get your money from renting out your abilities. Corporate espionage, business trades, theft rings, things like that. You go to the highest bidder. And you always have plenty of business, no matter what the price. Everywhere I go, I hear you’re the best. I also hear that business has dried up for you here. The Twin Circle has hounded you out of every major city on Firone, and now you’re just trying to get enough money to leave.”
Ket grimaced at her whiskey. News traveled. Those religious fanatics made sure of that. They hated all Offworlders, causing riots at the spaceports and commerce centers in the cities. However, it seemed they made a point of singling her out. Ever since she’d landed on Firone, they’d made it their business to persecute her. In B’zema, they’d pelted her with rocks and bricks. She’d barely escaped unskinned. Every city was the same. They called her a heretic and worse, driving any customers away. She’d tried to reason with them, then bribe them, and finally threaten them. She’d fled from city to city, finally landing here, L’relya, where no one had any decent amount of money. The Lacohran Emperor had a large militia. Why he tolerated the riots these Twin Circle acolytes caused, she didn’t know. But she’d bet he was involved somehow. Either that, or he didn’t care what happened to the people on Firone, as long as the money kept coming in.
She took a swig from her glass and felt the burn from the sweet liquor creep up her body again. It wasn’t like she could hide from the Twin Circle, even though she wore the traditional fungus miner’s heavy overpants and boots. They only covered her body, not her silver skinned face and hands, nor her almost white hair that flowed over her head, down the back of her neck and across her shoulders. The only place she could hide would be on Idyah, and no one there wanted her. Physical altering took money, as did cosmetics. No matter what course of action she took, it always came back to the money.
“You’re not in a position to turn this down, and you know it.” Strode paused a moment, and then added,
“Unless you think you’ll get a better offer here.” He waved his hand to indicate the only other resident of the public house, the sullen miner in the corner.
Ket sighed. She should close this deal before she lost him. She flowed in the Jadoua back into his mind and watched the wall. If he lied, she might see a reaction there. “I’ll do it, but I want two million in Lacohran,” she said.
“Lacohran.” He gave one quick nod. The wall didn’t move.