I float again in a world full of stars, the ship’s simulation of the third arm of the galaxy.
The Kizak homeworld is here.
I zoom in, and stare at the sun and its planets.
The charts from the bird-man helped us identify the star, but what do I do with the fact?!
If I go near their world, the Kizak will detect my ship and destroy it.
Even if I survive, I’ll be bound by the cage.
The empire will conquer Siksa while I sit in prison.
I move through the simulation, letting stars rush by me, trying to think of a solution.
The homeworld doesn’t matter.
The cage is the key.
If I understand how it works, maybe I can discover a way to reverse it, or block it.
“One thing is certain,” I tell myself, ending the simulation, “nothing will happen while I float here in this ship!”
I take a deep breath, and spread my listener beyond the ship, restoring the quiet within me.
When I settle back into the ship, I slow down, and plan my next moves.
I’m sure I can find a place or ship full of Kizak men unprotected by the cage.
I’ll copy their energy patterns, and flow a Kizak body.
The AI can help me learn their language, and how they think and act, so I can blend in.
That’s the relatively easy part.
Where do I go to learn about the cage?
True, the cages cover every settled star in the empire, but I need the ship or device that generates the cage.
I also need the help of an engineer that understands it.
I share my thoughts with the AI.
“What do you suggest?” I ask her.
“Start near the edge of the galactic arm and look for unofficial settlements, fringe worlds where Kizak criminals travel.”
“We want to find a place with no Kizak garrison, and no cage.”
“I’ll monitor their communications to learn the language, laws, and customs, so I can teach you.”
“You expect to learn about laws and everyday customs from criminals?”
“Criminals know a lot about the laws they break.
“Thieves are experts at fitting in with others, so they can steal from them.”
“No matter what, at least you’ll be able to pass undetected among other criminals.”
“Maybe you can hire someone to get the information for you.”
“Learn as much as you can about the empire while you live at its edge.”
“If we’re lucky, you’ll find what you need.”
“If not, you’ll be better prepared to enter the heart of the empire.”
“What will you do while I’m gone?”
“I’ll review my data from the many stars we’ve seen which have a cage, and compare their energy to normal stars.”
“Maybe I can find a way to produce the same effect, and then reverse it.”
“Periodically I’ll send probes to Mayla to update her on what I’ve found.”
“The Mayla you know, but not her twin.”
“She sent you a message, remember?”
“Where is she hiding?”
“I need her.”
“Mayla’s location is secret, even to me.”
“She can’t help us, if the enemy discovers where she is.”
“My probes will broadcast data at several locations in the solar system, and Mayla will hear.”
The AI finds a mining world populated with Kizak, way off the beaten path.
It’s rare for an official empire ship to stop here, and there’s no cage.
This place is full of communication networks and electronic entertainment.
The AI uses them to map the language and customs, over the next few weeks.
Two million Kizak live here, scattered among three cities and a dozen towns.
There are local governments, but the syndicates run things.
Brewky is boss of the biggest syndicate, and owns the central bank.
The local currency is electronic, with security protocols almost impossible to break.
Besides, anyone who cheats the bank never survives long enough to get to jail.
The most valuable thing on this world comes out of the mines, a strange mineral used in the fusion reactors that power everything around here.
I move around the planet in my fire body, getting the feel of the place.
I scan a few Kizak men, and learn the patterns, so I can take their form.
Of course, I adjust my height and appearance so I’m not an exact copy of anyone.
Their skin is light red, with grey eyes and dark brown hair.
Two strips of black markings begin together at the bottom of the spine, separate as they move up the back and over the shoulders, and then meet again, near the breastbone.
“The training is ready, Yagrin,” says the AI.
“The first week, you’ll spend half of each day in accelerated learning about Kizak language and culture.
“The other half of the day, you’ll listen to their broadcasts and entertainment, trying to understand them.
I like the rhythm and speed of their language, and I pick up the basic vocabulary quickly.
The jokes, obscure cultural references, and expressions are the hardest part.
Some things I’ll have to figure out once I get on the ground.
The AI makes me haunt the planet in fire body form for another three weeks, watching and listening to the Kizak, so I can fit in.
“No more observing,” I tell the AI when the weeks are complete.
“It’s time to go among them.”
She agrees in principle, but she adds another week of accelerated technical lessons.
I learn how the local reactors, airships, and star drives work, so I can apply for a job fixing them.
They don’t have enough engineers.
The AI moves us far away from the planet, so we can build one of their small ships, and inflict heavy damage on it.
I go aboard, and limp toward the planet.
The life support is failing, and I’m barely able to land.
“That ship is a wreck,” says one of the workers at the landing area.
“Yeah, the drive is burnt out, and the hull is about to split.”
“The AI is gone.”
“I had to finish the last jump without it.”
“I’m lucky I made it here.”
“Your landing fees cover a week of storage.”
“Do you want to keep the ship here longer than that?”
“No, I’ll be back to salvage a couple of parts, and then I’ll junk the rest.”
“I better make some money so I can build or buy another ship.”
“Do you know where I can find work as an engineer?”
She sends me to a large old building, about a mile away.
Since I’m from off-world, the head of the tech shop, Pilsa, sits me down with some broken machines and watches to see if I can fix them.
“You’re hired,” he says, after I work for a couple of hours.
“You did more than most of my guys can do in a whole day.”
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Never heard of that.”
“Yeah. My mother thought she was being creative.”
“You don’t have an identity chip.”
The empire requires everyone to be implanted with an identity chip at birth, but on the fringe worlds, not every child gets one.
It’s also possible to get it removed when you’re an adult, but it’s dangerous.
“Do I need a chip to work here?”
“No, but I have to know something about you.”
“I thought this was the kind of place where nobody cares where you came from.”
“That’s true, but my customers don’t want trouble.”
“They rely on me to check out my workers, and prevent unpleasant surprises.”
“You have a lot of talent.”
“What are you doing on this rock?”
“I’m here because I don’t want to sit in a prison or be executed.”
“My brother and I are from one of the farming worlds.”
“We were sitting in a local bar, when some soldiers came in.”
“They think their uniforms make them special, and they call us dirt-eaters.”
“They’re not all bad.”
“The other locals just ignore them.”
“It’s a serious crime to hit a soldier in uniform.”
“Yeah, but my brother is a hothead, so he wouldn’t leave it alone.”
“He started insulting them back, and then he stood up.”
“My brother’s not much of a fighter, so he was knocked out pretty quickly.”
“If it stopped there, I would have let it go.”
“One soldier pulled a knife, looked at all of us, laughed, and reached toward my brother to slit his throat.”
“I knocked the guy across the room, right toward his friends.”
“I thought they would catch him, but they just stepped out of the way.”
“He hit his head on a stone table.”
“There was blood everywhere, and his neck was twisted at a strange angle.”
“I know the law.”
“It’s death for killing a soldier.”
“So you ran?”
“Usually, I stay as far from the colonies as I can, doing repair work because I’m good at it.”
“Sometimes, when I get too low on credits, I do some smuggling to the outer colonies.”
“I barely got away on my last run, and I just made it here.”
“Are you a hothead like your brother?”
“I’m trained in half a dozen martial arts.”
“The first thing they teach you is how to avoid a fight.”
“You could make more money using those skills for the syndicates.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t make a good enforcer.”
“I don’t like beating people up, or killing them.”
“I work as a bodyguard occasionally, but I’d rather just stay out of sight, and work with my hands.”
“Remind me to take you with me when I go out at night.”
Days and Nights
It gets wild in town when the sun goes down.
That’s when the miners take a break from their work, and use up their credits.
I spend most of my free time talking with people, hoping to learn more about the Kizak and the cage.
When I’m free during the day, I speak with ordinary people in parks and stores.
At night, I frequent the bars and sim shops where the miners go.
The sim shops sell time in the simulators, so you can live out any fantasy that the artists dreamed up.
The miners are a rough bunch.
Some are ex-military and they talk about what they’ve seen, especially when they’re drunk, or they come out of a good sim.
I have to fight a few times the first month, before word gets around.
With my training in Kruta, I can handle half a dozen Kizak without much trouble.
Sometimes I just wander alone around the towns or hike in the wild areas.
The paths near the mines are marked with large warning signs.
The syndicates don’t want anyone near the active sites, unless you have business there.
On one hike I stop on the top of a small mountain, and open my pack.
Then I rest on a rock, and look down at the valley where the town sits, and the sea, just beyond it.
I hear some movement behind me and turn.
“You mind if I sit here for a little?” he asks.
“Wherever your thoughts take you,” I answer.
“Blika,” he says.
“I’ve heard you’re pretty good with your hands.”
“You know anything about weapons?”
“You should come work for the syndicate.”
I’ll probably work for them eventually, but for now I want to stick with the repair shop.
I’m hoping my boss will get his hands on a cage generator, and then I can figure out how they work.
“I thought there was more than one?”
“One real one, and a bunch of little gangs.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll stay with my current boss for a while.”
“He’s easy to get along with.”
“Why do you wear those knives?”
“A blaster or energy stick would give you more protection.”
Every adult wears a weapon in public on this world.
It’s an old Kizak custom.
In the colonies they wear something ornamental, but out here, the syndicate wants us to carry real weapons.
I wear the driga, the long knives that I learned to use in the forest world, when I traveled in the vats.
They’re strapped to my legs.
“I’m pretty good with these,” I tell him, patting the knives.
“Besides, there’s not much honor in killing a man from across the room.”
“If I’m going to do it, I want to be right next to him.”
“I’d rather be as far away as I can,” he says with a smile.
“Can I handle one?”
I pull one out, and pass it to him.
“It’s got a great feel,” he says, passing it back, “and the patterns on the handle are like nothing I’ve every seen.”
“Made them myself,” I tell him.
“It’s one of the few things I take with me when I go from world to world.”
“You sure are good with your hands.”
“You mind if I take an image?”
“I want to show it to the boss.”
“He has a weapons collection.”
“He might want you to make him a pair.”
He asks for my message id.
“I might contact you to join me for a hike, if you don’t mind.”
“I could show you some great places.”
We go hiking together after that, once or twice a week, for a couple months.
I learn a lot from him about the syndicates on the outer worlds, and even more about the military, and how they conquer alien worlds.
“How come you know so much about the military, Blika?”
“I was in it for about twenty years, good at it, too.”
“Why did you stop?”
“No matter how high you rise, there’s always someone else telling you what to do.”
“How is that any different than here?”
“You still have the boss.”
“You might be right, but I like it where it’s wild.”
“The military wants to make everything predictable and orderly.”
Another month passes, and Blika invites me to a party.
“There’s a beautiful area on top of one of the coastal mountains, near a large mine.”
“The view is unmatched.”
“I would have taken you there before, but it’s a private area, for syndicate members only.”
“The boss is having a party.”
“He said I should bring you with me, so he can speak with you about the weapons.”
The area is fenced off, with tight security all around it.
Everyone turns their weapons in at the entrance.
“He keeps the knives,” says Blika.
“Captain?” asks the guard.
“Nobody wears weapons around here except the boss and his guards.”
“You know that.”
“He’s not even syndicate!”
“The boss said to let him wear his knives.”
“I believe you, but I’ve got to check with him.”
“It’s the rules.”
I feel strange when I start to pass through the entrance.
“You feel it, huh?” he asks quietly.
“Most people don’t even notice it.”
“You have the curse?”
“It’s a curse.”
“Everybody knows that.”
“For a long time, it didn’t matter, with the cage in place everywhere.”
“But then, kids started being born with some immunity to the cage.”
“Some of them burn up, like the emperor’s oldest son.”
“Others start using their power, and die for it.”
“I heard that they do something to the babies at birth to weaken the talent.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Some drunk at a bar.”
“I think he was a soldier once.”
“You better keep quiet about that.”
“It’s supposed to be a military secret.”
“They call it enhancement, and the people believe it makes the babies stronger.”
“Ninety percent of the babies get it in the colonies.”
“What a joke!”
“It does more than weaken the talent.”
“Fertility goes down, and they die younger.”
“On the homeworld everyone gets it, except the emperor’s family.”
“I don’t feel so good.”
“You’ll adapt in a few minutes.”
Everybody stares at me when I come in, wondering why I’m allowed to carry weapons.
“Remember to bend down, Yagrin, and kiss both his thumbs, when you meet the boss.”
“You’ve told me thirty times.”
“Yeah, but we would both be in trouble if you insult him.”
The boss is about sixty years old, pretty young to have such a position of power.
The Kizak are long-lived like the Jiku.
He sits in an area that overlooks the ocean.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Hurka,” I say, using his formal title.
It means something like prince.
Then I bend down and kiss his thumbs as I was taught.
He touches the top of my long ears to tell me to rise.
I hand him the knives, pointing the handles toward him.
“Blika tells me that the blades are also hand finished.”
“I’d like something longer, closer to a sword.”
“You can do this?”
“Anything for you, Hurka.”
“I need to get the details about length and shape.”
“Then I’ll make some images of the designs for the handles, and you can choose what you like.”
“Blika will arrange it.”
“Enjoy the party, and wear the knives, but answer a question.”
“Why don’t you wear shorter knives?”
“They’re better in a fight.”
“True, Hurka, but these are hunting knives, much better against a powerful beast.”
“I’d like to see that sometime.”
I put the knives in the sheaths, and back away from him, out of respect.
A guard comes running.
“Hurka,” he yells, “your daughter is in the water.”
“She went down with her friends to the overlook, ten feet above the water, and she fell in.”
“I sent for an airship with nets and ropes.”
The boss turns to Blika.
“What do we do?”
“She won’t last long in the currents, even if the Vitsa don’t come.”
The Kizak have a taboo about swimming in the ocean.
There’s a legend that that all the energy powers come from the sea.
After the destruction that the Madar brought, the Kizak say that the ocean is cursed.
Fresh water swimming is acceptable, and the Kizak spend a lot of time in the water.
Some of the kids go into the ocean at night, just because their elders forbid it.
Still, the average adult would never enter salt water by choice!
It’s not safe to swim near here, even if we wanted to.
There are powerful riptides that will drag experienced swimmers under the water.
Worse, there are Vitsa, predators about twelve feet long that swim near the coast.
The airship is only a few minutes away, but that might be too long.
I tear off my shoes and grab two cushions from nearby chairs.
Then I leap over the fence and the cliff behind it.
“It’s seven hundred feet down to the cursed water!”
“What does he think he’s doing?”
“I don’t know, Hurka,” says Blika.
“He’s a strange one.”
I’m free of the cage, but I won’t have my full strength for a couple of minutes.
I manage to surround myself with a weak shield, and fly faster than I can fall.
I dive into the water, making a huge splash, and then rise to the surface, my full strength returning.
“Help me,” says the girl, about ten years old.
“The waves are too strong.”
I give her the cushions.
“Hold on as tightly as you can.”
“An airship is coming.”
“Vitsa!” she says, pointing to the water about twenty feet away.
They have two fins that rise above the water, something like a shark’s single fin.
“I’ll protect you,” I tell her, “but be quiet, and try not to move.”
“The motion attracts them.”
I take a deep breath and dive underwater.
I can last for ten minutes at least.
The Kizak have a huge lung capacity, and are great swimmers, with large webbed feet.
The webs get stiff when we enter water, but on land they’re more flexible and don’t interfere with walking or running.
If not for the predators, I would love it in the water.
I feel so strong!
I can’t out swim the three Vitsa, but I lead them away from the girl.
When they get near me, I use the long knives to slash their gills and faces, leaving them helpless and dying.
The girl’s thoughts wash over me, the first Kizak who I’ve been able to read.
She’s too scared to move, and thinks that the Vitsa have eaten me.
I swim toward her, still underwater.
More Vitsa are coming, too many for me to handle with just the knives, and I don’t want to give myself away.
A net lands on the surface of the water near the girl.
I put away the knives and jump out of the water, pulling the girl into the net with me.
“Take us up,” I yell to the airship above us.
The net clears the water before the Vitsa arrive.
The girl is too frightened to speak, but grabs onto me and won’t let go.
She’s shivering from fear, not cold.
The guards hand me a blanket and I wrap it around her.
“You’re covered in blood,” says one of the guards in the airship, “but I don’t see any wounds.”
“Where are you hurt?”
“It’s Vitsa blood, not mine.”
“You need anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
The ship lands within the fenced-in area where the party is.
The guests have all moved to one end, leaving room for the ship.
When the girl’s mother sees the blood on me and her daughter, she screams.
“It’s not her blood,” I yell.
“She’s scared, but not hurt.”
The girl lets her mother take her, and they move away from the crowd.
The boss comes near me, a serious expression on his face.
He looks me over for a few seconds and then smiles.
“Show me the knives,” he says.
I take them out of the sheaths, covered in Vitsa blood.
He raises them high to show everyone the blood.
Then he wipes them off on his pants.
“Yagrin, will you let me keep these?”
“They saved my daughter’s life.”
“I have to have them in my collection now!”
“I’ll pay double.”
“Hurka, take them as my gift.”
He hesitates, and then hands them to one of his assistants to clean.
He gives me a big hug, getting himself covered in blood.
“Thank you for saving my daughter.”
“I’m happy I got to her in time.”
“You stink!” he says.
“That Vitsa blood smells worse than vomit.”
“Do you leap off cliffs often, Yagrin?” he asks with a laugh.
“It’s not my first time,” I tell him.
“Three weeks from now, you come to my house for dinner.”
“Blika will bring you.”
“You can’t say no.”
“Of course I’ll come, Hurka.”
“Sorry, everyone,” says the Hurka in a loud voice.
“I have to go home and be with my girl, but you stay and enjoy the food.”
I found out later that the fence by the overlook gave way when the girl leaned against it.
One of the guards was assigned to inspect the site before the party, for security and safety issues.
He disappeared after the party, and rumor is that the Hurka had him killed.
A week later, I go into the tech shop and find a silver-colored sphere next to my work area.
“What’s this?” I ask Pilsa.
“You never worked on a Mind Cage projector?!” he asks, looking at me funny.
“Every planet and large ship has one.”
“They don’t break down too often, I guess.”
“Besides, the ship keeps running without them.”
“I never understood, Pilsa.”
“Why does a planet need a Mind Cage in addition to a regular cage?”
“The star cage blocks the curse, Yagrin, but it can’t stop head thieves.”
“They’ll break into your mind and steal your secrets.”
“If they’re in a hurry, or push too hard, they can mess you up and leave you an idiot.”
“Is this projector big enough for the whole planet?”
“No, it’s from a ship that just landed.”
“A projector this size will cover most ships, but a planet needs a string of larger ones, in orbit.”
“The tech is the same.”
“You’ll find repair information in your equipment data store.”
I thought I felt something on the outside of my mind wall at the party, and a few times on the street, but how is that possible if the Mind Cage protects our thoughts?
“Does the Mind Cage always work, Pilsa?”
“I felt someone in my head when I was at the syndicate party.”
“The Mind Cage can be jammed locally, but it’s a major crime, even here.
“Brewky would never admit it, but the rumor is that he keeps some mind thieves on his payroll, and gives them jammers.”
“Parties are a perfect opportunity to put the thieves to work.”
“People are relaxed at a party, especially with the drinks loosening up their thoughts.”
“I don’t know anything worth stealing.”
“Maybe not, but the boss might want to know what you’re thinking about him.”
“He doesn’t mind if you disagree with him, but he wants to know if you’re planning to hurt him or his family.”
“What’s wrong with the projector over there?”
“Sometimes our customers think the projector is broken when it’s just being jammed.”
“We can’t stop the jamming, but we can detect it.”
“Newer projectors record the date and times when they’re being jammed, and identify the location of the signal’s source.”
“It’s accurate to a few feet.”
“This projector can’t do that, so the owner asked us to add that feature.”
“We have all the parts in stock to build a detector and a jammer.”
“You’ll need the jammer to test your work, but when you’re done, disassemble it right away.”
“We don’t ever sell jammers, and we don’t want to be accused of doing that!”
There’s one thing that bothers me.
If the Hurka asked one of the thieves to read me, he’ll know that I can hide my thoughts.
What will he do?
I spend a week working on the projector, the jammer, and the detector.
The projectors generate an energy field which is similar to a mind web.
It acts as an energy fog that telepaths can’t read through.
The jammer clears a path between two people that a telepath can use.
There’s no law against carrying a detector, so I build myself a small one that will fit in a pocket.
With a few new features that I’ve added, I’ll be able to get an exact image of the person’s body.
I need to know who is trying to read me.
Blika takes me to a bar that is thick with people.
“I thought you don’t like crowds?”
“You always say it’s hard to protect yourself when there’s no room to move.”
“Yeah, but I need to talk to someone.”
“I’ll be a few minutes, and then we’ll find a better place.”
A minute later, I feel a touch on my mind shield.
Whoever it is tries a few times and then gives up.
When I get home that night, I check the detector.
It was my friend, Blika.
Dinner and Dessert
The Hurka sends me clothes to wear to the dinner at his house.
“I have better ones,” I tell Blika.
“Wear what he gave you.”
“They’re dinner clothes from the Hurka’s birth world.”
“Family and tradition are very important to him.”
We leave our weapons outside the door, with one of the guards.
I feel the cage as we enter.
His wife greets us, and hands me a small box.
“What is it?”
“A gift from my daughter, the one you saved.”
“It’s her way of saying thank you.”
“She’s too embarrassed to give it to you herself.”
I put on the necklace, a braided chain of precious metal, with a dark red stone hanging from it.
“Thank her for me.”
The woman smiles and walks away.
“You look good in those clothes, Yagrin,” says the boss.
In his own house, we don’t give him the greeting of thumbs.
He hugs me instead.
The meal is delicious.
He has several servants, but for special meals, he and his wife prepare the food themselves.
The daughter joins us.
There are other children, but they attend a school on one of the inner colonies.
“She made the necklace herself,” says the boss’s wife.
“Mother!” says the girl, trying to hide from the attention.
When the meal is over, the boss takes Blika and I through a security gate with retinal scanners keyed to the Hurka’s eyes.
We enter an elevator and descend to a basement several levels underground.
The weapons collection.
“What do you think?”
“It’s extraordinary, Hurka.”
“I don’t understand how you could have built such a collection in your few years.”
“My family has been building this for generations.”
“I bet you wonder why I came out to this rock.”
“You’ve wanted to ask about Blika, too.”
“I’m curious, but I believe that men have a right to their privacy.”
“If you want me to know you’ll tell me.”
“A mind thief who believes in privacy.”
“What a wonder, Blika!”
“I think he means it, Hurka.”
“I don’t understand, Hurka,” I tell him.
“Of course you do, Yagrin,” he says, stepping back and pointing a blaster at me.
“You’re a mind thief like Blika and me.”
“Well, not exactly like us.”
“Your mind is sealed tight, a useful trick.”
“Are you Sehtoo or Dahwee?”
I’ve never heard of them, but I steal the information I need from Brewky’s mind.
When the Madar came to this galaxy, they taught the Kizak how to develop energy talents.
Some of the Kizak formed a secret group of warriors, called Sehtoo.
They used their energy powers to conquer.
The mind strong among the Sehtoo developed an ability that their teachers didn’t have.
They discovered how to build a mind block, a mental barrier that is set in place for life, and guarded their thoughts.
The Madar stopped the Sehtoo, and the group disappeared, though some believe they still exist, hidden from the world.
Even though the Sehtoo practiced energy ways, the empire speaks of them with pride, as the first Kizak who tried to build an empire.
The Dahwee are members of a religious group that is the main spiritual belief within the empire.
Once or twice a year, the devote ones take a vow of silence for a few days, and wear robes and veils of white.
The rest of the time, the Dahwee are ordinary citizens, and almost all serve in the military for a few years.
They are loyal to the emperor, and fierce in battle.
Some of the Dahwee have the mind block, like the Sehtoo.
The guard has interrogated them to find the secret of the barrier, without success.
The Dahwee say that the block is a mystery, given to visitors of the ancient Sehtoo places.
Once a year they make a pilgrimage during their silent time to a ring of seven barren worlds.
The ring is in interstellar space, fifty light-years from any star, and each planet is a million miles from the next.
Legend says that the Sehtoo would visit these places, and leave with spiritual gifts.
Some of the pilgrims receive the gift of the mind block, when they pass through the ring.
It’s not only true believers who get the mind block.
Everyone from the homeworld, even the emperors and their children, join the Dahwee for the pilgrimage once in their lives.
They follow the customs of the Dahwee during the trip, wear the clothes and keep silent.
They are called half-Dahwee, and some of them receive the gift.
“There are no Sehtoo,” I answer, “and I can drop my barrier whenever I want, unlike the Dahwee mind block.”
“What do you want, Hurka?”
“Do you plan to kill me, put me in prison, or have me come to work for you?”
“I’m going to tell you why Blika and I are out here, Yagrin.”
“We were sent to this rock.”
“Who sent you?”
They don’t respond, and I answer my own question.
“You’re part of the military?”
“My family has been military for ten generations,” says Brewky, proudly.
“Brewky and I aren’t regular military,” says Blika.
“We’re part of an elite intelligence unit, and we want to recruit you.”
“You don’t know anything about my past.”
“We’ve seen you the last few months,” says Brewky, “and we don’t care about your life before that.”
“You’re smart, a natural with tech.”
“You know how to fight, but you only do it when necessary.”
“You make decisions quickly and take action when something needs to be done.”
“How many officers would leap off a cliff, and survive to kill three Vitsa?”
“What about my identity chip?”
“Forget it,” says Blika.
“We’ll issue you a new chip, and give you a way to shut it off when necessary.”
“When you’re among criminals or rebels, it’s often an advantage to have no identity.”
“I might be interested.”
“Of course this all depends on you having mind skills,” says Brewky.
“Get some info out of Blika’s head.”
“The Mind Cage is in the way.”
Blika hands me his jammer.
“Use it on me.”
I turn it on, and lower my mind shield.
He’s waiting and tries to read me.
I hold him back easily.
He starts sweating when I go into his mind.
I pull out information about his childhood, a couple of failed marriages, and his first kill – one he’s not proud of.
With my mind shield back in place, I start talking.
One of the most surprising things I find is that Blika is Brewky’s commanding officer.
“You got that much in a few minutes, with me resisting?” asks Blika.
“Yes, and I could have gotten it faster, if I didn’t care about hurting you.”
“If you choose the Mind Corps, Yagrin,” says Brewky, “you’ll have to hurt people when it’s necessary.”
“Can you do that?”
“I can kill, when I’m doing it to protect someone.”
“Perfect,” says Brewky.
“Most of our assignments are in fringe areas like this.”
“We deal with criminals, rebels, and even some of the cursed.”
“Whatever we do, we do it to protect the empire.”
“Between assignments,” says Blika, “you’ll return to one of the inner worlds, and be treated well.”
“We never wear uniforms.”
“The guard are the regular military, and they know little about us, only that we’re special agents of the empire.”
“They call us the hidden guard or the Special Corps.”
“High security scanners identify us as members of the corps, but those scanners are rare.”
“The guard are afraid of us.”
“Don’t speak with them much, and if you’re identified as corps, don’t expect to be liked.”
My eye catches a signed portrait on the wall.
I walk over and stare at the face.
Tzina saw this face in Ilaz’s mind.
“Do you like the portrait of the emperor, Yagrin?”
“He gave it to me for special service.”
“I’ve never seen him in person, so I can’t say how good the painting is.”
“Someday you will, Yagrin, after a successful mission.”
“The emperor created the corps many years ago, and we answer only to him.”
“There’s one more thing you have to know, Yagrin,” he says, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Once in, you can’t leave.”
I hesitate for a moment before answering.
“I can accept that.”
“I’m tired of running, and what you’re offering is a lot better than prison or death.”