Silver Shark

Novella, 35,000 words

Book 2 in Kinsmen Series

“The tension Claire feels is palpable; the danger is real. The pull between her and Ven is fantastic. And omigod, the payoff is so hot. ”

Red Hot Books

Claire Shannon is a Kinsman, a woman gifted with enhanced mental capabilities. Her skills and her life were taken over by the military to fight in war that has raged on her home planet for decades. But as the war ends, she is forced to hide her abilities in order to make a new life for herself as a civilian. It’s a new persona, a new planet and new job that has her crossing paths with the powerful and alluring Venturo Escana. Is she strong enough to hide her true nature from her perceptive new boss? And as they grow closer, will she even still want to try?

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Other books in the series: Silent Blade, a short story.

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Read Review at Fantasy Book Critic

Excerpt

Prologue

In the course of space colonization, there arose a need for humans with enhanced abilities – men and women who could survive harsh conditions, who were superb warriors, gifted hunters, and brilliant scientists.

Some enhancements were technological in nature: an array of implants with various functions. Their effect ended with the death of the person who carried them. Other improvements were biological and these enhanced capabilities persisted, lingering in the bloodline, changing and mutating into new abilities in the offspring of the original carrier. It was quickly realized that the advantage of these biological enhancements lay in their exclusivity. Thus, the biologically enhanced united and shut down all further biological modification.

Collectively known as kinsmen, these exceptional beings gave rise to several dozen families, which now form the financial elite of the colonized planets. The kinsmen strictly control their numbers and their loyalty to their families is absolute. Like the Sicilian mafia families and feuding Corsican clans of the old planet, the kinsmen exist in constant competition with each other. It is this competition that rules the economy, begins and ends wars, and drags human civilization to greater technological and scientific progress.

Kinsmen with the ability to telepathically attack the minds of others are called psychers.

Chapter One

Claire awoke early. Her grey ceiling hung like a bleak shroud above. She looked at it, trying to gather enough willpower to leave the bed.

A digital screen flared into life on the wall, presenting her with a digital clock. A female voice with a flat, computer- generated intonation announced, “Good morning. You have thirty minutes until scheduled departure to work, Captain Shannon.”

She stared at the ceiling.

“Twenty-nine minutes. You are now one minute behind schedule.”

“Twenty-eight minutes. You are now two…”

“Dismissed,” Claire said.

The screen died. She sat up and pushed off the bed. Around her, the apartment offered a dreary monochromatic palette: grey walls, dark floor, paler ceiling. No splash of color interrupted the drabness.

She walked to the window. The shutter’s photosensor detected her presence, and the thick panels of grey plastic slid aside. She was on the fortieth floor. Buildings rose around her, half-a-kilometer-tall rectangular boxes, separated by deep grim canyons of narrow streets. Above the city, the smog-smothered sky sifted chemical rain. The rainwater wet the sides of the uniform skyscrapers, bleaching long drip-trails in the concrete.

Her quarters were in the barracks of Intelligence Building 214. The apartment where she grew up with her mother was located ten blocks east. Looking out of her window, she could tell no difference between her the view from her current rooms and that apartment. Even the bleach patterns seemed the same.

If she were to leave the city, which was practically impossible, she would find a barren rocky plain. The planet of Uley had only two relatively small land masses, neither of them inviting. The Eastern Continent was colonized three hundred and twenty seven years ago by the Melko Corporation. Three years later the Brodwyn Mining Consortium landed on the Western Continent. Melko voiced their claim to the entire planet and demanded that all Brodwyn colonization efforts cease immediately. Brodwyn declined to comply.

Both conglomerates began rapid exploitation of natural resources in an effort to achieve industrial and military superiority. Every industry on either continent was designed to serve the arms race. Forty years before she was born, the hostilities exploded into an open conflict: Melko against Brodwyn, Native against Invader.

She was a Brodwyn retainer, an “evil invader,” if the propaganda of the Melko group was to be believed. She could’ve just as well have been born a “greedy native” on the opposite side of the planet. It would have made absolutely no difference to her life. The war had dragged on for so long, with both sides claiming they were winning and trying to demoralize the other, that whatever personal victories she had achieved seemed completely meaningless.

Claire stared down to the hazy street below. If she opened the window and jumped, she would fall for about ten seconds before splattering on the pavement.

If she jumped.

To end one’s own life was the most unnatural urge, but standing there by the window, she couldn’t really muster any anxiety about it. She simply didn’t care one way or the other.

“You have fifteen minutes until scheduled departure…”

“Dismissed.”

Claire stripped and stepped into the shower. The lukewarm water washed over her. She pushed the knob all the way to HOT, but the water remained mildly warm. Heat, like all other resources, had to be conserved. They were at war.

They had been at war for the last sixty-eight years. War everlasting.

She stepped out of the shower, toweled off her hair, and put on her undergarments and her grey Intelligence uniform with black captain stripes on the left shoulder.

“You have one minute until scheduled departure…”

She stepped into the hallway. The door hissed closed behind her. She took the elevator to the seventh floor, to the mess hall. It was half full, as always, and she scanned it with her mind out of habit. People moved aside for her, an automatic privilege of rank afforded to her captain stripes painted in black. Most had inert minds. A few with a predisposition to psycher activity had thoughts that luminesced slightly, and to the right, at the usual table, four soldiers of her unit glowed. She shut down the mind vision, picked up her tray with a mound of nutrient paste on it, took her vitamin-enriched water, and went to join them.

The psychers stood at attention at her approach.

“At ease.”

They sat, as she took her usual spot. Nobody smiled. They were at war, after all, and extreme expression of emotion was frowned on, just as bright color, loud noise, and leisure. If they did smile, someone would come up and ask, “Why are you smiling? Don’t you know we’re at war?”

She didn’t examine their minds out of courtesy but she’d learned to read their faces, and she noted the small signs of relaxation: the softening of Nicholas’ lips; the way Masha held her spoon, picking at the paste; Dwight’s easy pose; Liz’s nails, sheathed in transparent coating… manicured nails. Something new.

“Good morning, Captain,” Liz murmured. Slight, with thin blond hair cut short, she seemed washed out, her skin nearly transparent, her hair almost colorless.

Claire envied her. Of the five of them, Liz was the youngest, barely seventeen. She still had some impulse, some spark of life. She’d joined the unit last year, and since then keeping her alive during the missions proved to be a full-time job. It was a job the rest of them shared, but Claire shouldered the lion’s share of it.

Liz’s brain activity spiked, her thought tentatively brushing against Claire’s mind. Claire accepted the communication, opening the link between them.

“I was wondering if I could get a plant,” Liz said. “For my room. I was wondering if you knew where I could get one.”

“It will be confiscated,” Claire responded.

“Why?”

“Because a plant requires nutrients, light, and water. It will be tagged as inappropriate expenditure of resources.”

The younger woman recoiled.

“I’m sorry,” Claire told her aloud.

Liz ducked her head. “Thank you, Captain.”

A vague feeling of alarm tugged on Claire. The other psychers sensed it as well and the five of them turned in unison toward the incoming threat.

Major Courtney Rome was making his way through the mess hall toward them. His psych-blocker implant was on, smudging his mind. Smudging but not obscuring. No psych blocker could lock out a psycher of her level completely.

Her team’s minds dimmed around her, as her soldiers snapped their mental shields in place. Courtney couldn’t read their minds: they simply reacted to a perceived threat on instinct.

Courtney halted a few feet from them. She liked calling him by his first name in her mind. If he ever found it, he would take it as an insult, which it was. Trim and middle-aged, Courtney wore a flat expression. She looked past the blocker into his brain and saw anxiety churning. He came to deliver unpleasant news. He never brought any other kind.

She rose and the rest of her team stood up.

“Captain Shannon, join me for a private consultation.”

She followed him to one of the booths lining the wall. They sat. A transparent disruptor wall slid from the slit in the wall, sealing the booth from the rest of the dining hall with a sound-proof translucent barrier.

“Your latest psychological evaluation showed abnormalities.” Courtney said. “We are no longer confident that you are giving your all to the war effort.”

“Has my performance been lacking?” she asked.

“No. Your performance is exemplary. That’s why we’re having this conversation.”

Claire saw it in his mind: Courtney believed she should be decommissioned, but she was too valuable. Kinsmen like her, with psychic power, came along about one in every six million, and the decision to keep her breathing was made above his pay grade. She could crush his mind like a bug, psych blocker or no.

Claire leaned back, putting one leg over another. “When we’re done here,” she said, not sure what possessed her to continue speaking, “you will return to your office where you will read reports and push pseudo paper. It’s your job. I will go to my job, where I’ll have to murder people.”

Courtney studied her. “They are the enemy.”

“These people I kill, they have children, loved ones, parents. Each of them exists within a network of human emotion. They love, they are loved, they worry. When I sear their minds, all of that ends. They have no choice about engaging in a fight with me, just as I have no choice in being here. For doing this, I am praised and rewarded.”

“Your point?”

“There is something wrong with a system that glorifies a person for the killing of other human beings.”

“They will kill you if you don’t kill them first. They won’t hesitate.”

She sighed. “What are we fighting for, Major?”

“We’re fighting for the control of the planet. The winner will get to keep Uley, of course.”

“Have you looked outside, Major? I mean really looked? Keeping Uley isn’t a victory; it’s a punishment.”

Courtney leaned on the table. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Captain. You are not the first to crack-you won’t be the last. Not everyone has the resolve to keep up the fight. But you can be sure that when your time comes, you won’t simply be decommissioned. If I were you, I’d keep it together as long as possible, because I am always watching and when you stumble, I will be there.”

She had gone too far to care about a threat. “I was taken from my mother when I was fourteen years old,” she told him. “She was sick when I left. I wasn’t allowed to look after her. The Building Association had to take care of her.”

“That’s what the Building Associations are for,” Courtney said. “They’re there to shoulder the responsibility for the residents of the building, so people like us can fight. Everyone must do their part.”

“My mother died when I was twenty-two. In those eight years I was permitted to see her three times. There is a child sitting at the psycher table now, Major. She was taken away from the family when she was twelve. It’s getting worse. When will it end?”

“When Melko surrenders.” He slid a datacard across the table. “Your mission for today, Captain. Penetrate the secure block of the Melko bionet, burn the data, and get out with your minds intact. Brodwyn expended too many resources on your training to lose you.”

*** *** ***

Claire Shannon dashed through the woods. Tall trees thrust to the distant skies on both sides of her. Their dark limbs scratched at each other, their jagged branches thrusting out like talons ready for the kill. Behind her, the team sprinted, single-file. Lean, furry, they surged through the woods on all fours, their clawed paws digging into the forest floor as they ran. She saw them as beasts with glowing eyes. No doubt they saw themselves as something else.

Many years ago the need for faster data processing forced larger corporations and governments to implement biological computer systems that seamlessly integrated with the inorganic computers. It was discovered that only psychers could connect directly to the bionet and that the connection overwhelmed their minds. The human brain couldn’t cope with the tremendous influx of information, and it deluded itself by turning code and synthetic neurosignals into a dream, interpreting the streaming data as a familiar environment, knitted from the individual psycher’s memories and imagination.

Every psycher perceived the bionet differently. For Nicholas it was hell with molten lava and fire-belching dragons; for Liz it was a mountain pass strewn with snow, where avalanches and snow creatures waited on every turn. Claire saw a forest. Code became trees, secure data turned into fortified castles, and enemy psychers turned into monsters. If it looked scary, it was a threat.

A hint of movement made her spin in mid-step. A large red-eyed bird with wicked dinosaur jaws instead of a beak raised its wings, preparing to dive at her from a tree branch.

Claire leaped.

The bird swooped down, talons out, teeth-studded jaws opened wide. Claire turned her head, throwing her body right. The jaws missed her by a fraction of an inch.

Her silvery fangs closed on the bird’s long neck, piercing flesh. The pressure of her jaws crushed the vertebrae, the synthetic neurosignals conjuring the taste of blood in her mouth. They dropped to the ground, the bird flailing under her.

The rest of the team dashed past them.

Claire planted a clawed paw on the bird’s head and ripped, tearing the neck in two.

The bird stopped moving.

Threat neutralized. An enemy psycher was dead.

Claire sprinted after the line of beasts, caught up, and sped by them, resuming her place at the head of the pack. She always took the point. She was the strongest psycher and it was her duty as an officer to protect the rest of her team.

The bird’s dimming eyes lingered in her memory. She had terminated a human mind. She would have to kill others before the mission ended. She would do it today to keep Liz and the rest alive, but eventually the Intelligence would send her on a solo mission, and she wasn’t sure what the outcome of it would be.

Claire scanned her environment. The woods before them were clear. Deserted. Anxiety pulled at her mind. Where were the enemy psychers? She had just killed one - usually that meant a concentrated assault. The branches should be teeming with them.

She twisted to glance back. Only one beast followed her - Nicholas, his coat a pale grey. He took another step and exploded into a hundred tiny dark ribbons, melting into nothing.

The shock punched her.

Claire shot out of the bionet and out of her chair, her vision still a blur. A blink and she saw the room: gun-grey walls, a long console, five chairs by it, one empty - hers, and four others supporting prone bodies, her teammates, her soldiers, each with a gaping hole in the back of the head. In the split second she saw it all: the jagged edges of the head wounds, the red blood dripping on the floor from Liz’s blond hair, and Major Courtney Rome, a smoking gun in his fingers, his pale grey Intelligence uniform splattered with crimson spray and brain matter. Courtney’s face was slack. His mouth drooped down. His eyes stared at her, hollow.

She grasped his mind in a steel fist, ripping through the feeble protection of the psych blocker like it was tissue paper. He cried out and dropped the gun. She forced his brain to haul him upright, every muscle painfully rigid, his body barely balanced on his toes.

They were dead. This morning all of them had eaten a spare breakfast in the commissary. They shared coffee. Liz hid her new nails. Now they were dead. She had protected them for so long and he’d put a gun to their heads and murdered them one by one.

“Why?” she snarled.

“The war is over,” Courtney whispered. “We lost.”

“What?”

“We lost,” he repeated, his voice a hoarse squeak. “The Headquarters sent out an emergency bulletin five minutes ago. Melko is occupying our continent. The surrender security protocol was initiated. I have to terminate you. You know too much.”

She seared his mind. Death was instant. He didn’t have the time to scream.

As his lifeless body dropped to floor, Claire turned and pushed the dimmer switch on the console. The room turned dark. Her fingers flew over the keypad.

The opaque window in the wall before her faded, revealing the interior of the Intelligence compound below. People dashed back and forth across the floor.

She pushed a key, letting the audio feed filter into the room. Gunfire punched the silence. Massive shredders whined, crunching electronics and slicing pseudopaper into atomic dust. Chaos reigned.

The war was over.

Her heart hammered in her chest. Her pulse pounded through her head, too loud in her ears. Claire stared at the four corpses in their chairs. She wanted to hug Liz and cry.

She couldn’t give in to panic and shock. She had to think.

She was a Type A Psycher. An imminent threat. If Melko Corporation found her, she would be killed immediately. When you lost a war, you didn’t get to keep your guns. She was infinitely more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Claire shut off the audio feed and dimmed the windows. She checked the door. Courtney had engaged the electronic lock. Not enough. A heavy life support unit sat in the corner, for the times when psychers suffered an attack but held on to life. She put her shoulder into it, pushed it across the doorway, barring the door from the inside, and walked past four heads dripping blood back to her seat.

She had to log into the bionet for the last time to erase herself from Brodwyn data systems.

*** *** ***

“Step onto the platform,” a Melko soldier ordered.

Claire obeyed, stepping onto the raised circle in the middle of the room. Six high-caliber gun turrets swiveled on their mounts, locking onto her. To the right and left, two Melko soldiers took aim at her head. Across the room an older woman behind a crescent metal console studied the digital screen.

Three weeks ago she had escaped the Intelligence building and returned to her mother’s apartment. It was vacant, like many others, and during her last foray into the Brodwyn bionet, Claire had assigned it to herself. She had resurrected her mother’s data and took on her identity, keeping only her name and her date of birth intact. Only her neighbors could have betrayed her. This morning she was arrested with the rest of the residents of the building and marched down to this depot. Nobody spoke out against her.

The older woman peered at her.

“Name?”

“Claire Shannon.”

“Occupation?”

“Secretary.”

“Do you have any implants, modification, or kinsmen abilities to declare?”

“No.”

Claire’s mind was hidden behind four layers of solid mental shields, enclosed in a hard outer shell, accreted over the period of the last four weeks as a result of constant mental strain. Her surface thoughts coated this shell, as if it were a mirror. Her defenses would withstand a concentrated probe from an adept. To the outside world, her mind appeared very much alive, but completely inert psychically. Precisely the way she liked it.

“Place your hands on the rail in front of you.”

Claire locked her fingers on the metal rail.

Pale green light slid over her. Two dozen scanners recorded her temperature, pulse, and chemical emissions, assessed the composition of the sweat and oil on her fingertips, and probed her body for combat implants.

A cold male voice announced with robotic precision.

“Implant scan, class A through E, negative. Biological modification negative.”

“Initiating psycher pressure probe,” the woman said.

Beneath her mental core, fear washed over Claire. Pressure Probe, PPP, meant pain to a psychic mind. The stronger the psycher, the worse the agony. She had to bear it. Her pulse couldn’t speed up. She couldn’t wince.

It began as a soft buzz in the back of her skull. The buzz built, ratcheting up to deafening intensity, louder, louder, LOUDER. Pain pierced her mind, as if a drill had carved through the bone, grinding, widening the hole with each rotation, turning her neurons into mess of human meat. The world dissolved in agony.

She was gone, drowning in pain. Her reason melted. Her mind dissolved.

She gave herself away.

It was over.

The pain vanished, suddenly, as if sliced by a knife.

“PPP negative,” the male voice announced.

“Subject cleared the security evaluation,” the woman said.

She passed. Somehow she had passed.

The soldiers lowered their weapons.

The woman faced Claire. “You are being deported.”

“I’m sorry?”

“We don’t want your kind on our planet.” The woman grimaced. “You cost us billions and forced us into a three-hundred-year war. If things were fair, we’d line the lot of you up and put you out of your misery, except that the Interplanetary Right to Life Act gets in the way.”

That’s right, flashed in Claire’s mind. She was a civilian and under the protection of the Right to Life Act. Breaking it meant instant trade embargo. For a planet like Uley that imported most of its food, it would mean a slow death sentence. The Melko retainers couldn’t kill her or any of the Brodwyn civilians. They couldn’t load them into spaceships and kick them off planet without a definite destination either.

“Melko Corporation made arrangements with other planets to deport you,” the woman said. “In your case, you’re going to Rada to some kind of flower province. It’s one of the merchant planets. Many kinsmen families all competing for their territories. They are cut-throat on Rada and they’re only taking the duds like you, no kinsmen allowed. I don’t except you’ll last there long, which is just as well. Exit through that door.”

Chapter Two

“PPP Negative,” the computer announced.

Claire held onto the rail of the platform. She was swimming up a deep well filled with blinding pain. Negative. Negative. She had passed through the screening again.

Please, please let it be for the last time.

“You may leave the platform,” Rada’s Immigration Officer invited.

She kept swimming. Almost there. Finally she surfaced and her vision returned in a rush. Claire stepped off the platform. The Immigration Officer took her measure. He was lean, dark-haired, and older, his skin either naturally olive or tanned by the sun.

“Come on,” he said. “Let me give you your orientation.”

She followed him to a small office and sat in the cream-colored chair he indicated. The officer took his place behind a light glass table. A narrow crystal vase sat on the edge of his table. Inside it flowers bloomed, whirl upon whirl of bright petals, some blood red, some yellow, some deep purple near the root of the petal and white at its end. So vivid, almost painful.

“Dahlias,” the Immigration officer said.

“I’m sorry?”

“The flowers. They are called dahlias. You are assigned to the city of New Delphi.” Behind him the digital screen displayed the city perched at the top of a tall plateau, its sides a sheer cliff of red rock. Elegant skyscrapers of pale white stone, buildings of glass and steel, wider houses with balconies… There was no rhyme or reason to it. Trees grew here and there, bright spots of green. Claire stared.

“New Delphi is the commercial center of the south,” the officer said, “but the city itself is located in the Province of Dahlia, hence the flowers. There are other provinces as well. Large urban centers are rare. It’s mostly gardens, orchards, family estates. When you hear people speak ‘of the provinces,’ they are being nostalgic about a less hectic way of life.”

The image of the city turned, presenting her with seven long platforms thrusting from the side of the cliff, one above the other, like mushroom ridges on a tree. Tunnels carved into the rock led to the Terraces probably from somewhere within the city.

“These are the Terraces. This is where you’ll find most ‘provincial’ style restaurants and shops. They are pricier than places in the city but you pay extra for authentic taste. Your apartment is right here.”

The image slid down, the buildings rolling by. The picture zoomed in , and she saw a ten-story structure of pale yellow stone. Balconies lined its sides.

“The neighbors from your building are also being placed in this general area. You aren’t housed together, because we want you to be assimilated into our culture as soon as possible. But you will see familiar faces. Your apartment is yours for the next three months. That’s how long your probation period is. After three months, you must assume the mortgage payments, which means you must find employment.”

The image zoomed out before she could catch any more details.

“The city is divided into territories between kinsmen families,” the officer continued. “A lot of kinsmen keep private security forces, and a lot of these private soldiers have combat implants. The dominant kinsmen families have vast commercial interests and they often clash, sometimes violently, in an attempt to expand their influence. Duels and assassination attempts are not uncommon. If you see something like that in progress, try to step to the side, out of their way.”

“Your people kill each other in the streets?” Unthinkable. How could this be allowed?

“Sometimes. Most kinsmen are so enhanced, the fights rarely last for longer than thirty seconds. Don’t worry. They almost never injure bystanders. It would be very rude.”

“Rude?” This whole planet was insane.

“Of course. With all of the targeting implants and inborn abilities, they are so fast, you would have to actively work to get in their way. Killing a civilian would be sloppy and the height of bad manners. Our crime rate is low compared to equivalent cities from other planets, and aside from kinsmen settling their affairs, New Delphi’s security force has very little tolerance for foolishness. Assaults are rare, crimes like theft and burglary are more frequent. When a criminal commits an illegal act in New Delphi, chances are he’s committing it in a territory of some kinsmen family, who will deal with the matter accordingly. Which isn’t to say you should go alone into dangerous areas of the city at night or leave your door unlocked.”

The officer looked at the screen in front of him. “Your first priority is finding a job. You will receive job recommendations from this office. You must follow these recommendations. Failure to comply will result in deportation to Uley.”

“So they aren’t really recommendations, are they?” Claire asked.

“No. They are not.”

“I see.”

“If you fail to obtain a job after five recommendations, you will be downgraded to Class B and recommendations will no longer be provided to you. If you fail to obtain employment within your three-month probation period, you will be deported. If you engage in any criminal activity during your probation period, you will be…”

“…Deported?” Deportation would mean death. Melko Corporation would kill her if she returned. They made it abundantly clear before she boarded the spacecraft.

“We understand each other.” The officer nodded again. “Your first job interview is in one hour. When you walk out of this building, you will see a row of aerials. Your aerial is number 57/78. The course is already programmed into it. It will take you to your job interview and then to your apartment. Should you obtain employment, the aerial will return for you in the morning. If you like it, you may choose to assume payments for it at the end of your probation. Here are the particulars.” The Immigration Officer slid a data card across the table.

Claire slid it into the tablet she had been issued. The tablet’s screen blinked and pale words emerged from the background: Guardian, Inc.: Extrasensory Security Protocols and Biocybernetic Safety.

Her hands went cold. “I’m not a psycher,” she managed.

“We know. You show no psychic activity at all.” The Immigration officer nodded for emphasis. “The Escana kinsmen family has all the psychers they could want. What they need is support staff with quiet brains, so they can work without interference. They have an Admin Specialist opening and you will apply for it.” He peered at her. “Unless there is a problem?”

Passing PPP was one thing. PPP was simply a painful pulse generated by a computer. Walking into a building filled with psychers, whose job it was to find and eradicate psychically active intruders… Declining the recommendation would instantly arouse suspicion. “No problem,” Claire said.

“You sure?”

“Yes.” Unless one counted certain death as a problem. “I just didn’t want to fail before I started.”

“Don’t worry,” the officer said. “You will make an excellent drone.”

*** *** ***

“May I have your name?” The dark-haired receptionist smiled from behind the counter.

“Claire Shannon,” Claire said. The smiles looked odd to her. The aerial had touched down in a parking lot and she had to walk two blocks to the Guardian building. In the five minutes she spent outside, she realized that people of New Delhi spent their lives baring their teeth. They smiled when they opened the door, they smiled when they bought groceries, they smiled if you accidentally happened to meet their gaze on the street. It was deeply unnerving.

“May I ask the purpose of your visit?” the receptionist asked. Behind her on a white stone wall, elegant pale gold letters spelled Guardian, Inc . Under it smaller letters read: Your thoughts are safe with us.

Claire made an effort to smile back. “I’m here to apply for the position of the Administrative Specialist.”

A faint touch swept over Claire’s mental shield. She held her smile, fighting doubts with logic. She had spent the entire two-week flight reinforcing the shell over her mind and thickening the surface layer. Her mind was well-hidden. Too well, as the interview with the Immigration officer had proved.

“Take the elevator to the fifteenth floor, then follow the hallway,” the receptionist said. “You will be met. Good luck!”

“Thank you.”

Claire crossed the lobby to the glass elevator, her heels making quiet clicks on the pale granite floor. The presence stayed with her, hovering in the background, scanning her mind, lightly but attentively. Standard practice. People tended to guard themselves during live encounters, such as being questioned by receptionist. Once past a check point, the body and mind relaxed, and hidden thoughts strayed to surface. If she was guilty of anything, her relief at having made it this far would be apparent.

She had to appear normal. Most people would be slightly nervous before a job interview and Claire allowed herself some mild anxiety. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The elevator door slid open. Claire stepped inside. The door closed and the aerodynamic cabin accelerated upward.

Shaped like an elongated flower bud, the Guardian Building contained an inner core of offices and working spaces, up the side of which the elevator now climbed. This inner core sat within an outer shell of twisting steel beams forming a diagonal grid, the outer surface of the bud. Solar glass panels sheathed the diagonal spaces between the twisting beams, flooding the inside of the building with a warm golden light that set the polished granite floor of the enormous lobby aglow. The diagrid must’ve been enormously heavy, but bathed in the sunlight, it seemed ethereal, almost weightless. It was so beautiful, it felt magic.

Her memory served up the recollection of her home world, spare boxes of skyscrapers, canyon streets, her grey apartment, the steel and worn plastic of the spartan spaceship she’d boarded two weeks ago… She couldn’t decide if those memories were a nightmare or if this airy building with its bright colors and smiling people in vivid clothes was a lovely delusional dream.

Deep inside, beneath her shields, anxiety churned. Making it to this planet had been a miracle. If her shields failed, she faced immediate deportation. She couldn’t go back. Not after seeing this. Besides, if she was deported back to Uley, she’d never make it out of spaceport. There would be a death squad waiting for her at the spacecraft’s door.

Below her people moved through the lobby. The men wore formfitting black and grey, the women chose flowing dresses and bright colors. What must it be like to come to work here every day? Did they ever become immune to this beauty?

The elevator stopped. Claire sighed, loathe to leave the view behind, turned and exited into a narrow hallway, its indigo, almost black, walls reflective like a dark mirror. Above her, long ribbons of dark blue luminescent plastic, set on their edge, ran parallel to each other, curving and twisting like three-dimensional current of a river. The transparent floor reflected it, and as she walked down the hallway, Claire had an absurd feeling she was swimming.

The hallway opened into a wide chamber, the transparent floor replaced by grey marble. Pale blue and grey couches lined the walls. Two men and three women sat on the couch cushions. Her shield didn’t permit her to actively scan their minds, but it didn’t prevent her from listening to their psychic emissions. She was open to any signal, like a satellite dish.

The woman on the right, with purple streaks in her black hair, had a loud mind, powerful, but untrained. All her thoughts floated around her like noise above a spaceport. An easy target. The woman on the left was more restrained, but weak. Of the three men, two were trained psychers, but both were mediocre. She had more training by the time she was fifteen. The final man showed no psychic activity at all, his mind practically invisible. On Uley, he would be a dud. Here the term was drone, apparently.

A tall middle-aged woman in an artfully draped, deep red dress stepped through the arched doorway at the end of the room. She was carrying a tablet. The woman looked her over, her gaze precise like the beam of a bio scanner. “Claire Shannon?”

“Yes.”

The woman stared at her with brown eyes. Her mind sliced through Claire’s surface thoughts with a laser precision and fell short of the shell. That was the beauty of mirroring surface thoughts over the shell - nobody realized the shields were there.

“Take this,” the woman said, handing her the tablet. “There are three tests loaded on the tablet. Sit down and complete them. You will be called.”

Inwardly Claire exhaled.

“Rokero Grenali,” the woman said.

The older of the men rose and approached her. They disappeared through the doorway.

Claire sat. The polished wall presented her with her own reflection: a severe grey skirt that clasped her narrow waist, a conservative pale blouse, dull brownish hair pulled away from her face. Of the three changes of clothes she was permitted to bring, this was the best, most feminine outfit she owned. She could count on her fingers occasions when she had worn civilian clothes in the last year.

The other two women were looking at her. One wore a slick silvery business suit, the other a vivid red and orange dress. Their minds betrayed their reactions: pity tinged with superiority. They felt prettier. They were bright dahlia blossoms, and she was a drab mouse. They dismissed her.

It hurt. It hurt and stung her pride. The emotions boiled inside and bounced off her inner shields. Her face, reflected in the polished wall, was calm. The outer surface of her mind was collected. Nothing showed except for the mild anxiety, typical to any job applicant. She had too much discipline to let any emotion seep through.

She shouldn’t have been this unsettled. First the anxiety from the landing, then tests, the echoes of PPP still humming through her skull, and now the realization that she stood out after a lifetime of being told to how important it was to perfectly fit in. She attracted too much attention. All those factors shredded her normal poise to tatters. It’s the sensory overload, she told herself. It will be fine. She had over eight hundred combat missions behind her. This was just one more.

Claire slid a stylus from its holder on the side of the tablet and scanned the tests. A written and mathematical proficiency, a psychological questionnaire, and a card test. The virtual deck contained fifty-two cards in two sets, one red, one black. Each card bore a single symbol: a circle, a triangle, a diamond, or a long narrow rectangle. The program dealt cards face down and the user had to indicate color and shape. It was the simplest of psychic tests.

She had to make sure she failed it.

*** *** ***

“Shannon,” the woman called.

Claire stood up and crossed the now empty hall to the woman in red. She was the last applicant of the day. Her chances of being hired had shrunk to miniscule.

“My name is Lienne,” the woman informed her. “Follow me.”

They crossed through another dark hall. Claire braced herself. Whoever waited for her would scour her mind. Her shields had to hold.

They entered a large room. To the left, a floor to ceiling window showed the view of the diagrid envelope, the light streaming through the solar panels now the deep honey of late afternoon. Three plush crescent-shaped couches formed a ring in the middle of the room with a cream-colored coffee table made of reflective plasti-glass in the center. Further, a crescent desk of the same material curved from the wall, on which a large screen hung, streaming some sort of data. A tall blond man stood with his back to her. He turned at their approach and Claire almost stumbled.

He had a strong, masculine face, with a square clean-shaven jaw. On Uley, blond people had a washed out, sickly look, their skin too white, their hair verging on transparent. His skin was flawless bronze, his hair a pale, almost white gold. His broad shoulders strained the fabric of his tailored light-grey summer doublet, the outline of muscle on his chest and arms plainly visible under the thin fabric. Everything about him, from the way he turned, graceful and perfectly balanced, to the way he held himself now, communicated health, strength, and power. He was sun-kissed, golden, overwhelming.

His dark green eyes focused on her, reflecting a sharp, perceptive intellect. The eyes of a man who could be either very generous or completely ruthless. The man smiled, at once charming and reassuring, and she felt the power of his mind. It was like a typhoon held back, enclosed in a self-imposed cage.

It was too much. Every coping mechanism that let her make it this far collapsed. She stared with no idea how to respond.

He was larger than life.

Lienne cleared her throat.

The sound shattered her trance. Claire closed her mouth.

“You’re Claire,” the man said, his voice resonant, communicating strength as much as his body did.

“Yes?” she answered, reeling from the shock.

“My name is Venturo Escana,” he said.

The Escana kinsman family, a distant part of her mind informed her. They owned Guardian, Inc., and Venturo Escana led the family. She was facing the god of this beautiful building.

“This is my aunt Lienne Escana; she is my second in command. Please sit down,” he invited her to the couch.

She sat on autopilot, smoothing her skirt over her legs. She felt so out of place here, in this office. Venturo sat across from her. Lienne sat on the same couch as he, leaving several feet between them.

“You’re a refugee,” he said.

She couldn’t sit there, mute, and simply stare. Claire forced herself to formulate words. “Yes.”

“As I understand, our planet made an arrangement with your home world. We agreed to accept a certain number of refugees in return for the use of Uley’s interstellar bases as refuel points. I understand your home world made these arrangements with a number of other planets.”

“That’s correct,” she said. He was keeping his mind firmly away from hers. It was an exquisitely polite gesture. She had expected him to batter her the moment she entered the room.

“It must’ve been very difficult to leave your world.”

He had no idea. “I’ve been very fortunate to arrive here.”

“Do you like it here?” he asked with genuine interest.

“It’s very beautiful,” she said. “Very bright.” Too bright. Too vivid. Too many smiles. Men that were… that were…

“We try to live life to its fullest,” he said.

He didn’t intend anything sexual by it, but inside her shields, his words triggered an image of him naked. It flashed before her, stunning in its shamelessness. She wanted to touch him.

I’m losing my mind.

“I suppose we have to begin the interview now,” he said, almost apologetic. “It’s important that you answer with complete honesty. Lienne and I are monitoring your thoughts. We will be able to detect a lie.”

His mind touched hers, very gently. She held absolutely still, terrified that any of her runaway emotions would break out of her shields.

“Don’t be nervous,” he told her. “It will be fine, I promise.”

She concentrated on the table in front of her, crushing her sexual impulses and painting calm over her emotions.

“What did you do on your home world?” he asked.

“I was a secretary at a munitions factory,” she lied. “We manufactured parts for the long range coastal guns.” It was her cover. When asked what she did outside of the Psych Corps, she was supposed to respond with this line.

“What made you decide to apply to become retainer of the Escana family?” he asked.

“It was recommended to me by the Immigration Service,” she said, relieved to be honest. “As a condition of my deportation, I’m required to follow the employment recommendation.” Even when it’s cosmic irony.

“Your anxiety level is rising,” Venturo said. “Why?”

Claire swallowed. Complete honesty. “I’m afraid.”

“What scares you?” he asked.

“I’m afraid I will be deported if I fail the interview.” It was the truth.

“As a refugee, you have five chances to obtain employment, before you will face the possibility of deportation,” Lienne said, her voice crisp.

“It’s not a completely rational fear,” Claire said.

“Why did the Immigration Service recommended Guardian, Inc. as a prospective employer?” Venturo asked.

“I was tested and it was determined that I have no psychic ability whatsoever. The Immigration officer said that your company prefers to employ non-psychics for its support staff to lessen the telepathic interference. He said that I would make an excellent drone.”

A shadow darkened Venturo’s eyes. His mind shifted subtly, and she glimpsed the hint of steel will that drove it. All of his pleasant demeanor aside, Venturo Eskala would make a terrifying enemy.

“That’s not a word we favor,” he said.

“My apologies.”

“Not your fault.” Venturo held out his hand and Lienne put a tablet into his fingers. “What was it you say you did?”

He remembered perfectly well what she told him. She aligned her thoughts. “I was an administrative assistant. I answered phones…” She recalled answering a phone at a desk and projected it onto the surface of her mind.

“…I took messages…”

A memory of writing things down.

“…I prepared reports…”

Memory of sitting before a screen filling out a long form.

She had served as a secretary a week out of the year specifically to be able to recall these memories if questioned.

“You are an admin,” Venturo said. “Your boss is out of touch. A customer calls. He is angry. There was a mistake in his bill. Your move.”

“Ask the customer to tell me in detail about the problem, taking notes along the way. Assure the customer that I will do everything in my power to resolve the issue and promise to let him know as soon as the solution is found. Follow the company protocol to initiate an inquiry into the case.”

“Why not just transfer him to Billing?” Venturo asked. “It’s their mistake.”

“Or wait for the return of your employer,” Lienne said.

“An irate customer wants someone to listen to him,” Claire said. “If his grievances are heard, the conflict is defused. Once I transfer him to Billing, I lose control of the situation. I have no way of knowing how Billing will treat him. And while I will inform my employer of the situation, if the situation can be resolved without his direct involvement, why not resolve it?”

Venturo and Lienne shared a look.

“Your employer’s wife enters your office, demanding to see him. She is visibly angry,” Lienne said. “Your employer is in a meeting.”

“Request security assistance via silent alarm. Ascertain that no life-threatening emergency is in progress and attempt to defuse the situation. If the spouse proves uncooperative, let security escort her out.”

“But she is your employer’s wife,” Lienne said.

“My job is to make sure my employer can function at a maximum capacity. The presence of his angry wife would hinder the operation of the company.”

“So you automatically assume the worst and push the alarm?” Venturo asked.

She had a feeling she wasn’t giving them the answer they were looking for. “I must anticipate what an angry spouse could do rather than what she is likely to do. She may be simply angry, or she might have a weapon in her purse. If I can convince the spouse to leave the premises peacefully, the security would have wasted a few minutes of their time. But if the spouse becomes unreasonable or violent, and I fail to anticipate it, people might become injured.”

“An employee calls you in a panic to tell you there is a fire on the floor below,” Venturo said.

“Alert authorities and initiate immediate evacuation,” Claire said.

Venturo frowned.

She scrutinized her answer, wishing she could touch his mind and try to figure out what she had done wrong. It was the obvious answer. She could think of no alternative.

Venturo leaned back, frowning. A focused thought dashed from him toward Lienne, and Claire caught it. His mind was like the beam of a lighthouse.

“Opinion?”

“She would make a terrible admin,” Lienne answered. “Her thought patterns are consistent with that of an executive. She accepts personal responsibility for every issue. Her answers to the questionnaire demonstrate the same thing.”

Inwardly Claire clenched. She’d stumbled. The military conditioning finally betrayed her.

“You’re looking at the product of a seventy-year war,” Venturo’s mind said. “She evaluates her environment for threats and defuses them. It’s a useful quality.”

Lienne sighed mentally. “Oh no. Ven, please don’t tell me you found another lost puppy?”

Claire studied her hands. Lost puppy…

“What if the next firm she goes to reject her as well? Eventually she will be deported. Have you seen the images of that place? It’s hell.”

“I’ve read the coverage, too. Chemical warfare, casualties in thousands, and everyone with a drop of kinsmen blood turned into a killer. We have no way of verifying who she is or what she is capable of besides what the Immigration tells us. This is a terrible idea.”

“No kinsman would have made it through the immigration screening. Her mind is completely inert. What harm can she do? Look at it as a good deed for the day.”

In her mind Lienne smiled. “Are you sure you’re hiring her because you’re buying her hard luck story and not because she looks at you as if you’re made of gold?”

They knew. They both realized her reaction to him. It must’ve been so apparent, a blind man could’ve seen it. How embarrassing.

“Hire her,” Venturo’s thought communicated. “I can make a difference in her life today and I intend to do so.”

“Then let me put her as one of the junior assistants. As your admin, she would be representing the company. I mean, look at her, Venturo. She looks like a beggar. That hair… The woman obviously has never been inside a salon in her entire life…”

Deep inside her shell Claire pictured slapping Lienne’s mind. The older woman was powerful, but not powerful enough. One slap and Lienne would wake up on the floor an hour or so later, unsure how she got there.

Venturo’s mind focused on his aunt. It wasn’t a gesture designed to intimidate; he simply “stared” at her, but the force of that mental “look” was nearly overwhelming. Like standing in the path of an avalanche.

Mentally Lienne bowed her head. “As you wish.”

Venturo held his aunt in the sniper scope of his mental stare for another long second and glanced back at her. “Claire, how much do you know about extrasensory security?”

“Nothing.” Everything.

“Most of the computers we use are simply a collection of mechanical parts,” he said. “However, certain corporations and government systems require higher level of data processing. They run on biological networks. These networks are vulnerable to psychic attacks. We provide security for these systems. If you choose to work here, you will have to sign a confidentiality agreement. You cannot discuss the nature of your work with anyone. Will that be an issue for your family?”

“I have no family.”

“You do have a place to stay?” he asked.

“Yes. The Immigration provided me with an apartment.”

“Good,” he said. “You’re hired. Lienne will take care of the details.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome.” He rose and walked away to his desk. Lienne stood up and gave her a pointed glance. Claire followed her outside through the hallway into the outer office. Lienne tapped her tablet and held her hand to the slit in the recessed wall to their right. The wall spat a narrow ring of deep red into her palm.

“Hand,” the woman ordered.

Claire held out her hand and Lienne slid the ring on her right middle finger. “Two weeks advance. It will be recouped gradually from your pay. Squeeze the sides to view the balance.” The older woman examined her critically. “New wardrobe. Nothing too provocative, nothing too drab. Nothing like this.” She indicated Claire’s clothes with the sweep of her hand.

It wasn’t an insult, but it felt like a slap. “Thank you,” Claire said.

“You will be replacing Olemi, Venturo’s personal admin. If it was up to me, I would place you in a position of lesser responsibility, but he insisted. He will see every mistake you will make and I have no doubt he will overlook some of them, because he is a kind man. But his patience isn’t infinite.” Steel laced Lienne’s gaze. “Make no mistake, Claire. If you betray our family, he will kill you.”

“I understand.” He would find her a surprisingly difficult target.

“This tablet contains the work manuals that explain your duties and company procedures. Ven feels sorry for you. Going through life relying on the sympathy of strangers is no way to live. I suggest you memorize these manuals over the weekend, so you can earn your keep with something more than your sad story.” Lienne pursed her lips. “Do you have any questions?”

“Would it be a problem if I dyed my hair?”

Lienne arched her eyebrows. “Dictating the color of your hair would violate Employee Rights. I can tell you what clothes to wear, but clothes can be removed at the end of the work day. Hair cannot. You may dye it whatever shade you wish, although I would hope that it will be something tasteful. Working here is a privilege even for the most qualified applicants. You’re been given a gift. Don’t waste it.”

*** *** ***

Claire slid into the seat of the aerial. She felt lost, as if her very being unraveled at the seams and the tatters of her psyche swirled around her, lifted by the breeze.

“Destination?” an automated male voice asked.

“Find a salon frequented by businesswomen.”

“The closest location is Allure. Eighty-six percent of users provided four star or above rating. Estimated time of travel: ten minutes. Permission to book an appointment?”

“Book it.”

The aerial hummed and took to the air. Claire slumped on the seat. A lost puppy. She was Venturo Escana’s rescued mongrel. The handsome golden man felt sorry for her. He knew that he stunned her and he felt pity for her. Her pride didn’t just sting, it twisted in contortions. She wanted to crack her shell open, show him the full power of her mind, and scream, “Look at me!”

They would throw her off planet so fast, she wouldn’t have a chance to blink.

Fatigue flowed over her in a heavy wave.

She had a job. She had an apartment. No matter how bad it was, it had to be better than the concrete box on Uley.

She tapped the tablet and pulled up the employee manual. Bionet protocols. Basic security. Data compilation. She could do this job in her sleep. She had done it sixteen years ago - that’s how all psychers started.

She would have to make sure that she made small insignificant mistakes to avoid calling attention to her sudden expertise.

“You have reached your destination,” the aerial announced. They landed. She stepped out of the vehicle. In front of her, a building rose, shaped like an ancient ivory hand fan, complete with lace carved in wide panes. The sign above the rectangular doorway proclaimed Allure.

Claire walked inside. The glass doors hissed open at her approach. At the receptionist desk a man with lemony yellow hair glanced at her.

I have an appointment,” she said.

“Claire?”

“Yes.” She could see her own reflection in the mirror behind him: pale brown hair of interminable shade, pulled back from her face into a braid, generously streaked with premature gray and tinted with slight orange.

“What will it be?”

She pointed to her hair. “Fix this.”

Thirty seconds later she sat in a chair. A woman approached her. “Good afternoon, my name is Belina and what will we… oh my. Horatio?”

A slight, effeminate man approached, wiping his hands with a towel. “Take the braid out.”

Belina unwound the braid and her hair fell around Claire’s face in a dense wave.

“Better already.” Horatio leaned next to her, looking in the mirror at her reflection. “Why is it stained with orange?” he asked softly.

“Chemical deposits in the water,” she said.

“I see. What will you let us do?”

“I’ve been hired as an admin by the Escana family,” she said. “You may do anything that won’t get me fired.”

Two hours later Claire looked in the mirror. The woman who looked back was about five years younger. A cloud of copper red hair fell on her shoulders in artful cascade, glinting with splashes of gold and deep red, softening her features and bringing out her grey eyes. She turned her head, and the hair moved, shimmering and light. Claire studied the woman’s face. It didn’t belong to her.

“Gorgeous,” Horatio said as she settled the bill and she smiled back at him without forcing it.

“Where do business women shop?” she asked him.

“How much money do you have?”

She squeezed the ring, checking. “Two thousand credits.”

He borrowed her tablet and scribbled the address with a stylus. “Ask for Sophia. And use the shampoo I gave you. Red fades fast.”

By the time the aerial finally landed in front of her apartment, the sky had grown dark. Claire ducked into the entrance and walked up the stairs to the fourth floor. She pressed her thumb to the keypad. The lock clicked open, and she stepped inside.

Walls of warm inviting yellow greeted her. The floor was textured tile in a dozen shades of pale green, brown, and beige. Soft green couches waited to be sat on to her right. A curved coffee table carved from some reddish rock rested between them, and on it in a wide glass dish floated burgundy-red dahlia blossoms. Ahead, double doors framed by diaphanous curtains led to a balcony.

Claire dropped her bags.

The apartment was completely quiet. She walked across the floor to the door and slid it open. A small balcony presented her with a view of the sunset: above her the cosmos was deep purple and far ahead, at the horizon, where the setting sun rolled behind the distant mountains, the sky glowed with bright vivid red. Wind fanned her, bringing with it a scent of some flower she didn’t know.

She sat down on the floor of the balcony, behind the trellised rail, and cried.