This is a short story that will be incorporated into my upcoming novel, The Robots of Andromeda.
A freighter, the name Wanderer written along its gray and yellow hull, emerged from hyperspace like a bullet piercing black cloth. Quickly slowing to sublight speed, the ship slipped into its plotted course on the way to the nearest planet. On the bridge, not much larger than a cockpit, Captain Rowan Ramus checked the coordinates. A Dahl with dark red hair, Ramus had gold rings hanging from his pointed ears. Tattoos of archaic lettering ran across both arms.
Satisfied the jump was successful, he smiled but a loud rumble jolted him from his seat and onto the metal floor.
“What the shit…?” he grumbled, getting to his feet. He slipped through the hatch and slid down a ladder to the deck below. The acrid smell of smoke filled the passageway along with, to Ramus’ surprise, the faintest hint of hops.
He ran toward the cargo hold, following the odor.
The damn idiot! he thought.
Reaching the hatch, Ramus found the door already open. Inside, pieces of wood and bits of metal littered the floor. Ramus stepped into a puddle of liquid, a white, frothy foam splashing around his boots. His engineer, Orkney Fugg, was holding a plastic tube in his hand, his clothes soaked. Beside him, Gen the General Purpose Robot stood wide-eyed, her aluminum body dripping.
“You’ve been brewing fungus beer again, goddamnit!” Ramus shouted.
Fugg was short, with thick, muscular arms and a flabby belly hanging from under his t-shirt. A pig-like nose took up most of his face except for two tusks jutting from his mouth. His beady eyes, seeing the captain, took on a defensive glare.
“It’s every Gordian’s god-given right to brew fungus beer!” he yelled. “Stop oppressing my heritage!”
“You blew up the cargo bay!” Ramus countered.
“The pressure valve on the barrel was faulty,” Fugg explained. “Gen was supposed to keep an eye on it!”
“Oh, dear, I didn’t realize,” Gen said, her glance alternating between the Gordian and the Dahl. “I must not have understood your instructions…”
Fugg pointed his chubby finger at her. “Well, don’t let it happen again!”
“Don’t blame the robot,” Ramus pointed his own finger, this time at Fugg. “You know damn well you’re the reason this happened. I told you, no brewing on the ship. You can buy beer when we land!”
“It’s not the same,” Fugg replied. “Also, I can’t wait that long.”
“Then you shouldn’t have drank everything before we reached port!”
“I was thirsty!”
“Master Ramus…” Gen said, her voice barely audible above the din.
Ramus kept yelling. “And no more gin either! No stills of any kind!”
“This is an outrage!” Fugg declared. “I’ll lodge a labor complaint. You’ll see!”
“What?” the captain shouted, causing the robot to cringe. He sighed. “I’m sorry, Gen. What is it?”
She smiled and pointed, this time at her captain. “Are those supposed to be doing that?”
A bluish hue surrounded Ramus’ arms. The tattoos were glowing.
“Shit,” he said.
“You’re not going to transform into a monster or anything, are you?” Fugg asked.
Ramus shook his head. “No, this is something else.”
His face more ashen than usual, the captain left the cargo hold and went directly to his cabin.
A biting wind swirled across the Palatine Mountains, drawing tears from Kanet Solan’s eyes. Thousands of miles from Regalis, the peaks of Aldorus were remote and sparsely populated. Most Imperial citizens preferred the hustle and bustle of the capital city to the wilderness sharing the same planet. Solan could have taken a gravcar, but he climbed the summit himself, wanting to prove himself to the monks at the top. The Dharmesh Monastery was the finest school of psionics for light years in any direction, but the only way in was through the front door.
Bundled up in a heavy coat, Solan tightened his grip on the insulated hood. Wisps of red hair blew around his face as if attempting to flee. He stuffed them back under the hood, struggling to see the rough trail winding along the mountainside. A young human in his twenties, Solan’s legs were strong, but the long hike had taxed them to their limit.
A fog bank rolled in, turning the path into a gray soup. Solan slowed his pace to a crawl. A false step meant plummeting to his death, so he took his time, knowing patience was one of his virtues. Good things came to those who wait, and he was good at waiting.
The fog eventually cleared, revealing a flight of stone steps leading to a wooden door.
Weak with fatigue, Solan felt his legs wobble as he climbed the stairs. He steadied himself at the top, pulling the hood away and letting his orange hair fall loose. He could barely hear his knocking against the door with the wind howling in his ears. He waited several minutes until the metal sound of a bolt being shoved to one side set his heart pounding.
Like a log splitting in half, the door creaked open slowly. A face protruded from the gap. Pale with pointed ears and blond hair, it was a Dahl, the elf-like people who ran the monastery. His amber robes, just visible in the candlelight coming from within, meant he was one of the monks.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I’ve come to learn psionics,” Solan replied, smiling with pride for making it this far.
“You’re human,” the monk said.
“We only teach Dahl here.”
“But I’ve come a long way…” Solan began.
“Then you’ve come a long way for nothing,” the monk replied. “Go home.”
“Please!” the human begged, but the door slammed shut.
Solan, his eyes darkening, stared at the door, the wood grain weathered by centuries of unforgiving wind.
It remained closed.
Pulling the hood back over his disheveled mop of hair, Solan turned and walked back down the mountain, his anger growing with every step.
On a larger freighter, the captain’s quarters were usually roomy and filled with mementos of the commanding officer’s life or at least pictures of his family. On the Wanderer, the captain’s cabin was devoid of much of anything except for bare metal walls and dirty laundry lying on the floor. Coming through the hatch, Ramus nearly tripped over his leather jacket, kicking it out of the way as the tattoos on his arms glowed with a pale blue. He was glaring at them when another, even brighter, light caught his attention.
Like a ghost, a translucent figure floated in the corner. The apparition wore a black robe with gold fringe. A hood covered his face.
“Goddammit, Solan!” Ramus said. “How long have you been here?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to exit hyperspace,” the ghostly figure replied.
“If I’d known that, I would’ve taken longer.”
“You know, Rowan, if you worked on that personality of yours you’d probably have more friends.”
“Friends like you? No thanks.”
“So ungrateful, after all the Psi Lords have done for you!”
“Whatever,” Ramus grumbled. He motioned at Solan’s floating image. “What’s all this anyway?”
“Psionic projection,” Solan replied. “It took several painful surgeries, but I think the results speak for themselves.”
Solan pulled the hood back, revealing a man in his late fifties, a mesh of circuitry embedded into his otherwise bald head. His red eyebrows were the only hairs visible on his face.
“Of course, you could probably do it without augmentation,” he went on, “but then you’re a Dahl after all…”
“Don’t be jealous.”
“I’m doing my best but it’s just so hard when I see what a success you’ve become.”
Ramus scowled. “Right.”
“If you had simply stayed with us, things would have been different.”
“Maybe,” Ramus replied, “but I doubt I could’ve lived with myself.”
“You seem pretty happy with those tattoos,” Solan remarked. “You’ve certainly been using them a lot, most recently on the Magna home world if I’m not mistaken.”
“You heard about that?”
“We’re a data cartel, Rowan, I know what you had for breakfast…”
The captain sighed. “What do you want from me?”
“I have a job for you,” Solan said.
“You haven’t heard the details—”
“I don’t care. I’m through with you people.”
“Come now,” Solan said. “You know our arrangement. You got to walk away from the Psi Lords with the gifts we’ve given you, but when your services are needed, back you come.”
“Fine. How long is this going to take?” Ramus asked.
“You’ll be done in a jiffy,” Solan replied.
“Where is it?”
“Come to Aldorus,” Solan said. “I’ll fill you in more after you arrive.”
The ghost smiled and faded away. The tattoos on Ramus’ arms no longer glowed, returning to their original black ink.
When Kanet Solan got to the bottom of the mountain, having walked all the way down from the Dharmesh Monastery, he knew he could never be like the monks. As a human, Solan lacked the natural psionic abilities enjoyed by every Dahl. He hated them for that, but he wasn’t going to let his own genetics determine his destiny.
When Solan came down the mountain, he had a plan.
Over the next several years, Solan studied the art of mind magic, both academically and physically. In both cases, he used outcast Dahl to teach him bits and pieces of the various schools of psionics. As exiles, none of them knew what Solan needed in its entirety, but as his knowledge grew, he knitted the parts together into something approaching a whole.
As he learned, he grew more powerful. However, he eventually reached an impasse. He could not stretch his human mind to the extremes necessary to achieve true mastery like the Dahl. Faced with the choice of accepting his limitations or taking drastic actions, he chose the latter.
In the Imperium, humanity was king. Among humans, their purity embodied their superiority over all others. The idea of modifying themselves and thus making themselves less human was abhorrent. Self-mutilation through implants or genetic manipulation was outlawed by Imperial decree. Although lesser procedures were ostensibly legal, the kinds of changes Solan had in mind were not. If he went that far, he would need to be shielded from the law. In that case, he could either choose those above the law, like Warlock Industries, or those outside it. Again, he chose the latter.
Stories of the Psi Lords were common among those needing information. They were a data cartel, dealing with secrets they were willing to sell for the right price. They collected those secrets using a school of psionics called Dark Psi. Outlawed by the Dahl, Dark Psi gave powers that conventional psionics strictly forbade.
After joining their ranks, Solan first became one of their agents, called collectors, but eventually he became a handler of other agents. A controller, he facilitated their clandestine activities and kept an eye out for new talent. All the while, he continued to augment his own abilities. Throughout this time, he remained patient.
Patience was one of his virtues.
A cold mist was falling as Ta Demona made her way through the crowded streets to the Temple of the Augmentors. Water beaded off the black material of her priestess robes before rolling off her shoulders. Seventeen years old, with emerald skin and piercing blue eyes, she walked past the other natives of the planet Technas Delphi while their thoughts whispered quietly in the back of her mind.
Demona was not like the other sisters.
Reaching the Temple, a priestess greeted her. She bore implants running along the side of her shaved head, denoting a higher rank. Demona could hear her thoughts.
Such a strange little girl, the sister thought. She gives me the creeps!
“Greetings, sister,” she said politely.
“Greetings,” Demona replied.
“There’s an off-worlder who’d like to speak with you.”
“He’s in the surgical recovery unit.”
“What’s his name?” Demona asked.
Although the request was unusual, Demona often worked with foreigners looking to benefit from the Augmentors’ technology. She had assisted in several operations, mostly involving advanced prosthetics for lost or crippled limbs. A few clients, including Solan, requested more involved surgeries. However, she had no idea what he wanted with her. Her expertise was still in its infancy.
She passed beneath the high ceiling of the Temple’s main hall. Supported by flying buttresses on the outside, visible through large windows, the hall was like the chest cavity of a beast enclosed by metal ribs. Unlike the stone cathedrals of ancient Earth, the Temple of the Augmentors was made from alloys and composite materials. Optic fibers, embedded into the walls, transmitted information throughout the Temple while also illuminating its space with shades of pink and blue light.
On the altar at the far end of the hall, the shape of a person stood with her arms spread like a cross. Demona paused to kneel, paying her respects to the High Priestess who had gone through complete conversion, from a living, organic being to a cybernetic machine. Enclosed in metal and plastic instead of skin, she was immobile like a statue, with cables running from her casing to the building itself. The Temple was an extension of her body and consciousness, acting as her eyes and ears far beyond the altar on which she was anchored.
Demona rose and followed one of the side corridors to the surgery unit which took up an entire wing of the Temple. Even at night, the department bustled with activity. Doctors and nurses, all priestesses in their own right, rushed from one procedure to another. Demona knew better than to interrupt and, after looking up the room where Solan was waiting, went to him directly.
He smiled when she opened the door. In his forties with red hair fading into gray, Solan bowed, exposing an implant shaped like a half crown running along the back of his head. Demona recognized it as one of their psionic enhancers.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Solan?” she asked.
“At the risk of sounding cliché,” he replied, “I’d like to think I can do something for you.”
Her blue eyes widened as she felt his mind reach into hers.
This place is wasted on you, he said telepathically. I want to offer you more.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Demona said aloud. “I’m happy here.”
“Perhaps you are,” he replied. “And eventually you may work your way up through the order until you even reach full conversion. How old was the High Priestess when she ascended?”
“She’s one of our elders — I don’t know — probably in her sixties.”
“What if I said you didn’t have to wait that long?”
“For conversion?” Demona asked.
“For anything,” Solan replied.
“You’re from the Psi Lords, aren’t you?”
“Yes, and we have many resources at our disposal. You would have access to them if you joined us.”
Her eyes narrowed and her mouth bent into a frown. “You’re asking me to join the Psi Lords?”
“What would I do?”
“You’d be a collector,” Solan explained. “You’d use your powers to gather information for us.” You can hear my thoughts, can’t you?
Yes, she replied. I can hear everyone’s thoughts.
Then you know what I already do, that your sisters don’t trust your powers. You’re an outsider and they’ll never allow you to reach total conversion.
Tears collected in the corners of her eyes as she looked at the floor. Yes.
“If you come with me,” Solan said, “you’ll leave them behind in more ways than one. Your future is unlimited.”
Demona looked up and gave him a hard, piercing stare. “I have some ideas.”
He nodded. “I know you do.”
In the capital Regalis, Rowan Ramus climbed from a gravtaxi onto the crumbling sidewalk of Ashetown, the poorest district of the city. To the North, the skyscrapers of Middleton glittered in the warm evening air while to the west, across the Regalis River, the West End and its mansions kept a respectable distance. In Ashetown, there were no estates or buildings above ten stories. This was the land of the Underclass where humanity kept mostly away, and the aliens walked the streets.
Ramus felt at home here.
Passing the withered skeleton of a long-dead tree, he avoided a questionable puddle on his way through a neighborhood of closed businesses and vacant lots. When he got to an alley between two liquor stores, Ramus stopped. The smell of garbage wafted from the narrow backstreet, but the captain of the Wanderer ignored it, ducking into the shadows.
Although the alley was a dead end, Ramus had been here before. The rats breeding between the trash cans and the words Free Marakata painted on the wall were all too familiar. It was like he had never left, and that feeling sat poorly with him. He had hoped he would never be in this alley again.
Ramus recognized something else, a drawing on the wall of an ancient tribal mask with dark, angry lines of indigo ink. He laid his flat palm against it until he saw the lines start to glow between his fingers. A section of the wall retracted and slid away, exposing a passageway. The faint odor of jasmine incense escaped from the tunnel, for the moment overpowering the aroma of garbage.
Ramus preferred the smell of trash.
The secret door closed once the captain was inside. He followed the corridor, the floor at a downward incline, until it opened into a large chamber filled with expensive rugs and tapestries.
I’ve gotta admit, Ramus thought, Solan has impeccable taste.
Through a beaded curtain, Kanet Solan made his entrance. He looked like his psionic projection, a thick robe covering his body and circuits covering his hairless scalp. At least he was solid this time. Ramus wondered if that meant he could be killed.
“I wouldn’t try it,” Solan remarked, having apparently read his mind. “But you’re welcome to try.”
“No thanks,” Ramus replied wryly. “I wouldn’t want to stain the rug.”
Solan motioned towards a low table surrounded by pillows. Taking a seat, they eyed each other from across the table.
“I see you still love jasmine,” Ramus said finally. “You should try sandalwood. I hear it’s very popular among evil geniuses.”
“Is that how you see me?” Solan replied.
“Well, the evil part anyway.”
“Good and evil are just words, Rowan, you know that. If the universe doesn’t care what we do, why should we?”
Ramus didn’t reply. He had heard the argument before and didn’t feel like retreading yet more familiar ground.
“You wanted me here, so I’m here,” he replied. “What’s the assignment?”
Solan smiled. “Yes, of course. No sense wasting time I suppose.”
Between two pillars draped in silks, a video screen came to life. The image of a humanoid with a nearly featureless head appeared. The face had a pair of eyes and a mouth, but no ears or nose except for small indentations, and the skin was a light shade of blue. He wore a tunic woven from rough, white fibers with a tall collar. His three-fingered hand was raised as if speaking to an audience.
“What do you know about the Erudites?” Solan asked.
Ramus shrugged. “They’re a race obsessed with racial purity. They adhere to strict breeding protocols, trying to keep as close to a perfect specimen as possible.”
“Indeed,” Solan replied.
“My engineer Fugg would say nobody can tell them apart, but in this case I have to agree. They all look alike.”
Solan nodded. “In fact, they use telepathy to tell each other apart. It must be highly confusing.”
“So, what about them?” Ramus asked.
“The Erudites are holding a formal dinner tomorrow night at their consulate. Our client has hired us to attend and gather information.”
“How am I going to do that? You realize I don’t read minds…”
“That won’t be a problem,” a woman’s voice said.
Behind Ramus, a woman in black priestess robes stepped into the light. A respirator covered her nose and mouth while circuits were sown across her emerald scalp. Only her blue eyes remained untouched, their gaze fixed on the Wanderer‘s captain.
“Demona,” Ramus said.
Orkney Fugg, chief engineer of the Wanderer, was usually irritable on the best of days, but without a reliable supply of fungus beer, he was downright unruly. With his captain away, Fugg decided to find the nearest bar, and take Gen along for company.
“Where are we going?” Gen asked, trying to keep up with Fugg who was walking surprisingly fast, considering he had short, stubby legs.
“I know a place,” Fugg grumbled without losing step or turning around.
“A nice place?”
“Is it another gentleman’s club?”
Fugg halted, rubbing his sausage fingers against his knobby chin, lost in thought.
“No!” he said, making a decision. “I’ve got to keep my focus.”
Gen, with large eyes and an eager expression, leaned closer. “Focus on what?”
“Drinking!” he shouted and started off again.
Sparky Joe’s Saloon was conveniently located just outside the Regalis starport, within easy walking distance from both a brothel and a bail bondsman. When Fugg barged through the door, he knew he had the right place. Filled with smoke and loud arguing, the saloon was crowded with ship crews and technicians from the starport. With Gen stepping cautiously behind him, Fugg zig-zagged between the tables until he reached the bar.
“What’ll you have, bub?” the bartenderbot asked. The robot, his torso and head a faded blue, had no legs. Instead, a metal shaft was connected to a track behind the bar, allowing him to run up and down the rail. On his chest was a name tag that read Joe.
“Fungus beer,” Fugg said.
“Do you want the genuine draft or the new, cruelty-free formula?” the robot asked.
“What’s the second one?”
“It’s made from only non-sentient fungus. No sporemen were harmed in the brewing or bottling.”
“Why the hell would I want that?” Fugg asked.
The bartenderbot nodded and headed down the bar. “Genuine draft it is…”
When the robot returned with a mug, lightly frosted and brimming with a dark amber brew, Fugg relished it for just a moment before downing the entire drink in a single, swilling gulp. He followed this accomplishment with an enormous belch for which he felt even greater pride. Saluting with the empty mug in his hand, he asked for another.
“And keep ‘em coming!” he said.
As the number of vacant glasses grew, Fugg became dimly aware that Gen was standing beside him.
“Have you been here this whole time?” he asked.
Gen perked up. “Yes, Master Fugg!”
“Well, as a drinking companion you suck,” he replied.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry!”
“You didn’t even offer to buy me a round!”
“But you and Master Ramus don’t pay me,” Gen said.
“You’re damn right!” Fugg shouted. “What would you spend it on anyway?”
“I might buy music,” she said. “Sometimes I like to sing…”
“That’s crazy!” Fugg replied. “Did you hear that, Joe? My robot wants to be a singer!”
Joe, looking unimpressed while polishing a glass, shrugged. “So?”
“Don’t you… don’t you ever wish you could be, you know, something else instead of a bartenderbot?” Fugg asked, slurring his words.
Joe stared down at the metal pole securing him to the track.
“Not really,” he said.
Past midnight, Ta Demona lay on a bed in a hotel room. The lamp next to the bed flickered, the light casting irregular shadows against the walls. Now in her early twenties, Demona still wore the same black priestess robes from her days with the Augmentors, even though it had been years since she left Technas Delphi. She liked feeling connected to her sisters back home, their treatment of her notwithstanding. She had the satisfaction, at least, of knowing her powers had grown far greater than if she had stayed.
The hotel was in Ashetown, the seedier part of Regalis. The room was musty and the bedspread smelled like someone may or may not have died on it recently. Lying on her back with her blue eyes staring at the ceiling, Demona laced her fingers together as she relaxed the muscles of her body. An implant connected to her adrenal glands kept the adrenaline in check. Others might have used a sedative, but Demona preferred a more direct approach. Most of her augmentations were designed to enhance her innate psionic abilities, as well as the additional powers the Psi Lords had taught her. However, other enhancements also came in handy. She had even crafted some of them herself.
Kanet Solan had been generous with the resources put at Demona’s disposal.
Wires and electrical nodes covered her head resting on the pillow. Green veins along her temples pulsed quietly. If she strained her ears, she might have heard the two men talking in the neighboring room but there was no need. She could understand every word they were thinking before they said them. More importantly, she could read the things they weren’t saying. Their deep thoughts contained secrets, kept to themselves, but open to Demona’s probing forays into their minds. It was good that they didn’t know she was next door. They would have surely killed her if they knew.
That’s why the implant on her adrenal gland came in handy.
She smiled, her emerald lips curling at the corners. If they tried killing her, she knew how to handle herself. Dark Psi, sometimes called Death Magic, didn’t get the name by chance, and Solan had made sure her mind could do more than just read thoughts.
Situated in Ashetown, the Fat Cat Casino was the most popular gambling house in Regalis. Games of chance filled the luxurious halls, filling the coffers of the Si-Sawat crime syndicate that used the casino as an elaborate money laundering operation. Although gambling was legal, the origin of the money that was funneled through it was not. Credit transactions, often through bogus shell companies, were the primary source of these illicit funds. The companies, and the bank accounts they used, were secrets Si-Sawat wanted to keep that way.
Unfortunately, a rival crime syndicate had other ideas.
Wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace, Ta Demona strolled nonchalantly through the casino’s main floor with a Dahl on her arm. Demona was twenty-five years old. She wasn’t sure how old the Dahl was, but she thought his red hair and earrings paired well with her ensemble.
“Your tuxedo looks heavenly, Rowan,” she said with a broad smile.
Rowan Ramus tugged at his collar. “I feel like a monkey in a suit.”
“Don’t be so grumpy,” she replied. “Solan doesn’t normally let us dress up for an assignment.”
Ramus scoffed. “He’s not doing us any favors.”
The slot machines to their right were buzzing with lights and noise, still audible over the steady cacophony of people’s voices flooding the cavernous room. Beyond the one-armed bandits, two security guards stood to either side of a doorway. Both guards were Tikarins, the feline race who controlled the Si-Sawat syndicate.
“That’s our way in,” Demona said, motioning discreetly toward the door.
“You want me to take them out?” Ramus asked.
Demona snickered, patting her escort on the arm. “That’s cute, but I think I can handle this. Remember, you’re just here as eye candy.”
“You know I can do more.”
“I do,” she replied, “but tearing them limb from limb wouldn’t be very subtle now, would it?”
Demona, casting her blue eyes at the guards, focused while holding her hands in a fist. Within moments, the two Tikarins appeared agitated and the brown hair on the back of their necks stiffened like a brush. Their teeth bared in a snarl, they charged off, leaving the door unattended.
“See?” she said, smirking proudly as Ramus rolled his eyes.
Past the now unguarded doorway, Demona and Ramus found themselves in a corridor. With the Augmentor priestess leading the way, they followed a series of turns until discovering another door. Safely through, Demona switched on the light to find a room filled with craps tables stored on their sides. Open boxes contained chips of various colors.
“I should grab some of these for later,” Ramus remarked.
“Stay sharp,” Demona said. “We’re directly below the data center.”
Centering her mind, she reached out and heard the voices of two Tikarins discussing the night’s receipts. Over the next several minutes, while Ramus entered the information into a datapad, Demona read out the account numbers she heard them say in her mind. When she was done, Demona gave Ramus a satisfied smile.
“And that’s how it’s done,” she said.
Ramus tucked the datapad into his tuxedo jacket and went to the door. In Demona’s mind, she heard another voice speaking.
“Wait!” she said, but it was too late. Ramus had palmed the controls on the wall, opening the door. When it slid open, a Tikarin guard was standing on the other side.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” the guard demanded.
“We’re lost,” Ramus replied.
The gangster pulled a blaster from his shoulder holster.
“I don’t think so,” he said, but hesitated, a pale blue glow reflecting across his gray fur.
Demona knew that light well. Even standing behind Ramus, she knew his eyes were blazing with a magical fire. His jacket tore along the seams, briefly revealing bright tattoos of an ancient language on his arms before a thick mat of hair sprouted over them. With a roar, Ramus had transformed into a wolf-like animal, the nails at his fingertips extended into claws.
Before the guard could recover from the shock of what he was witnessing, Ramus had already sunk his ferocious teeth into the Tikarin’s neck. Like an exploding fire hydrant, blood splattered across the hallway, the red droplets painting the wall on the other side. All Demona could hear were the gurgling screams uttered from the guard before he fell down lifeless in the corridor. Ramus turned to Demona, blood dripping from his mouth.
“Subtle,” she said.
He growled before morphing back into his normal shape.
“With you covered in blood, we can’t go back through the main room,” she continued. “Let’s try the loading dock in back.”
With Demona again in the front, the two made their way down a set of stairwells and into a long corridor. Draped in torn clothing and smeared with blood, Ramus received several alarmed looks from the casino staff along the way. By the time they reached the loading dock, a phalanx of Tikarin security were waiting.
“This isn’t good,” Ramus remarked. “I doubt I can slash through all that.”
Seeing the dozen or more gangsters, each holding blasters, Demona was composed, even tranquil.
“Just follow my lead,” she said.
Demona raised her hands and spread her fingers apart. Like a falling shadow, a thick, inky wall descended across the center of the loading dock, concealing the guards in complete darkness. A few bolts of energy, fired from the blasters, came streaming out of the gloom. Both Demona and Ramus ducked, but the shots were aimed too high and hit the wall in a shower of sparks.
“In a couple of seconds, they’re going to come running out of there,” Ramus said.
“You think so?” Demona replied.
This time pointing toward the pitch blackness, Demona focused her mind, sending a vision of terror into the thoughts of the Tikarins. Instead of more blaster fire, panicked shrieks rose from inside the shadows.
She took Ramus by the hand while the implants in her eyes switched over to the infrared spectrum.
“Come with me,” she said and led him through the darkness to the other side and out into the night.
Ramus followed Demona to her apartment, a loft at the top of an otherwise abandoned warehouse in Ashetown. He had never been there before, but it was exactly what he expected and yet nothing like he expected.
With windows looking out over the lights of Regalis, the main room was sparsely but efficiently decorated. The dining table was glass and metal, but the couch was brown leather and covered in fur, cold and warm at the same time. Personal touches were minimal, as if the apartment had been decorated by a robot. Ramus didn’t see any photos or holograms anywhere, not that Demona had any family he knew about.
While Demona was busy uploading the account numbers from the datapad, Ramus wandered off to the bathroom, a bare-bones affair with stainless steel and glass everywhere and counters of white marble. Still wearing the tattered tuxedo, he removed it and tossed the remains on the tiled floor. He got into the shower and, running the water hot, started scrubbing the dried blood from his body.
Steam filled the glassed-in space, enveloping Ramus in a gray mist. He spread soap along his arms, partially covering the tattoos that Solan had given him. They were the source of whatever power allowed Ramus to transform, even if he didn’t fully understand how they worked. Demona said it was Dark Psi, but she said that about a lot of things. All he really knew for sure was the shock his family would feel if they could see him now. He was already an outcast and an exile, but if his people knew how far he had fallen, Ramus doubted they would barely recognize him.
Letting the water wash over his face, Ramus realized he was no longer alone. Demona had slipped into the shower beside him. Ramus wondered if her implants would short out.
They did not.
Later, after they had moved to Demona’s bed, Ramus got up and returned, bare-footed, to the bathroom to use the toilet. While doing his business, he thought he heard something. He wasn’t sure what it was, far off and indistinct. After he finished and wrapped a towel around his waist, he listened.
Sounding like the cry of a lost cat, it was coming from somewhere in the warehouse.
Ramus pictured the Tikarin he killed earlier. The gurgling moan and the taste of blood returned in an abrupt flash of memory. He pushed it back into the back of his mind, determined to rescue whatever was making the noise now.
Finding a door and a stairwell behind it, Ramus followed the sound down several flights. With just a towel, he was cold, the chill of the evening creeping into his bones still aching from the fight. The cry was growing louder and more distinct. Ramus was sure now it was a person, possibly in pain.
He came to an unmarked door and, pushing it open, discovered a dark room. Flipping on the lights, Ramus nearly ran directly into a table stacked with equipment. The devices appeared medical or at least scientific, but he could only guess at their purpose.
Another cry came from the back of the room.
Moving around the table, Ramus saw an apparatus on the wall in the shape of a cross. A man was strapped to it, his arms and legs secured at the wrists and ankles. Completely naked, his head sagged against his chest. He was groaning.
Ramus came closer. The human was in his mid-thirties, his chest covered in red boils and blisters. He struggled to raise his head, revealing his face which was also heavily scared.
“Can you hear me?” Ramus asked.
The man’s eyes opened. Through dry and scaly lips, he tried to speak. “Help me.”
“Who are you?” Ramus replied.
“Who did this to you?”
The man convulsed, his body shaking violently. Enormous boils bubbled along his skin like lava across a field of fire. Pustules erupted, oozing yellow liquid. Horrified, Ramus took a step back, unable to do anything except watch the human as he suffered. The metal frame rattled and bent, the man straining against it to free himself. With one final gasp, he screamed and went silent.
Ramus felt sick. He looked away, unable to stand the sight of the dead man, only to see Demona standing near the table. The whites of her eyes had gone black and, along the palms of her outstretched hands, wisps of purple energy were quickly fading.
Death Magic, Ramus thought.
With Ramus staring at her in disbelief, Demona turned silently and walked out.
In Kanet Solan’s chambers, Ramus took a moment to recognize Ta Demona after all these years. Although her robes were unchanged, she wore a respirator concealing much of her face. Her eyes, however, were uncovered, piercing through Ramus like sapphires fired from a gun.
“What the hell is she doing here?” Ramus asked, jumping to his feet.
Solan stood also. “As you said, you don’t read minds.”
“If you think I’m working with her again,” Ramus growled, “you’re as crazy as she is.”
“You’ll work with whomever I say you will,” Solan replied coldly. “It’s not like you have a choice.”
Demona came closer, waving her hand casually through the air laden with jasmine. Her nails were like long needles, painted black.
“Come now,” she said. “We were always so good together…”
Ramus straightened, shifting his attention from Solan back to the former priestess. He pointed his finger at her. “You’re a monster.”
Under the respirator, she laughed. “I’ve seen your monster, Rowan. I’ve seen it tear a man in half in fact!”
“At least it was quick,” Ramus replied. “I don’t rot people from the inside in one of your sick experiments.”
“Demona’s research has been invaluable,” Solan said, “even if her methods are not always… traditional.”
“I’d call it torture,” Ramus said.
Demona shrugged beneath her stiff robes. “I won’t quibble about semantics, but my test subjects are a necessary evil. Otherwise, we couldn’t make the strides we’ve accomplished with Dark Psi.”
Ramus scoffed and sat down heavily beside the table. His eyes narrowed below his scowl. “What’s up with the new hardware?”
“My respirator?” Demona replied, casting a sharp glance at Solan. “A failed lung implant I’m afraid. Now I wear this.”
“It covers your smile,” Ramus said, but scowled at Solan. “I guess we both owe Solan for something. For a lot of things.”
“Yes, you do!” Solan replied. “Now, if the two of you have sufficiently caught up, I’d like to go over the job at hand.”
He took his old seat beside Ramus while Demona found a pillow to rest on between them.
In Sparky Joe’s Saloon, Fugg’s head lay on its side on top of the bar, his pig-like snout partially submerged in a puddle of fungus beer and his own drool. Bubbles formed and floated away as he snored.
Gen, sitting on the adjacent barstool, finally leaned over and nudged him with her outstretched finger. “Excuse me, Master Fugg…”
With a loud snort, Fugg sat up straight, his eyes suddenly open.
“What? How dare you!” he shouted, pointing randomly around him.
“Sorry to wake you,” Gen said.
“Wake me? Hell no! I wasn’t sleeping…”
“You were snoring.”
“Just resting my eyes!” Fugg insisted.
Fugg lifted his shirt, exposing his pronounced belly just below the bar rail. He gave his dripping face a quick wipe with the shirt before letting it drop back again, almost covering his belly button.
Her eyes large and inquisitive, Gen hesitated before speaking. “Actually, I have a question.”
“I was wondering why Master Ramus is helping the Psi Lords.”
Fugg chuckled, but had to stop halfway through to clear his throat. He coughed and spat something green onto the floor.
“It’s complicated,” he said finally.
“But I thought Master Ramus didn’t like the Psi Lords,” she said.
“When the captain first ran into the Psi Lords,” Fugg explained, “he had lost everything. His family, his people, all the Dahl had turned their back on him. He was an exile with nothing but his name. The Psi Lords took him in, gave him a job, and gave him an identity. They were like a family to him I guess.”
“You said they gave him those tattoos…”
“Sure,” Fugg replied. “They gave him powers that his people never would, but that’s not why he’s helping.”
“I said it was complicated!”
“In what way?” Gen asked.
“He got mixed up with a woman,” Fugg went on. “Demona was her name.”
“Was she nice?”
Fugg stared at the robot. “No!”
Gen’s eyes widened as she nodded.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Fugg went on. “Neither of them were gentle souls. They were both nasty in their own way, but she was on a whole ‘nother level! She was into some stuff that would make your toes curl.”
Gen’s mouth rounded into a circle. “Really?”
“They had a thing together.”
“Maybe — I don’t know about that — but they definitely had something. Anyway, if he’s helping them, I’d bet my last beer it’s because of her.”
The robot stared at the floor, avoiding the glob Fugg had spat there earlier.
“Poor Master Ramus,” she said.
Fugg gave a disinterested shrug. “Yeah, poor dumb bastard…”
The diplomatic residence for the Erudite Concordant was in the West End of Regalis, along a main boulevard called Embassy Row. A few blocks down from the consulate for the Talion Republic and the black monolith that was the Magna embassy, white marble walls surrounded the Erudite envoy’s home and diplomatic offices. As a famously xenophobic race, the Erudites usually kept the gates of their compound securely closed to outsiders. On a few occasions, the doors to the sanctum would open just wide enough to allow a few, select visitors to enter and meet Ambassador Abaru himself.
Abaru did not relish these encounters.
From a planet called Erudun, the ambassador was the product of a highly selective and rigorously followed set of protocols related to breeding. The Erudite government, based on computer programs that tracked his parents’ genetic profile, allowed them to procreate with the sole purpose of having a child that was as close to a perfect specimen as possible. Once the baby was born, government officials would compare the child to a set of criteria including physical proportions, internal measurements, and genetic markers for future diseases, and if the results matched the ideal specimen, within limited tolerances, the birth would be considered a success. If not, the paired parents would never mate again, at least not with each other.
Children matching the ideal were henceforth known as Omegas. Those who did not were called Omicrons.
Ambassador Abaru was an Omega, while all of his janitorial staff were Omicrons.
In the embassy courtyard, a single tree rose from a circle of white gravel surrounded by alabaster tiles. The slender branches were graced with reddish leaves and buds of pink flowers. As perfectly symmetrical as possible, the tree appeared almost artificial, but Abaru stood beneath it with a pair of pruning shears, clipping off branches to maintain its aesthetic balance.
One of his staff, wearing a stiff tunic with a high collar, approached. Both Erudites had blue skin, a narrow mouth and no ears or nose. Dressed nearly the same and almost identical physically, they could have been twins.
“The guests will be arriving shortly,” the staff member said.
Abaru surveyed the branch he was about to trim, his head cocked to one side.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It looks perfect.”
“Hmmm,” Abaru murmured and then clipped the branch. He handed the scissors to his staff member. “There’s always room for improvement…”
The Abbot of the Dharmesh Monastery arrived by gravcar at the Erudite embassy, accompanied by the monastery Prior and two acolytes. The Abbot, an elderly Dahl with gray hair twisted around his pointy ears, rarely visited Regalis, preferring the clean air of the Palatine Mountains to the smog and congestion of the capital city. He found the ride in the gravcar especially unnerving, but did his best not to lose face, or his dinner, in front of the two younger monks.
All four, dressed in orange robes, walked the path up to the main gate where an Erudite official greeted them and asked for their invitation. The Erudite flag, a simple blue line in the shape of a circle against a white background, flapped in the evening breeze above him. The Prior produced the invitation from his clothing and handed it to the official who bowed and led them to the courtyard inside. Other guests, not more than twenty in total, had already arrived and were circulating through the open space around the central tree. The Abbot stopped for a moment to take in the foliage, noting it had been meticulously pruned, perhaps excessively so. On the Dahl home planet, Gwlad Ard’un, they had genetically altered their trees to be in perpetual bloom like an endless Spring. The Abbot favored that over whatever torturous grooming they were doing to this poor specimen.
“They’ve invited the Sarkan,” the Prior whispered into the Abbot’s ear.
“Here?” he replied, casting a glance around. In one corner, a group of three stood away from the others. Like the Dahl, they had pointed ears, but their skin was a bright red and their eyes were like amber. A branch of the same race, they spoke the same native language, but their political views could not have been more different. Whereas the Dahl had allied themselves with the humans of the Imperium, the Sarkan viewed humans with distrust, saving an equal disdain for their ancient brethren who befriended them. The Sarkan also viewed the Dahls’ unwavering obsession with gathering knowledge as a distraction from far loftier goals like conquering the galaxy. The Sarkans’ own alliance with the Magna Supremacy, the sworn enemy of the Imperium, made their presence even more curious, the Abbot thought.
“I suppose the Erudites have their reasons,” he told the Prior.
The party of Dharmesh monks wound their way to where the Erudite ambassador was standing.
“So nice of you to come,” Ambassador Abaru said.
“I was pleasantly surprised to receive your invitation,” the Abbot replied. “This is certainly a singular and, I must say, rare honor.”
Erudites lacked much in the way of a mouth to smile, but the Abbot thought the envoy was at least making an effort to.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m aware my people are not well known for having gatherings such as this. At least not for outsiders — I mean, non-Erudites.”
A wry smile wrinkled the Abbot’s face.
“Indeed,” he said and then frowned. “However, I am also surprised, unpleasantly I might add, that a Sarkan delegation appears to be here as well.”
“No offense was intended,” Abaru replied, “but I have invited several parties tonight.”
“Which brings me to my next question,” the Abbot said. “Why are we here?”
When Ta Demona and Rowan Ramus arrived at the Erudite embassy, they were not wearing the same fashionable dress and tuxedo as at the Fat Cat Casino. They were dressed more conservatively, Demona in a simple black gown with a veil covering her respirator and Ramus in a traditional long tunic of red and black. Ramus even removed his earrings, although it almost killed him to do it.
Reaching the gate, Ramus presented the invitation to the Erudite official. The blue face of the omicron betrayed no emotion but Ramus was still nervous, not sure if he could trust the forged documentation.
“Mister Gambhir and guest from Gwlad Ard’un,” the Erudite said. “Most of the other guests have already arrived.”
Ramus motioned toward Demona. “Sorry, this one took forever to get dressed…”
Demona’s blue eyes became slits while she dug her nails into Ramus’ arm. The Erudite again showed no emotion, ushering them through the gate.
“Was that really necessary?” Demona asked once they were inside.
“No, but I enjoyed it,” Ramus replied.
In the courtyard, the Wanderer‘s captain admired the central tree while Demona scanned the guests with her mind.
“Curious,” she said. “Nobody seems sure why they’re here.”
“What about the ambassador?”
“Also curious,” she went on, “he seems to be shielding his thoughts. I can’t read them.”
“Isn’t that going to make our job a little difficult?” Ramus grumbled.
“I just need to get closer. Come on.”
Wading through the guests, Demona and Ramus rounded the tree in a counter-clockwise circuit, maneuvering ever nearer to the Erudite ambassador on the other side. They passed faces, most of them Dahl, but also a few Sarkan and even a Sylva or two. None seemed terribly interested in either of them.
“Do you recognize any of these people?” Demona asked, nodding at strangers.
“Nope,” Ramus remarked.
“Any of them likely to recognize you?”
“One of the advantages of being an exile,” Ramus explained, “is becoming a Forgotten. Any memories of me have been erased from their minds.”
“Even the Sarkan?”
“No, but they’re a bunch of dicks and I don’t fraternize with dicks.”
Demona grinned. “Perhaps I should feel flattered.”
“Don’t be,” Ramus said. “You’re awful in your own special way.”
A group of Dharmesh monks were crowded in front of the Erudite ambassador. One of the monks, the Abbot, was speaking to the ambassador, blocking the way. Demona could still not read the Erudite’s mind, although she felt a unified sense of annoyance from those around him. If she could get just a little closer…
Ambassador Abaru raised his hand abruptly, drawing the attention of the other guests and, perhaps not coincidentally, quieting the Abbot who had been speaking.
“Now that we’re all here,” Abaru said, “let’s adjourn to the library. There’s much to discuss.”
He turned and strolled toward a doorway leading deeper into the embassy proper. The guests murmured in a general buzz of excitement and followed, carrying Demona and Ramus along with them like leaves on a river.
Against his better judgment, the Abbot of the Dharmesh Monastery had not left yet. Although reading minds was against the laws and traditions of his people, the Abbot was skeptical of whatever the Erudite ambassador was proposing. People without pointed ears, or any ears for that matter, couldn’t be trusted.
The embassy library had a high ceiling with bookcases reaching all the way to the top. The Abbot admired the sheer number of books, each made from real paper, but he assumed the Erudites also had the contents backed up electronically somewhere. The Dharmesh Monastery used a liquid computer called the Pool of Memory, a bucket of which could hold more information than all of the books in this library combined. The old monk felt pity for the Erudites, seeking knowledge but lacking the storage capacity to hold it.
Sad, really, he thought.
The rest of the library was taken up by uncomfortable-looking chairs and couches with a few tables on which books were laying unattended. It was surprisingly open, the Abbot concluded, with the bookcases set into the walls instead of free-standing in the center. The guests had ample room to mingle about while the ambassador and his staff assembled on one end.
When he was ready, Ambassador Abaru again raised his three-fingered hands and the others quieted out of respect.
“Thank you again for coming,” he said. “I apologize for keeping you waiting.”
Get on with it then, the Abbot thought.
“My people are a contrast,” the ambassador began. “We seek knowledge about the worlds around us, but keep the people of those worlds at arm’s length. The Erudites have a long history of perfection, starting with our children and continuing with our society. We have often viewed other cultures with distrust, as if their impurity could somehow sully ours…”
The Prior whispered in the Abbot’s ear. “Is he trying to insult us?”
“Shush,” the elder monk replied.
“But I believe this was wrong,” Abaru continued. “Our suspicions have hampered our studies, preventing us from expanding our knowledge and our abilities.”
“What kind of abilities?” the Abbot asked, drawing stares from the other guests.
“I’m glad you asked,” Abaru said, nodding. “Everyone here shares a common characteristic. We are all blessed with the psionic arts.”
The Abbot gave a sideways glance at the Sarkan delegation. “Some of us more than others…”
“Shut up, collaborator!” one of the Sarkan shouted back.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” the Abbot replied calmly. “We have better things to do than fighting.”
“Please,” Abaru said. “I realize there are conflicts among you, but there are many things in common as well. Together you are strong, are you not?”
The guests grumbled in low tones without consensus. Several crossed their arms and frowned or shook their heads.
“What I propose,” the ambassador said, “is an alliance of sorts. As species with psi powers, we should combine our knowledge and our skills so that we can all benefit from them…”
“He’s lying,” Demona hissed at Ramus, her blue eyes blazing with cold fire.
“What?” Ramus replied, turning his head toward her while keeping one eye on the Erudite ambassador a few feet away. “He sounds reasonable enough.”
The Abbot, ignoring scowls from the Sarkan, spoke up, “What do you intend to do with this knowledge, Ambassador?”
“To improve my people,” Abaru said. “The Dahl have studied psionics for thousands of years. The Erudites could only benefit from such learning. In return, we could share our knowledge as well.”
The Abbot gave a dry chuckle, shaking his head.
“My people, and my Monastery in particular,” he replied, “do not share our knowledge so easily. The arts we teach are for the Dahl, not ones like yourself.”
This time a Sarkan laughed with scorn. “You seem perfectly willing to share with the humans!”
“It’s true that we have shared our wisdom,” the Abbot retorted, “but never our psionics. Such abilities are too destructive for humanity, considering their proclivities…”
“Then you should be fighting them too, not collaborating!” the Sarkan shouted.
“That is not the Dahlvish way…” the old monk replied.
“There is no need to fight among ourselves,” Ambassador Abaru said. “Nothing is gained by all this arguing. We can work together—”
“No, I’m afraid not,” the Abbot said, motioning to the others in his group. “Thank you for your hospitality, but we must return to the Monastery.”
Sweeping their orange robes behind them, the Dharmesh monks headed toward the library exit and the courtyard beyond. The remaining guests, speaking in loud tones among themselves, seemed eager to leave as well.
“Please,” the ambassador said. “Perhaps we can still come to a consensus…”
Cocking an eyebrow, Ramus raised his voice above the clamor of the others leaving so Demona to hear.
“Well, that went badly,” he said, nearly shouting. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”
“He knew it would fail,” she replied.
“Then why go to the trouble?” Ramus asked.
Before Demona could answer, several of the Erudites appeared between them and the departing crowd, blocking Ramus and Demona from leaving.
“Ambassador Abaru wishes an audience,” one of the Erudites said.
“Sorry,” Demona replied, “we must be going…”
Seeing that none of the staff were armed, Ramus was confident they couldn’t stop them.
“Yeah, make a hole,” he told them, “or I’ll make one out of you.”
The tattoos beneath Ramus’ sleeves began glowing, the sensation like hot oil across his skin. The material of his sleeves ripped, thick fur poking through the tears. Everyone, including Ramus, was silent as they watched the nails of his fingers turning into claws.
“No, Ramus!” Demona said, but the Wanderer‘s captain returned her gaze with shock.
“I’m not doing it!” Ramus shouted before his mouth filled with fangs.
Ambassador Abaru parted the other Erudites, taking his place in front of them. “He’s under my control.”
Ramus growled at Demona, flexing his claws threateningly.
“Of course, I would have preferred to control both of you,” Abaru said to Demona, “but it appears you’ve had some mechanical augmentations that prevent me…”
“Why are you doing this?” Demona asked.
“I felt you probing my thoughts,” Abaru replied. “We Erudites have complete mastery of our bodies, including our minds. Your intrusion was as unmistakable as it was unwanted. In some ways, you’re nothing but a thief, breaking into my head and stealing what is rightfully mine.”
Demona smirked. “Stealing secrets is what I do for a living.”
The Ambassador shook his head. “But I’m afraid not for much longer…”
Ramus watched the scene unfold like a bystander. The movement of his limbs, a thing he normally took for granted, was no longer under his control. He struggled against it, concentrating on each muscle in his arms and legs, but he had become nothing more than a marionette with someone else holding the strings.
Ramus roared and lunged toward Demona who dove to the side, rolling out of the monster’s way.
Turning around, Ramus made another charge.
Her hands crackling with energy, Demona stood her ground and opened her mouth. From within, a horde of insects came pouring out like water from a fire hose. The rush of flying bugs struck Ramus in the chest, knocking him backwards and off his feet.
Ramus felt the pain of hitting the floor, but a voice in his mind was screaming to get up. He strained to stay down, but he had no choice. His claws scraped against the white marble as he scrambled to his feet.
The insects, which had been swarming moments before, faded away into nothing, evaporating into thin air. Demona changed the position of her arms. Wisps of shadowy darkness, sprouting from her palms, darted across the room like black ribbons of miasma. They curled around the Erudites, entwining their bodies.
Screams erupted behind Ramus but he couldn’t turn his head to see. Without warning, he once again fell to the ground, but this time stayed down. Slowly, as if waking from a deep sleep, Ramus felt the paralysis of his own body finally melting.
He rolled to his side. Opposite of Demona, where the Erudites had been standing, shapes were lying sprawled on the floor. Although their clothing was intact, their blue skin had turned a sickly gray with lesions covering most of it. Each body — dead, Ramus hoped — lay in a greenish-yellow puddle of fluid.
He didn’t see the ambassador, or whatever was left of him.
“He ran off,” Demona said, reading his mind. “But I left him with something to remember me by…”
When Demona and Ramus returned to Solan’s hideout, he listened intently to what they had discovered.
“The Erudites are obsessed with perfection,” Solan said after they finished. “I’m sure whatever disfigurement you gave the ambassador will ruin his career.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Demona remarked wryly.
“Well, not anymore anyway…” Solan replied.
Ramus, restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other, crossed his arms. “Are we done here?”
“Why don’t you stick around?” Solan said. “It’ll be like old times.”
Demona gave the Wanderer‘s captain a sideways glance, waiting for his reply.
“No,” Ramus said.
“The old times weren’t all that bad, were they?” Demona asked.
Ramus, who had already changed back into his regular clothes, pulled a set of earrings out of a pocket and began inserting them back into his ears.
“Times change,” he said. “People do, too.”
Demona’s eyes narrowed, her gaze shifting to the tapestries hanging in the room.
“Alright, Rowan,” Solan said. “You’re free to go, but I’ll be sure to let you know when I need you again.”
“Don’t make a habit of it,” Ramus replied. He walked away, disappearing down the hall toward the alley entrance.
“You should probably go, too,” Solan told Demona. “The client is arriving soon and I’d rather meet him alone.”
Still scowling, she nodded and left by a different way than Ramus. Alone, Solan smiled like a cat with a canary.
A half hour later, the hidden doorway from the alley opened and someone came slowly down the corridor into the main room.
Solan was waiting.
“So nice to see you again,” he said.
In his orange robes, the Abbot of the Dharmesh Monastery stood alone and with a frown.
“You made it quite clear I had to appear in person,” the elderly monk replied.
“Well, considering the delicacy of the information you had us acquire, I felt it only fitting.”
“I’m told there was an altercation after I left?”
“Yes, but nothing my people couldn’t handle,” Solan said.
“I hope the incident won’t become a problem,” the Abbot replied grimly.
“I doubt the Erudites will raise a fuss. Of course, you could have simply gathered the information yourself.”
The Abbot lowered his eyes. “You know my people wouldn’t allow that. Reading someone’s mind is strictly prohibited.”
“And yet,” Solan said, raising his eyebrows, “you’re perfectly willing to hire me to do it.”
“We do what we must—”
“Especially if it means avoiding getting your fingers dirty…”
The Abbot’s expression grew even darker. “Do you have something for me or not?”
“Indeed I do!” Solan said. “It appears Ambassador Abaru wasn’t being entirely truthful.”
“I expected as much.”
“In fact, his proposal of an alliance was a ruse to gain your trust,” Solan went on. “The Erudites have been perfecting their powers of mind control and they intended to use it against you and the others.”
“To what end?”
“For power, mostly,” Solan said, “but also to gain knowledge. My agent saw a strong desire in the ambassador’s thoughts concerning the Pool of Memory at the Dharmesh Monastery. He would have sucked it dry of whatever he could learn from it.”
The monk’s face turned more thoughtful than angry. “That would have been a disaster.”
“I can imagine,” Solan said. “I’m sure your liquid computer contains all sorts of secrets the Dahl would rather keep hidden. I wouldn’t mind getting a look at it myself, actually.”
“But you never will, Solan,” the Abbot growled. “You’ll never set foot in my Monastery!”
Solan’s grin became tighter.
“No, I suppose not,” he said. “But having you come to me like this makes it all worthwhile.”
The Abbot snorted and turned to leave.
“Until next time,” Solan called after him, watching the monk’s robes flow away down the hall.