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“You are special.” The woman with the watery eyes, weak chin and crisp, starched labcoat beamed at the small group of white-haired children with silver eyes. “Each and every one of you is special. You were created to make the world a better place. And with service, dedication and your special talents, you will. I promise you.”

Estelle watched from behind a one-way glass at the back of the classroom. After all this time little had changed; same rust-rose carpet, tasteful off-white walls, eager young faces blue-white in the glow of touchscreens built into the desks.

Three children sitting near the back jostled each other, their faces at turns innocent and sly. Like me and Jayne and Alain.

Bile rose in the back of her throat as she remembered the terrible days after Placement. Jayne had thrown herself from the HomeLab roof after she found out her scores. She tumbled end over end without screaming to land twisted and broken in the sun. A strange smile played across her ravaged face as she exhaled her last breath. An accident, the Engineers said as they reconfigured the locking systems to keep future broods off the rooftops during Commencement. And Alain….

“And here to talk to you about one of the exciting possibilities of the future that you were created for is Operative 36 from the Company’s Security Division.” The Engineer gestured to the one-way glass. Estelle put on her best fake smile and walked out to meet the Brood.

***

Estelle stood on the edge of an amplification platform suspended high above the city. She gripped a guy wire with her right hand. Her left hand fanned out as if she was testing the direction of the wind. She stood on her toes, and leaned forward to stare out over Los Angeles. Retro-neon pinks and lilacs glowed luridly in the West Hollywood pleasure district. Red-orange taillights of cars streamed below her on the travelways, like luminescent blood pumping sluggishly through the arteries of some enormous beast. In the distance, she could see beacons illuminating the glass crown of the Library Tower downtown.

She ran her fingers over close-cropped hair the color of lapis lazuli and steadied herself. Her stomach pitched and heaved as the platform shivered and swayed in the hot Santa Ana winds that whistled over the mountains. She hated scan duty. She hated the six foot diameter steel and microfiber disk held up by gossamer, glowing strands of the psychoreactive web that floated high above the Hollywood hills.

She expanded her consciousness to take in the thoughts of the guests at a Casino some seven hundred feet below her. She skipped from mind to mind, bored with the jumble of images and words that resonated in the thoughts of the gamblers:

Bitch.

-- tomatoes on the way home?

--they water down their drinks with--

If I win six thousand credits I promise I’ll

-- an ass like that just begs to be

Bluffing, he’s got to be—

I bet she’s cheating. Has to be

Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries, strawberries.

This last intrigued her. She focused her attention on the source of the odd, repeating thought. She pushed. There was a little resistance as the thinker desperately attempted to mentally repeat his nonsensical mantra, but he was not psychically sensitive and was untrained in effective mindblock methods. His true intentions floated to the surface of his mind: (I’ll be rich if) if Carver’s password works (Rich) it’ll allow me to access the (What if I get caught? Are they reading me now?) cable and (Rich) I deserve this they’ll never notice (rich) pull 30 million credits from the main account to mine if they don’t and rich

Estelle shook her head. The distraction techniques that thieves were using to throw off mindscans hadn’t improved any in the five years since she’d graduated from the Academy. Estelle closed her eyes and breathed in slowly. There was no need for subtlety or elegance. She sent a sudden wave of force through the connection she’d made with the man and induced sleep paralysis. His legs buckled beneath him and he fell to the floor in an ungainly heap. I hope he chipped a tooth on the way down, she thought.

Estelle rubbed her strong, mahogany-colored fingers over the smooth black vinyl that covered her left forearm. A roughly circular patch about two inches in diameter lit up and rippled. The image of a weary-eyed woman appeared. Estelle spoke into the circle, “Dispatch? I’ve incapacitated a probable in the Mont Blanc on Sunset. Clean up should look near the roulette table.”

The woman blinked twice and said, “Roger that and Wilco, Op 36.” The woman punched in information into her keypad. Her brow furrowed as her console began to beep insistently. “I’ve got a beacon coming in from HQ for you, hold please.”

The woman’s image vanished and was replaced by the Company’s logo, a three dimensional green and blue sphere that slowly rotated around a caduceus. A handsome man of middle years appeared onscreen. His salt-and-pepper hair waved back from a high forehead. Keen, dark brown eyes stared at Estelle intently. A wry half-smile gave him a boyish appearance. Agent Hamilton was a Wild Talent that the company had trained and kept employed at great expense. Although they preferred Gengineered psychics in the Security Corps, Hamilton had proven himself again and again in the field. He was one of the few Citizens that Estelle trusted.

“Estelle, I’m going to pull you off of the scans. I have something in particular I want you to tackle.”

She tried not to breathe a sigh of relief. “I’m game for a re-assign.” She bit her lower lip. “But who’s going to take point for me? If it gets out that you left the Hills without a scanner, Lewis will have your head. I like your head. I think you should keep it attached to your neck.”

“I want you to pull some interrogations.” Hamilton rubbed his chin. “I think there’s some serious MindCrimes going on in Boy’s Town and I want you to get some answers for me. I’m going to send Celeste up to monitor the web.”

“Celeste? But she’s not great at widescale patterns, and she’s fantastic at getting answers. It’d make more sense for you to pull her for the interrogations.”

“She’s not a white-haired trainee. She’s earned her blue and is capable of pulling her weight. I need you on this. You’re one of our best at pulling memories out from the schlubs without them noticing the intrusion. We need a scalpel here, not a bulldozer.”

Estelle raised an eyebrow. “Do you think it’s an unregistered wild talent?”

Hamilton shook his head. “No. Too much finesse.” He frowned. His eyes took on a cold, cruel cast. “The perp knows how to work it. I think it’s a rogue.”

“How is that possible?”

Hamilton’s mouth twisted into a parody of a smile. His eyes remained flat and cold. “That’s what you’re going to find out, isn’t it?”

***

Menagerie in Boy’s Town had no sign. Unlike the cathouses of Venice Beach or the bordellos that thronged Santa Monica Blvd, there was no need to adorn Menagerie with blinking pink neon lights that advertised Live Nude Boys or hyper-colored holovid displays that gave lonely Citizens a taste of the pleasures inside. Menagerie was invite only, and only those who could afford its exorbitant prices were invited.

It was unremarkable from the street. High cinderblock walls ran along the sidewalks, keeping prying eyes from the lower level windows. From her vantage point on the walk, Estelle could just make out the top a four-story concrete building with shuttered windows that looked gray in the gloom. It looked like a bureaucratic office building from one hundred years ago; a relic. Estelle double-checked her print-out of the address and pushed through the gate.

The wrought iron gate opened into a high-walled courtyard where a sandstone-paved walkway wound beneath waxy green fronds of date palms whose trunks were nearly lost to view from a lush profusion of dog roses and birds of paradise. A patinaed copper Ganymede poured out an endless cup of cool water for Zeus in a central fountain. Koi darted beneath lily-pads and lotus flowers that floated lazily in the fountain. The sharp scent of half-ripe lemons and the cloying aroma of night-blooming jasmine perfumed the air. Estelle pressed the sleeve of her uniform to her nose and pressed forward through the garden until she came to a green double door flanked by Grecian clay urns.

She turned the brass handle and the door opened soundlessly. She passed through a small foyer before entering a Rococo-style double parlor. She wrinkled her nose at the lilac wallpaper embroidered with gold flock fleur-de-lis and ran her hand covetously over the smooth silk brocade upholstery of a divan. A tall, barrel-chested man in an expensive pinstriped suit that fit him poorly strode into the parlor. He smiled at Estelle, then took in her blue hair and silver eyes and grimaced in displeasure. He ran his fingers over his thinning, dishwater blond hair and cleared his throat. “You know that it’s against policy for the Gengineered to purchase recreational services.” His voice was especially unctuous. “I’ll have to ask you—“

Estelle kept her face an impassive mask as she interrupted, “I’m here on Company business. I didn’t come here for pleasure.”

The man’s eyes narrowed, giving his face a porcine appearance. “Look, I don’t need you poking around in the minds of the guests making them all uncomfortable and skittish this place has a reputa--”

“And I suggest you give me your full cooperation.” She slapped her hand on her wrist. The holovid with her Company Authorization floated up unmistakably. “I’m here to discuss a Rank 1 MindCrime and I have reason to believe that one of the victims is a regular customer of your fine establishment.” Estelle smiled nastily, “an Establishment that operates wholly under the purview of the Company’s Recreation Division.”

“Of course.” He smiled as if they had just exchanged standard small talk. “I’ll lead you upstairs to where the costumers congregate,” the man said. Fucking slave bitch, he thought, intentionally loud enough for Estelle to hear. He gestured grandiosely at an elevator that was cleverly concealed behind a lacquer screen. On the way, she bumped into an ormolu end table, dashing a Sèvres vase to the ground.

“Oops,” she said, stepping over shards of the priceless porcelain, “Slave bitches are clumsy.”

The elevator doors closed just before she smirked.

***

The smell of sweat and cologne and sex wafted through the opening elevator doors. Loud, vintage techno music blared from invisible speakers. Estelle stepped out into a two-story semi-circular chamber ringed by mock Corinthian pillars. From the second story men watched the scene below from the shadowy recesses of what appeared to be theater boxes. The walls of the room changed colors with beat of the music. Lasers and multicolored spotlights illuminated the center of the room with erratic paths.

Silver-eyed teenage boys in g-strings writhed and wriggled in cages suspended on golden wires from the ceiling. Their lithe, oiled bodies glistened beneath the flashing lights. Some of them wore black, brown or blond wigs styled in the latest fashions. Others were painted in tiger stripes or leopard spots and wore matching tails attached to the backs of their meager clothing. But many kept their hair lavender and simply parted down the middle. Young men with thick, lavender eyelashes lounged indolently on cushions placed at irregular intervals around the room. Citizens in archaic business suits or more modern slimsuits watched the boys cavort. The Citizens sat at small circular tables covered with linen cloths or on low couches that rested beneath the cages. Everyone on the dance floor had silver eyes and lavender hair, even if the more vibrant color was hidden beneath a wig. The Citizens only watched. They seemed mesmerized, and in a sense they were; each one of the young men was projecting an aura of desirability. Estelle pressed herself close to the wall and reached out to the young men with her mind, This is routine Security business. You may ignore me for now.

A few lavender-haired boys looked her way. One or two nodded in recognition, but for the most part none even acknowledged her presence. She sighed gratefully; it was much easier to work with sensitives and other psychics. If this brothel had been manned by Citizens, the skittishness her presence would have caused among the rent boys would have made the clients nervous and her job that much harder. These boys simply went back to projecting lust at paunchy businessmen and the occasional bored housewife.

Motors hummed and a glittering, silvery runway descended from above. There was a ragged cheer of anticipation from the clientele. The music changed to a sinuous, nasty psi-rock. The spotlight gravitated to an arrogant-looking youth who sauntered out onto the runway. He was completely nude except for a pair of golden manacles that chained his wrists together. Taut, rippling abdominal muscles were accentuated with glitter oil. His hair hung in loose lavender ringlets that he tossed with leonine motions of his head. The crowd worked themselves into a frenzy of catcalls and shouts when he smiled lazily and winked an eye. A voice overhead called out, “First up for Auction is the Heavenly Adonis, Malakh. Any bids?”

Malakh thrust his hips forward and smiled broadly, projecting desire at members of the audience, and the crowd roared. Bidding paddles flew up and the sound of men shouting out credit amounts was deafening. Malakh was a talented empath, and Estelle was tempted to stand and admire his work, but she had her own duty to perform. The man she was here to interview had his mental signature on file with the Security Corps. She focused on the mental image she’d received from Hamilton in his briefing, scanning the room for a match. It only took a moment for her to hone on in a man standing at the edge of the crowd slavering over Malakh.

The Citizen was in his middle years, perhaps sixty-five. His hairline was severely receding and his posture was poor. He held a bidding paddle loosely in his right hand. The handle was sticky with sweat. Estelle glided over to him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned his head. His jowls quivered as he took in her hair and eyes. Estelle spread out her hands and said as quietly as she could over the music, “Mr. Cohen? My name is Estelle. I’m a special operative with the Company’s Security Corps. I believe you may have been the victim of a MindCrime. Is there somewhere private we can talk?”

Cohen’s pale green eyes watered. He wiped them with the back of a chubby hand. He smiled weakly, “Of course, of course. I have a private box. We won’t be bothered there.”

***

The box was elegantly appointed with low comfortable couches and soft, velvet cushions the color of currants. Cohen gestured for Estelle to sit down and took a place across from her. He clapped his hands, and the scarlet curtains rippled into swirling waves that shut out the light and noise from the auction scene below. Nuanced 20th Century music welled up around them. Mr. Cohen leaned forward and whispered, “What’s this about a MindCrime?”

Estelle smiled disarmingly while discreetly forging a mental link with Gregory Cohen, “We have reason to believe that an unscrupulous psychic has used their abilities to embezzle a considerable amount of credits from one of your private accounts.”

The money? Is she reading my mind? I’d know? But he didn’t steal didn’t steal didn’t steal I gave him I love him. gave (Love) Can she--

“I’m afraid I’m confused,” Mr. Cohen snapped open an antique fan and batted at the sweat beading on his forehead. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Estelle’s smile became brittle. She would have known Cohen was lying without a mental link. “Mr. Cohen, our records indicate that you recently transferred thirty-five million credits out of your account to an unknown coded one. That’s highly unusual. That’s why the company’s sent me to investigate.”

How does she? The man he (secure) said the transaction was safe no one would know no one

Cohen fanned his face faster. “You’d think that with this sort of climate control they could keep it from becoming powerful hot like this. That was a charitable contribution-- if you must know.”

Estelle tried not to roll her eyes. The empath had him hooked and willing to do anything for him. Any industrialist who’d lie to keep from recovering thirty-five million had serious tampering. The straight tactic wasn’t working. She forced herself to look concerned. “Of course, sir. It’s none of my business what you choose to do with your money. We just want to make certain that it hasn’t been misappropriated.” Estelle forced herself a little deeper into Cohen’s mind, “If you could tell me who you donated to?”

The image came up unbidden. He quickly clamped down on it. She got a clear impression of the perp before the thought vanished. Cohen tugged at his collar, “I’m afraid I don’t precisely recall. I see a lot of folks asking for handouts in my line of work.”

Estelle smiled sadly, “Of course, sir. Thank you for your time, you’ve been very helpful.”

She bustled out of the private box before her air of cool detachment fell apart. The MindCriminal was Alain.

***

They were broodmates. Although the training squads at the Gengineering Lab had discouraged trainees from forming personal attachments, there were no official rules forbidding them. Estelle and Alain had always felt a simpatico. He was by far the best student in their brood; she ranked as one of the most athletic. He helped her study for the rigorous academic examinations trainees were expected to undergo; she helped him train for the obstacle courses and movement tests. The last time she saw him was the night before the Placement Test.

Estelle burst into the library breathless from running laps through the winding, brushed steel corridors of the HomeLab. Her white hair was drenched with sweat and hung limply over her eyes. Alain was at his usual corner, sitting on an ottoman and reading from one of those funny paper books. He had a datapad in his left hand and was hunting and pecking at keys. He smiled at Estelle’s sweat-stained jumpsuit and said, “Your candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night.”

“What’s a candle?”

Alain shook his head ruefully. “They used to burn tiny flames that made a steady, inefficient light. It’s a metaphor. You’re working yourself too hard.”

“Tomorrow’s the placement test! Oh, you could help me study!”

Alain got up, stretched luxuriously, strolled over to Estelle and embraced her warmly. “While I think you could do with a good deal more reading, what’s there to study for?”

Estelle punched Alain softly in the chest. “The placement exam! Who knows what will be on it? What if I don’t know enough to earn my blues? What if I end up a baldie or,” she shuddered, “what if I end up a lavender?”

Alain walked a few paces away from her. “I don’t think it’s about what you know, ‘Stelle, my star. I think it’s about what you can do.”

“It’s a physical exam? But then Alain, you should--”

Alain shook his head. He stared out the Plexiglas into the hydroponic garden and traced a figure eight in the moisture that collected on the window. “There’s a legend about the Spartans. The stories go that to become a man, a Spartan had to go out and kill one of the slaves in secret.” He turned to face Estelle and ran one tapered finger along the wispy white hair of his eyebrow. “If he was caught, or if he failed, his punishment was to become a slave himself.”

Estelle furrowed her brow. “What does that mean?”

Alain smiled weakly. You’ll do fine.

“I heard it! I heard your thought, Alain!”

Alain’s face became unreadable. He sighed, “I know,” and turned away from Estelle to stare out the window again.

She could read thoughts! But then why did she feel so sad?

***

The warehouse was unguarded. Estelle had expected more trouble. She doubted that someone as talented as Alain could have his mental signature trailed without noticing. This abandoned, ancient structure of rotting wood, broken glass and cracked concrete was not where she expected to find her friend, her quarry. The building was once a vibrant yellow, but the passage of years had removed most of its color, except where it flaked off in faded, ivory chips. Graffiti artists had once decorated the lower six feet of the building with profane spray paint scribbles, but those too had faded. Estelle pushed open a door. The wood crumbled softly at her touch.

She crossed the concrete. Weeds sprouted through cracks. Abandoned machinery rusted on asbestos covered tables. A figure stood at the far end of the room, staring out of a jalousie window. Alain.

Alain stood in chiaroscuro. He had his back to her, one hand rested between cracked slats of safety glass. In the dying light it was difficult to make out the contours of his face. But the shape of his hands were so familiar that Estelle breathed in sharply. Pigeons in the rafters scattered at the sound.

He was the first to speak. “I thought they would send you.”

“What?”

“Who else?” His laugh was dry and humorless. “Our brood was a spectacular failure. You were the only one who got her very own pair of spit-shined jackboots.”

“I don’t wear--”

Alain snorted, “I don’t suppose being a terrier leaves you much time for reading. Doesn’t matter. They sent you because it was an opportunity to test your loyalty. Did you really think the testing ends with Psychic Placement?”

“Alain, why did you steal that money?”

“He gave it to me.”

“That’s not true.” Estelle moved closer. “You used your talent on him. You made him love you. It’s not fair--”

“And what they do to us is fair?”

“We’re talking about the law here.”

“Because, God forbid jurisprudence be fair!” Alain tapped rhythmically on the rusty crank of the window with his free hand. “Whores or thugs or cannon fodder. Wouldn’t it be nice if they at least gave us a choice?”

“You’re trying to stall. Don’t resist and it’ll go easier on you.”

“Easier? Easier?” Alain’s voice cracked. “Do you have any idea what they do to you at the Trust? Do you have an idea what happens to you? Go down to Figueroa and look at the blank eyes of any of the streetwalkers, go down to Santa Monica Boulevard, even. You’ll see what happens after reprogramming. You’ll see.”

“But if you resist they’ll—I’ll have to decommission you.”

He pulled his hand out from the slats of glass. They shattered with the sudden violence. “Better dead than a zombie.”

“Alain! You can’t mean--”

Do you have any idea what kind of things are asked of people who can make you feel anything? You must, you’ve looked into the minds of criminals.

The thought came in so clearly that Estelle was taken aback. She wasn’t trying to read his mind. You can project mind-to-mind? Then why--

I can’t! You just can read me because of (what you mean to me) who you are

Blood dripped down from his hand. In the fading light it looked black.

“Please, don’t make me decomm-- kill you Alain. Please.” Tears streamed down the front of her face.

Alain smiled sadly, “I could make it so you wouldn’t feel guilty about doing it.”

“What do you want me to do? If it’s not me who brings you in they’ll send someone else. That’s a lot of money, no matter what Cohen says to protect you, your signatures are there.” She blew snot into the crook of her sleeve.

“I’m not that traceable. I’ve had my mental signature changed in the database. Only you know the real one.”

“And how do you plan to explain how there’s a Gengineered walking around with no Company ID or history? It’s not even like you were balded. You’ve got the Lavender marker, Alain. Be sensible!”

Alain smiled again. “You really must take more time to read, ‘Stelle my star. Hair dye. I’ve always wanted to be a brunet. Twenty minutes every morning and I can be.” Alain’s silver eyes glinted in the last of the sunlight. “The eyes? Well, there are places that can perform surgery to fix that. It’s gruesome and expensive and I’ll need corrective lenses. But it’s a small price to pay overall.”

Estelle placed her hand just beneath Alain’s shoulder. She could feel the slow, even beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his chest with every breath. She moved close to him. Her lips nearly grazed his. She whispered, “And when they discover you’re hiding something with a standard area mindscan?”

“I’ll stay out of the nicer neighborhoods. No one area scans the poor. Besides, I have a plan.” Alain pressed close to her.

Estelle’s nipples hardened. Her cheeks felt warm. “And that plan is?”

Alain exhaled, long and deep. Estelle trembled. He whispered, “There’s a rogue. He can make me forget who I am. I’ll never remember I wasn’t born a Citizen. He’ll implant the need for me to keep up my hair dye. Otherwise, an area scan will reveal nothing.”

Estelle smiled sadly. “You’ve thought of everything. I—don’t want to take you in. And I don’t want to kill you.”

“You could come with me. Thirty-five million is more than enough for both of us to drop out.”

Estelle tapped the side of her head, “I’m wired into dispatch. It only takes seconds for me to be located anywhere. And they don’t need a ‘path to do it.”

“They’re not going to like it if you just let me go. I’d rather be de-commed if your failure means--”

“Don’t worry about it,” Estelle focused on her genuine joy at seeing Alain again. “I’ll just report that I couldn’t track you down. The mental signature repository will bear up my report. I’ll be fine.”

The gibbous moon rose over the cyclone fence that stood beyond the cracked jalousie window. Alain’s eyes were luminous in its light. “I heard they de-comm Ops who help rogues.”

“Only if they find out.” Estelle focused on the memory of her first kiss.

“You won’t come? I’m sure there’s a way to get that chip out.”

Estelle’s lip quivered. “I have my duty.”

Alain turned to leave. “Thank you.”

Estelle watched his form retreat into silhouette and stared in that direction for a long time after. For a moment, her hair appeared light purple in the glow of the gibbous moon. Poor Alain. There were some things you can only learn from experience. Some things that books can’t teach you. She stared at the yellow light on the sleeve of her uniform, whispered into it, “Send a clean-up down Seventh. Positive voice prints. I have his mental signatures recorded. Question him about rogue surgeries.”

You can’t lie mind-to-mind.

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