Man in the Field

By Paul R Green

The imposing bulk of Commander Topps dominated the room, drawing all eyes from the thirty six candidates seated before him.
“Morning, candidates.”
The assembled recruits chorused a response and he nodded.
“The fact that you are in this room tells me that you are better than ninety per cent of all those who applied. The fact that you are in this room tells me that you have been tested and judged to be in the top five percent of candidates with psychic potential. The fact that you are in this room means you want to work for me, and to work for me you need to listen to him.”
He pointed to a lean, weather-beaten man slouched in one of the second row seats. The man waved nonchalantly.
“Candidates, this is Palmer. Palmer has made over a dozen D jumps, has been point man on three discovery expeditions, and will be passing on his considerable experience to you over the coming months. I suggest you pay close attention if you wish to progress on your journey towards joining my department. Palmer, you have the room.”
“Thank you, sir.” Palmer unfolded himself from his seat and casually made his way to the front, as his commander exited the room.
He took a long moment to study the faces, seeing how they reacted to the revelation that the man in front of them that they’d assumed to be a fellow candidate was, in fact, to be their instructor.
As he did so he silently recited the mantra that put his mind on the correct path to skim those of his would-be students. In his head he watched as smoky green tendrils – his own personal manifestation of the probes – snaked out to touch foreheads. He was pleased to see that at least half of the class had guards in place and that the majority of the remainder pushed out his probes as soon as they realised they were there. He was less happy with the four candidates who either hadn’t noticed his intrusion, or had chosen to ignore it. He planted the suggestion that they should quit the course and withdrew his probes.
“I take it you’ve all read the field reports from my last assignment?”
The group murmured they had, except for the four students who stood, apologised for wasting his time as they didn’t think the job was for them, and left.
Palmer waited until they’d gone.
“Now that I have everyone’s attention I’ll give you a little background into those reports from my personal notes. Lesson one. Don’t take anything for granted.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 1 +++

It was raining when I arrived. That’s one of the problems with D-Hopping; you’re never quite sure what the weather’s going to be like at the other end. They never mentioned that in the briefings or training; a fact I will be rectifying next year when I get to pass on my wisdom to the next round of prospective Jump-Monkeys D-Hoppers.
A quick sweep of the area told me I was alone, so I was able to get to work.
First job was to get the sensors up and running. This involves me walking about half a klick from where I popped out and attaching a nifty little gizmo – an Automated Remote Sentry Beacon if you want the official title – as high up a tree as I can climb, then walking a roughly circular perimeter and climbing more trees to add more Arse-Beacons every two hundred meters or so until I’m back at tree number one. I like to amuse myself by calling it an arse-beacon in all my reports as I know it annoys the tech boys. Childish I know, but it’s the little things…
Actually – the first job I’ve got to do is pile a few stones up to mark where the D-Gate is, because we don’t want to be spending time trying to find it again later on. No we do not!
Anyway, once the sentries are positioned I do a quick diagnostics check and we are good to go. Now, should any of the local knuckle-draggers happen to wander by, the sensors will pick them up and prevent the D-Gate from opening and scaring the living shit out of them when someone steps out of thin air. It can lead to some awkward situations, that’s for sure – Gideon has his own religion on cL3 thanks to his first trip there. Still that was back in the day. Back when D-Hopping was in its infancy and the department was still finding its feet. Things are different now. There’s nothing like fucking things up to make you get it right next time.
My next job is to dig a big hole, giving me a chance to appreciate all the physical conditioning training I’ve been doing the last few months. Yay!
Once that was done I sent a message pod back home and they began sending my supplies through. The supplies went in the pit, along with the shelter I will be calling home for at least the next few weeks, and I then finish the job by throwing a Techatrek camo-cloth awning over everything just in case. That done, I sent the all clear pod, along with the air, soil and water samples I’d gathered, back through the gate, and seeing as how my next scheduled report isn’t for another week, I put my feet up and got a brew on.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 8 +++

I’m sick of this fucking rain, that’s for sure. It’s still too early to tell how the seasons work here – we won’t know that until I’ve sent back at least two months worth of weather reports and star maps – but by the trees I’m guessing we’re well into autumn. The forest is mainly deciduous, and fairly untouched, at least in the immediate vicinity. There’s a crude road about ten klicks west of base camp which leads to a walled city on a lake at the head of mountain pass about twenty klicks to the north. I’ll know a bit more when I get closer. First I need to find a native and learn me the lingo.

***

Palmer finished speaking and looked again at his students. Most of them studied him straight back. A few frantically tapped notes into their tablets. A couple looked bored. He checked their names on his seating plan.
“Candidates Lyons and Hart your presence is no longer required. Report to Kane for your papers. Both candidates looked startled, but knew better than to question an instructor. They left the room in good order, albeit a touch sullenly.
“Lesson two. Pay attention at all times; you never know what might come in useful later on.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 12 +++

It took me a couple of days but I managed. In the end I tailed a party of travellers until they stopped for the night. Once they’d settled down I was able to slip into a couple of their minds. I’m only a mid-range psychic so it took all of my skills to get what I need despite their lack of defences.
I’m hardly fluent, but have enough of the basics to get me into the city without attracting too much attention and it won’t take me long to catch up once I’m there.
I also managed to grab a few pics of what the natives were wearing, so I was able to add that to my report and should have some convincing copies made up in time for my next supply drop. Those copies will, of course, be suitably modified and made with more robust (and waterproof) materials. They’ll also be thermo-reactive and provide a degree of protection against this world’s crude weaponry; so at least I won’t have to worry about freezing my balls off when winter sets in. Next step, currency.
The suits back home were kind enough to provide me with a variety of gemstones and samples of precious metals; the idea being that whatever the dimension, at least one of these elements will be rare enough to trade for some local coinage. Once I have a sample I can then send it back home and my next care package makes me rich enough to find a permanent base of operations within the society I’m infiltrating. Naturally, I am required to fully account for every purchase and expense; I am a government employee after all.
Of course, like most theories dreamt up by men behind desks, it’s not always the most practical on the ground. It’s very hard, for instance, to determine which of the many gems, jewels, metals and minerals are of value without revealing your stash to a local, or coming across like a complete idiot. Luckily, I am an experienced field operative with a diverse skill set and as such have little trouble, and fewer qualms about, simply stealing a selection of coins from some hapless native – or in this case party of travelling natives.

***

“Don’t write that down, Jenkins. I’ve basically just told you to commit larceny. That’s not a technique Commander Topps need ever know about. I’m trying to keep you alive here, and part of the lesson is about knowing how to apply what you’ve learned once in the field.”
Hearing how that came out, he worried he sounded idiotic, but the cadet blanched at hearing his name and bleated out an apology, whilst his classmates remained poker faced.
“Any questions?”
He didn’t even look to see if any hands were raised.
“Good. Then I shall continue.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 19 +++

I’ve watched the city – Stonelake – for a week now. By its size, building type and density I estimate a population of around thirty thousand, though that may be a little low if the area at the southern end of the town is, as I suspect, some form of ghetto area or similar. The gates and walls are watched by what appears to be an armed militia identified by their long white cloaks. I imagine the same troops also perform some form of police or area watch role within the walls. Those guarding the gate carry long, blade tipped pole-arms and those on the walls have crossbows. They all also have swords on their belts, though from what I can see these vary in size and style, so must be personal weapons rather than standard issue.
Not counting those coming off the docks to the west, there are three main gates into the city: the northern gate, also known as the Crevasse Gate, at the head of the pass, the southern gate, also called the Market Gate, which seems to be where most of the overland trade passes through, and the Citizen’s Gate to the east. Entry through the latter requires a special brass token issued within the city. The tokens are numbered and the watch are, by all accounts, rather efficient in detecting forgeries.
From the comings and goings through the gates, this appears to be a patriarchal society, with rudimentary trade based around food and mineral resources. So, they won’t be swapping me out for a female operative anytime soon. As far as I can tell, the population is made up of all manner of ethnicities, which from a distance don’t appear to be class restrictive. Hopefully this means that I don’t need worry about not being able to have access to certain people or places purely because I’m the wrong skin tone, or my eyes are the wrong colour. There’s only one way to find out though, I’m going to have to go in.

***

He smiled at their reactions.
“It is important to remember that the tolerant and enlightened environment in which you have been born, raised and nurtured is not the norm out there. In fact, it is in my experience, quite the rarity. That is why, you will always have a number of back-up operatives on stand-by, ready to take over your assignment should you find yourself in a D that has something against your particular gender, skin colour, or whatever random genetic marker they’ve decided is unacceptable. .”
He waited until the murmurs died down. In the front row Orla was looking particularly shocked; he might need to watch her.
“Palmer’s rule of thumb; assume everyone is an asshole until they prove themselves otherwise.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 20 +++

Well that was fun, and what I like to call typical of my luck. Apparently today is market day. And that means two and a half hours stood around waiting to get through the gates. The smells alone were enough to down a less hardy operative; the earthy ingrained sweat of the labourers and sickeningly sweet perfume of the traders, combined with the heady animal musk of the horses’ sheep, goats, and chickens, all mingling delightfully with the cloying shit-vapours emanating from the crudely dug pits positioned at regular intervals alongside the road, or from the steaming piles of manure courtesy of the aforementioned fauna. It was also, of course, the hottest day since I got here, allowing the sun to add its own extra little kick to the whole olfactory ambience.
When I finally got to the gate, a ‘what’s your name and business’ along with a cursory weapons check from the guards was all it took to go through, so at least there was that.
Once inside, I headed for a big building towards the centre of town that I’d noted from my vantage point and suspected to be where whomever is in charge was based. I wasn’t going to pay them a visit, but I wanted to find accommodation close by, as its more likely to be of a higher standard. I’ve had enough of country living.

The Abacus is what the tourist blurb back home would call ‘quaint’. The three storey building borders a quiet courtyard surrounded by other finely crafted stone buildings housing the town’s money men and their businesses. It’s funny, but even in a D as different as this one is to our own, you can always spot the money men; even the short-arses have a way of looking down on everyone.
Inside, the building is basic but fairly clean by the D’s standards. I find the Innkeeper, a worryingly scrawny man by the name of Quip who, once I’ve signed in – giving my name and nature of business – shows me to a room on the first floor. For the record, I did skim a few minds on my way here to help with the language and get a few names. I did this because names have meaning and don’t always translate.

***

“For just how important a name can be go ask Fi Nash about her hop to vM7 if you doubt me. Just make sure she’s in a good mood.”

The group in front of Palmer was about half the size it had been when he started. Over the past few weeks the various challenges of the recruitment process had taken their toll. Doyle had been responsible for over half of the drop outs, with his almost sadistic approach to physical fitness putting two candidates in hospital; though office gossip had it that he’d rejected one of the recruits when they refused to sleep with him.
Those that were left were starting to shape up; even Jenkins was a lot leaner, having lost the spare tyre he’d no doubt picked up in his last job working IT support for Department P. They were also much more focussed on his lessons now; eager to learn and starting to think like agents. He pushed out a quick probe out of habit, but every mind in the class was locked down tight. He smiled.
“Never underestimate the little things. You are going to be on your own for a long time. Yes, you can get resupplied, but depending upon where you are and how the land lies, that can sometimes take weeks. Do not be tempted to dismiss the seemingly innocuous items in your field kit; they can and do make a difference in the field.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 20 (cont.) +++

The room is tiny by home standards, with barely enough room for the single pallet, clothing trunk and small table with the wash bowl and jug it contains. In case you’re curious about the toilet arrangements, there’s a ceramic pot under the bed that will be emptied every day if I pay extra. I pay extra! I also congratulate myself on bringing along a Trekatech deodorising strip.
The bed is surprisingly comfortable.

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 21 +++

As a D-scout my job is to establish a foothold in new D’s and prep for a specialist team to come in and run an outpost. This new team does a six month tour of duty, during which they will set up the outpost as the main D-gate, leaving the original as an emergency exit. When their tour finishes they in turn will be replaced by another team who will run the outpost as a sort of inter-dimensional embassy, once the new D is deemed ready for more regular visits from our own. The embassy staff will be responsible for overseeing all comings and goings between the D and vX1, and helping D-hoppers with any local problems they encounter. That said, getting to that stage can take a while, and depends a lot upon the sophistication of the D and its inhabitants. At the moment, there are only three D’s officially open to vX1 residents, hD6, vM7, and vX13; the rest are in various stages of exploration or quarantine.
But all that’s a long way off, I’ve a hell of a lot of work to do before then.
I start by greasing the wheels of local bureaucracy so that I can register as a trading company with the necessary authorities. This gives me the right to rent property within city limits. It also gives me the right to pay taxes and guild fees. The grease only lubricates so much, apparently. Isn’t civilisation grand? I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I could have avoided paying with a bit of mind mapping and psychic embracing, but I’d been pushing my limits expanding the lingo the past few days and didn’t want to risk the burnout. Besides, messing with people’s brains is a slippery slope; once you make one clerk turn a blind eye, you inevitably have to make another, then their boss, then the official looking into the books, then the cop, and his partner…you get my drift.
It’s easier to just pay. It’s not like I have a shortage of cash!

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 22 +++

I have to go back to the D-gate. Someone’s stolen all my cash!

***

“That thing I said about most D’s not being as tolerant as ours. They generally aren’t as law abiding either.” He caught the look from one of his students. “And yes, Jenkins, I appreciate the hypocrisy given my earlier statement.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 26 +++

I’ve secured a warehouse close to the docks, and hired a crew of carpenters to partition a section of the floor space off whilst I procure a wagon and driver and spend the next few days ferrying kit from my campsite. A quick brain rummage and said driver – a miserable bastard named Upman -will conveniently forget exactly where he’s been and what he saw, so no worries there. The kit I’ve brought is covered by tarps, and, thanks again to some slight tinkering with their psyche, the workmen don’t have the inclination to investigate; so again no problems.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 49 +++

The warehouse is now locked down. It took me longer than expected to set up as I came down with some virus that had me confined to bed for a couple of weeks. I was so weakened that I was unable to resist the local quack from feeding me some form of herbal concoction before I was able to run tests to make sure he wasn’t poisoning me. Still, I’m here and feeling better, so once I was back on my feet I made sure I got a sample and sent some back to Albert in the bio-division for analysis.
Anyway, as I said the warehouse is now safe from prying eyes. The locals will find the locks unpickable and the bars on the windows unbreakable. The sectioned off floor space now houses my office, where I have been spending most of my time collating more information on the dimension and its occupants – the fact that we’re heading into winter and the office is heated is purely coincidental.
My other priority has been in establishing myself as an up and coming businessman in the city. I’m pretty good at this. I know I’m pretty good at this because as well as being taxed by the authorities, I’m also now paying a local chap calling himself King B to ensure that no unfortunate accidents happen to myself or my goods whilst on his patch; or as his representatives put it, ‘donating funds for the upkeep of the community and the welfare of its inhabitants.’
I’ve also been spending my time setting up cover identities for the first wave of operatives to follow me here. They’re currently familiarising themselves with my reports in preparation for their arrival. As point man, I get to give the green light on anyone coming through; and if I’m honest, I want to hold off as long as possible because once the go is given I lose a great deal of my autonomy.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 58 +++

The toilet is now installed. You have no idea how happy this makes me.

***

There were only six students left. Jenkins had proven to be quite a find, and Orla had potential now that he’d opened her eyes to a few hard truths. The others were satisfactory, but nothing exceptional. He didn’t have a quota, but felt it was his responsibility to only pass those he felt could do what he’d done and deal with the life.
“Lesson last; resolution is a narrative illusion; you are just one part of a long, on-going process. You need to understand and accept that if you’re going to work in the field.”

***

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 111 +++

Everything’s ready for the next stage now. I’m going back to the D-gate tomorrow to meet them as they come through and get them into the city. There’s to be eight of them in total; six pathfinders, who’ll be tasked with exploring and mapping the D and a two-man team to take over from me at the warehouse.
I’ve purchased a modest house off Stone-cutter street for my replacements, but I’ve just booked the pathfinders a few rooms in The Wayward Wayfarer, an inn favoured by out of town teamsters and mercenaries, where hopefully they’ll be able to blend in a bit more and pick up some useful info on travel routes and the likes.

+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 112 +++

Well, they’re here, all bitching about the smell – it’s funny how you don’t notice it after a few weeks. The pathfinders are led by a giant of a man named Mout. Seriously, they could not have picked anyone more conspicuous; I’ve seen smaller barns. Did I mention his bright red hair? And the one eye? Okay, maybe not the eye, but still, he’s pretty hard to miss, and has a voice like a klaxon, to boot. I’ve set up identities for them as fish traders – the lake is renowned for its trout – and arranged for them to take a consignment through the pass, so at least they’ll only be here for a week or so. Normally the fish only gets as far as Valleyhead, the town at the other end of the pass, before spoiling, so I’ve had some special shipping crates sent from back home that’ll give them another few days; enough to give us an edge over the competition but not enough to cause suspicion. On their journey they’ll take samples and map as they go. They will stay on in Valleyhead to ostensibly set up a warehouse, but obviously that’s just an excuse for them not to come back with the rest of the caravan. I’ve got their paperwork in order and am just waiting for the man I’ve hired as their guide to get back from visiting his sister before they’re out of my hair. The guide, a man named Golan, says the pass won’t be open for another week anyway, due to a heavy snowfall last week. Once they’re gone, I’ll hand over the business to my replacements and leave town on the pretence of visiting relatives of my own.

***

“I realise it sounds corny, but sometimes the simplest explanations work best. Don’t get too caught up in trying to find clever excuses for what you are doing; honestly, people don’t really care, and will accept what you tell them. It is important, however, that you do have an out ready.”
He looked up again at the studious faces and smiled. He’d told them what he could. Whether they listened was up to them. Whether any of them made it through the final selection process and became D-Scouts was up to Commander Topps.
“Speaking of which, I have an elsewhere to be, so good luck and better judgement. Dismissed.”

***
+++ Palmer’s Journal – cL14 – Day 112 – personal addendum +++

My replacement is Cassius, a seasoned operative who I’ve worked with before, and his protege, an enthusiastic young rookie named Velane. I don’t mind Cassius, he keeps himself to himself when not working, but the rookie bothers me. It’s not that she’s done anything wrong per se, or that she isn’t following orders or protocols, it’s just that something in the way she always seems to watch everything and everybody gives me the feeling she’s hiding something behind that gap toothed smile.
Anyway, for the next few weeks I’ll be bringing them up to speed on the operation here and introducing them to some key locals. Once I’m happy they’ve settled in I’ll be able to go back home and put my feet up for a few weeks; maybe even take a break before I have to start the teaching job Topps has lined up. I might even try that casino on hD6 that Logan is always banging on about. Of course, I’ll need to spend two weeks in quarantine first, but such is the life of a Jump Monkey.

Advertisements

A Filthy Night

She lay in the crumpled remains of the bed looking at the dark skin of the young watchman’s bare firm back and broad shoulders, marked by the red stripes of their recent exploits. He sat on the bottom edge of the bed, rubbing his hands through his short, wiry hair. The sounds of the wind whipping the window with the lash of rain lulled her into a waking dream. The smell of the overused bed, the seediness of the red-hooded lantern and the mechanical transaction of their recently completed coitus faded into her fantasy. He, her husband, a young, firm, practical watchman with a steady job and a gentle, loving manner. She, his dutiful wife, servicing him gladly and keeping their home. It was not always like this with her. But with certain clients…

They always came here to relieve their needs – the watchmen. The Gilded Lilly had a good reputation and was as clean as they come. It was a tough job being a watchman and often, when the adrenaline of their occupation overwhelmed them, they needed somewhere to expend their energies and forget their frustrations and angst. The girls did not mind. Watchmen were generally good men. Their lovemaking, whilst not gentle, rarely stepped over the mark where the bruises would show and treatment may be needed. She particularly liked this young watchman. Clay, that was his name, and she believed that he could be soft and malleable like his namesake. Soft and malleable, that is, until hardened in the fires of this city’s cesspit furnace of violence and despair. She did not think that he had been hardened yet. She hoped that he had not been hardened yet.

A knock at the door – three taps, pause, one tap. It was madam. Surely it was not time yet. Did she not have more moments to lay in this silent fantasy?

Clay reached over to gather up his pants and shirt as the door opened. The smiling yet hard face of Dolly, surrounded by the brazen curls of red and gold, peeped around the door. She felt a moment of jealous possession as Dolly appraised the young body of Clay. With a smirk, Dolly spoke, “Nice, sweety, nice. If I were twenty year younger I’d let you in me f’ free.” Her jovial tone changed, became businesslike. “But there’s a street brat here for y’. Been sent for a watchman to check out a body in a’ alley off Horsetether street. You been here the longest. Well, auld Trappy’s been here longer ’n you, but I’m not sending an old geezer like him out of my warm house on a night like this. And seein’ as ’ow the others probably haven’t finished yet, you’re up.”

Clay nodded. He was almost fully dressed now. Having fastened his wide belt, upon which hung his watch-issue short sword, he retrieved his regulation white cloak which he would need to protect him from the icy blasts of this filthy night. After fastening the clasp at his neck, he reached into his purse and pulled out three large coins. He only had to pay two, but Clay always tipped generously. He left them on the bedside cabinet without acknowledging her broad, thankful smile.

***

She was quick. After all, time was money and there would be another client waiting. She scraped her fingernails, then sifted through the bed, bedding and her own clothes and hair. She had done well. About a dozen hairs, at least half of them bearing the little white globules she had been told to get, and a decent scraping of flesh from his back. She had been deliberately rough for this, but he had seemed to like it. She carefully collected her hoard into one of the small, stoppered glass phials that madam had given her. She wondered, not for the first time, what madam needed these scraps of people for, but quickly moved her thoughts to something else. What madam did was none of her business, and the extra four coppers per client was more than enough for her to be happy to leave it that way.

***

It was morning, but the sun wouldn’t rise for a while yet, especially with sky as thunderously heavy as it was. Madam Dolly was sat in the kitchen of her large house – the only room that was ever private. Her red and gold curls sat on the table beside her as she sucked noisily on her cow-bone pipe, trying to spark some life into the slightly damp tobacco. After a few attempts there was a satisfying crackle, and acrid smoke filled her lungs. She let out one great cough, then went back to the pipe, taking in a controlled draw. She sat back contentedly, allowing the blue smoke to filter out through her nostrils.

Her contentedness was quickly disturbed by a knock at the door. Three taps, pause, one tap. It was him. She did not bother to rise or to call out, after a second he let himself in.

An old man stood before Dolly – although a bitter part of her considered that he was probably no older than she was herself. His dark cloak, impossibly slick and smooth even when it was dry, was pulled about him to protect him from the cold, wet night. He pulled back his hood to reveal his face, lined and pock-marked, yet somehow vibrant. He had a living colour to his cheeks that was shared by few in this desperate city. His face was surrounded by a wrap of grey hair and beard. Though not grey, she realised, but somehow silver. Almost shining. He smiled at her and, not for the first time, she found herself transfixed by the straight whiteness of his perfect teeth. She glanced to her right, where her own, yellowing, false teeth – a huge investment, crafted from the reclaimed teeth of dead soldiers – sat beside her bright wig.

He spoke. “Well, Mistress Dolly, what do we have from tonight’s enterprise?” His voice was deep, resonant, captivating – much like hers had been back when men paid to hear her sing and not to use her body.

From beneath the table she produced a wooden rack. It had spaces for twelve small, glass phials. Four of the spaces were empty.

“Only eight? It must have been a quiet night.”

She nodded. Another quick draw on the pipe before she said through the smoke, “Yes. Too many other houses opening that undercut us.” The course accent that she had used in the presence of the watchman was gone. Her tone was refined now, despite the slight lisp caused by the removed teeth. “They use unclean girls and have less rules. I am not willing to stoop so low in an attempt to undercut them.”

The man nodded. His pale, blue eyes showed compassion. “I know. That’s why you need me, and this.” He pulled a purse from beneath his shimmering cloak of darkness. He opened the purse, which chinked gently as he took out about a dozen small, silver coins which he tucked back inside his cloak. The purse was still acceptably full as he dropped it onto the table. In the same movement he reached for the rack of phials. Dolly pulled them back towards her, just a fraction. His compassionate eyes changed, narrowing to a questioning frustration.

Dolly drew another calming breath of smoke from the pipe and breathed it out deliberately, slowly. Their eyes were locked together: hers, dark brown and red-rimmed; his, pale blue and shining. She asked him the question again, the one that she had asked on six previous occasions since he had come into her life with a seemingly indeclinable offer. “So are you going to tell me what you do with all of this?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“But you guarantee that nobody comes to harm because of it?”

His nod was emphatic. “Absolutely. You have my word on it.”

“How can I trust you?”

He shrugged. “Have any of your clients come to harm?”

She did not shake her head, but held his gaze. “Not yet.”

He shrugged again. “Well, there you are then.” She still held the rack of phials, so he continued. “I give my absolute word that nobody has, or will ever, come to harm because of what we do here. Quite the opposite, in fact. I wish I could tell you more, but I cannot.”

Dolly gave a little nod of acceptance then pushed the rack of phials towards him across the table. He gathered them up quickly and stashed them beneath his cloak. He hesitated as he turned to leave and asked over his shoulder, “Speaking of clean girls, do you need any more of the ointment yet?”

She shook her head, then turned her face away. Nothing more was said and he silently left, retreating out into the last remnants of the filthy night.

***

The sun was struggling to break through the grey clouds of morning as Albert Forlanze trekked through the small, dripping wood. He was glad of his waterproof, black oilskin coat, padded with the latest technology in heat-regulating thermal fibres. TrekaTech really was the company to go to for high-quality outdoor wear. The fibres of this particular coat actually drove cold out into the surrounding atmosphere in order to maintain a constant temperature by the skin of the wearer. His boots were made of the same material and he had expended a sizeable portion of his monthly credit on them. They were worth it.

There, ahead, Albert saw what he was looking for: a small, seemingly random shape of stones that would have been easily ignored by any usual passer-by. It was the D-gate. One quick calculation on his D-hopper mobile and he would be back to vX1 – the prime dimension. He quickly checked inside his coat to ensure that the phials of purchased samples were intact. They were.

Back on his home dimension, in his government-sponsored and fully equipped laboratory, Albert would be able to run the DNA of these samples through the usual, rigorous range of tests. Eight samples. From his experience, that would give him four workable DNA strands. With a one in eighty-two thousand chance of finding what he needed, Albert was not brimming with confidence. But, he would return again to gather more samples.

Ever since dimension-hopping had been prevalent in his world, Albert had been tasked by the government to complete his current assignment. He had to find the cures for the diseases from the other dimensions for which they had no immunity on vX1. He had always managed it and even been ahead of the game. But this new strain was proving difficult, beyond difficult. But he kept at it. Eventually, surely, he would get what he needed.

Stranded 

By Barbara Tsipouras

 

I don’t know how I got here, nor where I am. Michael calls it vX1. What a strange name for a place. And when I asked where that is he said, “in my hometown.” But that can’t be. Apart from the landscape, nothing else reminds me of home. Perhaps this is the future. It must be the future.

Everything was nearly perfect when I met Michael. I guess that’s what they call ‘love at first sight’. I hadn’t believed this could ever happen to me. He looked into my eyes and I felt a shiver run down my spine and I knew immediately that he’s someone special. There was this connection between us I had never felt before. Michael was so gentle, so aware of my needs, listened carefully to whatever I had to say, understood my thoughts and feelings better than I did. I secretly planned our future together.

Until one day he told me he had to leave and he probably would never return. He told me that he loved me, but that we couldn’t stay together. He talked about his ‘mission’ – whatever that was; he never really explained – said he had to go home. He had got an urgent call. They needed him there. And I? Didn’t I need him? Wasn’t that important to him? I saw that he was hurting as much as I was. He couldn’t even promise to come back. I couldn’t let him go.

After hours of discussing and weeping and halfhearted explanations and more crying he finally said there was a way he could take me with him, but that would mean never to return. I’d have to leave everything behind and never look back. Could I do that? Yes, I could. He meant more than anything to me.

I can’t remember the trip. I just don’t know how I got here. When we arrived I felt dizzy, disoriented. At first I didn’t notice the difference. We seemingly still stood on the same beach, but when we came into town everything was different in a strange way.

Michael’s family welcomed me with open arms and everybody seemed to know who I was. They served us dinner, brown rice with vegetables, without fat, without spices. And only plain water to drink. The breakfast the next day was as tasteless as the dinner, some cereals with milk, but without sugar and no coffee, just herbal tea. When I asked for sugar they said they didn’t have any.

I wanted to call my parents to tell them that I’m with Michael and they don’t have to worry about me, but my battery was dead and nobody could lend me a charger. Nobody has ever seen a smartphone! But they communicate with their houses. They have flat screens on the walls, tell their house who they want to talk to and that’s it. They don’t need to go grocery shopping, they tell their fridge what they need and get it delivered. Life seems to be easier. And safer. There are no locks at the doors, they don’t bother to close the windows when they leave.

But it’s also boring. I wanted to go partying in a club, a pub or at least a cafe, but I was disappointed, no such things in this strange place.

I tried to watch the news to get an idea where I am and what’s going on, but they had only reports about other “dimensions” – what the hell is that? – no wars, no crimes, some politicians discussing issues I didn’t understand, only the weather forecast was somehow familiar.

As long as Michael was with me I was just happy to be with him. Everything else didn’t matter. But yesterday he went on his next ‘mission’. He didn’t answer my questions about where he would go, to do what exactly or when he will be back.

Why doesn’t he trust me? Why doesn’t anybody trust me? I get no answers to all my questions. Everybody is friendly but when I ask where I am, what this place is, if this is the future, if there’s a way back, they just change the subject.

I feel stranded in a place or time I don’t belong to. I’m lonely. Have I made the right decision? Is love enough? What if Michael won’t return?

The Jump

By Paul R.Green

Almost there. Just one more step and it’ll all be over. Just one. All I need do is put one foot in front of the other and this all goes away.

Up here on the roof I can feel every shift in the cold winter air as it swirls around the buildings around and below me, almost as if the capital itself is a living breathing thing and it would only take the slightest of sighs for me to be sucked into its fatal embrace.

It’s obvious now that I should never have listened to her, but she was wearing the blue pinstripe; the one cut to perfection that shows off her every curve. And her perfume; when she leaned in close to make the oh so innocent initial suggestion, coupled with the subtle, yet clearly deliberate, pull of white cotton across her chest, slipped through my already crumbling defences and cut off my brain at the dick.
She said she just wanted to see the jump logs; to see how the system worked, as she was considering transferring out of fieldwork and looking for an alternative that kept her within the department.  And I guess of all the Jump-techs I was the most gullible. Of course at the time, I thought it was because I was the smartest, youngest and most attractive, but we’ve already established who was doing my thinking back then.
Anyway, I waited until I was working a solo shift and showed her the ropes. She was a quick study and pretty soon she was asking questions that I really shouldn’t have answered; but I went along anyway, risking my career for the suggestion of a hint of a promise. I said I was smart, not that I had any common-sense. But that body, that scent, those eyes had a way of making me forget everything else. Of course, with hindsight, she may have just been playing with my mind. Part of me wishes that were true, but if I’m honest, most of me doesn’t. I like to think that my training would be enough to keep her out, but if she’s managed to keep off Topps‘ radar this long then getting into my head shouldn’t have proved too difficult.
As the wind buffets me, the sudden lurch of my body brings me back to the present and the ledge. My train of thought arrives at its inevitable destination and the question I should really be asking before I take this step; am I here of my own volition, or is this a suggestion she’s dropped into my brain. An emergency backup procedure of sorts, designed to tie up any loose ends in the event of an investigation.
How would I know? Who can I ask for help? The very people who could help me are the ones doing the investigating. Asking for help would put me smack in the middle of their sights.
What if I went to her? Have her help me make a jump and cover my tracks, just like I’ve been doing for her these past couple of years. I could jump to one of the more densely populated Ds. One with a decent but lower tech level and minimal psych abilities. But, she’s on assignment again, tracking down an arms dealer on cL14, and I don’t even know when she’ll be back.
I guess there’s only one type of jump I’ll be making and it’s a definite one way trip.
The wind drops and there’s a beautiful moment of stillness as the sun breaks through  the grey clouds. I close my eyes, picturing her as I savour the warmth that spreads across my face, and take a step.

Arms and The Mind

By Mark Barrett

Commander Topps turned away from the fading i-comms screen and relaxed back into his Ergomaster Recliner. Three-dozen micro engines whirred at the edge of hearing, easing the chair into the exact firmness and tension for Topps’s body in this position. It maximised comfort.

Topps was not comfortable. Being the commander of the Psytech arm of dimension vX1’s Law Enforcement Agency meant that Topps often was not comfortable. He was called upon to make difficult and dangerous decisions on behalf of his agents almost every day, and knowingly sending close friends and colleagues into unknown perils in little known dimensions was not conducive to often feeling comfortable. He had just acted on one of those difficult and dangerous decisions, and so allowed himself twenty-two seconds of forced relaxation before acting on the next.

Topps reluctantly sat forward, prompting a series of reversals of engines, and contacted his personal assistant. This was easy. He could recognise her pale, yet ordered thought-patterns from three rooms away. Her mind was a palish amber set in a rigid pattern, with only the occasional flurry of unrestrained imagination or unchecked thought path – on a work day, anyway. She was directly through the wall to Topps’s right, and it took barely a second for his own sharp, focussed, streak of blazing orange thought to touch her mind and deliver his instruction. Even though he was not looking for it, he could not help but notice the fiercely intense, walled mind of a trained psychic not far from his personal assistant. This mind was now moving towards the door to his room, as he had requested.

The door opened. The mind’s owner entered. She was tall, but not overly so, and though her body appeared slender, she had a straight back and square shoulders which told of fitness and strength. Her face was freckled, and framed by loosely tied hair, fading through browns to blonde in the current fashion. She could easily have looked safely plain, were it not for eyes which were every bit as fiercely intense as the mind behind them. She stood squarely before him. Her greeting was sparse. “Commander Topps.”

Velane.” There was a pause in which neither agent nor commander felt uncomfortable. Then Topps offered. “Would you like a drink?” indicating the Beverator set into the wall of his office. He subdued the urge to say, “at ease.”

“No thank you, sir.”

“Please, one day, do try to remember to just call me Topps.”

Velane relaxed in the shoulders, but did not change her stance. The briefest flicker of a smile flashed the gap between her teeth, which always made her appear younger than she was. “Sorry, sir – Topps, sir.”

“That’s better.” Topps indicated one of the chairs before his desk, not an Ergomaster, and kept his hand outstretched long enough for Velane to know that this was not a request, and so she sat. He smiled. “Good. Good to see you, Velane.”

“And you commander.”

Topps waited for her to correct herself, but she did not. He continued. “I understand that you are familiar with dimension cL14?”

Topps had intoned it as a question, but Velane did not deign to reply. She knew that Topps would be fully aware that she had been the Psytech agent attached to the original exploration party in that most newly-discovered of dimensions, and she did not think it worth either of their time to point this fact out to him.

Topps had worked with Velane for almost two years now, and knew her ways, so he did not push her for a response. “Well, we have an active case in that dimension…”

“Already?” Velane had not meant to interrupt him, but she was shocked. Dimension cL14 had not yet been fully explored and authorised jumps to and from it were scarce. Velane would not have expected a Psytech case to be opened there so quickly. Regardless of this she silently remonstrated with herself at so easily revealing emotion. She calmed her mind for the remainder of the conversation, glad that Psycops never read each other without express permission.

“Yes. Someone’s dealing arms.” Topps sighed. “The bigger we get, the harder it is to control.”

Velane nodded, emotionlessly. Arms deals. These were a regular problem for Psytech law enforcement. Dimension vX1, the prime dimension, had extraordinarily high technological advancements – hence it being the only dimension so far discovered that had developed dimension-jumping technology. Certain unscrupulous citizens of vX1 were not averse to selling some of that technology on to less-developed dimensions for a high profit. And as war was pretty much the one constant that seemed to tie together the civilisations of every dimension, it was generally weapon technology that was most profitable. Every Psytech Law Enforcement Agent could expect fairly regular cases of weapon smuggling. This was one of the dangers inherent in the job, as arms dealers tended to be well-financed, well-equipped and violently-attached to their trade. With the sort of money that was often involved, they were willing and able to take on a Psytech Agent, and in several cases had won. And Velane was a fairly new and relatively inexperienced Psytech Agent. She had not expected a case like this for some time to come. “Are you sure, sir?”

Even without a reading of her surface thoughts, Topps understood her reservations. “Yes, Velane, you’re ready.”

Velane swallowed hard. “Is it a Ricker case, sir?”

“Yes.” Topps read her hesitation as self-doubt. “Listen, Velane, you’re one of the best damned recruits we’ve ever had. I mean, the feedback Cassius gave about you from your training jumps with him…”

Topps trailed off. Mention of Velane’s old mentor was still a difficult topic for both of them. He felt sure that she was as upset as he was about how Cassius ended, and he read her stony silence as self-control not to show the emotion. Topps raised his voice and the positivity again. “You could be as good as Logan. Better! I am sure. You are ready.”

The gap-toothed grin shone. Velane knew that she was ready, too. She could not believe her luck that she was being given this case – a high-profile case in a dimension that she knew well, had explored and been there from the establishment of the first dimension hoppers. She wanted it. She needed it. She also knew that she would close this case, just knew it. She was ready.

Topps saw the acceptance in her eyes, and inwardly suppressed the dread shudder he felt whenever he sent an agent into a potentially life-ending situation. Outwardly he smiled, as happy as Velane in the rule about Psycops not reading each other. “Would you like me to initiate a psytrans of the case details now.”

“Yes.”

***

Velane wondered if she would ever get used to the wretched squalor that some of these dimensions accepted as their general standard of living. Especially the very low-tech dimensions like cL14. She was currently shuffling through the make-shift tents of the camp of followers, family and traders that formed the tail of a large army that was passing through this district. And it stank. Human and animal waste interspersed with discarded and rotting food was mixed in with the thick, sludgy mud that the ground had been turned into by the treading of thousands of feet. It sucked at Velane’s impractical sandals and splashed up her legs onto her coarse, tattered skirt. She was glad that she was up-to-date with all of her shots.

The dimension-jump had thrown her out dangerously close to this large congregation of people, and she was lucky not to have encountered anybody on her arrival or in that sickly, disorientated few minutes that accompanied the end of any jump. She had made a mental note to inform the technical arm of Psytech LEA to move the destination hopper to a more secluded area.

It was nearing dusk, but the accumulation of tents was as bustling as daytime in any city. By listening to snatches of conversation, Velane had established that the army had stopped only moments before and that the huge job of feeding, clothing and weapons repair, and bedding down was just beginning. She tried to navigate her way closer to the soldiers, where talk of arms and armaments was most likely. The shanty-town of tents was confusing, though, and she quickly realised that the only way she was likely of being able to find her way would be to touch the minds of the better informed people around her. This was a risk, because if she touched the mind of a psychic from her own dimension attached to the arms dealer she was tracking, then she would reveal her presence. But there was no alternative so she did so, gently and carefully.

Snatches of thought came to her: mistrust of other peoples, units and races within the army; fear for loved ones in the battle ahead; desperation at a lack of food and alcohol for the soldiers; worry at the whereabouts of a scouting unit not yet returned; confidence in the new weaponry. Velane latched onto that particular thought and sent a pale orange line of mental inquiry back along to the mind from which it came. She turned and followed the thought past an ageing woman slicing soft onions into a watery soup and on to a large, high-roofed tent with a fire beginning to rage in a stone hearth within.

Two men were talking. One was stood nonchalantly, picking his teeth with a piece of straw, whilst the other was powering a huge set of bellows, driving oxygen into the raging fire trying to drive it on to a metal-softening inferno. Beside him a number of chipped and broken swords and spear-heads were lined up neatly. In the front of the neat line, though, sat an old-fashioned – well, old fashioned from where Velane came – six-shooter. The first man spoke. “I dunno know why I’m bothering to get my sword fixed, Brayden. That skirmish the day? It’ll be the last action someone like me’s gonna see. Are you gonna bother fixing it?”

Brayden’s huge shoulders never stopped working the bellows. “Yes.”

“Hmmm.” The first man, in an habitual manner, went to lean upon his sword hilt, but almost stumbled as his arm slipped down to meet only his empty scabbard. Instead he stepped forward and picked up the gun. “I wish I had one o’ these. These things’ll win the war.”

“No. They won’t.”

“How? I’ve seen them kill men from a hundred yards away. Punch through armour. Bring down horses. How will these not win us the war?”

Brayden paused in the stoking of his fire, turned to the soldier and took the gun from him. When he spoke his voice was deep and soft, and his words came out with the slowness of deliberate thought. “Firstly, they won’t win us the war, because the other side have them too. Secondly, this one’s broken and that seems a common state for these things. Lastly, men win wars, and we have more men than we can arm with these,” the distaste in the pause was palpable, “things.”

The soldier nodded. “You hate them. So why have you got this un’?”

Brayden was turning the gun over in his hands, appraising it with his keen, blacksmith’s eye. “Because, I’m going to find out how they work.”

The soldier looked concerned. “I’m pretty sure Ricker would have something to say about that. He won’t want nobody trying to work out these things.”

Velane froze. Ricker. That was a name known throughout Psytech. A shadowy, little-known figure whose name had cropped up in arms-dealing cases in three different dimensions but had never been traced. Nobody had any idea who Ricker was, what he was, or if he even existed. Yet here was this common soldier from an underdeveloped dimension throwing the name around as if he knew him. Velane had to risk a deeper mind-delve to see what this soldier knew. She let her thin, pale trace of thought slide deeper into the undulating orange haze that was the mind of this soldier, and then slowly widened it. As she did so she accessed more and more of his thoughts, his memories and his mind. She learnt about the army, its movements, his unit, the death of his girlfriend, his recklessness. But she learnt nothing more of Ricker. It was a name that he knew well, that all soldiers seemed to know well, but he knew nothing more than a smattering of rumours and stories that seemed designed to increase reputation and instil fear.

She made a gentle tweak in the soldier’s thought patterns. He turned to the blacksmith. “Anyway, you’re busy. I’ll head off and pick up my sword first light.”

Brayden merely grunted in response. His reaction was more pronounced when Velane entered the tent. “What do you want?”

Velane smiled, the disarming gap in her teeth lending her an appearance of youth and naivety which she often exploited. “I have been sent by my new husband to get a weapon.” She liked the gruff Brayden, and could sense his strong-will, so she wanted to avoid attempting to enter his mind.

Brayden’s rough grunt was tinged with amusement this time as he went back to his fire. Lots of young women fled their villages in search of new husbands in the trail of an army. And they sometimes found them. But all too often those new husbands were already old husbands of another woman, and so the new marriage seldom lasted beyond the campaign.

“Please. He needs one of those.” She pointed to the gun that Brayden had recently put down. “I would be safer if he had one of those.”

He stopped. He stared at her. His eyes were deep and a dark, dark hazel colour. His voice was quiet, yet captivating. He possessed a sense of presence and a strength of mind that had nothing to do with any psychic prowess. If Velane did not know for absolute certain, she would have believed that he was looking straight into her soul and reading her thoughts. He said, “Go back to your man. Tell him that you could not help him. You want nothing to do with these, or where they came from.”

As he said it, his eyes twitched upwards, as if he were looking through the tent wall at a place much further back in the camp. To a trained psychic like Velane, it was unmistakable. She knew where Brayden had acquired the gun.

***

Any trail of army followers is, by its very nature, dense and crowded. Here, though, as Velane approached the area indicated by Brayden’s involuntary glance, the crowds thinned, and whilst far from deserted, people tended to keep their eyes down and business to themselves.

They seemed to come from nowhere. Four men, armed with swords and intent on killing. At least one of them was from Velane’s dimension, as their minds were being hidden behind a blank, psychic wall. It was actually the blankness that had alerted Velane, giving her the split-second’s notice she needed not to be caught unaware and killed with the first blow. In an encampment this full of people in heightened states of emotion, the lack of any mental activity stood out.

Velane moved quickly, stepping inside the path of the first man’s brutally swinging sword. From here she could easily assess the threat that each man posed, and she did so at the speed of thought..

The man into whose path she had stepped had the searing, coldly-focussed mind of a practised killer. His lack of any psychic ability, and confidence in his sword-arm, spoke of a mercenary from this dimension.

The next nearest man was moving in. He was dividing his thought-patterns between trying to read Velane’s mind and trying to focus on his unwieldy weapon. A neatly-trimmed beard and immaculately styled hair. So, a killer from her own dimension more at ease with a gun than a sword. Velane could only think that their desire not to rouse the whole camp had prevented this man from shooting her.

The next two men were slightly farther away, and so posed less of an immediate threat. There was the balding psychic, in an anachronistic leather jacket for the dimension. It gave Velane a leap of confidence to realise that he was still maintaining the psychic wall, despite her now being inside its confines: inexperience or inadequacy, either was good. And the scruffy local-thug type, casually swinging his sword left-handedly, clearly expecting this to be an easy job.

Easy it would not be, Velane would ensure that. But, as fit as she was and with her combat training, Velane knew that as a slightly-built, unarmed woman fighting against four armed and burly men, she had virtually no chance of survival. Her heightened psychic powers, though, gave her an edge. Even so, she would find it difficult to hurt, let alone overcome, these men.

Despite her proximity to the first attacker, the stylish gunman swung his sword towards her. Velane knew that he was skilled enough to resist hasty psychic suggestion, so she focussed her efforts on the mercenary. Lightning-fast suggestion pierced his focussed mind and persuaded him to shift his weight to his left foot in order to ready himself for a parry. This proved fatal, as the shifting of weight pushed him straight into the path of the oncoming sword-swing from the initial attacker, which bit deeply into his hip with a satisfying crunch of bone. The two men writhed in confusion as one tried to heave his sword free of shattered joint of his wildly-flailing comrade.

Velane stepped out of this confusion and circled the, now wary, two remaining men. The local thug supressed any outward show of surprise at the predicament of the first two attackers. His demeanour was still casual and nonchalant. His mind, though, gave him away. Half-a-second before acting, a haze of thought shaped into the form of a feint with his sword to the right, then a devastating kick to the abdomen. Velane’s physical movements were fluid, as she ignored the feint and stepped around the kick. The thug’s foot met no resistance, and his leg overextended painfully, leaving him unbalanced with a widely exposed groin. Velane took full advantage of this and crunched a sharp knee into it with pin-point accuracy. She was even able to select the testicle to crush. She went left.

Even as she did this, she was bombarding the balding psychic with a multitude of random thoughts, feelings and ideas. He blinked and fell back. A psychic, yes, but not an accomplished one. Behind her, Velane sensed the surge of satisfaction. The stylish, bearded killer from her own dimension had freed his weapon from the ruined hip of the swordsman, who slumped sideways, gurgling and croaking even as his life blood emptied, spraying out of a deep, arterial wound. Velane ignored him.

Oblivious to the spray of blood that had soiled his immaculately-styled hair the second attacker, the psychic, inched toward her. His mind was as bright and straight-edged as the blood-stained sword in his sweaty hand. Velane could sense the pale orange spike of his mind trying to read hers, barely a split-second in front of his physical assault. She did not reciprocate. Instead, she sent a clear indication of her intention to rush towards the man, in order to get inside his range in exactly the same way as she did with the first attack. He checked his onrush in order to compensate for this and, as he did so, she turned and rushed away. Straight at the confused, balding psychic who had been the source of the, now dispersing, psychic wall.

He was in the process of regaining his mental composure, but not enough to deal with a young, aggressive and physically fit woman careering into him. He had not even had time to raise his thin, razor-sharp weapon before Velane had driven her piston-straight fingers into his throat. There was a satisfying organic click as his windpipe cracked under the force of her blow, backed up by her full body weight at speed.

As he fell with a rasping choke, Velane turned. Two men faced her. One was slick, smooth and used to seeing combat conducted in this way, though uncomfortable with the weapons and setting. The other was cradling a painfully throbbing testicle, confused and anxious, unfamiliar with seemingly defenceless young women who could so damage a gang of armed and brutal men. Velane focussed on this feeling of anxiety, fed it, stoked it, and watch its orange glow grow and spread until it filled the local thug’s head. Her slick, fellow-dimensioner watched with interest – both physically and psychically as he too saw anxiety flare into fear before burning into terror. Seconds before the local thug turned and fled into the night, the slick man pushed his sword, point first, into the ground, briefly nodded respect at Velane and then turned and walked away.

Even as the thug fled, Velane combed his mind for evidence of the mysterious Ricker. Yes, he was aware of Ricker, but in the same way that the soldier in Brayden’s tent had been. A series of rumours, legends and stories. But this man had no connection with Ricker. No, he was working for somebody else.

Two arms dealers in one, underdeveloped backwater dimension? Whilst absorbing the mental anguish of the dying killer, and ignoring the croaking gasps of the man with the cracked windpipe, Velane chewed her lip thoughtfully.

***

This time it was Velane who was hiding herself behind a psychic wall. But, unlike her clumsy attacker from earlier, Velane was channelling the surrounding, mundane thoughts of others into her wall, making it a psychic wall of noise that was as impenetrable, yet less detectable, than the blank wall she had earlier faced. She had constructed this wall before her in order to surreptitiously enter a ring of carts that had been arranged on their sides in a circle in order to construct a large secluded area that had been roofed with tarpaulin. Knowing that she was close, Velane had merely allowed the thoughts of others to wash over her as they had passed, rather than send out potentially traceable mind probes. These thoughts had slowly, unerringly guided her towards this enclosure. This enclosure from which the guns originated. This enclosure within which she would find her target.

Velane pushed a curtain of thick canvas to one side and strode tall between low wooden packing crates and into the makeshift warehouse. Two men were within. They were shocked to see her, but clearly not surprised. A lupine grin crept across the face of the shorter, stockier of the two men who wore the trading garments and facial hair of a local dimension trader. He started to move slowly and steadily towards Velane and spoke.

Meanwhile, the second man – tall and slender, clean-shaven and hatchet-faced – started to construct a psychic shield for the pair, interweaving strands of pure hard knowledge and certainty into a thick mesh. Velane did not give him the opportunity.

The Bomb: Base Overwhelming Mental Bombardment. It was banned across dimension vX1. Only the most accomplished psychics could even attempt it without risking mental damage to themselves, and guaranteeing mental damage to their victim – or even death. It relied on the attacker having absorbed and stored the most base, primal thoughts and feelings of other, heavily traumatised people. The attacker would then bombard their target with these thoughts and feelings, overwhelming their mind to breaking point. Velane had had ample opportunity over the years to absorb and store a significant amount of these base thoughts and feelings, and she spared none of them now in smashing the mind of the psychic bodyguard before he had the chance to complete the mental shield he had started to construct. It was not a blood curdling scream, but a somehow more disturbing hissing sigh that he let out as his eyes rolled backwards in his head and his legs crumpled beneath him.

The bearded trader had barely managed to utter, “Well, hello…” as the opening to his planned monologue before his companion had fallen insensible to the ground. He peered back over his shoulder at the man, before turning again to look at Velane. “What…?”

Velane gave a half-smile, desperately trying to maintain her focus and composure as the after-effects of using The Bomb left her with a dizzying sense of nausea and confusion. “It looks like he has suffered from a mental overload.”

Clearly shaken by the loss of his psychic defence, the trader had not noticed Velane’s unease. He simply asked, “But, how? I mean, he was one of the best.”

Velane remained hidden behind her half-smile as her mind refocused and stomach settled. She slid an arm out of her coarse clothing to reveal her Psytech identification in her hand.

“Oh, a fucking Psycop.” The man’s grin and confident swagger returned a little. “What the hell are the fucking D-police doing here to bother me, eh?”

Velane deliberately placed her identification onto a crate beside her before she spoke. “I’m looking for an arms dealer.”

“Well, look around you.” He spread his arms wide. “We’re in a fuckin’ army camp. There’s arms dealers everywhere. But I don’t know why you’d want to get involved in it, cop. Isn’t this a bit beneath your bosses’ mind-fuck radar?” Velane did not respond, so he continued. “Listen, sweetheart, I’ve got a team of top-drawer, well-paid lawyers at home who would just love to get their legal teeth sunk into Psytech’s ass. Arms dealer? I import and export antiques, darlin’. Every item of stock that I’ve got here? Back home they’re fuckin’ museum pieces. So don’t give me any of your precious tech-dealing speeches about interfering with lower dimensions and all that shite. They’re not covered by your laws. I’m a dealer in curios at worst. So run on, little girl, because you’d be wasting your time arresting me. I’m not exactly fuckin’ Ricker!”

“I’m not here to arrest you.” Velane’s half-smile broke into a full, gap-toothed grin as she nodded towards the discarded Psytech identification on the crate behind her. “And I’m not exactly here as a fucking Psycop.”

The arms dealer’s slight resurgence of confidence dissipated into confusion. “What? Then what the hell are you here for?”

Velane’s other hand slid out from beneath her clothing, and in it was clasped the balding psychic’s thin, razor-sharp sword. “I’m here because you’re imposing on my business.” The man’s face formed into the very picture of confusion. Velane continued. “Those people out there,” nodding in the direction of the army that was at the head of this train of people, “are my customers.”

“Your customers? What the fuck are you on about? They buy from me! The only other dealer out here that’s even been heard of is…”

She allowed him to mumble into silence, and watched the patterns of his mind as it gradually made the connections towards understanding. She then absorbed his feelings as he mentally tumbled into a maelstrom of fear and desperation. His mouth barely formed the R of Ricker before the sword slid effortlessly through his rib cage, piercing his heart.

Ricker surveyed the physical remains of this arms dealer’s operation. It reeked of small-time poor organisation. That was how it had so quickly and easily found itself on the Psytech radar. Ricker sighed. This would put her own trade in this dimension back months. And now she had to devise a convincing case-closing story for Commander Topps.

Velane retrieved her Psycop identification.

The Dustman

By Paul R. Green

“You can go through now, George.” Christine said with a friendly smile. Doyle stood, fastened his suit jacket, and returned the girl’s smile with an added wink before opening the door to his CO’s inner office.

Topps’ heavy-set frame blocked out most of the light coming through the large window that provided such a spectacular view of the capital. He was out of his seat, which was never a good sign. Not that Doyle was ever called in for anything that was. He positioned himself before his chief’s desk, as if the man was sat behind it, stood at parade rest and waited.

“What do you know about vX13 George?” The big man said without turning.

“vX13. The thirteenth dimension our boys have discovered; back in ’08, I believe. They’re the first D we’ve come across that comes close to ourselves in both tech and psychic ability. We run a small team out of the capital as S.O.P. but migration has been rather limited, presumably due to them being so close to us in a lot of respects. Though obviously they haven’t learnt how to D-hop yet.”

Topps turned away from the window with a meaningfully raised eyebrow and lumbered across to his seat. He dropped into it with a sigh and made himself comfortable before looking back at his agent with steely eyes that defied his jowly features. “We think they might have rampart tech.”

“Who’s the source?” Doyle enquired.

Logan.”

“A good man. How’d he come across it?”

“The usual. He was working a case, tied most of it up but lost a lead on a tenuous link. Not enough to keep the case open, but enough of a niggle for him to mention it to me. And now, I’m mentioning it to you.” He nudged a hard copy file across the desk toward Doyle – the Dust Squad didn’t use electronic files. The file would be read and burned after reading. Doyle picked it up and turned to leave.
As he went to open the door his boss added, “Be careful, George” a note of genuine concern in his voice. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.”

***

The oppressive humidity hit Doyle the second he stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of the commercial airliner and followed the rest of the passengers, most of whom were clearly visiting the tropical island resort for reasons other than business. Once he’d collected his luggage and checked through customs – which included a discrete mind probe that he’d been half expecting and therefore prepared for – he hailed a cab and soaked in the sights on the short trip to his hotel.

Once checked in he unpacked and went through the ritual of leaving himself indicators should anyone decide to rummage through his possessions whilst he was out. Satisfied, he exited the room – leaving a hair stuck with a dab of saliva attached to the door and jamb – and headed downstairs.

From his place at the bar Doyle looked out at the pool as he savoured the rum he’d ordered. The alcohol nicely topped off the buzz he had received from the couple of vodkas he’d enjoyed inflight. He watched with barely disguised admiration as the lithe, sculpted figure of a man so white he couldn’t possibly be a local towelled himself dry as he approached the bar. The man smiled as he approached Doyle, and the agent returned the smile, greeting him with a hello and asking if he’d like a drink. The man, who introduced himself as Thorsson, took the stool next to Doyle and ordered a local beer.
Doyle took another drink and sighed contentedly. He much preferred assignments in the more advanced dimensions. Sure, there was usually more risk involved, and the locals weren’t so easy to impress, but advanced thinking tended to lead to more liberal attitudes, and Doyle was all for that. Especially, when Doyle considered fraternising with the indigenous population a vital part of his job. And the more intimate that contact, the more he could exploit that relationship towards advancing his mission.

Of course, Doyle’s chance meeting with Thorsson was anything but. He’d gone through the file Topps had given him and judged him to be the best route into Hart-Tek. Once he’d established that, it was simply a matter of having the local team knock him up some Bona-Fides, and book him a place at the seminar Thorsson was due to attend on tropical Tatimi.

“What’s your speciality, George.” The big man enquired. “I take it you’re here for the seminar.”

Doyle smiled, knowing he had the man hooked now. “I shouldn’t really say, my friend. Confidentiality clauses and all that. Let’s just call it data security, shall we?”

Thorsson grinned back. “Then I too am a data security specialist.” He ordered two more drinks and held his up in a toast. “To the unbreachable wall.”

Doyle clinked glasses. “May it never come and keep us out of a job” he replied. The two men knocked their drinks back in one, and Doyle signalled the barman for more.

***
They were back in Thorsson’s room; Doyle was searching through the man’s belongings whilst the big man slept away their afternoon’s excess. That and the mild sedative Doyle had slipped into the post-coital glass of juice he’d poured meant he had at least a couple of hours.

He had swept the room for bugs and weapons as a matter of course and was now going through Thorsson’s briefcase. He located the man’s ID and pass and settled himself on the end of the bed, stretching out his consciousness to touch the thoughts of the sleeping Thorsson.

The first time he’d tried to access the mind of a drunk and sedated mark, Doyle had been pleasantly surprised. He’d expected the thoughts to be vague and confusing, the thought paths to be myriad and clouded, leading to a host of dead ends and tangled threads, but he’d found the opposite to be true.

Thorsson’s thoughts were dominated by the bright golden rope of his subconscious dream state, making it easy for Doyle to follow to the nexus point of the scientist’s memory. From here Doyle quickly found the branch he was looking for and due to Thorsson’s state it was a simple matter to navigate the natural barriers and steal his passwords. He was just about to break the link when an associated thought strand gave off a slight pulse. Intrigued, he accessed the thought which led him to the image of an attractive looking man named Campbell, who was some form of consultant. The nature of the image suggested it to be part of Thorsson’s fantasy world rather than an actual memory and as there was nothing much else related to the man, just the letter ‘V’, Doyle put it down to some form of office crush. Still, he made a note of the name, just in case.

Before breaking the link he couldn’t resist slightly nudging the man’s memory of their time together, suggesting it had been even more pleasurable than it had been. That done he detached himself from Thorsson’s mind and pepped himself up with another stiff drink.

The ID and pass were sophisticated for this D but relatively simple for Doyle to replicate. Within half an hour he had one of his very own. Then, using Thorsson’s tablet and ID, he hacked into Hart-Tek’s systems and added his details to their personnel files. He also searched for Campbell, but came up blank. Once finished he returned everything to where he’d found it, poured himself a drink of rum, took a generous sniff to savour the aroma and sat on the balcony to await Thorsson’s return to the land of the living. After all, the thought, he might as well enjoy himself a little more before starting the next stage of his mission.

***

Dark skies and freezing cold weather greeted Doyle in Helso, home to Hart-Teks scientific division. He’d had no problems getting through security at the gate and was in the process of orientating himself to the large complex that they worked from.
Inside the main building he found a locker room and had to stop himself from laughing aloud at how easy it was to access the locker he needed. Earlier he had dropped into a security office that stank of stale coffee on the pretence of having found a mobile comm device in the rest rooms. Whilst there he had been able to catch a glimpse of the shift rota that was written for all to see on a white board at the back of the room. He’d made a mental note of a couple of names who weren’t on shift until next week and then searched their lockers until he’d found one whose uniform would fit.

Now, with most of the staff having left for the day, Doyle made his way to the executive offices on the top floor. Once inside he made short work of accessing the database, locating the information he was searching for, and replacing the files in question with a nasty little virus that would destroy any further copies on other systems, as well as any files that contained certain key words.
Now all he had to do, was destroy the prototype, that according to what he had just read was in a separate annex lab to the rear of the building.

***

Doyle crouched behind a large chrome machine, his psychic defences on full alert. He shouldn’t need them, but if these boys were fooling around with rampart tech then best be prepared. There were five of them, two pairs coming from opposite ends of the large lab building and a single overseer who was waiting by the main exit. Getting out was always the hardest part.

Adrenalin focussed their minds upon their task, making it trickier for Doyle to find an in. Tricky, but not impossible. One of the men approaching from the North was new, and every now and then a wispy thread of red fear would detach itself from the white line of his determination and attention.
Doyle bided his time, waiting for just the right thread to pop up. There! He was in. With a grasp on the strand it was a simple matter to tug on it; gently though, just enough to make the man nervous. More wisps appeared; bigger and more frequent. Doyle smiled to himself. Now for some fun.

A quick sweeping probe allowed him to place his opponents upon the map he had created in his mind. The two pairs of guards were getting closer and their leader still hadn’t moved. All he had to do was wait until they were in just the right place.

Now.

With a deftness that came through years of experience Doyle pushed through a thought to the new man, then cut off all links with his foes. The guard’s subconscious took the suggestion and reacted accordingly, telling his brain that his eyes were seeing an armed intruder up ahead. The brain responded by instructing his body to raise the pistol and fire.

The lab came alive with a cacophony of noise, lit by sporadic flashes of muzzle flare as the pent-up emotions of the guards were unleashed in a hail of bullets.

From the direction of the entrance he could hear the shouts of the overseer as he tried to ascertain what was going on and gain control of the situation. The distraction made it easy for Doyle to fix on the man and enter his mind. Orange sparks of confusion spun around a branching line of yellow light as the man fought over what to do next. It was a simple matter for Doyle to suggest he leave the door and go help his men.

With the man gone Doyle slipped unnoticed through the door. Behind him the gunfire had ceased as the overseer managed to convince his men they were shooting at each other.

Once outside the agent took a bracing sniff of the cool night air and walking calmly and casually away from the building triggered the explosives.

***

Doyle was back in Topps’ office, staring down the barrel of one his boss’s legendary disapproving glowers. He shuffled a bit, and became suddenly aware of just how uncomfortably sweaty he was feeling and how dry his throat felt. He could do with a drink. Shame that alcohol and other stimulants were banned on his home dimension.

“Industrial accident caused by faulty wiring; that’s how it’s been reported on vX13,” the big man finally said after what seemed an age as he dismissively dropped the file on his desk.

“Thank you, sir. I try my best.” Doyle acknowledged with a smile of relief. The smile soon dropped under Topps‘ stern gaze.

“You were lucky at best, Doyle. Careless at worst. That was bloody sloppy work. I expect better from my agents.”

Doyle knew better than try and make excuses, he simply stood quietly and waited to hear what his boss wanted to say.

The big man pinched the bridge of his nose as if bracing himself for something, then seemed to change his mind. “Still, you were ‘Jonny-on-the-spot’ and I hate to second guess my boys in the field, so we’ll let it go this time.” He picked up the file again and waved it at Doyle. “This time.” He stood with a grunt and moved across to a steel cabinet which he unlocked with a key attached by a chain to his belt.
Doyle took the cue and slipped quietly from the room.

***

Topps watched his agent leave then moved to stand at his window. He often stood here when he had a lot on his mind, or something bothered him. Right now it was a single letter:’V’. It could be nothing but Topps was a careful man. He liked to think of himself as an iceberg. On the surface huge, cool and imposing, but with a lot more going on beneath the surface. And dangerous, too, especially to the unwary.

“Are you one of mine, V?” He asked himself quietly, not really wanting to think it even may be true. After standing for a few more minutes he came to a decision and returned to his desk and hit the inter-com. “Christine, could you clear my schedule for this afternoon then come in please? We have work to do.”

Psytech Dealings

by Mark Barrett

Bleep.

Bleep.

Bleep.

There was only so long that Logan could ignore the determinedly incessant bleeping before he had to admit defeat by acknowledging that he was, in a fact, awake. His head throbbed. How long had he slept? The question was a moot one, as the answer was going to be ‘not long enough’ regardless of the time.

The bleeping was coming from his i-comms Home-Ents system. The colour of the flashing light on the base unit told Logan that it was his work trying to contact him. The fact that the bleeping had gone on long enough to wake him from his dreamless, exhausted sleep told him that they were desperate to contact him. “Stuff them,” he sighed. “They can wait a bit longer.” Then in a clearer voice, “boiling water.”

Eighteen seconds later Logan was filling an Insumug with boiling water from the Beverater fixed to the back wall. As he did so, the bed he had so recently been sleeping in retracted in to the side wall, to be replaced by an Ergohammock chair which descended from the ceiling above. He quickly checked that his Home-Ents system was on standby, before stooping down and retrieving a small glass jar from behind a picture-frame he kept on a low shelf. The jar was marked ‘coffee’.

As a Psytech law enforcement agent, Logan knew better than most why all stimulants, intoxicants and additives were banned. But he couldn’t help himself. He had picked up a taste for coffee in dimension hD6, and just could not resist bringing a stash back with him. In fact, as this jar was more than three-quarters empty, he found himself hoping that a trip to one of the more lenient dimensions would be necessary soon.

But not too soon. He was exhausted from his most recent case. The case had caused Logan to stretch his mind along more courses, further and more frequently than could be reasonably expected of any Psytech. Of anyone at all, for that matter. Echoes of others’ thoughts still permeated Logan’s waking hours, and a dull nagging headache – now a throbbing beat thanks to the bleeping – accompanied him at every moment. His commanding officer had recognised his exhaustion, fully expected it due to the complexity and danger inherent in the case, and had given him an open-ended leave to, quite literally, get his head together. So why was work stubbornly refusing to let him sleep now?

“Comms on,” Logan said out loud. He could have turned the machine on by simply using his mind, but had instead opted for the voice recognition option.

The viewer on the Home-Ents system changed from the darkened screen reflecting Logan’s tired-looking, saggy, unshaven face surrounded by dishevelled, brown curly hair to show his commanding officer. “Morning, Logan,” came the sound of commander Topps‘s voice through the integrated speaker system, “how are you feeling?”

“Rough.”

An uncharacteristic frown of concern flashed across Commander Topps’s usually stern, dark features. “I’m not surprised. You’ve been worked hard.”

Logan blew out a snort of humourless laughter, and took a sip from his gently steaming Insumug.

Topps’s frown shifted back from concerned to stern. “Is that coffee? Logan…”

Logan raised his eyes to the image of his commanding officer on the screen. His jaw set into his well-rehearsed look of righteous indignation. “Coffee? Seriously? What do you take me for, boss? We both know that…”

“I take you for a bloody idiot who has developed a taste for that rank, addictive shite that they serve in some of the h grade dimensions.” Topps paused, allowing his voice and expression to soften once more. “And I take you for the best and most trusted Psytech LEA that I know. Which is why I’ve got a job for you.”

“Jeez, Topps. I’m whacked-out. No way – I’m not up to a case at the minute.”

Topps’s sorrow at asking was evident. “I didn’t say a case, Logan; I said a job. I need something sorted, and it needs to be you.”

Logan blew out his cheeks in exasperation, “come on, Topps. There are other agents who are every bit as…

Topps interrupted. “Yes. Yes, there are. But what I don’t need is just an agent on this. I need someone who I can trust to do the right thing. I’m sorry; I really wouldn’t ask if there was any other way.”

Logan ran his hand through the unkempt curls on his head, then brushed it down over the stubbly growth on his chin. “You’re killing me Topps. All right, send me the details.”

Topps smiled, but tightly. “Thank you, Logan. I’ll psytran you it now.”

Logan shook his head: he didn’t feel up to a psychic transfer at the moment. “No, Topps, just send it through the comms system.”

***

Dimension hD6. What a coincidence, Logan had just been thinking about this dimension as he had prepared his coffee this morning. And now here he was in that self-same dimension: h – reasonably technologically advanced, mass-communications systems in place, an over-reliance on inefficient fossil fuels; D – low level psychic activity mainly among children and a select few adults, general mistrust, misunderstanding and disbelief of psychic abilities; 6 – the sixth of fourteen dimensions so far discovered by the inhabitants of dimension vX1.

Logan pushed his palm into his forehead, trying to force his nagging headache away. He was sat in the window seat, about half the way up a three-quarters full public bus travelling along the Arizona and Nevada border. He had drunk three bottles of cola – really racking up the banned-substance misdemeanours – in order to try and stave off the rampant thirst that always followed a dimension-hop. Barely five hours after Topps’s call, Logan had read all of the notes related to the job that he was undertaking, had been showered and changed and had undergone a dimension-hop to dimension hD6. He was still exhausted, his head still throbbed, and his mind still felt stretched across a much bigger space than his head contained. But now he knew why Topps had wanted him. When Logan had first graduated to the Psytech Law Enforcement Agency, with the best psy scores ever recorded, Topps had been assigned his mentor. They had worked together for over eight years, and had become firm friends as well as trusted colleagues. Topps had risen up quickly; he was ambitious, talented and motivated and was always going to progress through a glittering career. Logan, opposingly, avoided every opportunity for promotion, instead choosing to remain as a simple agent specialised in policing inter-dimensional crime. Topps wasn’t so much calling on Logan’s advanced psychic abilities, as the trust and friendship that they enjoyed.

Logan was slumped back in the bus seat, vacantly staring out of the window, watching the barren landscape sweep past. He was gently allowing the facts wash across his consciousness. An ex-Psytech Law Enforcement Agent had retired to dimension hD6. He had started his own business. His business was doing extremely well. Other people from dimension vX1 had emigrated to hD6 in order to work for him. Vitally, he had been Topps’s partner before Logan had joined the force, and the two were good, good friends. A routine audit of the finances of this ex-agent’s company, though, had revealed some anomalous figures. There was no indication of a crime, as yet, but there were certainly enough irregularities, potentially, to trigger a long and embarrassing investigation into Topps’s oldest friend. Dimension vX1 had a detailed and coherent set of rules governing how its people dealt with the people in the less able and knowledgeable dimensions, and Topps desperately wanted to know that his old friend and partner was sticking to them.

As Logan was pondering this, he felt the unmistakable tinge of a mind considering him. He had deliberately not been extending his own thoughts in order to rest it from the strains of the past eight days, but the unmistakable metallic tinge alerted him to the fact that he was the main focus of another’s attention. He didn’t change his posture or his expression, gave no outward signs, but inside he gently relaxed his mind. There were still echoes from his recent psychic exertions, but he pushed them to one side and looked for the source of the metallic tinge of interest. It was still there. This was not somebody who had casually looked at Logan, taken in his plain features and pale complexion and wondered idly about him, but was somebody who was focussing a lot of thought and consideration on Logan, thinking deep and hard about him. It was not difficult for Logan to find the source of the tinge – a small orangey needle of thought, piercing him through the back left-hand side of his head. A lesser psytech may well have turned around to look, but Logan was far too experienced for that. Instead, he sent his own thought train back, following the thin, web-like, orange strand of thought that would track back to the thinker. As his mind opened out and began to trace the thought path, Logan could sense other people’s thoughts all around them: dusty, orangey clouds of thought, occasionally focussing into a tight ball as the thinkers concentrated on something internal, occasionally flowing out towards something or somebody else as the thinker considered them, but always moving, fluid and hazy. The thought line he was following, though, was straight and tight; Logan was generating a lot of interest in somebody. Logan’s mind travelled back to the rear seat of the bus, where it found a mind surrounded by swirling, dark-orange, tempestuous thoughts. Two distinct strands reached out, the one that Logan had followed back from himself, and one to an inside pocket of the thinker’s battered, blue jacket. Logan dipped into that thought and saw the clear shape of the very real knife in the thinker’s consciousness. Outwardly Logan’s body gave the merest of shudders, as his mind pushed further in. The man, as indeed a man it was, had erratic, conflicting thought patterns, almost as if he was in a battle with himself. Logan had seen minds like this before – they tended to belong to violent criminals. This one, Logan found, was no different as he drifted through the man’s surface thoughts, seeing that he was thinking about his recent stint in prison, his lack of money, his hunger, his disappointment at only coming away with eighteen bucks from yesterday’s mugging in Lake Havasu City. And now this violent man’s thoughts were focussed fully on Logan.

Logan could understand why the man may have picked him as a victim: he was pale and a little overweight, making him look an easy target; he was wearing good quality clothes, all top labels in dimension hD6, as the produce here was so cheap; his accent was English, so he stood out as not being a local here in the Western part of North America; he was carrying a small leather holdall which would be an easy pick-up for a would-be mugger. Yes, Logan was not surprised that he would be a target for this man. But he would not be a target for long.

Logan knew that the right thing to do would be to enter this man’s mind fully, explore the motivations and ideals there, seeking to twist and turn them into new motivations and ideals that could set the ex-convict off onto a less destructive path. But Logan didn’t have time for that. Logan was also concerned that his mind was not fully rested, and a complete psychic embrace such as that could go wrong, with serious mental consequences for all involved. He didn’t even feel confident enough to completely remove the idea of mugging from the man’s mind, as he seemed so intent on achieving this aim. In order to completely eradicate an idea, Logan would have to track it back to its very source within the man’s mind and sever it, then carefully remove the thread of it without disturbing any surrounding thoughts which might reconnect to the original idea. It was a slow operation that, again, needed a heightened level of skill and concentration that Logan did not feel comfortable enough to muster at the moment. Instead, he took an easy option.

Logan tracked the thought back to himself, and saw that the man had not diverted from his original plan, to mug Logan. If anything, the thought was stronger, more pronounced and Logan knew that, if he did nothing, within minutes of exiting this bus he would the victim of a violent attack. He gently prized the orange spike of the thought from himself and let it waver in the air for a second; it immediately tried to dart back towards Logan. Yes, the man’s mind was made up. Time to change it. Logan took the spike of the thought and tugged it gently away from himself, the whole orange trail following. He quickly scanned the hazy, changeable surface thoughts of the multiple other passengers around him. An old lady was wondering whether her cat would like the new cat food she was carrying home; a girl was considering what to change her online profile to in order to generate more interest on a dating site; a businessman was wondering whether all of this overtime he was working would prevent him from seeing his young son’s first steps. And then Logan found it: “I’m gonna get me a peppercorn grill from that steakhouse; got eight days to make the weight; wonder what my odds are now in the Tapout tournament…’. It was not the ideal solution, Logan knew, but he was not willing to risk anything else. He took the spike of thought from the would-be mugger and embedded it into the career wrestler sat three seats in front of him. He heard the physical change of position of the ex-convict on the back seat as he shifted his focus onto the large man in the training top. Logan watched the line of thought for a while, ensuring that it had genuinely stuck. It had. Logan allowed himself to relax back into his own mind. He would get off at the next stop and order a cab to take him the rest of the way.

***

That first night Logan booked himself into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. He could easily have started the investigation tonight, Las Vegas was open all hours, but he wanted another night’s sleep before stretching himself further. Having been to Las Vegas – the party capital of hD6 – before, he knew not to stay anywhere central. Such a dense, vibrant, bustling city full of the bright and raucously noisy thoughts of the myriad of people who were visiting was not conducive with a good night’s sleep for a psychic. Even out here there was a dull psychic glow emanating from the city proper. It would do.

The next morning Logan ordered room service, which consisted of coffee and lots of it. He also chose the full American breakfast, mainly for the pancakes with syrup – unlawfully high sugar content for vX1. He revelled in his excess, gorging upon the breakfast and coffee – which he made a mental note to purchase more of before he dimension-hopped home. He then spent three hours in his room, reading the newspapers that he had ordered from the concierge, trawling through the internet and flicking through the local TV channels. He always liked to familiarise himself with a dimension, even one that he thought that he knew well, before venturing too far out into it. By the time he was satisfied, it was lunch time, and Logan decided to head out for a spot of on-the-job lunch. His investigation was taking him to Seers Casino, and Logan could eat there as he checked the place over. He hoped that they did large desserts.

According to the files, Seers Casino now employed over twenty staff from dimension vX1. This in itself was not strikingly unusual; Logan knew of at least three businesses in this dimension which employed more than twice that number. What was unusual, though, was the profit margin. Ordinarily a casino can expect a house gain of between half to one-and-a-half percent across its games. From this house gain the profit margin would be worked out after deducting wages, rent and overheads. The problem with Seers Casino’s profit margin was that – assuming that they were paying the going rate for wages, rent and overheads – they must have a house gain in excess of fifteen per cent. Whilst it was theoretically possible for a Casino to have a house gain of fifteen percent in the short term, it would not take long for an ongoing gain at such an astronomical level to draw attention from the authorities of this dimension. As vX1 was the only dimension with the technical advancement to render it capable of developing dimension-hopping, it was routinely accepted that they also had the authority and responsibility to police all of the dimensions. Logan, as a Psytech Law Enforcement Agent, administered that authority and responsibility. If there was a law being broken at Seers Casino, he had to deal with it before it impacted on dimension hD6.

The desserts at the Seers Casino were large and sweet enough to satisfy even the biggest of appetites. They also served a good double espresso. Both gave Logan’s tired mind and body a much needed lift.

As he had entered the great sliding doors of the casino, he had been greeted by a beautiful, befeathered young lady who offered him a tour of the facilities. He was also greeted by a short, gentle mind probe which scanned through his surface thoughts, not unlike a baggage scanner at an airport, looking for any sign of psychic prowess. Luckily Logan had been half expecting this, and had spent a little time preparing a deliberately fuzzy haze around his mind, filled with a myriad of unconnected thoughts, like the minds in low-psychic dimensions, and not the sharp, formed and pointed shell that surrounded the mind of an accomplished psychic. As his mind was still a little fuzzy anyway, from recent exertions, this had not been too onerous.

After his lunch, and with the strangely comforting acrid scent of the coffee on his breath, Logan made his way towards the card tables. Seers Casino was like every other that he had encountered on previous trips to this dimension: an assault on the senses. Among the physical and mental noise, Logan had not identified who it was who had mind probed him, and had no intention of trying to find out. Sending his mind out in an area where there was another accomplished psychic would make him stand out like the coffee grain in the sugar bowl. He wasn’t ready to alert anybody to his presence yet, if at all, and certainly not before he confirmed what he thought was occurring.

So Logan found himself sitting at a blackjack table, popping twenty dollar chips down for the privilege of letting somebody throw a few small, brightly coloured rectangles of cardboard face down on the table before him. Logan played randomly for an hour or so, not paying too much attention to the game and partaking of the free sodas – even Logan considered drinking alcohol as being a step too far. As the time passed Logan found that he was about one hundred and eighty dollars up. Things were going well. He decided to up his bets to forty dollars a hand, and that is when it happened. Logan picked up the next two cards dealt to him, held them close to his face and inspected them. King of diamonds and three of clubs. Thirteen. Not a great number to start off with in blackjack. He was about to call for an extra card when he felt a gentle push on the outside of his hazy cloud of thoughts. It was very gentle, very skilful, but it was there. Somebody had touched his mind and read his most forefront thought – namely the number that he had in front of him. Logan hesitated, appeared to consider, and then chose to stick. The dealer turned his cards over: the nine of clubs and the five of hearts. Fourteen. Not a number that a dealer would ordinarily stick on. But he did. It was an incredibly simple trick, and not one that could have been pulled-off on vX1. But here on one of the lowest level dimensions for psychic activity?

Rule three, subsection eight, paragraph four: psychic abilities must not be used to take advantage of unknowing members of the lesser dimensions.

Logan’s, and Topps’s, suspicions were correct. Seers Casino was employing psychics from dimension vX1 in order to cheat unwitting gamblers in dimension hD6 out of their money. Logan had to do something – but officially this was not a case; it was just a job. Logan thought about this. Topps had asked him to sort this out, not to investigate and solve it. He was sure that Topps had asked him as a friend, and maybe he had, but Topps had also asked him because he bent the rules. Topps was right that he could trust Logan; he could trust him not to be trustworthy when it came to following rules.

With the next four hands, when the dealer gently touched Logan’s brain in order to read his cards in his thoughts, Logan purposefully sent thoughts containing the wrong numbers. The dealer’s frustration showed very quickly – this had never happened to him before. On the fifth hand Logan clearly sent a mental message to the dealer that he should keep out of people’s heads. The dealer visibly paled, and before the sixth hand was dealt Logan found himself flanked by two suited gentlemen.

It did not take a mind-probe to know that these two did not have the mental capacity to be psychics. They barely had the mental capacity to be side-kicks. But what they lacked in mental capacity, they more than made up for in size. They were huge. Their scarred hands, one of each, rested gently yet firmly on Logan’s shoulders as their dull-eyes bored into him from beneath square brows. Logan considered that he may have made a mistake and pushed too far too quickly. These two men were all physicality. Whilst Logan’s heightened psychic abilities gave him more than an edge in any fight, he was not convinced that he currently had the strength of mind necessary to keep two such physical specimens at bay for long enough for his own out-of-shape and physically inferior body to actually do them any significant damage. He meekly accompanied them, keeping a close eye on their pale-orange, gently-undulating thought patterns for any sign of sudden, sharpened and violent focus. It did not occur. Logan almost allowed himself to relax.

The corridor that the two men led Logan down was long, plush and deserted. Only his absolute certainty that neither man was considering harming him kept Logan from panicking and trying to run, in what would be a futile effort anyway if the steel in their currently gentle grips on his shoulder was anything to go by. Finally, they reached a door to the right. Both men slowed as they approached the door and Logan sensed a brief psychic trigger touch all of their minds; the men then renewed their pace and opened the door without knocking.

Logan was firmly guided into a room that made the plushness of the corridor seem dowdy. This room was a heady, tawdry mix of dark wood panelling, red shag-pile carpet and overly-large antique-style furnishings. High polish and low-grade gold leaf glittered at him from every angle. But this was only a backdrop to what Logan’s eyes, and mind, were resolutely focussed upon. A man in a pristine, white suit, highly polished brown shoes and a colourful silk cravat was stood with his back to the doorway, feeding raw meat to a white tiger using a pair of long, metal tongs. His hair was slick, his stance was confident and his mind was the tight, bright-focussed cube of an accomplished psychic.

Logan tensed, mentally and physically. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen now. The slick man in the white suit did not turn around but released two sharp, bright spears of thought across the room. Logan threw up a hastily prepared mind-shield, cursing himself for his tired state and earlier laxness. However, the spears of thought penetrated straight into the minds of Logan’s two, huge companions, who immediately released their grip on Logan’s shoulders, tunred smartly around and left the room. Only when they left did the smooth man turn from the tiger. A face that was lined and aged, yet firm and angular faced Logan. He studied Logan with dark eyes that held a brightness which had little to do with their colour. He did not attempt to read Logan’s thoughts, and Logan returned the courtesy.

After four seconds of study he indicated two glasses sat on an overly-large and ornate coffee table. “Bourbon? It’s Kentucky’s finest.” Logan was about to protest but the man waved them away, suddenly laughing warmly. “I know, I know. Don’t worry, buddy, I’ve almost drowned the stuff with cola – us prime dimensioners really can’t handle our alcohol.”

Logan walked to the table and raised the glass to his nose. It smelled pleasantly sweet. “So, you were expecting me?”

The man was quickly by his side, taking up the other drink. Again the disarming smile. “Of course. Maybe not this soon, but Topps was always going to keep half an eye on his trouble-buddy.”

“Trouble-buddy?”

“Yeah. It’s what we called each other back in the day.”

Logan filed that piece of information away for later and embarrassing use. The casino owner took a sip of his drink. Logan abstained and said, “you’re Mr Cappino?”

“The one and only.” Cappino threw himself into one of the office’s stuffed, fluffy armchairs and indicated that Logan should do the same. He did, and was surprised to feel a myriad of tiny motors adjusting to his body-weight and posture in order to give him maximum comfort. They were a standard feature on the Ergomaster3000 back in vX1. Cappino smiled at Logan’s momentary confusion. “Come on, Logan, you can’t leave all comforts behind.”

It was all Logan could do not to smile back at him. “You know who I am?”

Cappino shrugged. “I guessed. I heard your reputation back when I was still on prime and figured Topps wouldn’t risk sending anyone but the best.”

“That’s an honour, Mr Cappino. Rumour has it, you were pretty good yourself.”

Cappino laughed out loud then leant forward, taking a large slug of his drink. His eyes narrowed and his cheeks sucked in. “Woow. This stuff really kicks, but you just can’t stop yourself going back for more.”

Logan’s eyes strayed to his drink, but that was all. His hasty mind-shield was still in place form when he entered the room and, even though he felt strangely comfortable in this stranger’s presence, years of intense Psytech training saw him strengthening and weaving that mind-shield even as he and Cappino spoke.

Cappino shook his head, sadly. “I understand, son. I do. But trust me, you don’t need that. I mean, it takes half my concentration to keep that beast in check.”

Logan had not previously noticed the thin, orange thread of controlling thought that connected Cappino to the white tiger at all times. His mind really was tired, and he was slipping.

Cappino answered the unasked question. “The locals kind of expect that sort of shit from a big-shot casino boss. It keeps them happy.”

Logan laughed again. He had been to this dimension several times before and knew all about their strange ideas, etiquettes, superstitions and obsessions. “So, you know this dimension well, Mr Cappino?”

“Well? Well? Of course I know it well. Topps and I were in the original exploration party for hD6. I mean, what a great dimension. It wasn’t so much an exploration party as just a full on party. I swear down, half of the decency and contraband laws of vX1 were invented after the shit me and my trouble-buddy got up to here.” Cappino settled back with another sip of his drink, smiling at the memories. “Ah, Topps. How is the stubborn old bastard?”

Logan resisted the urge to enter into good-natured, derogatory banter aimed at his boss, as mention of Topps had reminded Logan of the reason why he was here. He was not about to let Topps down. “Topps is the reason I’m here, Mr Cappino. I need to discuss something very serious with you.” He confronted Cappino with what he knew about the irregularities at Seers Casino. As he did so, Cappino finished his drink and poured himself another, unmistakably stronger. Logan’s was still undrunk.

Cappino sucked in his cheeks, this time not in reaction to the drink. “Could it be a lucky streak?” Logan shook his head. “Accounting error?” A shake again. Cappino paused for another sip. “Is it noticeable enough for this dimension to pick it up?” Logan nodded. Cappino thought for a while. “Okay. That’s serious, isn’t it?” Although he was not waiting for an answer, he knew. “Can we say that the cashier was working in isolation?”

Logan raised his eyebrows. “One cashier increasing the whole casino’s profits ten-fold?”

Cappino finished his second drink, “so what are we going to do?”

Logan sat back in genuine surprise, “what are we going to do? We? We are going to do nothing. You are breaking one of the three prime rules; you are an ex-Psytech agent; I am a serving Psytech agent; I’ve got to take you in.”

Cappino’s eyes held Logan in a way that no amount of psychic power could have done, “and yet you haven’t. You haven’t given me my case number; you haven’t read me my rights; you haven’t called in a Psytech mop-up unit. Am I even being investigated, officially, Mr Logan?”

It was difficult for Logan not to show his obvious discomfort at this question, “you’re being looked-into, Mr Cappino.”

Cappino smiled, “well, I guess that answers my question.” He then sat forward, the conspiratorial friend talking over a drink, “you are good, Logan. Dedicated, intelligent, experienced. You are pretty much the perfect Psytech agent. But what about you Logan? What about your life? Where’s your fun? How do you relax? Let your hair down?”

“I drink coffee, Mr Cappino.”

“Coffee.”

Logan nodded, “coffee. And I like sugar.”

Cappino put on an elaborate, gently-mocking display of sarcasm, “coffee and sugar? Wow, you really know how to live the high life.”

Logan’s face hardened, “I’m happy with my life, Cappino.”

Cappino’s whole demeanour softened back to the smiling gentleman who had first welcomed Logan, “are you? Really? Don’t you wonder why Topps has sent you here, to me, in the party capital of the most fun dimension that we have so far discovered?”

All Logan could do was to shake his head.

Cappino leaned in towards Logan once more, “then I suggest you find out. And it starts by taking a little drink of that bourbon and cola.”

***

Bleep.

Bleep.

Bleep.

The bleeping had begun as a fire-alarm in the background of some bizarre dream that Logan was having about doing kung-fu on a squirrel. It was a week later. Logan’s face appeared to be stuck to his pillow by his own saliva and his head throbbed. Strangely, though, the rhythmic bleeping actually gave him the urge to dance, which he would undoubtedly have attempted were it not for the fact that his stomach felt like it was slowly turning around inside of him and threatening to expel its contents.

He peeled himself out of the bed and called, “coffee.”

A computerised voice replied, informing him that coffee was an illegal substance and therefore not available…

“Hot water!”

It took almost four minutes for Logan to focus enough to stir his own coffee into his Insumug of hot water. He sat down on his bed, not bothering to ask his room to convert into a living room, complete with Ergohammock chair and drinks table (definitely not a coffee table), as he felt that he’d be back in his bed soon enough. “Comms.”

The screen flickered to life, showing commander Topps in his usual, professional position. “Afternoon, Logan.”

Logan placed his cool fingers against his hot forehead, “afternoon, is it?”

“Yes.” Topps leant forward and peered through the screen, “is that coffee?”

Logan looked at the mug, “yes. Yes it is.”

“Logan, you know…” Topps stopped talking, then smirked slightly, “aren’t you well, Logan? Still feeling rough after your big case?”

Logan let out a puff of foul-smelling breath, “feeling rough, yes, but I think I’m over the case.”

Topps chuckled, “I think we can let the coffee go on this occasion. So how did things go with that little job I asked you to check out?”

“Nothing doing, boss,” Logan shrugged his shoulders, “everything above board.”

Topps’s frowning eyes told Logan that this would not serve as explanation enough.

“Well, sir. It seems that no rules are being broken,” Logan took a sip of his extremely strong coffee, which went some way to washing the sickly-sweet remnants of bourbon and cola from his tongue.

Topps’s deep voice interjected. “No rules being broken? With known psychics serving as dealers and a house gain over fifteen percent?”

“Actually, sir, the house gain has increased to over twenty.”

“What?”

Logan’s aching head was in no state to be treated to such a loud shout, and he winced noticeably. After a settling sip of his coffee, he went on. “The thing is, it seems that I wasn’t the only one with suspicions about Seers Casino.”

Topps turned his head in order to hear more clearly. “What? Someone else knew about the psychics.”

Logan nodded, “well, that’s the only explanation I can think of, because someone anonymously tipped a national newspaper in dimension hD6.”

It looked as if Topps would go into apoplexy, “a national newspaper ran the story?”

Logan nodded, “yes. One of those lower-grade newspapers that specialises in bizarre stories. No real, genuine exposure there. Obviously, it was picked up as an interesting story to be flung around on social media, but no genuine credulity.”

Topps sat back, letting his eyes wander upwards as he asked, “okay, so there’s no indication that people know anything about the dimensions? Especially our dimension?”

“Nope. None at all.”

Topps’s eyes remained fixed above the monitor. “So how does that mean Cappino is off the hook? And how come profit margins are rising?”

“Well,” Logan seemed to be slightly enjoying this, “people on hD6, especially American people, are somewhat…” Logan searched his mind for a suitable word, “belligerent in their belief in their own prowess.”

“Yes?”

“And so Americans started to come from miles around to play against the psychics.”

Topps was incredulous, “they want to play against the psychics. Why?”

Logan blew out his cheeks, “Some to prove that they don’t exist. Some to prove that they can beat them.”

“They think that they can beat them?”

“Yes,” Logan paused a second, “the casino even put a huge, blown-up poster version of the story above their front entrance. People are queuing up to lose money to psychics.”

Topps chuckled, his large jowls bouncing joyfully, “queuing up to play psychics? Are they mad?”

“No. Just belligerent self-believers,” he had liked the word.

Topps nodded, but his expression moved to sadness, “but this does mean that Cappino is using psychics to make money out of other dimensioners. That breaks the rules.”

“Actually, sir, you’ll find it doesn’t. Rule three, subsection eight, paragraph four: psychic abilities must not be used to take advantage of unknowing members of the lesser dimensions.” He knew that he did not need to quote the rulebook to Topps, but he enjoyed doing so. And he especially enjoyed his next comment. “These people aren’t unknowing. The casino has a poster up, radio advert, everything to ensure that the people are fully aware that they are being taken advantage of. So, no rule breaking, sir.”

Topps’s face slowly broke out into the wide smile of a happy and thoroughly entertained man. “Unknowing. Of course. Those crazy Americans are walking right into that with their eyes wide open on the slim chance that they can walk away saying that they beat a psychic.”

“Sir, they’re not even concerned about winning. They seem just as happy when they lose every hand so that they can say that they lost against a psychic.”

Topps was laughing out loud now. “Priceless. Just priceless.” He stopped laughing and regained his composure. “I knew that you’d pull through for me, Logan.”

Logan shrugged, “I’m just telling you how it is, Topps.”

“Sure, sure you are. And how about you? Feeling better?”

Logan nodded, “yeah. Much better. I’ll be back in work tomorrow.”

If Topps’s smile could have broadened it would have, “good, good. I knew that you and Cappino would be good for each other. Now stop drinking that coffee!”

As the comms system blinked into darkness, Logan reached under his bed and pulled out a bottle of bourbon, “okay Topps,” he said to himself, “I’ll stop with the coffee.”