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.”
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.