Subjugation - The Beginning

 

Subjugation

 

By James Galloway (aka Fel)

 

 

 

 


 

ToC    1

Prologue

      Mankind’s first contact with extra-terrestrial life was as dramatic and historical as everyone believed it would be.

      They were called the Faey, and they came to Earth not as messengers of peace, but as conquerors.

      On March 12th, 2005, they arrived in two immense starships and addressed the peoples of Earth via radio transmission, in every major language, that Earth had two weeks to surrender to the Faey Imperium or face war.  They did not use any show of force or destroy anything to prove their might, for the images that Earth telescopes gave of their two vessels was all the show of force anyone needed.  They were two miles long and nearly three quarters of a mile across, two sleekly designed monstrosities that were so massive that when they entered into Earth orbit, they affected the tides.

      The next day, a lone Faey emissary descended from the vessels above to address the United Nations with the Faey demands, and the global news coverage of the arrival of the emissary caused its own confusion.  The Faey representative, a high-ranking military officer, was a breathtakingly lovely human-looking female with light blue skin and pointed ears.  She did not look like a warlike alien, she did not even look particularly dangerous.  But when she addressed the United Nations, in English, it became quite apparent to everyone watching the globally broadcast event that she was every bit the conqueror.  She was arrogant and condescending, and she made it clear immediately that there would be no negotiation.  The Earth had two weeks to surrender unconditionally or face war.  Earth could either surrender or be conquered, but either way, they would become a part of the Faey Imperium.

      Faced with an enemy vastly superior in technology to their own, the nations of Earth met in the United Nations met for two solid weeks and debated furiously, but such a debate had only one ultimate conclusion.  That conclusion was reached March 26th, 2005, when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Vladimir Kosparivic, formally and officially surrendered on behalf of all the nations of Earth.

      Without firing a shot, without killing a single human being, the Faey Imperium conquered Earth.

      And so, Earth became a farming colony under Faey control.  The second major shock that the natives—as the Faey called them—discovered about their conquerors was that there was much more to them than first believed.  The Faey were a telepathic species, and they used that telepathic power to quickly move in and root out all the resistance movements that had sprung up since their arrival.  All Terran governments were dissolved, replaced by a feudalist system where a Faey noble held absolute power over his or her territory.  At first, the humans held hope that their conquerors could somehow be overthrown, but it was a feeble one.  In two months, the Faey Occupational Forces wiped out every band of organized resistance, leaving the humans with nothing but grim resignation of the lot that had been dealt to them.

      The changes were drastic.  Human society was allowed to continue to function, at least after a fashion.  The Faey meant for Earth to be a farming colony, and that was exactly what it became.  All activity on Earth was shifted to farming or offering material or technological support for the farming effort.  The verdant belts of Earth, such as the American mid-west, had every single square inch of their land taken over by farming.  Entire cities were depopulated and razed to make room for farms, and the middle sections of America became nothing but a vast collection of large collective farms.  Every open space became a farm, even inhospitable areas like deserts and tundra, from the northern reaches of Canada and Russia all the way to the southern tips of Africa and South America.  The Faey did not cut down forests to make room for farms, and all small-scale civilization that existed within forested areas was evacuated, letting the regions go back to nature to maintain the planetary ecosystem and sending the inhabitants to work elsewhere.

      Society continued on much as it did before, but all the humans who had had a job that had either been phased out as unnecessary, or had been replaced by Faey, found themselves working on farms.  Every single human who was unemployed suddenly found himself on a farm, and a large segment of the rest of the population also found themselves working on farms, having been assigned there by random lottery that was held every three months.  The rest of the human race continued on much as it had before, manufacturing supplies and equipment needed for the farms, maintaining the infrastructure, rendering services and support to other workers.  Because of this realignment, lawyers, politicians, stock brokers and bankers suddenly found themselves weeding fields, while doctors, construction workers, and the clerks at the local convenience stores found their jobs to be suddenly secure.  For those who avoided being sent to farms, job loyalty became insanely high and performance became fanatically perfect, for being fired or quitting would lead to immediate reassignment to a farm…and once assigned to a farm, a worker was virtually guaranteed to be a farm worker for the rest of his life.

      The Faey did turn out to be not quite so heartless as humans originally first believed.  They installed a great deal of their own technology on the planet to clean up the environment and converted all human cars and trucks to fuel cells of hydrogen, which burned cleanly.  They instituted universal health care for all humans, cured plagues on human kind like AIDS, cancer, and diabetes, and revamped the educational system to start training humans in their technology, so they could maintain the Faey systems themselves.  The Faey took over the roles of police, and their telepathic abilities led to the quick capture of all criminals, which in turn led to a drastic drop in crime.  They did not interfere with the arts or entertainment, allowing music, movies, television, and even the internet to remain for the enjoyment of the citizenry, encouraged careers in the arts and protected the jobs and livelihoods of those already in careers in the arts, even going so far as to not even bother to censor content, allowing people to express any opinion they wished…for everyone knew that the Faey telepathic gifts would destroy any kind of rebellion before it ever had a chance to begin.  Humans were allowed to object to the Faey, even do so publicly, so long as they didn’t actively do anything about it.  But many saw these gestures as nothing more than guaranteeing the health and well-being of their slave work force.

      Human society slowly and begrudgingly accepted this new order, however, for it was impossible to rebel.  Their Faey conquerors were telepathic, and quickly rooted out any attempt to organize resistance and crushed it.  Unable to counter either the vast technological superiority of their conquerors or maintain any kind of organized resistance, humans slowly came to accept that there was nothing that could be done.  But many continued to try, unable to live under the heel of an oppressor.  These mavericks mainly existed within the area formerly known as the United States, which proved to be both one of the most productive regions in terms of farm output, and the most troublesome in terms of defiant troublemakers.  The vast majority of these malcontents were squatters who had escaped from farms or had left their jobs and homes, and moved into the unpopulated forested regions of the eastern and western sides of the continent, areas that had been stripped of human population to allow the areas to return to nature.  In these lawless forest zones, they eked out dangerous and sometimes violent lives living off the land and preying on one another, living stark, almost primitive lives, but living free.  The Faey allowed them to do so, not bothering them so long as they didn’t raid Faey holdings.

      And so things remained for two years, a continuous cycle of the indomitable human spirit seeking to organize and resist, only to have their Faey conquerors move in and destroy the attempt before it got started.

ToC    1

 

 


To:   Title    ToC            2

Chapter 1

      Raista, 9 Shiaa, 4392, Orthodox calendar;

      Wednesday, 14 May 2007, Native regional reckoning

      New Orleans, Gamia Province, American Sector

      He hated heat.

      Blowing out his breath, Jason fanned the neck of his tee shirt as he scurried across the campus of Tulane University, lugging a heavy backpack full of assorted things around, just one of the many racing around campus like psychotic ants, trying to get wherever they were going as quickly as possible to escape the withering heat.  Why did it get this hot so early in the year down here?  Back home in Maine, there would still be snow in sheltered, shady pockets on the ground!

      It was almost enough to make him want to be sent to a farm, but with his luck, they’d stick him on one of the rice or sugar plantations they had down here, instead of a nice wheat farm up in New England.  It was just ridiculous.  He looked at his watch and saw that he was going to be nearly a half an hour early, but he didn’t care.  He’d stand out in the hall and wait if only to be in air conditioning.  It had to be nearly a hundred degrees!  For him, that was outrageous, given back home in Portland, it was a news event if the thermometer hit eighty!

      How did these people manage to live down here, anyway?  He was sure that they would have melted by now.

      The overshirt and backpack didn’t help, but he couldn’t help that.  The overshirt, nothing more than a button-up, short sleeve, light blue denim shirt that was worn unbuttoned was a vanity of his.  He’d worn shirts like that for so long that he felt naked if he wasn’t wearing a shirt and an overshirt over it.  The backpack was roasting his back where it was against him, but there wasn’t much he could do but pull it down and switch to the other shoulder.  It was a bit heavy today, but that was because he had today’s project in there in addition to his panel display, the universal computer-like device that all students were issued, that acted as a textbook, notebook, assignment book, and personal computer.  His cell phone (which he was required to carry at all times), earphones, several music and data sticks—crystalline devices that looked like little inch-long pencils made of crystal which stored information—and a few good old fashioned paper notebooks were also in the pack, adding to the weight but not about to be left behind.

      If only Professor Ailan had let him build a smaller model.  His project was for Advanced Plasma Fundamentals, and he had to build a functioning plasma flow model, complete with a plasma power generator, conduit for the plasma to take at least two separate paths, and an ion exchange module at both junctions.  The Faey had microscopic versions of what he had in his pack, a massive dog of a device that weighed nearly thirty pounds, but he had to use the supplies that were available to him.  It was a ridiculously easy project, truth be told, because all a student had to do was get the parts and put them together.  His model had three paths instead of two, because he was the last student to get to the part bin, and had to use the leftovers.  Professor Ailan had kept him at the podium on purpose, he privately suspected, keeping him from being able to get the necessary two-path split exchanger and merge exchanger to build the simplest version of the model.  He managed to get a three-path split exchanger and two two-path merge exchangers, and used those to build a cascading model where the primary conduit was split into three paths, then two merged, then that joined path merged with the last before returning to the PPG.

      Ailan was alright, at least for a Faey.  Jason didn’t like Faey, because they were conquering occupiers.  It was well known that Jason was an objector, a vocal dissident, but he never allowed his opinions to appear to be anything more than opinions, and he also had the highest grade point average among second semester students in the university.  The crux of his attitude towards Ailan dealt with a philosophical position.  Because the Faey had stripped Jason of his freedom and rights, he was opposed to their system.  But individual Faey were just that, individuals, and often voiced the same objections he himself raised.  But since they were Faey, he had a moral obligation to avoid them, and do his best not to like them.  That wasn’t easy when all his instructors were Faey, and Faey like Ailan were friendly, personable, and actually rather funny.  Ailan was a male Faey, which weren’t often seen on Earth.  The Faey was a female-dominated society whose entire core was based on telepathic power.  Females tended to have stronger telepathic abilities, so they had emerged as the dominant gender.  Females and males were the same size and roughly the same strength, but it was that disparity in telepathic might that made all the difference.  Males did have a place in the society, but they were not allowed, by law, to enter into any occupation that was considered overly hazardous or dangerous, outside of serving on the large starships.  Male Faey tended to be scientists, engineers, inventors, doctors, and teachers, while females were just about the only Faey that most people dealt with.  All military Faey were female, including the occupational forces, who served as the new police.  In addition to being military, females were also allowed to enter into any career they could manage to qualify for, and pull enough strings with whichever noble ruled them to manage to get in.

      That was one reason Jason got so aggravated with the Faey system.  It was a feudal bureaucracy, where every Faey was tested to see where they excelled, and allowed to pursue careers within those fields.  The personal choice of the person had nothing to do with these choices, which was why Jason cursed his own role every day.  When the Faey took over Earth, the tested each and every human on the planet, tests of intelligence, reasoning, and aptitude.  Prior education and training had little impact on these tests, and everyone tried their absolute hardest when taking them.  People who scored poorly were sent to farms, and being put on a farm was a fate that every human on Earth who was not already on a farm strove mightily to avoid.  In that regard, the Faey system was a great deal like the military.  But people who had money or connections could get out of that mandatory placement and go wherever they wanted.  They just had to have enough credits or the right lineage.  Nobles never served in the military in any role other than fleet officers or non-combat logistics officers for those who washed out of the academy, because they could buy those positions.  If Jason had had enough money, he could have bribed his placement assessor to get any job he wanted.  Not that it mattered for humans, for virtually all forms of old Earth currency was now worthless except for gold and silver.  Some rich millionaires did manage to have enough gold or silver assets on hand to buy themselves out of working on a farm, but not many.

      The main reason Jason hated his position was because he scored very high on those tests, high enough to be classified as able to comprehend Faey technology.  And because of that, now he was in school to learn their technology.  They didn’t consider that a risk because of their formidable telepathy, which would let them catch him long before he tried to use his education in some kind of harmful manner.  He would be trained in some kind of Faey technology, and then become a part of the Imperium by serving it.  And he hated that.  He’d be serving no matter what job he was doing, even farming, but it seemed so wrong to him to be trained in their technology and then work for them.  It was almost as if he were betraying the American ideals he had held so dear, cooperating with the enemy.

      It was doubly agonizing for him because he was fascinated by their technology.  They used plasma as a power source, and had mastered the science of manipulating space itself for use as propulsion, containing the fusion reactions that supplied plasma to power their systems, communicating over the entire galaxy, and had even learned to use it to breach the spacial boundaries and allow ships to jump through artificial wormholes…the closest thing to teleportation that had been devised so far by any race.  They used plasma for everything, from lighting their homes to the energy of their weapons, and had learned techniques to alter the nature of plasma to make it safe for commercial and residential use.  They used the manipulation of space as propulsion, as a means of travel beyond propulsion, and had even learned a way to form micro-wormholes that allowed communications to pass through, giving their Imperium real-time communications over their vast empire of nearly seventy star systems.  It was all so incredibly fascinating, and yet he felt he was violating his ethics and morals by enjoying his education.  He hated the Faey, and yet was learning to be a productive member of their society.  He hated being nothing more than a slave, yet his was the gilded cage, for they had put him in a place he loved to be.

      Too hot.  He had another half a block to go.  Tulane and another university called Loyola had existed side by side here in the Garden District of New Orleans, but Loyola had been dissolved, its buildings taken over by Tulane to form a single campus.  Not that it was Tulane anymore, it was simply called Tulane because that was the university whose buildings were still standing.  Officially, it was the Basic Technology Academy, Gamia Province.  His next class was all the way on the other side of the campus, in a brand new facility that had been built where the centuries-old Loyola building had once stood.  Scornful of the rich history of that venerable institution, the Faey had razed the building to the ground and in its place built their five-story nightmare of glass and synthetic plastic-like material that was stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum.  It was called the Plasma Dynamics building, or what the students called the “Plaid” due to the checkerboard appearance of glass and dark plastic that formed the front façade of the building, and it was where all lab-oriented Plasma courses were taught.  How did these people deal with it?  And it was only May!

      Two Faey females in that strange form-fitting body armor came across Saint Charles Avenue, their rifles slung over their shoulders.  He wondered how they could even breathe in those things.  They were truly form-fitting, showing off all those lovely curves for which many human men secretly pined.  Faey women were very lovely, all the military women were athletically thin, and most of them were curvy and very appealing.  Jason had a feeling that the tight fit of the armor had something to do with its protective aspects, since it didn’t hinder their movement in any way.  If there was no void space within it, there would be no jostling inside the armor.  He once saw a Faey soldier get hit by an SUV that had to be going about fifty miles an hour back when they first arrived, before they got the hang of crosswalks and realized that traffic wasn‘t just going to stop just because they stepped out into the street.  She got thrown about thirty feet after the impact, then she got up and simply dusted herself off.  The SUV was completely trashed.  The armor was more than just showing off their forms, it was a powerful protective shell that surrounded them.  These two had their helmets off, slung by small cords over the barrels of their rifles.  They were patent Faey, high cheekbones, large, almond-shaped eyes, small, pert little noses, full lips, and that strange bluish skin.  The taller one had gray eyes and auburn red hair cut short, combed over one side of her head, which seemed odd with her blue-hued skin, and the shorter one had blue eyes and hair so blond it was virtually white, short and straight as straw.  Both had black armor, which denoted them not as regular army, but as Marines.  They were the ones that a human had to watch out for, for they were rough, impatient, and tended to hand out very harsh punishments for the most benign of offenses.  They resented their jobs as police, and took it out on the people they policed.  Jason rushed past them, head down, not glancing to either side, his mind carefully neutral, betraying nothing.

      And there it was.  He’d come to be very familiar with that brushing sensation against his mind, the touch of a Faey who was using her telepathy against him.  Jason had a very organized and controlled mind, thanks to his father.  His father had been an Air Force fighter pilot, but resigned after his mother was killed in a car crash to spend more time with him.  His father had been a fanatical practitioner of martial arts, and had taught his son Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Ninjitsu, which gave him a very structured and strong mind.  He still practiced, but not as much as he had before his father passed away.  That mental training gave him the ability to control his mind, present to the world a repetivitive train of thought which the Faey couldn’t seem to penetrate without being very serious about it, an upper layer of sorts that concealed the true thoughts beneath it.  And they all tried, damn them.  Every single Faey he came into casual contact with probed him within ten seconds of coming close to them.  It was automatic, and he had come to expect it every time he came within twenty feet of a Faey.  Some of those brushings were light, as this one was, some were strong, and sometimes the Faey abandoned tact and literally attacked his mind to break down his defense of repetitive thought and get at the true thoughts beneath.  No matter how light or strong the touch, Jason never failed to feel violated at those touches, violated and offended that they would strip him of the most private of all private domains, his own mind.

      The thought he used against most Faey when he was feeling petty, as he was now, was an image of the Faey involved, stark naked and in a rather provocative pose.  Except for a pair of army boots.  The boots were rather important.  He wasn’t sure which one it was doing it, so he decided to use the redhead.  She was cuter.  He had several stock poses that he used, but given that this one was a but more buxom than the usual Faey, the good old cupping breasts image suited her rather well.

      It was a dangerous game to play with a Marine, but it was worth it.  One had to fight one’s battles where and when one could.  Ruffling a Marine’s feathers would satisfy his sense of necessity.

      From behind, he heard a startled gasp, and then then he felt a second brushing.  That was proceeded immediately by uncontained laughter.

      He knew he had about three seconds to make himself scarce, before that redhead got over her sense of moral outrage and got mad.  He quickened his step as he heard the second one continue laughing, and he managed to get in with a group of other students moving towards the Plaid.

      “Hey!” came a sudden call from behind.  “Come back here!”

      Jason ducked his head and broke out in front of the other students, who had stopped and turned around to see who was being addressed.  They melted out of the way when they saw two Marines, one of them with a dark expression and the other trying her best not to start laughing again.  Jason just barely managed to duck into the Plaid before the Marine spotted him, and he quickly got out of sight.  He felt several more brushings, but instead of presenting an image of a naked Marine, he instead made his mind like smoke, empty and presenting little more to the outside world than a plastic plant would.  He slipped into the broom closet between the bathrooms as he heard the sound of the Marine’s boots on the tiled floor, then controlled his breathing and remained centered on nothingness, surrendering thought to the zen-like state of nothing but silence within and without, the serenity of a meditative mind.

      “I know you’re in here, human!” the Marine boomed in English, and she sounded quite miffed.

      “Calm down, Jyslin,” the other said in a reasonable tone.  “I thought it was funny.”

      “It was funny, Maya, but do you think I’m going to let him get away with that?” she shot back, obviously miffed, because she was still speaking English.  “Oh, no, not until I strip him and put him in a pair of those ridiculous high-heeled shoes the human girls wear.  Now shut up and help me find him.”

      Jason stayed in the closet for several moments as brushing after brushing slid over him, very strong ones, as the two of them used their telepathic gifts to try to find his mind.  He remained serene, allowing them to see nothing but emptiness as his mind worked beneath that misdirecting shell, curious as to why they couldn’t find him.  At that range, with as much power as he could sense in their probes, they should have punched right through his defense and locked right onto him.  He could hear them not ten feet outside the door, for their armored boots clacked on the floor every time they moved.  That close, they should be able to smell him, because he could certainly smell that strange copper-like smell that the strange metal of their armor exuded.

      He heard them chatter at each other in their musical language for a moment, as the redhead’s voice seemed to get agitated, then the blond’s voice got quite serious.  What was the matter with them now?  She thought it was funny.  What had the redhead said that changed her mind?

      He heard their boots clack away, then from the sound of it, they went up the stairs.  He quickly pounced up from his crouch and cracked the door open, and indeed saw them just as they turned and went up the steps, disappearing from sight.

      Quick as a cat, Jason darted from the closet, his sneakers making no sound, and he rushed down the hall, his mind racing.  They couldn’t find him.  Their telepathic power should have found him easily once they got serious about it, but they hadn’t.  Maybe it was the door.  It was made out of metal, and some people on the internet speculated that their telepathy couldn’t pierce through heavy metals, like lead.  If the door had a steel sheet, then maybe that was enough to weaken their probes to the point where it would keep them from finding him.

      It was the only plausible explanation.

      He rushed through the door of his classroom, closing the door behind him and peering through the small window.  Had they heard him?  Did they see him come out of the closet?  He should have waited.

      “Well, so glad you could join us, Mister MacKenzie!” the voice of Professer Ailen boomed across the room, followed up by the laughter of twenty others.

      Jason whirled around and put his back against the door, surprise making his face flush, and found all of them looking at him.  Had he been in the closet that long?  When he zoned out like that, he couldn’t keep track of time.

      “Well, since you wanted to make such an entrance, why don’t you step up and show us your project?”

      He drew a blank.  Project?  What was he talking about?  Oh, his project.  “I have it right here, Professor,” he said, taking his pack off his shoulder and approaching the table which Ailan used as a lectern and a desk.  “Sorry I’m late.”

      “And just who were you hiding from?” he asked with a sly smile.

      “You don’t want to know,” he answered as he put his pack down by his chair, closest to the door, and pulling out his breadbox-sized plasma system.  He felt a brushing from Ailan, and he was careful to keep his mind tightly focused on the project in his hands.  Males didn’t have the raw strength of the females when it came to telepathic ability, but they knew many tricks and subtle nuances that actually made them much more dangerous to him.  Ailan had a policy of not probing his students, but sometimes, like right now, when his curiosity was piqued, he just couldn’t help himself.  The first time Ailan had used his power on Jason, he had used his standard smoke and mirror trick to conceal his thoughts, and he felt Ailan immediately probe around the edges of it, trying to find a way through.  Ailan had known that it was nothing but a defense, that his true thoughts were lurking beneath that misdirection.  No female had ever managed to detect that, at least not that he knew of.  Because of that, Tarrin had to use more crude but no less effective techniques, such as repetitive concentration on a single thought, which drowned out everything else.  Ailan could only see his focus on getting his project set up and running, and for as long as he felt Ailan brushing up against his mind, he could think of nothing else.  But after a few seconds, the tentative brushing stopped, and Tarrin dropped his repetition and got down to the business of checking the seals on his exchangers before powering up his PPG.

      The incident with the Marine was brushed into the back of his mind as he displayed his working three-path plasma system, then sat down and watched as the others displayed theirs.  All of them but one worked perfectly, and that one failed because of a faulty PPG, which wasn’t the student’s fault.  Jason had the luck of being in a class of other smart people, for they had all been shipped into New Orleans to attend this particular school, which had the best instructors.  Jason had already had a year of school up in Boston, but when he aced his final in Basic Plasma Systems, they shipped him here, to Tulane, where the work was more challenging and the washout rate was tripled.  This was the school where they sent the humans that they thought might have a knack for the work, and pushed them hard to see how quickly and completely they could embrace plasma technology.  The Tulane campus was the M.I.T. or Northwestern of the Faey upper level education facilities, where the brightest students were sent.

      No one in this school wanted to wash out.  They all knew that the further they got in this school, the better of a job they qualified for once they were placed, and thus the more money they could make and the more secure they would be in their new careers.  The goal of any student at Tulane was to get at least to pass Advanced Plasma Applications, the benchmark requirement for plasma systems technicians.  Anything above that was good money and solid job security.  Many of them, once they got to that level, slacked off, washed out, and ended up getting placed, but they didn’t care.  They’d reached the promised land, and it didn’t matter what job they got, because it was a safe job.

      After a bit of lecture after the presentations, Professor Ailan glanced at the clock on the far wall and gave a little start.  “Good grief, I’m holding you guys over,” he announced.  “I hope nobody has any classes ten minutes after our class ends, cause you’ll be late.”  He clapped his hands.  “That’s all, people.  Read chapter nine and do the scenario questions for tomorrow.  Remember, we have a test on Thursday.  See you tomorrow.”

      The room was filled with the low buzz of chatter as the students picked up their panel displays and other assorted equipment and started stowing it in packs.  Jason had to close up his spiral and stow that, for he was the only person in the class that took notes on paper in addition to the notes he typed on his panel.  He preferred writing it down, because writing it helped him commit it to memory much better than simply typing it out on a computer.  He finished packing everything up as Ailan started disassembling the projects they did, his hands moving quickly and surely as he unannealed the components from their metal backing, using a little device that caused molecular structures of two different objects to mingle along the border, in effect “welding” them together.  He was using the “separation” mode, which caused to disparate materials to unfuse, sliding it along the base junction where the components were annealed to the backing with a quick and steady hand.  He watched for just a moment, then slung his pack over his shoulder and filed out the door.

      “Not so fast.”

      Jason froze at the sound of that voice, for it was the redheaded Marine!  He whirled around and saw her leaning with her back against the wall near the door, the sole of her left boot flat against the wall, her arms crossed below her breastplate and her head slightly bowed.  Her rifle and helmet were missing, probably being held by that other platinum blonde Marine who wasn’t around.

      He was busted.  He wasn’t going to run away like a coward, but he wasn’t going to blubber like a little girl either.  He drew himself up erect and looked over at her with a neutral expression.

      “You thought that was funny, didn’t you?” she asked, then she chuckled.  “Well, so did I.  You have more backbone than most of these sheep.  But you got it wrong.”

      “What?”

      “We tan, just like you do,” she told him with a strange smile.  “I’m much lighter than that.”

      “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said carefully, then he took a step back.

      “Don’t even,” she said quickly, coming off the wall.  “Just because I thought it was funny doesn’t mean you’re getting away with it.

      “There’s nothing in the laws against picturing a Marine naked,” he said bluntly.

      “True, that’s why I’m not hauling your happy ass down to the barracks,” she told him.  “You put me in a pair of boots, so I’m going to put you in a pair of high heels.  For real,” she told him with a wicked little smile.

      Jason got very defensive at that point, his eyes going flat.  “Try it,” he said dangerously.

      “Oh, you think you can take me?” she asked with a laugh, then he felt her brush against his mind.  He focused his thoughts behind a mask of utter blankness, a wall of nothing that would not allow her to find its edges and slip inside.  His sudden defense made her eyes go wide, then she gave him a sudden respectful look.  “That’s quite a trick there, human,” she told him.  “That’s how you got away from us before.  How do you do that?”

      “Practice,” he answered honestly.

      “Well, that’s fairly impressive,” she admitted. “It’s going to make this a little more difficult, but that’s alright.  I live for challenges.”

      “The only way you’re going to get me out of my clothes is over my dead body,” he warned in an ugly tone as several students passed by, giving him wild looks.

      “And not let you enjoy the experience?  I think not,” she winked.  She winked at him!  “I might have to knock you out, but I’ll make sure you wake up to enjoy it.”

      Immediately, Jason balled up his fists.

      She laughed.  “Well, I tell you what, human.  I’ll actually take you on hand to hand.  I won’t even cheat.  If you can beat me, I’ll leave you alone.  If you lose, you walk home wearing nothing but high heels.”

      Jason sized up this Faey.  The armor hid her body, but he knew from experience that Faey soldiers were deceptively strong.  But it was their speed that one had to watch.  They were lithe, graceful, and very fast.  The soldiers were extensively trained for combat, and that included hand to hand.  They were solid opponents, and he had to respect both her speed and her training.  She was expecting him to be like any other human of his size, rather strong, maybe well coordinated, but without any kind of basic training in self defense.  And since she couldn’t probe him, she couldn’t find out that he was in fact very well versed in self defense.  He knew what to expect from her, but she had no idea what to expect from him…or more to the point, she would draw the wrong conclusion.  That gave him all the advantage he needed.

      He could take her.

      “You have a deal,” he said confidently.

      “Come on then,” she told him with an eager smile.

      “Now?”

      “Sure,” she answered, walking past him, towards the outer doors.  “There’s plenty of room outside.”

      That suited him just fine.

      The students on campus realized something was going on when the Faey came out of the building, her partner standing by the door with her helmet and rifle, then backed out onto the grass and crooked a finger tauntingly at a human that came out behind her.  Jason dropped his pack by the sidewalk and ventured out onto the grass, cracking his knuckles and fixing the Faey with a cool stare.  “Want me to take off my armor?” she asked with a teasing smile.

      “No,” he answered in a calm, almost serene manner.  “You’ll need it.”

      That made the Faey laugh delightedly.  “I’m really going to enjoy walking you home, human,” she promised.  She spread her feet and raised her hands in a guard stance.  “Come on then, Rambo,” she taunted.  “Show the big bad Faey what you’re made of.”

      It had to end fast, before she realized he was much more dangerous than he looked, and he knew exactly how to approach her to make that happen.  He skittered in with his fists raised in a boxing stance, then flicked a few ineffective and intentionally clumsy jabs at her unprotected face, baiting her.  She laughed mockingly as she danced back a few steps, evading his erratic blows, then whipped her hand out to grab his arm as it came at her.

      Which was exactly what he wanted.

      With lightning speed, Jason opened his fist and snapped his arm outwards, grabbing her by the wrist.  He stepped in towards her and levered that arm in an Aikido lock, forcing her to move the way he wanted her to move or risk getting a broken arm or dislocated shoulder.  Her armor would not protect her against that.  He jerked her to and fro for several seconds as she gasped in pain and tried to disengage herself from his grip on her even as she surrendered to his force and moved where he bade her.  He got her off balance by making her weave back and forth in ever-widening circuits, until she was all but stumbling around as he moved backwards and to each side, forcing her to come along with him or get her arm broken.  Just as she dipped down to follow a sudden yank on her arm, Jason pivoted and let go of her, spun in a complete circle, and then delivered a wicked spinning roundhouse kick squarely to the side of her pretty little head just as she was rising up from his pull, completely unaware of the incoming attack.  The outside of his foot went satisfyingly numb as it impacted her skull, and the raw power of the blow swept her right out from in front of him.  His foot swung down easily to again stand on the earth, and the Faey Marine crashed to the ground in a boneless heap.

      Jason stood there for a long moment to utter, complete, stunned silence from the growing crowd that came over to see what was going on.  He watched for several seconds, until she groaned and rolled over on her stomach, then shakily started pushing herself up onto her hands and knees.  He thought about saying something to rub it in, but it was best not to tempt fate.  He beat her, he beat her fairly, and something told him that he’d better pick up his pack and be somewhere else by the time she got her senses back.  He turned his back on her without a word, then paced over and picked up his pack.  The blond--what was her name?  Maya?  Maya, that was it.  Maya gave him a look of profound surprise, then she gave him the strangest smile, all cheeky and amused.  She put her free hand to her upper chest and gave him a little bow, some kind of weird Faey custom, he supposed.  He put his hand in his pocket, held onto the strap of his pack with the other, then strolled away as if nothing had happened.

      But as soon as he turned the corner, he ran like hell.

      He knew that there were going to be repercussion for what happened.  He was sure of it.  A human had kicked the piss out of a Faey, and not just any Faey.  A Marine.  It worried him enough to make it hard to study, and that was a very bad thing.

      He leaned back from the desk in his tiny room, putting his hands over his face.  It was a truly spartan affair, with a narrow bed that wasn’t long enough for him in the corner, and a tiny stand with a small television sitting in the other corner.  A small window facing the brick building across the alley was set in the middle of the wall, by the television.  His desk was a the head of his bed, which left just enough room to open the door, which banged up against the bookshelf on the opposite wall, behind the desk, which was why he had little more than a walkway in the middle of his room.  His panel was sitting on the desk on a stand so he could read the screen, like a monitor, displaying video it had taken of his calculus class he took after the fight, a class he didn’t even remember.  At least he had the wherewithal to set the panel to record the class, because he was completely distracted.

      Distracted?  More like mindlessly worried.  Professor Zalda, his aged female Faey calculus teacher, seemed amused by his state, and hadn’t pressed him during class.  He couldn’t remember getting there.  He couldn’t remember a single word spoken during the class.  Hell, he didn’t even remember leaving and walking back to his room, which was two blocks from the campus in a dorm built for the students.  It was all a jumbled blur of worry over what had happened.  In a way, he started thinking that maybe he should have let that Marine strip him and make him walk home naked.  At least then, he wouldn’t be eaten up with an almost panicked fear of what the Marines were going to do to him in payback.

      He knew all about that.  His father had been in the Air Force, so he knew all about how they were going to gang up to pay him back for what he did to one of their own.

      He blew out his breath and looked at the wall over his desk, under the shelf that was mounted to the wall, where a picture of his father was pinned.  He’d been dead for five years now, and in a way, he was glad he didn’t live to see the subjugation.  His father would have invaded a base, stolen a fighter, and got himself killed, or ran off into the forest with the other squatters who were out there now.  He died of cancer, and after he died, a seventeen year old Jason Fox found himself alone in the world.  But instead of going into a foster home, he got emancipation and just kept going, like his father would have wanted him to.  He sold his family house and moved into a dorm when he got a scholarship to play football at the University of Michigan.  He played for two years as a third-string free safety and special teams cover player,  never making it to the starting lineup, but he really didn’t care.  He was there on scholarship, and he used that scholarship to get a free education…which was what he was after.  He majored in electrical engineering, focusing on digital electronics.  He hoped to get a job designing computer hardware somewhere after college, working for a place like Motorola or IBM.  But then the Faey came, and all his plans were tossed out the window.  Because he was in college, he wasn’t shipped off to a farm, allowed to remain in school and continue with his classes until he was tested.

      Not that he did much schooling in that year between their arrival and the day they tested him.  He was stuck in a holding pattern, as was everyone in school, just waiting and going through the motions.  It was a very nervous time, and it gave them enough time to find out from others just what happened in the testing, and what happened if one did poorly.  They tested him, then shipped him to Boston for a year of preliminary--what they called remedial--education, then he had his first semester of plasma courses.  He did so well that they shipped him down here to New Orleans a few months ago to start the semester at Tulane, and so far, he’d been doing rather well.

      Jason chuckled humorlessly as his father’s green eyes laughed from the photograph.  His father had always been so jovial, so light-hearted, so much different from his sober and serious son.  But they did look something alike.  Jason has his father’s straight blond hair, his piercing green eyes, and the same tall frame.  His father was but a half an inch from being too tall to be a fighter pilot.

      There was a knock at his door, which startled him nearly out of his chair.  “Yo, Jason!” a man called, and he sighed in relief when he realized it was Tim.  Tim was one of his students in his only extra-curricular activity, an Aikido class he taught on campus.  He had nine pupils, and so far, they all seemed to be doing rather well.  Jason taught them Aikido and Tai Chi, exercise for the body and the mind to help them deal with the tremendous stress that school put on them.

      “It’s open,” he called, and the door opened immediately.   Tim came in wearing a tank top and a pair of running shorts, and he was coated in sweat.  Tim was a tall, dark-haired, rather handsome broad-shouldered young man that at twenty-two was a year younger than him, but was in the same semester as he was.  They only shared one class, their Physics class, and that was enough for them to strike up a friendship.  It was Tim that talked him into starting an Aikido club, and was one of his most eager pupils.

      “You look like shit,” Tim told him as he came in, unable to close the door because Jason was blocking his entrance into the room.

      “I feel like it,” he grunted, leaning back in the chair and looking up at the ceiling.

      “You realize that you missed the meeting,” he said.  “Since you weren’t there, we just threw each other around for a while then went home.”

      Jason chuckled ruefully.  “Sorry about that, but  I’m a little distracted.  I‘ve had a bad day.”

      “We heard.  Heard that a student kicked the shit out of a blueskin, and everyone in the club knew it was you when you didn‘t show up,” he said with a sudden laugh, using the rather derogatory term humans had of the Faey.  “What happened?”

      “It’s a bit involved,” he answered, then he related the tale to him, telling about how his image of the Faey ultimately led to the challenge, and the short fight afterward.

      Tim laughed.  “I’ll bet she’s kicking herself for not wearing her helmet,” he surmised.

      “Probably,” Jason agreed.  “She never thought I could be any kind of threat.”

      “She broke the first rule,” Tim said sagely, the first thing Jason taught his students.  Never believe that your opponent can’t beat you, because the instant you do believe that, he will beat you.  “So, what happens now?”

      “Now, I walk with one eye over my shoulder and ready to run like hell any time I see black armor,” he answered honestly.  “If she doesn’t do something about it, the other Marines will.  Military people like that don’t let their own get beat up by a native.  They’ll come after me.”

      “They might,” Tim admitted.  “But then again, they could just zap you.”

      “What would that prove?” Jason asked.  “No, they’ll beat me up the old fashioned way.  That way the don‘t feel inferior.”

      “How did you do it?” he asked.

      “I’ve seen Faey soldiers move,” he answered.  “I’m familiar with them, but that Marine had never seen me before, and she just assumed that I was like everyone else, that I had no training.  I had the advantage, and she thought that she did.  She got cocky, and it cost her.”

      “And she got her ass kicked,” Tim laughed.

      “Actually, it was my head,” a voice called from outside the door, which made both of them snap their heads to look, even as Jason’s stomach sank.  He knew that voice.  It was the redheaded Marine, and she had tracked him back to his room!  She was alone, and much to his surprise, she wasn’t wearing her armor.  She was wearing a plain old gray tee shirt with a pocket on the left side and a pair of faded blue jeans tucked into dainty black leather boots, very human clothing.  The only thing about her that looked out of place was her blue skin, pointed ears, and the plasma pistol holstered on her belt.  Even off duty and in civilian clothes, Faey soldiers did not go around unarmed.

      Tim turned absolutely white, backing up against the door and giving the redheaded, blue-skinned woman a strangled look.

      She stepped up to the door, and Jason couldn’t help but stare at her.  She was gorgeous out of her armor!  Her hair was neat and groomed, still combed over the left side of her face and head, and there was no visible sign that she’d been walloped in the head.  No scab, no bruise, no knot.  The armor made her look harsh and intimidating, but in a loose-fitting tee and jeans, she was very feminine, and quite pretty.

      “Well,” she said, glancing at Tim.  “I thought for a moment that there was someone else here, but I think I was mistaken.  It would be a shame if I turned out to be wrong.  After what I thought I heard that other person say, I just might have to do something about his attitude.”

      Tim hugged the wall as he slipped around her, then he fled down the hall shamelessly.  And Jason didn’t blame him one bit.

      Jason watched her as she strode into the room, then leaned her shoulder against the door.  He was totally at a loss here.  He had no idea what to say or do, and fear rose up like bile in his stomach as her stormy gray eyes looked down at him without expression.

      “Well,” she said, with a slow smile creeping into her features.  “I don’t need the Gift to see that you’re quite at a loss.  Didn’t think I’d come here like this, did you?”

      He shook his head mutely, staring at her like she was a cobra about to strike.

      “Calm down,” she said with a wink.  “I’m not here for a rematch, and you don’t have to worry about my squad coming down here to give you a party.  I got whooped fair and square, and I can respect that.  I underestimated you, and I paid for it.  And that’s that.”

      “T-Then why are you here?” he managed to stammer out.

      “Because you interest me,” she said frankly.  “I’ve never met a human male that could beat me in a fight.  There’s that, and there’s also the fact that your mind is closed to me.  I can’t simply look at you and hear every thought in your head.  I don’t know how you do it, but you keep your mind closed so it doesn’t broadcast your thoughts for us to hear.  Only a handful of humans can do that that we know of, humans with highly trained minds.  You’re a mystery, and Faey women just love mysterious males.  They pique our curiosity.”

      Jason got nervous.  He did not like the way this was sounding like it was headed.

      “There’s that, and there’s also how you hid from us,” she continued.  “I’ve never heard of any human that could do that.  Somehow, you blocked our talent when we searched for you, hid your mind from us in a way that made us miss you.  That’s pretty remarkable, since you don’t have any talent yourself.  I want to know how you did it.”

      “I just presented an empty front,” he said quickly.  “Meditation, no thought.  I learned a while ago that if I’m not thinking, then Faey can’t use it to find me.”

      She pursed her lips, then she laughed.  “Well, actually we can, but we don’t bother using those approaches when we’re looking for humans.  It’s easy to just look for thoughts, and since I never dreamed that you could hide your thoughts, I never bothered to look for you any other way.  That’s damned clever.”  She cocked her head at him curiously.  “How do you know how to do that at all?”

      “You damn Faey stick your noses in my head all the time,” he blurted in irritation before he caught himself.  “Every single one I meet tries to probe me with telepathy.  They do it to me so often I’ve even learned how it feels when they do it.  That’s how I knew when to put that image out where you’d see it,” he continued, having no idea why he was telling her, but unable to stop himself.  “Why don’t they ever leave me alone?”

      “It’s because we can’t hear your thoughts passively,” she said after a few seconds of thought.  “If you were any other human, I could stand here and hear every thought that crossed your mind without having to actively touch you.  But I can’t hear what you’re thinking, so I’d have to actively reach out and touch your mind.  If you’re looking for who to blame for why we always probe you, look in your mirror,” she told him with a wink.  “Faey women adore mysteries, and a human with a closed mind is the only mystery we have on this rock.”

      Well, that did explain quite a bit.  He rocked back in his chair and pondered on it briefly.  If she was right, then he was partially to blame for all those Faey who violated the sanctity of his own mind, if only because his thoughts weren’t out where they could hear them.

      “So,” she said, getting his attention again.  “Now that I got the answers to my questions, want to go get some pizza?”

      “What?” he asked in utter surprise.

      “Do you want to go out and get some food?” she repeated.  “I haven’t had anything since breakfast, and I’m starved.  I’m rather fond of pizza.  There’s this place on the West Bank called Mo’s.   It has the best pizza in the city.”
      He was quite honestly startled half out of his wits.  She was asking him out!

      “Well?  Don’t sit there like an idiot,” she grinned.  “I know it’s a shock that I’m asking you out, but it can’t be that much of a shock.”

      “Oh yes it can,” he managed to blurt as he tried to recover his wits.  He hadn’t expected this.  Anger, yes, maybe even spite, but not a date.   What the hell was he going to do to get out of this without getting her pissed off?

      “I, uh, I have too much work to do,” he said, motioning at his panel, which was still showing video of the class he’d sort of lost in the haze after their short fight.  “I have a test tomorrow in calculus, and I’m not ready.  And I have homework in about four different courses, and two tests Friday.  And since I’ve been worrying about what happened between us since it happened, I haven’t been able to concentrate on school since then.”

      She chuckled ruefully.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you like that,” she told him.  “What’s your test in on Friday?”

      “Advanced Plasma Fundamentals,” he answered immediately.

      She made a face.  “I hated that class,” she said.

      He gave her a startled look.

      “You think I want to be a Marine forever?” she said in a challenging tone.  “I’m just going through the mandatory conscription.  Every Faey woman has to do five years in the military.  I’m pretty strong in talent and I’m a good shot, so I was put in the Marines.  But I’ve been taking classes to try to get into engineering on one of the starships, as soon as I serve out my two-year initial assignment.”

      “And if you had money, you could have bought your way into that engineering job,” he said with a growl.

      “I see you understand the nuances of Faey society rather well,” she said in a sarcastic kind of manner.  “I’m a commoner.  I have to work my way where I want to go.  Where did you learn so much about us?”
      He pointed at his panel.  “They don’t censor the old internet, and I‘m not restricted from CivNet,” he answered, referring to the earth-based Faey computer information network, which was connected to the Faey “internet.”  “If you know where to look, you can find all sorts of information.”

      “Ah.”  She looked at the screen, then stepped up and waved her hand in front of the panel’s sensor.  That triggered an automatic reaction which caused the device to project out the keyboard.  Jason still wasn’t used to that thing.   It was a holographic projection that had real substance, an illusion that he could touch, and it acted just like any other keyboard.  It was customizable, so Jason had set his up to mimic a standard human computer keyboard.  She looked at it a moment, then nudged him with her hip to give her space and started typing at the terminal window that popped up over the running video playback.

      “What are you doing?” he demanded as she quickly brought up his calendar, which listed all his due assignments.

      “Just looking for a place where you can squeeze me in,” she answered with a sly smile down at him.

      “Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to go out with you?” he asked acidly.

      “Why not?”

      “You’re a Faey,” he declared in a blunt manner.

      “So?  Faey go out with humans all the time.  You‘re actually an attractive race to us, and I know we‘re attractive to you.  Our physiologies are virtually identical, and we’re even genetically compatible.  Faey and humans are nearly the same race.  There‘s nothing wrong with us going out.  It‘s not like I‘m some kind of scaly alien.”

      “Your government conquered my world and made me a slave,” he told her in a strong manner, which made her stop typing and look down at him.  “My principles won’t let me go out with a Faey.  You’re the enemy.”

      “Oh, you’re one of those,” she said with a chuckle.  “Well, I’m not the government.”

      “You’re a Marine.  You very much are the government.”

      “Hey, I may be a Marine, but that doesn’t mean I like what the Empress does,” he told him.  “I was placed, the same as you.  I’m as much a slave as you are, if you want to look at it that way.  I just do what I’m told, the same as you, and work to try to improve my lot.  You and me, we’re insignificant little cogs in the vast machine.”

      He was surprised that she had such a strong grasp of English.  He was equally surprised at her reasoning, and he often forgot that the Imperium treated the Faey the same way it treated the humans.  She had been placed, just like he had, put in the Marines because that’s where they thought she would do best, and she was working to get out of the Marines and move on to something she wanted to do.  The only way to do that was to show the Imperium that she could do the job through tests, then wait for a position to come open.  Until then, she’d wear her armor and tote around her rifle and play policeman, because she had no other choice.

      But still, she was Faey, a member of the conquering race.  By principle, he couldn’t be friends with her, the same way he kept his distance from Ailan.  Because, just like Ailan, this pushy Faey female was starting to grind down his defenses.  She was smart, sassy, a little pushy, and she had a sense of humor.  Those were attractive qualities in a woman to him.

      “Well, this cog doesn’t mingle with the other cogs,” he told her tartly, pushing her hands away from his keyboard.  It was the first time he had ever touched a Faey skin to skin, and in that touch he felt a strange buzzing behind his eyes.

      “You like me,” she announced with a laugh.  “You object to me out of a philosophical position, not personal preference.  Well, it’s nice to know where I stand.”

      He glared at her, realizing that she had somehow breached his defenses and had looked inside his mind, violating his privacy in the most grievous manner possible.  He jumped to his feet and got nose to nose with her, his anger all over his face, which made her uncertain and nervous.  “Stay out of my head, and get the hell out of my room,” he said in an ominously low voice.

      “Hey, that was your fault,” she told him quickly.  “You touched me, and I wasn’t expecting it.  When we touch, it focuses the talent, makes it easier for us to see deeper into a mind.  When you touched me, I was inside your mind before I realized it.”

      “The one thing I know about your talent is that it takes intent,” he said in a savage hiss.  “Now get out!”

      “Alright, you got me,” she admitted.  “When you touched me, I took a peek.  But that’s because I wanted to see how you really felt about me.  If you didn’t like me, I would have simply left.  But I know that you do like me, Jason Augustus Fox,” she said with a slight little smile.  “I’m sorry I did that.  I didn’t know how much you objected to sharing your thoughts, and I won’t do it again.  So, I’ll go and let you calm down, but don’t think that you’ll never see me again.  I’ll show up around every corner, and I’ll hound you until I get what I want from you.”

      “You think you will,” he growled.

      “I know I will,” she told him easily, holding up three fingers.  “I don’t want anything other than three dates, Jason, three chances to get to know you better and solve the mystery of you.  And I’ll be your worst nightmare until you give in and go out with me,” she promised.  “Our first will be a real date, where we both dress up in nice clothes and go to a nice restaurant, then we go to an opera or a play, something cultured and classy.”

      “There’s no chance in hell that’s going to happen,” he declared.

      “We’ll see,” she said with a narrow-eyed smile.  “You underestimate my resolve.”

      “You underestimate mine.”

      “Well, if you want to make a challenge out of it, then I’ll be happy to oblige you,” she said brightly, turning and taking the two steps necessary to get out the door.  “But I’ll warn you right now, Jason.  I play to win,” she warned, reaching in and grabbing the handle.  “Oh, and I cheat,” she added with a chuckle, then she closed the door.

      Growling several low curses, Jason sat back down in his chair.  If she thought she was going to get him to go out with her, she was totally crazy.  He might have considered it before she stuck her nose in his mind, violated him in the one way he could not stand to be violated.  He spent several minutes trying to compose himself.  He looked at the screen, saw that his calendar was still up, and he saw that she had added a few items to it, next Friday:

            16 May 2007, 7:00pm:            Go out with Jyslin Shaddale.

            16 May 2007, 11:15pm           Strip naked and wear high heels.

            16 May 2007, 11:20pm:          Strip Jyslin naked and make her wear combat boots.

            16 May 2007, 11:24pm:          Discover that Faey girls have the same equipment as human girls.

            16 May 2007, 11:27pm:          Have mind-shattering, nearly religious sexual experience.

      Despite it all, he blurted out a chuckle after reading those last three lines.  This Jyslin certainly did have a sense of humor.  He may be pissed off at her for her invasion of his mind, but he could appreciate her humor if nothing else.

      And she certainly wasn’t intent on hiding her motives, that was for sure.  He knew some about Faey, but not much about their culture or their society.  He knew how they treated men, but not how they acted in social situations.  Was this bold forwardness a simple part of Faey custom, or was she being intentionally dirty to get his attention?  As far as things went with this particular Faey, anything was possible, of that he was certain.  Jyslin seemed to be a very intelligent woman, much smarter than she seemed, and she was dealing with a human that liked her personally, but objected to what she represented, so that meant that she had to be creative, get his attention, make him think.  And those remarks about getting him bed had certainly done that.

      Jyslin was going to be a problem, he decided.  But it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.  So she was a pushy woman.  He could deal with that.  All he had to do was wait her out until she lost interest, and make her as unwelcome as possible along the way.

      Yes, that would work.  Feeling much calmer, he killed the terminal window without erasing her little joke.  He’d leave that there to remind him.  Then he rewound his calculus lesson and started studying in earnest.

                                    *                      *                      *

      He figured that Jyslin was going to come around every once in a while and tease him, pester him, and then her duties would force her to return to work, more or less leaving him alone.

      He could not have been any more wrong.

      Jyslin and her partner, the blonde, were standing out on the sidewalk when he came out of the building, standing by one of the Faey’s hovercars.  They were sleek devices with no sharp edges, and they skimmed above the surface of the street using spacial resistance drives.  This one was a military model, armored and with flashers on its top, for use in policing the city.

      “Good morning,” she said brightly, coming up off the vehicle, her black armored boots clacking on the sidewalk as she walked towards him.  “Ready for school?”

      “What?” he asked in uncertainty.

      “School,” she said with a wicked smile.  “We don’t want you to get lost along the way, so we’re going to escort you right into your classroom.  And when you’re done there, we’ll make sure you find your next class, and then your next class, and then your next one.  We’ll make sure you have no trouble going anywhere you have to go today.  We’ll be right there behind you every step of the way.  Won’t we, Maya?”

      “Of course,” the blonde answered with a clever little smile.

      “Don’t you have a job?” he asked acidly.

      “You’re our job today,” she said with a nasty smirk.  “You see, we told our watch commander about a certain human who just might get into trouble because of a certain fight he had yesterday.  You know, we wouldn’t want him suffering from harassment from the occupational forces because he beat up a Faey, or gods forbid, retaliation from the Marines because the Faey in question was a Marine.  So the watch commander assigned us to the task of making sure nothing happens to you today.  Tomorrow, a new pair of Marines is going to escort you around, who will make life as unpleasant for you as possible without actively getting in your way.  And another pair the day after that, and another the day after that, and on and on until we report back to her that the threat to you has disappeared.”

      Jason gave her an unholy glare, which she answered with a light, amused smile.  “I told you, Jason.  I cheat.”

      Jason took an aggressive step towards her, then he put his hand in his pocket absently.  “You rushed out before I could tell you something last night, Jyslin.”

      “Oh?  What is that?”

      “I cheat too,” he answered in a cold voice, then he whipped his hand out of his pocket, holding a small cylindrical object.  He pointed it at her and unleashed his secret weapon, a small canister of pepper spray, and she took the full brunt of it right in the face.  She gasped and gave out a hacking sound, flinching away from the small cloud of irritating mist, putting her gauntleted hands to her face.  But the metal of her gloves wouldn’t wipe away the agent, leaving her at its mercy.

      The blonde, Maya, gave him a startled look, but he just gave her an evil smile, put the canister back in his pocket, and strolled towards school as if nothing untoward had happened.

      That stroll turned into a sprint when Jyslin’s outraged voice reached him.  “You’re digging your own grave, human!” she boomed.  “Now you’re going to be wearing a maid’s dress along with those high heels!”  He glanced back to see that Maya had fished a towel or something out of the hovercar for her, and she was wiping the pepper spray off of her face.  Pepper spray wasn’t like mace in that once it was cleaned off, it had no lingering effects.  It was only to distract and incapacitate a moment, long enough for someone to escape from an attacker.

      If she wanted to be an obnoxious little ass, then he’d be happy to meet her on that level, immature stunt for immature stunt.

      He managed to get to school before Jyslin got organized enough to follow him, ducking into the Plaid and looking out the large pane windows to either side of the door nervously.  It was nothing but a delaying tactic, for he was certain that she had a copy of his class schedule and thus could position herself outside the door and wait for him to come out, but it bought him enough time to try to come up with a strategy for losing her after class.

      That wasn’t going to be easy.  He’d used up his pepper spray, and now that she had an idea how ruthless he could be, he wasn’t going to get an easy shot like that on her again.  She’d be much more careful next time.

      He went to his classroom early and sat down.  It was unlocked, as all the classrooms were, mainly because the security system in the classrooms would catch anyone stealing anything.  Every tool and piece of equipment in the classroom had an ID chip that broadcast to a central receiver.  If anyone tried to steal a tool, it would set off an alarm as soon as he stepped out the door.  He pulled out his panel and his notebook and went over yesterday’s notes, and Professor Ailan ambled in a little bit after he arrived.

      “Ah, Jason,” he said amiably.  “You’re here early.”

      “I’m avoiding someone, Professor,” he replied as he made a few refinements to the sketch he’d done of a plasma power generator’s internal working diagram.  Jason had a talent for art, and could draw, illustrate, and paint fairly well, almost good enough to be paid for it.

      “That Marine, eh?” he said, then he chuckled.  “She sent to me to find you yesterday, looking for anyone who came in late.  What’s she after you for?”

      “A date,” he answered truthfully.

      Ailan gave him a look, then laughed heartily.  “My boy, you’ve done absolutely everything wrong,” he told him.

      “What do you mean?”

      “Faey women like mysterious men, and what’s more, they go absolutely wild when mysterious men play hard to get.  You have a closed mind, an oddity among humans, and that makes you very mysterious.  And since you’re obviously trying to get away from her, you’re playing hard to get.  She’s going to come after you ten ways to peel a goran, until her curiosity is satisfied.  The only way you’re going to manage to do that is to just go out with her.  She won’t stop until you do, because Faey women chase Faey men who say no.  It’s a cultural trait.”

      “Then how does a man say no and mean it?” he asked.

      “Men don’t,” he replied honestly, pulling up the chair beside Jason’s and taking a seat.  “Remember, my boy, the women are the dominant gender, and there are customs that go back thousands of years at work here.  Men don’t say no because long ago, we weren’t allowed to say no.  Even though men aren’t owned like they were back then, you have to have noticed that the Faey are not nearly as progressive as humans when it comes to gender equality.”

      Jason nodded, leaning on his hand and listening to Professor Ailan quite attentively.

      “When a man wants to assert himself, he has to do it indirectly.  Just flat out saying no is actually a form of flirtation.  I’m sure the Marine knows you don’t know Faey customs and you’re not flirting, but she can’t help but see it any other way, because I get the feeling she’s attracted to you.”

      “How do you know that?”

      “Because when she broadcast to the instructors in the school, she described you as ‘a handsome human male with blond hair and wearing a blue shirt.’  Faey don’t call men handsome unless they’re attracted.”

      Jason frowned.  So that’s how she found him.  Since all the instructors were Faey, it was a simple matter of using telepathy to contact them and track him down.

      “Is this the same one you got into a fight with yesterday?” he asked with a grin.

      “Does everyone know about that?” he asked tartly.

      “It’s all over the school, my boy,” he laughed.  “I wouldn’t be surprised that it hasn’t gotten all over the city, at least among the Faey.  It’s news when a human can beat up a Marine.  It’s big news when he does it in a matter of seconds and never gets touched in return.”

      He blew out his breath.  “I was just trying to make her leave me alone,” he said in a resigned tone.

      “That’s not how you do it,” he chuckled.

      “Then how do I do it?”

      Ailan laughed.  “It’s not going to be that easy now,” he told him.  “She’s not going to give over on you now, Jason.  You’ll have to go out with her.  You don’t have a choice.”

      “Oh, I certainly have a choice,” he said with narrowed eyes, speaking in a low, calm, yet ominous manner.

      Ailan laughed.  “Well, if I can’t convince you otherwise, I’ll just let you figure it out,” he said, patting Jason on the shoulder amiably.  “I have to get set up for class.  You get your homework done?”

      Jason nodded.

      “Send it to me and I’ll grade it,” he said as he moved down towards his table, where his own panel was sitting.

      It wasn’t long before other students filed in, and Jason’s troubles with Jyslin were forgotten as the class began.  Jason was rather infatuated with plasma technology, and he was always a very diligent student, making copious notes both on his panel, via the odd holographic keyboard, and on his own notebook, taking vidshots of the diagrams that Professor Ailan wrote on the board and uploading images projected onto the air behind him via a holographic imager from his own panel, a three-dimensional object projected from two emitters mounted into the corners of the wall to either side of the whiteboard.  This mixture of human-type technology and Faey holography never ceased to make him curious, but he had to admit that it was effective.  Ailan could project up prepared images and graphics to display, using a laser pointer to point to the areas he discussed, and when he didn’t have a prepared image, he simply took the marker and drew it on the whiteboard.  The images he used could be uploaded into the students’ panels so they could refer to them when they studied, or use the video they had their panels recording—if they bothered—when the Professor drew diagrams, flowcharts, or wrote things on the board.  Holographs didn’t record well in recorded video. They looked distorted and jagged, so it wasn’t as easy as recording the holographs.  Jason was of a habit to record every class and go back and catch highlights of things he didn’t understand, then upload the video of the class onto a stick and keep a copy of it without hogging memory in his panel.

      It seemed like only a minute had passed before Ailan clapped his hands in that manner he did when dismissing class.  “Alright, people, test tomorrow,” he called.  “No homework, study for the test!”  Jason started packing his things when Ailan came over to him and leaned down.  “Oh, and your friend is waiting outside,” he said in a low, conspiratorial whisper.

      “She is, is she?” Jason asked with a narrow-eyed look at the door.  “Professor, can I check out a couple of tools?”

      “Certainly,” he answered.  “What do you want?”

      “A cutter,” he answered as he zipped up his pack.  “One of the good ones.”

      “No problem,” he said, ambling back down to his table as Jason followed him.  He went to a cabinet beside the door and removed a small cutting tool, a small device that severed the molecular bonds in the structure of a material to cut it apart.  It was cutting at a molecular level, and it left an utterly smooth and clean cut in its wake.  He went over to his panel and logged the tool as “checked out” under Jason’s student ID number.  That would prevent the security system from reacting when Jason took it out of the room.

      Jason took the tool in his hand, and saw that it was indeed one of the better ones, able to cut more deeply than the little ones.  It was perfect.  He put his pack on, then flipped the switch on the tool from cut to sew, which allowed it to perform the exact same function as an annealer.  Cutting tools differed a little from annealing tools in that they could do more than simply separate annealed matter, and it would take an annealing tool to separate matter annealed by the cutter without physically cutting the two objects apart.

      It was perfect.

      Jason followed Ailan to the door and waved for him to go first in a grand fashion, then stepped back and put his eyes on the small window in the door as Ailan opened it.  The reflection in the glass showed him that Jyslin was leaning against the wall right by the door.

      Perfect.

      He stepped up to the door, then whipped around it, his arm leading as he zoomed out of the doorway, tool leading.  Jyslin barely had time to react before he was on her, and the edge of the cutting tool found its mark, sliding along her shoulder and upper arm where they were in contact with the wall, merging their molecular structures and causing them to become joined as strongly as any weld.

      She tried to pull away from the wall, but then she found herself stuck.  She put her free hand on the wall behind her, then her foot, and pushed hard, but she was stuck fast.  “What the hell did you do?” she demanded hotly as he closed the door to the classroom easily, then started walking away.

      He held the cutting tool up over his shoulder so she could see it, but didn’t say a word.

      She laughed.  “You clever bastard!” she shouted after him.

      That was the start of an episode that was rehashed by students for years to come, a cunning war of intrigue and wits between Jason and the Marine who was annoying him, as he sought ways to separate himself from her, but she sought to defeat those attempts.  After her partner freed her from the wall with a borrowed annealing tool, the pair of them sought him out and annoyed him through breakfast in the cafeteria, talking loudly and making rude comments, some of them downright embarrassing, some kind of attempt to bait him into doing something which the other students didn’t know.  He stalked off with the two of them following closely behind, to his next class, and they stood outside the door waiting for it to end.

      And they waited long after it was over, and all the other students left.  They looked in almost a half an hour later and found him gone, the window open.

      Much to the surprise of many on campus, they saw Jason climb out of the third floor window and climb down the wall of the building, then walk away as if he’d done nothing any more out of the ordinary than using the door.

      It didn’t take them long to find him afterwards.  After all, they were telepathic, and the Faey instructors and other military Faey on campus would tell them where they last saw him.  They continued to follow him, standing behind him in the library as he read from a few hard paper books—which weren’t used much anymore—and then followed him as he went back to his dorm to get a project due for physics, then returned to campus to attend his next class.  This time, the redhead stood by the door as the blonde waited outside the building, so she could keep an eye on the windows.

      And again, after the class was over, he didn’t come out.

      Several students saw her rush into the room after the last student came out, but he was nowhere to be found.  She grilled the students quite harshly as to where he went, but all of them said he’d been right there not a moment ago, fiddling with his panel, and they were as puzzled about how he managed to disappear as the Faey were.  It was later, when a security worker reviewed the records from the cameras in that room that the truth was revealed.  Jason had used a hastily jerry-rigged holographic emitter from parts from a project device he’d built for his physics class and powered by a PPG taken from a disassembled cutting tool.  He’d taken a shot of the wall of the class, then after class, he rushed up to that wall and activated the hologram, hiding behind a false image of that wall.  To keep it from jiggling or frizzing he had had to hold his panel absolutely still, and he’d managed to do it just long enough for the Marine to rush out of the room and try to find him.  After the Marine left, he disengaged the hologram, put the cutting tool and his project back together, then waltzed out of class without a care in the world.

      The Marine was starting to get just a little bit irritated at that point.  Three separate times the human had walked into a class, then he found a way to leave her behind when it was over, making her scour the campus to find him.  For the fourth and final class of the day, she called in reinforcements.  A squad of ten black armored Marines surrounded the Plaid and lurked on the second floor, where the human was having his physics class, and she stood—nowhere near any wall—right outside the door and looked through the window, making sure he didn’t sneak out.  He was sitting in the back of the class, beyond the scope of her vision.  He seemed utterly indifferent to her presence outside the door, as if he’d already devised his escape from her trap, and many of the students in his class were eager to see the class end.  Word had gotten around that the same Marine that Jason had fought the day before was now following him around, and many speculated that she was going to get even with him, following him around and trying to catch him where nobody else could see.  They wanted to see what was going to happen.

      The class ended, all the students jumped up and rushed towards the door to get out onto the campus green and see what happened when those two came outside, and as soon as the instructor opened the door, the Marine barreled into the room.

      And he was nowhere to be found.

      That startled the students as much as it did the Marine.  They looked all around the room, even in the storage cabinets and closets, but he was gone.  There was no other way out of the room, and no other Marine was reporting in that she’d seen him.  He’d vanished like smoke.

      Growling in frustration, the Marine charged down to the security center for the building and had the human guards replay the video of that room to find out what happened, how he had managed to slip away.  They cued up the video for her, and they watched in as much amazement as she as the cunning and resourcefulness of Jason Fox was displayed on that video monitor for them to see.

      During the physics class, Jason had unobtrusively annealed his chair’s feet to the floor.  Since he was in the very back of the classroom, nobody really noticed him doing it, not even the teacher.  Nobody was looking back at him.  Then it became apparent that Jason was much better with Faey technology than people realized, because he had somehow pumped up the output of his cutting knife beyond its usual capabilities.  Further analysis showed that he had swapped the PPG unit of his cutting knife with the PPG in his project, which was a much more powerful unit, then somehow jerry-rigged the cutting tool’s circuitry to not melt when it was turned on.  When he turned it on, what he got was a cutting tool that could cut nearly four feet deep instead of the maximum of six inches or so that most cutting tools were designed to cut.  He’d turned his cutting tool into a sword, and used it to slice a circular angled hole in the floor around his chair, which was annealed to the section he had cut free.  The cutting tool cut so cleanly that it didn’t make any kind of evidence that it had been used until the cut material was shifted.  Since the hole was angled, the circumference of the bottom narrower than the top, the freed circular plug to which his chair was annealed did not fall through the floor.

      When the class was over, Jason picked up his pack, pulled his chair up, which pulled the plug out of his hole, and then climbed down into it.  He had even set the chair so when he pulled on the edge, the chair and plug fell back into the hole, concealing it and hiding his escape route.

      Some people already knew about this, however, but they didn’t get out of class for an hour after Jason’s class ended.  They were all amazed in the classroom under his own, the same classroom where he had Plasma Fundamentals, when Jason seemingly dropped out of the ceiling, fell nearly fifteen feet, and landed with a roll on the floor.  He then simply stood up, dusted himself off, picked up his backpack, excused himself politely to the teacher, then walked out of the classroom.

      That was only half of his cunning escape.  The Marines inside were only on the second floor, which allowed him to have free run of the first floor.  He managed to slip by the Marines outside by exiting from the building down through the loading dock, and catching a ride with a human campus groundskeeper who was about to drive off in a school truck, riding in the open bed.  They were looking for a blond student on foot.  Jason had went right by them in the back of the groundskeeper’s truck.

      The battle that day clearly went to Jason Fox, but Jyslin Shaddale vowed that the war would be hers.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    1      3

Chapter 2

 

      Karista, 10 Shiaa, 4392, Orthodox calendar;

 

      Thursday, 15 May 2007, Native regional reckoning

 

      New Orleans, Gamia Province, American Sector

 

      It wasn’t easy to study, but he managed it somehow.

 

      All that insanity with Jyslin had completely ruined a day’s studying, and again, if it wasn’t for his habit of recording his classes, he’d be behind.  Getting behind when he had seven classes was not a good thing.  He felt lucky that she didn’t follow him home, but then again, she was probably still in the Plaid trying to find him.  It was only about six, and he knew that when it got dark and curfew kicked in, she’d know where to find him.

 

      He had that test in Advanced Plasma Fundamentals tomorrow, but he felt ready for it.  They were studying conduits and PPG’s in a little more detail, and anything involving plasma interested him enough to study well ahead.  Plasma conduit was made of crystallized silicon, and it was actually rather pretty.  It looked like hollow tubes of glass, but surprisingly tough, and the high-energy plasma was carried inside.  Silicon conduit could carry any kind of phased plasma, but not plasma in its raw state.  That was the clever little trick the Faey had discovered, which was the only reason they could use plasma as a power source.  They phased the plasma into different states, and when so phased and set up that the individual phases of it opposed one another, it made it safe.  Just like how humans had learned to use three-phase electricity, the Faey used multiple phases of plasma.  But it worked much differently, for they phased plasma into alternate states of material existence, spreading out its energy into many different quantum states.  That was called metaphased plasma, and it was why plasma could flow in a glass tube and not be ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  They had other types of phasing techniques, such as interphased, hyperphased, and polarity phased.  Interphased plasma was used to power spatial drives, since metaphased plasma distorted the system.  Hyperphased plasma was only mentioned but not explained, because it was a military application, used to make the plasma torpedoes fired from their battleships.  Polarity phased plasma was very low-energy and worked very well in microscopic applications, and was what powered virtually all very small devices.

 

      All this plasma was generated by the PPG, the Plasma Power Generator, and it itself was an amazing creation of ingenuity.  He’d read the history of the device, and it showed the boundary from where the Faey were limited to their own star system, the Draconis system on earth charts, and when they were released to conquer and rule other planets.  The PPG was, literally, a miniature sun.  That’s exactly what it was.  The Faey had technology that affected space itself, allowing them to stretch it, pull it, even tear holes in it, and that was the technology that allowed them to build the PPG.  Inside the device was a “bubble” of stretched space, and inside that bubble of stretched space, isolated from the rest of space by the boundaries of its bubble, was a hot nuclear fusion reaction.  Just like the nuclear fusion that took place in stars, that’s what was going on inside a PPG.  Within the bubble were temperatures approaching fifteen thousand degrees Fahrenheit, but because it was in that isolated bubble of manipulated space, the heat and radiation could not escape it.  The bubble was breached in two places so plasma could be drawn out of it, then be fed back into it after it completed its circuit.  A PPG’s size and power rating varied, and that affected its shelf life.  The PPG in the cutter he’d borrowed had a shelf life of about a year.  After a year, the material in the PPG’s bubble would fuse into an iron core, and then the PPG would exhaust itself and stop working.  It had a battery of sorts that kept the bubble intact until the PPG could be serviced, for the iron core of a spent PPG was larger than the PPG itself.  If the bubble broke down, that volume would return to normal space, and make the PPG literally explode as something larger than itself suddenly occupied its fusion chamber.  The device had a couple of very serious cascading safeguards to prevent a bubble breach when the device was fusing, because a breach would cause a cataclysmic fusion-induced explosion that would be about as powerful as five hundred Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs.  The bubble, or core as it was called, could be ejected from the PPG, sent through a micro-wormhole and out into deep space, and the PPG had protocols for doing that if it detected a disastrous breakdown in progress.  It had several other conditional protocols that would lead to a core ejection, such as readings that went over certain limits or a disruption in the bubble integrity.  The PPG could eject the core before a tear in the bubble led to a fusion explosion, but the backlash fed back through the tear and tended to destroy everything within ten feet of a damaged PPG.

 

      Because of the danger a breached PPG could pose, they were heavily protected in the devices in which they were installed.  They were always surrounded by a metal called vandirium, a Faey alloy that was about a hundred times stronger than titanium, armor to protect against some kind of catastrophic breach.  Faey armor was made out of a variation of vandirium alloy that was even stronger, but was more expensive to produce.

 

      It was funny that cost should even matter, but it did.  The Faey had a good grasp on molecular-level physics, and that had led to the construction of matter replicators.  But the problem with them was that they could only produce materials in base elements, and they couldn’t replicate any element heavier than the metal Palladium.  Silver, the next element on the table, could not be replicated, nor could gold or many of the metals that the Faey used to construct armor and vessels.  It was even funnier that the human table of the elements was similar to the Faey version.  They had many, many more elements on their table than the human table, different variations of known elements because of the number of neutrons in the nucleus, but it was still organizationally similar.

 

      That was why they Faey needed Earth for farming, because they couldn’t replicate food.  It was also why silver and gold were valuable to the Faey.  It was also why they didn’t give their occupational forces the real armor that they equipped their soldiers with.  He’d seen some on CivNet somewhere, powered armor with flight packs, integrated weapons in the arms instead of external weapons they had to carry.  That armor was much more expensive, its materials couldn’t be replicated, so they’d equipped their occupational forces with only the weapons and armor they needed to keep the technologically backwards humans in check.  Their weapons, well, those were the real deal.  Faey used tiny bursts of high-energy metaphased plasma as their primary weapon, which exploded on contact with solid matter and also tended to burn through as it penetrated.  The result was like an explosive bullet, which punched into a target then detonated.  Living things shot by a metaphased plasma weapon tended to explode from the inside out when blood vaporized from the heat and that steam applied pressure to the flesh, aggravating the explosive contact the plasma had with a much cooler material.  The result was a charge of metaphased plasma only two millimeters thick could leave a hole nearly a foot across.  It was quite gruesome; even a graze could blow a limb off the body.  What made them very nasty was that the fact that because they existed in multiple quantum states, it allowed most of the energy of the blast to pass through coherent energy shields.  Any plasma state that matched the state of the shield would be stopped, but the remaining energy of the weapon would pass through and hit what it protected.  The Faey employed shields on their warships, but the shields on ships they attacked would be useless.

 

      CivNet was like the human internet…someone with enough patience could find just about anything.  It was all in Faey, and he didn’t speak or read the language, but his panel could translate everything into English, so it made it legible.  He’d found the technical specs for plasma pistols and rifles on CivNet, as well as the internal technical schematics for a PPG.  Given those, and the materials, he could build his own plasma weapon, and he had this wild idea about secretly building a stockpile of weapons and using them to try to overthrow the Faey, but it was a useless dream, and he knew it.  Faey telepathy would crush any attempt before it got started.  He hadn’t heard anything about it, but he was certain that some other student out there had had the same idea and had tried it, but been found out and stopped before he got off the ground.

 

      That damn telepathy.  It just kept coming back and coming back and coming back.  Without that, the Faey would not have such an easy time of it here on Earth.  It made them very relaxed about their new vassals, almost arrogantly dismissive of them, because what could they do?  They sent humans to school to learn Faey technology, because what could they do?  They didn’t censor anything, not even the internet, because what could people do?  They could think about revolt and object to the Faey all they wanted, but the instant they tried to do anything about it, the Faey would simply swoop in, use telepathy to root out the plot, and crush it before it could even get started.  And people caught trying to overthrow the system weren’t killed, they were “reprogrammed” by Faey telepathic specialists, turned into good little loyal subjects of her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Dahnai.  Why kill a good asset of the Imperium when you could simply use telepathic reprogramming to make him a lapdog?

 

      To Jason, death was better.  To be reprogrammed like that, to do what they wanted him to do, but he felt that somehow, deep inside himself, to know what they had done to him…that was the ultimate torture.

 

      He leaned back in his chair and looked at the clock.  Six fifteen.  Curfew was at nine, when all humans had to be off the streets or have a pass to move about…which were admittedly easy to get.  All you had to do was call the Population Control Center and tell them you had to go out.  You didn’t even have to give a reason.  Tell them you’re going out, they send you a pass through your vidlink that you copy onto paper, and then you go.  The curfew was installed more to rein in gangs of youths that liked to vandalize things more than anything else, and the news said that it’d probably be lifted next month.  Jason couldn’t do that, of course.  He didn’t have a vidlink.  He was a student, and he had a panel, which served as everything, including a vidlink.  He’d download the pass to his panel and print it out from there.  His panel was everything; computer, organizer, vidlink all rolled into one.  Besides, in his tiny, cramped room, he didn’t have the space for a vidlink.  Those things were about the size of an old human personal computer, complete with a hard keyboard, and if he had one on his desk, he wouldn’t have room for anything else.  Vidlinks did about everything a phone and personal computer did, and everyone got one, even farm workers in their little rooms at their farmhouses.  There were still stand-alone cell phones, tied to the same system that ran the vidlinks, itself part of CivNet, but one had to buy a phone, where vidlinks were issued to people free of charge.  It was just one of the little things that humans didn’t grumble too much about when it came to the Faey.

 

      Bored, he paused studying to surf through CivNet’s news, which was of course biased and inflamed.  There was only one news service, INN, the Imperial News Network, and it was but the mouthpiece of the Empress.  But, he had to admit, they did cover what they considered news rather thoroughly.  They just didn’t openly question her Majesty’s policies or decisions.  He switched over to pan-empire, the real Faey news, where a blond Faey sat behind a desk, wearing a strange white robe, and talked in Faey about the news of the Imperium while three-dimensional holograms showed beside her.  Earth even showed up in these broadcasts from time to time, such as last week, when an earthquake had rocked California.  That made the major news, and they showed holos of Faey and human workers cleaning everything up.

 

      Nothing he could make out.  They showed images of some other planet somewhere where a storm had done damage to a seaside town-a green ocean, weird, that was-and other images that made little sense to him.  Without the ability to speak Faey, it really would be a string of unconnected pictures, nothing more.

 

      Wait, here was something.  The Faey were at war with some other race, he knew that, and they were showing images of damage to a battle fleet that must have just returned from combat.  They put up statistics over the images, probably how many were killed, how many of the other side were killed, probably none of it accurate, that sort of thing.  He did remember seeing a picture of one of those people, big bipedal red-scaled reptilian things that looked pretty nasty, and he wondered how they stacked up against the Faey.  He could imagine it now…big reptilian monsters that looked vaguely like guys in Godzilla suits fighting an army of dainty little female elves with big fuckin’ guns.

 

      Now that was funny.

 

      Not that it was right to trivialize war, but if they were fighting the Faey, then maybe he should toast them the next time he had a beer with Tim.

 

      There was no knock at the door.  It opened, and Jyslin came bursting through, again out of her armor.  He glanced at her absently, then went back to watching his panel screen.  Today she had on a black tank-top that showed off her generous chest and a pair of curve-hugging gray shorts, with running shoes on her feet.  Her skin was shiny with sweat; she must have been working out.  He could smell her sweat, and found that it was a strange spicy-musky smell that was oddly appealing.  Damn Faey, even their sweat smelled good.  “Well?” she said hotly.

 

      “Well what?” he countered evenly, not bothering to look at her again.

 

      “How did you do it?” she demanded.

 

      “You think I’m going to tell you that?” he asked with a scoff.  “Please.”

 

      He expected her to rant at him or shout, but she instead laughed.  “Fair enough,” she said generously, then closed the door behind her.  “I thought you had a test tomorrow.”

 

      “I do,” he answered.  “I’m taking a break.”

 

      “Watching the news, huh?” she noted, looking over his shoulder.  “Damn, the skaa did some damage this time.”

 

      “Skaa?”

 

      “The reptilians we’re fighting at the moment,” she answered.  “On the other side of the empire.  We’re in a dispute with them over a couple of star systems.  The fighting’s more or less contained to battles inside the disputed territory.  Neither side wants an open war.”

 

      “Why is that?”

 

      “Our technology is better, but they’re like uncountable,” she replied. “I think their home planet has something like ten trillion people on it.  They can put an army on a planet fifty times bigger than anyone else and win by sheer force of numbers.”  She looked at him.  “Wait, why are you being nice to me?” she demanded.

 

      “Because you’re not acting like an asshole,” he answered honestly.

 

      She laughed.  “Will you go out with me?”

 

      “No.”

 

      “Well, what good does it do then?” she asked with a laugh and a wink.  “I didn’t know you speak Faey.”

 

      “I don’t.  But you can figure some things out if you’re patient enough to try.”

 

      “Want to learn?” she offered.

 

      “I don’t have time for language lessons.”

 

      “Who said I’d teach you the long way?  It’ll take about five minutes.”

 

      He realized immediately what she meant.  Telepathic instruction.  The Faey didn’t do it to humans in school because of certain ways things worked with their power.  They could use it to implant knowledge, like history or language or something like that, pure data, but not any information that required the use of motor control.  It had to do with the way the brain worked, and it was too complicated for him to understand.  All he knew was that was why the Faey had to teach people things the same way that the humans did.  They couldn’t just “zap” that information into people’s heads-well, they could, but it really wouldn’t do much good, because they couldn’t really use what they were taught without practice, and having the knowledge to do something without having the skill to perform the task was an exceedingly dangerous combination.  To prevent cataclysmic accidents, they didn’t teach any way other than the old-fashioned way.  She could teach him Faey with telepathy, because it was purely a mental activity.  It didn’t require anything other than thinking, and those were the only things that Faey could implant via telepathic instruction.  If she taught him Faey, he’d be able to understand it fine, but he’d have to practice making those sounds to speak it, and practice to learn how to write it or type in it.  Those were motor functions, and they had to be practiced until perfected.

 

      “No,” he said adamantly.  “I’ll learn it the way I learn everything else.  You’re not putting your hooks in my head, Jyslin.”

 

      “We’ll see,” she said with a wink.  “I’ll bet you fifty credits you’ll be speaking Faey by next Friday.”

 

      “Not even.”

 

      “Easy money for me,” she announced.

 

      “I never said I’d take the bet.  I don’t gamble.”

 

      “Be glad you’re not in the military, then,” she laughed.

 

      “My father was.”

 

      “Oh?  What did he do?”

 

      “He was a fighter pilot,” he answered, backing out of the Faey news broadcast and returning to his homework.

 

      “It must be something to fly one of those hydrocarbon engine planes,” she mused.  “No control at all.  It would be scary.”  She looked at him.  “Almost any pilot with kids teaches the kids to fly.”

 

      He nodded.  “Got my conditional pilot’s license when I was twelve,” he affirmed.  “Got my unconditional license at sixteen, just a month before my father died.  It made him very happy to see me get it, and about that time, I’d do anything to make my father happy.”

 

      “He was sick?”

 

      He nodded.  “Cancer.”

 

      “It’s too bad we didn’t get here sooner.  We could have cured him.”

 

      “If you’d have gotten here when he was still alive, you would have had to shoot him out of the sky,” he said bluntly.  “My dad wouldn’t have accepted the subjugation.  He would have fought, no matter what the odds.”

 

      “Sounds like a spunky fellow.”

 

      For some reason, Jason took exceptional offense to the word spunky.  “I think it’s time for you to leave,” he said stiffly.

 

      “Fine, but now I have the plan for our second date,” she told him.  “We’re going flying in one of those prop planes they have sitting out at the lakeside airport.”

 

      “Keep dreaming.”

 

      “It’s no dream,” she said, quite seriously.  She grabbed the neckline of her tank top and fanned herself absently.  “I need to go clean up.  I’ll swing by later and see how you’re doing.”

 

      “Don’t bother,” he said in a growling tone.

 

      “Then I’ll see you tomorrow after I get off duty,” she said easily, opening the door, stepping through, then turning around and looking at him.  “Then again, I’ll know what’s going on.  Lyn and Bryn will be escorting you tomorrow.  They’ll keep in touch.  See you later,” she said with a wink, then she closed the door.

 

      “That’s what you think,” he said in a low, dangerous tone, glancing at the little cord sticking out from under his bed.  He already had their little surprise ready and waiting.

 

      He grumbled a little, still feeling a tad stung by her flippant remark about his beloved father, then got back to studying.

 

 

 

      Lyn and Bryn were willowy raven-haired sisters, identical twins, who had managed to stay together from their conscription on.  They were very patient, clever, and methodical women.  They served as the squad’s logical reasoning, offering cool, sensible advice in stressful situations, and their powerful mental bond, the kind of bond only twins could enjoy, gave them an awesome range of telepathic contact when they were separated.  This strong bond and the insane range it gave them was a useful tactical advantage in combat, allowing for uninterceptible communications between two elements of the squad when they split up.  They were careful, almost timidly cautious women who never blundered into anything without thinking it through, and weren’t the kind of women who fell for stupid, inane little traps.

 

      Except for today.

 

      What made it even more embarrassing for them was that they’d been warned about Jason.  They’d been there last night when he vanished from the Plaid, and they were rather impressed with his ability to foil an entire Marine squad.  Jyslin and Maya had specifically warned them that Jason was a very clever and crafty man, and he knew that they were going to be out there waiting for him.  She even went so far as to specifically warn them that he might have a little surprise waiting for them when he left his dorm, something to discourage pursuit.

 

      But, like most Faey, when they got curious about something, they absolutely had to satisfy that curiosity.  It was a racial trait, very nearly a racial liability, both one of the reasons they were so technologically advanced and a reason they’d gotten into a fair number of wars that could have been avoided if they’d just minded their own business.

 

      What got their curiosity was a little silver egg that was sitting on the stoop of the dorm’s main entrance.  It was on a little metal stand, obviously put there deliberately, just sitting on the top landing of the steps waiting.  The humans simply stepped around the egg, as if it was supposed to be there, which made it even more unusual.  Lyn and Bryn got out of their hovercar-century old piece of junk, why couldn’t they bring in some modern equipment!-and that little egg immediately got their attention.  It just sat there, unclaimed, untouched, and completely ignored by the humans who stepped around it as they filed out to go to school.

 

      “What is that?” Lyn asked a short brunette female human as she rushed out, obviously running late.

 

      “Dunno, there’s a note on the board not to touch it,” she answered quickly and honestly.  “It’s probably an experiment someone’s doing.”

 

      Lyn let the girl go, and the twin Marines regarded the egg with curiosity.

 

      Should we? Bryn asked mentally.  They almost never spoke when they communicated with one another.

 

      It’s probably a trap, Lyn returned.

 

      We have to go get Jyslin’s beaux anyway.  Let’s just take a look at it as we go by.  We don’t have to touch it.

 

      We’d best not.  I still say it’s a trap.

 

      I think so too, but the humans got very close to it and nothing happened.  So long as we don’t get any closer to it than they did, we should be alright.

 

      Lyn furrowed her brow.  That’s a good point.  Alright, but we don’t touch.

 

      Lyn and Bryn went up the steps, their boots clacking on the concrete, and stooped over a little to inspect the egg, careful not to get too close to it.  It was a featureless, perfectly smooth egg of a shiny metal, probably refined chromium or hardened mercury.  Their reflections in the egg were distorted by its curvature, making them both look like they had eyes or noses ten times bigger than the rest of their faces.

 

      “Good morning,” came a steady, almost amused call from the street, by their car.  The turned and looked and saw the human Jyslin had set them on, the student Jason.  How had he gotten out of the building without them seeing it?  There was only one entrance to the dorm!  He was in a simple white tee shirt with no decoration, a blue denim short-sleeved shirt worn unbuttoned over the tee shirt, faded jeans, and ragged old sneakers.  He had his brown backpack slung over one shoulder, and the other hand held a small, featureless little device with a single flashing red button on its face.  With a flick of his thumb, he pressed that button.

 

      Bedlam!

 

      Something smashed into them from behind, throwing them forward.  Both of them tried to put their hands up to protect their faces from being planted in the sidewalk, but something grabbed hold of them and prevented them from reaching the bottom of the steps.  Both Lyn and Bryn tried to move, but found that they were stuck fast in something!

 

      Lyn’s head wasn’t stuck in whatever it was, so she turned and looked behind them.  It was crash foam, a special foam that they used in vehicles that, on trigger from a sensor, erupted out and filled the volume of a vehicle’s cavity, then instantly hardened into a soft solid to restrict the passengers.  The result was a springy, elastic material that absorbed shock and protected the occupants of a crashing vehicle from suffering serious injury, but also stuck fast to anything it was touching as it hardened, as securely as any glue, nearly as securely as molecular annealing.  The foam was supposed to decay five seconds after the vehicle came to a stop, to allow the occupants to get out, but then Lyn remembered that it was decayed by a second device that deployed after the sensors told it that the vehicle was at a rest.

 

      They were stuck fast, and they’d stay like that until someone brought a foam decay module!

 

      “Have a nice day,” he told them mildly, putting the little remote in his pocket, then turning and meandering towards school at an easy pace that looked as if he had not a care in the world.

 

      They sent to each other frantically to make sure that the other was alright, that the foam wasn’t blocking mouth and nose.  Lyn and Bryn both were frozen in the foam with their heads lower to the ground than their feet, and all Bryn could see was the sidewalk just in front of the steps.  The foam had hardened around her neck, and she couldn’t move it more than just a little bit, since fringes of the foam were attached to the lobes of her ears, and if she tried to move too much, she’d rip her ears off.

 

      Lyn glowered in the direction of the retreating human, then she burst into helpless laughter.  Bryn joined her seconds later.

 

      What a man!  Jyslin was lucky she found him first!  Lyn and Bryn both were just a little bit jealous at Jyslin’s good fortune!

 

      Well, do we hang here all morning, or humiliate ourselves and send for help? Bryn asked after she got control of herself.  If I remember right, the foam will dissolve on its own in a few hours.

 

      I’m not hanging here all morning, Lyn countered.

 

      Well, it should be fun following him around the rest of the day.

 

      No, Lyn replied.  He beat us fair, so we leave him alone.  He earned it.

 

      That he did, Bryn agreed.  I just wonder where he got the foam, she mused.

 

      I don’t think we want to know.

 

      You’re probably right, Bryn acceded, then she sputtered aloud and started laughing again.

 

 

 

      For some reason, those two didn’t come back after he glued them to the sidewalk with crash foam, but that suited Jason just fine.

 

      He took his test that morning and got the highest score in the class, then handed in his physics project after lunch.  It still worked, despite what he did to it, a little sensor that measured flux in the spatial fabric that Professor Umera had everyone build as a lab exercise.  It was nothing more than assembling pre-fabricated pieces, but it was still almost fun to do.

 

      After lunch there was calculus, then came his second plasma-oriented course of the day, one of four such courses he took this semester, also taught by Ailan.  Advanced Plasma Fundamentals, Introduction to Plasma Dynamics (the physics of plasma, which he had to take in conjunction with his physics class), Theoretical Plasma Systems I, and the lab companion class for Advanced Plasma Fundamentals, the class to which he was going.  The other class was both lecture and lab, but this class was for lab, with only occasional lecture if Ailan didn’t get the lecture finished from the last class.  Those were hard enough, but stack calculus, Imperial History I (ancient Faey history), and Xeno-Psychology I (basically the Faey teaching the humans learning Faey technology how not to insult the Faey when interacting with them).

 

      After lab, Xeno-Psych was the next class for today, and it was held in the old Tulane building on the far side of campus, twenty minutes after lab let out.  He always took his time walking over there, and as a result, he always got into the classroom about a minute before Professor Tia-the youngest of all his teachers and without doubt the cutest-was ready to start class.  She was a little doll, fairly short for a Faey woman, with hair that was actually blue, a very dark shade of blue that was much darker than her skin, almost midnight blue.  She had the cutest little face, very cherubic and a bit mischievous, with noticeable dimples in her cheeks.  She also had a very raucous sense of humor.  Tia could get downright dirty sometimes, and she loved to tell bawdy jokes during class.  Tia was equal measure of angel and devil wrapped up in one insufferably cute little package.

 

      “Afternoon,” she called, which was repeated rather unenthusiastically by her students.  “Well, there’s been a little change in plans, people.  They just handed down a curriculum change, and we have to put it into effect.”

 

      That got everyone’s attention.  They all looked up at her from their panels.

 

      “Usually we do the language insertion at the start of Xeno II, but they’ve moved that to the beginning of Xeno I, effective today.  Since we’re already halfway through the semester, that means we have to go back and get that out of the way now, before we continue on in our current chapter.

 

      “Excuse me, Professor, what is an insertion?” a tall, spindly man asked from the back of the classroom.  Jason didn’t know his name.

 

      “We teach you Faey,” she explained to him.  “Since it’s a language, we can insert it telepathically.  We’ll do that today, and spend the next three weeks practicing pronunciation and writing.  Then we’ll pick up where we left off, and shift the last three chapters we used to do in this semester into Xeno II.”

 

      Jason’s eyes immediately went flat, and he remembered what Jyslin said last night.  Had she known?  Had she talked to the school and found out about this beforehand?  It seemed so.

 

      He realized that she’d tried to scam him out of fifty credits!  Geez, how low could she go!

 

      Then he realized that she didn’t do anything any worse than what he’d already done, and he had to chuckle ruefully.

 

      The amusement faded when he realized what insertion entailed.  A Faey would put herself in his mind, deeply into his mind, violating his innermost sanctity.  And he had no choice but to allow it, to knuckle under yet again to the Faey Imperium, to be the obedient slave that he was being.  He had no choice.  He couldn’t refuse, or he’d end up on a farm, and that was a fate worse than having a Faey rake her grubby little claws through his mind.

 

      “Since there are thirty of you and one of me, that means I’m going to have some help.  So, pack up your things and come with me down to the lecture hall, where our assistants are waiting.  After the insertion, you'll be free to go.”

 

      “Umm, Professor, is this safe?” someone asked.

 

      “It’s totally painless,” she assured with a dimpled smile.  “There is some dizziness immediately afterward, and after you're over that, we'll tell you to go home and take a nap.  That helps your mind sift through it all and digest it.  If you’re worried about it, Stan, I’ll do it for you myself.  That way you get someone you know and trust.  Would you like that?”

 

      “Yes ma’am,” he said immediately.

 

      Jason was extremely unhappy with this, but there was nothing he could do.  He packed his panel in his backpack and joined the others as they went down into the largest classroom in the building, a large auditorium-style room with raised tiers on which desks stood.  It held nearly a hundred people, and lined up along the base of the wall were ten Faey, five of them in the black armor of Marines, the other five in the robes or long-tailed shirts that the professors wore.

 

      Jason stopped dead in the door.  One of those five Marines was Jyslin!

 

      She gave him a smug, victorious little smile, then shooed him on as someone nudged him from behind.  Jason stalked into the room and sat down in one of the desks on the lowest tier, and he glared at her murderously.  That bitch.  She had this all set up.  She knew about the change, somehow, and had managed to finagle her way into being one of the telepaths that would perform the insertion.  Marines were much stronger telepaths than the occupational forces that served as the majority of the police and other governing forces, so it was no real shock to see Marines being pressed into service as telepathic inserters.

 

      "Now, everyone take a seat," Tia called as she came in, then waited as everyone did so.  "Not beside each other.  Leave one desk to either side of you."  She waited as some students moved to spread out.  "These helpers and myself are going to go around and perform the procedure.  Don't worry, all of us have done this before, that's why we're here.  After it's over, don't get out of your seat until I tell you that you can, alright?"  She nodded to the others, and they all fanned out.  Tia went straight to Stan, but Jyslin didn't come to him.  None of the others did either, telling him that Jyslin was saving him for last, and had already warned off all the others from teaching him.

 

      He sat there and fumed for nearly twenty minutes, not even looking behind him.  She had this all set up.  She'd played him last night, obviously in revenge for what he did to her yesterday afternoon.  He had no idea how she knew, but she did.  There was nothing he could do.  She'd already fixed it so nobody else would teach him, and he couldn't get out of not going through with it.

 

      This battle went to Jyslin.

 

      She plopped down in the seat beside him, her armor going clack as she did so, then put her elbow on the desktop and gave him an amused look.

 

      "Shut up," he growled at her.

 

      "I told you, I cheat," she told him.

 

      He gave her a cold stare.

 

      "I win this time," she said in a teasing tone.  "Now, turn and face me."

 

      "Why?"

 

      "Because we do have something to do here," she told him tartly.  "And I pride myself on my work.  When I'm done, you'll be absolutely fluent in Faey.  My mother taught Faey in primary school, so I have a stronger grasp on the language than most everyone else here.  So, turn and face me.  Now."

 

      He was surprised by the steel in her voice.  He did so, and she put her hands on his desk.  "Put your hands here," she instructed.  "I'm going to put my hands on your face, and then we'll begin.  At first, you're going to feel me brush you, as you call it, then it's going to get much stronger.  The important thing you have to remember is not to fight with me," she said, quite seriously.  "In order for me to do this, I need to contact your long-term memory and put things there.  I promise you I won't do anything other than what I have to do," she said in an earnest voice, her gray eyes very serious.  "I won't look at anything, I promise.  I know how you feel about being probed.  That's one reason why I arranged to be the one to do this.  At least with me, it's someone you know, and someone you won't have any trouble finding and kicking on the other side of her head if you don't like what she did to you," she added with a wink.

 

      Now that surprised him, quite a bit.  In a way, she was more or less right.  In an odd way, he did feel a little better about the idea of a Faey that he knew doing this.  Because she wouldn't just disappear.  She promised to stop in tonight after she got off duty, and if he was really upset about what she did here and now, he could always punch her in the nose.  That declaration of recognizing the possibility of retaliation actually made him feel somewhat better about the idea of it.  Not that the idea of it didn't set his teeth on edge and make him feel like he was about to be anally probed with a telephone pole, but at least with Jyslin doing it, he could throttle the administrator if it pleased him to do so.

 

      "Now," she said in a gentle, mollifying, cooing tone, lightly grabbing his hands and setting them on the side of the desk.  "You're going to feel me brush up against you, then press in, like putting your hand into water.  Don't fight me," she warned.  "If you do, it's going to make it very hard, and it might hurt you.  I'll just press in and sit there a minute so you can get used to it.  I won't do anything, I promise, not until I feel you calm down.  Are you ready?"

 

      "Let's get this over with," he grunted in a low, ominous tone.

 

      "Close your eyes," she told him.  "It will make it easier.  Concentrate on what's inside, not on what's outside."

 

      He nodded and closed his eyes, bowing his head slightly.

 

      "Alright, here we go," she said, reaching out and putting her slender, work-calloused hands on the sides of his face, over his cheeks.

 

      He instantly felt her brush up against him, and he did his best not to resist that feeling, but it was not easy.  It was an automatic, almost reflexive reaction for him to close up his thoughts when he felt a Faey doing what she was doing.  He felt her feel around the edges of his instinctively raised barrier, and even as he tried to figure out how to allow her through it, she found a weakness in it and punched through.  It was not a pleasant experience to have her breach the boundaries of his mind and invade him like an attacking army, like a disease.  Immediately, he felt her presence inside his own mind, a strange thoughtless presence, like an alien object lodged within the pathways of his thoughts.  He violently reacted to that contact, the first time a Faey had ever breached his defenses and actively entered his mind, so violently that his hands snapped up and closed around her wrists, seeking to rip them away from his face.  But Jyslin's strength surprised him, holding her hands fast against his strength as she rode out his reaction to her, as the hands holding her wrists slowly stopped trying to pull her away.  His reaction was a reflexive one, and as the seconds passed, Jason got less and less resistant to her presence, as he tried to get used to the feel of a presence in his head other than himself.

 

      See, it wasn't that bad, her thought emanated from that alien presence, and he could hear it clearly within his own mind.  I'll hear what you think, just to warn you.  Oh, you can loosen your grip on my wrists now.  I'd like to keep you from squeezing my hands off.

 

      Sorry, he thought to himself.

 

      It's alright, she answered.  I had to literally attack you to get into your mind.  I hope I didn't hurt you.

 

      It wasn't pleasant, but I think I'm alright, he thought in answer.

 

      I'll wait a bit, let you get used to the feel of it, she informed him.  When I start, you'll see a dizzyingly fast blur of images, sounds, concepts, and even pure thoughts.  I'm literally going to take everything I know about Faey and put it in your mind, sending it into your long-term memory.  When I'm done, you're going to be a little confused and dazed, but it'll pass.  You won't make much sense of what I'm going to teach you at first, it's going to take your mind a little time to go through it all and piece it together.  I'm going to put everything there, but your brain's going to have to work out how it's going to store it all.

 

      What do you mean?

 

      I'll put it where I can, but your brain's going to take it all and move it, rearrange it the way it wants it, she explained.  If it doesn't, you'll never be able to use any of this, and you'll forget it in about a week.  That's why you'll need to go home and take a nap after the dizziness fades.  An hour of sleep gives your brain a chance to rearrange things to its satisfaction without dealing with all the things it has to do when you're awake.

 

      That made sense, or at least it seemed logical, after a fashion.  Since he really didn't know how it worked, it certainly sounded like it was possible.

 

      Ready?

 

      Do I have a choice?

 

      She seemed highly amused.  Alright, here we go.

 

      She wasn't lying about what happened next.  An absolute avalanche of alien, bizarre images, sounds, sights, concepts, even pure thought poured into his mind, so fast that he couldn’t' make out anything but a confused cacophony, unable to see the individual parts because they made up a confusing and bewildering whole.  It was like a school of fish, or a waterfall.  He couldn't make out any one part, but he could see the whole.  The problem was, the whole made no sense to him, even though he made no effort to try to make sense of any of it.

 

      He had no idea how long it took.  It seemed that one minute she was filling his mind with dizzying information, and then she simply stopped.  He felt her presence ghost around the fringes of his memory, coming close but not close enough to make him feel worried, almost as if she were checking her work.  He could feel her drawn to the darker tunnels of his mind, where all those things she wanted to learn about him lurked, but she stayed away from the temptation, keeping her word of not going anywhere or seeing anything he did not want her to be, or see.

 

      I'm finished, she announced.  I'm going to pull back now.  It might make you a little disoriented for a second or two, but then again, what I put in your mind's going to do that anyway.  Oh, by the way, the next time you imagine me naked, get it right.

 

      Just before she withdrew from his mind, she shared with him an image, a visual memory, one that almost made him blush.  It was a very, very detailed memory of Jyslin looking at herself in a full length mirror, in what looked like a bedroom behind her.

 

      Wearing nothing but combat boots.

 

      It wasn't a dirty pose, or even very provocative, it was just the idea of it.  Had Jyslin got up from that desk and stripped naked right there in front of him, it would have been no different than this.  She showed him her full glory, and the knowing little smile on her face told him that she planned to do it when she stood in front of that mirror and memorized how she looked, just so she could show him.  She stood there, one hip raised sensually, and posed for the mirror, posed for a mental picture she shared with him now, and she was enjoying every second of it, both when she made that memory and now, as she shared it.  He could tell.  And he could only go over that memory with what could be called a fine toothed comb, admiring her ample chest--but not too large--and her sleek, flat belly, and her curvy hips, and her quite splendid legs, and being a male, he could not ignore that neatly trimmed patch of dark red pubic hair which stood out against her soft blue skin.

 

      But she wasn't done.  Quite deliberately, she turned around and looked over her shoulder, showing him her sleek, willowy, thoroughly sexy back and a marvelous heart-shaped backside, with long, long legs that seemed to go all the way down to China.

 

      She was absolutely gorgeous, both in face and body.  Jason never thought blue skin could be so damn sexy before that.

 

      And then she pulled away from him, and he felt that presence of her, that suddenly seemed much less hostile now that she had shared so intimate a memory with him, vanish from within his mind.  She had done everything she said she would do.  She had behaved herself, had kept her promise not to invade his mind any more than what was necessary to do what needed to be done, though he could clearly feel at one point that she had been sorely tempted.  Then, as she broke contact, she gave of herself freely, shared with him something private, intimate, personal, something she did not have to do.

 

      If she did that to curry his favor, well, it worked.

 

      Then came the dizziness.  The ceiling traded places with the floor, and he felt himself sway dangerously.  She slid her hands down to his shoulders and steadied him, and his grip on her arms gave him a foundation on which to cling while the earth seemed to bounce around wildly.  "There, now," she said in a low, gentle voice.  "Better?"

 

      "A little," he said woozily.  "I think I'm getting sick."

 

      "It'll pass in a second or two," she said, then she giggled like a little girl.  "You're speaking Faey.  It sounds very nice to hear you speak a real language.  English is ugly."

 

      He wouldn't be able to tell her one way or the other what he was speaking, because his brain felt like it was smothered in day-old mashed potatoes.

 

      The dizziness did ease, and it did so with amazing speed.  In a matter of a minute or two, he felt stable again.  It was a little hard to think, like he was on medication, but at least he wasn't dizzy anymore.  He blinked and looked around, and saw that he was the last student in the lecture hall, and all the instructors except for Professor Tia were gone.  She must have waited to make sure things went smoothly.  "Is he alright, Sergeant?"

      "He seems to be a bit sensitive," she answered.  "But I think he's alright now."

 

      "Are you alright to get back to your dorm room, Jason?" she asked him with sincere concern.

 

      "Yeah, yeah, I think I'll make it alright," he said in a disjointed manner, which made Tia give him an amused look.  "What?"

 

      "You're speaking Faey," she chuckled.  "You're suffering from a case of mnemonic transposition, where your brain can't figure out if your implanted memory or your natural memory is the one that's supposed to be accessing, so it's sorta jumping back and forth between them to try to make sense of it all.  Don't worry, it's a common enough side-effect for it not to be too much of a surprise.  While you're suffering from it, you're going to jump back and forth between English and Faey, and you won't be able to read anything.  Even English will look like gibberish to you.  So, go back to your room and take a nap, and your brain will straighten everything out.  After a nap, an evening of rest, and a good night's sleep, you'll be just fine."

 

      "But I have a test tomorrow in Plasma Dynamics," he objected.

 

      "Postponed," she told him.  "The waiver's already on the schedule.  All homework and tests due tomorrow are pushed back, so you can recover.  No studying tonight, Jason, and that's an order."

 

      "Yes, ma'am," he nodded.

 

      "Now go home," she told him.  He stood up, and his legs felt a little weak.  "Woops, I think I'll have a car take you," Tia said quickly.

 

      "No, I'm alright," he said quickly, getting his legs back under control.  If everyone else walked out of the classroom, then dammit, so would he.

 

      "I'll make sure he makes it safely," Jyslin offered.

 

      "I appreciate that," she nodded.  "See you on Monday, Jason.  Enjoy your weekend."

 

      Jason felt better after taking a few steps, until his strides were confident and long.  Jyslin scurried to keep up with him as he made his way out of the building and onto the sidewalk leading to the dorm, which was the next building over.  It was a walk of only about thirty yards.  Jyslin followed him quietly, into the dorm, up to the third floor, and literally right into his room, closing the door behind her.  "I'm here," he told her.  "You didn't have to follow me into my room."

 

      "Bed," she commanded, pointing imperiously at the narrow bed hugging the right wall of his cramped dorm room.  "Now!"

 

      "Don't order me around, woman," he said jerkily, unsure of what language he was speaking.  "Trust me, as muffled as I feel right now, taking a nap is exactly what I intend to do."  He sat down on the edge of the bed and slid his hands over his face in a slow, deliberate manner to try to clear the sand out of his thoughts.  It was so hard to think!

 

      "Well, I did what I promised," she said with a smile.  "Think you'll trust me a little more now?"

 

      "A little," he admitted.

 

      "Want to go out with me?"

 

      "No," he said immediately.  "No matter how I feel about you, you're a Faey, and I'm a human.  You represent something I protest, so I can't socialize with you.  End of story."

 

      "So, it's not personal," she pressed.  "If I were human, you'd go out with me."

 

      "Probably," he admitted again.  "There are a couple of professors I'd be friends with, if it wasn't for the fact that they're Faey."

 

      "I'll change that," she promised with a wink.  "Remember, a week from today.  You, me, fancy clothes, and a Faey opera.  It's already been set."

 

      "In your dreams," he scoffed.  "I don't care what you do, Jyslin, I will not go out with you.  Period.  End of story."

 

      "They're so cute when they think they have a choice," she said in a lilting manner as she opened the door.  "Tomorrow it's Ilia and Sheleese.  This time, try not to make such a mess," she said, then she leaned against the door.  "So, what did you think of my little gift to you?"

 

      "I think you need to get out in the sun more," he said boldly.

 

      "I was in your mind when I gave it to you, Jason," she purred.  "I know how you reacted to it.  You think I'm dead sexy.  You like me, and you like me a lot, you're starting to get interested in me, and you want to get to know me better. The only thing standing between us is a stupid point of technical philosophy, and I'm not going to stand for it."

 

      She gave him a very serious look.  "I'm Faey. I admit it.  But don't hold that against me, Jason.  Don't blame me for what happened to your planet.  I'm stuck here, where I was placed, the same as you are.  What is it your people say?  Oh, yes, I just work here.  And when I come back when I'm off duty, I won't be Sergeant Jyslin of the Imperial Marines, upholding her Imperial Majesty's honor, I'll be Jyslin Shaddale, a single girl trying to get a date with a mysterious, fascinating, handsome boy," she said with a wink.  "You think about that.  And keep thinking about it as you do whatever unholy evil things you're going to do to Ilia and Sheleese tomorrow morning.  I'm dying to see it," she laughed and winked again.

 

      "I'll make sure it's suitably entertaining," he said dryly.

 

      "Good.  I'll see you later.  Get some rest, and think about what I might look like out of those boots," she said with a naughty little smile just before she closed the door.

 

      Confusing woman.  Or was she?  Jason laid down and closed his eyes.  It was hard to think, but not too hard to consider what she said.  In a way, she was right.  She was in the same position as him, and it wasn't her fault.  He was blaming her, and every other Faey, for what happened to Earth, and to him personally.  It really wasn't fair.

 

      But, on the other hand, she was a Marine.  She was in the military, a direct representative of the power that had conquered them.  And then there was also the telepathy.

 

      Quite simply, he just couldn't bring himself to trust any Faey because of that overwhelming advantage.  At any time, all Jyslin had to do was put a hand on him and find out everything he was thinking, everything he felt, and violate the utter sanctity and personal domain that was his own mind.  Jason had an intense hatred of that, burned into him after two years of having Faey try to burrow into his thoughts every day, day after day.  Faey telepathy was the only reason nobody had managed a rebellion--not that it would really work, given the formidable Faey weapons and armament--but at least someone could try.

 

      Part of that was his own self-loathing, he guessed.  If his father could see him now, he'd slap him.  He was cooperating, being a good little slave, because he didn't want to end up on a farm.  Or even worse...being shipped off planet like some humans were, off to work in mines and other equally unpleasant and dangerous places.  His father would have stolen an F-16 and taken on the entire Faey military by himself.

 

      And now he'd been taught their language.  Just another step down the road of making him an obedient subject of her Imperial Majesty.

 

      He drifted off to sleep with that image floating in his mind...wearing one of those flowing robe-like upper garments the Faey favored, loose shirts with tails that dropped to their shins and flared sleeves with tails on them themselves nearly a foot long, and those loose-fitting pants, or robe-like skirts that both sexes occasionally wore.  That would have been even worse.  Wearing Faey clothes, speaking the Faey language, and standing in front of the featureless figure sitting on the throne of the Empire, bowing like an obedient lapdog.

 

      That was a nightmare.

 

 

 

      Jyslin did in fact stop in to see him after work, wearing a red tank top and shorts this time, but not sweaty.  She'd stopped in before her workout, and she didn't stay long.  Only long enough to see how the implantation went.

 

      Perfectly.  He had a complete and utter command of the Faey language.  Jyslin wasn't joking when she said she knew more about Faey than most, for her vocabulary was immense, and her understanding of the intricate nuances of the musical language was profound.

 

      He didn't have to study, so he spent most of that afternoon watching INN, which made it more interesting now that he could understand what they were saying.  They talked about a surprising range of topics, covering the important news from many of the seventy-two planets in the Imperium.  An earthquake on Aurile, a hurricane on the ocean planet of Jaxan, an explosion at a metals facility on Denet.  Then they went into the arts phase, and he was surprised that they spent so much time on it.  They tracked the movements of many theater troops, singers, and musicians, telling people where they were headed and when they would perform.  The arts seemed rather important to the Faey for the movements of the performers to be covered by INN.

 

      Earth even made it into their news.  "The Empire-famous Triellian opera company is making its first visit to the newest addition to the Imperium, Terra," the roguishly handsome news anchorman said in a voice that feigned enthusiasm, which made Jason look at that corner of his screen.  "It's the first visit from a famous performing company for our newest member of the Imperium.  If you’re in that part of the Imperium and would like to make reservations, access Terra’s Civnet.  There are still tickets available at most of their venues.”

 

      Jason was about to drift back to the other side of his panel, where he was going over tomorrow’s little surprise, when the news distracted him once again.  “For those of us in the Imperium who haven’t heard much about Terra, we here at INN think that your interest in our newest planet might increase.  The Ministry of Agriculture has announced that the newest shipments of Terran food have passed bio inspection, and will be hitting your local markets by the end of the cycle,” he announced.  “In addition to all the more common plants and grains, a new group of Terran-specific products will be made available, as will all the old.  This includes a large crop of the newest food craze among Faey, strawberries,” he said in English.

 

      “Oh, I know, Deren,” the female anchor said with a laugh.  “I tried some at the unveiling of the new Terran foods last year, and they had to take the plate away from me!”

 

      “I’m partial to their lobster myself,” he replied.  “In other Terran news, the Ministry of Security has announced that certain areas of the planet have been approved for tourist passes.  If you’re interested in seeing our newest farming planet in action, or you’d like to soak up the local culture and mystique of the indigenous population, contact your nearest travel agent and Ministry of Travel offices.”

 

      “And here with a report on what you might want to see on Terra is Lini Timira,” the woman called.

 

      Jason watched as INN ran a report on the “vacation getaways” of Terra, showcasing most of the places that humans liked to visit on Earth.  Hawaii, Alaska, Yellowstone, the Alps, Africa, the Himalayas, they all rated on the natural scenery, and to his surprise, the reporter suggested visits to Paris, London, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Johannesburg, New Delhi, and even New Orleans for people curious about the culture and customs of humans.  The reporter, a sharp-featured woman with dark blue skin-tanned from her travels-and hair the color of mud, made sure to point out that the local population was not telepathic, and virtually none of them spoke Faey, so a certain amount of care and caution when interacting with the natives was required.

 

      Jason frowned and cut it off, then absently turned on the television, and switched it to the same channel.  He had no idea why he was watching it on his panel when the TV carried the same stations.  He wondered absently if they had stories on Earth every day, or if it was just starting to get into the news because the Imperium was about to allow civilian Faey to visit the planet.  He had no idea, because up until now, all he could really go on were the pictures.

 

      He wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of the Faey getting so…cozy with Earth or not.  They’d taken it over, and now they were going to have Faey tourists milling around.  Faey developing tastes for Earth food, Faey getting more and more common…it was like the beginning of the end of the fact that Earth was the home of the human race.

 

      There wasn’t much he could do about it, so he blew out his breath, changed it over to the local station, and went back to his plan.

 

 

 

      It was ready and waiting for when Ilia and Sheleese arrived promptly at seven the next morning.  They’d parked their hovercar on the other side of the street, and came boiling out of it with their helmets on and their rifles on their shoulders.  They were taking no chances with this crafty human, fully intending to march him up and down the street like a new recruit and make him sing bawdy cadence songs.  He’d already outsmarted the squad sergeant, Jyslin, and made a laughing stock out of Lyn and Bryn yesterday by encasing them in crash foam, forcing a mechanic to come down from the motor pool and use a dissolving module to get them out.

 

      The little battle between Jason and Jyslin was quickly becoming all the talk among the Faey stationed in New Orleans.  The rules were clear; no telepathy, no doing injury.  They were rules that both sides seemed to be following, as well, and Jyslin made sure to warn them not to cheat.  It was a battle of wits, and peeking into his mind and seeing what he was up to was cheating.  If they even could peek into his mind, for she’d warned them that he had amazing, almost phenomenal mental defenses for a mundane human.  She even warned them that he’d know if they tried, which surprised both of them.  A non-telepathic human, sensing it when Faey used their talent?  That was certainly something to talk about!

 

      At precisely seven thirty, they were ready.  They were entrenched behind their hovercar on the other side of the street, waiting for him to come out.  They weren’t about to get anywhere near him until he was halfway to the campus, which seemed only smart.  This was his home territory, and they had no idea what manner of clever little traps he had waiting for them on that side of the street.

 

      Seven thirty came and went.  Then seven forty-five.  At five minutes to eight, they started wondering if he was coming out at all, since he had a class at eight o’clock.

 

      “You think he overslept?” Sheleese asked absently.

 

      “We should go check,” Ilia replied.  “We don’t want him getting in trouble.  This may be fun, but it’s not worth it if he gets punished for it.”

 

      “He may not appreciate us barging into his room.”

 

      “He’ll appreciate being late for school even less.”

 

      “That’s a good point.”

 

      Neither of them felt the very light, almost negligible touches on the backs of their armor.  “Good morning, ladies,” a voice addressed them, right behind them!  Both of them whirled around and found him standing immediately behind them, and neither of them heard a thing!  They didn’t even sense the presence of his mind!  By the gods, this human was amazing!

 

      They stared at him in slack-jawed shock as he lobbed two little things that looked like a coin to each side of them, each of which struck the hovercar and stuck to it with a light thunk.  He reached into his pocket and took out a tiny black box with an illuminated red button on it, shifted it so they could see, then pressed the button with his thumb.

 

      So fast, so hard, that neither could resist it, they both found themselves suddenly getting yanked down.  Both of them slammed into the side of the hovercar with enough force to make it rock slightly, and both of them found that they were stuck fast by something that was attaching their breastplates to the car, something they couldn’t overwhelm!

 

      He put the little device back in his pocket, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and then started walking away like he had not a care in the world.  “Have a nice day,” he said absently over his shoulder.

 

      That should hold them.  Those were quarter-sized devices that were like exclusive magnets, what the Faey used to control raw, magnetically reactive high-energy plasma before it was phased and sent into conduits.  The little devices were self-annealing to whatever they touched, and it took a special tool to demagnetize them, something that Marines didn’t carry around in their pockets.  Until they did, the backs of their breastplates would be stuck to that car until Doomsday.

 

      Sure, they could take the breastplates off, but he knew for a fact that Marines didn’t wear anything underneath the armor.  So, to get free, they had to strip to the waist.

 

      It wouldn’t hold them all day, but it would be enough for him to get to his first class.

 

      He glanced behind himself, and frowned.  One of them was already halfway free of her breastplate, and the other popped the seals of her own and removed the front half, exposing her breasts to all of Audobon Park.  They really were going to do it!  They were going to walk him to class topless!

 

      As fun as it would be to make them do it, he figured that it would make them short-tempered, so a little discretion was in order here.  Grabbing the strap of his pack, he bolted across the street and onto the campus, fully intending to be in the Plaid before that other one got her breastplate off.  He glanced back and saw that they weren’t trying to follow him.  The first to get free was inspecting the other half of her breastplate, trying to see how he did it.  She rose up and laughed, then gave him a sly grin from across the street.

 

      You clever little fox! she communicated with him with her mind, a communication laced with wry amusement, strong enough to overwhelm his outer defenses and push the thought through.  It gave him an immediate, splitting headache.  You wait, Jason!  I’ll be outside your class when it’s over, even if I have to stand there naked!

 

      He staggered slightly, putting a hand to his head.  God, that hurt!  It was like a semi was banging back and forth inside his skull, but the pain eased almost immediately after she finished her mental communication.

 

      He shook his head to clear out the last of the pain. It hadn’t hurt when Jyslin did it.  Then again, Jyslin had already been inside his mind.  What she did was different, something like forcing her own thoughts into his head as a form of communication.  Sending, that was what they called it, sending thoughts to other people.  It was just one of the tricks the Faey used with their telepathy.

 

      It had been the first time that a Faey had ever done that to him, and he certainly didn’t want it to happen again.

 

      He managed to get to the Plaid, and hurried through the classroom door right before Ailan closed it.  Ailan gave him an amused look, and he quickly took his seat and the class began.  He drifted in and out of paying attention as he worried about what those two Marines were going to do, and if they really were going to be standing outside the door topless, or even naked, ready to follow him around and annoy him until his next class.  Were they really that brazen?  Or would it just be another way to play the game, trying to embarrass him by having a pair of topless Faey following him around.  That was what all this was about, after all.  Jyslin was trying to embarrass, annoy, or aggravate him to the point where he would finally cave in and go out with her, if only to make her stop.  The way those two were talking before he nailed them showed that they thought it was tremendous fun, and that, surprisingly, they didn’t want it to cause him any real problems.  That they were willing to brave whatever traps he had laid and make sure he didn’t oversleep, to get him to school on time, did touch him a little bit.  But not enough to make him feel sorry.

 

      He drifted through most of class, so much so that he didn’t hear Ailan clap and dismiss them.  “You know, there were two Marines sending to try to find you about a half an hour ago,” he said with a chuckle as Jason rather jerkily started packing his things.  “They’re outside the door, waiting for you.”

 

      “Great,” he growled, reaching into his pack for Plan B.  “Ailan, explain something to me.”

 

      “Certainly.”

 

      “Why won’t Jyslin get the hint?” he asked.  “Do I have to break her arm to make her understand?”

 

      “Yes,” he said, quite seriously.  “You don’t understand Faey very well, Jason.  Remember, the females are the dominant gender.  They chase, men play hard to get.  It’s how we do things.  The more you run from her, the harder she’s going to chase you, because that’s how a man tests a woman to see how serious she is about him.  She doesn’t see you saying no as no, she sees it as ‘impress me with your interest in me more, and I’ll go out with you.’  She won’t stop.  That’s why I told you that it was best just to go out on the date and get it over with.  That’s how you get rid of an unwanted suitor,” he winked.

 

      “How?”

 

      “Make it clear during the date that you want nothing to do with her,” he answered.  “You can be blunt about it and tell her not to ask for another when it’s over, or you can be a total ass during the date and make it a bad experience for her.  Just so long as she leaves the date with an understanding of how you feel, that’s all that matters.”

 

      “Hmm,” he mused.  “Well, I will not go out with her.  I’ll just have to impress her suitably that I’m not interested.  Even if I do have to break her arm.”

 

      “Good luck,” he chuckled.  “You’ll need it.”

 

      “Why are the others helping her?” he asked curiously.  “The other Marines.”

 

      “Because they’re in her squad, and Marines do these kinds of things for each other.  They’re very tight-knit.  They see it as great fun, as would most Faey.  We enjoy little games like these, and that’s what this is to them, Jason.  A game.  A grand and clever game where they’re pitting their skill against yours.  And from what I’ve heard so far, you’re winning,” he chuckled.  “The whole school knows about that crash foam.  Where did you get it?”

 

      “I took it out of the physics lab,” he answered.

 

      “What did you do to those two today?”

 

      “Plasma directional magnets with shock-annealer backings,” he replied, which made Ailan laugh.  “I didn’t count on them taking off their breastplates to get free, though,” he admitted.  “I guess Marines don’t have much modesty.”

 

      “Faey women aren’t modest like human girls are, Jason,” he answered.  “It’s not considered taboo to go bare-chested in Faey society.  It’s quite common on planets with hot climates, actually, and there are no laws about nudity.  On those hot planets, it wouldn’t be too uncommon to see Faey going about totally naked.  Faey here simply don’t show anything more than what humans do because of human customs.  We don’t want to offend you, so we abide by your customs.”

 

      “There was my mistake,” he grumbled.  “I didn’t know that.”

 

      “If you want to embarrass a Faey woman, you don’t make her show it off, you make fun of what she has,” he told him with a conspiratorial wink.

 

      “Well, that’s handy to know, but it’s not going to help me right now,” he said, hefting the little glass canister in his hand, filled with a dark liquid.  Plan B.  “In fact, it’s going to make this even less effective than I thought it would be.”

 

      “What is that?” he asked.

 

      “Something that’s about to get me in a heap of trouble,” he answered honestly.

 

      “What is it?”

 

      “You’ll see,” he promised, standing up from his desk and picking up his pack, looking like a man about ready to do war.

 

      He went to the door and opened it, and found both the Marines standing there waiting for him.  They had managed to get their armor off the hovercar, and had left their helmets and their rifles in the car as well, for they didn’t have them now.  “Well, now,” the taller one with a faint scar on her cheek said with a wolfish smile.  “It’s about time.  We were about to check and see if you managed to walk through a wall.”

 

      He didn’t even glance at them.  He turned his back to them and started down the hall, then, just as he heard their armor shifting as they moved to follow, he tossed the canister over his shoulder.

 

      “Catch it!” one of them barked aloud.  He didn’t look, but heard one of them try to grab it, only to have the glass cylinder disintegrate in her hands, unleashing a sudden angry cloud of grayish smoke that smelled like rust mixed with limes.  They coughed raggedly and staggered towards him, then came the sound he was waiting for, the sudden angry hissing of their vandirium alloy armor bubbling and sizzling as the reagent dissolved it.

 

      Both of them gasped and started to panic as the grayish smoke ate at their armor like acid, then they both seemed to relax when they realized that it was doing them no harm.  The gray cloud was some kind of chemical that only reacted with the metal of their armor, eating it away, but doing nothing to harm anything other than their armor.

 

      “Have fun finding new clothes,” he said over his shoulder as he walked towards the door, intending to head to the cafeteria for breakfast.

 

      Much to his surprise, instead of angry cursing or them running after him, they were both laughing.  It was laughter mixed in with the clunking of pieces of destroyed armor hitting the floor, but it was most certainly laughter.  Delighted laughter.

 

      Faey were too weird, he thought to himself as he turned out of the hall into the building’s atrium and headed for the door.

 

 

 

      Thus came the fatal flaw in this particular plan.

 

      The two Marines were utterly unaffected by what he thought last night would be a devastatingly effective tactic to make them leave him alone.  They marched into the cafeteria about ten minutes later wearing nothing but their helmets with the visors down, to hide their faces, but not hiding much of anything else.  They were also carrying their rifles, slung behind their right shoulders.  All activity in the cafeteria absolutely stopped when they marched in, followed by fierce whispering and buzzing as the two rifle-toting, naked Faey positioned themselves solidly behind Jason’s chair, to either side of him, and simply waited.

 

      “Couldn’t find clothes?” he asked in what he hoped sounded like an unruffled manner, though he was privately quite disturbed by this little upping of the ante here.

 

      “We figured this would embarrass you more,” one of them replied in a low whisper, in Faey, and her words were absolutely dripping with sadistic amusement.

 

      “I can take it if you can,” he shrugged casually, going back to his breakfast of a ham omelet.  “I’m not the one whose bare ass is going to be fueling human men’s fantasies for the next few weeks.”

 

      “So long as they don’t know who I am and they can’t see my face, why should I care how much of the rest of me they see?” the other one returned with a chuckle.

 

      He had no real defense against that particular angle of attack, so he fell silent and went back to his breakfast.

 

      They followed him all over school all day, stark naked, and drawing absolutely every eye to him.  They decided that just being there was all it took to make him uncomfortable, so they never talked, never annoyed him, never did anything other than follow him everywhere he went-except inside classrooms.  And that meant everywhere.  The two of them nearly caused a riot when they marched right into the men’s bathroom behind him after his second class.

 

      Jason had no other prepared tricks, and to be honest, their incredibly bold move had put him off kilter, so he did nothing more than go through the motions that day and endure it.  He couldn’t just give up, though, because then they’d know that they found something that got to him, and they’d all start showing up naked every morning to escort him around class.

 

      Jyslin had to have a long arm, since the professors and other school administration did nothing to intervene.  They just watched from a distance and enjoyed it, like everyone else did.

 

      So, he did pull tricks to get away from them after each class, but they weren’t up to his usual standard, and they didn’t get him very far from them.  Sneaking out a window on the first floor, hiding in a cabinet and slipping by them as they came in to search for him, and in once case climbing through a large air conditioning duct allowed him to sneak past them, but he didn’t go very fast, and allowed word to get back to them very quickly concerning his location.  In actuality, he didn’t want them to get too far away from him, so he could keep them under control.  Two naked Faey had the potential to cause unmitigated chaos on a campus attended by human students, and he wanted to minimize the potential for multi-car pile-ups, broken noses from walking into streetlamps, and bicycles crashing into pedestrians.  So he steered them away from the largest concentrations of students and didn’t go anywhere near Saint Charles’ Avenue, confining himself to the Plaid, the cafeteria, the library, and the main campus building, using the sidewalks well away from the street.

 

      One thing was for sure.  The boys on campus were very happy for this odd occurrence.

 

      After his last class, in a sort of grand finale, the two of them sidled along behind him as he walked back to his dorm, clearing the path in front of him and causing a traffic jam behind them as people stopped to look, then walked along behind to keep looking.  He reached his dorm and went up the steps, then turned around and looked at them.  “Have fun with your sunburn,” he told them as he reached into his pocket and took out the little black remote once more.

 

      “We’re done here,” the taller one told him with a sly smile, just visible under the mirrored visor.

 

      “Not quite,” he said, then he pushed the button.

 

      There was a sudden squeal of metal against concrete, and their hovercar suddenly flipped over on the side of the street, making sparks on the asphalt as the metal ground over it, then vaulted up into the air.  It went up nearly fifty feet, then simply stopped, hanging upside-down in midair.

 

      “Have a nice walk,” he told them, then turned and went into the dorm.

 

      To his surprise, to the sudden applause and whistling of the people who had followed them back to the dorm.

 

 

 

      Both the Marines stood there in chagrin and looked at their hovercar, hanging in midair well out of their reach, as the humans around them laughed and clapped and whistled.

 

      Up until that point, the Marines had been winning, damn it all.  It didn’t take telepathy to see that their counterattack of going around naked all day had him on the ropes.  They were but one more task of walking him home to come away the victor in that day’s skirmish, and he gets them right at the end!  Trust that clever Jason to have the final trick up his sleeve!

 

      Sheleese laughed.  “Well, not only will the squad be coming to pick us up, but we’ll have to explain how he got us out of our armor,” she told Ilia.

 

      “How did he do that?” Ilia said aloud, in English no less, staring up at the floating hovercar.

 

      “I’m sure the techs’ll explain it when they come to get it down,” Sheleese said with a cheeky grin.  “Until then, we’re naked and without a ride back to the barracks.”

 

      Ilia laughed.  “Jason three, Marines zero,” she admitted.

 

      “This is starting to get a bit ridiculous,” Sheleese declared.  “The honor of the Corps is at stake here, and he’s playing with us like we’re just babies.”

 

      “Maybe Yana and Myri will have better luck tomorrow.”

 

      Sheleese chuckled.  “The way things are going, he’ll have them in dog collars by lunchtime.”

 

      Ilia giggled girlishly. “What a man,” she announced.

 

      “Jyslin has all the luck,” Sheleese agreed with a nod.

 

 

 

      Back in his room, he sat down and blew out his breath, looking up at the ceiling.

 

      What a day!

 

      Those damn Marines were starting to play dirty.  He was pretty sure that they could tell that their stunt had thrown him off, but on the other side of it, he was positive that his retaliatory stunt got them and got them good.  He took out his panel and brought it up, then had it contact the address of another panel with a few touches on icons on his screen and a few quickly typed commands.  He knew that that panel was now ringing like a phone, waiting for its owner to answer his call.

 

      Tim’s face appeared on the window holding his call program.  “Hey,” he said.  The view behind him told him that Tim was in his room, which was one floor up from his own.

 

      “Thanks,” he said.

 

      Tim laughed.  “I almost got in trouble, but that’s alright.”

 

      “What happened?”

 

      “An army chick caught me planting that plasma magnet,” he answered.  “She had me dead to rights, so what could I do?  I told her I was helping you play a trick on the Marines, and she let me go ahead and do it.  I think she doesn’t like Marines,” he chuckled.

 

      “You can always count on inter-service rivalry,” he answered with a short laugh.

 

      “I’m surprised it picked up that hovercar.”

 

      “I’m more surprised that magnetic field density sensor worked,” he answered.  “If it had malfunctioned, they would have had to send a shuttle to retrieve it from orbit.”

 

      Tim laughed.  “Man, you have any idea how popular you are at school now?” he asked.  “Two blueskins following you around like lost puppies, naked as jaybirds?  That was fantastic!”

 

      “They were trying to embarrass me.”

 

      “Think you could convince them to try to embarrass you again tomorrow?”

 

      Jason chuckled.  “They’ll be back, but two different ones.  And I think if they found out how much the men on campus enjoyed the strip show, they probably won’t do it again.”  He explained how they had come to be naked quickly, and his short chat with Ailan.  “I found out that Faey aren’t too solid on our idea of modesty, but if they find out that the humans think they were funny because they were naked, they won’t do it again.  That’s digging into their pride, and these Marines have a great deal of that.”

 

      “What are you going to do tomorrow?” he asked eagerly.  “Half the school is already laying bets on what’s going to happen.”

 

      “I’m not sure yet.  I’ll think of something, though.”  He looked at the box of components laying on his bed, cast-off supplies and things that instructors had given to him to allow him to experiment on his own.  So far, every device he’d built came out of that box of junk, but the pickings were starting to get a bit thin in there.  He’d already used up most of the choice components.  “It may not be very good.  I’m running out of ideas and expendable equipment.”

 

      “Say the word, and I’ll get anything you want or need,” he said immediately.

 

      “No, this is personal,” he replied.  “I cheated a little using you to plant that magnet, but I don’t really want to get anyone else involved in this.  I can deal with the Faey.  I don’t want others getting in trouble because of me.”

 

      “I’m already in it,” he grinned.  “I’m not afraid to be your gopher, Jayce.  And a second pair of trap-laying hands will keep them off balance.  After all, they’re coming at you in pairs, so why not have an extra set of hands?”

 

      “No, Tim, I’ll handle it myself.”

 

      “Well, alright.  But everyone’s cheering you on, Jason, so do us proud.”

 

      Jason was a little surprised at that.  “Why?”

 

      “Because this little war between you and the Marines makes us all feel better,” he answered.  “Everyone looks at you and sees someone willing to take on the Faey, and so far, you’ve beaten them like red-headed stepchildren.  After all the abuse they’ve put down on us, seeing them get theirs feels very good.”

 

      Jason said goodbye to him after that and turned on the TV, feeling a little foolish, and suddenly feeling quite dutiful.  If his war with Jyslin made the other students feel better, then he wouldn’t disappoint them.  He had to study, but this had priority.  He went over to the box of parts, rifling through them and seeing what he might be able to come up with.

 

      He pondered on it a while, and came up with something that would at least get him through tomorrow.  He set that aside and stood up, mentally telling himself that he’d have to get some new parts tomorrow at school.  They went to school six days a week, a highly accelerated schedule, with only one day off.  But, on the other hand, they got two weeks off between semesters.

 

      It was a long, stressful day, and he felt dirty.  He pulled his clothes off and threw his towel around his waist, then grabbed his shower kit.  A long shower would be perfect just about now.

 

      The door opened, and Jyslin stepped through, out of her armor, in the black tank top and shorts she wore when she worked out.  She closed it behind him, then burst out laughing before she managed to get it closed all the way.  “Jason!” she wheezed.  “You’re awful!  Wow,” she breathed in admiration as she looked on his bare torso.  Jason practiced martial arts and he used to play football, so he was very well developed.  But because he did play football, he was much, much stronger than he looked.  Jason could bench press nearly four hundred pounds.  His arms were muscular, but they weren't very large.  His arms and body held a deceptive, monstrous strength that shocked most of his students.

 

      “What?” he asked.

 

      “Well, I'm looking at a dream, for one," she told him with open admiration.  "But what you did to Sheleese and Ilia was awful!  Throwing that stuff on them that destroyed their armor and making them walk around naked?  That’s vicious!  Hilarious, but vicious!”

 

      “They decided to do that themselves,” he said defensively, “to embarrass me.”

 

      “True, but I’m talking about you doing it in the first place!” she said with another burst of laughter.  “I thought you using that chemical spray on me was bad, but this, this is worse!  You’re terrible!” she accused, then she laughed even harder.

 

      “Why is it so funny if you think it’s so bad?” he asked testily.

 

      “Faey love jokes,” she said with a wink, “even when they’re pulled on us.  I knew you were smart, but you’re proving to be a cunning little monster.  Tomorrow it’ll be Yana and Myri.  If you can beat them, it’ll be Zora and Mil on Monday, and on Tuesday, if you still haven’t knuckled under, our Company Commander, Lieutenant Lana, is going to take a crack at you.  Wednesday, you’re mine.  And on Wednesday, it’s over.  I guarantee it,” she said with a wink.  “Then it’s our date on Friday.”

 

      “Keep dreaming.”

 

      “I am.  Of you in high heels, of you in a maid’s apron and nothing else, of you in a bra and panties, a dog collar, and of course, you covered in sweat and with a totally rapturous look on your face while we squeak the bedsprings.”

 

      Jason picked up a conduit bridge and threw it at her half-heartedly, which made her slide to the side and chuckle.  “Behave,” she teased him.

 

      “Out,” he barked, pointing at the door.

 

      “You’re no fun today,” she taunted.  “Then again, I feel a little jealous that you stared at Sheleese and Ilia all day, and you’ve never actually seen me naked.  Just a memory of it.”  She reached down and grabbed the hem of her shirt meaningfully.  “I’ll take mine off if you take yours off,” she said with a throaty purr.

 

      “Out,” he repeated sternly.

 

      “Then again, I have two and you have one.  That’s hardly fair.”  With a quick motion, she whisked off her tank top, exposing her lovely, full breasts for his eyes to enjoy.  “There, that’s more even,” she said with merry eyes, tossing her tank top onto the desk and hooking the waistband of her shorts with her thumbs.  “Now then, do you dare take up the challenge, Jason?” she said with a wicked smile, pulling down on the waistband sensually, letting it ride down lower and lower on her hips, until the upper edge of the dark red hair under those shorts began to peek out over the waistband.  "I want to see you, all of you," she breathed in a husky voice.  "Show me your beautiful body, and I'll show you mine."

 

      It was all he could do not to swallow and gape at her like a dying fish.  She was evil!  She was baiting him with the one thing he couldn’t easily ignore!

 

      “OUT!” he thundered, pointing at the door imperiously.

 

      She pulled up her shorts with a seductive smirk, and half of him bitterly regretted that.  Part of him-most of him-wanted her to go all the way, to take those shorts off and let him see for himself what she’d teased him with yesterday.  But if she took off those shorts and got the towel off of him, got both of them naked, he knew that they were going to end up in that bed.  She left no doubt in his mind that she wanted him, and he had to admit that he wanted her.  And he couldn’t allow that to happen.

 

      She gave him a victorious, wicked little smile as she pulled her tank top back on, then she opened the door and sauntered through in a very seductive manner, making sure her hips swayed like a boat rocking in a hurricane as she took those three steps out the door.  Then she turned to face him as she grabbed the door.

 

      “See you on Wednesday.  Wear clean underwear,” she winked.  “You won’t be in them long.”  Then she closed the door.

 

      Evil, evil woman, he grated to himself.  That stunt of sharing the image of her nude body had caused him to admit to himself that he was attracted to her, both mentally and physically.  And now she was starting to tighten the noose by getting more and more sexual with him, by making statements that he both did and did not want to hear, pulling off her shirt and letting him see what she was offering.  She was right before in that his objection to her was philosophical, not personal.  Truth be told, he rather liked Jyslin, but his pride and his sense of duty to the ideals he held dear would not allow him to associate with her. To get around that, she was using his attraction to her like a cudgel to beat the resistance out of him.  Jyslin was beautiful, she was sexy, and she had a body most human women would kill for.  And the fact that she was more than willing to strip and shove all kinds of exotic parts of her anatomy in his face made it very hard to ignore her.

 

      But something told him that she wasn't going to push him.  She was teasing him, baiting him, enticing him, but she wouldn't force the issue.  She wanted him to come to her.  That was why she didn't whisk off her shorts, yank off his towel, and use some highly aggressive techniques to try to seduce him.  Had she done that, both he knew and she knew that she would have succeeded.  No sane, healthy, heterosexual male could say no to a woman that gorgeous.  She wanted to hear him say yes, and that meant that she wouldn't push too hard, so hard that her victory might be in doubt because of her own aggressiveness.

 

      It would be a sweet loss, that was for sure.  He couldn't deny his attraction to her, but at least he'd enjoy the agony of defeat.  But he wasn't going to roll over and die just because he was attracted, because he wanted what she was offering, because he also wanted to maintain his ideals.  A tryst with Jyslin would be a blow to those ideals, fraternizing with the enemy as thoroughly as one could fraternize.

 

      He'd learn their language, he'd go to their school, but they wouldn't conquer him.  No matter how long he lived.  If he wasn't free in body, he'd be free in spirit, and part of that freedom was the right to say no.

 

      Shower.  Showering would be good right now.  And he'd better make it a cold one.

 

 

 

      Yana and Myri arrived an hour before class was to start, and they weren't taking any chances.

 

      This one was as cunning as a tibaxi, and there was no telling what little surprise he had waiting for them outside of that dorm.  After what happened to the others, they both agreed that staying in the hovercar until he came out and trailing him to the campus was the best move possible.  After he got there, they could get out and start following him around, when he was surrounded by the other students and had fewer opportunities to get them.

 

      It was funny, but on another tack, this was starting to get a little embarrassing.  This little game had leaked out all over New Orleans, and the Army whores were starting to dig on them because they couldn't control a single native.  Marines generally held the Army in contempt, because they were the grunts who didn't have what it took to be a Marine.  Many of them were provisional, the personal troops of whichever noble controlled a sector, where the Marines were Imperial, serving the Empress directly.  The Marines were here in part to make sure that the nobles and their troops did what the Imperium expected of them.  If there were no Marines here, there was no telling what those greedy nobles would try to get away with.

 

      Nobles always had to be watched.  If they thought they could get away with it, they'd steal the Empire blind, and there had even been instances of nobles breaking away from the Imperium, trying to establish their own empires.  Faey history was rife with civil wars, as much as it was little private wars between nobles who took offense to one another.  Terra was under the control of the house Tarlinne, which was related to the throne by blood.  That was the main reason they were given Terra, because they were very well trusted by the Empress Dahnai.  The house sent a Duchess to rule Terra, Duchess Gwyn Tarlinne, and she had brought in her six children to govern the six continents.  North America was the domain of Baron Olen, the youngest of her six children, and every state of the three major former nations were under the control of a Baronet or Baronen, with Olenas or Olenens controlling the provinces within those states.  Zarinas and Zarinens were minor nobles that watched over cities or interests within those provinces, the lowest rung of the noble hierarchy.

 

      Nobles.  Sometimes Myri thought that the Imperium would be better off without nobles.

 

      "Alright, what's the plan?" Yana asked.  Yana was the youngest in the squad, just coming out of boot camp and still looking like a teenager with her relatively flat chest and narrow hips, but she was very smart, and she had awesome talent.  Yana's telepathic powers outstripped just about everyone in the company.  Despite that, she rarely used them, for some odd reason.  Where most Marines sent nearly as often as they spoke, Yana virtually never sent.

 

      "We wait," Myri answered.  "I'm not getting anywhere near him until we're sure he's not packing a surprise."

 

      "I thought this was a game to force him out on a date with Jyslin," Yana giggled.  "When did it turn into a war?"

 

      "The moment that little Army whore said that if they were doing this, they'd have him in a dog collar," she answered bluntly.

 

      "They don't understand the rules."

 

      "That doesn't matter.  He's making a fool out of us, and we have to put a stop to it, even if we have to cheat."

 

      "Where's the fun in that?"

 

      "It'll be better than hearing those Army bitches ragging on us for the next six cycles," she growled.  Myri was the oldest of the squad, the other squad Sergeant, and she had quite a reputation for a foul mouth.

 

      Yana was about to say something, but something hit the roof of the hovercar with a thud, and almost immediately, water began pouring down over the windshield and side windows.  They both looked around quickly, and found nobody around.  "Some joker's throwing water balloons," Myri snapped in irritation, sending her mind out to find the little jokester.  In the mood she was in, she felt that a serious chastisement was in order.

 

      Odd...all she could find were human minds watching on in unsuppressed glee.

 

      She started getting a little suspicious when the water cascading down the windows stopped, like it was frozen in time.  Myri quickly reached for the door release button and pressed it, then pushed at the door to open it--

 

      --and found it stuck fast!

 

      That damned human dropped into sight from the roof of the hovercar, walking down the hood and to the ground with his pack slung over his shoulder.  "Good morning, ladies," he said in a casual manner.  Once on the ground, he turned around and held out a molecular cutter, then used it to carve a neat hole in the hood of their car!

 

      "Hey, we signed this out!" Yana shouted at him angrily.  "If you mess it up, it's our asses!"

 

      Nonplussed, the human pulled the freed circle of hood away from the hole and reached his hand inside boldly.  The car was running!  Didn't he realize how dangerous what he was doing was!?  Myri scrambled to turn the car off, but all the lights suddenly went out, and the car dropped to the ground with a clunk, clicking Myri's teeth together from the jarring impact.

 

      The human pulled his hand out, and in his hand was the phase exchanger that fed power into the car's onboard computer.  Without that exchanger, the car wouldn't do anything.

 

      Without changing his expression, he put the piece of hood back exactly where it had been and annealed it back together.  Then he took the exchanger and set it on the hood of the car, carefully placing it so they could see it, and it wouldn't slide down the sloped hood and drop to the ground.

 

      Myri beat her shoulder against the door, but it was stuck fast, almost as if he had annealed the doors.  But it wasn't annealing, it was that water, or whatever it was.  It was unmoving, solid, and it was covering the top of the hovercar, preventing the doors from being opened.

 

      He'd trapped them in their own car!  And what was worse, he'd disabled it so they couldn't just drive back to the motor pool!

 

      "Have a nice day," he concluded with two fingers to his forehead in some kind of salute, then he simply walked past the car, past the driver's side door, and started towards the campus.

 

      Yana looked around wildly, looked at Myri, then burst into laughter.

 

      Myri glared back over her shoulder, then she chuckled ruefully.  "We didn't even make it out of the car," she sighed in lament.

 

      Yana laughed a little more, then gave an amused sigh.  "Oooh, my," she breathed.  "Well, what do we do, Sergeant?"

 

      "Send for help," she said with a rueful chuckle.  "What else can we do?"

 

      "True.  I think Zora and Mil had better bring a tool bag with them on Monday," she said, then she burst into laughter again.

 

      "They might need it," Myri agreed, then succumbed to the humor of it herself.  "I just want to know one thing," she said after a moment.

 

      "What?"

 

      "How the hell did he get on top of the car without us noticing?"

 

      "This one's full of surprises," Yana laughed.  "What a man!  Jyslin's got the luck of Zanya!"

 

 

 

      School went in a blur, but at least it was a peaceful one.

 

      The boys on campus were a little crestfallen that he wasn't going to have two naked Faey following him around, but the applause he got when he came on campus told him that they didn't mind all that much.  Everyone on the street had seen him come out of the second story window of someone else's dorm room and circle wide around, then climb onto a large utility control box and jump over onto their car, which was parked right beside it.  He'd used a little something he'd remembered from physics, adding a compound to the water in the large jug he'd brought with him that caused it to instantly "freeze" and turn into an extremely hard solid, like a super-strong ice. Just like ice, it would "melt," as the chemical broke down, which would allow them to get the doors open in about a half an hour or so.

 

      They didn't come back until after his last class, Xeno I, where he spent all class practicing spoken Faey.  In that one class he'd managed to get a firm grip on the pronunciations, and he could speak the language surprisingly well.  Jason's mother grew up in France and as a result spoke French in addition to English, so he'd learned French as a child, and it had many similar sounds as Faey.

 

      After class, he ran home, changed into his sweats, and rushed back to the campus gym, where his class was waiting for him.  He'd missed their last appointment, but not this one.  They bowed to him as he came in, wearing sweats, shorts, whatever they could find that was loose and comfortable.  There were five men and three women in his class, and Tim was one of them.  "Sorry I'm late," he said as he bowed in reply.  "Now, let's stretch, and then we'll begin."

 

      After stretching, he started them on their exercises.  They were all beginners, so what he was teaching them first was how to fall, how to go to the ground without getting hurt, and how to control their bodies to be able to spring back up immediately.  It was a critical skill in Aikido, protecting them from injury as they practiced the forms, and also giving them a powerful defensive weapon to use in case they were knocked down in a fight.  After that was done, he instructed on the basic forms of wrist-locks, one of the more important ways to lock an opponent and force him to bend to their will.  Aikido was a martial art of gentle persuasion, not an aggressive one, which used an attacker's own body and motion against him to control him and make him unable to do harm.  He was well versed in much more aggressive martial arts, but Aikido had always been his favorite.  Aikido allowed him to protect himself without doing anyone any permanent harm.  It gave him an outlet to deal with braggarts who mistook his mild nature for cowardice.  When a fellow was third string on a college football team, that happened more than he cared to admit.  They didn't understand that he could have easily been first string, but he was more interested in the education than he was the football.

 

      The familiar rhythms of teaching, of falling back into the Zen-like mental state required to practice the art, they relaxed him a great deal.  It was a welcome break from the stresses of school and the building insanity concerning Jyslin and the Marines.

 

      After their proscribed hour’s use of the gym, they stretched once more and bowed, just in time, as the pick-up basketball had the gym in fifteen minutes, and the players were already starting to arrive.  The Wednesday class took place out on the campus lawn, since they didn’t have the gym, but the Saturday class they got one hour and fifteen minutes of gym time, from five o’clock to six fifteen.  There was a fifteen minute cushion, then the pick-up games had the gym for the rest of the night.

 

      “What you doing tonight?” Tim asked as they broke up.

 

      “Dunno,” he answered, cracking his knuckles.

 

      “Want to go down to the quarter?” he asked.  “I feel like getting drunk tonight.”

 

      “That actually sounds like a good idea,” he said with a nod.  “I think I’m in the mood for Patty O’s.”

 

      “Piano bar?” he asked with a grin.

 

      “You know it,” he replied.

 

      “I still can’t believe they tried to get you to work there,” he laughed.

 

      That much was true.  His mother was a music teacher, and because of that, her son absolutely had to learn how to play the piano.  His very first memories were sitting on his mother’s lap, looking at the keys.  That was the one thing she had given to her son, the skill that defined his relationship with her, just as learning to fly planes had been the defining aspect of his relationship with his father.  His mother had been so gentle, so kind, so beautiful.  It had been a terrible blow to both him and his father when she was killed in an automobile accident, so much so that his father had resigned from the Air Force and taken a job as a flight instructor at a little airstrip in Auburn, so he could be there for his son.  He still played, though he didn’t have a piano now, only a little electronic keyboard that sat on the high shelf over his bed.  But sometimes he felt the urge to play, and that required a real piano.  There was one at a Catholic Church down Saint Charles, and they also had one up at the music shop on Claiborne.  The week he arrived in New Orleans, he stumbled across the bar called Pat O’Brien’s, or Patty O’s to the locals.  It was one in the afternoon on a Tuesday, so the place was pretty empty, and they had this room that they called the Piano Bar, which had two pianos on a stage to entertain the patrons.  On weeknights and weekends, piano players would sit up there and play requests, which were written on napkins and passed up with a tip for the player.  Playing Patty O’s was not an easy gig, for their players were expected to be able to play any request.  Most of their musicians had massive stacks of music books filled with sheet music for a huge number of songs.  Well, he’d been feeling rather depressed because of being shipped to New Orleans, and after he bought a daiquiri, he asked if he could play.  The piano bar was closed and the place was more or less empty, so the managers allowed it.  They were shocked.  Jason grew up with a mother who was a music appreciation teacher, and he had a vast repertoire of songs he could play.  Most didn’t think that a six foot two inch guy built like a football player would be able to play the piano.  Playing the piano always cheered him up, and after he felt better, he bought another daiquiri, and they offered him a job.  They’d just lost a player to the three month random farm allotment lottery, and they were looking for a new one.

 

      Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to work when he was in school.  Then again, he wouldn’t have had time for it anyway.  He didn’t work there, but sometimes when he went down, if they were short-handed that night, they allowed him to come up and play as a “guest musician.”  It wasn’t work, but he was allowed to keep all the tips they sent up when he played requests.  He did that every couple of weeks or so, earning a little extra money on top of the stipend he was paid as a full-time student in the Faey academy.  That was how he could afford some of the parts in his little box, because he could buy them from campus workers looking to make a little extra money on the side.

 

      “Let’s go get cleaned up, and—“ he started, then he trailed off quickly when six Faey filed into the gym.  They wore the camouflage colors of the armor of regular Army, much like the Battle Dress that the American military wore before it was dissolved.  They were all pattern Faey, with those pretty faces and sleek bodies, accented by that armor.  One of them, he noticed, was carrying a length of chain.

 

      “Well, if it’s not the human making the Marines look like idiots,” the tallest of them, a woman with raven black hair, announced loudly in English.  “We’re here to restore the honor of the Faey, since the Marines can’t seem to manage it.”

 

      Jason looked her up and down coldly, steeling his mind against possible attack, starting the exercise that formed the wall of repetitive thought that would protect him from any attempt to invade his mind.

 

      “We brought you a dog collar,” she said with a vicious smirk, holding up a leather collar.  “We’re going to put you in it and drop you off at the Marine barracks with nothing but this on.  After we have a little fun with you first,” she said with a naked leer.

 

      Jason brought himself up to his full height and stared at them.  “Faey love games,” he said in a quiet tone.  “How about a little friendly challenge?”

 

      “Really,” she smirked.

 

      “Whoever ends up with that dog collar around her neck has to wear it until Monday,” he said.  “The one collared becomes the property of the victor, and has to obey utterly until Monday.  That means she does anything I say until Monday morning, when I go to school.  Oh, and to make it fair, since the Marines aren’t allowed to use their talent, neither are you.  Think the six of you are enough to put that collar around my neck without using your power?”

 

      “Six against one, and you think you have a chance?” she asked with a laugh.

 

      “If you think it’s a dead lock you’ll win, then accept,” he urged.

 

      They looked among themselves for a second, obviously communicating with their telepathic gifts.  “You have a deal,” she said.  “I’m going to enjoy having you as our personal squad mascot.”

 

      “I’m going to enjoy having a maid,” he said, cracking his knuckles meaningfully.

 

      Tim moved away and the floor cleared as the six camo-armored Army regulars moved to surround Jason, who spread his feet out a little and kept himself squarely in front of the one holding the collar.  They all started taunting and calling to him, trying to distract and unnerve him, but his eyes remained solidly on the brunette and the collar in her hand.

 

      The other five came all at once, seeking to overwhelm him by force of numbers and pin him down long enough for the brunette to collar him.  That actually wasn’t a bad idea, but they weren’t ready to face him like that.  He grabbed the one that reached him first and spun her into two rushing from the other side, making them crash to the floor in a tumbled heap of arms and legs, squealing hurting everyone’s ears as their armor screeched against other armor.  He surrendered the defense back to use that move, and the one behind him, the smallest of them all, crashed into him to try to knock him to the ground.  He totally ignored her weight as he slapped aside the reaching hand of the fifth, then grabbed her other hand by the wrist and yanked on it.  She was jerked in the direction he wanted her to go.  With the sixth regular clinging to his back, kicking at him with her armored shins to get him to go down, he wove the one he had a grip on from side to side, not allowing her to regain her footing, exactly what he did to Jyslin, then spun her and crashed her into the heap of other Faey who were still sprawled out on the floor.  A few slapping grabs at his flank got him a handful of armored shin, and he tore her off his back with main force.  She clanged to the floor with her leg still in his grasp, but she took his shirt with her, ripping it off his back.  He snatched the shirt out of her hands and let go of her, then advanced on the brunette quickly, wrapping the ends of a long strip between his hands.  She backed up in surprise and raised both hands to protect herself, then her face hardened, and she attacked him with her telepathic power.

 

      He’d never been attacked before, not like that, and it was something he never wanted to have happen again.  The full force of her mind smashed against his own like a spear, trying to punch through the wall of repetitive thought he used to protect himself from probes.  It was blindingly painful, like lights exploding behind his eyes, as he struggled with all his might to keep her out of his head, pushing back against that force with every fiber of his being.  He’d been rushing forward when she struck at him with her power, and his momentum carried him right up to her.  He could barely think, barely move, but he had enough presence of mind to lower his shoulder.  She gaped in shock as he managed to resist her attempt to invade and take over his mind with her power just long enough to get close enough to her to do something about it.  His shoulder slammed into her upper chest, and his weight sent her flying.  That impact broke her concentration, and he felt the terrible weight of her mind lift off of him like pulling away a blanket.

 

      Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs and the pain, he lunged down and snatched the collar out of her hands before she had the presence of mind to roll away from him.  Her eyes looked a little glassy; maybe she hit the back of her head on the gym floor when she fell down.  He was about to reach down and put the collar on her when two Faey jumped on him from behind, one grabbing the hand holding the collar as another wrapped her arms around his neck from behind and tried to tangle his legs up with her own.

 

      She did pretty well, for he found himself unable to shift his feet.  He yanked in the Faey holding his arm and then grabbed her, and they all fell down to the floor in a pile.  There was a great deal of kicking, thrashing, even some biting taking place in that twisted mound of struggling bodies, but Jason was larger and much stronger than his opponents.  He managed to grab the collar with both hands as the smaller Faey tried to cover his eyes with her hands and the larger one tried to wrest the collar out of his grip.  He rolled over on the Faey on his back, got his weight on her, pinning her to the floor with his shoulders, then pulled the collar out of the other’s hands with a fast snap of his arms.  She tried to roll to her feet, but Jason used the Faey under him as a push-off to power himself up onto his feet in the blink of an eye.  The Faey had her back to him as she tried to roll back and away to get distance, so it was a simple matter to whip that collar over her head, then pull it taut around her neck and close the ends.

 

      There was a sudden eruption of cheering from the people watching this impromptu battle, after it became clear that the collar ended up snapped around a Faey’s neck.

 

      “Awww, DAMN!” the Faey snapped in frustration when her hands felt the collar around her neck.  She stayed on her knees, and fixed the brunette with an impressively cold, murderous glare.

 

      Jason panted, suddenly out of breath and keyed up from the adrenalin, then got himself under control.  He gave that brunette his own icy stare.  She had used her power against him, had cheated, and she should have been the one in the collar.  She was the one he wanted, but he couldn’t risk her doing that again when the other Faey had a grip on him.  If she did, they would have gotten the collar around his neck.

 

      “Don’t ever do that again,” he hissed at her savagely as he regained his composure.  The one he collared got to her feet and turned around, looking suitably ticked off.  She was a cutie, with a heart-shaped face and pouting lips.  Her hair was dark blond, almost brown, cut very short, and she had large blue eyes.  She crossed her arms and gave him a flat look, then she chuckled.

 

      “Well, looks like we lost, and I got stuck holding the stick,” she announced in thickly accented English.

 

      “Strip,” he commanded immediately.  “All of it but the collar.”

 

      That got a roar of approval from the boys watching on.

 

      She gave him a dark look, but did start taking off the armor.

 

      He stalked over and snatched up the chain that was laying on the floor, and waited patiently as the Faey removed her armor, then stood there, her face turning purple in a blush—red blood flushing blue skin—as the boys in the gym whistled and clapped and generally embarrassed her half to death.  He locked the chain to the collar with a smooth motion, then started towards the door, pulling her along.  She followed, her head bowed and throwing dark looks at the brunette for getting her into this.

 

 

 

      She may have thought that he was going to be cruel to her, or abuse her, or take tremendous advantage of her, but she found out that she was wrong.  He did parade her around the campus a little as the students cheered, since it made them feel good, then he went back to his room and took off the chain.  She stood there by the door for a long moment as he sat at his desk.  He felt her mind brush against his, but she pulled away when she found nothing there for her to grasp.

 

      “Don’t do that,” he said gratingly.  “I don’t appreciate it.”

 

      “Sorry,” she apologized.  “Most humans don’t even notice it.”  She gave him a long, steady look.  “Well?” she asked in her accented English.

 

      “Well what?” he asked in Faey.  “Have a seat.”

 

      “Don’t I have to clean?” she said in Faey, her face bright that she wouldn’t have to chatter at him in English.

 

      “It’s already clean,” he shrugged.  “You’ll be doing my laundry tomorrow, but for right now I don’t have anything for you to do.  So sit down and watch some TV or something.”

 

      “That’s all?  You’re not going to humiliate me or make me do dirty jobs?”

 

      “Do you want to?”

 

      “Uh, no,” she said quickly.

 

      “Then sit down and watch TV,” he said mildly.

 

      “Where do I sleep?”

 

      “That’s your problem,” he told her.  “The bed’s mine.  You’re on your own.”

 

      “I’m, I’m not sleeping with you?”

 

      He gave her a direct stare.

 

      “Isn’t that part of my punishment?”

 

      “I don’t consider that much of a punishment,” he said dryly.

 

      “It is if you do it right,” she winked with a naughty smile.

 

      “Faey,” he breathed, rolling his eyes.  “Don’t you ever think with your brains?”

 

      “We’re the dominant gender, human,” she smiled.  “We think with our brains as much as human men think with theirs.  Imagine a human man’s sex drive in a woman as happy to chase dick as human men are to chase pussy, and in a nutshell, you have a Faey.”

 

      Her forward, graphic language surprised him, but he made the connection quite easily, and she was right.  Imagine a Faey more or less as a human man, and they made sense.  “I wonder how either of us ever manage to get anything done,” he chuckled ruefully.

 

      “A question for the philosophers,” she chuckled.  “My name is Symone.”

 

      “Jason,” he returned.  “But don’t take that to mean you’re not going to really hate me come Monday morning.”

 

      She chuckled.  “I’ll get over it,” she promised.  “So, what would you command of me, Master?” she said with a grin.  “Wash your clothes?  Reorganize your closet?  Do the Moraki Dance of Forbidden Delights?”

 

      “Keep talking, and you’re going to be chained to the outside of my door,” he said calmly as he turned on his panel.

 

      “What, you’re celibate?”

 

      “On the contrary, I find Faey very beautiful and very sexy,” he answered honestly.  “But there’s a principle here that I can’t violate.  If it weren’t for that, you’d be pinned to the bed right now.  You are sexy, Symone, and I’m not dead.  I’d be more than willing to give you that punishment you hinted about if not for that.  I’d chain you outside the door to remove the temptation.”

 

      “Well, it’s nice to be appreciated, and I do appreciate your candor,” she said with an honest smile.  “I’ll leave you alone, since there’s a matter of principle involved.”  Then she turned on the television.

 

      He was quite grateful for that.  And over the entire weekend, she was true to her word.  She did not flirt with him or come on to him, not even once.

 

 

 

      Sunday was a very relaxing day, because he had himself a maid.  And he worked her.

 

      She didn’t sleep very well, because she ended up sleeping in the chair at his desk, with her head and arms laid out on the desk.  He woke her up early and got her to work.  She did his laundry.  She moved all the furniture out of his room and shampooed the thin, worn carpet, then moved it all back in while he and Tim sat on lounge chairs in the hallway and watched.  She cleaned the window, inside and out.  She stood behind his chair obediently as he and Tim sat out on the green lawn between the dorm and the main Tulane building as boys whistled and stared at her, though this didn’t bother her as much as it might a human girl.  Though Jason wasn’t going to rub it in too much, Tim was more than willing to torment Symone by barking at her like a drill instructor, haranguing her whenever she didn’t perform up to his exacting specifications, making her wait on them hand and foot, and once he slapped her on her bare butt as she fetched them beers.

 

      “I’m going to hurt him,” Symone growled under her breath as Jason sat at his desk, studying for tomorrow’s classes, after Tim went to the bathroom.

 

      “He likes you,” Jason told her absently.  “He’s been sporting a woody since he got here this morning.”

 

      “I don’t understand.”

 

      “English slang,” he said mildly.  “He’s had an erection.  He finds you extremely sexy.”

 

      “Oh, I noticed that almost immediately,” she winked.  “Why do you think I’ve been sticking my tits in his face every time I serve him?  I have to get back at him somehow.”

 

      Jason glanced at her, then chuckled.  “He’s actually a pretty good guy, and a good friend.  He’s just enjoying the moment, that’s all.”

 

      “What do you mean?”

 

      “A lot of humans resent the subjugation, I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

 

      “Of course.”

 

      “Well, this is his chance to boss you around.”

 

      “Ohhh,” she breathed, then she chuckled.  “Well, I guess I can’t fault him for that,” she said with a wink just as he got back.  “Does he speak Faey?”

 

      “Yes,” Tim answered in Faey, but not pronounced very well.  Tim was still mastering the motor skills required to speak the language.

 

      “Well then, with your permission, I’m going to the bathroom, Jason,” she asked.

 

      “Fine.”

 

      “We’ll see how brave you are on Monday afternoon, Tim,” she said with a taunting smile.  He jumped in shock when she put the palm of her hand against his shirt and pushed her hand down inside the band of his sweat pants.  Tim’s face instantly flushed, and he put his back against the door as the bulge of her hand in his sweatpants moved around.  “Or even better, how brave you are tonight,” she added in a husky tone, brushing up against him as she slid past.  She flicked her tongue out and licked the lobe of his ear as she passed, then disappeared out the door.

 

      “Oh, shit,” Tim said in a wobbly kind of voice, sitting down at his desk rather hard.

 

      “She won’t get back at you, Tim.  This is all part of the game for her,” Jason chuckled.  “Being bossed around is part of it.”

 

      “No, I think she wants me,” he said.

 

      “Whatever gave you that idea?  Her putting her hand down your pants, or sticking her tongue in your ear?” he asked archly.

 

      “Man,” he said in a panting tone.  “Was she playing with me, or was she serious?”

 

      Jason suppressed a smile.  Symone was getting her measure of revenge against Tim already.  She was going to put him into a fever pitch for the rest of the day, he knew she would.  It was what she did tonight that would tell the tale.

 

      “Probably playing with you,” he answered honestly.  “I wouldn’t take her too seriously.  That, or you’d better go back to your room.”

 

      “She grabs hold of my dick, and you tell me not to take her seriously?” he asked hotly in reply.

 

      “It’s your call,” he shrugged.

 

      He was right about that.  For the entire afternoon, Symone absolutely tortured Tim by flirting with him, flaunting her assets in front of him, and taking all sorts of liberties with him.  It seemed that every time he turned around, she had her hand down his pants, whispering mind-blowing obscenities in his ear.  She got him back in spades for the bossing around he’d done to her earlier in the day, that was for certain.  Tim couldn’t look at her without his face flushing, and eventually, Jason had to take pity on him by kicking Tim out.  Symone looked utterly smug with herself after Tim was banished to his room upstairs, but her smug look vanished when he had her stand outside his door with the chain locked to her collar, wrapped around his doorknob while he took a shower.

 

      He got back, towel around his waist, and she was still standing there.  “Um, Jason, you think I might go, upstairs?” she asked in a hesitant manner.

 

      “What’s upstairs?”

 

      “Tim.”

 

      “Why don’t you give that poor boy some peace?” he asked.

 

      “Well, I was kind of going to go up there and keep all those promises I made to him,” she said with a sultry wink.  “You think a girl can do that to a sexy guy all day and not get horny?  There were a couple of times there when I was about to pull his pants down and fuck him right on your floor.”

 

      He looked at her, then chuckled.  “You would have had to clean it,” he told her.  “I need to study, so do what you want.  Just remember that you’re not done until tomorrow morning.”

 

      “When do you want me to come back?”

 

      “Tomorrow morning.  You’re going to help me take care of tomorrow’s Marines.”

 

      “Oh.  I don’t have a problem with that,” she winked.  “I get to have a hot night with a sexy guy, and I get to rub some Marines’ faces in the dirt.  Thanks.  For a human, you’re not a bad guy.”

 

      “For a Faey, you’re not a bad girl.”

 

      “I’m about to be,” she purred as she unhooked the chain from the collar.

 

      Jason chuckled as she sauntered towards the stairs.  Symone actually was a pretty OK girl.  Faey, but other than that, she was alright.  She had a sense of humor, she was quite candid with him, she’d respected his position, which really impressed him, she had a lot of patience, and she’d been a good sport.  And her torturing of Tim showed that she certainly knew how to play the game.  She was the kind of girl he certainly wouldn’t mind calling friend.

 

      But then again, she was Faey.  He shouldn’t get too cozy with her.  After all, he liked Jyslin just as much, if not more, but his position wouldn’t allow him to be friends with her either.

 

 

 

      Symone came lilting back to his room at about six in the morning, knocking on his door without considering that she might be waking him up.  He was already up, however, for he was in the habit of rising early.  He was lucky in the fact that he didn’t sleep very much, and didn’t seem to need much sleep.

 

      She came in behind him as he opened the door for her, then leaned against it sensually and fanned her face with her hand, her eyes bright.  “Where have you humans been all my life?” she said in a thoroughly satisfied tone.  “Your friend Tim is—wow,” she related.  “No Faey man ever made me mewl like one of your cat animals.”

 

      “I’m glad you had fun,” he said dryly.

 

      “Fun?  That was more than fun,” she said with a grin.  “I had to take two showers afterward.”

 

      “Two?”

 

      “I took one, then when I came back, Tim mussed me.  I had to take another.”

 

      He chuckled, but said nothing.

 

      “We’re going out tomorrow night.  I have a few friends in my unit who are free. Want to double?”

 

      “No thanks,” he said mildly.

 

      “It’s going to be weird having clothes on around him.  It’s kinda fun for me when he stares at my tits while we’re talking.  It makes me feel wanted and very sexy.”

 

      “You’ll get used to it.”

 

      “Trust me, I can get used to feeling sexy all the time,” she said with a throaty chuckle.

 

      “That’s not what I meant.”

 

      “I know what you meant,” she laughed.  “So, what do you need me to do to get the Marines?”

 

      “You’ll find out.”  He paused a moment.  “What makes Tim so much different?”

 

      “Faey men are always so standoffish,” she complained.  “They make you bend over backwards to get a date with them, then they never tell you where you stand.  They’re always hinting, teasing, leading you on, and just when you think it’s going to get serious, they dump you like yesterday’s garbage.  Tim was honest with me right off, and he really, really wants me, likes me, despite me being Faey.  You have no idea how much I liked that, how much it made me feel wanted.”

 

      Strange that she’d say something like that to him, but then again, he had the feeling that she’d be much more forthcoming with him, someone she promised not to flirt with, than a Faey man, or maybe even a Faey woman.  “Don’t hurt him,” he warned.

 

      “I won’t,” she said in a dreamy manner.  “Trust me, Jason.  I’ll be on his arm as long as he wants me.”

 

      “Be careful.  He might take some heat because he’s going out with a Faey.”

      “Nobody’s going to bother him,” she promised.  “I know how to be discrete.”

 

      “Is he still asleep?”

 

      She nodded, then grinned in a dirty manner.  “I wore him out.  But he seemed to take it fairly well.”

 

      “Take what?”

 

      “Faey can make love with more than just their bodies,” she told him.  “Faey can join in telepathic communion while making love.  It makes it ten times better.  Sometimes it’s just physical, since both people have to drop their defenses, you know, let the other into their minds, so that takes some trust.  First time lovers, people just having casual sex, they don’t usually do that.  But Tim was alright with letting me join our minds.  He said it gave him a little bit of a headache, but it was the most intense sex he’d ever had,” she said with a bright smile.  “Sex is more fun when you can feel your partner’s pleasure,” she winked.

 

      “I’ll remember that.”

 

      “Well, all in all, I’m glad you collared me now,” she laughed.  “I didn’t like the cleaning, but I have a new boyfriend.  That’s a fair tradeoff.”

 

      “Well, I’m glad you didn’t mind it all that much.”

 

      “Not at all,” she said with a smile.  “Since I’m going to be going out with your friend, I hope that means we can hang out together, Jason.  I like you.”

 

      “I like you too, Symone, but I can’t do that,” he said seriously.  “I’m one of those people who object to your presence here.  My principles won’t let me socialize with people I consider to be the enemy.”

 

      She laughed.  “You’re sitting there talking to a girl who’s been with you for two days, naked as the day she was born, who just screwed your best friend until he was a quivering mass of jelly.  That’s not socializing?”

 

      He chuckled.  “Well, it does sort of sound like it, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I started hanging out with Faey.”

 

      “You object to the Imperium, or the people?”

 

      “The Imperium.”

 

      “Well, I’m not the Imperium,” she declared.  “I’m Symone Zabelle.  I’m not even Imperial.  I’m a soldier for House Tarlinne.  I serve a noble, not the Imperium.  I’m what you’d call a private soldier, or a mercenary.”

 

      “Does your noble obey the Empress?”

 

      “Of course.”

 

      “Then you’re a part of the Imperium,” he said bluntly.

 

      “Well, what would it take for you to hang out with me?” she asked.

 

      “For the Imperium to leave, put everything back the way it was, then come back and ask us to join,” he answered seriously.  “If they’d have asked, we might have agreed.”

 

      “Well, you certainly don’t want too much,” she laughed.  “Just give it time, Jason.  You’ve seen how the Imperium works.  You’re not a conquered race, you’re a part of the Imperium.  As soon as you get used to it, you’ll be just like everyone else.  You’ll be the equal of a Faey.  You’re not the only alien race that’s a part of the Imperium, you know.  The Menoda have been part of the Imperium for over two hundred years.  They have noble houses and everything.”

 

      He gave her a serious look.  “We’ll never be the equal of the Faey,” he said grimly.

 

      She bit her lip, but said nothing.

 

      “I like you Symone, honestly,” he told her.  “But you’re a Faey, and I’m a human.  It doesn’t matter that you might agree with me.  It doesn’t matter that I like you, or you like me.  The only thing that matters is that your Imperium conquered my world.  Did you think we’d welcome you in?  Did you think that you dissolving all our nations and moving entire populations around and putting half of us on farms wouldn’t matter to us?  Do you think that just because we can’t rebel, it means we all simply accept your order like weak-minded sheep?  Well, it doesn’t.

 

      “I can’t do anything about the Imperium.  I admit that, and in a way, I accept it.  But it doesn’t mean that I’ll embrace your Imperium, your customs, or even your people.  I’ll go to your school and work for you, but I’ll never enjoy it.  Whether I’m in a lab or a factory or a farm field, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll end up working for you one way or the other.  I can accept that, so I’ll find the place that makes me happiest and stay there.  I can’t fight, but I can resist in my own way, just to show you that we humans are not just conquered slaves.  And I’ll do so until the day I die.  It means absolutely nothing to the Imperium, but it means everything to me.

 

      “It’s not personal, Symone.  I like you, and you’re not the only Faey I like.  The little war I’m having with the Marines is based on the same issue.  The Marine likes me, and I admit, I like her.  But I won’t go out with her, and I won’t be friends with her, because she represents the government that took my life away from me and made me nothing more than a slave.  I’m sorry if that offends you or hurts your feelings, but it’s the truth.  If circumstances were different, I’d be dating her right now, and you and me would be going out, getting drunk, and having a blast every weekend.  But they’re not that way.  You’re a Faey, I’m a human, and that’s all that it takes in my mind to forever put us on opposite sides of a line.  I’m sorry.”

 

      She was silent a long moment.  “I can understand that,” she told him sincerely.  “And I respect it.  I’d try to sound impressive and wise, but that’s not very easy when a girl’s standing here naked.”

 

      He chuckled, and gave her a gentle smile.  “Your jiggling notwithstanding, I’m glad you understand.”

 

      “I don’t jiggle,” she said primly.  “I undulate.”

 

      He gave her a surprised look, then burst into laughter.

 

 

 

      Symone was alright.  Too bad she was Faey.

 

      She did her part against the two Marines that showed up at dawn, who immediately piled out of their patrol hovercar and set up an observation post out in Audobon Park, out in the open, where there was no way he could get at them without being seen.  Her mission was to distract them, and she undertook her mission with great enthusiasm.  The Army hated the Marines, the Marines hated the Navy (what the Faey called their starship military service), and the Navy hated everyone.  That was how the inter-service rivalries worked in the Faey structure.  The Marines were an elite form of combat troop who also served on starships as ship to ship combat troops and ground assault, so the Army resented them.  The Navy looked down their noses at the other two branches of the Faey military, even though they were more than happy to have Marines on board their starships as security.  Private soldiers, like Symone, who served a house instead of the Imperium directly, were considered part of the Army, but more like the old National Guard or Reserves of America’s dissolved army.  They were here because their house was the one who had been given possession of Earth.  Since the Imperium didn’t have enough space available in the Navy, Marines, and the Imperial Army for all the women who served their involuntary conscription, most of them ended up in the private armies of noble houses.

 

      Symone’s help proved invaluable in getting the two Marines who showed up today.  Her job was to distract, and she certainly managed to absolutely dominate their attention the instant she came out the door.  After all, the last thing those two expected to see was a naked Faey women trudging out the front door of the dorm.  She spotted them quickly and crossed the street, pulling the dog collar off her neck as she came out onto the grass lawn of the park.  She reached them and started chattering at them quickly, talking fast, spinning quite the tale about how her squad lost a bet with Jason, and she ended up in a dog collar as a result.  She asked them for some clothes or a ride back to her barracks, and they agreed.  She let them go first, towards the car, and she lightly placed two tiny devices on the backs of their armor that had been hidden in the palms of her hands.  She gave him a thumbs-up as they took her to his car, then got in it with them and was hurried away.

 

      Mission accomplished.

 

      He reached into his pocket and pressed a little red button on his remote, put it back in his pocket, then went to school.

 

      Those two Marines discovered later, after dropping Symone off at her barracks, that whenever they drove towards the campus, they had sudden fits of terrible itching all over their entire bodies.  The closer they got to the campus, the worse it became.  Zora and Mil couldn’t understand what was happening, but when they realized that retreating made the insane itching ease, they both realized that somehow, some way, Jason had gotten them.  Circling the campus proved that it was the campus that was at the center of this strange effect, and the itching started when they got within about a human mile of it.  It started off very mild, almost kind of nice, like little feathers ghosting over their bodies, but it was all over their entire bodies, and it got worse and worse the closer they approached the campus.

 

      They parked the hovercar about at the edge of this effect and looked at each other.  “He got us!” Zora said, then she laughed.  “How did he do it?  What did he do?”

 

      “I don’t know—hey!” Min said.  “That regular was the only one who got close to us!  Do you think she was in on it?”

 

      “It’s possible, but how could she do anything?  She was naked, and wasn’t carrying anything.”

 

      “Unless she distracted us while Jason somehow did something,” Min grunted.  “Myri said that you can’t sense him at all, that he can sneak up on just about anyone.  Did you see him?”

 

      “No, did you?”

 

      “No.”

 

      They looked at each other, then burst into laughter.  “Should we go pay a little visit to that regular?” Min asked.

 

      “Nah, she was just a part of the game,” Zora replied.  “Besides, after being Jason’s pet for a couple of days, I think she suffered enough, don’t you?”

 

 

 

      Jason enjoyed his Monday in peace, but Tuesday morning, at four a.m. sharp, he was awakened by a knock on the door.  He blearily opened it—he got up at five every morning, so this was a little early for him—and found himself staring at a tall, regal-looking Faey with green hair.  Emerald green.  He had never seen that color hair on a Faey before.  Despite it being green, she wore it in the short, comb-over style that many Marines favored, and it was strangely pretty with her blue skin.  She was narrow-faced, almost foxlike in appearance, with large eyes, a long nose, and a narrow, sharp face that looked predatory.  She was rather handsome, and it was apparent that she was older than the other Faey who had tasted defeat at his hands in the days past.  Instead of armor, she wore a dark blue uniform of sorts, with sleek dark blue pants with a red sash, and a sharply pressed blue jacket that had silver buttons along its front.  She had little silver triangles on her lapels, a little starburst design insignia pinned to her left epaulet, and a gold woven rope that was attached to her right, running under her arm.

 

      “I am Lieutenant Lana,” she announced as if that meant everything in the world.  “And these are yours.”

 

      She held out his two little sub-sonic induction devices, which had used extreme high-frequency sound to irritate the skin of the two Faey from yesterday.  Their armor conducted the subsonic waves, acting like amplifiers, and they were set to get stronger and stronger the closer they came to his remote.

 

      “Thanks.  They took me hours to build.  I don’t want to lose them,” he said with a roguish smile as he accepted the two button-sized devices, painted the same hue of black as a Marine’s armor.  “How long did it take them to find them?”

 

      “Seven hours,” she answered honestly.  “We had to use a scanner to find them.  They were very devious.”

 

      “Thank you,” he said with a nod.  “So, you’re number six,” he said as he turned and walked from the door, leaving it open.  “At least you’re civil enough to come and introduce yourself.  ‘Hello, I’m Lieutenant Lana, and I’ll be your opposition this morning’,” he said in a voice that a waiter might use to introduce himself.

 

      She chuckled.  “I’m not here as the opponent.  I’m here as the mediator,” she told him.  “I’m here to put an end to this little war, Jason.  Before I leave, we’ll have an agreement.”

 

      “What makes you think I’m going to quit?” he asked.  “I’m winning.”

 

      “Because I have direct orders from my battalion commander to end it,” she told him with steady eyes.  “We all thought it was funny for the first few days, but it’s starting to foment discord between the Corps and the Army regulars, as their little visit to you on Saturday probably proves to you.”

 

      He nodded.

 

      “I’m here to head things off before they get ugly.  For you and Jyslin, and also for the Army and the Corps.  So, before I leave here, we’ll have an agreement on the table, and one both sides will agree to honor.  There’s no way you’ll get out of the date, so be prepared to stipulate that condition right now.  But, given how badly you thrashed my Marines, I’m sure you can drag some conditions out of me that will suit you and make them very annoyed,” she winked.

 

      “Why help me like that?  Aren’t you supposed to be on their side?”

 

      “Because I believe you deserve it,” she said.  “After all, you’ve stymied my squad for six days now, and that’s no mean feat.  My unit is good.  Very good.  But they’ve met their match in you so far.  You are winning, Jason, and because of that, you should get the lion’s share in the peace agreement.  You will have to concede the main point, but everything else is up for negotiation, and the current conditions favor a strong lean towards your interests.”

 

      “Well, I appreciate the praise.”

 

      “It’s more than that,” she said, pointing at the subsonic inducers he set on the desk.  “Those little devices were devious, Jason, and it’s something I’ve never seen before.  I had a tech scan them yesterday, and she thinks that they have some potential uses in military or civilian applications.  She was impressed by the complexity of them, and she didn’t believe me when I told her that a second-semester tech student built them.”

 

      He wasn’t quite happy about that.  He didn’t build those inducers to be used in war.  They were built as a prank to best a pair of Marines, that’s all.

 

      “Don’t worry, I had their design patented,” she told him.  “In your name.  You invented them, after all.  I also submitted the design to the Ministry of Technology.”

 

      “What does that mean?”

 

      “That means that if the Imperium uses the idea, you get paid for it,” she answered.  “And the submission will get you noticed, Jason.  You need that.  The inducers are just one of three things I’ve never seen before.  I’ve never seen that chemical you sprayed one Sheleese and Ilia that destroyed their armor without hurting them.  I’ve also never seen anyone use a plasma magnet the way you did, with a magnetic field density sensor on it to control its magnetic force to make the hovercar hang in midair the way it did.  Those are brilliant inventions, Jason.  Just brilliant, and it makes it even more impressive when you realize that they’re coming from a second-year tech student with absolutely no background knowledge of Faey technology.  To us, it’s like a primitive caveman stumbling on a pile of tools and material and using them to build a PPG.  If you can attract the attention of the Ministry, there’s a good chance you can get into either black ops or research.  That’s where anyone in school wants to end up.”

 

      He gave her a long, steady look.  “Why are you helping me?”

 

      “Because I believe in helping people discover their potential,” she answered.  “It’s my duty as an officer.  I think you have what it takes to be in research, and I’ll do what I can to get you there.”

 

      He was quiet a long moment, not sure what to say.

 

      “Alright, so let’s agree right here and now that there’s no way you can avoid going out with Jyslin.  That’s an absolute.”

 

      “That’s an admission of defeat,” Jason told her.  “That’s what all of this is about.”

 

      “You’re going to lose this eventually, Jason,” she told him.  “You’d lose tomorrow, I guarantee it.  After you get out of school, Jyslin is planning to arrest you and throw you in a cell full of hand-picked cellmates, and keep you there until you admit defeat or she has to let you go in the morning.  Then she was going to arrest you again that afternoon, and again, and again, until you gave up.”

 

      Jason’s eyes hardened.  “I thought she was better than that,” he growled.

 

      “They’re not criminals,” she told him with a grin.  “She was going to put you in a cell with a pack of giruzi.”  Giruzi were massive canines that were indigenous to one of the worlds the Faey owned, which looked like black-pelted dogs who were five feet tall at the shoulder.  Their eyes glowed red from some kind of bioluminescent reaction, and they had the capability to administer powerful electric shocks.  They had bio-electro organs much akin to the shock glands of an electric eel, but they were much more powerful.  A giruzi could unleash a blast of what looked like lightning nearly a hundred feet through open air.  Giruzi used them to hunt prey, one of the most effective hunting evolutionary developments he’d ever seen.  He’d seen them a few times, because sometimes the Marines used them for crowd control, having trained them to use their shocks to stun instead of kill.  Humans might not be too motivated to disperse when faced with a few Faey in armor, but they scattered when a couple of giruzi were brought in to motivate them to be somewhere else.

 

      Jason frowned, then he chuckled ruefully.  “That’s clever, but it would have backfired.  I’m not afraid of giruzi.”

 

      “You would be if there’s someone giving them orders to scare you,” she told him with a wink.  “Wouldn’t you prefer losing with dignity, or with an animal that weighs twice what you do chewing your clothes off?”

 

      “It’ll be on her when my grades go down because I can’t study,” he shrugged.

 

      “I know, and that’s the other reason why I’ve been ordered to put an end to this,” she said earnestly.  “It’s going to do you permanent harm if we let this go on any longer.  This academy is too demanding for you to be distracted for an extended period of time like this.”

 

      “I am not going out with Jyslin,” he said adamantly.

 

      “You will,” she said sternly.  “What we’re here to negotiate is what happens during the date,” she smiled.  “And the possibility of dates taking place after the first.”

 

      He shouted, he argued, he even threatened, but Lana was absolutely unflappable.  She talked him down from his highly confrontational stance, got him to talk.  She met his posturing with calm logic, talking him down, talking him down, being utterly reasonable at all times.

 

      She made him see two glaring facts.  First, Jyslin was not going to stop until she won.  She would be an eternal thorn in his side.  And second, that an escalation of the war was going to do real harm to him, and possibly both of them.  Where Jyslin and the other Marines failed, Lana succeeded by making him see reason, and that reasoning was that he should try to get what he could out of a bad situation.

 

      So, they sat down in the common room and hammered out an agreement.  Jason would go out on one date with Jyslin.  That date would entail exactly one dinner at Copeland’s (Jyslin pays), going to the opera (Jyslin pays), and a nightcap visit to a small bar or restaurant of Jason’s choosing after the opera (Jyslin pays).  After that, Jason had the option to have her take him home, or he could decide to stay out with her and do whatever they pleased.  That was it.  During this date, Jason had to behave in a courteous manner and not cause trouble, and Jyslin would be required to treat him with respect and not grind the fact that she was getting her date in his nose.

 

      After the date, it was agreed upon that no matter what, Jyslin would not attempt to force him to do anything he did not want to the way she had before.  She could annoy him, harass him, harangue him all she wanted, but she had to do it herself.  She couldn’t bring the squad in on it, and she was absolutely forbidden from interfering with his schoolwork.  Lana made that abundantly clear to him, and it hit him as rather important.  She’d said that some of his little tricks had attracted attention, and now she comes in and admits that someone higher up ordered her to put a stop to it.

 

      He wondered how high up that order came from.

 

      “Are we agreed, then?” Lana asked in a reasonable tone, extending her hand across the table in the common room, which was filled with two couches and three large tables were students could sit and study, or watch the large flat-panel plasma screen TV hanging on the wall.

 

      “I’m not too happy about this, but if it’ll get Jyslin off my back, I’ll agree to it,” he said after a moment.

 

      “Then I think we have a deal,” she said.  He took her delicate hand and shook it after a moment, sealing the bargain.

 

      It was the first time that a date had been negotiated at the conference table.  It was also the first date ever officially condoned and ordered to take place by the Imperial Marine Corps.

 

      And it would take place on Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    2      4

Chapter 3

 

 

 

            Raista, 16 Shiaa, 4392, Orthodox calendar;

 

            Wednesday, 21 May 2007, Native regional reckoning

 

            New Orleans, Gamia Province, American sector

 

 

 

      Symone was absolutely outrageous.

 

      That was the entire problem he had with her, because she was just so damn likable.

 

      It was both a part of her quirky charm and the manner in which she defused any kind of possible retaliation against Tim for him going out with a Faey.  She was so bubbly and energetic, and when she was in public, she acted like an absolute airhead.  She gave Tim vapid, adoring stares, and she actually debased herself a little bit by acting with a kind of effervescent silliness when she was around him which made everyone comfortable with her, whether they liked Faey or not.  She was riotously funny, charmingly silly, deceptively vapid, and cunningly adorable.

 

      She was absolutely impossible not to like.

 

      The students reacted to her presence surprisingly well, Jason had to admit.  She made it very clear from the outset that she was dating Tim—her big and hunky stud, as she called him—and the way she fawned all over him defused any kind of animosity that humans might have for her.  She acted like a lovestruck ditz, and the students considered her to be harmless.  In private, though, she showed both him and Tim that she was a very smart young lady, and that her affection for Tim was quite sincere.

 

      In the face of Symone, his personal intent to not socialize with Faey was sorely put to the test.

 

      She was just so fun.  Tim managed to drag him with them after school on Monday night to go down to the quarter for some drinks, and it was just a matter of minutes before Symone had managed to insinuate herself right into their friendship.  She was a fearless woman with a wicked sense of humor, and she was very funny when she got drunk.  She’d shocked Patty O’s at first, since it was the first time they’d ever seen a Faey out of armor, and one that had come in to drink, no less, but Symone had the entire piano bar eating out of her hand after about half an hour.  She bantered with the waitress, she made jokes with the other patrons, and after they’d called Jason up to have him play the piano, she jumped up on the stage and sang for the spectators.  Symone had a lovely voice, and she was surprisingly familiar with human songs.

 

      By nine o’clock, curfew, she was roaring drunk, hanging on both of them as they caught a streetcar back to the dorm, and Jason had to keep reminding himself that she was a Faey, because she was a very funny drunk.

 

      Last night, instead of going out and getting drunk, Tim brought her along as they studied in the common room.  She showed no signs of her indisposition the night before, spending the time reading an old human romance novel.  Jason was a bit surprised she could read English.  After they got ready for their calculus test, she convinced them to bring in a DVD player and show her favorite human movie on the big TV in the common room, Braveheart.

 

      “That movie’s like ten years old,” Tim told her in surprise.  “How did you find out about it?”

 

      “I saw a commercial with that lead actor, a clip from the movie, and I had to check it out.  Men in skirts always get my attention,” she winked.

 

      “It’s called a kilt or a plaid, not a skirt,” Jason told her absently.

 

      “So that’s where the name you students gave the lab building came from.”

 

      “Yah,” Tim told her.

 

      “That Mal Gobson is cute.”

 

      “Mel Gibson.”

 

      “Whatever.  Who cares about him now that I got my Tim-Tim?” she said, leaning over the table and giving him a passionate kiss.

 

      “Tim-Tim?” Jason asked mildly, giving him a sly smile.

 

      His expression was a bit pained.  “So she has a pet name for me.”

 

      “Riiight,” he drawled, glancing up from his panel.

 

      “Don’t make me come over there,” he said with an evil smile.

 

      “Bring a spatula,” Jason remarked absently.  “You’ll need it to peel yourself off the floor.”

 

      “Talk Faey,” Symone objected.  “I’m not that good with English, and you need the practice, Tim.  What is a spatula?”

 

      Tim explained it to her, which made her laugh.  “I remember that fight you had with my squad, Jason.  You’re teaching Tim how to do that?”

 

      “Well, he might be able to do that in a couple of years,” Jason told her.  “He just started learning.”

 

      “Where did you learn it?”

 

      “Well, when I was a kid, my father was stationed in Japan,” he answered.  “When he was there, he got totally fascinated with martial arts.  Unarmed combat,” he explained.  “He used it to keep in shape, because pilots have to be in very good shape to handle the physical stresses of being a fighter pilot.”

 

      “My sister is in the pilot program,” she nodded.  “Her letters say she was shocked at how much they have to work out.

 

      “What does she fly?” Tim asked.

 

      “She flies exomechs,” she answered him.  “Those machines that looked like robots.  Pilots have to fly exomechs for a year or so before they get rated for flying fighters.”

 

      “I’ve never seen one,” Tim told her.

 

      With a few keystrokes on his panel’s holographic keyboard, he brought up a good picture of one, then turned the panel around so he could see it.  “Exomech,” Jason told him.  Exomechs were large robotic fighting vehicles, about twelve feet tall, that moved just like a human or a Faey.  He’d read about them on CivNet.  They didn’t really use them here because they didn’t really need to, but he was sure they had some garrisoned somewhere on the planet, or in the starship that was parked in orbit over the planet to provide assistance, in case of some catastrophic accident or major insurrection.  The information he’d gotten on them was surprisingly detailed.  Faey had yet to develop a technology that allowed machines to interface with their telepathic powers, so all their devices were manually controlled.  An exomech would certainly test a pilot’s ability to handle multiple controls simultaneously.  The arms were controlled with braces that attached to the pilot’s arms, and the legs and the exomech’s ability to walk or run were controlled braces that attached to the feet, and a pair of pedals on the floor.  A combination of foot shifts and pushing the pedals, translated by the onboard computer, would give the exomech an utterly humanoid manner of moving.  They were armed with very powerful weapons called MPACs, Metaphased Plasma Auto Cannons, a much more powerful version of the plasma rifles and pistols the Faey employed, which were housed in the forearms of the units.  Exomechs were battlefield weapons, the ultimate expression of the powered personal combat armor Faey soldiers wore into combat, but unlike that powered armor, exomechs were equipped with spatial drives that allowed them to fly.  The Faey’s personal powered armor had magnetic induction units that let it ride on a planet’s magnetic field.  That allowed them to skim along the surface of the ground with extreme speed, and reach an altitude of nearly thirty meters.

 

      “Holy shit,” Tim breathed, staring at the picture.

 

      “You keep thinking that what you see the Faey using here is all they have,” Jason told him seriously.  “What they use here is hundred year old surplus junk that they probably had to dust off.”

 

      Symone nodded.  “Sure enough.  The only current tech they let us use around here are our weapons, well, and the hovercars.  They’re pretty standard just about anywhere in the Imperium.  They converted all our hot plasma and ion guns to metaphased twenty years ago.”

 

      “Why don’t they give you the good stuff?”

 

      “They don’t need to,” Symone told him honestly.  “Our hundred-year old armor can stop the most powerful archaic powder gun you have.  You can’t organize because you have no defense against our telepathy, so that old armor is all we need.”  She snorted.  “My House is cheap anyway,” she complained.  “We still have Polymerized Camonite armor when the Imperials have Neutronium.  Trillane worries more about its purse than it does its defense,” she said, then she made a face.  “Why are we sitting here talking about this shit?  Let’s watch the movie!”

 

      It was hard to say no to Symone, over just about anything.  So, their studying turned into an extended screening of Braveheart, along with nearly the entire second and third floors of the dorm.  Symone’s bubbly, infectious nature had taken hold of everyone watching the movie, and got them all into it much more than they would have been had they been watching it alone.  She had the entire room cheering during the battle scenes.

 

      But she wasn’t a friend.  And Jason had to keep telling himself that about every ten minutes.

 

      He caught her again in the morning, as she opened his door without knocking as he sat on his bed and prepared for the coming day with his thirty minutes of meditation, which preceded his morning workout.  It didn’t go very well, for he had another one of those annoying headaches that he’d been suffering from for the last couple of months.  They were never too severe, a dull, aching throb inside his head that tended to come and go over the course of about an hour.  He’d woke up with it, and it was just starting to ease.  But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from meditating; in fact, it was something of an exercise to ignore the pain and continue with his meditation despite it.

 

      “Hello?  Jason, are you in here—oh,” she said in surprise, putting a hand to her chest when she saw him sitting on the bed.

 

      “What?” he asked, his eyes opening and regarding her.  She was wearing one of Tim’s football jersey shirts, which hung down to her thighs.  “You slept here last night?”

 

      “I’m trying to get Tim to move in with me.”

 

      “You move fast.”

 

      “I know it’s only been a few days, but I think I love him,” she admitted, scratching her backside absently.  “When he let me join our minds, what I found inside him was beautiful.  I’m not letting him get away from me.  He’s too good a catch.”

 

      “I can’t argue there.”

 

      “What were you doing?” she asked.  “I couldn’t even sense you in here.  It was like you turned off your brain.”

 

      “Meditating,” he answered.  “A mental exercise that helps sharpen the mind.”

 

      “It was creepy,” she told him.  “I usually get a sense of something from you, even if I can’t hear your thoughts.  But it was like your brain wasn’t there.”

 

      “I know.  I’ve learned that meditation keeps Faey from finding me with their power.  I’ve had occasion to hide from them here lately.”

 

      “Heh,” she mused.  “How do you do that, anyway?  Hide your thoughts from me.  I’ve never come across a human that can do that.  It made me almost itch to try to probe you several times when you had me in that collar, but you said no using my talent, and I wasn’t going to cheat.”

 

      “It’s a mental exercise,” he answered.  “A false front that hides my thoughts.  I’ve had a lot of practice perfecting it,” he growled.  “Faey seem to go nuts that they can’t hear my thoughts, and they always probe me.  I’ve even learned what it feels like when they’re doing it.”

 

      “You can feel it?” she asked in surprise.

 

      He nodded.

 

      “Damn,” she grunted.  “I didn’t think that was possible.”

 

      “What do you mean?”

 

      “You shouldn’t be able to feel us using our talent.  No other humans do.”

 

      “They probably don’t have the same training I do,” he answered.  “Part of what I learned from my father involves knowing your own mind.  Since what Faey do is alien, something not part of my mind, I can sense it when they do it to me.”

 

      “Huh.  Well, wonders never cease,” she said.  “What time is it?”

 

      “Around five thirty.”

 

      “Fuck,” she grunted sourly.  “I have to be at the barracks by six.  I need to get dressed and get my ass over there before I get busted.”

 

      “You’re not supposed to be here?”

 

      “They don’t care where I am as long as I show up for duty on time,” she told him.  “I’ve got the campus in my duty rotation today, so I’ll try to show up for lunch with you guys.  But we’re not friends,” she said with a sly smile and a wink.  “I’m going to be there to see Tim.  If you’re there, well, I’ll just have to be nice to you.  Semantics, you know.  Sophistry.  I don’t want to ruin your hypocrisy.”

 

      Jason chuckled ruefully. “Bitch,” he accused.

 

      She winked again.  “The bitchiest of all bitches,” she said shamelessly.  “Call me the Bitch Queen.  And be sure to bow.  The Bitch Queen gets bitchy when she doesn’t get the respect she’s due.”

 

      “Work.  Go,” he commanded.

 

      “Yes, Master,” she said breathlessly.  She twirled towards the door, then pulled up her shirt to expose her bare buttocks, then slapped herself a couple of times on that rather attractive posterior in taunting reply to his command, then hurried out the door.

 

      He peeked out of the room and saw her getting ready to go up the stairs.  “Someday you’re going to come into my room and manage to get out without showing me your ass,” he called to her, loud enough to wake up a few people on his floor.

 

      “Consider yourself lucky,” she shouted in reply.  “I don’t show my ass to just any guy, you know!”

 

      Several bleary heads poked out of opening doors as Jason chuckled.  “What the hell are you shouting for at five thirty in the fucking morning?” the girl who lived in the room beside him asked crossly.  Her name was Betty, and he didn’t really like her all that much.  She was a primadonna.

 

      “Symone,” he said, and that was all the explanation he needed.

 

      She looked towards the stairwell at the end of the hall, then laughed.  “Oh.  Nevermind, then,” she said, then closed her door.

 

      Oh, yes, the whole dorm was familiar with Symone.  In a way, she was the dorm mascot now.

 

      The calculus test was surprisingly difficult, but he was pretty sure he managed to pass it with a high mark.  There was a little excitement in the lab, when a PPG suffered a fatal breakdown and ejected its core, which caused the PPG’s case to overheat and catch fire.  Ailan had to douse the fire with an extinguisher, showing a calm reaction to an event that caused some of the students to scream and back away.

 

      After lab was over, Ailan called him down to the table before he could leave.  “I got a message from the Ministry, and they sent me the design specs for an ultrasonic device that they say you built,” he said.

 

      “She really did it,” Jason said in surprise.

 

      “What?”

 

      “Lana, she said she took scans of something I built to piss off the Marines and sent it to the Ministry of Technology.  I didn’t think anything of it.”

 

      “Can I see this device you built?” he asked.  “Exactly how does it work?”

 

      “It’s nothing but a supersonic emitter,” he told him, digging into his pack, for they were still inside it.  “I read about the metal the Faey use in their armor and found out it has an acoustic signature, so I built an emitter that used the armor as a speaker.  I hooked it to a proximity sensor so the sound got stronger they closer they got to me.”  He handed the tiny device to Ailan.

 

      Ailan was quiet a moment, turning the little black disc over in his supple, long-fingered hand, then he laughed.  “It would feel like ants crawling all over them,” he realized, then he grinned.  “That’s devious!”

 

      “Lana thought so,” Jason chuckled.

 

      “May I keep this for a few days?”

 

      “Sure,” he agreed.

 

      “I think I need to find more challenging projects for you, if you can build something this small,” he said with a sly smile.

 

      “The first thing the professor I had in Boston taught us was how to burn circuits in laminar board in Control Systems I,” he answered, referring to the classes that taught moleculartronic theory and application.  “She started with boardwork and worked up.  Tim’s in your class, and from what he told me, you seem to start with major components and work down.”

 

      “She taught you boardwork right off?” he asked in surprise.

 

      He nodded.  “She had a class of people who were in engineering before the subjugation,” he explained.  “Since we all had experience with electronic circuitry, she started us off on moleculartronic circuitry.  She taught us so much that I tested out of Control II.  It worked pretty well, actually.  We all learned about trinary a lot faster since we started with how it operated on the board.”

 

      Moleculartronic technology was the technology they used for their computers and other sophisticated devices.  It used polarity-phased plasma as a power source, like electricity, and behaved remarkably like electronics did.  Molecuartronic circuits were built on boards of laminated titanium, and the alignment of the molucular structure of the board was what channeled plasma flow to the components which were annealed to it.  Moleculartronic components were circuits built of silicon, germanium, titanium, and certain alloys of light metals and annealed to the board, again using the alignment of the molecular structure of the crystallized silicon and crystallized metals to serve as the digital circuit.  It was sort of digital, actually, since they didn’t use “on or off” binary logic like human electronic computers did.  They had a trinary logic system, composed of positive, neutral, and negative, the three states in which a molecule could be aligned.  Memory was a simple matter of setting aside a section of a chip for storing data, or chips that served solely as memory storage devices, where data existed within the molecular alignment of the matter of the device itself.  Every single molecule in the internal structure of a moleculartronic component was a part of the chip’s processing power or memory.  With moleculartronics, a single chip had more processing power than a mainframe.  A single moleculartronic circuit board had the power of a supercomputer.  Jason’s panel, a moleculartronic device, was like carrying around ten Cray supercomputers, and his panel was considered small.  The microprocessor in the device in Ailan’s hand had more computing power than the most sophisticated desktop personal computer any human ever built.

 

      “I wondered why you weren’t in a logic class this semester,” he chuckled.  “They don’t teach Control III in the spring, so you had no place to go.”

 

      He nodded.

 

      “Oh, I meant to ask, how did you do that melting the armor trick?” he asked.

 

      “That was easy,” he said with a scoff.  “I had chemistry last sememster, Professor.  Vandirium armor reacts with tetrasodium bisulfate and recombines to form gaseous sodium bivandirium sulfate and titanium bisodium oxide.  I just made up a solution mixed in with a little something to make it revert to gas when it came into contact with nitrogen, and put it in a jar.”

 

      Ailan laughed.  “How did you figure that out?”

 

      “I didn’t.  My chemistry teacher last semester did that as an experiment.  I just remembered how he did it, that’s all.”

 

      Ailan gave him a sly look, then chuckled.  “I heard that you made peace with the Marines.  I heard that their post commandant personally ordered arbitration.  You sorta won.”

 

      “Geez, where do you get all this, Professor?” he asked in surprise.

 

      “My wife is a major in the Marines,” he revealed.  “She works in the commandant’s office.  From what I heard, Monday, after she heard about that Army unit that tried to put you in that dog collar, the order came down right of the commandant’s office that it stops.  They were going to send in the company commander, but the squad Lieutenant requested permission to do the negotiating.”

 

      He grunted.  “Well, I had to give in on the date, but I got a guarantee that it stops afterward,” he said.  “I can live with that.”

 

      “What stops?  You shouldn’t close your mind on the idea of a Faey girlfriend, Jason.  Our races are so similar we’re virtually identical.  We’re not alien aliens,” he said with a sly wink.

 

      “You’re right,” Jason said evenly, hoisting his pack over his shoulder.  “You’re just conquerors.”

 

      Ailan said no more.  There was nothing that he could say to that, and allowed Jason to leave unchallenged.

 

 

 

      Despite his adamant stance that he did not socialize with Faey, he ended up with Tim and Symone after his martial arts class.  They ate pizza and studied, which was to say Tim and Jason studied while Symone read another human romance novel.  After that, Tim taught Symone how to play ping-ping in the rec room on the first floor as Jason got a little work done.  Symone was very agile and had good hand-eye coordination, so she quickly became a viable threat to Tim’s ping-pong supremacy.

 

      “This is bullshit,” Tim laughed after she took a five point lead on him.  “You just learned how to play!”

 

      “Take your beating like a woman,” she said tauntingly.  “Your serve.”

 

      “Well, I heard about it, but I had to come see for myself,” Jyslin called from the doorway.  She filed into the room, wearing the tank top and shorts she wore to work out, both black.  “Do you have something nice picked out for Friday, Jason?” she asked with a sultry smile.

 

      “I’ll be ready,” he said in a calm yet ominous tone.  “I hope you enjoy it.  It’ll be the first and last date we have.”

 

      “Oh, so this is the one that started all this,” Symone said with a laugh, putting the paddle down.

 

      “Who are you?” Jyslin asked in Faey.

 

      “I’m Tim’s babe,” she said with an outrageous grin.

 

      “The one in the collar,” Jyslin noted dryly.

 

      “Yup.  Two days hanging around Tim and Jason when you’re naked makes you want to hang around some more,” she said with a malicious grin.  “They rocked me,” she said breathlessly.

 

      “Symone,” Jason said sharply.

 

      “Hey, I’m trying to give you a reputation here,” she winked.

 

      “He already has one,” Jyslin told him with a grin.  “He’s that annoying human who the Marines can’t beat.”

 

      “We didn’t have much better luck,” Symone laughed in agreement.

 

      “Well, I got what I want, so I’m not going to rub it in,” she told him.

 

      “Enjoy it while it lasts,” he said dryly.

 

      “Oh, I will, believe me,” she told him.  “I got my foot in the door.  All I have to do now is convince you I’m worth hanging around.  Just like her,” he said, pointing at Symone.

 

      “Oh, I don’t hang out with Jason,” she said with an insincere grin.  “I hang out with Tim.  Jason just happens to be in the same room.  And he’ll stick to that story,” she added with a wink.

 

      “Semantics,” Jyslin snorted.  “Just admit that all Faey aren’t the Imperium, and we won’t have any trouble, Jason,” she told him.  “You don’t seem to have any problem with her.  Why do you have trouble with me?”

 

      “She doesn’t want to have a relationship,” he said cooly.

 

      “Not that I didn’t try at first,” she laughed honestly.  “Well, not a relationship, actually.  More like a wild night in bed.”

 

      “You never said any such thing,” he snipped in reply.

 

      “Would you shut up!” she said with a grin.  “I’m trying to make you look studly!”

 

      “I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate it,” Jyslin smiled.  “He wants me to go away.”  She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms beneath her breasts.  “He’s not getting it, though.  Friday, he’s going out on a date with me.  One date.  He agreed to behave like a civilized person, and I agreed to be civilized.  We’re going to have a nice, civilized evening.   Dinner, the opera, and an after-opera nightcap.  Since we both agreed to be nice, it gives me one evening to convince him to go out with me again.  I think I can do it.”

 

      “I think you won’t,” he said cooly.

 

      “Oh, I think you’re wrong,” she smiled.  “She proves that your vaunted ideals aren’t as set in stone as you pretend.  You take her as an individual, not as a representative of the evil conquering race.  I’m going to prove to you that I’m interested in you.  Not your politics, not your philosophy, not your positions.  And I’m going to teach you that it’s alright to be interested in me.  Not my politics, not my philosophy, not my positions.  I want to be your friend, Jason, and to be honest, I want to be more than that.  You’re an intelligent, fascinating man.  I just have to show you that I’m an intelligent, fascinating woman under my armor.  I’m not the Imperium, Jason.  I’m Jyslin Shaddale.  Until they put the crown on my head, don’t blame me for how they do things.”

 

      She glanced at Symone, and Jason could feel…something, a fringe of something that passed between them.  Were they using telepathy to communicate?

 

      He winced slightly as a sharp pain lanced into his head.  The headaches usually didn’t come on so quickly.

 

      “You alright, Jayce?” Tim asked, putting down the paddle.

 

      “Just a headache,” he said with a negligent wave of his hand, rubbing his temple.

 

      “I thought I told you you should go to the doctor,” Tim told him.

 

      “It’s stress, Tim,” he sighed.  “I used to get them all the time when my father got sick.”

 

      He felt it ease into that dull ache quickly, which was much more tolerable.  “Do you need some pain killer?” Jyslin asked in concern.

 

      “I don’t take medicine unless I don’t have any other choice,” he replied.  “It’ll pass in a little while.  I’ll be fine.”

 

      “Well, alright, but if it bothers you, go to a doctor,” she told him.  “I’m going to go get my workout in.  I’ll pick you up at six on Friday, Jason.  I’ll see you then.”

 

      After she was gone, Jason and Tim exchanged looks.  He looked to Symone, his eyes curious.  “What was that about?”

 

      “She just came by to see what I was up to, that’s all,” she grinned.  “After I told her that Tim was my guy, she was alright with it.  Actually, she prefers it.”

 

      “Why?”

 

      “She said that any friend of Jason deserves a Faey for a girlfriend,” she winked, then she laughed delightedly.

 

      “I never heard anything,” Tim protested.

 

      Symone tapped her head meaningfully.

 

      “Oh.  I meant to ask you something, Symone,” he prompted.

 

      “What?”

 

      “Well, why do your people even speak?” he asked curiously.  “You talk to my mind all the time.  Why don’t all Faey just do that?”

 

      “Well, first off, because thinking requires a language,” she said, sitting on the ping-pong table.  “Think about it.  If we didn’t have a language, how would we form thoughts?  Pictures?”

 

      “I never thought of that,” Tim admitted.

 

      “I know.  It’s something of an abstract concept, isn’t it?” she winked.  “Second, the talent doesn’t start to show up and express itself until around puberty.  We have to teach our children to speak to communicate with us, and for many, it’s a habit that sticks.  Faey talk about as often as they send, but it depends on the Faey.  Some Faey almost never speak.  Some Faey almost never send.  It’s entirely personal.”  She held her hand out before her.  “When I’m with other Faey, I tend to speak more than send, but that’s because I’m not as strong as most other women.  I guess I hide my inadequacy by not making it common knowledge.  But sometimes we do have to speak,” she explained.  “Most Faey women have a telapathic range of about three human miles, on the average.  Most men have a range of about a mile and a half.  I’m not very strong at all,” she admitted.  “Barely stronger than the average man.  I have a range of about two miles.  The strongest have a range of like ten miles.  Some of the strongest men are stronger than I am,” she admitted candidly.  “So, if we want to communicate outside our range, we have to use a communicator.  Since no machine can receive and decipher telepathy, that means we have to use our voices.  Even though we can send, and it is more efficient, we still have a need for our voices and our language.”

 

      “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

 

      “Well, now you do,” she smiled.  “But that info isn’t free, honey.  I demand payment.”

 

      “What?” he asked in surprise.

 

      She pointed to the floor immediately in front of her.  “Come here and curl my toes,” she told him with a mischievous leer.

 

      “Oh.  I think I can manage that,” he grinned, then came around the table and tendered up her payment.

 

      Jason ignored them as they started getting rather involved in their kissing, worrying a little about the upcoming date.  He was worried more about how well he would hold onto his ideals than what kind of trouble Jyslin might give him.  She was too right, and she kept grinding it into him that she was not the Imperium, that she was not directly responsible for his position.  If anything, she was in the same fix as he, for she was stuck in a job she did not want, trying to get where she wanted to go.  The commoner Faey were just as much slaves and thralls to the Empress as the humans; only the nobles were truly free.  And Symone was going to make it even murkier for him.  He did like Symone, and her constant presence these last few days had indeed kind of numbed him to the fact that she was Faey.  Then again, she was just so damned likable that he really didn’t have much of a defense against her.  Nobody did.  Despite the abject hatred that many humans had for Faey, even on campus, none of them hated Symone.

 

      “Hands out of her pants in the common room,” Jason said without looking up.  He didn’t have to look up to know what that change in the tone of her cooing hum meant.

 

      “Yes, daddy,” Symone taunted.  “Let’s go up to our room, Tim-Tim,” she purred.  “I’m feeling a tad hot and bothered.”

 

      “How can I say no to the world’s most beautiful woman?” he returned.

 

      “Flatterer.  Say it again.”

 

      Jason tuned them out, and went back to studying.

 

 

 

      Friday.

 

      It was the day, the day of the date.  But that was going to take place at the end of the day.  The problem was, the day got off to a very weird start that, in Jason’s mind, was something of a bad omen.

 

      Simply put, when he woke up, he had a message waiting in his panel, sent during the night.  It was from the Ministry of Technology itself, and it reported, in flowery language, that the Empire had bought out his patent for his sonic inducer.

 

      Not taken, not assumed control over…bought.

 

      Since it was considered a low-priority technology, the message read, considered for possibilities in hypersonic short-range communications, the rights were purchased for a very modest sum.

 

      Seventy five thousand credits.

 

      Seventy five thousand credits.

 

      For the Ministry of Technology, that was considered a modest sum.

 

      For Jason, it was an absolutely bloody fucking fortune.

 

      With that much money, he could buy a hovercar.  Hell, he could buy an older model, used airskimmer, a civilian craft akin to a Cessna.  He could buy a truckload of components and toys and set up a killer workshop, or he could even buy a small house in the city.  It was a monstrous amount of money for someone who received a weekly stipend of fifty credits. A credit’s value was different than the old, unused dollar; a credit was worth about a dollar and a half.  In old American money, it was a sum of nearly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars.

 

      That threw off his entire day, even more so than the worry about the impending date did.  That date was common knowledge all over the campus, even if the circumstances of it were not.  Some thought Jason had finally caved in to the Faey, but not many actually blamed him.  After all, it really was only a matter of time before they finally forced him to obey.  His weeklong battle with the Marines was entertaining, it gave the humans a little hope and some pride in themselves again, and everyone knew that it eventually would end.  He had no concentration in his classes, and he got another one of those stupid headaches during lunch, and it didn’t go away for the rest of his time at school.  Students gave him words of encouragement as they passed, and a surprisingly large concentration of Army regulars and black-armored Marines who were patrolling the campus gave him teasing smiles and offered to make bets on just how thoroughly Jyslin would own him by midnight.

 

      He was totally disgusted by the end of his last class, which Professor Tia mercifully allowed him to leave from early.  They were practicing Faey pronunciation, and since he sounded virtually fluent, she decided that he didn’t need to hang around and be bored.  He went home and paced nervously in his tiny dorm, then went down to the room’s bathroom and took a shower.  The shower eased the headache quite a bit, and he felt less surly by the time he went back to his room and did some of his homework, still scattered by both the doom of the impending date and the staggering sum of money that was now residing in the brand new account that had been made for him at the Imperial Bank.  The passcodes for the account had been sent to his panel while he was at school, and now he had access to that money.  All it took was a thumbprint at any shop or store, or he could visit a branch bank and withdraw hard currency, which for Faey were small plastic coins encoded with their value.

 

      He had no idea what to do with that money.  He wasn’t even sure he felt right in spending any of it.  It was money paid to him by the Imperium.  Not only had he not done anything to kick them off Earth, now they were paying him for things that he invented.  He had become a part of the system, even if it was absolutley unintentional, the fault of that meddling Lieutenant Lana.

 

      But, on the other hand, since it was absolutely unintentional, that meant that the money was a windfall, not pay.  He didn’t submit the inducer.  He didn’t send it off to the Ministry.  Lana did.  That they had paid to buy the rights to the design meant that it was an occasion of good fortune, not a conscious selling out to the Faey.  In that respect, he did have a right to use that money without feeling guiltly about it.

 

      Not that he really knew what to do with it.

 

      He glanced at the clock and cursed.  Where was the time going?  It was five o’clock, and Jyslin would be there in an hour.  He did not want to go, but he made a deal, gave his word, and Jason did not break his word.  He changed into the only nice clothes he had, a white long-sleeve dress shirt, the sleeves of which he rolled up past his elbows, since he detested the feel of sleeves on his forearms, a pair of black slacks, and a pair of very old black loafers.  A gray tie with geometric designs done in red and white was around his neck, loosened around the undone top button of the shirt, and over that went a simple black vest that was left unbuttoned.

 

      He sat back down again and surfed around on CivNet on his panel.  He did have something in mind for that money, and that was an airskimmer.  He didn’t know how to fly one, but he was sure he could figure it out, or pay for lessons.  As long as it was a civilian model, he had every right to buy one.  The idea of an airskimmer appealed to him for one simple reason, and that was the fact that it could fly.  His father had had a Cessna, but Jason had been forced to sell it when the parking fees became more than his part-time job when he went to school in Michigan could support.  Before that, Jason had absolutely loved that plane, and the sense of freedom that came with it.  As long as he could afford the gas, Jason could jump in his Cessna and go just about anywhere.  Before the parking fees overwhelmed him, he was quite popular with some of the other guys because they’d all pile into his plane and fly places during the weekends.  Distance made going somewhere warm and balmy out of the question—a flight to Los Angeles or Florida was a twelve hour journey—but they could go to places like Saint Louis, or Chicago, or Ottowa, somewhere other than the campus of the University of Michigan.  There was such a sense of freedom that came with knowing that, at any time, you could chuck a pack into your plane and go virtually anywhere you wanted.

 

      Selling that plane had been one of the low points of his life since his father died.  It had been an admission that things couldn’t be the same, a realization that he, like his father, could lose control of his life, and a loss of both a feeling of freedom and one of his father’s most prized possessions, but there had been no helping it.  He’d had a breakdown in Indiana and had to shell out nearly a thousand dollars in repairs, and that had been the death knell that had put him behind.  The bills kept mounting up on him, and he’d been forced to sell his beloved plane or avoid having it chained to the tarmac for non-payment of his parking fees down at the county airport.  If there was any satisfaction in it at all for him, he sold it to a flight school at the airport, who allowed him to borrow it from time to time without charging him for its use.  Old Sam down at the airport understood the jam he was in, and sympathized with him and the pain it caused him to have to sell it.  All he had to pay for was the fuel and the parking fees of the airport where he landed if it wasn’t that one.  They wanted him to come work for them on weekends as a flight instructor, but that required getting certifications that he didn’t have the time to get, because of the demands of school and football.

 

      The airskimmer wouldn’t be his dad’s old Cessna, but it would be the same thing, the sense of freedom that he’d once had, and it would make him happy.  He’d have to find out where he could keep it, and pay for the parking fees, but he figured he could make enough money between his stipend and the unofficial work he got playing piano down at Patty O’s to cover those fees.  This time, he would not lose his plane.  He’d just have to find an exceeding cheap airskimmer and put back enough money to cover the fees.  He could do some of the maintenance on it himself, since the schematics of an airskimmer were easily obtainable on CivNet, and he’d probably get a maintenance manual with the airskimmer.

 

      That sense of freedom would mean a great deal to him.  In this damned mouse trap he was in now, it would be one of the very few things that would make him feel free.

 

      Probably for the first time ever, Jyslin knocked on his door.  Somehow, he just knew it was her.  It opened without him calling, and she stepped inside.  He glanced at her, then looked back when her appearance struck him like a hammer.  She was stunning!  She wore a sleek, elegantly simple gown made of what looked like liquid gold, with threads so fine that he couldn’t see their weaving.  Each thread was burnished, and the effect was a radiant gown of a wondrous golden color that both clashed against and accented her blue skin in an amazing manner, as well as perfectly displaying her sensual, voluptuous hips, slender waist, and her full breasts.  It had two slender straps that attached to the bodice of the moderately low cut neckline and flowed over her shoulders, with a sloped hem that rose to the knee of her left leg yet dipped to the ankle of her right leg.  It didn’t sparkle in the light of his dorm room, it seemed to radiate a warm light that was like an aura that drew every eye to her, drew his eye to the fact that she was a vision of absolute, shockingly feminine beauty.  It was the first time he’d thought of her as feminine.  She was definitely a woman, but never acted feminine.  That gown made her look gorgeous.  She had her hair combed back away from her face, held by a pair of elegantly simple silver barettes over each slender, pointed ear, with a gold chain woven into her auburn hair that ran just above the hairline over her forehead.  She had on a pair of simple diamond (or some clear crystal) earrings, and a single gold chain around her neck with no amulet or pendant, an adornment of elegant simplicity that only heightened his awareness of her exceptional beauty.

 

      She smiled at his surprised and nearly awed gaze.  “You like?” she asked in Faey, quite demurely, turning this way and that so he could admire her from all angles.  “I bought it this morning.  It cost me a month’s pay, but it was worth it.”

 

      “You’re beautiful,” he said with utter honesty.  There was no way he could lie to her about that.

 

      She gave him a wonderful smile.  “Stand up.  Let me see.”  He did so, and she put a finger to her chin as she appraised his appearance.  “Well, you make slouchy look chic, Jason.  I like it.”

 

      “It’s all I have,” he admitted.

 

      “Well, it suits you.  The vest is definitely a pefect touch.”  She stepped up and grabbed his tie, tightening it just a little, smiling up into his blue eyes.  “I’m a little early.  I wanted to make sure you weren’t wearing a tutu or something,” she said with a wink.

 

      “I gave my word.”

 

      “I’m starting to understand how seriously you take that,” she told him.

 

      “A month’s pay?” he asked, finally realizing what she’d said.

 

      “Wasn’t it worth it?” she asked, turning around slowly for him, modelling her gown with a mysterious smile.

 

      “Jyslin, you shouldn’t have done that,” he said disapprovingly.  “Not for me.”

 

      “I say you’re worth it.  Prove me wrong,” she said challengingly.

 

      “You bought a dress that cost you a month’s pay for one date,” he said bluntly.

 

      “True.  But it was worth every credit for that look you gave me when I came in,” she smiled.  “Don’t worry about me, Jason.  I’m very tight with money, I had plenty held back.  I could afford it.”  She put her hands on his shoulders.  “Now, since you’re ready to go, we might as well get started.  I have a limousine waiting outside for us.”

 

      “A limo!” he protested.

 

      “Hush,” she said with a light, amused smile, putting two fingers over his lips.

 

      “But that’s too expensive!” he said loudly when she moved her hand.

 

      “I told you, don’t worry about the money,” she told him firmly.  “I haven’t so much as bought a new pair of shoes for a year, Jason.  I have the money.”

 

      “But—“

 

      “There is no but,” she said, silencing him again with two fingers to his lips.  “It’s my money, and I can spend it any way I please.  I wanted to look good for you, so I bought the dress.  I wanted us to not worry about driving, so I hired a limo.  Well I also wanted us to get around in style,” she added with a smile.  “I’m not trying to impress you with my vast riches,” she winked.  “I bought the dress and hired the limo because I wanted to, not to impress you.”

 

      “I don’t like it too much, Jyslin,” he told her honestly.  “You shouldn’t have spent so much money.  I’m not worth that much.”

 

      She laughed delightedly.  “Jason, hon, I don’t have enough in my bank account to cover what I think you’re worth.”

 

      Jason flushed slightly, but said nothing more on the subject.  There was little that he could say, or at least say without starting a fight.  He didn’t want her to spend so much on him, invest in him, because he didn’t want to pursue a relationship.  If he had his way, there would be virtually no contact between them after tonight.  If that happened, then she would have spent all that money on the dress, the limo, the dinner, the opera, all of it for nothing.  If he didn’t like Jyslin so much, maybe he would feel differently.  It would be easy to ignore the amount of money she’d shelled out if he didn’t care about how it might put her into a financial bind.

 

      She slid the hand on his shoulder down his arm, then took a gentle grip on the back of his hand.  “Now, since we’re both ready, why don’t we just go ahead and go on?” she asked.  “If we get to Copeland’s early, we can get our pick of tables.”

 

      “I, alright,” he said quietly.  He almost didn’t want to go through with this.  Not because he was worried that she was going to be a pain, he was more afraid of spending time with her and giving her that much more time and opportunity to wear down his defenses.

 

      She smiled slyly.  “Don’t worry about it,” she said with a wink.  “I don’t need extra time.”

 

      He gave her a hard, flat look.

 

      She put up her hands.  “I also didn’t need telepathy to see that,” she told him.  “You forget, I know you know when we’re doing that.  Do you think I’m fool enough to ruin this date by doing the one thing you can’t stand?”

 

      She was right, of course.  Damned Jyslin, she always seemed to be right!

 

      “Now, come on, Jason,” she said.  “Let’s get started.”

 

      He wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on this date, and he wasn’t sure about what was going to happen.  They were going to be going to a Faey opera, and that meant that the odds were that there would be many Faey there.  It said much that Jyslin was willing to bring him to a function that would be filled with her own people, where he would have the opportunity to make a fool out of her, humiliate her, in front of more than just her Marine squad.  He hoped that it wasn’t going to be too long.  He had no real interest in opera, and even less interest for a Faey opera, and he didn’t want to be bored stiff.  Before and after that, he knew, Jyslin would want to talk.  Talk over dinner, talk over the nightcap, talk in the limo.  He wasn’t quite sure what she would want to talk about, but he knew it was coming.

 

      And that was probably the greatest danger.  He couldn’t get too close to her, couldn’t let her get herself too close to him, or she was going to end up like another Symone, a Faey that he liked, and allowed himself to like too much.  They were Faey, they were the enemy, and he should not be socializing with the enemy.  But Symone wasn’t an enemy in his eyes anymore, he had to admit that to himself.  He had gotten to know her, and had accepted her because he felt that she was truly a friend.  She liked him, he liked her.  He could never imagine Symone on the other side of a battlefield, pointing a plasma rifle at him.  He knew that were they actually fighting each other, she would, but he just couldn’t imagine it.  Then again, he really couldn’t imagine Symone pointing a plasma rifle at anyone.  If there was ever a Faey who had been utterly wronged when they assigned jobs to Faey conscripts, it was Symone.  Symone didn’t have the temperament to be a soldier, because she would rather go out and have a beer with the enemy than try to kill him.

 

      The limo was a stretch one, but not too large.  Jyslin opened the door for him and gave him a sly smile, waving him in, and he couldn’t really say anything.  He didn’t want to prolong this, because he noticed that quite a few people were watching from discrete distances.  Many knew about this date, and he didn’t want to cause a scene.  He wanted to get himself, Jyslin, and the limo out of there.  She got him with him and closed the door, and the black limo pulled away from the curb.

 

      “So,” she said, leaning against the side of the limo and smiling at him.  “Now comes all that boring conversation.”

 

      It turned out to be not boring at all, which Jason both cursed and enjoyed.  He didn’t want to get to know her, but he found her to be a fascinating and engaging woman.  He found out that she was born on a Faey mining colony called Rokan IV, which was nothing but a rock orbiting a blue star.  It was enclosed in domes, and her parents were both miners.  It surprised him that Faey actually mined, but he found out from her that Faey did just about every job that humans did.  There were Faey farmers, miners, servants, factory workers, the whole gambit.  They didn’t make their conquered races do all the dirty and dangerous jobs, they did the jobs for which they were qualified.  Faey who weren’t too bright ended up in those kinds of jobs.  But her father was definitely smart, as he was one of the mine’s engineers, while her mother worked as a secretary in the office of the mining company.  She grew up in a sterile world of steel and glass, with no plants, no open air.  She stayed there until she was twelve, and then her father was transferred to an arctic planet called Novira IX.  Because of that, Jyslin now absolutely detested cold weather.  They where there until she reached the official adult age of twenty five, when she was required by Faey law to serve five years in the military.  She’d always been a very strong telepath, and since she couldn’t find any open slots in engineering school, she ended up in the Marines.

 

      While she grew up, she had what she called a normal childhood.  Her parents loved her, and since she was an only child, they may have spoiled her just a little bit.  She grew up with many friends, and had always been popular in school because she was funny and she was smart.  To Faey, smart kids were as popular in school as attractive humans were in human schools.  Since most Faey were handsome or pretty, physical appearance wasn’t as important to them as it was to humans.  She’d expressed her telepathic powers at a very young age, a sign of her impressive power, and that was also a reason why she was so popular in school.  Telepathic power was the basic measuring stick by which all Faey compared themselves to one another.  While the other kids were only just starting to express, she had already gained a grasp of the basics.

 

      Telepathy was amazing and formidable to Jason, but it was just normal to Jyslin.  They had courses in high school that taught telepathic skills like a human would have a math or chemistry class, classes that Jyslin took when she was still four years younger than most of the other people in the class.  By the time all her friends were just starting Telepathy I, she had received her certificate proclaiming her to be a competent telepath.  Telepathy was an innate power, but it didn’t come with an innate ability to use it.  There were quite a few skills that a telepath had to learn, skills to protect their own minds and deal with the constant noise of background thoughts that the non-telepathic races gave off.  They had to learn how to send their thoughts to others, or just send as they called it, which was itself an art form more than a skill.  They had to learn the basics of how to defend themselves against a telepathic attack, how to maintain a defense against unwanted intrusion while at the same time allowing others to be able to send to them, which was a delicate skill that took quite a bit of practice to learn.  They also had to learn how to attack other minds.  It seemed odd to Jason that they taught their children how to use their power as a weapon against other Faey, but then he realized that they could use those same attacking techniques against non-telepathic creatures, and they also were simply formally training them in something that they may be required to do later in life in case they ever found themselves in a fight with another Faey.  Humans brawled.  Faey battled on the mindscape of telepathic power.

 

      She reached her age of majority on that frozen rock, and was conscripted for her mandatory five years of military service.  She’d tried to get into engineering, since she had the grades and had made the scores on the test for it, but that was a non-combat position, and all the slots were bought by nobles and the few rich commoners for their children.  Given that she was such a strong telepath, that made her high on the list for the Marines.  They engaged in ship to ship combat, and those close quarters gave the telepathic Faey a major advantage.  They were also usually the first armed force to hit the ground, just like the American Marines had been.  First in, last out, that was their motto.  They needed powerful telepaths who could find and try to mentally dominate the initial opposition, opposition who probably had anti-telepathy measures in place to try to dampen that advantage if they were expecting the Faey.

 

      Of course, she wouldn’t tell him what those measures were, and since he’d never found anything like that on CivNet—and he’d looked—it was something he was best off simply dropping.

 

      She’d went through boot camp on homeworld, where it was warm, and had been a trooper for two years.  She’d been posted on ships for six months, had occupied a disputed planet called Elvar III, one of the two systems that the Faey and the Skaa were fighting over.  She’d only seen one battle, and it was little more than a skirmish between her squad and five Skaa guerillas.  She’d had real armor then, and though the Skaa’s Neutron weaponry was formidable, the Adamantium alloy armor she’d had had protected her from a hit on her left shoulder.  Adamantium was one of the strongest metal alloys known, and it was dreadfully expensive.  As a front-line unit, she’d been issued that armor, and it saved her from having her entire left arm and shoulder surgically replaced with bionics.

 

      That was one of the few places where he could not fault the Imperium.  When it came to protecting its soldiers, they did not play.

 

      After a year rotating on and off Elvar III, she was reassigned to Terra.  And here she was.  “I was up in New York for a while, but it was too damned cold,” she told him as the waiter set their food down before them.  She ordered Cajun shrimp, a Copeland’s specialty, and he had blackened steak.  Faey had this thing for seafood, he’d noticed from their television.  They’d gotten a table out on the patio, his favorite place to sit, and they sat there in view of the pedestrians on the sidewalk and the occupants of the cars.  This bothered him a little bit, but when she found out he loved sitting on the patio, she wouldn’t sit anywhere else.  “The squad got reassigned here to New Orleans about two months ago, thank the gods,” she sighed. “If I had to go through one more winter slogging through snow, I was going to scream.”

 

      “I hate heat,” he grunted.  “I grew up where it’s usually cold.”

 

      “Oh?  Tell me about it,” she said as she took her first bite.

 

      He knew he shouldn’t tell her anything, but she had told him about her, and he felt it only fair to reciprocate.  He was born on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic ocean twenty two years ago, en route from Boston to Ramstein Air Force Base, in Germany.  In a way, he’d been born between nations, and his mother always joked that he was one of a very few citizens of the world instead of a nation.  His father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, and his mother was a music teacher.  He was a true military brat, spending the first two years in Germany, then moving for a year in Korea, then a year in Alaska, then they moved to Japan when he was five.  They were there for four years, the longest they’d ever stayed in one place, and that was where his father had fallen in love with martial arts.  In four short years, his father became a black belt in four different martial arts.  He didn’t see his father much for those four years, but his mother just smiled and told him that he was doing something he loved to do.

 

      Jason had been there long enough to speak fairly decent Japanese, but it had been so long since he’d used it, he felt he’d probably forgotten it by now.  He could still remember the kanji and the two phonetic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, though.  Strange, sometimes, how memory worked.

 

      His father was a bit disappointed when they left Japan, going back to America.  In a way, though, it was probably necessary, for their only son could barely speak English.  He’d grown up speaking French to his mother and whatever the local language was for everyone else, speaking a mixture of English and French only with his father.  He’d caught on quickly enough, but getting rid of his accent took nearly three years.  They were stationed in Washington state for two years, then went back to Alaska for another year.

 

      It was in Alaska, just a couple of weeks after he turned twelve, when his mother was killed in an auto accident.  His father resigned from the Air Force soon afterward and moved them back to the ancestral home, in a little town northwest of Portland, Maine, called Durham.  He started a flight instructor’s school using his Cessna, earned a black belt and the credentials to open his own martial arts school, and Jason had to get used to living in one place.  It wasn’t that bad, actually.  He made friends in school, stayed in one school for more than a couple of years, and everyone spoke the same language.  He started getting interested in electronics about then, but he was determined to get into the Air Force Academy and be a fighter pilot, just like his father, so he buckled down in school and started bringing his grades up to the point where they’d consider him.  He started playing soccer and football, and found out that he was rather good at sports, thanks to all the martial arts instruction that his father gave him.

 

      Then his father got sick, and eventually died.  Jason was sixteen at the time, and he had no aunts or uncles—both his parents were only children—and all four of his grandparents had already passed away.  Instead of going into a foster family and selling the house, he won his emancipation in court by proving he was mature enough to live on his own.  The inheritance he got wasn’t that much, but it was enough to pay for him to get through high school without having to work, but it wasn’t enough to get him through college.  Luckily for him, though, the University of Michigan offered him a scholarship to play football, which he got because a scout had come to watch a game he played in, but was actually there to scout the quarterback of the opposing team.

 

      It hadn’t been easy, but Jason sold the house and moved to Michigan.  The money he got from the house was enough to let him buy a car and support him as he went through college without having to work.  He elected for a double major of electronics engineering and computer science, since the scholarship would pay for five years of college and he was more than willing to take summer classes.  He did like to play football, but he didn’t apply himself in football as much as he could have, and as a result ended up as a third-string safety and a special teams cover player.  He was there for the education, not the football.

 

      “That drove my coaches crazy,” he admitted to her as he picked at his salad.  Jason always ate his salad last, as for him it was the dessert.  “They knew I was better than I played, but since I was always so involved with my classes, I just didn’t have the time to develop my skills.  Coach Dawson always told me that if I’d give him three months, he could make me a starter.  He even told me that I might even be good enough to play in the NFL, but I just wasn’t interested.”

 

      “It wasn’t right for you to hold back on your team like that,” she said critically.

 

      “I never held back,” he said bluntly.  “I just didn’t have as much experience as they did.  Coach Dawson said that it was raw physical ability that let me play on their level.  If I’d have had the time to learn the nuances of the game, I could have been a starter.”

 

      “Did you want to be?”

 

      “Not really,” he admitted.  “I was there to learn, not to play.”

 

      “Well, what happened after that?”

 

      “Nothing,” he said grimly.  “Your ships arrived just when I started my senior year.  That put me in limbo for nearly a year as they tested everyone.  After I was tested, I was sent to Boston, and after one semester, they moved me down here.”

 

      “And here we are,” she said carefully, obviously seeking to avoid an argument.  “Where is your car at?” she asked curiously.

 

      “Still in Michigan,” he growled.  “They wouldn’t let me bring it.”

 

      “Why not?”

 

      “I have no idea.  I just know that if it hasn’t been towed away, it’s still sitting in the student parking lot of the dorm up in Michigan.”

 

      “Did they pay you for it?”

 

      He gave her a flat look.  “You seem to fail to grasp the situation for humans.  When they shipped me to Boston, I had one suitcase full of clothes.  That’s all.  They made me leave everything else behind.  Photo albums of my family, personal heirlooms, all my things, I couldn’t bring any of it.  Only clothes.”

 

      She frowned.  “That’s not right,” she declared.  “They shouldn’t have done that.”

 

      “There are all sorts of things that they shouldn’t do, but they did,” he told her.  “A friend of mine in Maine told me that a squad of Faey troopers came to her house, and while one of them asked her questions, the rest ransacked it.  They took everything of value, even the silverware.  Then they told her if she said anything, they’d come back and burn out her brain and make her a vegetable.”

 

      “Now that’s wrong,” she said hotly.  “Where was this?  Durham?”

 

      “What does it matter?” he asked.

 

      “Humans have rights, Jason,” she said with surprising vehemence.  “You’re citizens of the Imperium, and that means even though you’re subject to its rules, it also means that you enjoy its protections.  There are rules against soldiers doing that.  Not even a noble can barge into a person’s house and take everything.”

 

      “That doesn’t seem to stop them,” he said mildly.  “That kind of thing happens all the time.”

 

      “This is why the Marines are here,” she said hotly.  “To put a stop to that kind of bullshit.”

 

      “You need the Marines to keep the nobles in line?” he asked.

 

      “Nobles do what they want, so long as they stay within the law,” she answered.  “The Marines are here to make sure they’re doing the Empress’ will.  We also make sure they obey her laws.  I think that the Marines up in Maine aren’t doing their jobs very well.  We’ll just have to see about that,” she said in a nasty tone.

 

      “What can you do?” he scoffed.

 

      “My aunt is the general in command of all Marines in North America,” she answered.  “How do you think my squad got transferred to New Orleans?  I asked Aunt Lorna for a transfer.  I’ll tell her about this, and she’ll put her foot down on some necks.”

 

      “Don’t cause trouble for my friend,” he warned.

 

      “You don’t even have to tell me her name,” she said.  “Aunt Lorna will get to the bottom of it.  And since your friend never said a word, then she’s perfectly safe.”

 

      “Heh,” he snorted.  “So even among Faey, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

 

      “Probably even more so,” she agreed.  “The Imperial military is really the only place a commoner can get any real power, because the nobles control everything else.  By law, nobles can’t hold high command positions in the Imperial arm of the military, so most of them don’t even bother enlisting there.  It prevents nasty betrayals if a noble goes rogue, so they can’t have people in positions in the Royal arm of the military to disrupt things.  They have their own private armies and navies, and that’s where they usually end up doing their commanding.  But the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines are commanded by commoners.  That’s how my aunt came to be a General.”

 

      “Couldn’t she pull strings to get you into engineering?”

 

      She shrugged.  “She’s been trying,” she answered.  “But I want a Royal Navy position, not a position in some noble’s fleet.  So the competition’s a little tougher.  If I was alright with getting any engineering position, I probably would have found one by now.”

 

      “Oh.”

 

      “You’d like my Aunt Lorna.  She’s an old warhorse, but she’s funny,” she smiled.  “She’s up in the command center in Washington, but she said she might come down to see me next month.  I’ll have to introduce you.”

 

      He said nothing to that.  If he had his way, they wouldn’t be seeing each other again after tonight.

 

      “Well, I’m done, and so are you, so let’s go ahead and head over to the theater,” she prompted, looking up to find the waiter, then raising her hand and snapping her fingers imperiously.

 

      He would have preferred avoiding what was coming, but there was no hope of that.  So he simply got into the limo with her, and it started towards downtown.

 

      “Don’t worry too much about what to do at the theater,” she told him.  “All you have to do is be polite.  That’s all.  You don’t have to act any special way or anything, but there are a few things you have to understand before we go in there,” she told him seriously.

 

      “As in?”

 

      “First, remember that among my people, I am the dominant gender,” she winked.  “That means that, if you think in human terms, I’m supposed to do all those things that men do.  I’ll hold the door open for you, I’ll help you get seated, I’ll lead you if we dance, and so on.  When we walk, it’s customary for the man to put his hand on the woman’s forearm or elbow.  Instead of you offering your arm, I’ll be the one offering mine,” she smiled.  “There aren’t any real rules about how men act, but it’s considered good manners for a man to defer if a woman starts to speak.  But I don’t think you’re worried about how cultured they think you are,” she said with a chuckle, then she turned serious.  “But the one thing you can’t do is argue with me in public, alright?  If you don’t like what I ask or suggest, you’re free to let me know, but don’t be combative.  I’m going to be very careful to try to avoid any situations like that, Jason, I promise, but if you start getting offended or don’t like what I’m saying, don’t get bitchy.”

 

      “Well, there goes my evening,” he said mockingly.

 

      She laughed.  “I know, it’s just ruined,” she agreed with an outrageous smile.  “When we get there, we’ll have to cross the lobby to get to the auditorium, and there’s going to be Faey there talking.  Faey love to gossip and chitchat, so they always get there very early so they have lots of time for it before the function begins.  I might have to stop once or twice and greet people, since it’s considered good manners to do so if you’re invited.  If we do, you’re not going to understand what’s going on very well, because you’re not going to hear the telepathic side of the conversations.  Sometimes Faey just stop talking and send in the middle of a sentence, or one person is talking while the other is sending, so you only get half of he conversation.  Most often, Faey will speak in the presence of humans, but not all of them will.  Some Faey hold humans in contempt, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

 

      He nodded without a word.

 

      “Well then, that’s all you need to know,” she told him, reaching out and putting her hand on his forearm, then patting it.  “We’ll suffer through the opera, then go somewhere and get a drink before we go home.”

 

      “Remember, I have classes tomorrow,” he reminded her.  “We can’t stay out too late.”

 

      “Jason, believe me when I say I want to get through the opera and nightcap as quickly as possible,” she said with a slight, dangerous little smile.

 

      He wasn’t sure he liked that or not.

 

      They reached the Saenger Theater a few minutes later.  The original Saenger had burned down two years ago, during a riot that erupted when the Faey first arrived, so the Faey had rebuilt it into their idea of a theater.  It was still the same size, but it was a black building with no sharp corners, only rounded ones.  There were a set of doors in the side facing Canal Street, as people passed in front of it on their way to other places.  There were no Faey standing outside, but then again, it was too hot to stand around outside.  The limo pulled up, and Jyslin got out, then reached in and helped him out with a smile.  He got out and closed the door, and she led him in through glass doors that opened of their own volition.  The lobby within was very large, and it was done in soft earth colors. The carpet was a soft maroon red with little white diamonds intersecting in geometric patterns through it, and the walls were panelled in what looked cedar or redwood, some reddish hued wood that gave the walls a warm glow, with no decorations or artwork hanging upon them.  The ceiling was covered with thousands of pieces of stained glass that had very faint lights behind them, making them glow with a riot of color that was quite pretty.  There were three huge crystal chandeliers hanging from that ceiling, each radiating light from hundreds of small lights shaped like candles, refracting and reflecting off the crystal shards hanging among them.  The doors to the auditorium were on the far wall, and unlike a movie theater, there was no concession stand.  There was only a small booth to give information, and humans dressed in red uniforms milled about.

 

      It was nice, very nice.

 

      Scattered through the lobby were about a hundred Faey, all dressed in elegant formal wear.  Women wore gowns of every color imaginable, some plain, some almost guady, and all of them had their hair done up elaborately.  Jyslin looked positively plain compared to most of them.  Some were dripping with jewels from their fingers and throats and ears, and as he got a closer look, he saw that the Faey seemed to have no concept of the idea of a high neckline.  Every single dress exposed cleavage to some degree, and a few of them were so deep that more blue-skinned breast was revealed than concealed.  Jyslin’s gown was rather modest compared to most.  The men all wore simple robes of various colors, each of them a similar style, making all the men look strangely similar.  Some men had jewelry and some didn’t, some wore strange flat-topped hats that flared out towards the top and some didn’t, but almost all of them wore simple sashes around the waist.  There were blue ones, red ones, and gold ones, and they had to have some kind of meaning that Jason couldn’t quite fathom.

 

      There weren’t only Faey in that lobby.  There were a sparse scattering of humans, men in tuxedos, women in tasteful gowns, and a few wearing clothes that were nice, but weren’t utterly formal.  He wondered what they were doing here, at least he had a good excuse to be here.  Something told him that these were the ones who had managed to buy their way into affluence with the Faey regime, the rich and powerful, or those who worked with the nobles as liaisons, helping them understand the nuances of human culture and behavior so as to better keep control.

 

      The sell-outs.

 

      His headache flared back into life rather quickly, and he put a finger to his temple and rubbed it as they descended into what he considered to be a pit of vipers.   These weren’t Faey like Symone, and Jyslin.  These were true enemies, he could just feel it.

 

      They got about halfway across the lobby when Jyslin stopped and detoured to a group of five Faey.  Three were women, two were men, and all of them were rather young.  He recognized the three women.  One was Maya, and the other two women were in Jyslin’s squad.  All three wore very simple, unadorned gowns of soft colors, cream, a soft brown, and subdued blue, and all three were quite low cut.  One of those two he didn’t know was quite familiar to him; she was one of the two whose armor he had destroyed, and who had followed him around naked for the remainder of the day.

 

      “Jason, you know Maya,” Jyslin introduced as she reached them.  “This is Zora, and this is Sheleese.  This handsome fellow here is Vell, Maya’s husband, and this is Oren, Zora’s husband.”

 

      “You looked better naked,” Jason told Sheleese bluntly.

 

      She laughed heartily.  “I thought you’d recognize me, though I figured I might have to pull down my bodice to remind you who I was,” she winked.

 

      “Sheleese told us all about that,” the Faey man, Vell, told him with a chuckle and an extended hand.  “I’ve heard a great deal about you, Jason.  I think we really need to talk sometime,” he said with a smile.

 

      “Talk?” Jason asked defensively.

 

      “That’s all he does,” Maya said with a teasing smile at her husband.  “Talk talk talk talk talk.  My husband dabbles quite a bit in philosophy,” she told Jason.

 

      “I didn’t think they’d let you bring your husbands here,” Jason said in a little surprise.

 

      “Why not?” the other man, Oren, challenged.

 

      “Well, this isn’t exactly friendly territory for Faey.”

 

      “Of course it is,” he said boldly.

 

      He didn’t miss Jyslin’s warning look at Oren to back off, and the man cleared his throat.  Jason was about to excuse himself to go to the restroom, but he felt one of them brush up against his mind, finding the false front of repetitive thought that he kept there to prevent them from looking into his mind. Nonplussed, he felt that touch start reaching around the edges of his false thought, trying to find a way through.  He’d already had a headache, and that alien force on his mind only made it worse, turning it into a pounding that he could see behind his eyes.  “If whoever’s doing that doesn’t stop right now, I’m going to punch all five of you in the nose,” he said in a growling tone, putting the palm of his hand to his temple.

 

      “Vell!” Maya said reproachfully, slapping him on the shoulder.  And she wasn’t gentle.

 

      “I must say, that’s quite impressive,” Vell said, unphased by his wife’s admonition or Jason’s rather graphic threat.  “It’s the strongest defense I’ve ever seen in a human.  I just had to see if you’d learned how to anchor it to keep someone from worming through the edges.”

 

      “Vell, I told you not to do that!” Maya said in exasperation.  “I specifically told you that Jason doesn’t like it when we do that!”

 

      “You expected me to obey you?” he asked with a cheeky smile.

 

      She gave him a very ugly look.  “We’ll talk about this when we get home,” she said in an icy manner.

 

      He grew rather contrite very quickly, and gave Jason an apologetic smile.  Then he winked.  I’m sorry if I hurt you, but don’t read anything into what I said to my wife.  I just like to tease her.

 

      He was surprised that he had heard that inside his mind, for Faey supposedly couldn’t send to humans in the manner in which he had just sent.  They had to get a foothold inside a human’s mind to pass telepathic messages to them, and Vell did not have such a connection to him.  Oddly, though, his headache eased somewhat.

 

      “Good Azra,” Sheleese said quickly.  “Jason, your nose is bleeding!”

 

      Jason put a finger to his upper lip, and felt sticky warmth there.  “Huh,” he mused.  “Where is the restroom?  I should clean up.”

 

      “Just over there,” Jyslin pointed to one of the side walls.

 

      “I had the same problem when I first came here,” Oren told him.  “It’s something in the air that was making my nose bleed.”

 

      “I’ll be right back,” he told Jyslin, looking around at them.  They all didn’t look too concerned, but Vell was giving him a surprised, somewhat speculative look.

 

      Jason decided right then and there that he wasn’t quite so sure about this Vell person.

 

      “I’ll wait right here for you,” she replied, putting a lingering hand on his shoulder.

 

      The nosebleed only lasted a moment or two, and had more or less stopped by the time he got to the bathroom.  His headache had eased considerably, though.  It was odd…maybe he’d had some kind of sinus pressure or something, and the nosebleed had eased that pressure.  He’d had sinus problems for a couple of weeks after he came down here, and just as Oren mentioned, he did have nosebleeds during that time. Maybe the heat was starting to get to him, making his sinuses flare up again.  Or it might have been coming out from the heat into the air conditioning of the theater.  That could have done it.

 

      After cleaning up and using the restroom, he went back out to find Jyslin.  He hoped she’d just take him to their seats.  He moved towards where they were quickly, but someone boldly stepped into his way.  It was a Faey woman, regally tall, even taller than Jyslin.  She wore an elaborate gown of dazzling white and silver, with a frilled ruff along a very deep neckline that showcased an impressively full bosom and clung to her narrow waist and curved hips appealingly.  She had a sharp, attractive face with large green eyes, and her blonde hair was done up in an elaborate weave of locks that ringed her head before spilling down her back in a swaying tail.  Around her neck was a web of small diamonds that fell in a triangle down to the edge of her cleavage, the small jewel at the point of that triangle nestled snugly between the top swells of her breasts.

 

      “You are the human who gave the Marines all that trouble,” she announced in an arrogant manner that made him immediately dislike her.  “Perhaps they should have taught you your place more effectively.”

 

      Without even thinking about what he was doing, he drew himself up to his full height and glared down at the woman.  She was tall, but she was nowhere near his height, and he used that size and his larger frame to physically intimidate the slender woman.  “Perhaps your mother should have turned you over her knee more often when you were a child,” he returned.

 

      What came next was not a brushing, was not a touch, but was more like a lance of power that sought to tear through his defenses and penetrate him to the very core of his mind, to lay bare his every thought and memory, to take from him anything and everything that she pleased, to lay bare his darkest memories, his deepest desires, his greatest fears, to know the utter truth of him.  He reacted quickly to this attack, understanding that he could not directly stand up to her impressive mental power.  So instead of resisting her, he simply withdrew completely from himself, from his own mind, effortlessly descending into an unthinking state that left his mind little but an empty shell.  The trick here, he’d learned, was that the Faey had to have something to grab on to in order to find the rest of his mind.  He let her in, then simply withdrew everything away from her, forcing her to wander around in an empty mist that hid his mind from her power.  She found out quickly that she could put herself as deeply into his mind as she pleased, but there was absolutely nothing there for her to see, nothing for her to touch, and no way she could latch onto his mind and force him to obey her.  His mind was an empty void, and the edges of that void pulled away from her every time she tried to get past it and get herself into his mind.

 

      It wouldn’t last long, and he knew it.  She was pushing deeper and deeper, starting to push away his deception, starting to reach towards the deepest, most private of his thoughts and memories.  He reacted out of pure desperation, realizing that if he could feel her, if he could sense her presence in his mind, maybe he could do something about it.  He locked in on that sense of her and pushed, and he pushed with absolutely every fiber of his being. He pushed away from the center of his being, driving her before him, forcing the sense of her away from the core of him.  He felt her rock back on her heels—mentally, at least—and push back, but he had too much momentum.  She lost more and more ground, until she was again forced out to the edges of his mind.

 

      Once he was certain that she was suitably ejected from the recesses of his mind, he put something out there for her to see.  It was an image of her, wearing nothing but leather knee-length boots, being sexually gratified by a jackass.

 

      She instantly flushed, and her expression turned dark as an outraged snarl marred her attractive face.  She must have been mightily upset and put out of sorts by his brashness, for instead of trying to attack him with her telepathic power again, she reared back a hand and tried to slap him across the face.  That outrage became shock as he whipped a hand up and caught her hand before it reached him, creating a loud smack that caused her hand to instantly stop.  He closed his fingers around her hand quickly and held it absolutely rigid.  The single male Faey who had been accompanying her stared in awed shock as Jason held the woman’s hand absolutely still, as the muscles in her arm flexed and bunched as she tried to pull away from him.  He felt her gather herself to try to overwhelm his mind with her power, but he closed his grip on her fingers, which caused her to gasp in pain.

 

      Without saying a word, he pulled her hand down from his head with raw physical power, as her arm continued to struggle to resist his strength, until he had her hand down by her waist.  Then he pulled it up and down in a mocking version of a handshake.  Then he leaned in close to her ear.  “If you try that again, I’ll rip off your arm,” he promised in a low tone that conveyed every bit of his own outrage.  He loosened his grip slightly, and she ripped her hand away from him as if she’d stuck it in a fire.

 

      She glared at him, but her expression slowly softened, until she actually smiled.  Then she laughed.

 

      Faey!

 

      “Now I see why you gave them so much trouble,” she said approvingly, shaking her hand before her.  “Enjoy the opera.  Varn,” she said imperiously as she turned and sauntered away.  The male Faey stared at him for a moment, then scurried after her.

 

      “Why can’t you be more like him?” she demanded in Faey as they merged with the crowd.

 

      “I can be commanding, dear,” he said in a placating tone.

 

      What in bloody hell was that about?

 

      “Are you out of your mind?” Jyslin hissed at him in disbelief as she came up to him, grabbing his arm in a very tight, almost painful grip.  “I told you to stay out of trouble!”

 

      “She started it,” he said pugnaciously.

 

      “You dink, you don’t argue with them!” she hissed in a very low tone.  “She’s a noble!”

 

      “A noble?” he asked.  “She certainly doesn’t look, well, noble.”

 

      “She’s a Zarina,” she said in hushed tones, hustling him towards the auditorium.  “Zarina Marci Trillane.  She rules what used to be Jefferson, Saint Bernard, and Saint James Parishes.  She’s responsible for the rice and sugar farming that they do down there.”

 

      “What did she do?” she asked curiously as they went through the doors and into the large theater proper.

 

      “She tried to invade my mind,” he said stiffly.  “And I mean all the way.  I know how to avoid that, so I did that, then I put an image of her being screwed by a donkey out where she could see it.  That made her try to slap me.”

 

      “She did, huh?” she asked, pursing her lips.  “How did you avoid it?”

 

      “The same way I hid from you,” he answered.  “If you can’t find anything to look at, it doesn’t matter how deep you can get into my mind.  After she started pushing in past that, I felt where she was in my mind, and sort of pushed her out.”

 

      “Pushed her out?” she asked in surprise as they started down a row very far from the stage, almost in the back.  “How could you push her out?”

 

      “Well, I realized that if I could feel her in my mind, exactly where she was, then I could do something about it,” he said hesitantly.  “I feel it when Faey brush me all the time, and I can always feel it when they try to push past that.  They feel around the edges of my pattern of thought, looking for a way through it.  Well, I could feel exactly where she was, so I just kinda pushed her out.”

 

      “You pushed her out,” she said combatively as they sat down in the middle of the row, like she didn’t believe him.

 

      “I’m about to push you out of that chair,” he said in a nasty tone.

 

      She gave him a dirty look, then blew out her breath.  “Sorry, but you can’t do that,” she told him.

 

      “You’re wrong, because I did,” he said pugnaciously.  “Maybe you don’t know as much about humans as you thought.”

 

      She gave him a very long look, and it was serious.  “Maybe…you’re right,” she said in a low, grim tone.  “Maybe we don’t know as much about humans as we thought.  We can’t leave right now, Jason, but when we have a chance to get out of here without attracting attention, we absolutely have to go somewhere very private and very quiet, and have a long talk.”

 

      “Why not now?”

 

      “It’ll attract attention,” she said, looking around.  “We don’t want to do that.  Not right now.  Not until Zarina Marci forgets about what happened.  If she stops and thinks about it, you might get into a serious pile of trouble.”  She looked around again.  “We’ll leave after the first intermission.”

 

      “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded.

 

      “We’ll talk about it after we get out of here,” she answered in a quiet, professional tone, like a Marine about to walk into a prospective battlefield.  “Until we do, don’t do anything to attract attention to us.  I want Zarina Marci to completely forget about you.”

 

      “You think she’s going to try to get back at me?”

 

      “This has nothing to do with that.  Now be still.”

 

      “You’re creeping me out here, Jyslin,” he said honestly.

 

      “Don’t make me muzzle you, Jason,” she warned, and he could tell that she wasn’t kidding.

 

      This sudden change in her attitude, her very demeanor, shocked him.  This was a side of her he’d never seen before, when she was all serious.  But something had spooked her, something about the Zarina, and he didn’t think he wanted to annoy her at the moment.  Not because he was afraid of her, but she seemed honestly upset, and he didn’t want her to worry.  So he fell silent and sat there as other Faey started filing into the auditorium.

 

      Maya and Vell took the seats to Jyslin’s left, and Zora and her husband, Oren, took the seats to Jason’s right.  Sheleese, who had no date, sat down immediately behind Jyslin.  She leaned over the seat between them, a smile on her face.  “We were looking for you two,” she said.  “We figured you’d dragged him into some dark corner.”

 

      “Not now,” Jyslin said in a brusque tone, but the look she levelled on Sheleese made her instantly pull back.  “Was the Zarina still in the lobby when you came in?” she asked.

 

      “I don’t remember seeing her,” Maya answered, her playful smile melting from her face.

 

      “Sheleese, drift back out into the lobby and see if she’s still there.  Send tight, Marci is very strong with her talent,” Jyslin ordered, in a crisp manner.  “She’s not your usual lazy noble.”

 

      “She’ll never sense me,” Sheleese grinned, then she got up and sauntered back down the row, towards the aisle.

 

      “You know her?” Jason asked.

 

      “I’ve met her a few times,” she answered.  “Her sending is very strong, and that’s an indicator of her power.  She’s not to be sneezed at.  She could easily make it into the Marines.”

 

      Jason remembered that powerful telepathic ability was a requirement for being a Marine.  If she was strong enough to be a Marine, then she was indeed strong.  Zora, Sheleese, Maya, and Jyslin were probably four of the strongest telepaths in the theater.

 

      “What’s the angle here, Jys?” Zora asked.

 

      “Jason and the Zarina had a little encounter,” Jyslin answered.  “I want to get him out of here before she realizes exactly what happened and comes looking for him.  I wanted to wait until the first intermission, but if I can slip him out the door before the opera starts, that’s just as good.  So long as she doesn’t even see him.  She’s probably forgotten what happened, but if she sees him, she’s going to remember.”

 

      “There are exits by the men’s restroom,” Vell announced.  “A side exit.  It didn’t have an alarm on it.  I think it’s an additional exit for after the performances end, so everyone isn’t bottled up at the front door.”

 

      “That’s the better tactical choice,” Maya said seriously.  “It’s not more than fifteen shalka from the lobby door to the men’s restroom.”

 

      A shalka was a Faey unit of measurment that was about fifteen inches long.  Fifteen of them was roughly equivelent to about eighteen feet.

 

      “Marci is still out there,” Jyslin frowned, putting a finger to her temple.  “Wait, she’s near the women’s restroom.  That’s on the far side, and there are still plenty of people in the lobby.”

 

      “Screen?” Maya suggested.

 

      “It should work,” Jyslin agreed.  “Alright everyone, up.  We’re going to sneak Jason out the side door.  I’ll have Sheleese distract the Zarina, and we’ll slide him out of here.”

 

      Jason was a little confused, and not a little surprised at this commanding tone Jyslin was using.  Then again, she was a squad sergeant, and that meant that she did do a little commanding.  The other Faey obeyed her without question, hinting to him that her authority as a Marine spilled over even into this purely civilian event.  He found him caught up in this sudden military exercise, as gowned and robed Faey hustled him up out of his seat and into the aisle, then against the flow of traffic up to the lobby door.  They hesitated only a second before Jyslin boldly stepped out into the lobby, pulling Jason along with her by the hand.  The other Faey filed out immediately behind him, blocking anyone’s view of him.

 

      “Duck down a little!” Jyslin hissed.  “By Galla’s moons, she’ll see the top of your head!”

 

      Jason obediently ducked down just enough to hide his head, which was usually visible over most crowds.  Jason was six feet two inches tall, which was just enough for him to be considered tall.  They hustled him to a large door by the men’s restroom, which had an exit sign clearly mounted above it, in both English and Faey.

 

      They ended up on Rampart Street, and Jyslin immediately started walking away from Canal Street.  “What’s this all about?” he demanded.

 

      “I couldn’t leave you in there,” she said.  “I’ll explain in the limo.”

 

      “We’ll have to call the driver.”

 

      “I already did.  He’s on the way.”

 

      “But—nevermind,” he grunted.

 

      They waited only for a couple of minutes before the limo pulled up by the side of the street.  She made sure he got in first, the got in behind him quickly.  The limo pulled away from the curb, and when it did so, Jyslin blew out her breath in relief, putting her hand to her chest.  “That was almost as nervewracking as a combat patrol,” she admitted.

 

      “Alright, we’re in the limo.  What’s going on?”

 

      She looked him right in the eyes.  “Jason, there is no way you should have been able to eject Marci from your mind.  That kind of action requires talent.  But you’re a human, so you don’t have any.”

 

      He gave her a suspicious look.

 

      “Hey, I have no idea either,” she told him.  “It must be your training.  It gives you abilities that are this close to talent.”  She held her thumb and forefinger up, the tiniest of margins apart.  “I didn’t want the Zarina to think about what you did.  She’d expect it from a Faey, but not from a human.  If she got curious, she might give you trouble.  Real trouble.  As in hauled down to the detention center and having a Faey tear our your soul kind of trouble.”

 

      Jason shuddered at the very thought of that.  “I—Thanks,” he said after a moment.

 

      “Hey, no problem,” she smiled.  “But you owe me now,” she winked.

 

      “I appreciate your help, but don’t think I’m going to let you hold it over my head,” he warned.

 

      “I’m not.  But you do owe me the opportunity to change the deal a little.”

 

      “How so?” he asked warily.

 

      “Let’s go see a movie,” she said with a bright smile.  “I think I’ll have to go home and change first, but let’s go out to the Palace in Metairie and see a movie.’

 

      “What’s wrong with that?”

 

      “It’s a bit too high class for a movie theater,” she said with a light smile.  “What do you say?”

 

      He debated that for a moment, but really couldn’t find any reason to say no.  He did still owe her a date, and a movie sounded better than that opera any day.  “Alright,” he agreed.

 

      “Good.  Let me tell the limo driver to take us to my place.  I’ll release him and we’ll take a cab to the movies.”

 

      He wasn’t too keen on the idea of going to her place, but he couldn’t really say anything.  She did need to change, and it would be rude for him to stand out on the sidewalk and wait for her.

 

      A little while later, after crossing over onto the West Bank, he found himself in Belle Chasse, where the former naval air station was located.  The limo was allowed onto the base, and Jyslin must have been guiding him with telepathic messages, for he pulled up to one of the houses in the base housing section of the base.  It was a cookie cutter house, a small affair that looked to be two bedrooms, a ranch style house on the corner of two narrow streets.  He hadn’t thought that the Marines would be living in the houses on the old base, but then again, since they were here and empty, why not?

 

      Jyslin got out and then helped him out, not that he needed help, then leaned into the passenger side window to talk to the driver.  “Just go back the way you came,” she told him.  “Do not wander around.  If you get lost, just park the limo and wait for a patrol car to come, and they’ll show you the way out.”

 

      “I’ll be fine, miss.  I’ve been on the base before,” the driver answered calmly.

 

      “Good.  Thank you.”

 

      “You’re welcome,” he answered as she stepped, back, and the limo pulled away.

 

      They watched it go.  “Come on, let me show you my house,” she invited.

 

      They entered through the front door—which wasn’t locked, he noticed—and she turned on the lights to reveal a strangely human living room.  The carpet was a bit worn, gray shag, and she had decorated her living room with two matching large, thick-cushioned sofas that flanked a large glass coffee table, which faced a television.  She had a vidlink console on the wall to the left, and the open area to the right led into a small kitchen filled with aging appliances.  A hallway to the left led down to the two bedrooms, and probably to the bathroom as well, and there was a glass paned door on the far wall that led to the porch and back yard.  Two standing lamps were on the side walls, and she had several works of art hanging on the walls.  They were all abstract, geometric shapes and colors arranged in intriguing patterns, except for one, which was a portrait of a male Faey, nude, reclining on a couch before a waterfall.  The painting was impressionist, the borders enticingly indistinct, the features curiously vague.  Seeking out detail made the portrait nonsensical, but stepping back and taking it all in at once produced a coherent image.

 

      “You like that one?” she asked as she started taking off her shoes.  “My mother painted it.  It’s my father.”

 

      “Your mother’s a good artist,” Jason said honestly.

 

      “She made all these.  She sends me a new one every year,” she said.  “Want one?  I have a few in the other rooms.  I’m starting to run out of places to hang them.”

 

      “No thanks,” he said.

 

      “I’ll show them to you,” she declared.  “Come on.”

 

      Trapped by his manners, he allowed her to take him down the hall, to the first bedroom, which she had converted into a study.  She had a panel computer on a desk in the middle of the room, but a large desktop one, not the portables that the students used, complete with a hard keyboard.  A bookshelf holding several books and boxes of memory sticks was behind the desk, flanked by two floor lamps.  There were six paintings on the walls, all of them abstract geometric paintings.  “This is where I do my correspondence courses,” she told him.  “I’m a student, just like you.”

 

      She showed him her bedroom next, which was larger than her study.  She had a very large bed dominating the middle of the left wall, a king-size with a large oak headboard holding tiny figurines, books, and little knick-knacks that made the place look strangely homey.  She had a dresser on the far wall, a smaller one on the same wall as the door that had a mirror mounted on it, a large cherrywood chest at the foot of the bed, and a pair of nightstands on either side of the bed.  A wire stand of sorts was in the far corner, by a door that probably led to a bathroom, on which hung her armor.  Her rifle was hanging on pegs on the wall by her armor.  Four paintings were in this room, the one hanging over the bed obviously Jyslin when she was a very young child, wearing a little blue dress and holding a small little animal that looked like a gray-furred fox kit with two tails.  It was not impressionist, it was a painting so carefully done that it looked like a picture.

 

      “Now that’s good,” he said in sincere appreciation.

 

      “That’s me,” she smiled.  “When I was six, with our pet vulpar Tunny.”

 

      “Odd little animal.  I’ve seen an animal with two tails.”

 

      “Tunny belonged to my grandparents.  When they died, she came to live with us.”

 

      “She must be old.”

 

      “She’s nearly fifty.”

 

      Jason gave her a surprised look as she opened a drawer in the dresser on the same wall as the door.

 

      “They live about seventy years.  She’s still alive, but she sleeps a lot now.  She’s not as playful as she was when I was a child.”

 

      “Vulpars are truly lifetime pets,” she told him as she quietly closed the door.  She came up to him and put her hand on his upper arm, sliding it along his forearm, until she had a grip on his wrist.  Then she chuckled ruefully.  “I did not plan this,” she said to him with a slightly contrite smile, but her eyes were sultry, soft, and seductive, the gray of them seeming to glow in the light of the overhead light.

 

      This was what he was hoping to avoid.  He put a hand on hers and tried to pull it away, but she simply put her other hand on his side, gripping the hand that had grabbed hers to pull it away.  “Jyslin, I’m not interested.”

 

      “You’re such a liar,” she said with a throaty chuckle.  “Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re not interested in me.”

 

      That was the one thing he could not do, because he was interested in her, and she knew it.  But he would not get involved with a Faey, no matter how much he liked her or how much he was attracted to her.  “I can’t,” he told her.  “I won’t, Jyslin.  You’re a Faey.  You know how I feel about Faey.”

 

      “I’m not the Imperium, Jason,” she said with gentle adamance.  “I’m just a girl, a girl who wants to be with you.”  She put her hand on his neck, and he grabbed it to pull it away.  “Jason,” she said with a yearning that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and produced an immediate urge within him.  “I’ll make you one more bet, a final challenge,” she said.  “Kiss me.”

 

      “What?”

 

      “Kiss me.  If you can kiss me and walk out that door, I’ll never bother you again,” she promised, caressing his side in a manner that made his skin hot beneath his shirt and her fingers.  “But if you kiss me and can’t walk out that door, we spend the night together, and you can’t shut me out after tonight.  You have to give me the chance to be your friend, the same way you let Symone be your friend.”

 

      He was very worried about the idea of it, but if he didn’t agree, she would just keep trying, and that would sour their relationship to the point where she’d lose any chance at all with him.  Kissing her would give her a chance to try to inflame his passion, and that was why she was offering the challenge.  It was her one and only chance to seduce him.  But the opportunity to get her out of his life was too much to ignore. He didn’t like the idea of it, because he did like her, he did find her very attractive, but she was the ultimate temptation, Eve’s apple, luring him down a road that would compromise his principles and turn him into the willing slave to the Imperium he did not want to become.

 

      When he didn’t immediately answer, she looped her hand around his neck and pulled him down, then kissed him.  Jason had kissed many girls in his life, but he had never been kissed like that.  She kissed him with such passion, such lingering tenderness, such sweet desire that his resistance against her withered in the face of her ardor.  Before he knew what was happening, he had his arms around her, kissing her back with equal passion, admitting to her and to himself how attracted he was to this beautiful, interesting, sensual, intelligent, funny, and dead sexy woman.  The fact that she was a Faey now meant absolutely nothing.  She was a woman, and only a woman, a woman who wanted him, a woman he wanted in return.

 

      “Mmm, I knew you’d see things my way,” she purred as he kissed her neck, and as she backed them towards the bed.

 

 

 

      It was his wildest dream, and it was his worst nightmare.

 

      When Jyslin had jokingly put into his calendar last week that it would be a near-religious experience to make love to her, she was not joking.  There was an intense sensuality about her that he was certain was a racial trait, a powerful awareness of senses, awareness of pleasure, and a strong empathic need to give as well as receive pleasure that made the night with her almost mind-boggling.

 

      Just the memory of it made him shudder.  It was dawn now, a little later than he usually slept, but then again, he hadn’t had such an incredible night all those other times.  He was on his stomach, and she was splayed half atop him, her arm draped over his back possessively, sleeping with her face pressed up against his shoulder.  It was—there were no words for it.  To call it sensual, erotic, intensely intimate, they would not do what passed between them last night proper justice.  Her touch had been fire, but it was a fire that gave pleasure instead of pain, and she consumed him with it.

 

      But it was more than the sex.  Halfway into it, when she had him twisted around her finger, she touched his mind.  She didn’t ask to do it, and at that moment, he was utterly incapable of doing anything to stop her.   She seemed so caught up in their lovemaking that it was an automatic response, and it was then that he appreciated her power as a telepath.  She blew through his started defenses like they were dust and joined their minds into a symbiotic union that allowed all their feelings, thoughts, sensations, everything to pass between them.  They had become a single mind in two bodies, and the intensity of their lovemaking before that was like a candle flame held up to a bonfire.  To feel her pleasure in addition to his own, to know immediately what pleased her, what did not, and to feel the overpowering desire she had, an almost uncontrollable attraction to him that had caused her to go to such extremes to get closer to him, they multiplied the intimacy by an order of magnitude.  She made love to him with her body and her mind, and it was an experience that had been seared forever into his memory as the single-most intense night of pleasure he had ever had.  She had dropped all her defenses, joining their minds in an open connection that allowed him to look into her mind, anywhere in her mind, and see whatever he wanted.  He could have learned her most embarrassing secrets, her darkest fantasies, her most treasured dreams, or her most deep-seated desires had he wished to do so, but at that moment he was too busy making love to her to even think to look.

 

      That, more than anything, was what impressed him, now that he looked back on it.  She had been fearless about it, more than willing to expose the totality of her being to him, to give to him freely everything that she was.  He felt unbelievably honored that she would trust him like that, give him everything in exchange for joining their minds.

 

      But God, what a night!  He’d never be able to make love to a human woman ever again.  She’d spoiled him, utterly spoiled him, because he knew that no human could ever match what he felt last night unless she was telepathic.

 

      He yawned and tried to slide out from under her, but she suddenly grabbed hold of him and hooked the leg over the back of his own around the nearest one, wrapping him up and preventing him from going anywhere.  “Mmmm, no you don’t,” she said in a half-awake, dreamy kind of satisfied lassitude.  “I get to keep you until school.”

 

      “It’s morning,” he told her.

 

      “Already?  Damn,” she grunted, letting go of him and rolling over on her back.  “How’s your nose?”

 

      He’d suffered another nosebleed during their lovemaking, causing a rather funny interruption as she tried to stem the flow of blood, but she was so worked up that she couldn’t concentrate on what she was doing.

 

      “It’s alright,” he answered.  “You must have hit it just right.”

 

      “I didn’t hit it,” she protested.

 

      “Sometimes it just takes a touch,” he told her.  “A touch the wrong way to get a nose to bleeding again.”

 

      “Now that might have happened,” she acceded, then she gave a throaty, sensual chuckle.  “I can’t wait for our next date,” she told him, rolling back over and squirming up onto his back, holding him down.  He looked up at her from the corner of his eye, seeing her bright, intimate smile.  “Are you sure you have to go to school?”

 

      “You can explain why I’m absent to the dean,” he told her.

 

      “I don’t think snuggling is a valid reason to miss class,” she laughed.  “Well, my sweet one, I think I won our little bet,” she purred in a sultry tone, leaning down and kissing his ear and cheek.  “I don’t think you minded losing,” she breathed in his ear.

 

      “I’m glad we made love,” he told her honestly.  “But I’m not glad for the situation.  You’re a Faey, and I’m a human.  I just slept with the enemy, and now, if I’m not careful, I’m going to go back on all the promises I made to myself and compromise my principles.”

 

      “Hate what I stand for all you want, as long as you don’t hate me,” she told him seriously.  “I’m more than capable of separating you from politics, Jason.  At least try to do the same for me.”

 

      “That’s not easy,” he grunted.

 

      “You think I’m a zealous patriot?” she asked archly.  “You forget, I’m in armor because I couldn’t get the job I wanted.  I was pushed out by rich nobles who put their children where they wanted to go.  I’m five times more qualified to be a starship engineer than most of them!” she flared.  “I’m a Marine because I’m not a noble!”

 

      He rolled over on his back, dislodging her, and she immediately climbed back on top of him, putting her elbows down on either side of his shoulders, her hands playing with his hair.  “I don’t care about the Imperium, Jason.  I serve because I have to serve, the same as you.  If I cared about the Imperium, I would have handed you over to Marci last night.  If I cared about the Imperium, your little secret wouldn’t be a secret.”

 

      “What secret?” he asked in confusion.

 

      She gave him a sly smile.  “I didn’t seduce you only to share a near-religious experience with you,” she told him.  “I needed to touch your mind and have you let me do it willingly.  I wanted to see if I was right.”

 

      “Right about what?” he asked suspiciously.

 

      “Right about this,” she said, tapping him on the forehead.  “If Marci found out about you, the Imperium might have a conniption.  There’s no telling what they’d do to the humans.”

 

      “What?” he demanded.

 

      “Think about it, Jason,” she said with a slow, knowing smile.  “Why can you feel it when we touch your mind?  Why is that you can hide yourself from us?  How could you eject Marci out of your mind?  It has nothing to do with your mental discipline or your training.”

 

      He gave her an impatient look.

 

      “Jason, you have talent,” she revealed.  “And it’s not weak.  When I joined with your mind, I found it within you, bursting at the seams to be realized.”

 

      “What?” he asked in shock.

 

      “You’re a telepath,” she told him evenly.  “And a damn bloody strong one.  You’re as strong as I am, and I’m considered in the top ten percent among Faey.”

 

      He gaped at her in disbelief.

 

      “I did help it along,” she admitted shamelessly.  “It was there, but you didn’t know how to use it, and it hadn’t fully formed itself.  I showed it how to fully express, gave you a little nudge.  But it’s there.”

 

      He was thunderstruck.  All he could do was gape at her in awed disbelief.

 

      “The headaches, the nosebleeds, they were symptoms of the expression of your talent,” she told him with a smile.  “They weren’t from stress, or sinus problems.  Think about it.  Didn’t they flare up when you were around Faey?”

 

      He was silent, thinking back…and he realized she was right.  The last few days, there were Faey around him every time the headaches got bad.  And the nosebleed, that started after Vell did whatever it was he did that allowed him to slip past his defenses and pass along a telepathic message.

 

      “B-But it was too fast—“

 

      “That’s normal,” she said.  “Telepathy doesn’t slowly develop like you’re thinking it does.  It does develop, but while it does, you can’t feel it, and it doesn’t show up.  It just bursts out when you reach a certain level, which is usually around puberty for a Faey.  For me, it was when I was much younger.  I’ve had talent for almost a long as I can remember.  If you’d been born among Faey, you’d have expressed at about the same time as me.”

 

      “But, but humans never showed any kind of ability before,” he argued.

 

      “I know,” she said with pursed lips.  “You told me that Faey always probe you.  Maybe all that telepathic contact jarred it in you.  If I’m right, you’d never had expressed any talent if it weren’t for the fact that we’re here.  It was latent within you, unable for you to touch it, but when we came along and started stimulating that part of your brain with our own power, it started to develop.”

 

      He was still awestruck, but he had recovered his wits enough to understand what she was saying.  But was she right?  Did he really have telepathic ability?

 

      “Of course you do,” she said with a slow smile.

 

      He glared at her.  “How—“

 

      “I know your mind now, Jason,” she told him.  “And we do happen to be touching at the moment.  Your defenses don’t work on me like this, not anymore.  I can hear your thoughts whenever we touch.  And with some training, you’ll be able to hear mine.”  She touched his face gently.  “But if it bothers you, I won’t do it, I promise.  I can tune you out.”

 

      “What, what are you going to do?” he asked in worry.

 

      “Train you,” she smiled.  “I’m not going to turn you in, Jason, don’t be silly.  I don’t care about the Imperium.  I do what I’m told because I have to.  If I can get away with not telling them a word, then I will.  And they can’t catch me,” she winked.  “I’m one of the strongest telepaths on Earth,” she said bluntly, but not in a boasting manner.  She was simply stating fact.  “They can’t pull it out of me by casual scans, because none of the mindbenders on the planet, the Empress’ secret police, are strong enough to breach my defenses without me knowing it.  They’ll never find out from me, and after some education, they’ll never pick it up from you either.

 

      “I’m supposed to tell them about this, but I’m not.  You’re my friend, and you’re now my lover, and I’m not about to hand you over to them.  I’ll teach you how to control your power, and how to hide the fact that you have power from other Faey  They never have to know.  And as long as we don’t fuck up, they never will.”

 

      He stared up at her in shock.  She was going to disobey the Imperium, keep him a secret.  She truly wasn’t the Imperium, a loyal subject of the Empress that would do whatever she was told.  The image of her as a cog in their vast machine melted away, and for the first time, he saw her not as an agent of the Empress, but as nothing other than Jyslin Shaddale.

 

      She gave him a radiant, unbelievably tender smile.  “There, see?  It wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked, sliding her finger along his cheek intimately.  “I told you before, Jason, I’m not interested in the Imperium.  I’m interested in you.  As long as I have you, what could they possibly offer me that’s better?”

 

      He was touched by her words, by her honest admission.  He put his hand on her cheek, and she leaned against it, smiling down on him with her lovely gray eyes.

 

      “Oh, if only we had a little more time,” she complained in a longing manner, kissing the palm of his hand, sliding her legs against him sensually.  “But you have to get to school, and I have to get to work.  And I have to take you to school,” she grinned.  “While you’re there, don’t worry too much,” she told him.  “Remember, it takes effort to use.  As long as you don’t try to do anything, nobody’s going to notice.  You might start hearing the thoughts of people around you, and you might overhear it when Faey send to each other.  Those are passive actions, they don’t require effort, and nobody can tell when you’re doing them.”

 

      “Why could I hear sending?”

 

      “Jason, sending is nothing but a broadcasted thought that people who are telepathically adept can hear,” she answered.  “It’s what you might call thinking out loud.”

 

      “I thought that Faey had to allow themselves to hear it.”

 

      “We do,” she answered.  “We usually tune out the thoughts we hear, but we can leave ourselves open to hear sending, because it’s a little different than just eavesdropping on the surface thoughts of others.”  She patted his hair with a smile.  “You shouldn’t have too much trouble.  The one way you’ve developed your ability is through your ability to defend yourself.  Just keep that up, and no Faey is going to notice anything different about you.  I’ll come over after I’m off duty and start teaching you the other aspects of it.  And you must learn,” she told him seriously.  “You have to get competent with your power and do it fast, Jason.  Right now, when you have the power but haven’t learned how to use it or control it, this is when you’re most vulnerable.  You have got to keep a lid on it and not tip your hand until I can teach you.  After I teach you, no Faey will ever be able to discover your secret.  I’ll even teach you ways to fool them into thinking that they can hear your thoughts, so they don’t probe you all the time.”

 

      He was still a little scattered, overwhelmed by the thought of it.  If someone had told him that he’d just inherited a million credits, it wouldn’t have registered to him in the slightest.  He had telepathic ability.  He was possessed of the one thing that separated the humans from the Faey, more then the color of their skin or the pointed ears that made them look elfin.  A human had telepathic power, a human now possessed the one weapon against which the human race could not defend against, stand up to.

 

      The implications were enormous, both personally and in the terms of the human race.  Was he the only one?  Was he some kind of fluke, or were there more humans out there with the same latent potential, which would express after the Faey stimulated it into maturity with their own power?  If that were true, then the human race could stand up to the Faey.  The difference in technology was extreme, but always before it was the fact that the Faey were telepathic which was the one overwhelming factor that the human race could not defeat, which allowed them to crush any kind of rebellion or resistance before it managed to get any kind of start at all.  But if a sizable number of humans were telepathic, and they could somehow learn how to use their power without the Faey—

 

      That was a pipe dream, and he knew it.  As soon as the Faey realized that humans were showing telepathic ability, they would come down on the human race like a sledgehammer.  They would root them out and deal with them, either with telepathic reprogramming or by killing them.  That was why Jyslin got him out of that theater, because she knew what would happen, and she meant to protect him from them.

 

      Yet another reason to be impressed with Jyslin, and be receptive to the idea of including her in his life for the immediate future.  She truly was interested in him for who he was, and had demonstrated to his satisfaction that she was not the Imperium.  If anything, she was willing to go against her own people on his behalf.  That was certainly saying something.

 

      “Let’s get dressed before I start taking advantage of the situation and make us both late,” she said with a leer, reaching down and patting him on the hip.  She got off of him and went to the mirror and slicked her hair over the left side of her head as best she could, then went over to her armor and started by picking up the codpiece, the section most closely compared to a pair of metal shorts.  “Why don’t you wear anything under it?” he asked curiously as she stepped into the piece of armor.

 

      “Well, we could,” she admitted.  “I could easily wear panties and a bra under the armor, maybe even a pair of skin-hugging shorts or a tank top, and some Faey do wear a bra.  But we can’t take the armor off, and that makes going to the bathroom a tricky proposition when you consider the fact that this is the base on which all the rest of the armor is built,” she said, tapping the codpiece as she slipped it over her hips, the locked its seams closed.  “To get this off, I have to take the armor off my legs and detach it from the stomacher and breastplate, and that takes a while.  I’d pee myself long before I got enough off to go without making a mess.  The crotch of the armor has a locking opening that we use when we have to go to the bathroom,” she told him.  “If I wore panties, it would make getting them out of the way a tricky proposition.  Maya calls it the ‘doorway to heaven’,” Jyslin laughed.  “She once had sex with her husband wearing her armor.  He didn’t appreciate it afterwards, once the bruises started showing up.”

 

      That was certainly logical.  He nodded in understanding as he sat up.  “Need help?”

 

      She shook her head.  “A Marine has to be able to get into armor with no help in five minutes.  It’s a drill in basic training.  I can handle it, love.  You need to get dressed.  I have to get you to your dorm room with enough time for you to get ready for your classes.”

 

      He nodded, climbing out of bed and looking around for his clothes, which were scattered all over the room.  Her dress was thrown on the floor, and he reached down and picked it up, brushing it to get the wrinkles out.  “You should hang this up,” he told her.

 

      “There are hangers over there,” she said, pointing at the closet as she locked the leg greaves that protected her thighs in place, securing them to the codpiece.  The greaves overlapped the codpiece, forcing her to take them off before she could get the codpiece off.  It really was the base of the armor.  She locked the flexible metal skin that filled the space between the joints to the inside edge of the greaves on her right leg, settling the kneecap protector in place.  “Less time watching me armor up and more time dressing,” she told him with a sly wink.

 

      “Sorry.  I’ve been curious how it fits together for a while.”

 

      “Trust me, love, in a month, you’ll know how it fits as well as I do,” she said with another wink.  Jyslin loved to wink, for some reason.  “Dress.”

 

      He hung up her expensive dress, then started dressing.  He had to gather his clothes from various parts of the room, but he started tending to it quickly, his mind still racing with what he had learned this eventful morning.  About his telepathic gifts, about Jyslin, about everything.  It was all different now, and he needed a little time to sort it out in his mind, figure out what he wanted to do.

 

      After putting on his vest, he looked and saw that she had all her armor on from the waist down.  She was settling the sollaret boot on her foot, then took up the front half of the stomacher, the piece of armor that was flexible, that was between the breastplate and the codpiece.  She attached it to the breastplate’s bottom edge, hooked the back half to the back of the breastplate, then latched the top buckles on the shoulders of the two breastplate sections together.  Then she picked up the entire assembly and slid it over her head, pushing her head through the opening for her neck.  She settled it on her shoulders easily, then sealed the side seams and then tended to attaching the base of the stomacher to the inside edge of the top of the codpiece.

 

      “Efficient,” he complemented.

 

      “I’ve done this a long time, love,” she told him as she reached behind her and locked the back of the stomacher to the inside back edge of the codpiece without looking.  “Let me get the upper greaves on, and we can go.  I can get the bracers and gauntlets on in the car.”

 

      “What car?”

 

      “Didn’t you see the Toyota parked in front of the house?” she chuckled.  “That’s my car.”

 

      “I thought you guys had hovercars.”

 

      “That’s the Corps’ vehicle,” she answered.  “When we first got here , we weren’t allowed to bring Faey technology vehicles here for our own personal use.  Most of us bought human cars when we got here, and hell, they’re just as good as hovercars, so most of us never bothered to bring in our own personal cars once they lifted the ban.  I have a hovercar, but I had to leave it with my parents.  I know you’ve seen Faey in human cars.”

 

      “Well, sure, but I never much thought about what it meant.”

 

      “Well, now you do,” she told him.  “When you see a Faey in a human car, it’s because she’s off duty and she’s about on personal business.”  She locked the two greaves around her right arm,over the flexible metal skin that protected her shoulder and armpit, flexing it a few times, then reaching for the flexible metal skin for her left shoulder.  She quickly got that on, then the greaves, and then she picked up the forearm bracers and gauntlets and swept them into a small bag that was by the stand.  “Alright, we can go,” she said, locking the web belt that held her sidearm around her slender waist, then pulling down her rifle from the wall.

 

      He nodded and picked up his tie, pulling it over his head.  She handed him her rifle, letting him carry it, trusting him with it as they filed out of her room, then out of her house.  She locked the door with a key on a small silver ring, then tucked it into one of the pouches on her web belt.  “We have a stop to make before we go to your dorm,” she announced.

 

      That stop was at the guard post for the front gate.  They didn’t get out of her car—which surprised him that she could drive it with that armor, but then again, it showed how flexible the armor was—just pulled up the gate house and rolled down the window.  “I want an entry pass for him,” she called to the gate guard.

 

      “What kind?” she asked in return.

 

      “Unconditional,” she replied.  “He’s going to be coming and going from now on.”

 

      She smiled knowingly.  “Sure.  Hold on a second.  Could you look this way for me, sir?” she asked as she reached into her little cubby and took out a small camera..  She took his picture and stepped in, seating it to a base as she started typing on a holographic keyboard.  “Name?”

 

      “Jason Fox,” Jyslin answered for him.

 

      “Thank you.”  She typed a few more seconds, touched the screen a few times, then reached under the shelf and pulled out a small laminated card.  “Here you go,” she told him, handing it to Jyslin.  “Just present that card to the gate guards when you come, honey, and they’ll let you in,” she told him.  “It’ll also let you into the base exchange and the comissary, and all the other places on base.  Don’t lose it.  It’s a ten credit fine to replace it.”

 

      “I’ll remember that,”Jason said as he looked at it.  It was in Faey, and it said he was a base resident, the “permanent resident guest” of Sergeant Jyslin Shaddale.  A nice, technical term for boyfriend.

 

      He could live with that title.  He looked over at her and realized that he would very much be comfortable with that title.

 

      “Permanent resident, eh?” he asked, putting the card in his wallet.

 

      “Hey, I want you to have all the perks being a Marine’s babe entails,” she said with a wink as they pulled out onto Belle Chase Highway.

 

      “A Marine’s babe?” he asked archly.

 

      “You are a babe,” she told him, blowing a kiss at him.  “You’re my babe.”

 

      “Don’t get me in trouble at school,” he warned.  “Some students are more vocal about their dissent than me.”

 

      “They’re not going to see me on campus, only when I visit you in the dorm,” she told him.  “They don’t seem to have any problem with Symone.”

 

      “Symone’s different,” he told her.  “Everyone likes Symone.”

 

      “Well, they can all like me.”

 

      He gave her a look, then laughed.  “No,” he told her.  “They all love Symone because she’s charismatic and fun.  Nobody that meets her can possibly not like her.  That’s not you,” he said with a slight smile.

 

      “I can so be fun,” she said primly.

 

      “Fun, yes,” he agreed.  “But you don’t have the kind of charisma that Symone does.”

 

      “What do you mean?”

 

      “Why don’t you come by the dorm tonight and see?” he asked, leaning against the door as they got onto the West Bank Expressway, the elevated expressway that led to the bridge over the Mississippi River, back to the city.

 

      “I certainly am coming over tonight,” she told him.  “We have to start your education, as quickly as possible.”

 

      “Then you’ll see.  Everyone is Symone’s friend.  To the people in the dorm, the fact that she’s Faey doesn’t matter.  Everyone loves her, and if anyone gives her any flak, the entire dorm would take turns beating the piss out of the guy.”

 

      “Wow,” she breathed.

 

      “I don’t know how the people in the dorm will react to you, but then again, if Symone says you’re alright, then that’s that,” he said seriously.  “An endorsement from Symone should be all it’ll take.”

 

      “You’ll have to ask her to do that.”

 

      “She’ll be over after she gets off duty.”

 

      She drove him back to his dorm on Saint Charles Avenue, on the corner of the Tulane campus, and he watched the traffic go by, lost in thought.  Telepathy.  He had that talent.  He was a human, and now he was expressing the one gift, the single advantage that the Faey had that kept the human race in slavery.  But it wasn’t much, because after all, he was only one man.  It would take an army of telepaths to kick the Faey off Earth, an army equipped with weapons that could make the Faey retreat.  In the end, it was nothing but a dangerous curse that could quite possibly get him killed, should the Faey find out about him.

 

      It was a strange thought, that he had such a mysterious power, a power he had hated because of what it meant.  But now he had it, and though it changed very little in the grand scheme of things, it changed his life a great deal.  He had to be careful now, always cautious, always vigilent, to keep his dark, deadly secret.  His life depended on it.

 

      What would it be like to be telepathic?  Well, from what he’d managed to figure out, he’d be able to hear the surface thoughts of the people around him.  Jyslin had talked about that before.  He’d be able to overhear Faey sending to each other, and from the sound of it, Jyslin was going to teach him all the tricks of it, like attacking, defending, and a way to deceive the Faey into not probing him all the time.  That would be nice, a relief to him, but the rest of it…he wasn’t sure how he was going to feel about that.  But one thing was for sure, he’d better learn it.  His life might someday depend on being able to attack and overwhelm a Faey who discovered his secret.

 

      And on another angle, perhaps buying that airskimmer would be a very good idea.  That way, he always had an escape route.  He could flee up into Tennessee or Kentucky or West Virginia, states which had been completely depopulated of humans…or at least officially.  There were squatters out there, humans who had fled into the uninhabited forest areas rather than accept the Faey order, or to esape being sent to a farm, or to escape after pissing off the Faey.  It was lawless out there, as bad as any Mad Max movie, but that might be preferable to being reprogrammed by the Faey secret police, the Imperial Gestapo as some called them, or perhaps being dissected to find out why a human had somehow gained telepathic powers.

 

      Yes, that was a good idea.  He’d have to start looking into it.  And perhaps discretely collect up the components he’d need to build a plasma rifle, and build himself his own suit of armor.  If he did have to flee into the wildlands, it might behoove him to go into that chaos armed to the teeth and sporting an overwhelming advantage.

 

      Just in case.

 

      He blinked when he saw the dorm, and to his surprise, she went past it, past the campus, going all the way up to where Saint Charles ended, merging with Carrolton.  She pulled over and patted him on the leg.  “I think this is far enough away,” she told him.  “I don’t want them to see you get out of a Faey’s car.  So you avoid any friction.”

 

      “I appreciate that,” he said as he opened the door.

 

      “Aat, kiss,” she ordered.

 

      He chuckled, then leaned over and gave her a lingering kiss.  She actually licked his nose before he pulled away, giving him a wide, bright smile.  “You have a good day at school, love.  I’ll be back as soon as I’m off duty.  Remember, don’t try anything, and if you start hearing voices in your head, don’t panic.  That’s you overhearing the thoughts of those around you.  Just listen.  You’d be surprised what you can learn,” she said with a wink.

 

      “I’ll be careful.  Now let me out.”

 

      “Have a good, uneventful day,” she told him seriously.

 

      “Amen,” he agreed.

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    3      5

Chapter 4

            Brista, 19 Shiaa, 4392, Orthodox calendar;

            Saturday, 24 May 2007, Native regional reckoning

            New Orleans, Gamia Province, American sector

      It was like an entirely different world had been unveiled before him.

      He walked in a kind of half-daze, virutally overwhelmed by the sheer amount of chatter that surrounded him.  It gave him a headache and scattered his concentration, because what he was hearing were the unguarded thoughts of all the people around him.

      It was like hearing their voices in his own mind, just as Jyslin had described it, like thinking thoughts that were not his own in different voices.  Thoughts of school, of home, of the Faey, of stresses from the workload of school, to sex.  He glanced at people as he seemed to figure out whose thoughts belonged to who, sort of getting a sense of direction out of it after about an hour of practice.  Each person was like a beacon of broadcasted thought, as clear to him as if they were saying everything that he was hearing.

      It was damned distracting, so much so that he didn’t hear a single word Professor Ailan said during plasma class.  He was too distracted by the cacophony of thoughts bombarding him from every side.  It was like being in a room surrounded by screaming people.

      At least nobody said much of anything to him when he got back to the dorm.  People did notice that he was dragging his ass back in the morning after, but the fact that he walked back left enough opening for people not to be quite sure what happened.  He didn’t answer any questions, simply changed and got his pack ready for Saturday classes.  It didn’t really hit him until he got out among the other students, close to them, starting as a faint buzzing between his ears, then growing steadily more discernible and louder, until it was at its current level, which was giving him a headache.

      It was both a wondrous and frightening experience, hearing other people think.  It would have made him think he was going insane had Jyslin not warned him of the possibility, had told him what it would feel like.  Luckily for him, she had prepared him for this, so he was able to approach it with some calm reserve, not let it show that something was bothering him.

      He sat there as the sound of it all seemed to drone on, then blur together as if the competing voices were cancelling each other out.  He had his eyes closed, rubbing his temples, when a sudden bang almost startled him out of his chair.  Ailan was standing by his desk, a heavy plasma conduit sleeve resting on his desk from where the Faey had slammed it down.  “I said class is over, Jason,” he said with a smile.  “What’s wrong?”

      “Headache,” he answered, rubbing his temples, closing his eyes again.  “I used to get them when my father was ill.  Stress.”

      “So, last night was the big date,” he said, leaning over the desk.  “How did it go?”

      “About what you’d expect,” he answered.  “Dinner, opera, then she took me home.”

      “Which home?” he prompted with a sly smile.

      Jason gave him a flat look.

      Ailan laughed.  “It’s all the buzz, because you didn’t come back to your dorm last night.  A few people were wondering if you killed her.”

      “She’s quite alive,” he said mildly, wincing as a particularly strong throb jagged through him.  “Truth be told, she convinced me that she’s not at all what I expected her to be.  She hates the Imperium nearly as much as I do, so we have common ground.”

      “I’m not much of a fan of it either, Jason, but we all do what we have to do,” he admitted openly.  “I am Faey, and I believe in the Empress, but I think she should change the way that the bureaucracy does some things.  They’ve become extremely corrupt, and their corruption is making the nobles corrupt, and when noble houses get corrupt, they start thinking of breaking away from the Imperium.  If she doesn’t do something soon, we might have another civil war.  We don’t need that right now, not with this war with the Skaa.”

      “You’re complaining to the wrong man, Professor,” Jason told him.  “I’d be overjoyed if Earth broke away from the Imperium.”

      “Be careful what you wish for,” Ailan said seriously.  “You might find your yoke under a renegade noble ten times worse than subjugation under the Empress.”

      “True,” he admitted.

      “Well, see you during lab,” he said.  “Hope you feel better.”

      He didn’t talk to anyone, mainly because he could hear every thought everyone around him had.  He learned quite a few dirty little secrets during that time, things he would much rather have not known, and found out that being privy to the thoughts of others was not as interesting as some people might have thought.  People would approach him and ask what happened last night, or try to chitchat, but their thoughts told a completely different tale.  Some of them were jealous, some were angry, and few meant what they said when they talked to him.  People who acted one way had thoughts which were quite different from what he knew of them.  It was quite an eye-opening experience.

      And not entirely a good one.

      There was a great deal of trepidation involved in it.  He avoided every Faey who crossed his path, moving quickly to get away from them, deathly afraid they’d somehow find out.  But when he passed by two Army regulars patrolling the campus, he learned that Jyslin’s other warning was also correct.  He could hear Faey sending.

      He’s cute, he distinctly heard, much louder and clearer than the surface thoughts of the people around him.

      That’s the human the Marines had so much trouble with, the other answered.  He’s taken.

      More the pity, the first said with regret as they wandered away.

      That blew his mind anew.  He heard them perfectly, and they didn’t seem to notice, mainly because was careful not to let his shock register on his face.  He could hear Faey sending!

      He honestly had no idea what happened most of that day, only a blur of fear and amazement.  He looked up after what seemed like a few minutes after plasma class and found himself standing in front of the dorm, and it was nearly four o’clock.  He could not remember anything from the other classes.  He honestly didn’t know if he even showed up for them, and that scared him quite a bit.

      He ambled up to his room and immediately checked his panel, to see if he’d thought to record the classes.  He did.  Well, that was a relief.  He wouldn’t show up on Monday and Tuesday with blank looks when they asked for his homework.  He sat at the desk and put his head in his hands and tried to get a handle on his headache, tried to push out all the sounds of the thoughts from the students in the dorm, tried to center himself and ignore them, falling back on his mental exercises.  After a few moments, the sounds of the voices retreated from him, leaving him feeling blissfully alone in his own head.  It was quiet, serene, the headache eased, and he felt much better.

      A knock on the door startled him half out of his wits.  He reached over and opened it, and found Jyslin standing there, hand on the doorframe, waiting for him to open it.  She wore the tank top and shorts she always wore when she visited before working out, but a blue tank top this time.  She stepped in and closed the door behind her, then bent down and gave him a lingering kiss.  “I see it’s awake,” she said immediately.

      “I haven’t been able to concentrate all day,” he said wearily.  “I can’t even remember most of it.”

      “Your brain is having trouble processing all this new information,” she told him.  “I think the first thing you need to learn is how to tune it out.  It shouldn’t take you long to learn, it’s pretty easy.”

      She sat down on the bed and uged him to roll his chair over to her.  He did so, and she reached out and took his hands in her own, pulling them into her lap.  “Now, let’s begin,” she said with a smile.  “Tuning out.  You should have no trouble with this, love, because all you do is learn how to ignore what you’re hearing.  It’s a very simple skill that most children learn within a day.”

      “You’re not wasting any time.”

      “Your life and your sanity depends on learning this as fast as you can,” she said seriously.

      He couldn’t argue with that.  He nodded and gave her his undivided attention.

      He’d already touched on the idea of tuning out before she came in.  The idea of it was to push the alien thoughts out away from himself, sort of lock the outside of his mind and not let anything in.  Because he had such a disciplined mind, and he knew his mind very well, it didn’t take him very long to wrap himself around the trick of it.  It helped that Jyslin looked into his mind and instructed him, showed him what he was doing wrong, give him some helpful advice.  It didn’t require any kind of expression of power to do this, only a desire not to hear what was going on around him.

      Within two hours, he had the trick of it down rather well.  It was much like she said, simply a method of tuning out the outside noise, the interference, focusing himself only on what was within.

      “Good,” she declared with satisfaction.  “That’s all there is to it, love.”

      “It’s easy.”

      “It’s a good thing it is, or we’d all have gone insane long ago.’

      “But Faey have closed minds.”

      “Adults do.  Children don’t.  And children tend to learn together.”

      “Ah.”  Now he understood.  Surrounded by the unguarded thoughts of the other children, they’d have gone mad long before reaching adulthood.  “Now what?”

      “Now nothing,” she smiled.  “You have tomorrow off.  Let’s go see a movie, or get a canoe and paddle around in Jean Laffite swamp or something.”

      “No,” he said.  “I have something I have to learn, and I don’t have much time.  Teach me something else.”

      “Let’s not get fanatical,” she said.  “You need to rest, and this isn’t something we can get sloppy with.”

      “I’m not tired, and we can do something tomorrow.”

      “I’m not sure,” she hedged.

      “I’ll tell you what.  Teach me something else, and we’ll go out.  An actual date, to make up for the theater.”

      She gave him a sly grin, then laughed.  “Pulling out the heavy artillery, are we?  Alright.  I’ll teach you how to send.  There aren’t any Faey around here, so it should be safe enough.”

      “I can learn this in one day?”

      “The basics, yes,” she nodded.  “It takes a while to master, though.  It takes practice.”

      “Anything worthwhile takes practice.”

      She smiled.  “Alright, sending.  Sending is rather simple to do, but it takes a while to get good at it.  It’s the third thing a child learns.”

      “What’s the second?”

      “Closing her mind, but you’ve already got that down.”

      “Oh.”

      “Now, I told you once that sending is thinking out loud, and that’s all it is.  You take your thought and push it out of your mind.  If you put enough behind it, people sensitive to sending will hear it.”
      “That’s it?”

      “That’s it.  It’s very easy, like I just told you.  But it takes quite a while to learn how to limit your range, exclude people or places from hearing you, sending to only one person, and learning how to be understandable up close when you’re trying to send for distance.  It takes a lot of practice.”

      “Then the sooner I learn how to do it, the more I can practice.”

      “Workahalic,” she said with a teasing smile, patting his knee.  “Okay, give me a second to make sure there aren’t any Faey around to hear you, then you can start practicing.”

      He felt her when she did that, sort of swept her mind out and searched for Faey, but he wasn’t sure how she did it or how she knew what to look for.  She nodded to him, and he began.

      Again under he tutelege, for she had a light touch on his mind, observing what he was doing, she walked him through the idea of it.  It was just as she said, sort of taking a thought and putting himself behind it, then pushing it out away from himself, sort of trying to think out loud.  As she said, it was very easy to do, for he succeeded after about a half an hour of attempting, casting a thought of hello! Out away from him.  But the way she winced when he finally succeeded to him that it was too strong, that he had shouted in some manner.

      “Ouch,” she grunted.  “Well, I’m certain you did it, that’s for sure,” she chuckled.

      “Sorry.”

      “It’s alright, everyone does that when they first start.  We get so caught up in doing it we do it with everything we’ve got.”  She laughed richly.  “I’ll bet they heard that down in the quarter,” she said with a wink.

      He paled.

      “Don’t worry, don’t worry, they won’t know who did it,” she said quickly.  “They’ll only know that someone was shouting, and that it was a male.  They won’t know where it came from, or how far away you are.  Now try again, and do it softly.  Just enough to push it away from your mind, just a little bit.  That should be more than enough.”

      He nodded, calming down a little from the scare she gave him, then he closed his eyes and tried again.

      After another hour, when it was getting dark outside his small window, he’d more or less nailed down the rough basics.  Jyslin told him with an approving nod that he could send gently rather well, his thought only extending a short distance, the kind of short-range communication that formed the base of some of the more advanced sending skills.  “Enough, enough,” she begged off, slapping him on the knee.  “You promised me a date.”

      “So I did,” he nodded.  “You missed your workout.”

      “That’s alright,” she smiled.  “I’d rather spend that time with you, even if were weren’t doing anything but practicing.  What do you want to do?”

      “I think you have the agenda planned out.”

      She laughed.  “Not really. Want to see a movie?  We have a pretty well stocked Blockbuster just outside the front gate.  We’ll find a good one and put it up on the big TV.  I’ll have to dust off my DVD player, though.”

      “I think we can manage that,” he said after a moment’s consideration.  Ending up in Jyslin’s house might not be a good thing right now.  He did like her, and he was very attracted to her, but he didn’t want to get too involved with her personally.  He did want to see her more, go on actual dates, but she was still a Faey, still aligned with the enemy, even if she didn’t believe in the enemy’s doctrine herself.  That didn’t exactly make her an enemy, but it also didn’t make her someone he could entirely trust.  He would like Jyslin, learn from her, go out with her, be her friend, maybe even sleep with her, but he wasn’t about to get, intimate with her.  Not yet, not until he felt he could trust her completely.

      “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

      “I have a big test on Monday, so I have to study,” he warned.

      “Bring your panel and your books, you can study at my house.”

      “You’ll distract me.”

      “Not when it matters,” she said seriously.  “You should get used to spending time at my house anyway.  I fully intend to get you to move in.”

      “No.”

      “Excuse me?”

      “I said no,” he answered levelly.  “I like you, Jyslin, I’ll admit that.  But I’m not going to pretend to be your live-in boyfriend.  I’ll talk with you, I’ll go out with you, I’ll come over to your house to train or just to visit, and I might even sleep with you, but I’m not ready to take any new direction with our relationship.  I have this to worry about now,” he said, pointing at his head, “and there’s still the fact that I can’t justify just throwing in with you right now.  You may not be the Imperium, but you are still Faey.”

      “I thought we moved past that.”

      “You thought we moved past it.  I never did.”

      There was a knock at the door.  “Jayce!” Tim boomed.

      “Open!” he called, silently glad that Tim came when he did.  He had probably just headed off a major argument, he could see it in Jyslin’s stormy gray eyes.

      Tim opened the door, wearing a rather nice pair of slacks and a black dress shirt.  “I—oh, I didn’t know you had company,” he said.

      “You’re a bad liar,” Jason told him.

      He laughed.  “Alright, you got me,” he admitted.  “But everyone’s getting curious what’s going on in here.”

      “I’m raping him,” Jyslin said dryly, though her irritation with him was obvious in her body language.

      He chuckled warily.  “It was too quiet for that.”

      “You forgot about the gag.”

      Tim did laugh earnestly then.

      “Where are you off to?”

      “Symone’s taking me to a symphony over at City Park, some kind of after-dark Beethoven concert,” he answered.  “She went to her barracks to change.”

      “Why didn’t you go with her?” Jyslin asked.

      “She told me to stay here,” he shrugged.  “So, is everything alright in here?” he asked with a smile at Jason.

      “We’ve just been talking,” he answered.  “We’re about to go out and see a movie.”

      “What are you going to see?”

      “We don’t know yet,” Jyslin answered.

      “Well, have fun,” he said.  “See you later.”

      “See you tomorrow.”

      “Gather up your stuff and let’s go,” she prompted shortly.

      He nodded, getting up.  He had tomorrow off, so he didn’t mind going to Jyslin’s to see a movie.  He seriously doubted that he’d make it home before tomorrow, but that too didn’t bother him in the slightest.  After all, Jyslin was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, attractive, sultry, sexy, and seductive, and his attraction to her was sincere.  He did like her, and he did want to sleep with her.  But until he felt he could give her his absolute trust, he couldn’t risk getting too close to her.  Not now, not when he was in such a dangerous situation.  After all, Jyslin could, at any time, simply turn him in in order to save her own hide.  He knew that.  Until he was absolutely positive that that was not going to happen, he had to treat his relationship with Jyslin like it was a venemous snake.  Something that fascinated him, but something that could kill him if he got careless with it.

      Jason woke up in Jyslin’s bed very late for him, almost nine in the morning, and he climbed out of it silently cursing himself for his weak will.  She had started hinting at wanting him the instant they got in the door, and she got more and more aggressive as the night went on.  He tried to be polite, not to upset her, then just to drive home the meaning of the word no, but in the end she was just as successful at seducing him when he knew it was coming as she was when he hadn’t expected it.  It was just very, very hard to look at a woman as gorgeous as Jyslin, knowing beyond any doubt that she was very attracted to him, look at that gloriously built woman and tell her no when she had her shirt off and was pushing her breasts in his face.  He didn’t think any heterosexual man alive on Earth, be him human of Faey, could reject Jyslin when she was being that militantly aggressive.  It was a statistical impossibility.

      But he couldn’t beat himself all morning, and he had other important things to do, so he put that bit of brooding aside and moved on to other matters that required his immediate attention.  Jason left her to sleep  as he first did some homework in the living room, then did some studying, then started hunting for an airskimmer.

      He was still serious about that.  If worse came to worst, he wanted a way to run like hell.  It was only smart.

      There weren’t any for sale on Earth, so he got out onto GlobalNet, the Faey’s interplanetary internet, and started looking.  He had seventy-five thousand credits at his disposal, which was enough to get a used one, but not a new one.  The cheapest new airskimmers ran a hundred thousand credits a piece.  But there were places on GlobalNet to find used ones, dealers, private owners looking to sell, in the merchandise forums.

      Jyslin came into the living room wearing nothing but a robe, which was belted so loosely about her waist that most of her breasts were falling out of it.  “Hey, lover,” she called.  “Why didn’t you come wake me up?”

      “Why?  I had things to do.”

      She leaned over his shoulder.  “Airskimmers?  What are you looking at those for?”

      “I’m going to buy one,” he answered mildly.  “Your squad lieutenant took those sonic devices I planted on those last two Marines and sent it to the Ministry of Technology.  They bought the patent for seventy-five thousand credits.”

      “You pretending pauper!” she laughed, wrapping her arms around his neck and bringing her head over his shoulder.  “And here I thought you were broke.”

      “Until Friday, I was,” he told her.  “I still can’t believe your squad officer did that.”

      “Lana tends to do things like that,” she answered.  “She takes all kinds of liberties with us.”  She kissed his ear.  “You realize that you don’t know how to fly it.”

      “I’ll learn,” he said calmly as he surveyed a picture of an old airskimmer that someone was selling for ten thousand credits, which was little more than a stripped fuselage.  He’d already done his research earlier, so he knew what to look for in an airskimmer.

      “Why are you looking at that junk?” she asked.

      “It’s what I can afford.”

      “Let’s look at new ones.”

      “I can’t afford a new one.”

      “If I pitch in, we can,” she replied immediately.

      “I can’t let you do that,” he protested.

      “Yes you can,” she smiled.  “I don’t mind.”

      “I do,” he said adamantly.  “No, Jyslin.  I won’t have you spending your money.  If you get transferred or I leave, it’s something I’d have to pay you back, and I may never have the money.”

      “I—“

      “There won’t be any discussion,” he said bluntly.  “I mean it.”

      “Alright,” she sighed, patting him on the chest.  “If you’re serious about not letting me contribute, I’ll drop it.”

      He took notes on the airskimmers he found, comparing engine power (all airskimmers had spatial engines, and could actually leave the atmosphere), capacities, additional features, and age, and narrowed his search down to three models.  One was a six year old eight-seat airskimmer with navigation and computer autopilot.  One was a nine year old six seat airskimmer with extra cargo space, a strong engine, navigation, and autopilot, and the third…well, the third had his attention.  First, the seller was a Trillane, meaning it was a noble.  It was an eight-seat model, only two years old, actually quite a good one.  It was the ASV-430, one of the newer models, with a decent amount of cargo room, a newer computer, intuitive navigation, full autopilot, the newest engine, and what seemed most important of all...it was armed and armored.  It was armed with two MPACs, was armored with Polymerized Titanium armor, and had a ten Megajoule shield for protection against non-Faey pirates.  That wasn’t all that impressive if it was being fired upon by MPACs, but against other technology, like ion cannons, phased tetryon cannons, graviton beams, and tachyon cannons, that was formidable protection.  All airskimmers were capable of leaving an atmosphere, but since they lacked powerful engines, they wouldn’t go very fast, but this model was more or less designed to be a pleasure craft that was launched from orbital platforms and landed on planets.  And since there was always the risk of being attacked, it was armed and armored, its armor and shields geared towards pirates, not Faey. That was acceptable armament and respectable armor, since a noble never goes anywhere without being able to defend himself.  The noble was selling it for half what it was worth, but it was still five thousand credits more than he had.  But this was his best shot to get his hands on a weapon, to tear it down and see how it was put together.  It actually wasn’t illegal at all for anyone in the Imperium to own any weapon, but the cost of them kept them out of the hands of most commoners.  The nobles kept their stranglehold on their society with their money and the illusion that the commoner might better himself, not with tyranny.  Anyone could do anything they wanted…as long as they could pay for it.  But even if it wasn’t armed, if he could talk the owner out of taking the weapons off to reduce the price, it was still the best value.

      This would require negotiation.

      The contact number was another planet, and after a check, he saw that it was daytime there as well.  He brought up the vidlink protocol on the panel and set it on the coffee table, then entered the number.

      A male with dark red hair answered almost immediately, wearing an earpiece and a microphone.  “Arcuri Manor,” he said in a bored manner.

      “Eleri Trillane, please,” Jason replied.

      “A human,” he said with some interest.  “This matter is concerning what?”

      “The airskimmer up for sale.”

      “One moment.”

      His face disappeared, replaced with the dragon and sword crest of the Trillane noble house.  He leaned back as Jyslin came back in wearing a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, carrying her shoes.  He glanced at her, then the screen flickered back to a face.  He looked at it and found himself staring into the face of a teenager, what couldn’t be more than a sixteen year old Faey girl.  She was impishly cute, with blond-white hair like Maya grown almost indulgently long, tied in a tail behind her head.  She wore a glittering silver bikini top that he could see, a towel thrown over her shoulders.  “Eleri,” she announced.  “Talk.”

      “You have an airskimmer for sale?” he asked.

      “You move fast, I just listed it this morning,” she chuckled.  “Aren’t you a human?”

      He nodded.

      “Why is a human looking to buy an airskimmer?”

      “I’m going to eat it,” he said blandly.

      She gave him a look, then laughed.  “I like you.  So, you want to buy it?”

      “I’m interested in it, yes,” he said carefully.  “But I’m five thousand credits short of your asking price.”

      “Oh, no,” she said quickly.  “I’m selling it to annoy my mother, but I’m not going to give it away.  I’m selling it for half of what it’s worth to aggravate mother, and I’m not going any lower than half.  It’s eighty thousand, and it stays there.”

      “Then you have a deal, my Lady,” Jyslin said, coming over his shoulder and looking down at the screen.  “I’ll front the difference.”

      “Damn, I didn’t think Faey would be marrying humans,” she sounded.  “Well, if you’re married to one of us, I think I can see fit to sacrifice it at eighty thousand.”

      Jason absolutely glared at Jyslin, but she just winked at him and licked the tip of his nose.

      “What’s wrong?”

      “He doesn’t like me spending my money on him, my Lady,” she answered calmly.  “He’s very independent.”

      Eleri laughed.

      “You know, it would make your mother absolutely scream if you just gave it away,” Jyslin said with a conspiratorial smile.

      “I’m sure it would, but I need the money,” she said sternly.  “But, since your husband is cute, I’ll cover the shipping.  How’s that?”

      “I think we can live with that, my Lady,” Jyslin agreed, giving Jason a glance, who was still glaring at her murderously.

      “Coolies,” she grinned.  “Alright, here’s my account number.  Transfer away, and I’ll have the airskimmer personally delivered to you in three hours.”

      “That soon?” Jyslin said in surprise, totally ignoring him.

      “Trillane owns Terra, and it’s our ships doing the cargo freighting,” she reminded him.  “There’s a freighter going out from here every two hours to bring back food, and they usually have plenty of free space on them.  If you don’t dawdle, I can have the airskimmer on the next freighter.”

      “That’s true,” Jyslin agreed.

      “I’d love to, but I can’t,” Jason said sternly.  “I can’t let Jyslin pay for any of it.  I’m sorry, Eleri, but I can’t go through with it.  I’d love to buy that skimmer, but I can’t let Jyslin do this.  I just can’t.”

      “Well, I like you, human, so I tell you what.  I’ll strip the weapons and the shield off the skimmer and sell it to you for seventy-five, and sell the rest of it separately.  I can get five thousand for them easy.  Is that a deal?”

      “That’s a deal, Eleri,” he said gratefully, ignoring Jyslin, who was now the one glaring murderously.

      Jason split the window and accessed his personal account, then gaped in shock when he saw the standing balance.

      Two hundred thousand credits!

      “What the bloody hell is this?” he demanded hotly, quickly bringing up an account activity history.

      “What’s the problem?” Eleri asked.  “You have the money or not?”

      “I have too much!” he said in surprise.  “The bank screwed up somewhere.  There’s more than twice in my account than there should be!”

      “Quick, send the money before they notice!” Eleri said with a wicked laugh.

      He looked over the summary.  There was the initial deposit, but then there was a second one for twenty-five thousand, also from the Ministry of Technology, then a third, for one hundred thousand credits, which was again from the Ministry of Technology.

      “They’re legitimate deposits,” Jyslin told him.  “Look.  The Ministry of Technology did both of them.  Maybe they bought more of your patents, and the message just hasn’t reached you yet.”

      “You’re an inventor?” Eleri asked, then she laughed.  “You’ve only been with the Imperium two years, and you’re already inventing things?  Damn, you must be one smart human.  Well, brainboy, thumb up your transfer and you got an airskimmer.”

      “Go ahead,” Jyslin urged.  “The Ministry’s so big and bureaucratic, if it really was a mistake, it’ll take ten years for them to find it.”

      “Well, since you can afford it, we’ll go back to the original deal of eighty for the whole skimmer, and for an extra ten thousand credits, I’ll throw in two airbikes and a habitat module.  They came with the airskimmer, but I wasn’t going to sell them with it.”

      “Deal,” Jyslin said quickly, and Jason nodded in agreement.

      “Alright, send me your money, and I’ll send you a tracking code,” she said, her hands blurring on the keyboard just under the angle of the image.  “Fure!  Call the garage and have them load up my airskimmer!” she shouted to her left.  “The older one!  And make sure the airbikes and the habitat module are loaded on it!”

      “Where to, madam?”

      “I’m shipping it to Terra,” she called.  “Give me a minute and I’ll tell you where it’s going.”

      “Going to take a trip, madam?”

      “Something like that,” she grinned to the person off camera.  “Well?” she asked him, looking at her screen again.

      “Hold on,” he said.  He authorized a transfer of ninety thousand credits, then input her account number.  He touched the screen in a certain place, placing the flat of his thumb to it, and in a split second it had his thumbprint scanned.  It approved his identity, then executed the transaction.

      “Got it,” she said with a grin.  “Let me change the registration over to you.”

      “Why are you selling it so cheap?” he asked curiously.

      “I ran up some debts I’d rather not let my mother know about,” she admitted with a grin.  “And she’s been a boor lately.  So, I can sell off my old skimmer for some quick cash and annoy my mother at the same time.  It’s not the first time I’ve sold off old birthday presents and shit like that for some quick money.  And it pisses off my mom,” she laughed.  “She doesn’t believe in throwing anything away.  She wants a garage full of cars and bikes and skimmers to impress the visitors, even when we don’t use most of it.  She’s such a pack rat.  Hell, I need money, the skimmer’s mine, and I don’t use it anymore, so why not sell it?”

      “Why not indeed, my Lady?” Jyslin said lightly.

      “Can it with that Lady shit,” she said rudely, but she was grinning.  “Where is this going?”

      “Belle Chase Marine Barracks, New Orleans, Gamia Province.  Care of Jyslin Shaddale,” Jyslin told her.

      She was quiet a moment, typing on her keyboard.  “Alright, here you go.  It’s logged as 375-293567.  It’s going out on the freighter Rubina in an hour.  It should be there in two and a half.”

      “Now you have to get a class three license,” Jyslin teased him, poking him in the shoulder.

      “You’re buying a skimmer and you can’t fly it?” Eleri asked, then she laughed.

      “I have a pilot’s license, but not for an airskimmer,” he answered honestly.  “I’ll figure it out.”

      “Just remember not to use it until you get your license,” she warned.  “You know, nobody’s ever jumped on one of my little sales so fast before.  You’ve either been looking real hard or got real lucky.”

      “A little of both,” he admitted.

      “I like you, and you’re handsome.  Do you share?” she asked, looking at Jyslin.

      Jyslin laughed.  “Sorry, I’m a possessive girl,” she said, wrapping her hands around him.

      “Are all humans as cute as you?” she asked boldly.

      “No, but many are cuter,” he said honestly.

      “Damn.  They just opened Terra to tourists, so maybe I’ll come over for a visit someday soon.”  She chuckled wickedly.  “I have to start conscription in a year, so I have to get as much fun in as I can right now.”

      “Which is why you’re in debt,” he reasoned.

      “You’re a smart one,” she winked.  “One wild party too many, and poor little Eleri is in the red.  Alright, I’m sending you the airskimmer’s command codes in a separate file,” she announced.  “They’ll let you get into it and operate it.  I’ve already put the registration in your name, so don’t worry about that.  There are manuals for the skimmer inside it, and the keystick will be in the dash box.  You have a place to park it?”

      “I have a place,” Jyslin replied.  “There’s open civilian space on the tarmac.  We can go down and get an assigned space.”

      “Good.  Now, if you have any trouble with the ship, you know, the skimmer gets there all banged up and shit, or if there’s something missing from the skimmer, call me.  There’s been a rash of merchant marines stealing stuff off of the freight lately.  I’ll send you a manifest that has everything that’s supposed to be on and in that skimmer.  If your list doesn’t match mine, call me back.”

      “You’re an honest one,” he smiled.

      “Hey, you make a deal, you honor it,” she said seriously.  “I got your number here—it’s a floating panel.  Weird.”

      “I’m in school.”

      “Oh, that explains it,” she nodded.

      “You’re quick to pick that up.”

      “I don’t spend all my time partying,” she admitted with a smile.  “Well, that’s it.  I have to get my laps in.  Remember, if you have any trouble, call me.”

      “I will.  Enjoy your swim.”

      She reached down and touched her vidlink, and her picture disappeared.  “Well, that’s quite an interesting young lady,” Jyslin chuckled.

      The promised file containing the airskimmer’s command codes and manifest came in on his panel as a mail message, as well as the freight code number that identified the parcel.  “Interesting, and a godsend,” Jason said sincerely.

      “Well, which would you rather do today?” she asked.  “Practice or get your class three license?”

      “How am I going to do that?”

      “Well, you’re already a pilot, and Zora’s an accredited license instructor,” she winked.  “She worked as an instructor before her conscription.  Her parents fly skimmers in a tour operation on Dona IV, the gaia planet.  She grew up in a skimmer.  She can fly one while sleeping.”

      “Gaia planet, eh?  Sounds nice.”

      “It’s the vacation getaway,” she said bluntly.  “But it’s expensive.”

      “Naturally.”

      “So, want me to call Zora and arrange a training session?”

      “Sure, if she doesn’t mind.”

      “She’ll get a chance to fly your skimmer.  Trust me, she’ll jump all over it.”

      They spent the time waiting praciting his sending, which seemed to fly by.  They were both surprised when Jyslin got a call, and when she brought it up on her panel, it was the supply depot.  “I have a big package here for a Jason Fox, care of you,” the supply officer announced.

      “We were expecting it,” she answered.  “An airskimmer?”

      “A nice one,” she said honestly.  “Half my supply clerks are standing out on the tarmac, drooling at it.”

      “We’ll be by to pick it up in about a half an hour,” she said.

      “Take your time,” she said.

      Jyslin disconnected her and called another number, and a rather petite, sharply cute Marine with hair the color of aqua—another odd color—appeared in the window.  “Hey, sarge,” the Faey answered.

      “You still got your skimmer instructor license?”

      “Sure, I keep it up to date.”

      “Good.  I have a student for you.”  She pulled Jason up so she could see him.

      “Oh, hey, you sneaky little bugger,” she winked.  “You want me to teach him to fly?”

      “Class three,” she said.

      “The whole pot of bala, eh?” she chuckled.

      “What’s the differences?” he asked curiously.

      “Class one is hovercars and hoverbikes with magnetic induction engines, those vehicles that have limited altitude,” Zora told him.  “Class two is air-only craft with spatial engines.  Class three is spatial engines capable of space operation.  The classes are applied retroactively as well.  If you have a class three, you can run anything that’s class one or two as well.”

      “How long will it take to get a license?” he asked.

      “Depends.  Jyslin told me you were a pilot, so I think you’ll catch onto the flying quick.  But there is a written test that comes with it, protocols, rules, that kind of thing, and I’m not going to cheat.”

      “I don’t need you to cheat, Zora.”

      “Ok, the first thing we need to do is meet, and I’ll take you down to the barracks control office,” she said.  “I have to get you a class B learning permit that tells the system you’re starting your pilot’s training.”

      “We have to go there anyway,” Jyslin said.  “Jason bought an airskimmer, and it just arrived.  I need to get a space assignment on the tarmac.”

      “You did?  How did you pay for it?”

      “Lieutenant Lana sent the designs on those sound itchers he stuck on you to the Ministry of Technology,” Jyslin winked.  “They’ve paid him two hundred thousand credits for it.”

      “Wow!” Zora exclaimed.  “Well, then you can afford to pay me,” she winked.  “I’ll meet you over at the office in fifteen minutes, okay?”

      “We’ll be there.”

      She cut the connection, the looked at him with a smile.  “Well, let’s go get your toy.”

      It took only five minutes at the control office.  As Jyslin claimed one of the assigned civilian parking spaces on the tarmac, Zora had him over at a different desk, where she used her instructor’s control number to get Jason an apprentice pilot’s permit, or a Class B, which would allow him to pilot any civilian flying vehicle so long as an instructor was in the vehicle with him.  A Class A gave him the ability to fly if any Class three licensed pilot was in the vehicle with him, and the step after that was a full class three license.  There was a small red card with his name and picture on it, but the real license was a file that existed in the air-traffic computer network, called AirNet.  He didn’t need the card to legally fly.

      After that, it was a trip over to the supply depot, where all packages, be them military or civilian, came into the base.  The supply clerk directed them out behind the building, which was on the old tarmac where several Faey fightercraft were parked, sleek craft with narrow wings and a sharp nose.  But what got his attention was the ASV-430 sitting on the tarmac behind the building, in front of which was six supply clerks.  It was long, with short, forward-swept wings which were attached to the top edge of the fuselage.  The craft was sleekly tapered from stern to bow, designed with an engine that didn’t require aerodynamics but a fuselage that minimized air resistance when flown in aerodynamic ways.  It was about thirty feet long, nine feet wide, and when it was on its landing skids it was about twelve feet high.  The airskimmer was painted blue with a white stripe along the midsection of the fuselage.  The stairs were already deployed, but the hatch to get in was still closed.

      “Wow!” Zora said in excitement.  “An ASV-430!  And it’s a D-model!  How did you afford this?  It’s worth two hundred thousand credits!”

      “We found a young noble looking for some fast money,” Jyslin said with a chuckle.  “She sold it to us for a song.”

      “You are so lucky!” Zora said accusingly.  “Well, did she send you the control codes?”

      Jason nodded, pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket.  “Right here.”

      “Well, let’s get started!” Zora said with an eager grin.

      The first code was punched into the keypad by the hatch to get it open.  Jason and Zora sat in the front two chairs as Jyslin piled into the one behind his, and she explained how the codes worked inside.  The second code opened a small compartment which held the airskimmer’s keystick, which was required to start the airskimmer, like the key to a car.  Zora showed him how to start the skimmer, putting the keystick in its slot, then showing him how to use the third code on the page, which was the second half of the lockout system.  To start an airskimmer, one had to have both the physical key and the code.  Jason looked over the controls and saw that they were very similar to what he was used to.  Each pilot’s seat had a stick, and there was a throttle on each side panel—to his right and to her left.  At least it looked like a throttle, for he saw that there were two controls there, separate ones.  There were also two sets of pedals on the floor.

      “Alright, here’s how it works,” Zora announced.  “The control stick handles the pitch and roll of the skimmer.  Back brings up the nose—“

      “Down for dive, left for left roll, right for right roll.  Just like an airplane.”

      “Right.  There are two slider controls over here.  The one closest to you is always the altitude lever.  Remember that.  On your side, it’s the left lever.  On this side, it’s the right lever.  Always the one closest to you.  Push it forward, you go down, pull it back, you go up, just like the control stick.  The one on the outside is always the throttle.  Push it forward to go faster, pull it back to slow down.  Notice that the neutral position is two thirds of the way back, so that means that you can make her go backwards.  There’s a stop tab in the throttle that makes it stop when you hit neutral.  You have to push the throttle handle down and pull it back to get into reverse.”

      “Okay, I got that,” he said, studying the two sliding controls.

      “On the floor are two sets of pedals.  The inside set controls the yaw of the skimmer.”

      “The rudder.”

      “An archaic term, but yes,” she nodded.  “The outside pedals control the lateral movement of the skimmer.  Hit the left pedal, the skimmer moves left, the right pedal to go right.”

      “So it’s capable of moving in all three directions,” he realized.  “On all three axes.”

      “Just so,” she nodded as she started the airskimmer’s engine, which was a faint, high-pitched whine that settled into a hum.  Jason saw her do it, which control she pressed on the console between them.  “This starts the engine, this is for the radio.  Traffic control is always channel nine,” she told him, pressing the radio button.  The display already said it was on channel nine, so she picked up a small mike and clicked it.  “Tower.”

      “This is the tower,” the reply came from a small speaker on the console.  “Who’s calling?”

      “This is the airskimmer sitting behind the supply depot,” Zora called.  “Request permission to move it to, Jyslin, which is your space?” she asked.

      “Two seven two.”

      “Space two seven two.”

      “Space two seven two, roger.  Go ahead.  There is no local traffic, but don’t exceed twenty shakra.”

      “Understood.”

      “That craft is unregistered,” another voice called.  “Bring up the command computer so we can register it.”

      “Hold on.”  She lowered the mike and pressed a few buttons on the console.  “We’re linked.”

      “What’s going on?” he asked.

      “I brought up the airskimmer’s telemetry,” she answered.  “The tower is accessing the computer to get its registration and log information.  Here, look,” she said, puching a few more buttons.  A holographic monitor screen appeared above the console between them.  “This is the registration.  Here’s your name, showing you’re the owner.”

      “That’s my ID number,” he said in surprise.  “How did she get it?”

      “That came off the sale.  Remember, you had to pay for it.  When she changed registration, it pulled the ID info for the person who paid for it, and it picked that up from the bank.”

      “Oh.”

      “Damn, this is an armed skimmer,” Zora said in surprise as she watched the telemetry go by, as the tower downloaded the airskimmer’s data.  “You got a major bargain here, Jason.  Weapons, armor, shields, this was definitely a noble’s airskimmer.  They’re all paranoid.”

      He watched in intense interest as Zora picked the airskimmer up off the ground with a light touch on the controls, then moved it to a parking spot in an empty area between two hangars.  “Here we are.  Alright, let’s walk this through from the beginning.”

      He nodded, taking out a notebook from his backpack and a pencil.  “Let’s go.”

            Maista, 29 Shiaa, 4392, Orthodox Calendar

            Saturday, 7 June 2007, Native regional reckoning

            New Orleans, Gamia Province,American sector

      It had to be the busiest week he had ever had in his life.

      Never before had he had so many projects all going on at the same time, but at least now he had one of them off his desk.  He had school, he had training with Jyslin, he had his martial arts classes, he had trying to balance having a social relationship with Jyslin against his need to keep himself a certain distance from her while at the same time she tried to close that distance, and he had also had skimmer lessons.

      Those were his priority during the last week, for it was the one project which could be finished in a reasonable amount of time.  Every day after school he would meet Zora at his skimmer, and they would go over what he had to know to get a class three license.  There were a great many rules and regulations he had to know in order to fly safely, just as there were for an old pilot’s license.  But since he was also getting space qualification, he also had to learn all the protocols and procecures that other craft he might meet in space would use, from little ships Zora called “zip ships,” two man shuttles that looked like giant medicine capsules, up to the massive cargo freighters and battleships.  He had to learn the rules for them as well as rules for flying in the atmosphere, and it was a real strain with everything else he had going on.  He got virtually no sleep for the entire week, for he had to study and practice sending on top of his flying lessons.

      The flying part was nothing.  It took him all of an hour to get used to the extra controls, and by the end of that hour he had gotten used to the handling characteristics of the skimmer.  He’d lifted it off the tarmac a bit clumsily, but had set it down two hours later just as gently and safely as Zora would have.  He had a habit of not using the extra controls, falling back on old habits, and that really annoyed Zora.  But she couldn’t deny the fact that he could fly the ship safely and well, and she had signed off on the practical part of his license requirements that very night.  All that was left was taking the written tests.

      That was what took so much preparation.  He’d forced Zora to schedule him for the tests after school today, only days away, and she’d reluctantly agreed.  They spent four hours each evening practicing flying, going over rules, and having her quiz him on procedures.  They flew all around the planet as she took him to a certain area and let him fly to see if he knew what to do, but the truly amazing part of it for him was when she took him into space and had him do the same thing.  Flying in space had honestly freaked him out at first, for they’d gone through weightlessness, and all air resistance was removed from the ship, which radically altered how it responded to the controls.  The controls were unbelievably sensitive in space, where the lightest touch could send one careening miles off in a direction one did not really intend to go.  She walked him through all his space procedures, from approach to communication to rights of way, and had even made him execute a landing in a Faey battleship’s landing bay six different times.  Three of those landings were practice, two were simulated emergencies and one was a real emergency, which only came about when Zora had told him she was going to the bathroom, then disabled the control circuits once she was out of his sight.  But Jason had done everything he was supposed to do, by the book, and that had impressed Zora just as much as it had impressed the Faey traffic controller on the battleship where they had landed.  She seemed certain that he would panic and crash the ship against the hull or something.

      The tests were brutal.  They weren’t straightforward, they were scenarios where he had to make decisions based on the information provided to him, a practical exam using theory instead of actual hands-on work.  But they were over now, all three of them, and he stood outside the air traffic control center on Belle Chasse Marine Barracks holding a little blue plastic card that had his name and identifcation number on it, a picture of him in the upper right hand corner, an embedded microchip in the lower right, and the numeral 3, in a nice large typeset and in shimmering gold that clashed with the blue of the card, right beside where it said Class:.

      It was his class three license.  Jason could now legally fly his skimmer anywhere he wanted to go.

      It was such a heady feeling, and for the first time in years, he felt that same sense of freedom he had once had when he had had his father’s plane.  He could now pack up his skimmer and fly anywhere on Earth if he wanted to.  He could spend tomorrow in the Alps, or on the deserted beach of a tiny island in the South Pacific, or among the penguins of Antarctica.  Or he could go to all three in the span of a single day.  By using an orbital vector, going out into space and orbiting until he re-entered the atmosphere, the same type of navigational vectors that ballistic missles used, he could get anywhere on Earth with his skimmer in five hours.  If he was willing to go as fast as an ICBM, he could be there in an hour, but that was potentially lethal to the people in the skimmer, and it was very hard on the skimmer as well.

      It was too late now to think about it, but it was just so nice to know he could do it.  It was nearly ten o’clock, and he was bone-tired.  He had a test in calculus Monday and a project due in lab on Tuesday, which he hadn’t even started yet.  The project was to build a device that used a fusion pack that was not a device already in use.  In other words, they had to invent something.  It didn’t have to be fancy, and it could do something that an existing machine already did, but they had to design and build it themselves.  Most people in the class would just build a machine that made a light turn on or something, he knew they would, and that would be more than acceptable.  Professor Ailan had already told him that he didn’t have to do this lab, for his subsonic inducers were an original creation, and thus fulfilled the course requirement.  He already had an A for the lab, but he wanted to do it anyway, for two reasons.  Firstly, he didn’t want to give any students any reason to get mad at him, and he also didn’t want to attract undue attention to himself right now.  By not doing a project, the students would get ticked at him, and many of them were already a little upset with him because they all now knew that he was dating Jyslin.  Some of them had seen his war with Jyslin and the Marines as an uplifting morale boost, and some of them had taken it personally that he had seemingly totally caved in.  It would also focus attention on him because of that, and given that he was still learning how his telepathy worked, he wanted no undue attention, and he also wanted no external stress of any kind.  Emotional outbursts could trigger an unintentional use of his power, and that might get him caught.  So he wanted to take no chances that a pissed off student would take a swing at him or make him angry.  The risk was just too great.

      He just had to go somewhere tomorrow.  It didn’t matter where, he just had to, to celebrate getting his license.  He’d bring his panel and his books and fill up the skimmer’s cabin refrigerator and take a little trip.  He’d study for his test and come up with his project somewhere else.  He had no idea where, and he really didn’t want to yet.  He was pondering just throwing a dart at a map and going wherever the dart landed.

      Getting a cab wasn’t easy after curfew, but given that he had permission to be out after curfew, the one that did come after calling his third cab company arrived very quickly.  There was virtually no traffic on the road, as it was after curfew, and the cabby had no delays reaching the base.  Jyslin told him to call her after he was done and she’d take him home, but when he did he got no answer.  She must have fallen asleep, and he wasn’t going to keep calling her until she answered the phone.  He could get home just as easily in a cab.
      “Got yer permission card?” the cabby asked immediately after rolling down the car window.  He was a rough looking black man with wide, pudgy features, one of his front teeth missing, a scar on his lip over the missing tooth, and a battered old Saints cap on his head.  “You ain’t touchin’ my cab unless you got it.”

      “Right here,” he said, handing it to the man.

      He glanced at it, and his scowl lightened immediately.  “Good `nuff.  Hop in,” he invited as he unlocked the doors to his cab.  Jason piled into the cab and buckled his seat belt as the man turned around on the old tarmac that was used as a parking lot.  “Where to?  And what you doing out here on the blueskin base?”

      “Tulane, and I had to take a test,” he answered.  “School thing.”

      “Shit, they keepin’ y’all out this late now?  Least they coulda done was bussed y’all home ‘er somethin’.”

      “Since when do they care how we get to and from class?” he asked.

      The man laughed.  “God’s own truth that.  You fuhst or last out?”

      “Only one out,” he answered.  “I’m the only one who had to take the test.”

      “Da-yum,” the man chuckled.  “That musta been hella’ nervewrackin’.”

      “You have no idea,” Jason agreed with a relieved sigh.

      The man laughed again.  “Hey, least it’s over.”

      “Amen.”

      The man laughed again as they turned out onto Belle Chasse Highway, and said nothing more.

      At first he thought he was going to have a nice quiet evening, but things like that never seem to go anywhere.  The first distraction came when he got home and found a message waiting on his panel.  It was the Imperial Bank, and they were asking him if he wanted to take his account and put it into an interest-bearing plan.  That made him curious, so he checked his account once again.

      And found that it again had too much money in it.  Now there was nearly two hundred thousand credits in the bank.  He checked the account history and found that the Ministry of Technology had again deposited a hundred thousand credits into his account.  He hadn’t touched the money there outside of five hundred credits to pay Zora for her lessons, and now it had gone beyond curiosity.  Now, he had to find out what the hell was going on.  So, he used CivNet to track down a contact number for the Ministry of Technology on Draconis itself, and then he called them.

      As he expected, he got a holographic image of a Faey that was going to route the call, just like an automated answering system.  He tried to navigate through their rather confusing menu of choices, until he somehow got hold of a live person.  “Accounting,” the male Faey said in a boring voice, staring blankly at his monitor.

      “Hello, I need to find out about some payments that the Ministry has made to me,” he said.

      “Are they late?”

      “They’re too many,” he answered.  “They keep depositing money in my account, and I want to know why.”

      The man chuckled.  “Just don’t say anything,” he winked.

      “No, I want to know what’s going on,” he said.

      “Alright then.  Name and I.D. number please.”

      Jason gave him the information, and he split the display so half was his face and the other half was written record.  “Well, they’re not a mistake,” he said.  “There was the initial patent purchase of twenty-five thousand, then an expansion payment of seventy-five.  They pay that when they change your original design to create a new system that works differently than the original patent, but is based on your patent.  Then there was a usage fee of one hundred thousand.”

      “What’s that?”

      “That means that they’ve built something to actually use your design in a practical manner,” he replied.  “Subsonic—hell, that’s you?”

      “What do you mean?”

      The man laughed.  “Friend, you’re going to be a very wealthy man,” he told him.  “From the records here, they’ve split your initial concept and patent into two major subdivisions, and both are actively being used.  The first design is currently being mass-produced.  The water planet of Aigar VIII has ordered a few million of your subsonic communicators.  Seems that the water carries the sound much better than any other kind of communication technique.”  He switched to another page of data.  “There’s also a second design they’ve built on your patent that they use as a subsonic extermination device to kill the larva of deadly insects on Threshkal II.  That was the second usage fee that they deposited into your account.  In a few cycles, you’re going to start getting royalty deposits as soon as the manufacturer that’s producing the communicators starts shipping them.  You get one half of one percent of the sale price of each unit.  That’s the standard inventor’s royalty.”

      Jason was a bit startled.  He leaned back in his chair and stared at the screen.  “So…the money’s mine.”

      “All yours, and no, we didn’t screw up,” the man laughed.  “Your subsonic device is the current rage with the boys over at R&D.  They keep building replicas of the itcher and sticking them on the cars of the bureaucrats.  It’s gotten to where the paper-pushers don’t want to park anywhere near the Ministry.”

      Jason laughed.  “Well, I’m glad someone’s having fun with it.”

      “They certainly are.  Is there anything else I can help you with?”

      “No, no, that’s it,” he answered.  “Thank you for explaining that to me.  I was going a little crazy.”

      He chuckled.  “No problem.  Have a good morning.”

      “Night here.”

      “Well, then have a good night,” he said with a chuckle, then the call was terminated.

      He was a little surprised.  The money was legal, and there was going to be royalties.  One half of one percent didn’t sound like much until he realized that the man had said that there were going to be two million produced.  As long as he didn’t go crazy with the money, it would last him for a very long time.

      After that, he sat a while and brooded over Jyslin.  He knew he shouldn’t be going out with her, socialize with her, but he just couldn’t help it.  He liked her, and just the invitation of sex was enough to send him running in her direction.  He felt weak for that, weak that he was compromising his principles just to go out with Jyslin.  He didn’t see her as the Imperium, but he couldn’t trust her entirely yet either.  She’d shown she was worthy of some trust, but not the kind of trust that he would need to see in order to forego his philosophical stance and accept her as more than a passing friend.  He was being weak, and he knew it.  He was compromising his principles to satisfy his personal wishes and desires.  He wanted to be Symone’s friend, he wanted to go out with Jyslin.  He wanted even more when it came to Jyslin, but he couldn’t have it, and he was just fooling himself by doing what he was doing with her now.  He was letting her seduce him into going against what he felt and believed, but it was so hard not to get involved with her.  She was training him in how to control his power, and them being thrown together like that gave her all kinds of opportunity to both sway him by trying to change his concept of her, and also to just plain old tempt him into bed.

      But he could only think about that for so long before it became a self-repeating loop of accusations and frustrations, so he laid back on the bed and thought about where he wanted to go tomorrow.  That was a pleasant enough thought, and it was enough to lure him into sleep.

      Heaven.

      Heaven was sitting on a beach with the sun shining down on the sand, the waves crashing on the beach, a steady cooling breeze blowing in off the water, and him sitting under the wing of his airskimmer with a panel in his lap, a beer in a coozie on a blanket beside his chair, and him being a thousand miles away from all his troubles.  The beach was about the only place that was hot that he was ever willing to go.

      Of course, he couldn’t enjoy that kind of heaven alone, so the very first thing he did when he woke up at five was go upstairs and knock on Tim’s door.  He was there, and he was alone for a change, opening the door with bleary eyes.  “What?” he demanded sleepily.

      “Get up and call Symone,” he told him abruptly.  “We’re going to the beach.”

      “Man, Biloxi beach sucks, Jason,” he complained.

      “We’re not going to Biloxi.  We’re going to Hawaii.”

      “What?  How the—oh, you got your license?”

      Jason nodded.  “Pack.  I want to get there to see the sun rise.”

      “Hell yes!” he said with sudden alertness.  “Symone’s gonna kill me for calling her this early.”

      “She’ll get over it.  Now hurry up.”

      “Yes, sir!” he barked with a grin, then rushed back into his tiny room to call his girlfriend.

      Jason went back downstairs and packed up a small bag with what he wanted to take; swimsuit, towel, sunblock, sunglasses, bermuda shirt he saved just for excursions to the beach, and a straw hat.  Then he packed his panel in with his lab notes so he could work on his project, and he was ready.  He debated calling Jyslin and asking her along for several moments.  On the one hand, calling her was doing nothing but yet again knuckling to his own desires over his perceived duty.  On the other hand, he was taking very important lessons from her, and keeping in her good graces right now was a matter of some importance.  If he didn’t invite her along, she would likely be extremely pissed off, and that was something he couldn’t really allow to have happen.  Though he hated how he kept bowing his morals to pursue his relationship with her, at the same time he was more or less forced to maintain the relationship simply to protect himself.  It was a delicate line on which he had a swordfish hooked, and he had to reel it in just right to avoid having the line snap.

      He pulled his panel back out and placed the call, already kicking himself for doing it.  But it was necessary.  “You’d better have a damn good reason for calling me at five in the morning, Jason,” she growled at him over the panel.  The image of her showed that she’d been sleeping, for she wore an oversized shirt to bed that hung down to her knees.  Her gray eyes were narrowed against the light of the lamp in front of her, shining into her face.

      “Well, you finally woke up,” he told her with an arch smile.

      “I was awake last night.  I got called in.  Mobility exercise.  I tried to call your panel, but you had it turned off.”

      “I took it with me, but they made me turn it off,” he answered.

      “That explains it.  I just got back in a couple of hours ago.  I’d just gone to sleep when you called me.”

      “Sorry, I didn’t know.  I was going to see if you wanted to go to the beach, but—“

      “The beach?  Hell yes!” she said brightly.  “I take it from you asking me that you got your license last night.  Congratulations, hon.”

      “Thanks.  I thought you were sleepy.”

      “I can sleep on the flight over.  Which beach?”

      “Hawaii,” he answered.

      “I’ll be over in twenty minutes.  Oh, the skimmer seats eight, right?”

      “Tim and Symone and nobody else,” he said immediately.

      “You’re intent on that, I take it?”

      “Completely.”

      She sighed.  “Alright.  I’ll be over as soon as I find my bikini and pack a bag.”

      “Don’t bother.  I’ll call you right before we leave, and you can meet us at the skimmer.  Symone’s coming over, and she can take us to the base.”

      “That works.  See you in a bit.”  She gave him a wolfish smile.  “I’m going to wear my dental floss.”

      “It’s your sunburn,” he shrugged before ending the call.

      Symone was all for the idea of going to a beach, and she was over about ten minutes after Tim called her.  She was carrying a woven straw bag with her swimsuit and some other things in it, though she had it covered at the top with a towel and he couldn’t really see what she had.  She was almost insufferably bouncy, and her banging around and loud shouting at Tim to get him moving woke up half the dorm.  Jason called Jyslin just before they left and told her it’d be about a forty-five minutes before they got there, and they all piled into Symone’s rather beaten-up Toyota.  Symone wasn’t all that good of a driver.  “The barracks?” she asked as she buckled her seat belt.

      “We have to hit the all-night Wal-Mart and the Winn-Dixie first,” Jason told her.  “We need food, and I’d like a cooler to put out on the beach.  I don’t want to have to run into the skimmer and hit the fridge every time I want something.”

      “Good plan.  Have sunblock?”  He nodded.  “Okay.  I want to get a scooby mask.”

      Jason laughed.  “Scuba mask,” he corrected.

      “Whatever,” she said with a wink as she pulled out of the dorm parking lot.

      Their shopping was very quick, for Jason knew exactly what he wanted, and so did everyone else.  He bought a cooler, a small grill they could stow in the cargo hold, grilling supplies, four beach chairs, two beach loungers, and a large beach blanket at Wal-Mart.  Symone got her scuba mask, and Tim bought a beach ball and a portable volleyball net and ball.  Then they ran to Winn-Dixie and picked up all the things they’d need to grill hamburgers and hot dogs, bought some munchies, junk food, a couple of cases of soda, ice, and two cases of beer, then, just before they left, Symone ran back and bought two more cases.  “Taking beer home is just fine, but you should never run out,” she winked at him.  It got to be a tight squeeze in the car with all the junk they had in it now, but nobody complained as Symone raced to the Marine barracks, squealing the tires as she pulled up to the gate.

      “Watch your speed!” the guard barked.  “Passes, please.”

      Both Symone and Jason gave her their cards, and she gave Tim a long look.  “Who’s signing him in?” she asked.

      “I am,” Symone said.

      “Business?”

      “We’re just parking the car and getting on a skimmer,” she answered.  “We’re going to spend the day at the beach.”

      The guard sighed.  “Got room for one more?” she asked forlornly.

      Symone laughed.  “Sorry hon, we’re just the passengers,” she replied, taking a panel from the woman and signing it with a stylus.

      “Well, have a good one,” she said, taking the panel back and stepping away from the car, then waving them through.

      Jason had to direct Symone to the parking space of his skimmer, and Jyslin was there waiting for them, standing by her car.  She had on a pair of loose white shorts and a very loose see-through shirt that wasn’t meant to be buttoned up the front, and beneath it she wore a rather small white bikini top.  She had a floppy hat on her head and was holding a cloth bag that looked to be a bit heavy.  Jason directed her to the parking spot by Jyslin, for his skimmer parking spot had two spots for cars also assigned to it, and she jammed the brakes and skidded to halt.  “Damn, girl, learn how to drive!” Jyslin barked at her.  “Did you remember food?”

      “Food and a grill,” Jason told her as he opened the car door.

      “Well, then we have too much food,” she laughed.  “I brought some crab legs and junk food.”

      “We have room for it,” Jason assured her.  “Let’s get packed up and go.”

      They loaded up the skimmer, packing the food in the refrigerator at the back of the passenger cabin, on the left of the door to the lavatory on the back wall, stowing the stuff they wouldn’t need in the cargo compartment, then stowing their bags in the cubby spaces in the cabin.  “Alright, everyone strap in and we’ll be on our way,” he said as he jumped into the pilot’s seat and inserted the keystick.  He quickly and expertly started the engines and ran the preflight checks as the others got ready to go, and then he brought up the tower on the radio.  “Tower,” the female voice called over the speaker, as a sharp, fox-like face appeared on his console, a mature Faey woman with greenish hair tied back in a ponytail behind her.  This was a civilian Faey, one of a very few that worked on the planet.

      “Skimmer CS-18 requesting permission to take off,” he called.

      “Destination?”

      “I don’t have an exact destination yet, but we’re going to Hawaii,” he answered.  “I want to find a secluded beach out there somewhere.  Can I get clearance into Oahu and work it from there?”

      “Hold a second, let me call it through,” she said, and her face winked off the console.

      “I thought you had to have a definite flight plan,” Tim said.

      “Not under the Faey system,” he said.  “I just need clearance into Oahu, the traffic control hub for the Hawaiian region.  They can give me clearance from there, or make me land.”

      “Oh.”

      The face appeared in the console again.  “You have clearance into Oahu, CS-18,” she answered.  “Flight lanes are open, control is dynamic.  Avoid sector 14-43, and stay under 25,000 shakra through division 12.”

      “Division 12, roger,” he answered, making a note on a small panel to the right of the console holding her image.  “I don’t think I’ll be going through 14-43.”

      “What’s your projected route?”

      “I’m thinking sub-orbital arc along the southern trajectory,” he answered her.  “But I’ll have to make it a double-dipper to pass through division 12.”

      “Affirmative on that,” she agreed with a nod, looking to the side.  “Weather looks calm along all southern windows.”

      “Alright then, local?”

      “No unusual restrictions and no inbound or outbound traffic.  You hit us during a lull.”

      “Lucky me,” he answered.

      “Alright then, you’re cleared at your leisure.  Have a good journey.”

      “I’m going to the beach.  I know I will.”

      She chuckled.  “Got room for one more?”

      “Sorry, we don’t have time to wait for you to get a suit,” he told her with a chuckle.

      “Hell, I’ll go naked,” she told him.

      He laughed.  “Maybe next time,” he told her.

      “Good journey,” she said with a smile.  “Next contact with hand-off.  Tower out.”

      “What did all that mean?” Tim asked with a chuckle.

      Jason lightly picked the skimmer up off the tarmac, and retracted the landing skids as he turned the nose upwards and southwest.  “She cleared us to fly to Hawaii.  Right now she’s putting me on the board, and the global traffic system will keep track of my locator beacon.  When I’m about to pass outside of the control area for this region, they’ll radio me and let me know.  That way, if I have to call traffic control, I know who to call.”

      “Oh, alright.  “What is division 12?”

      “It’s an area of latitude,” he answered as he kicked up the speed, and they all sunk into their seats a bit.  “Division 12 is an area just off the west coast of America and out about 500 miles.  I’ll have to descend to under 25,000 shakra before we enter that area and fly under the ceiling until we pass through.”         

      “Why?”

      “I don’t know, but they’ve called the control, and I have to obey the rules,” he answered.  “We’re going to do a high arc out to California, descend and stay under the ceiling, then do another short hop out to Hawaii,” he explained.

      “Why arcs?”

      “The higher we go, the faster we can fly,” Jyslin answered for him, glancing back at Tim.  “Skimmers are subject to air resistance, so by going into thinner air, we can travel faster.”

      “Actually, the skimmer can go that fast at any altitude, but it’s hard on the fuselage,” Jason corrected her.  “And they don’t like you to break the sound barrier under 20,000 shakra.  It’s an unwritten rule of courtesy.”

      “Sonic booms?” Tim asked, and Jason nodded.  “I thought so.”

      The Faey traffic system was surprisingly loose.  All he had to do was tell them where he wanted to go, and they more or less let him get there along any path he chose.  He was passed to the Brownsville controller after passing out of the New Orleans control area, then he was passed off to a Mexican town called Zajuatineo, which was on the Pacific coast.  He had to descend and get under the ceiling once he hit division 12, then he ascended again on the outside as he was passed to Easter Island control, doing a pilot’s arc to Hawaii.  They were moving west, through time zones that were earlier and earlier, and the sun actually set in the east behind them and sent them back into darkness as they moved towards Hawaii.  They reached Hawaii control about 5 a.m. local time, and Jason slowed down, put it on autopilot, and accessed Civnet to peruse detailed atlas maps of Hawaii.  He and Jyslin pored over them, then Tim and Symone joined in with panels that swung out over the seats from the fuselage sides , just under the windows, as they all looked for a good beach.

      “Here, here, Molikakaiha,” Symone called.  “It’s one of the tiny islands, it says it’s uninhabited, and it’s public land.  The beach there is open.”

      Jyslin accessed the data for that island and nodded.  “It says it’s a wildlife refuge, but not closed,” she affirmed.  “It specifically says that the beaches are allowed to be used by boaters.”

      “That might not be isolated enough,” Jason said, then he grunted when he saw that the island, little more than a fly speck, was at the extreme western side of the island chain.  That island chain was nearly a thousand miles long, which put the island literally out by itself.  The nearest inhabited island was nearly two hundred miles away.  “I take it back.  I’ll call in and ask.”  He turned on the radio.  “Oahu control, CS-18.”

      “Tower,” came a male voice, and a young Faey man appeared on his console.

      “I have a destination, and a question,” he said.  “Destination is Molikakaiha.  Civnet says it’s a wildlife sanctuary, but also says the beaches are public.  Is it still public?”

      “Hold on,” he said, looking down and typing on his keyboard.  “Yah, still public.  You’re cleared to destination Molikakaiha.  There are no local restrictions and no traffic south of Oahu line.  If you cross north of Oahu line, be aware of restricted air space around Oahu proper and Pearl Harbor and call in for further instructions.”

      “Understood.  CS-18 out.”

      “Tower out.”

      “And that meant?” Tim asked.

      “It meant that we can’t fly north of the Oahu control station without calling for information about flight restrictions,” Jason answered.  “A line is a border that runs through the control station itself, and he defined which way it runs by telling me that north of it was restricted space.”

      “Oh.  That makes sense.”

      “I’m so glad,” Jason said dryly.

      Molikakaiha was a ribbon of sand with some trees in the middle, and a very small, steep-sloped extinct volcano at its center.  Jason circled the island twice until he found a good place to land, and gently touched down about a twenty yards from the waterline on a flat sand plateau whose edge gently angled down to the water, just to the edge of the treeline of palm, coconut, and banana trees.  After he put the stairs down, they all filed out and set up their camp.  Jason threw his large beach blanket over the sand under the wing, and Jyslin set up the grill as Symone and Tim set up the volleyball net.  Then Jason filled up the cooler with ice, drinks, and some chilled snacks.  The air was still a bit cool, and the breeze was strong, but he didn’t care at all.  After that, they put up the habitat module behind the skimmer, so they could have access to its bathroom and shower without having to go into the skimmer.  The habitat module was nothing more than a glorified tent, but it did have a shower and a bathroom in it, so that made it very, very handy.  After they got it all done, they sat down in the chairs and faced east, then watched the sun rise over the ocean.

      That single thing made the entire trip worth it, for it was a truly beautiful sunrise, with the perfect colors filtering through the slightly hazy sky, giving color to the air itself.  They watched until the sun became too bright to see, then they donned their sunglasses and got down to some serious relaxation.  Jyslin revealed the rest of her bikini, and the term dental floss pretty accurately described the back of it.  It was a thong bikini, little more than a G-string, in his opinion, which showed off her virtually every square inch of her very shapely backside.  Symone’s bikini wasn’t much better, a black bikini with little fringe along the straps of the bottom, which was also a spaghetti-strap thong cord that disappeared into the cleft of her buttocks.  Black fringe hung down partially over her bottom, presenting an illusion that something was being hidden when in actuality it showed off everything.  Tim couldn’t keep his eyes off her backside, and Symone enjoyed every second of his avid attention.  Those two made Jason’s bermuda shorts seem positively prudish, and Tim’s higher-legged swim trunks conservative.

      Jason was an avid swimmer, for swimming was a great way to beat the occasional heat in a Maine summer, but he wasn’t used to swimming in the ocean.  The water temperature of the ocean around Maine never got much over 60 degrees, which was a major difference from the warm water lapping at the beach here in Hawaii.  The salt water was something new and a bit surprising.  They all went for a swim, and Jyslin and Symone paid for their choice of swim suits very quickly.  Thong bikinis made them look sexy, but all that motion made them bind and pinch in some extremely sensitive areas, and repetitive motion could cause that cord that ran down into the cleft to chafe the inside cleft of their buttocks.  They raced up to the habitat module and took a shower immediately after they were done swimming, and looked much more comfortable when they came out.

      But the trip wasn’t only about having fun, so while Jyslin cooked some breakfast, and Tim and Symone played one on one volleyball, Jason pulled out his panel and books and started pondering his upcoming project.  He wanted to design something interesting, but not something that would take forever to build.  He pondered on it after Jyslin gave him some breakfast, as well as after Tim and Symone got tired of volleyball and laid out on towels in the sun while Jyslin sat beside him in his shady spot under the wing of his skimmer and read a book, almost until noon.  What he eventually decided on was a magnetic flux propulsion gadget, that would pick up a piece of iron and carry it along a track, just like a monorail.  The only difference here was that the one he was thinking of building would throw the metal across the room.  It was a magnetic slingshot, something he remembered seeing in the Ministry of Technology databases when he was researching them for a project he’d done for Ailan at the start of the semester.  The design was a thousand years old, obsolete by modern standards.  He realized that he still had a copy of those specs in his panel’s memory, and he brought it up again to look at it.

      It was very small, built from outdated components, and according to the application parameters, it was designed to launch small, hand-sized probes from ships for extreme distance scanning.  It could fire the probes at something like twenty thousand miles an hour, designed back when the Faey sensor systems were primitive compared to what they were now. It was an ancient, obsolete technology.

      At least as a probe launcher.

      Jason studied the design.  All he’d need was a modest PPG, some flux cabling around a Tritanium core, a loader, and some kind of recoil absorber mechanism, and he’d have a perfect weapon.

      He blinked.  Why was he thinking about a weapon?  It had never really crossed his mind before, but looking down at the specs, he could just see the potential here.  It could be a weapon, and a damned good one.

      Yes, it would work.  When fired at twenty thousand miles an hour, a round fired from that gun would go through anything.  It would even go through polymerized Neutronium, the current standard armor of front-line Faey war machines.  A steel-jacketed lead round, a heavy metal of some kind coated with a magnetic metal, would serve as the ammunition.

      There was a name for what he was considering, and it took him a few minutes to remember it.

      A rail gun.

      He could build it, and the materials would very easy to acquire.  The magnetic catapult and a spatial compressor behind it to absorb the recoil without having the weapon rip off the shoulder of the person firing it, a case, a place for a weapons clip and the PPG so both could be easily exchanged.  Yes, it would work.  He started sketching out a design quickly.  He could base it on an M-16 case, or maybe an HK227, or even the Faey’s MPAR-9, their current plasma rifle design.  Put the catapult module towards the back, just before the stock, and set the recoil absorber in the stock’s front section.  Put the catapult on a floating mount that caused the entire assembly to pull back after a shot, which would allow the next round to feed in from the bottom.  Spiralling the flux cable around the core would produce rifling to spin the round to provide accuracy, and the weapon’s barrel would serve to further improve aim—wait, he’d better install some flux cabling in there to keep the round from making contact with the barrel.  A bare scrape might make the entire weapon disintegrate.  Put in a crude microprocessor and some sensors to prevent the weapon from firing if it detected a jam or malfunction, add an ammo counter and maybe a rangefinder or some kind of night vision scope, and he’d have a functional weapon.  All he had to do was make rounds, using some kind of heavy metal and coating it with steel, which was both durable and magnetic.

      Wait…he’d be making his first rounds with a replicator.  Iron was a replicatable element, was moderately heavy, and it was magnetic.  Titanium was also a replicatable element, and though it wasn’t magnetic, it was extremely strong, much stronger than steel.  If he swapped it around, created an iron round coated with laminated titanium, he’d have a very strong round that wouldn’t shatter from air resistance after going twenty feet.  And the best part was both materials could be replicated, allowing him to crank out an unlimited number of them cheaply.  He’d just need a replicator and a molecular sprayer to do it.  Just replicate the iron round in the pre-determined shape, make the titanium, and then the spayer would coat the round in layers that would bond and form an armored shell much tougher than pure, unlaminated titanium.

      He fleshed out his crude design a bit more, adding in a display on the back of the weapon, then a scope mount, then settling on a place for the weapon’s processor.  He mentally went over what it would cost to build it.  He’d need about four yards of flux cabling, a class V PPG, a low-end processor like an MG-14, a very small display panel, and a replicator.  The replicator could make the parts for about half of the weapon, such as the case and some of its mechanics.  When it was all said and done, he thought, he’d end up with a weapon that only weighed about seven pounds, and if he made its outside case out of a composite carbon, a poly-plex compound, or laminated titanium, he could shave another half a pound off of it.  He could buy the parts he’d need to build it for about two hundred credits or so.  The most expensive part would be the Tritanium core, because it would have to be hollowed out, and that would run him about ninety credits.

      But…the core could be replicated.  Tritanium was merely an isotope of Titanium, and thus was within the ability of a replicator to produce.  He’d need one of those special X-model replicators, the ones capable of high-end replication, but it was more than possible.

      Without a replicator, it would cost him about five hundred credits, since he’d have to order them.  But if he bought his own replicator, it would cost about two hundred.  The replicator itself wouldn’t be cheap.  A decent one was about five thousand credits, and an X-model that could replicate exotic isotopes would run him nine thousand.

      He considered the parts and labor required to build a prototype.  He’d need a programmable processor board, something very, very small yet capable of at least twenty simultaneous functions.  He’d have to write a program for loading, firing, error detection, calibration, diagnostics, display graphics, and sensor operation.  He’d need access to a replicator to produce the case and mechanical parts, and that…well, that was it.  He could build it by hand using the parts.  The program would take him about a day to write, since it wouldn’t be a complicated one.

      He almost deleted the program and notes in a sudden fit of uncertainty.  Why would he even want to build it?  For the glory of the human race?  He didn’t need this thing.  If he really wanted a weapon, he could simply buy a plasma rifle.  He had the money.  So there was no real need for this weapon, there was only the challenge of seeing if he could do it.

      Then again, some part of the back of his mind realized that having the ability to build a weapon capable of penetrating Faey armor and do it vey cheaply and quickly might be something he’d want to know about.

      He would build it.  He just needed to design the parts and get access to a school replicator, which he could do tomorrow in Professor Ailan’s lab.  Ailan would let him use the replicator without any questions about what he was doing, even if it wasn’t for his project.

      It took him about five hours to finalize the design.  It would be a fairly simplistic device, with very little in the way of moving parts or complicated machinery, relying on the magnetic thrust of the catapult.  The only real mechanical part of it was the round loading, passing the round from the clip to the chamber.  He decided on a round that looked just like a regular bullet, because of the characteristics of air when something travelled at the speed that this was going to travel.   At supersonic speed, air became laminar, acting as if it was made of differing layers, and the round had to be able to move through that.  A standard rifle round that would have been used in any gun would work just fine, as long as it had a long tapered body.  The back was left flat to produce drag, which would limit the range of the round to about four miles, he deduced after doing a few calculations.  The drag created by the sharp corner at the end would eventually destabilize the round in flight, causing it to tumble, and at that speed even a round encased in laminated titanium was going to shatter when it turned its wide edge into the wind.  If the round didn’t break up, it would conceivably travel for miles and miles, and he didn’t want to run the risk of a round fired from New Orleans conceivably coming down and killing someone in California.  It was either shape the round so it would effectively self-destruct or implant a charge in the round to destroy it after so many seconds.

      It was about lunchtime, and Tim was studying for a test he had tomorrow as Jyslin and Symone laid out in the sun, taking advantage of the isolation to do so nude.  They weren’t afraid of sunburn because Jyslin had brought along a chemical compound with her in an aerosol that instantly healed sunburn when applied to the skin.  Tim had already discovered that it also worked on humans, so he had stayed out until he was as red as a lobster, sprayed himself down, which converted his burned skin into a very dark tan, then he rushed back out into the sun once more.

      “What have you been doing over here, Jayce?” Tim asked curiously.  “You’ve been at it all day.  Your project?”

      “It started out like that, but now it’s something of a personal challenge,” he replied.

      “What is it?” he asked.  Jason offered to show him his panel, so Tim got up and went around his chair to look over his shoulder.  “Holy shit, is that a gun?” he asked.

      “Yes and no,” he answered.  “It’s something I found in the Ministry of Technology archives.  I’m just modifying the design a little.  I want to see if I can make it work.”

      I hope you’re lying, Jyslin sent to him, doing so in a tight manner that meant that only he would hear it.  He didn’t deign to reply, mainly because he hadn’t quite worked out the trick of sending that tightly yet.  If he answered her, Symone would hear it, and then he’d have way too much explaining to do.

      “It’s based on the idea of a magnetic catapult,” Jason explained.  “This array of flux cabling creates a magnetic pulse that picks up the projectile and launches it.  The original design was meant to launch probes the size of an orange from starships.  I’m adapting it to fire rounds about the size of a .30 caliber bullet.

      “How far can it throw a bullet?”

      “That depends on crosswinds, the strength of the round, and the angle,” he replied.  “If I had a strong enough round that could survive the trip, I could shoot one from here that would land in Nevada.”

      “Bullshit,” Tim laughed, then he gave Jason a startled look when he saw Jason’s sober expression.  “You’re serious!”

      “Totally,” he answered.  “I already worked out the projectile velocity.  Using ten gauge flux cabling triple-wrapped and spiralled around the core to produce rifling, and a class V PPG, it’ll have an initial muzzle velocity of 27,495 miles per hour.  The rounds I think I’ll use will have a shape that will make them self-destruct after they go about four miles, but they’d go as long as the round could survive the air resistance if I used a different shape.”

      “Holy shit,” Tim said, then he laughed.  “What would you use it for?”

      “Nothing,” he shrugged.  “I just want to see if I can build it, and if it’ll actually work.  The math says it will, but sometimes math and reality don’t match up.”

      “Why build it if you never use it?” Symone called from her blanket.  “Hell, sell it to the Ministry of Technology.  They buy any weapon patents they find, even if they don’t use them, and I doubt they’d use that.  I mean really, what use is a gun that’s not an energy weapon?  It probably won’t even go through titanium armor.”

      “Because I don’t want to build something that the Imperium uses to kill people with,” he answered flatly.  If she only knew what it meant for a round to be fired with that kind of velocity.

      Jyslin obviously did, for she sat up and looked back at him curiously.  You’re serious, she sent.  That thing will work?  Like really work?

      He nodded to her.

      Damn, Jason, I’d send that to the Ministry.  They’d pay you a bloody fortune for the design if you can make it work.  A weapon using a Class V PPG that can penetrate any armor we have, that would take at least a ten megajoule shield to stop?  They’d make you a damn noble.

      “I do need to work on my project,” Jason said, giving Jyslin a stern look.  “Maybe I’ll do what everyone else is doing.  A device that turns on a light.”

      Tim gave him a look, then laughed so hard that he almost fell over.  “After making those inducers, you’d show up in class with a light?  Ailan would skin you!” Tim wheezed.  “He’s expecting you to come in with something titanic, like a device that totally explains women or something!”

      “Watch it, love,” Symone said sharply, rolling on her side and looking back at them, her sunglasses pulled down her nose and staring over the rim at them.

      “Now you’re talking about an impossibility,” Jason told him mildly.  “There’s no device that could ever explain women.  It would work on logic, and no device that operates on logic could possibly understand creatures whose very natures are illogical.”

      “I think someone needs to be dunked in the ocean,” Symone mentioned idly to Jyslin.

      “It’s starting to sound like it,” she agreed conversationally.

      “I’m so completely afraid of two naked women,” Jason said with scathing disregard, saving his work and shifting to another schematic file.  “This is what I’m turning in for the school project.”

      “What is it?”

      “Something everyone in school would kill to own,” he answered.

      “What?”

      “Well, it’s one of my unused ideas for back when I was battling the Marines.  It’s a device that will cause any Faey that gets within a hundred feet of you to lose her hair.”

      “What?” Tim gasped, then he laughed riotously.  “How in the hell did you figure that out?”

      “Well, Faey have a diet that’s not exactly like ours,” he answered.  “They eat things from other planets, and those foods have chemical compounds in them that stay in their bodies.  There’s a specific chemical compound called Selenium RiboDioxide that doesn’t occur naturally in humans, because it’s found in fish that are only found on Draconis, and like virtually every Faey eats them because they import it out to all Faey worlds.  This compound gets used by the Faey’s body, and it ends up in their hair.  Just like humans have traces of gold and arsenic in their hair, Faey build up this compound in their hair when they eat that fish.  So would humans if they ate that fish, for that matter.  Well, this device emits a harmonic tetryon pulse that causes that particular compound to change into a kind of acid that only reacts to the organic material that makes up hair, but won’t hurt living flesh.  So, turn it on, and anyone who’s eaten that fish even once during the last year will have his or her hair literally melt.”

      Tim gave him a startled look, then howled in laughter, falling onto the blanket and kicking his feet.  “Jason, that’s, that’s, that’s EVIL!” he shouted, then he totally lost it.

      “You were going to use that on me?” Jyslin flared hotly, putting her hand on her auburn hair defensively, but Symone was too busy laughing to care.

      “When you said you cheat, I decided to play dirty,” he answered with a level stare.  “You’re just lucky Lana intervened, or I’d be calling you cue-ball right now.  Then again, if I’d had the money to buy the components to build it, you wouldn’t have a single hair anywhere on your body more than ten days old.”  He put his panel aside.  “I think the threat of losing their hair would have kept all the Faey well away from me.”

      “That is evil!” Symone laughed, gasping for breath.  “And damn clever!”

      Jyslin made a face.  “I think we got lucky Lana ended it when she did,” she admitted.  “Else he’d have found some way to turn us all into frogs or something.”

      “Just give me time,” he said mildly, standing up.  “I’ll find a way.  Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s nothing but beer left in the cooler.  I need a soda.”

      “Just drink a beer,” Jyslin told him.

      “I’m flying us home.  I can’t drink,” he told her calmly.

      After lunch, Symone and Jyslin taught Jason and Tim how to ride the airbikes.  Airbikes were just like motorcycles in shape and behavior, but instead of wheels they had pods that went where the wheels were on a motorcycle containing spatial engines that provided the lift and thrust.  The controls weren’t like a motorcycle, however, for the the throttle was a pedal at the right foot and the brake was a pedal on the left, where the gear lever would be.  The main difference was that an airbike was capable of movement through three directions, so the handlebars were free-moving to allow for that.  The operation of the bars were just like a control stick, and you could make the airbike move laterally from side to side with buttons on the inside edges of the handles.  Moving vertically was accomplished with another set of buttons on the inside edge of the handles, just under the lateral movement buttons, both placed in a way that would allow a thumb to slide over and press them very easily.  Jason got the hang of it very quickly, but Tim, who was a bit drunk, almost crashed his airbike three times before Symone finally realized that he wasn’t in any condition to be operating a vehicle.  Jason flew them around the island as he got accustomed to the wind in his face, looking down from an altitude of about a hundred feet.  Airbikes had no crash equipment at all, only seat belts, so one took one’s life into his own hands when he rode one.

      Were you serious about building that gun? Jyslin sent to him.  Go ahead and send, we’re far enough away from Symone for you to send tight to me without her picking it up.

      Yeah, I’m serious about it, he answered.  I’ll never do anything with it, but I’d like to build it, just to see if it works.

      I still say you should send it in, she told him.  If you did, they’d pull you out of school and put you straight into research.  That’s money, Jason, and prestige, and real power.  The people in research write their own rulebook.

      No, he sent back, his emotions creeping into his telepathic voice.  I will not provide the Imperium with tools to fight wars or subjugate other races.  Ever.

      If you end up in research, you will, she warned.

      I’ll never end up in research, he answered.

      The hell you say.  You’re more than smart enough, and you seem to have a knack for our technology that goes quite beyond simple understanding  You’re a natural..

      I won’t go to research, he told her.  After next semester, I’m going to wash out.

      Wash out?  On purpose? she replied, shock creeping into her mental voice.

      After next semester, I’ll qualify for a systems technician job, and that’s what I’ll get.  I was serious, Jyslin.  I won’t become an asset to the Imperium.  I’ll work for it because I have to, but I won’t advance it if I can help it.  I don’t care how much money I’m passing up, or how much prestige.  In my eyes, becoming a asset to the Imperium would be a betrayal of my beliefs and the memory of my father.

      You’re being stupid.

      You’ve never believed in anything, have you? he asked her pointedly.  Humans are strongly tied up in their beliefs, Jyslin.  Humans will die for what they believe in, and do it willingly.   The Faey have become too jaded over the years, so pragmatic that they’ve lost their ability to have faith in anything, to the point where you don’t really believe in anything anymore.  Like you, for example.  You don’t go to church, so you don’t really believe in your Faey gods.  You don’t like the Imperium’s treatment of you, so you don’t really believe in your government.  You don’t like your job, so you don’t believe in your present, and since you’re so uncertain about getting into engineering, you don’t believe in your future.  You’re not alone, either.  Since many Faey seem to hate the way the Imperium works, they can’t even believe in their own government.  I haven’t seen a single Faey chapel built on Earth yet, so your people obviously don’t believe too much in your Faey gods.  All the Faey I’ve seen just go through the motions in their jobs and try to forget about their lots in life after they get off work.  I guess the only people who believe in something are the ones in power, but all they believe in is the power that they’ve managed to amass.  And living for nothing but power is an empty life.  So, I may be giving up money and power by not going into research, but at the end of the day I can look in the mirror and like what I see, because I’ll have held to what I believe in.  And that makes me richer than every noble in the Imperium.

      She was quiet for a very long time, her hands almost rigid against his shoulders from her grip on him, then she finally sent.  Put us down, she ordered.  I need to go to the bathroom.

      He swung them around and flew back to the skimmer, then set them down on the sand in front of it.  Jyslin got off the bike and walked away without comment, and Jason worried for a moment that he had mortally offended her.  Symone wandered over in his direction and joined him in watching Jyslin go up the stairs and into the skimmer, then she put her arm on his shoulder and leaned against him.  “So, what was that about?” she asked.

      “I’m not sure,” he replied.  “I think I offended her.”

      “She didn’t club you in the back of the head while you were up there, so I think she wasn’t all that offended,” Symone winked.

      “I guess not.  Are you going to put your bikini back on any time soon?”

      “I’m teasing Tim-Tim,” she said with an evil grin.  “My mission is to get him to bang me silly in the habitat module before we leave.  He won’t play for some reason,” she said with a slight pout.

      “He’s in company,” he answered.  “He’ll carry on with you alone, or even with me around because I’m his best friend, but not with Jyslin here.”

      “Ohhh,” she said, nodding.  “I get it.”

      “Where is he?”

      “Taking a shit,” she answered directly.  “He didn’t lock the door, and Jyslin went back that way.  She might get lucky and get a peek of my Tim’s big dick.”

      He ignored that.  “You’d better get some of that spray.  You’re looking a bit purple,” he told her, looking down at her breasts boldly.

      “Yeah, I know,” she said, cupping one of her breasts absently and poking the purpled slope of her breast with a finger, testing her skin.  “I certainly don’t want to forget before I get Tim in the module.  Trust me, it hurts more than it feels good when a guy grabs hold of a sunburned tit.  The only thing that hurts worse than a guy grabbing your sunburned tit is when he bites your sunburned nipple.”

      “I’ll have to take your word for that,” Jason told her with a light smile.  He never felt awkward talking about sex with Symone, mainly because she was Symone.  Despite the fact that she was a woman, he just saw her as one of the guys.  One of the guys with a very foul mouth, but still one of the guys.

      “Sunburn your nipple and let Jyslin bite it, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about,” she said with a wicked little chuckle.

      “No thanks,” he told her.  “And I’d think that that wouldn’t be the worst,” he noted.

      “Well, it was for me,” she answered.  “I wouldn’t even dream of trying to fuck Tim with a sunburned pussy, so that wouldn’t even be an issue.  I’ve fucked a guy when my tits were sunburned, so I have some personal experience with that.  I don’t think I want to even try it with a sunburn on the major equipment.  I’m not into pain.  I’m no bondage babe.”

      Jason chuckled.  “Personal experience, eh?” he asked.

      “Yeah, before I started my conscription.  I was at a beach, and convinced a guy to do me as a going-away present.  I shoulda thought to bring some burn-heal though, or it might have been more fun.”

      “Don’t tell Tim, he’ll get jealous.”

      “He knows I’m no virgin, Jason,” she laughed.  “But maybe I should.  It might get him horny, and I like it when he gets possessive over me.  It makes me feel sooo wanted,” she finished with a little trill of her voice that told him how much she liked it.  “There is something rather serious that you should know, though,” she told him with a slight, arch little smile.

      “Serious?  From Symone?” he said with mock surprise, and she punched him in the arm.

      “Yeah, serious, you little prick,” she shot back.  “I can’t tell Jyslin this, but I can tell you.  She shouldn’t send around me.”

      “Why?”

      “I’m not very strong with talent, but I have a trick.  I can hear it when other Faey are trying to send privately.”

      Jason whistled.  “That’s some trick,” he complemented her.

      “Thank you.  I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.  If the Imperium found out that I can do that, they’d put me in the Secret Police, and I don’t want to be a mindbender.”

      “Not a problem, Symone,” he told her evenly.  “Your secret’s safe with me.”

      “Oh, and please stop trying to pretend,” she told him with a knowing grin.  “I know all about your talent, Jason.  I heard you use it last week, when I bet Jyslin was teaching you how to control it.  Nobody else may have recognized that sending, but I did.  I know your voice.  And earlier, Jyslin was sending to you like you could hear her, like normal sending.  You can’t do that with someone that doesn’t have talent.”

      He gave her a startled, almost strangled look, but she just put her hand on his shoulder and leaned in, then kissed him on the cheek.

      “I told you my secret,” she said to him in a whisper.  “Now we both have a secret to keep.”

      “How long have you known?” he asked in surprise.

      “Since the day half of New Orleans heard you,” she winked.  “I knew what kind of trouble you’d get into if the Imperium knew, so I kept quiet.  You can’t tell Jyslin about me,” she said again.  “She might be keeping you quiet, but she’s an Imperial Marine, and I can’t entirely trust her.  She won’t turn you in because she wants a relationship with you, but I don’t have that kind of ammunition to use against her here.”

      “I wondered why you weren’t being as pally with her as you are with us.”

      “I’m still feeling her out,” she answered.  “I kinda like her, but I don’t know enough to know if I can trust her with that kind of information yet.”  She grunted.  “I need to get Tim going.  My tits are burned and that’s making them like hyper-sensitive, and anytime I start thinking of my tits, I want someone to play with them, and that just gets me thinking about sex.  Care to bend me over a chair and relieve some of my tension if I can’t get Tim in the mood?” she asked boldly.

      “What?  I thought you were in love with Tim.”

      “Oh, I am.  I’m not asking you to make love, Jason.  I’m just asking for you to get me off.  It’s no big deal.”

      He forgot that Faey had a radically different attitude towards sex, and also that they quite distinctly separated the concept of making love from the concept of physical gratification.  It was common practice for good friends to engage in casual sex, for a Faey didn’t attach such powerful emotional ties to sex in the physical sense.  For a Faey, the emotional ties and intimacy came when they joined minds, and that caused a dramatic separation of the physical act from the emotional act, so much so that each one had a separate standing in their society.  In her mind, she wasn’t asking for anything emotionally intimate.  To Symone, it would simply be sex, and that was in no way even close to making love.

      And, in a way, he realized, she was offering to make their friendship closer.  She had never offered sex before, at least not since those first days when he had her in the collar, when she found the idea of having sex with him to be an erotic fantasy.  By offering sex now that they’d gotten to know each other, she was telling him I want to be a close friend.  Faey wouldn’t have sex with casual friends, but a close, personal friend was more than fair game when a Faey felt frisky.  He understood that now, saw that first she shared a secret with him as an act of trust, admitted that she knew his secret to show that she was worthy of his trust in return, and then she offered to share sexual pleasure with him, telling him that she felt so comfortable with him that she was willing to perform a very intimate physical act with him, and that she liked him enough to find the idea of it pleasing.  Symone wasn’t offering sex—well, not just sex—she was offering to be his friend.  And not just a casual friend like they were now, but a personal friend, an intimate friend.  She wanted to be a best friend

      “I doubt it’ll come to that,” he said carefully.  “Tim’s too attracted to you to ever say no when you’re serious.  I’ll take Jesmind somewhere and take her out of the equation, and that’ll make Tim comfortable enough.  But,” he added, understanding that he needed some kind of positive response to her proposition in order to make her understand that he knew what she really was asking for, “if Tim won’t play, I’d be happy to take care of it for you, hon.  We can’t have you running around in a state of frustration.”

      “I knew you’d understand,” she said with a bright smile and a wink, then she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek once more.  “I need to find that spray bottle.  If you see Tim before I catch up with him, let me know.”

      “Sure,” he said.  He watched her saunter away, watching her bare bottom, which was just slightly tinted purple, and chuckled.  “Get the back, too,” he called.

      “I can feel it,” she replied as she went up into the skimmer.

      Tim came out the back hatch of the skimmer as Jason went to go sit back down in his chair and wait for Jyslin to come out, and he came over and sat in the chair beside him.  He noticed that Tim looked just a little bit out of sorts.  “Man,” Tim said hesitantly.

      “What?”

      “Er, well, I was in the skimmer’s bathroom, and Jyslin came in,” he told him.  “I told her to get out, that I was using it, but she just said she wanted to use the sink.  Well, she took off her bikini bottom in front of me.”

      “So?  Jeeze, Tim, you know that Faey don’t care about that kind of thing.  Both of them were laying around naked for half the morning.”

      “Jason, she bent over.  You know how cramped it is in there.  I saw it all, and it was like right in my face!  At first I thought she was coming onto me or something, but then I realized that she wasn’t when she turned on the water and threw her bikini bottom in the sink.”

      He smiled knowingly.  “It’s not a big deal, Tim,” Jason assured him, leaning back in his chair and waiting for Jyslin to come out.  “Faey aren’t modest.”

      “I asked her what the hell she was doing, and she said she had sand in her—er, her crotch,” he said.  To his amusement, Tim didn’t want to use more base terms about Jyslin in front of him.  “She said she had to wash the sand out, grabbed a washrag, and leaned on the lip of the sink facing me, you know, like ready to do that right in front of me.  I bailed at that point.  I’m just glad I wiped before she came in.  I was like three seconds from getting off the john when she barged in.”

      Jason laughed.  “I think she was trying to put you at ease, Tim,” he explained.  “She knows that Symone’s getting a little anxious, and I think she’s trying to show you that she’s not all that worried about it if you and Symone go off and have some fun.”

      “Like that?” he asked in a strangled tone.

      “Faey aren’t humans, Tim.  They tend to get their points across through example, not through words.  More often than not, instead of saying something, they’ll do something that tries to prove their point.  By sticking her butt in your face and fully intending to do something like washing sand out of her crotch in front of you, she was telling you I’m familiar with you.  She’s saying ‘hey, I’m willing to do just about anything around you because you’re a friend and I’m comfortable with you, so don’t feel that you can’t do something you want to do in front of me or when I’m with you.’  She’s not telling you she wants to be in the room with you and Symone, but she is telling you that she knows that you and Symone want to go make love, and she’s okay with that.”

      “I, okay,” he said, then he was silent a moment.  “You know, she coulda just said something.”

      “Tim,” he said steadily. “They may be Faey, but they are women.  Since when does a woman ever come out and say what she means?”

      Tim glanced at him, and burst into laughter.  “Point,” he agreed.  “At least it wasn’t something for nothing, though.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “Well, I didn’t exactly pull up my pants before I got off the commode, and she was staring right at me when I did.  She got a good look at my johnson.  She even looked down at it and everything without even being tactful about it.”

      “You expected her to be tactful after she did that?” Jason asked pointedly.

      Tim burst into laughter again.  “I guess that was a kinda stupid thought,” he agreed.

      Jason paused a moment.  “Symone’s looking for you,” he said.  “She’s feeling very frisky.  I suggest you take her into the habitat module for a while.”

      “I want to, but, you know, Jyslin was here,” he affirmed.

      “And now Jyslin just told you that you don’t have to hold back just because she’s here.  In her own special little way,” he added.

      Tim laughed, then grinned at him.  “I certainly got the message.  Where is Symone?”

      “In the skimmer.  You came out the back just as she went in the front.”

      “So she’s in there with Jyslin.  Making comparisons, most likely.”

      “Maybe,” Jason answered noncommitally.  “This might be better coming from me, so I’ll tell you now.”

      “What?”

      “Symone propositioned me,” he said mildly.  “But—“

      “No, that’s alright, you don’t have to explain that,” Tim interrupted him.  “Symone told me about that kind of thing, about how Faey friends—you know, have sex the same way they might meet at a coffee house and talk, and how it doesn’t mean she wants to date you.  She said she might ask you someday, when she felt that I was comfortable with it, because that’s what friends do.  That’s when I understood it, you know, how she totally doesn’t think it’s wrong to be my girlfriend yet have sex with one of her friends.  She kept thinking that you were too sexually frustrated or something,” he chuckled.  “You were sleeping alone, and she said a guy with a girlfriend shouldn’t be doing that.  She kept telling me that if you didn’t get some from Jyslin soon, she was going to have to go down to your room and take care of it, in her words.”

      “I’m glad you understand what that means,” Jason said with sincere relief.  “I didn’t want you taking it the wrong way.”

      “Hell, if she’s going to sleep with another guy, I’d rather it be a friend,” he shrugged.  “That way I know what diseases I’m getting.”

      Jason looked at him, then burst into helpless laughter.

      “Alright, time to go find Symone,” he said.

      “Make sure she used the burn-heal.”

      “What?”

      “She’ll understand.”

      “Oh, okay.  See you soon.”

      Jason watched Tim rush into the skimmer, and not a moment later he and Symone rushed towards the back of the plane, where he’d set up the habitat module.  The module looked just like a big circular tent, with a rubber-like door that had actual hinges.  It was climate controlled, powered, had its own kitchen and bathroom, and also had a collapsible vidlink built into one of its walls.  Using a habitat module was like having a portable house, but to the Faey, it was roughing it.  Jyslin came out a moment later, still without her bikini bottom on; actually, she was carrying it.  She sidled over to where he was sitting and flopped down in the chait Tim had just vacated.  “I see it worked.”

      “What worked?” he asked.

      “I was in the bathroom, sticking my pussy in his face to get him horny, so he and Symone would go bang each other in the habitat module and leave us free to talk,” she told him bluntly.  “He kept holding back while Symone was inviting him.  I just wanted to push him over the edge.”

      Jason chuckled.  “He told me about that.  I told him that you did it to hint to him that you wouldn’t mind if he and Symone went and had a little fun.”

      “Same result,” she shrugged.

      “What did you want to talk about?”

      “I thought about what you said a little,” she said seriously.  “I was going to send in that gun’s techs without you knowing, like Lana did with the itchers, but I’m not going to do that now.”

      “I appreciate that.  And I appreciate you being honest with me,” he told her gravely.

      “I still think you should,” she pressed.  “Look at what the itcher got you, Jason.  A skimmer.  Sending in the techs on that gun would let you buy a hangar full of them.”

      “I admit, I love my skimmer, but at least they won’t use the subsonics for killing people, or to oppress another world like they oppressed mine, Jyslin.  And I didn’t send it in.  As far as I’m concerned, this is just a lucky windfall,” he told her.  “They told me that they’re using the idea of it for communicating on an ocean planet, and they also adapted it to kill deadly bug larva on another planet.  I guess the larva are sensitive to subsonic frequencies.”

      “I won’t try to give you pep-talk propoganda bullshit, Jason,” she said honestly.  “You know how I feel about the Imperium.  Hell, you know a hell of a lot more about it than I thought you did,” she admitted.  “But we’re stuck with it.  There’s nothing either of us can do but try to make the best of it.  You asked what I believed in, but I never answered you.  I believe in me.  I believe in trying to get as far in the system as I can go to make myself happy.  Sometimes the system pisses me off, but what else can I do?  I just have to keep fighting for what I want.  Because if I don’t, I’ll have nothing but misery and regrets.  Even if I fail, at least I can say I tried.”

      “I can’t blame you for that, Jyslin,” he told her, putting his hand over hers and patting it.  “But we’re not going to agree on this point.  So let’s just agree to disagree and leave it at that.”

      She nodded, then sighed and looked at him.  “I want you to move in with me.”

      “No.”

      “But—“

      “Don’t start—“

      “I’m not going to get combative,” she cut him off in a level tone.  “Just listen to me.”

      He was a bit surprised.  “Alright,” he agreed.

      “Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not attracted to me,” she challenged.

      “I am attracted to you,” he admitted with a straight face.

      “Alright then, you’ve stipulated that you think I’m a sexy beast,” she said with a slight smile.  “And we established last week that you don’t see me as the Imperium anymore.  So, why not?  You’re not moving in with the Imperium, Jason, you’re moving in with me.  Jyslin Shaddale, remember?  If you can’t trust me by now with this between us,” she said, tapping her temple meaningfully, “then when will you ever trust me?”

      “Remember when I told you about belief, Jyslin?” he asked in reply, and she nodded.  “You represent something every fiber of my being opposes.  No matter how much I like you, or how much I feel you’re not the Imperium, my beliefs simply will not allow me to move in with you.  If I do that, I’m admitting defeat and allowing the Imperium to win.”

      “But we go out.  We have fun, we talk, we get along great together, we have great sex, and we do that other thing,” she protested.

      “I know, and sometimes it destroys me,” he answered candidly.  “Every time I come back from a date with you I’m kicking myself for being so weak, for compromising my principles because I wanted to spend time with you.  I know you’re the enemy, but I keep falling right back in with you, because I do like you, and I do want to be with you.  I know I have to keep with you because of that other thing, and that contact always breaks my will and leads to the dates and the sex.  Part of me wants to move in with you, but that part of me that opposes the Imperium won’t allow it, and I know that if I did, I’d never be able to live with myself.  Doing that would be admitting defeat, and that is something that I will never do.”

      She sighed, looking at her knees.  “So your pride won’t let you be anything more to me,” she said.

      “My pride, my beliefs, my upbringing, my conscious, just about everything but my affection for you and our stipulated mutual attraction,” he answered honestly.

      “So…at least I have one thing going for me.  Aside from my cute ass,” she said with a wan little smile.  “What would it take to change that?”

      “Oh, just your resignation from the Marines,” he answered bluntly.  “I cannot even think of having a relationship with a Faey who’s a direct representative of a government I despise.  No matter how much I understand that you are not the Imperium, Jyslin, you still represent it, and that makes you untouchable to my conscious.  If you were a civilian, though, I probably wouldn’t feel that way.”

      “I can’t resign.  I’m still in my conscription.”

      “Then we’ll just have to wait,” he told her.

      She sighed, then chuckled.  “So we wait.  Don’t make any long-term plans, Jason.  In three years, I’m coming for you, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

      “I’ll be waiting.”

      “Good.  Oh, and please don’t feel bad when we go out,” she told him.  “Just think of it as practice for when I’m out of the military.  I promise I’ll burn my uniform before every date, just so you have some kind of symbolic gesture.”

      Jason laughed.  “That might get expensive.”

      “Hell, money well spent in my opinion.”

      He was quiet a moment.  “Sophistry,” he sighed.

      “What does that word mean?”

      “Hypocracy,” he elaborated.  “I’m making up reasons to go against my morals just to justify doing what I want.  But I know it’s going to happen anyway, so at least why fight in that regard?”

      She laughed.  “It’s the power of the cute ass,” she winked at him.

      “It’s called thinking with the little brain,” he grunted.

      “Well, you can’t justify being my lover or my boyfriend, but can you at least accept me as a friend?” she asked.

      “I think I could,” he replied, “as long as you don’t try to make it anything more.”

      “Well, In Faey society, good friends often have sex,” she told him with a coquettish smile.  “Would your towering morals find fault with that?  Since we’ll be having platonic sex, not romantic sex.  You’d be what we Faey call a breakfast friend.  A friend we’ll have sex with, that often stays for breakfast.”

      He laughed.  “More sophistry,” he accused.  “That very idea is a contradiction in terms.  Platonic sex.”

      She smiled at him.  “Only to a human,” she replied.  “So, I promise to back off and be your friend, and only your friend.  You promise not to shut me out, and we both agree that we have the major hornies for each other, and we may, when the mood hits us, have mind-blowing sex.  Just platonic sex, no strings,” she winked.  “We also continue doing that other thing, until you don’t need me to help you with it anymore.”

      “I think I can live with that,” he agreed honestly.

      “Alright then, we have a deal,” she announced, standing up and extending her hand to him professionally, though he wasn’t sure how professional she would look, standing there in a white bikini top and naked from the breasts down.  He took her hand and shook it, sealing the bargain.  “Now then, you can do something for me,” she announced.

      “What?”

      She turned around.  “Could you please find the burn-heal and fix this?” she pleaded, showing him the dark purple on the top half of her buttocks, which were rather noticably sunburned.  So was her back, all the way up to her shoulders.  There was a light strip along where her thong bikini had been on her.  He saw the pattern of it and realized that the most burned areas were what was exposed when they were riding the airbikes.  “I don’t want to put my bikini back on until it’s healed.  Every time the strap shifted, it got very uncomfortable.  That’s why I’m walking around bottomless, hon.  I promise, I’m not trying to seduce you,” she said with a wink over her shoulder.

      “Symone had it in the skimmer,” he said.  “She didn’t come out with it, so it’s probably still there.”

      “I’ll go find it,” she said.

      Jason watched her bound up into the skimmer, then he leaned back and sighed.  He hoped that their agreement would keep her from getting too aggravated with him.  He didn’t really want to go as far as he did, for she would be an eternal temptation to him, but he also knew that she was his only hope of mastering his telepathic ability.  And because of that, he had to stay with her.  But, he could admit to himself that he could be a friend to her.  As long as she respected his ideals and knew where the line was, he thought that they’d actually get along rather well.

      He knew he was compromising his principles, but not by a great degree, at least not enough to really feel guilty over it.  At least now he felt that Jyslin understood him and understood how he felt, and she was also willing to accept that, work around it, respect his principles.  He couldn’t fault her for that, not one bit.  She was being very understanding.

      He felt it would work out.  He’d had a week of training, and had learned how to tune out the stray thoughts of the other humans around him, and had learned how to send.  He still wasn’t very good at it, but he was learning.  If he pushed himself, he’d be to the point where he was competent with this new power within two months.  And when he was, he’d be safe once more.

      At least he fervently hoped so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    4      6

Chapter 5

            Kaista, 13 Oraa, 4392, Orthodox Calendar

            Friday, 1 July 2007, Native Regional Reckoning

            New Orleans, Gamia Province, American Sector

      Life had definitely become weird, and finals had very little to do with it.

      Monday was the start of finals, finals which had had the entire campus in a frenzy of activity.  This most-elite of all native educational institutions had gone into an uproar of intense driving, as instructors worked hard to prepare their students for finals, as school officials and administrators rode the teachers, as the Zarina of New Orleans rode the administrators, as the Olena of southeastern Louisiana rode the Zarina, and the Baron of North America rode the Olena.  Everyone on campus from students up were short-tempered and almost obsessed with the final exams, so much so that both the regular Army and the Marines had placed extra patrols on campus to keep the tension from exploding into fights.

      Jason had his own tension and anxiety as well, but for him, finals was only a small part of it.  The core of his tension laid mainly in Jyslin.  Though he did truly like her, his moral and philosophical beliefs were more and more causing some friction between them, though it wasn’t anything so huge that they decided to quit one another.

      Truth be told, Jason had become quite amicable to their relationship.  He liked Jyslin, and he was strongly attracted to her, and she had been true to her promise to back off, to treat him like a friend and not a love interest.  Under those conditions, he was able to at least partially justify in his own mind being around her, and they’d had a pretty good time.  She continued to train him in telepathy, which was the primary focus for both of them.  She wanted him not just competent, but quite skilled with his power by the end of July, when she’d have absolutely no qualms about him operating around Faey without worrying.  He agreed with her and worked very, very hard to train himself, often at the expense of his schoolwork, though his average never dropped below 94. When not training in telepathy, they had a pretty good time. He started teaching her Aikido and started working out with her, they would watch movies or play bridge or just pal around with Tim and Symone when all four had free time.  Every Sunday, they all piled into his airskimmer and they went somewhere.  They’d been to the beach, to the Andes for some summer (winter down there) skiing, and had gone on a guided car-safari in Africa.  Jyslin seemed to have no problems befriending Tim and Symone, and for her part, Symone warmed up considerably towards Jyslin over the weeks.  Obviously, Symone had gotten more comfortable with the Marine.

      But there were fights, and some of them got passionate.  Most of them revolved around Jason’s lack of interest in trying to get placed into Black Ops (where most weapons and top-secret military systems were designed) or R&D (where everything was designed).  Jyslin seemed totally incapable of fathoming that doing so was going against the fundamental bedrock of his personality and moral standing, for he had vowed that he would never help the Faey by designing, building, or maintaining anything that would help them continue to keep their hold over Terra or allow them to conquer another planet.  Jason still had every intention of washing out next semester and getting a job as a systems technician, maintaining generic Faey technology on Earth, but nothing sensitive or military in nature.  Despite two months of being together, Jyslin still could not understand the intense hatred he had of the Faey and what they had done to his world.  It was almost like she refused to see the forest for the trees, because she seemed to think that if he could accept her and Symone, then he should be able to accept any other part of Faey government, society, or culture, at least after he got enough exposure to it.  She kept trying to bring him into her world, and every time she did so, he set his heels in and absolutely would not budge.  She became aggravated that he had no trouble bringing her into his world, but would not even for a moment come into hers.

      The only ground he’d given over that was to meet Jyslin’s aunt, Lorna. Lorna was a general in the Royal Marines, who worked in their command center in Washington, the Pentagon.  The Faey had taken a liking to the building after the dissolution of the American military, and had annexed it for their own use.  Lorna was much as Jyslin described, a blunt, straight-talking woman with a broken nose, a scar on her chin, a cybernetic left eye, and a very direct demeanor.  They’d met over dinner about a week ago, when Lorna came down to visit her niece, and Jason had to admit that he did rather like her.

      Right now, he and Jyslin were in a “cool-off” phase, for they’d had another fight last night when he refused to attend a barbecue that her squad was giving in Audobon park on Sunday.  Every month, Jyslin’s squad got together for a social occasion, which included the staff officers that didn’t always mingle with the enlisted.  It helped maintain unity within the squad.  Lately, the squads had started playing baseball on Saturdays, when schedules allowed, and Jyslin’s squad was currently 3-1 in intersquad scrimmages.  Faey seemed have a curious like of the sports of baseball, soccer, football, and basketball, and it wasn’t odd to see off-duty Faey walking down the streets or in malls with New Orleans Saints tee shirts or hats.  Much to Jason’s surprise, he’d even seen a professional baseball game televised on ISN, the Imperial Sports Network, the Faey Imperium’s version of ESPN.  That game had high ratings, where the Boston Red Sox crushed the New York Yankees, 7-2.  Granted, it was at four in the morning by Imperial Standard Time, the time by which the Imperium operated, but given that every world had its own time, but every retranmission station delayed programming to coincide as closely as possible with IST.  It was virtually impossible on some worlds, though.  IST consisted of a 30 hour day, a 10 day week, and a 30 day month.  Local time was impossible to corrolate to that because of the 24 hour day.  Generally, they let the programming slide for a couple of weeks, then edited a block of programming to resynch local programming with IST.  The only stations that didn’t adhere to IST were INN and a couple of entertainment networks.

      Thing on other fronts were going rather well.  Jason had scrapped his project idea, and instead had built a panel “remote keyboard,” which was basicly just a stand-alone holographic keyboard that linked back to the main panel.  It included a redirector to allow the panel to send its video display to another monitor, allowing someone to sit in a chair and use a standard television as the display, while the panel sat on a table across the room.  One couldn’t use the touch features of a panel’s standard display, but it was useful for just writing out reports and such.  Jason had built it in about three days, getting his hands on a broken panel’s holographic emitter and the keyboard programming, then adding in a few simple programs to allow the hardware to receive panel video information and relay it to a remote receiver.  He bought the remote receiver from a mail-order company on Arcturus IV.  All in all, his project cost him about 74 credits to build, and it worked.

      Not that he needed money.  He’d received his first royalty payment for the hypersonic communicators, which were based on his design idea, and it had been quite shocking.  That first monthly payment was C67,289.18443.  Decimals beyond two places weren’t often used with credits, but when it came to royalties, where he had a percentage, they were kept in to keep the books straight.  That was 67,000 or so credits for one month.  And he’d receive a royalty check every month, his cut for every unit that was produced.  He had yet to start getting royalties for the larva killer device, because they’d had a production glitch and had had to push back the schedule.  They even sent him an email to tell him that, keeping him informed on what was going on.  He appreciated that.

      Now those things, he didn’t mind being paid for.  They were non-military, and in the case of the larva killer, they actually helped people.  He liked the idea that someone had taken something he thought up and had adapted it so it was being used to help keep people from getting sick.  That was probably the only reason he ever thought to spend any of that money, instead of just transferring it into hard currency and throwing it off the Huey Long Bridge.  Jason had no beef with the people in the Imperium per se, as long as they didn’t represent the system.  He had no problems with them using his ideas to help make life better for his fellow oppressed citizens…even if it was an arm of the government that was doing it.  In that way, and that way only, he was able to bend his moral position, because his ideas were serving a greater good.  The government was just a messenger, and in this case, he wasn’t going to shoot the messenger.

      There was one thing military he had going on, and that was the rail gun.  It was already built, sitting on a rack on the wall over his desk, sitting there taunting him a little bit.  The gun was assembled, but so far, he’d had no luck with it.  The technical specs were good, and the weapon had been built correctly, but his problem laid in the software.  Jason wasn’t that bad using TEL, Trinary Encoded Language, the standard programming language of most non-military Faey devices, but he was having a devil of a time trying to get everything just so.  So far, the weapon had remained inoperable because of a software-hardware conflict, and he just hadn’t had the time to iron it out.  Every time he loaded the new code for it, the weapon would go into emergency shutdown mode either as soon as he tried to bring up the processor, after he loaded a round in the chamber, or after he disengaged safety and went hot.  He hadn’t even got to where he could fire the weapon yet.  It wasn’t like he was really all that worried about it…after all, he was only building it to see if he could.  And with everything else going on, it wasn’t like he had all that much time to play with it.

      It had certainly driven Ailan absolutely wild with curiosity when he asked to use the replicator, then was very secretive about what he was doing.  Ailan kept a very close eye on the things his star pupil did, wondering what new idea Jason would come up with next, and actually wanting to get into the design of it a little bit.  Ailan had the soul of an engineer, always wanting to tinker or experiment, and had actually done some pretty clever things with the subsonic inducer that Jason had given him.

      “You know, I think I’ve figured out how you think this stuff up,” Ailan had confided last week, as they went over his project after Jason brought it in to show him, his one and only chance to have the instructor check his project.  “You come into this with absolutely no pre-conceived notions.  You have a fresh outlook on things, you know?  I almost envy you for that, you know.”

      “All you have to do is open your eyes and look at things, Ailan,” Jason chuckled.

      “Yes, but you see, I have years of training jading my point of view,” he answered.  “You don’t.  You look at something and see something I never considered, because your lack of training lets you approach it from an angle I wouldn’t consider.”

      “You might be right,” Jason had acceded.

      That was a pretty interesting point, Jason had to agree.  Jason didn’t come into this thinking in only one manner, because it was all so new to him.  He saw something and immediately his mind started thinking of how it could be used, without knowing what it really could be used for.  That let him see a way to use something that Ailan might not, because he’d discount that to be used in that manner, or ignore it because something else also did that.

      The railgun was a perfect example of that.  No Faey would think of something like that, because it seemed primitive in the age of energy weapons.  But in its own way, Jason’s railgun was the equal of any MPAC in production, it just worked in a different way.  If  he could ever get the damn thing to work, anyway.

      Caffeine.  He needed caffeine.  Jason backed his chair away from the desk, where a five line calculus problem harangued him from the display on his panel, then scrubbed his face with his hands and lightly slapped his cheeks.  It was four in the morning, but he’d been up since two, unable to sleep.  He had no classes today; in fact, he had no classes until Monday, when their finals began.  All week he’d only had one scheduled class, his project turn in with Ailan.  All other classes were cancelled, but the teachers remained in their classrooms during the normal class hours to answer questions or tutor any student who wanted help.  Despite no classes on the schedule, almost every student had been on campus every day all week, studying in class to ask questions, studying in the library, on the green, in the halls of the Plaid, out in Audobon park, virtually everywhere.  The campus had been quiet, subdued, and not a little tense since last Monday.

      Everyone was anxious to get it overwith.  There would be a three week holiday between semesters, and everyone was looking forward to some major decompression.  The school wasn’t letting everyone just run off, however, nor let them just do nothing but drink beer for three weeks and come back to school trashed.  For one, they were being very stingy with travel permits for students, but were much more lenient with granting permits for relatives to come visit them. They were also offering several holidary trips to students, field trips to let them see Faey technology in action, and many of them had filled up with volunteers. The most popular trip without a doubt was the one up to a Faey battle cruiser, giving the students the opportunity to tour a military starship.  They’d had so many sign up for it that they were going to have to use three shuttles to get them all up to the ship.  In addition to the voluntary trips, everyone had a mandatory physical they had to take during the holiday, and everyone also had to attend a mandatory job fair of sorts on campus the week before the next semester, so they could get an idea of the many different professions from which they had to choose, and start working towards trying to qualify for one.  They had one every semester, but they all had to go anyway, if only to get updated information about certain choice job fields.  Jason felt it was stupid, but it wasn’t like he was in a position to do anything about it.

      Ailan had bugged him for days about getting on with the ship tour, but Jason had just blown him off, then stated in a casual manner that if he wanted to go visit a starship, he’d just fly up to one.  He’d been on one before, after all, even though he’d never gotten out of his skimmer.  Ailan had just laughed and admitted that he forgot that Jason had gotten a pilot’s license, and happened to own his own airskimmer.

      He’d used his money in other ways as well.  For one, there was a beat-up old Toyota Corolla sitting out in the student parking lot.  It looked like it was about to fall apart, a ratty old rust-colored sedan whose paint color concealed the rust all over the chassis rather well, but Jason wasn’t about to flaunt his financial independence on campus.  Despite its outward appearance, the car ran well, was very dependable, and it got him to and from Bell Chasse and his airskimmer quite well.  Tim had keys for it as well, and they tended to share it, because he went out with Symone so much and it was often hard for her to come get him every time.  So he just took the car and went to meet her, with Jason’s blessing.

      Standing up, Jason opened the small refrigerator crammed up against the side of his bed and grabbed a new soda, then drank about half of it in a single draw.  Calculus was kicking his ass, as usual, because the Faey concept of calculus would make Einstein’s brain melt.  But it was absolutely critical for Faey engineering, for metaphased plasma required massive numbers of variables to be taken into account to mathematically predict the behavior of metaphased plasma in real time.  Even though the computers handled those calculations in operating equipment, an engineer had to be capable of the math to deal with some problems, as well as design.  So any engineer worth his hair had to be able to handle equations with large numbers of variables.  Calculus was, after all, a math that dealt with changes in real time, but the kicker was that these equations dealt with a substance that operated in multiple states of reality, each of which caused changes to every other variable when they changed, including a change to itself.  An infentismal shift in one variable altered every other variable and totally rewrote the entire equation.  It was almost maddening.  Jason couldn’t believe that there were any sane Faey engineers left.

      His panel beeped that an incoming call was waiting, so he sat back down and punched it up.  Tim’s face appeared in the display, his hair a mess and a paper towel to his nose.  His nose was bleeding.  “I figured you’d be up.  Still studying?”

      “I slept a bit and got up early.  Gone to bed yet?”

      “Naw,” he answered.  “I’m about to though, when this nosebleed stops.”

      “What happened?”

      “I dunno.  I just rubbed my nose, and it started bleeding.  Guess I hit it just right.  What you studying?”

      “Calculus.”

      Tim winced.  “You’re braver than I am.  I think I’ll invent some numbers on the spot and put them on the test.  Maybe I can get some points for originality.”  Jason laughed.  “Symone wanted to know if you’re free next Saturday for a trip.  She saw a TV show about Yellowstone, and now she wants to go.”

      “Any place cooler than here would make me very happy,” he sighed, looking at the heavy condensation on his window.  His room was about 65 degrees, and it was about 85 outside, which caused his window to be totally covered in dew.  Jason and some of the other people on his floor had something of an ongoing war about the thermostat, because it controlled the temperature on the whole floor.  But it had been upwards of 105 during the day with heat indexes of 115, a heat wave even for New Orleans, so they hadn’t complained too much lately when  Jason turned it down.  They’d come to realize that if they let it get really cool in the rooms at night, it didn’t get too hot once the doors started to fan and let that blistering heat inside during the day.  “It was nice to be out in the snow again, when we went to Argentina.”

      “I thought Jyslin was going to kill you,” Tim laughed.  “She’s a good skiier, though, I’ll give her that.”

      “She spent her teen years on an arctic planet.  There wasn’t much more to do than ski,” Jason chuckled.  “That’s why she hates the cold.”

      “So, you’re in for Yellowstone?”

      “Yeah, but I’m not paying the parking fees this time,” he warned.  “If Symone wants to go, fine, I’ll take her.  But she’s responsible for paying to park the skimmer.”

      “I’ll warn her,” he said with a grin.  “How much do they usually run?”

      “Depends on the airfield, but usually no more than 30 credits.  Oh, have her check and see if there’s skimmer parking in the park itself.  It might be more expensive, but it saves us from having to get a cab or take the airbikes.”

      “I’ll tell her.  Well, think this nosebleed’s about over, so I’m going to bed.  See you in class tomorrow.”

      “Don’t oversleep.”

      “You won’t let me,” he said, then ended the call.

      Jason blew out his breath as his calculus problem returned to the screen.  He couldn’t evade it anymore; it was time to get back to work.

            Koira, 18 Oraa, 4392, Orthodox Calendar

            Wednesday, 6 July 2007, Native Regional Reckoning

            New Orleans, Gamia Province, American Sector

      It.  Was.  Over.

      Jason came out of Calculus feeling a bit dizzy.  That was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the hardest test he had ever, ever, taken.  One of the questions had 32 independent variables, and took almost a three pages of scribbling to solve.  It was the first non-literature course he had ever taken where the number of pages it took to complete the test exceeded the number of questions it contained.

      But, they certainly saved the worst test for last, because that was it.  He’d taken all the other tests already, and he was done for the semester.  Outside of a physical and the job fair, his time was now exclusively his own until August.  He intended to spend that time not training with Jyslin either in air conditioning or over at the indoor pool.

      Well, and finish the railgun.  That little project could now have his undivided attention.

      He just felt so, so free.  He didn’t have to get up, he didn’t have any homework, he didn’t have any tests, all he had was free time.  Glorious, wonderful, beloved free time.

      He did need to decompress.  He felt like someone had just pulled his brain out of his nose with a pair of salad spoons.  He didn’t want to do anything even remotely resembling rational thought.  Problem was, Tim still had 2 more finals to take, so he couldn’t really go celebrate with him.  Jyslin and Symone were on duty, and he didn’t really socialize with anyone outside of them.  Jason was an exceedingly private person, and was slow to make new friends.  Besides, he’d been too busy to do much socializing.

      Without much to do, he dropped his stuff off at his room, then caught a streetcar down to the French Quarter.  He went to his favorite bar, Patty O’s, and sat out in the courtyard sipping on a daquiri while listening to jazz music piped in over the bar’s audio system. It was exactly what he needed.  It was the middle of the day, the place wasn’t busy, and it was the perfect place to sit and just unwind after two weeks of hell.

      For over an hour, he just sat there nursing his single daquiri, then sighed and leaned forward in his chair.  He couldn’t stay idle for long, so he started scribbling some lines of code on a napkin to try to get around the hardware conflict preventing the railgun from working.  He went through about four napkins before a shadow blocked the light, and he looked up.

      He’d never seen this Faey before.  She was very tall, one of the tallest Faey he’d ever seen, with translucent green hair that was long and very straight, tied behind her head in a tail.  Unruly bangs hung over her violet eyes, waving every time she moved, and her face and body alike were very narrow.  She wore a uniform he’d never seen before, a charcoal gray uniform with a light jacket over a black shirt, and a knee-length skirt.  She was carrying a black attachè case.  He’d become somewhat familiar with Faey military rank, and the silver diamond  insignia with a bar under it on her collar denoted her as a Lieutenant Commander.  She had an oddly excited look on her face, and she got the initial attempt to scan his surface thoughts out of the way almost immediately, a scan that met nothing but that false front of inane thought that protected him from curious Faey.

      “Greetings,” she said in very thickly accented English, almost as if she were trying to sing the words.  “You are Jason Fox, yes?”

      “I am,” he said cautiously, in Faey.

      “Oh, thank the Trinity!” she said with an explosive sigh, pulling the chair out on the other side of the table and seating herself uninvited.  “I’m still having tremendous trouble with English.  I did so want to conduct this initial interview in your native language, but I’m very relieved you’re willing to use Faey.”

      “Who are you?” he asked bluntly.

      “Lieutenant Commander Lirrin Ulala,” she said, extending a blue hand.  “And I’m very excited to meet you, Jason Fox.”

      Jason stared at that hand, then met her eyes until she cleared her throat and withdrew it delicately.  Jason didn’t feel too social at the moment, but on the other hand, he avoided skin to skin contact with Faey at all costs.  Their telepathic powers were amplified if they had physical contact, and he couldn’t risk that.  “Yes, well, please excuse me for inviting myself this way, but I didn’t really expect to meet you so soon.  I was just touring the French Quarter and stopped here to use the restroom, and happened to spot you from the doorway.”  She pointed down the hall, to where the rather archaically placed restrooms were located.  Patty O’s was not restroom friendly.  “When I realized I had the good luck to cross paths with you, I couldn’t pass it up.  It saves me having to call you and disturb you with setting up a formal appointment.”

      “An appointment for what?”

      “I’ve been sent to interview you and a few other people in several academies on Terra,” she answered.  I’m a divisional recruitment officer for the Technological Advancement division of the Ministry of Science.  You know, Research and Development.”

      That sent a chill through him.  R&D?  What did they want with him?

      “Why would you come to see me?  I’m just a student.”

      “That’s exactly why I came to see you,” she chuckled.  “My division handles recruiting students into R&D.  We oversee academies and, when we see someone who has the test scores to conceivably qualify for R&D, we send someone like me to meet the potential candidate.  My job is to educate you about what goes on in R&D, so you might consider it a career choice and actively work towards qualifying for it.  I don’t have them with me, but I have some literature and some passcodes for you, so you can access the candidate section of R-net, the R&D network.  I’d usually give it to you during the interview, but as I said, this wasn’t planned.”  She smiled.  “You’ll receive some other visits, I’m sure.  Anyone who becomes a potential candidate for R&D is also a potential candidate for Black Ops, which is something like the bastard stepchild of R&D.  They deal only with developing weapons, arms, armor, that kind of thing.  You’ll also most likely receive several visits from Naval Engineering, the division of the Royal Navy who designs and build starships.

      “Well, I’m not going to intrude myself on your private time any longer.  I’ll call your panel later and set up a more formal appointment, because it’s clear to me that you’re trying to relax after your finals.  I’ll have to request a copy of them and see how well you did,” she smiled.  “I’m sorry if I disturbed you, Jason.  Try not to get too drunk after you finish finals, though I know how hard it is.  I seem to have lost track of two or three days after I finished my finals in my last semester before graduation,” she laughed.

      “It’s not much of a bother,” he said in a neutral tone.

      “I’ll probably interview you and the two other people I’m scheduled to meet sometime next week, so please do try to keep that in mind and make no set plans for early next week.  I can be quite flexible, but I would prefer to conduct all three interviews quickly, and yours at your earliest convenience.”

      “Just call me,” he said evenly.

      “I’ll send you a message, since we’ve already been introduced.  I’d like to try for, what do you call it?  Monday?” she said in English.

      “Monday is fine with me.”  Fine to get it out of the way, so he could immediately forget all about it, he added silently to himself.

      “Very good.  It was nice to meet you, despite it being quite accidental.”  She offered her hand again, and her eyes were curiously deliberate.

      Jason stared at her hand, then held his hand up defensively.  “No offense, but I don’t shake hands with Faey,” he said quite directly.

      “Why is that?”

      “Because I know what it means if I do,” he said cryptically.  That incited an immediate attempt by her to read his surface thoughts, and he put the very reason why out there for her to see, a fear that that touch would let her read every thought in his head, an exaggeration of the truth.  He had little doubt that she knew that he was social with a Faey, and that he had an understanding of how their telepathy worked.  It wasn’t entirely accurate, but to her, it would be accurate enough.

      “Fair enough,” she said with a nod.  “Though you should really be more trusting,” she said with a slight smile.

      He didn’t bother to reply.  He watched her walk away with her little black case, and his mind was storming with thought.  He had never expected a personal visit from R&D.  That was the last thing he ever thought would happen.  It frightened him, deeply, at the thought that the Imperium knew he existed, but here shows up Lieutenant Commander Ulala, descended from the on high of the Ministry of Science, declaring to him without doubt that he was not anonymous.  Maybe they hadn’t fixated personal attention on him, but his name was on a list with other students that had the grades that had gotten them noticed.

      That scared the socks off of him, because he was not like other students.  He had a secret, a dark, terrible, life-altering secret that could get him killed if it became public knowledge.  If Commander Ulala had touched him, had used that contact to more sharply gain access to the real workings of his mind, his secret could have been out…and he might very well end up on some Faey dissection table.

      That, more than anything, was what he feared the most, and was the primary motivation for him to wash out and get a nice safe job somewhere on Earth.  That was what he just couldn’t make Jyslin understand.  She was under the impression that once she had him trained, that he’d never have to worry about ever being discovered.  But he didn’t hold the same view, he knew that it would only take the most minor of slips, and then it was over.  He didn’t want to be around any Faey at all if he could help it, and he would be if he worked for the Imperium.  Yes, his primary reasoning was an absolute refusal to aid the Imperium, but there was also the issue of this power that he wasn’t supposed to have, and might get him killed if the Imperium discovered that he possessed it.

      Pinching his nose between his fingers, he actively suppressed the thoughts of the few people around him.  Any time he thought about his rare gift, it caused him to become aware of it, and that led to him opening himself just enough to eavesdrop on the broadcasted thoughts of those people around him.  Sometimes it was hard to resist, and that practice had gotten him a reputation for being creepy around the dorm.  Jyslin felt that his training was moving along quite well, had declared him proficient in sending, and had been teaching him the basics of psychic combat lately, focusing on defending from another telepath’s attack.  That was something he needed to learn, just on the off chance that he was discovered, and had to resort to defending himself from another telepath.  Jason had tremendous strength with his talent, so much so that only either a very well trained telepath or someone with similar strength, like a Marine, was going to be able to overwhelm his defense.  She was teaching him how to attack as well, but the standard Faey methodology for training a telepath focused first on defense, then on attack.  It had parallels with the other aspects of the training; first learning how to protect, how to be defensive, and then learning how to be active or offensive.  Learn how to protect from unwanted thoughts, then learn how to listen to them.  Learn how to block out broadcasted thought, then learn how to burrow into another’s mind for information.  Learn how to defend, then learn how to attack.  Jason was getting pretty good at the defense, but still had much to learn as far as attacking went.

      Water under the bridge and all that.  He’d just have to endure this official visit from this Lieutenant Commander Ulala, then get on with his life.  It wasn’t like he was actually going to be in R&D anyway.  Next semester, well, the pressure would finally get to him, and he’d crack and do very badly.

      By this time next year, he’d be in career training, being taught a specific job, because his time as a student at Tulane would be over.

      Until then, he had a problem to solve.   He looked down at his napkins and started studying the code once again.  Maybe he wasn’t being specific enough, or his math was too restrictive.  Yes, maybe that was it.  Perhaps there was more going on here than he first realized, and he was using the wrong mathematical formulas.  Maybe that was preventing the programming from understanding what the weapon’s sensors was telling it.  Well, bloody hell, he knew everything in the weapon worked, he just couldn’t get the processor to let the weapon go hot.  That was a sensor problem, it had to be.  And since he knew that there was nothing wrong with the sensors, that meant that the problem was how the processor was handling the data the sensors were supplying to it.

      He picked up his pen and started to scrawl on a napkin, then blew out his breath and flagged the waiter for the check.  He needed to write on something better than a napkin to figure this one out.

      Closed up in his room, ignoring the loud, banging music that was rattling the window, Jason was lost in his own little world.  It was a world of trinary logic, and it seemed to sing to him this night in a way it had never done so before.  He knew he was in the zone, and he couldn’t lose it.

      His fingers flew on the holographic keyboard before him, as he completely rewrote the code block that dealt with how the processor received data from the sensors, and what that data meant.  He referred liberally to several pages of chaotic notes that were spread out around the panel on the desk, hanging from the lamp, taped to the wall, and even set on the bed where he could see them.  Several other pages of mathematical calculations were stacked on the floor, as he’d gone over his math to make sure he’d gotten the correct answers (he thought he had, it all matched with previous calculations, and the panel ran the numbers in several simulations and agreed with his results).  It was rare for him to have such clarity of thought when it came to programming, for it had always been his weak point.  He knew the language, but he just wasn’t that good at writing complicated programs.  Everything he’d done up to that point didn’t require much in the way of complicated programming, maybe only a few hundred lines of code backing up a piece of equipment’s hard-encoded operating parameters.  But this system had no hard-coding, it was all coming from him, and it had been quite a learning experience to have to build that from scratch.

      It took him almost ten hours to build the code and debug it, then compile it.  What he got he put on a memory stick, then took down the railgun, powered up the processor, and inserted the stick.  The code downloaded, and as it instructed in the first lines, the processor incorporated it into its programming in the proper place, updating its subprocesses and revising its database.

      The door opened, but he barely heard it.  He saw the display on the side of the railgun read, in yellow English characters, [Updating……].  He had to resist the urge to hold his breath.

      “Still working on that thing?” Jyslin asked.  Jason glanced back at her and saw she was still in her armor, her MPAC slung over her shoulder with her helmet hanging from the barrel.  “How did your tests go?  Got your scores yet?”  Jyslin always spoke when she visited him in the dorm, always.  It was part of the masquerade they used to hide his power, for extended bouts of silence or odd speech patterns might draw attention, such as one person answering a question which hadn’t been asked.  They didn’t follow that rule in Jyslin’s house, where they sent almost exclusively, both to let him practice and because they both actually preferred it that way.  Jason found sending to be much simpler and more effective to use than speaking, for he could send much faster than he could talk, and he never had to worry about whether or not she heard him.  It was something of a bitter pill that he actually preferred sending over speaking, but he could only use with with Jyslin and Symone, and never when they were together.  Jyslin still didn’t know that Symone knew about his talent.  That was one secret they both kept from her.

      “Hush,” he said absently, watching the display.  The display blinked.  [Updated.  Reloading OS.]

      “Well?” she asked.

      “I haven’t looked yet,” he told her.

      “Phaugh, let me,” she said, sliding past him in the cramped room and getting in front of his panel.  Her gloved fingers quickly banged out a few commands, and a couple of touches on the display got her the information she wanted.  “Wow!” she breathed.  “Jason, you got all A’s!  Your lowest score was a 94!  That’s wonderful!”

      [Railgun X-1 OS loaded.  Boot Diag]  “Whatever,” he said without much so much as moving his eyes from the display.  A series of alphanumeric characters scrolled across the tiny display, each one denoting that a memory block had been tested and proved either true or false.  Then it spat out a sequence of hardware diagnostic test results, as it tested every subsystem for functionality.  [Boot Diag complete, Raingun X-1 operational.] scrolled across the display.  Each subsystem passed the boot test, he saw as that blinked off, replaced by a visual readout of the number of rounds in the clip.  The rounds in the weapon were actually dummy arounds, made of nonmagnetic material, but they did serve to test the ammo counter, and the round would be recognized by the weapon when it was chambered, they just wouldn’t fire even if he pulled the trigger, since the magnetic catapult couldn’t affect them.  “Now, time to roll the dice,” he breathed quietly, reaching behind the trigger assembly and flipping the safety selector off.

      The display’s background color turned from green to red, and the yellow numbers turned white.

      The weapon went hot.

      “Yes!” he hissed triumphantly.  “It worked!”

      “What worked?  It actually got past the safety?” she asked.  She looked over his shoulder and saw the red backlit display, then gave a short cry of delight.  “I knew you could do it!” she told him, kissing his ear.  “When are you going to test it?”

      “Tomorrow I guess.  I’ll take it out somewhere safe and see if it blows up in my hands,” he said with a rueful chuckle.

      “Well, I have tomorrow off, so I’ll come along,” she said.  “Zora traded days off with me, she needs Friday off because her son’s coming in to see her.”

      “I didn’t know she had a son,” he said.

      She nodded.  “He goes to a boarding school on homeworld, a really fancy one,” she told him.  “Zora puts every credit of her paycheck into that place.  Poor girl, I don’t think she’s eaten a meal outside the chow hall for over a year that wasn’t bought for her by someone else.  That’s why she was so happy about giving you those lessons.  She really needed the money.  That money got her son here to visit.”

      “Well, I’m glad she could use it,” he mused, putting the safety back on, issuing a few commands on the tiny touch-screen display on the side of the weapon, then setting it back on its rack.  He wouldn’t power it down, to make sure the code was stable.  The weapon’s program was in debug mode right now, dumping data back into the memory stick he’s put in it, which he could use to analyze the weapon’s performance later on.

      “So, you wanna go out and celebrate the end of term?” she asked.

      “Not tonight,” he told her, then he told her about the visit he’d received from the R&D representative.  “I’m a little worried about that, but I’m sure it’ll pass after she’s gone.”

      “That’s no reason not to go out,” she said archly, brushing her red hair out of her face.  Jason had just idly remarked that he thought she’d be quite lovely with long hair, and she’d started to let it grow out as a result.  Faey hair grew almost insanely fast, almost a quarter of an inch a day; Jyslin had been getting it cut once a week before he made that remark.  The customary comb-over style was gone now, as she’d let the left side of her hair grow out to the same length as her right, had it cut to even it out, then let that evened hair start to grow longer.  It was down to her shoulders now, and it wouldn’t stop growing fast until it was halfway down her back.  Only then would it slow down to a more human rate of growth.  She’d soon have to start tying her hair up in a bun to get it all under her helmet.

      “To be honest, I really don’t want to go out tonight,” he told her.  “I can’t believe I started working on that thing, but I did.  Now that I’m done, I just want to sleep.”

      She chuckled.  “Now that I can understand,” she told him.  “We’ll go out tomorrow, ok?”

      “Sure,” he said, yawning.

      “Get some sleep, baby,” she said with a giggle, leaning in and kissing him on the cheek.  “I’ll come get you tomorrow morning, and we’ll see if that contraption of yours works.”

      “Oh, it’ll work. How well is the question,” he said confidently.

      “Then we’ll find out, won’t we?” she said with a wink.  “Hi Tim,” she called as she squeezed past him and sauntered out of his room, then stopped just outside the door.  Tim had just appeared at the open doorway, and he looked haggard.  “What’s wrong?”

      “Finals,” Tim groaned.  “And I’ve had the king of all headaches today.”

      “It’ll clear up after you’re done and get roaring drunk,” Jyslin grinned.  “You done?”

      He shook his head.  “I have Control II tomorrow morning, then I’m done,” he answered.

      “Well, there’s the end of your headache,” she said, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.

      “Amen.”

      “You ready?”

      “Yah, but I have more studying to do, just to make sure.”

      “Smart man.  See you two later.”

      Tim watched her go, then came into his room.  “She have evening shift today?” he asked.

      Jason nodded, sitting down at his desk.  “You look a little pale, and your nose is red,” he noted.  “You getting the flu or something?”

      “I must have lost a quart of blood today,” he grunted.  “Lisa Porter hit me in the face with the door coming out of Xeno I.  They sent me to the campus clinic to stop the nosebleed, then they found out my nose was broken.  Hairline fracture of the nose,” he growled, then he swore.  “They had to fix it, and that really fuckin’ hurt.  I thought those bone fusers were supposed to be painless.  My nose is still a little sore, and it gave me a headache that still hasn’t gone away.”

      “I didn’t know they worked on cartilage,” Jason mused aloud.  “That might be why it hurt.”

      “Whatever.  I plan on accidentally knocking Porter down the stairs tomorrow morning.”

      “That’s not an accident,” Jason chuckled.

      “That’s accidentally on purpose,” Tim answered.  “God, I want to sleep, but I have to study.”

      “It does no good studying with a headache,” Jason told him.  “Get some sleep, wake up early, and study in the morning.  You’ll be better off.”

      “I think you’re right,” Tim grunted, putting a hand to his nose, then wincing.  “See you tomorrow.”

      “I’m going out in the morning to test that, but I should be back in the afternoon,” he said, pointing at the railgun.

      “You got it working?”

      “I hope so.  If I come back tomorrow without both arms, you’ll know something went wrong.”

      Tim chuckled humorlessly.  “Good luck.”

      “Good luck on your last test.  Just keep saying that, last test.  It helps.”

      “I know it does,” Tim agreed, then filed out of his room.

      Jason blew out his breath, then leaned back in his chair.  He looked up at the railgun, whose display was still steady, and reached over to turn off the display of his panel.  Well, he’d find out if it worked tomorrow.

      It was a windswept rock, barren and uninhabited.  It had a narrow pebble beach on the north side, and a long, narrow plateau that formed a gulley leading up to a sheer rock face of the solitary hill at the center of the island.

      That made it absolutely perfect.

      The place was called Seal Rock, and it was an island off the coast of Maine.  Jason remembered it well from kayaking trips with his father, for it was often used as a camp by kayaking troupes as they traveled up the coast from Portland, towards Rockland.  It was about a mile off shore from the coast, but that coast was almost always shrouded in fog or mist.  Seals often basked on the pebble beach on the west side, or along the rocks on the jagged coast on the other sides of the tiny island, but there were none there when Jason landed his airskimmer on the pebble beach.  The surf pounded on the east side of the island, sometimes sending spray up far enough for them to see.  Jason felt this was the perfect place to test the railgun because there was absolutely no chance of anyone getting hurt so long as the weapon wasn’t fired towards the coast.  If it all worked properly, of course.  The wind was strong and crisp, and even though it was July, it was noticably cool.  Jason climbed out of his skimmer with the railgun in his hand and breathed in the salty air, a thousand memories floating through his mind.  This region, it had been his home, the first permanent home he’d known.  He’d been to Seal Rock a dozen times with his father, and he had fond memories of it.  They’d lived only fifty miles from here, in a small, steep-roofed house built out in the middle of the woods, with the woodpile out by the shed that held all their camping gear, and the canoe hanging between two trees by ropes tied to the ends.  Thirty miles from here was the tiny airport where his father ran his instructor business, with the airstrip with the big pothole near the end that always got those who didn’t land there often.

      Memories of another time, another life, something he would never have again.

      “I hate cold,” Jyslin growled as she came down the steps after him.

      This is summer, Jason noted idly.  You don’t want to be here for winter.

      I lived on a rock that had never seen liquid water occur naturally, Jayce hon, she sent with an audible grunt.  This would be considered volcanic by those standards.

      Then don’t complain, he sent absently as he set down the small case, then opened it.  He removed the clip from the railgun and then pressed the button that ejected the chambered round, which dropped from the empty magazine holder and to the ground.  He then loaded the new clip and pressed the button that caused it to chamber the first round.  “Well, let’s not waste any time,” he told her aloud as he took off the safety, and the weapon went hot.  “You might want to back up.  If this thing blows up in my face, I don’t want you getting hurt.”

      “You’re my only way off this rock,” she snorted as she came up beside him.  If you go, I go.

      “You can swim,” he teased.

      “Riiight,” she drawled, then she chuckled.  “Let’s see it.”

      Jason set the weapon against his shoulder.  He hadn’t installed sights or a scope, so he had no guide to aiming it.  He did have a large hillside to serve as a target though, so he wasn’t exactly worried about missing anything.  He prepared himself for a possible heavy recoil, and then, as soon as he was ready, he pulled the trigger.

      There was no recoil, but the weapon most certainly did fire.  There was a strange sound, a high-pitched punching sound like a BEEEeeaaaah,  and instantly there was a corkscrew trail of smoke that led away from the muzzle of the railgun.  The iron-cored round, sheathed in laminated titanium, was at the vanguard of that spiral tail, and it slammed into the rocky face of the hillside at speeds that almost defied rational comprehension.  The round penetrated deeply into the rock face, until the energy involved in stopping the round transferred into the rock and caused a spectacular explosion.  The sound of that impact was compounded by a sudden miniature sonic boom, a very loud crack, noticably loud but not as loud as a gunshot.  The air that had been displaced by the slug formed a shockwave that accompanied the sound, a sudden pressure in the air that washed over them, almost like getting slapped in the face by a child.  Startling, but not painful at all.

      The rocky side of the hillside simply shattered, spraying dust and chips out from the point of impact.  The shockwave of that impact startled Jason and Jyslin, who instinctively dove to the ground as a billowing cloud of dust boiled angrily away from the impact point, and a sudden rain of small rocks dropped on them..

      “Holy shit,” Jyslin gasped as she looked up, then she laughed.  I’d say that that was a successful test fire!

      I’d say so, Jason mirrored, getting back up onto one knee and looking at the dust, which was quickly blown away by the wind.  It exposed a crater in the side of the hill that was almost eight feet across and three feet deep.  The slug had stuck the side of the hill with the velocity of a falling meteor, and had blown a crater out of the side of the hill.  The sonic boom wasn’t as loud as I’d expected.

      “By Trelle’s garland,” Jyslin breathed as they advanced up to look at the impact crater.  I bet it’d go through neutronium.

      I’m not sure, but it’ll go through any armor the Imperium has here, Jason answered.  Neutronium’s very resistant to physical impact, and that’s all this is.  He read the velocity display on the panel of the weapon and frowned.  “Only 14,732 miles and hour,” he grunted.  It was supposed to go faster than that.

      You don’t think that’s fast enough? Jyslin asked archly, then she laughed again.  It works, love!  You actually made it work!

      Yeah, it worked all right, he sent, inspecting the weapon for any signs of stress or damage.  It looked just fine, though, and a diagnostic showed him that everything was operating as expected.  The weapon’s recoil absorption system had worked perfectly, completely absorbing the massive recoil of the catapult, a recoil that would have ripped his arm off had he fired it without the recoil system working.  He shouldered the weapon again, and Jyslin managed to turn around and put her hands to her pointed ears just as he pulled the trigger again.  Another bluish corkscrew of smoke was the only indication that the weapon had fired off the round, with that same punching sound that was quickly replaced by a loud boom from the sonic boom and the fact that the slug had blown another huge crater out of the side of the hill.  He checked muzzle velocity and found it to be only different by 37 miles an hour, then quickly fired the weapon again, before the dust had been blown away from the last shot.  The muzzle velocity was only 12 miles an hour off from the original shot, showing that it was going to consistently fire around that 14,700 mile per hour mark.

      “Well, this calls for a celebration,” Jyslin said with a grin.

      “We’ll go out with Tim and Symone tonight,” Jason told her.  “Right now I want to get this back home and take it apart to make sure there’s no damage inside.”

      Hold on, I get a turn, she sent quickly, holding her hands out.

      Sure, here you go, he agreed, handing it to her.  It automatically chambers the next round.  Just pull the trigger when you see the indicator turn green here, he instructed, pointing at the green light.  That tells you that the flux cabling capacitors are recharged and ready to fire.

      About how long is the recharge time?

      About a half a second, but it also takes it about half a second to chamber the next round, so you’re not really losing any time either way, he answered.  It’s not an automatic weapon like an MPAC, Jyslin.  It’s not really meant to be anything, really, except an experiment.

      “That’s slow,” she complained aloud.

      I didn’t design it to be fast, he countered.  It’s not a military weapon, girl, it’s an experiment.

      “Well, it works,” Jyslin chuckled, putting the weapon to her shoulder, then firing off four rounds in rapid succession, creating a huge cloud of dust.  She lowered the weapon and waited for it to clear, and it exposed a destroyed hillside that had nearly had a hole blown clean through it.  Both Jason and Jyslin had been hitting the same general area of the hill, causing each round to dig even deeper into the crater left behind by the original round.  They weren’t exactly on target, but that didn’t really matter when the craters overlapped.

      Nice, it doesn’t even twitch, she said appreciatively.  Even my MPAC has some recoil. This has none at all.

      There’s not enough recoil in an MPAC to justify recoil reduction, Jason told her.  With this, you have to have it, or it’ll rip off your arm.

      That’s no lie, she agreed, looking at the devastated hillside.  I don’t suppose I could convince you to send this in?

      He gave her a flat look.

      “I didn’t think so,” she chuckled.  It was worth a shot.

      You should have known better than to even ask, he sent with an audible snort. I’m almost afraid to think of what would happen if one of these slugs hit a person.

      I’ve seen space dust injuries, she told him.  When I was on board.  That’s when dust or microrocks hit people out doing maintenance on the hull.  This would probably be similar.

      Was it bad?

      Actually, not as bad as you’d think.  The thing moves so fast that it doesn’t have the chance to rip a person up.  Flesh and bone doesn’t really hinder it, you know.  It leaves a neat hole all the way through.  I’d imagine that it hurts like hell, but rock strikes are more dangerous because of suit decompression than they are from the wound itself.  Well, unless it hits something vital, that is.

      Huh.  Well, here’s for hoping that this experiment never ends up hurting anyone.

      Nothing wrong with that, hon, she nodded.  “You ready to go?  I want to get back to someplace warm.”

      “You mean back to the boiling cauldron,” Jason grunted.

      “It’s nature’s revenge for making me go to Argentina,” she winked.

      “All you had to say was no,” he countered.

      Jason picked up the case of slugs from the ground, and offered his hand to take the railgun back, but Jyslin just cradled it in her arm.  Let’s get back.  I wonder how Tim did on his exams.  He was really worried about calculus.

      He should be about done by now.  I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.

      Railgun safely stowed in a duffel bag in the back of his car, Jason drove back to Tulane in a relatively good mood.  The railgun worked, and worked pretty much well how he expected, though he’d have to figure out why the round velocity was slower than his mathematical projection.  Maybe he hadn’t taken ambient air pressure enough into account, or used the wrong pressure formula.  It was just a good thing that that wasn’t a vital part of the weapon’s operation.  If he was going to mess up, it was best to mess up on something trivial like round velocity.  He pondered that as he motored up Saint Charles Avenue, his mind only half on driving.  He stopped at a red light beside a Faey hovercar, which had two Army regulars in it.

      I wonder if they’re going to call us in, one asked the other.

      I doubt it, I think they have half the Marine barracks over there right now.  They need us out here to keep a presence on the streets, the other answered.

      Jason glanced at the pair, a dark-haired Faey and one with whitish hair, older than the first, with the tip of her left ear missing.

      I wonder if it’s just a rumor, or if it’s really true, the first asked in a kind of nervous voice.

      We’ll find out soon enough. Oria’s got campus duty today, she’s in the middle of it.

      Campus?  There was only one campus around here, and that was Tulane.  Jason wondered if someone had a nervous breakdown and went nuclear or something.  It had been known to happen before.

      Well, something was certainly going on.  Jason had trouble getting past all the hovercars to get to the student parking lot.  Marines in their black armor were swarming all over the campus, along with a good number of Army regulars, and the sendings were thick in the air, almost like a chatter, as commanding officers relayed orders, soldiers reported in, and so forth.  It was so thick that he had trouble sorting one voice out from the others, but that was due to a lack of training.  Jason had no experience dealing with multiple sendings at once, for there was no way that Jyslin could teach that to him.  It was a kind of blur of voices, each one competing with the others for attention in his head, and making them all incomprehensible.

      Jason passed a pair of Marines who were picketed at the edge of the parking lot and moved up to the steps of the dorm, where several students were standing, watching the Faey run around.  “What’s going on?” he asked, shouldering his duffel bag.

      “Someone flipped out I think,” a girl with short dark hair answered him, wearing a white tee shirt and jeans.  She was Mary Liston, she lived up on the third floor.  “I’m not really sure.  I just know that they cancelled exams for today to sort things out.  They had the Plaid surrounded for a while.”

      “They cancelled exams?  Woah,” Jason breathed.  “That is serious.”

      “Well, someone just washed out,” someone said with a chuckle, which caused a few people to laugh.  “I wonder who it was.”

      “It makes me wonder why the teacher didn’t just zap him,” someone else mused in a thoughtful tone.  “I’ve seen them do that before.  Professor Korten’s really liberal with his telepathy.  I mean, how could a student go bonkers like that?  A teacher would just zap him.”

      “Certain states of mind make it hard for telepathy to work,” Jason said absently.  “If this person was totally off his rocker, he’d be really hard to subdue with telepathy.  That’s probably why they called in the Marines.  They’d be able to do it no matter what.”

      “And you’d know that how?  From that blueskin you date?” someone asked acidly.

      “Try looking around on Civnet,” Jason answered cooly.  “You’d be surprised the kind of stuff you can find out in the public domain.”

      “Jayce, I’m glad to see you back,” Tim called as he came up the sidewalk.  “Did you hear what’s going on?”

      “I just got back,” he answered.  “I haven’t yet.  Do you know?”

      He shook his head.  “I just know that they evacuated the Plaid, and not long after a big mess of Marines blocked off the building, then sent in a team wearing full battle gear,” he related.  “I don’t know if they’ve brought anyone out yet or not.  We all think that some student went psycho and like got hold of an MPAC or something, or has a PPG and is threatening to make it nuke or something.”  He sighed.  “At least I got my test finished before it happened.  I was leaving the Plaid when they called for us to evacuate.”

      Jason tuned out the students and Tim to concentrate on what was going on with the Faey.  He labored to pick out individual sendings to try to understand what was going on, but it wasn’t easy.  It was all nothing but a big jumble.  Whatever it was, though, it had all the Marines very agitated.   Something quite serious had just happened.  He knew it was really serious when an airskimmer carrying the crest of Trillane landed out on the campus accompanied by two Dragonfly fighters, and the Baron of North America himself appeared in the doorway as the two fighter mecha hovered over the airskimmer protectively.

      Jason fidgeted a bit, and realized that he had the railgun in the duffel bag in his hand.  That might not be a good thing to be carrying around with the Baron of North America within his line of sight.  He was about to go up to his room when one of the Marines behind him sent, and she was close enough for him to single out her message and understand it.  The students at the east dorm are calm, she reported in.  They’re trying to figure out what happened.  They think that a student suffered a nervous breakdown during a test and became violent.  There was a pause.  Aye, Captain.

      I just can’t believe it, the second sent to the first.  It seems impossible.  How can any of these, these, natives have any talent?

      Jason almost dropped the duffel bag.  Talent?  Someone had expressed telepathic ability?  Right in the middle of exams?

      Well, they are remarkably similar to us, the first answered.  Just less developed.  Maybe this woman is just that one in a million that’s similar enough to us that she has talent. These humans have had psychic ability threaded through their myth and history, though they’ve never proved it. Given their violence against things they don’t understand, maybe anyone who could prove it wasn’t brave enough to come forward.   Maybe they really do have it, but it’s just ridiculously rare.  I feel sorry her, truth be told.  The mindbenders are going to probe her, and it’s not like she did anything wrong.  She probably couldn’t help it.  Actually, I think it’s a good thing that humans might have talent.

      He felt like his entire world was about to turn inside out.  It was over.  The Faey now knew that humans could express talent.  He had no doubt that that meant that soon, mindbenders from the Secret Police were going to start showing up on Earth, and they were going to start watching everyone, watching them very closely.  And in a way, it told him that he actually was not unique, that he was not some freakish accident of nature.  He was not the only human to express telepathic ability.  And now that the Faey knew, knew that humans could express that one ability that gave them an absolute stranglehold over Earth, they were going to come down like the sword of Damacles.

      His knees felt a little weak.  He sat down heavily on the steps, trying to get over a storm of near-panic.  What was he going to do now?  It was going to be almost impossible to hide from the Faey if they had teams of mindbenders running around checking everyone out.  How was he going to do it?  How was he going to keep his secret with them running around trying to ferret out others?

      Maybe he was overreacting a little bit.  They’d found one telepath, and it was going to take them time to figure out why she was one.  It was irrational to think that they were going to send an army of mindbenders down here and scour each and every human on Earth because one expressed telepathic ability.  For the moment, he still had a cushion of relative safety.  It was going to take the Faey time to figure out what was going on, and decide on a course of action.  They very well might start looking for other telepathic humans, but it wasn’t going to happen right now.  And with him being out of class right now, he had time to address this issue calmly and rationally, to think things through and decide what was going to happen.  Because from this moment on, he knew that things could never be the same.

      The game was over.

      “Jayce?  Jayce, you ok?” Tim asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

      “Yeah, yeah, I’m alright.  It’s just the heat.  You know I can’t stand heat,” he said, though his attention was again more focused on the sending flying around him.  He was starting to get the hang of it, and from time to time he could pick out a snippet of legible sending.  They were still a bit disorganized, it sounded, trying to get everything settled down.  He did hear that the student that expressed was still in the building, under active subdual from a pair of Marines.  Odds were, the girl’s panic had given her a desperate strength on top of the powerful defense her unhinged mind had presented to the Marines, so it had taken two of them to get her under control.  So far, there has been no order to lock down the school, and Jason had a feeling that not being on campus just might be a good idea right now.  “I think I’m going to go down to the Quarter,” he told Tim quickly.  “Too much activity around here to suit me, and nobody’s gonna do anything all day but talk about what’s going on.  I don’t feel like being aggravated all day.  Wanna come?”

      “Sure,” he said.  “We taking the car or riding a streetcar?”

      “My car’s already cool from the AC, so let’s take that,” he said, standing up and shouldering his duffel bag.  “Just do me a favor and run up to my room and get my panel,” he asked quickly, handing Tim the key to his room.  “I’ll get the car started and pick you up over at the sidewalk.”

      Tim eyed the duffel, and seemed to understand that Jason had his prototype railgun in it, so he nodded.  “Sure,” he said seriously.  Jason didn’t want the railgun to be found in his room, and that was a serious possibility right now.

      “Like smoke,” Jason said quietly, and Tim nodded.  Jason opened himself just enough to listen to Tim’s thoughts, and found that he was doing as Jason ordered, using some of the tricks that Jason had taught him to hiding from Faey eavesdropping.  He wasn’t very good at it, but then again, Jason was actively listening to him.  The two Marines over there weren’t focusing on any one person, so Tim would just kind of fade into the background noise when he passed, offering no thought that would make them focus attention on him.  Jason walked past those two without attracting much attention, but one of them did look back at him when he reached his car.  She watched him open the trunk and toss the duffel bag in, then seemed to lose interest, putting two fingers to her head as a powerful sending drowned out all others, so strong that Jason too took note of it, as someone with impressive strength addressed all Feay in the area with an open, broadcasted sending.

      ALL UNITS ARE TO FORM A PERIMETER AROUND THE CAMPUS IMMEDIATELY, the sending boomed across campus.  INFORM STUDENTS THAT THEY ARE TO REPORT TO THEIR ROOMS FOR A BRIEF PERIOD WHILE THE CAMPUS IS SECURED FOR THE BARON TO CONDUCT A TOUR..  ENSURE YOU ARE POLITE, THE STUDENTS ARE NOT UNDER ANY SUSPICION, AND ARE PROBABLY UPSET.  SQUAD LEADERS, CONTACT COMMANDER LYRE OVER COM OR BY SENDING IMMEDIATELY FOR ZONE ASSIGNMENTS.

      That was not good.

      “Excuse me!  Excuse me, you at the car!  I’m afraid I have to ask you to go back to your dorm room for a while, they’re asking all students to return to their rooms!” one of the Faey called loudly to him.  “It shouldn’t be for too long, they’re just securing the campus for the arrival of the Baron!”

      “If that’s all it is, why does it matter if I go?  I’ll just be one less person underfoot,” he answered reasonably, closing the trunk.

      “My, he has a point,” the other one laughed.  “But I’m sorry to say that orders are orders, babe.  Back to your room.  You should be free to move around again in about an hour.”

      Jason hesitated, caught in a brief dilemma.  He did not want to be on campus with that telepathic girl out there making the Faey concentrate here, demonstrating that humans had their talent.  He was very afraid that they might take that opportunity to interview other students, and he didn’t want to end up in that position, facing an unknown Faey across a table who might use her power against him.  Jason had never been in that position before, and he didn’t know if he could keep his power a secret if he was confronted in that manner.  But, on the other hand, openly defying a Faey command at this moment would be monumentally bad.  He had to choose between risking being exposed, or doing something that was going to get him into very real and immediate trouble.

      Then again, maybe it just required a little subterfuge.  “Tell you what,” Jason said, going around to the far side of his car.  “I’ll arm wrestle you over it.”  He put his elbow down on the blistering hot metal of his trunk’s hood.

      “You two go get those other students back into their rooms,” a voice called behind him.  He turned and saw Jyslin standing there, her black armor gleaming, and a sober expression on her face.  “I’ll get this one.  He always likes to fight.”  This one is my beau.  I’d prefer to get him off campus and out of your hair, because he’ll do nothing but fight with you, she added her thought, supposedly a private instruction to them, or it would have been had Jason not been able to hear it.

      We have orders to get them into their rooms, she protested mentally.

      We have orders to secure the perimeter.  Where he is doesn’t matter so long as he’s not wandering around campus, right?  Letting him and any other student that wants off campus accomplishes the same thing, it secures the campus.

      Probably, but I’ll have to send in for some clarification, the taller one said dubiously, turning her head towards the airskimmer and increasing the strength of her sending.  Commander, I have students here at the east dorm that want to get off campus instead of report to their rooms.  Is that permissible?

      That’s fine, so long as they remain outside the perimeter until the Baron leaves, came the response.

      Well, there we go, the taller one mused.  He’s all yours, Sergeant.  Sorry to go over your head, but I didn’t want any doubt as to orders with the Baron on the site.

      No problem, Corporal, that was the smart thing to do, she answered gracefully, grabbing Jason’s arm.  “I think you need to take a little walk, mister,” she told him with a false smile.  “Stop bothering the Marines.”

      What are you doing here? Jason demanded in a tight sending just to Jyslin, as the two Marines started towards the other students, calling for them to either return to their rooms or leave the campus, as they wished.

      I got called in, what did you expect?  Do you know what’s going on? she replied quickly.

      I know enough.  It’s been too thick for me to make out everything, but I managed to get the main parts.  This is not good, Jyslin, he said, making a few abstract gestures.  Not only are there telepathic humans, but now the Imperium knows about—no, they know that I might exist.  You know how messy things are going to get, right?

      She scratched her face, then thrust her hand at him to reinforce her point.  Yeah, I know, but let’s not get too hasty, she pressed.  Things haven’t developed yet.  Let’s see where they go before we start making any kind of serious decisions.

      I know, but it’s got me nervous, he sent with an audible sigh, motioning back towards the dorm.  Right now I’m waiting for Tim to get down here with my panel.  We’re going to go down to the Quarter and sit in Patty O’s for a while and wait this out.  You have the range to reach me down there?

      Please, she answered with a snort.  Just don’t try to reach back up here to me.  You have the range, but you might get intercepted trying to reach that far.  Call me, don’t call me, she said, holding up her little com device, to which Jason had the contact number.

      I know better.  They’re way too many Faey up here who are too keyed up to try that.  Are you going to be alright?

      She chuckled.  Hon, that’s what I should be asking you.  Are you ok?

      Yeah, just nervous as hell, he answered, scrubbing his face with a hand.

      Just calm down.  Go down to Patty O’s, but don’t drink anything.  Keep a sharp wit about you right now.

      I don’t plan to, he assured her.

      Unassigned personnel report to the staging area by the main science building, an open sending broadcasted across the campus.

      “There are my orders,” Jyslin told him aloud, looking back towards the Plaid.  “I’ll see you later tonight, ok?”

      “Tim’s bringing my panel, so call me if something comes up,” he answered.

      “Yah, Tim is,” Tim called as he rushed up, Jason’s panel in his hand.  “Those two Marines didn’t want to let me pass at first, til I told them you were waiting to pick me up.  Then they let me by.  You ask them to let me through, Jyslin?”

      “No, they’re letting students get off campus instead of staying in their rooms,” she told him.  “And that means you two had better get moving before they wonder why you’re not in your rooms.”

      “Good idea,” Tim said, going around the car and quickly climbing into the passenger seat.

      Jason drove slowly and carefully down to the French Quarter, and even parked in a pay garage instead of trolling the usual hidden areas where free parking could be found.  He was just too unnerved.  They walked down from the parking garage just off Royal Street to Patty O’s, and Jason went straight into the piano bar.  He didn’t ask, he didn’t wave to any of the bartenders, he just sat down at the piano and started playing.  He started with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, then moved immediately into Bach, then Chopin.  His eyes were closed nearly the entire time, as he used the sound of the music to relax him, to calm him, to settle the sudden chaos of his life and allow him to step back and think about things more rationally.  Rationally, the best thing he could do right now was not panic, not make any rash or hasty decisions.  Yes, the secret was out.  The Faey now knew that there was a telepathic human.  But, it was not him.  That rather dubious honor had gone to someone he didn’t even know, a poor girl who had expressed in the middle of exams.  The stress.  That had to be what triggered it, the stress of exams.

      Right now, the Faey didn’t know if it was an isolated incident or not.  That worked in his favor, because they weren’t looking for others yet.  First they had to find out what happened, they’d probably study the girl, find out what had happened to her.  He did not envy her position right now.  There was a very good chance she wouldn’t survive that examination.  Faey were anything if not efficient and thorough, however, so it wasn’t going to take them long to complete that initial study and draw some conclusions.

      Two to three weeks, at the most.  At the absolute most.  That was how long it was going to take them, and that was when he was going to have to make a decision.

      Decisions.  If they considered the girl an isolated incident, then he was probably going to be alright.  He’d have to exercise extreme caution, because the spectre of another telepath might be lurking in the backs of their minds.  He would lose that expectation of not being telepathic, and would probably not be able to send to Jyslin anymore.  Ever.  It would just be too dangerous.  It was a small price to pay, however.

      But, if the Faey didn’t consider the girl to be an isolated incident…hell.  He really had no idea.  They’d be looking for new telepaths, and that would make things exceptionally dangerous for him.  He really didn’t see how he could continue to operate like that, being on guard every moment of every day for the rest of his life, and that only if they weren’t actively hunting new telepaths down.  If they brought in teams of mindbenders and did personal interviews with everyone, he’d have no chance to go undetected.  That would put him in danger, it would put Jyslin in even more danger, because she trained him and never told anyone about him.  There was definitely more at stake here than just his life.  There was Jyslin, and maybe even Tim and Symone, maybe even the career of Jyslin’s aunt Lorna.  There was a great deal to consider, more than he really cared to ponder.

      He would have to think about it, but later.  He already had enough worries, and the moody music was earning him some scowls from Pete, the day manager, who was standing in the doorway of the piano bar.  Jason winked at him and played the opening bars from Dragnet, which made the tall, willowy man break out into delighted laughter.  Then he broke out into one of his favorite pieces, Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, one of the best pieces of ragtime music ever written.

      “I love it when you play that,” Tim said from the closest table, two empty daquiri glasses in front of him already.  Two other people quietly filed into the piano bar and sat down near the back, and much to his surprise, they were Faey tourists.  He could hear their chattered sending quite clearly, and they were dressed in what Jason thought to be rather amusing touristy garb:  New Orleans tee shirts, the lady in a blue pleated skirt, the man in a pair of jeans that looked brand new, and both were wearing cheap plastic visors one could buy in any tee shirt shop or off some of the roving vendors.  A waiter rushed in and asked to take their order, but they looked up at him blankly.  “English…not good,” the Faey woman said, looking up at him.

      “He wants to know what you want to drink,” Tim told them in Faey, turning around.

      “Oh, you speak Faey!  Thank the Trinity,” the woman said with a relieved laugh.  “Tell him I’d like something fruity, and I’m not that worried about how drunk it makes me,” she said with a wink.

      “I’d like to sample one of your stronger ales or beers,” the male told Tim.

      “Stan, the lady wants a fruit punch Hurricane, and the gentleman would like a Guinness,” he told the waiter.

      “Thanks Tim,” Stan said with a sigh.  “They’re the fourth pair to come through here today.”

      “Thanks much handsome,” the woman told Tim with a wink.  “I know they’re getting frustrated with us, but at least they’re still very courteous and friendly.  This city has been everything our travel agent said it would be.  I’m glad we came here.”

      “Not many here speak Faey,” Tim told them as Jason started playing All of Me.

      “Well, we should have had English implanted before we left, so it’s really our fault,” the male chuckled.  “We just weren’t sure if we were coming here or going to that France place, so we decided to risk it.”

      A sign of the times, he guessed.  They were the first Faey tourists that Jason had seen, but in a way, he should have expected it.  Earth was more and more part of the Imperium, more and more deeply being tied up with it.  They were nothing but a farming colony populated by an indigenous population that was still partially resistant to the Imperium, yet here they were, Faey tourists that had the money and the approval to come to their world on holiday.  Jason finished up that song and started playing the piano portion of the song Cursum Perficio, an old, old song from an Irish singer named Enya.

      The two tourists remained in the piano bar as Jason continued to amuse himself at the piano, and the place slowly started to fill up.  Some of them were regulars, and they knew how the piano bar worked, so he was more than happy to take their napkins with the names of songs on them and credits folded up inside them, tips for playing the songs they requested.  It was a nice diversion from reality, and it made him feel better and made the people sitting in the piano bar happy as well.  He was a bit surprised when Rose, one of the real piano players, came through the door behind the pianos with her huge pile of sheet music and walked past his piano to the one that faced his on the other side of the stage.  “Oy luv,” she said in her British accent, looking over her glasses at him.  Rose was a middle aged, portly woman with her graying black hair done up in a bun and a habit of wearing voluminous flower-print dresses with a floppy woven straw hat.  She was quite a character, and Jason was rather fond of her.  “How long have you been here?”

      “No idea,” he replied.

      “When are you going to cut off that hair?”

      “As soon as you wear pants.”

      “Never, then,” she laughed.  “Want a break?”

      “I’m not here to work,” he told her.  “I’m having fun.”

      “Shh, don’t tell them that this is fun,” she said as she sat down. “They’ll expect us to do it for free!”

      “Nah,” he smiled.

      “Well, you’ll have to get off that rig in a half an hour.  Alex is back in the dressing room getting ready for his shift.”

      Jason finished up the song, then took a napkin from a doe-eyed young girl with black hair, who looked a little flushed when she handed it to him.  Inside was a ten credit note, the words Piano Man, and a phone number.

      Jason had to chuckle.  He got that almost every time.  “Got your harmonica Rose?”

      “Oh, that,” she said, then reached into her pile of sheet music.

      Jason had never been much of a singer, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to do it.  He warned the now full piano bar about his terrible singing, then proceeded to prove it as he sang the lyrics of the song Piano Man as Rose played the harmonica portion.  Towards the end of it, there was a bit of a commotion as Jyslin entered the piano bar, in full armor.  What was more, Symone was with her, also in full armor. Jason nudged at Tim’s table with his chin, and Jyslin nodded and moved down to the front with Symone in tow.

      “Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for Rose to take over for me for a while,” he announced to them after the song was finished.  “Don’t worry, she sings much better than I do.”

      “Only to cats, doll,” she replied as she took a napkin from a young man, which made many in the bar laugh.  “Now then, friends, I see here we have a request for—oh, you wicked boy,” Rose called with a laugh.  “Now, as you know, I have to play whatever I get a request for, within certain reason, of course,” she said with a grin.  “But young Andrew here has requested I play the theme to Scooby Doo.  Well love, you asked for it!”

      The bar broke into a riot of laughter as she dutifully played the theme of that ancient cartoon, which still was shown on television, and had even started creeping into Faey galactic casts on what was called Terra TV, a network that broadcasted entertainment made on Earth to the rest of the Imperium.  Every planet in the Imperium had such a network devoted to their entertainment.  What was worse, she sang it with enthusiasm, which made it even funnier.  Rose was a bit of a ham.  But Rose’s singing and playing created a perfect atmosphere for Jason to talk to Jyslin and Symone without many people overhearing them.  “What happened on campus after we left?” he asked in Faey, leaning over the table.  The other three did the same.

      “Well, they took that girl to Houston, and from what I’ve heard, they’ve started examining her.  There was a detachment of mindbenders there waiting for her,” she said with a shudder.  “The Baron walked around and looked at things, then he left.  Odds are, he went to Houston too, then he’ll probably go up to the orbital station to meet with the Duchess.  She came in on a transport about two hours ago.”

      “Shit,” Tim growled.  “It’s that serious?”

      “They’re taking it seriously, Tim-Tim,” Symone told him gravely.  “You don’t understand what that girl represents to the Duchess.”

      “A direct threat to Faey control,” Jason said grimly.  “Faey telepathy is the main noose around the neck of the human race.”

      “Exactly,” Jyslin nodded.  “They’ll run all kinds of tests on her to find out how it happened.”

      “Then what?” Tim asked.

      “Well, if she survives that, they’ll probably take her to Draconis, fix her, train her, then use her as an agent for the mindbenders,” Jyslin said with a dark look.  “A human telepath could go many places in the galaxy that other races would never allow one of us, because they know we’re telepathic, where they know from our own records that humans aren’t.  She’ll end up being one hell of a spy.”

      “That’s the truth.  Every time I set foot on a free station or planet, I have a team of telepaths following me around,” Symone grunted.  “That’s why Faey really don’t go outside the Imperium that much.  We’re much more comfortable around people who aren’t always so suspicious of us.”

      “I didn’t know other races were telepathic,” Tim whistled.

      “Not as a whole, but most other races have some telepaths,” Jyslin told him.  “The skaa don’t, but most other races do.  They’re usually very, very rare, like less that one percent of the population.  Faey are the only race in the known galaxy that’s naturally telepathic.”

      “Well, if that’s true, why is it such a shock that humans might be telepathic?”

      “Because there’s six billion humans on this planet, and none of them have any talent,” Jyslin told him.  “This girl is one in six billion, Tim.”

      Almost, Symone sent to Jason privately, giving him a sly smile.

      “So, she’s some kind of freakish fluke,” he reasoned.  “Why is that so scary?”

      “Because she’s a fluke that represents a real threat to us, Tim. Even an untrained telepath can be dangerous.  Probably even more dangerous than a trained one.  An untrained telepath has raw terror boosting their power, and they’re very hard to subdue.  They can kill people, Tim, even a trained telepath.”

      “Oh, ok, I get it,” he nodded.

      “Any word yet on what’s going to happen?” Jason asked.

      She shook her head.  “There probably won’t be any orders coming down the pipe til they finish their examination of her,” she answered.  “Right now, they’re trying to get over the shock of the discovery.  We’ll have to wait and see if they overreact.”

      “You got that from your aunt?” Jason asked.

      She nodded.  “Right out of her mouth.  She’ll keep me abreast of what’s going on.”

      What else did you find out that we can’t tell Tim? Jason sent tightly, glancing meaningfully back at the two Faey tourists in the back of the bar.

      Not much, really, she answered, looking sideways at him as he did her.  So far there’s been absolutely no word about how the Trillanes are going to respond to this.  But it goes further up than them, really.  Some of the decisions that come down may be Imperial.  If the Empress doesn’t like how the Trillanes respond, some orders may come down from Royal Command, and that’s nothing but the Empress’ commands.  The Trillanes might have to take orders from Empress Dahnai if they don’t handle it in a way she approves.

      I’m not surprised they’re so spooked, Jason informed her grimly.

      It might all change tomorrow, so we can’t really hold any rumors up to the light of truth right now, she told him.  The dust hasn’t settled yet.  We have to wait for that before we have anything to go on, really.  It’s going to hinge on what they find out from that girl that expressed today.  If they consider her a fluke, as Tim called her, we’ll be alright.  But if they determine that she might not be… she trailed off without finishing, but Jason certainly understood the implication.

      Big trouble.

      “So what do we do?” Tim asked.

      “There’s nothing we can really do,” Jyslin told him.  “You guys are on break right now, so I’d just say enjoy it.  It probably won’t have anything more to do with you two now that the campus has cleared out.”

      “That’s a relief,” Tim sighed.  “So, we going somewhere on Sunday?”

      “I doubt it,” Symone frowned.  “They have us all on standby.  That means we can’t leave the city.”

      “Same here,” Jyslin nodded.  “But it was scheduled for us, we’re up in the standby rotation.  I told you about that last week, Jason.”

      “I remember,” he nodded.

      “But, I do want you staying with me tonight,” she told him directly.  “Both of you.  You and Symone can stay in the guest room, Tim,” she told him.

      “Why?” Tim asked.

      “Let’s just say that there’s a case of the jitters on campus,” she said uneasily.  “You two might get a bit of flak because of us, so I’d like to give the place a night or so to calm down before I let you go back.  The Trelle only knows, I don’t want you two going back there and beating people up when they start giving you attitude.  They’d call me out of bed to come down there and break it up, and you know how cranky I am when I’m woke up.”

      “I think I’d rather avoid that,” Tim laughed.  Tim had tasted Jyslin’s surliness when being roused from naps.

      “At least it gives you a reason to get your clothes out of my laundry room,” she told Tim flintily.

      “Hey, I’ve been trying,” he objected.  “I’m almost out of socks.  Every time I go to get them, you’re not home.  I can’t get past the gate without you signing me in, remember?”

      “Why didn’t you just have Jason come with you, you dink?” Jyslin told him.  “He has base access.”

      “He was studying.”

      “Men,” she huffed.  “You always have to make things so difficult!”

      “That works with me, but I’ll have to call in and let them know where to reach me,” Symone said.  “Can I give them your phone number Jys?”

      “Sure,” she answered.  “I’m in a hovercar, and it’s kinda doubleparked fifty shakra over Bourbon Street at the moment, so I’d better go get it down.  I have to turn it back in anyway, so I have to go.  I want you two at my house in an hour,” she said sternly, pointing at Jason and Tim.  “Where are you parked?”

      “The garage off Royal,” Tim answered.

      “Well then, I suggest you wander in that general direction,” Jyslin stated.

      It hadn’t been easy for either of them to relax.

      Jason walked along Saint Charles absently in the already stifling July heat, hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground, and lost in thought.  Last night had been rather tense, because Jason just couldn’t put what was going on out of his mind, and for that matter, neither could Jyslin.  She’d been forced to resort to a sleeping pill to make Jason sleep, and it had left him feeling groggy and hazy in the morning…the reason he never took drugs unless he had absolutely no other choice.  And for him, with what he could do, feeling like he wasn’t in full and complete control at all times was a scary proposition.

      One stark reality hung over his head, something he had realized that morning.  The physical.  It was the semi-annual physical, conducted on all students every July and December.  That was next week.  Well, one segment of the standard physical, unless they’d changed it, was a brain scan.  There was a very real possibility that the standard signature of his brainwaves was now different because he had no talent the last time they did one, but he did now.  And if that girl who expressed had them spooked, they might pay much closer attention to those scans than they usually did.  The usual reason they did them was to catch certain diseases and mental disorders very, very early, before any symptoms appeared, and treat them.  Things like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, disorders that humans had always either treated with drugs or could do nothing about, those the Faey could treat with their much more advanced medical technology, or sessions of telepathic treatments conducted by what they called “psi-surgeons,” telepaths who specialized in using their abilities to treat mental or psychological disorders.

      Concerned.  That was such an understatement.  The more correct word would be terrified.  He’d seen how they reacted to that girl, whose name he still didn’t know.  What would they do if they found out he was also telepathic, that there were two humans with the talent?  That wasn’t a fluke, that was a pattern.  What would they do to him?  And how would that change how the Faey treated the human race as a whole?  Would they take him to Draconis and fix him, reprogram him to be obedient and faithful, then train him to be a spy and unleash him on the rest of the galaxy?  Would they crack down on the humans of Earth, weed out the latent telepaths from the rest of the population and fix them too?  Or maybe just dispose of them, since a block of telepaths on a planet that still wasn’t totally assimilated into their Imperium would represent a serious threat to their control?

      The more he thought about it, the more worried he got.  That made him agitated, and that caused him to be more aware of his own power, and his endless need to keep it under total control at all times.  He was as much a prisoner of it as he was a prisoner of the system, possessed of a wondrous gift that he truly enjoyed, but forever denied the freedom to use it as he wished he could.  He did enjoy having talent.  He really did.  If he didn’t love it so much, he’d have quit Jyslin long ago, the instant she taught him enough to keep it a secret.  But he had wanted more, wanted to learn how to master this ability, and was well on his way.  He was solid on hiding his power, was competent in sending (though he had much more to learn and much practice was needed), and he was good in the fundamental basics of attack and defense.  He wouldn’t be defeating Jyslin in a telepathic duel anytime soon, but at least he could protect himself from her long enough to run over and punch her, which would disrupt her concentration.  He wanted to be a telepath, and everything that it entailed, but he didn’t want to be able to openly enjoy that gift if it meant becoming even more the slave to Empress Dahnai and the Faey Imperium.  But, at least he found acceptance with Jyslin, and when Jyslin wasn’t there, with Symone.  It was a small thing, but never failed to make him happy.

      Telepathy.  It was the cornerstone of the Faey’s hold over Earth, even more than their overwhelming technological advantage.  With that weapon hanging over them, the human race could never, ever, break free of that control.  It could not be prevented, it could not be countered, and it could not be defeated.  Having an MPAC in one’s hands and pointing it at a stark naked Faey did no good if that Faey could simply use her telepathic abilities to prevent one from pulling the trigger.  It was the only weapon, the only advantage, that the Faey needed.  If they wore woven grass skirts and used thighbone clubs as weapons, they would still hold the advantage over the human race.

      And there was nothing he could do about it.

      God, how he hated admitting that to himself.  All his life, he had always been able to do something about anything that got in his way.  He didn’t want to go into foster care, so he got himself emancipated.  He couldn’t afford college, so he got a scholarship.  It wasn’t until the Faey came that he had truly understood what it felt like to be helpless, to have no control, to be subject to the wills and wants of someone else.

      To be a slave.

      His father…Jason chuckled.  His father would have picked up a slingshot and went after the Faey if that was what it took.  He was such a brave man, even after he got cancer.  He’d fought to the bitter end, no matter what the odds were, exhibiting that ferocious tenacity for which the Fox family had been famous.  Sometimes, Jason had believed that his father would beat the cancer if only because he just absolutely refused to die.  But in the end, his father’s body just gave out, and his will just couldn’t keep everything going all at once.  It hadn’t been a lack of will or spirit, it had been the weakness of the flesh that had finally caused his father to succumb.  Even at the end, his father had recited the last words of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, “from hell’s heart, I stab at thee…with my last breath, I spit on thee,” and then he died.  Not “goodbye,” not “I love you Jason,” but a steadfast declaration of defiance that even though the cancer had conquered his body, it would never defeat his spirit.  He had been fearless.

      His father had been a man.

      Certainly not like his son was.  Meekly accepting that which he hated because he was afraid.  Afraid of death, afraid of losing his position of relative comfort…of losing Jyslin.  Yes, he had to admit to himself, that was now a factor, as much as he hated to say it.  Jason Fox, admitting that he didn’t want to lose his rather weird relationship with a Faey.  The guy who refused to be friends with some Faey that he would really like, if not for the color of their skin, the shape of their ears, and the government that controlled them as much as it controlled him.  He was such a hypocrit.  His father would be so disappointed in him.  It would have never been rejection of him or hatred of him, but he would certainly be disappointed.

      Jason stopped in front of the Burger King, and realized he’d walked almost all the way down to the West Bank Expressway.  He sighed and moved to turn around, but a tiny sign hanging from a streetlight stopped him dead in his tracks.  It was made on a piece of spiral notebook paper, in crayon.  It looked to have been done by a 10 year old.

      It was a flag, with only seven stripes and a bunch of dots done in white crayon for stars on ragged blue.  And under that were these simple words:

      Don’t forget July 4th.  Happy Independence Day.

      Jason looked at it for a long time, then reached up and pulled it down.  It had been put there by a child, a young boy or girl who hadn’t been afraid to tape it to a streetlamp, despite strict no-posting laws instituted by the Faey.  The fourth of July.  It had come and gone, and he had totally forgotten about it.  It reminded him of the last Independence Day he’d had with his father, wheeling him around in a wheelchair in Portsmouth, a city on the border between Maine and New Hampshire.  They’d just come back from Boston for the Pops Goes the Fourth concert they held out at the harbor.  They were at a Shell station, the Pathfinder was still fueling up as they came back from the bathroom, and his father was chattering on excitedly about how good the concert was, how they’d managed to synchronize the fireworks with the music so perfectly, then he sighed and chuckled and said that his mother would have been there playing…that she was there playing.  That was the first time that Jason had heard anything like that from his father, and Jason knew at that moment that his father was going to die.  He did die, three weeks later.  He remembered that moment, not the concert, not anything else, because they’d watched a black 1962 Cadillac convertible go by with New Hampshire license plates, and his father had pointed and said “that’s why I’ve always liked New Hampshire, son.  They don’t mess around.”

      The motto on a New Hampshire license plate:  Live Free or Die.

      Live free, or die.

      Damn right.

      He was so tired of being afraid.  Damn tired of it.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of losing Jyslin, afraid of being with her, afraid of what he would end up doing after he left school, afraid of compromising his principles.  Afraid, afraid, afraid.  He wasn’t living, he was existing, existing in a continual state of fear…which was just what the Imperium wanted.  Be afraid, stay timid, accept everything because you’re too scared to do anything else.

      Well, Jason Fox wasn’t going to be frightened anymore.  He was going to be what he wanted to be, he was going to redeem himself in the eyes of his father.  Oh, there was nothing he could do about the Faey, and his father would probably disapprove of him throwing his life away.  But he could honor his father by doing what he would have expected him to do.

      Live free, or die.

      Jason carefully folded up that ragged little piece of paper, put it in his pocket, then turned around and marched back the way he came. His strides were long and confident, and his expression was one of both relief and resolve.  He knew exactly what to do.  The Faey didn’t own the entire world.  There were certain places, places where squatters and outlaws roamed, the wild forested areas where the Faey had allowed things to go back to nature to maintain the planet’s ecosystem.  The Appalachian Mountains and the forests extending to the west of them were uninhabited areas, at least officially.  But everyone knew that there were people there. Squatters, survivalists, outlaws, people who had refused to accept the yoke of the Faey conquerers.  Those were the people who had chosen to live free or die, and they remained in those forests, surviving the best they could, living day by day on whatever they could hunt, scrounge, and keep.  The Faey didn’t bother them, leaving them to their own designs, so long as they didn’t interfere with the Faey.  They had shunned the rest of the world, sacrificed everything just to be free.

      That was what he wanted to be.

      He would lose Jyslin.  He would lose his life of luxury.  But he would have his freedom…and there could be nothing that could ever take the place of that.

      He was back at Tulane before he knew it.  He walked briskly up to the steps of the dorm, past a couple of girls who were talking, and towards the door.  A burly fellow that looked like a football player came out the door, then snorted and blocked it.  “Well, if it ain’t the blueskin’s bitch,” he sneered.

      He didn’t say another word.  A single blow to the nose sent the man flying back into the foyer, and he lay there, rolling to and fro and groaning with both hands covering a broken nose, as Jason boldly stepped over him.  “Have a nice day,” Jason grated as he went straight for the stairs.

      He forgot that he gave Tim the key to his room, so he simply kicked in the door.  The loud BANG made every occupied room’s door open, and they watched as Jason Fox calmly moved a large piece of door out of his way, then waltz into his room as if he’d done nothing unusual.  He reached under his bed and pulled out his backpack, then opened his locker and dumped a drawer of clothes onto the bed.  He realized that it wasn’t big enough, so he piled all the clothes he could get on the bed, then pulled the blanket’s corners up and tied them to form a makeshift bag.  He used his backpack for what few personal effects he had, pausing for a moment when he took the picture of his father off the pegboard over his desk.  He smiled, then tucked it safely away.  He then reached under his bed again for a small suitcase, and started filling it with those tools and pieces of equipment which belonged to him, things he’d paid for with his own money.  He wouldn’t take so much as a coaster if it was something that the Faey had supplied to him.  His money was his, even though it was paid to him by the Faey, because it had come from the fact that his ideas had been used to help people.  That money was clean money, as far as he was concerned.

      “Shee-it,” Tim said with a grating chuckle.  “You know, you could’ve come up and got the key.”  He looked at the bed.  “What are you doing?”

      “Leaving,” Jason said brusquely.  His panel’s display started flashing, and the device started beeping, warning him of an incoming call.  Jason grabbed it, and without blinking an eye, threw it at the closed window.  Tim flinched as the sound of breaking glass washed over them, and Jason’s panel sailed out the window and down out of sight with a shower of glittering glass.

      “Holy shit, you’re serious!” Tim gasped.  “Are you out of your mind?  Where are you going to go?  You know they’re going to drag you back here!”

      “They have to catch me first,” Jason said, pushing him towards the door so he could get back to his locker.

      “Shit, Jayce, it ain’t no reason to go bonkers or nothin’,” he said.  “Jyslin said there wasn’t nothin’ more gonna happen on campus.  Don’t flip out.”

      “I’m not flipping out,” he said.  “I just realized something a little while ago, Tim.”

      “What?”

      “Live free or die.”

      “What the hell does that mean?”

      “Just what it says,” he declared, punching a moleculartronic toolkit into his suitcase.  He’d paid for that, damn it, it was his.  And he was taking it.  “I won’t be afraid anymore.  Not of the Faey, not of me, not of what I can do, not of what the Faey would do if they knew it, not of anything that I can do something about.  And damn it to hell, I can do something about being a good little slave to the Imperium.  So I quit.”

      “You can’t quit!  They’ll send you to a farm!”

      “Big fuckin’ deal, and keep your voice down,” Jason snapped, then glanced at the broken door and lowered his voice.  “Work here, work there, assemble circuit boards, pick corn, it’s all the same.  Do your job, pretend that it matters, delude yourself into thinking that you’re happy because you’re afraid they’ll fix you so you are happy.  No matter how much money I could make as a technician, I’m still just that sorry son of a bitch out in Iowa picking corn.  I just have a bigger room and no callouses on my hands.”

      “Don’t do this, man,” Tim pleaded.  “Think about what you’re about to lose.”

      “What the hell am I about to lose?” Jason hissed in a low but intense voice.  “My cushy little job as a Faey lapdog?  No thanks.  Jyslin?  Yeah, I’m gonna miss Jyslin, I really like her, but she’s not worth it if I can’t look myself in the eye in the mirror when I wake up every morning.  But I’ll tell you one thing, Tim McGee, I have a hell of a lot more to lose by staying here than I ever do by leaving.”

      “Like what?” he shouted.

      “Like my pride,” Jason said in a seething tone.  “Like my self respect, like my freedom!  I’d rather die in a gutter a free man than live to be a hundred knowing that I’m nothing but a cog in the wheel of the Imperial machine,” he said with remarkable calm and control, zipping his backpack shut.  “If you keep screaming, you’re going to tip off the others about what I’m doing, and I won’t have the time to get away.  So, kindly get your ass out of my way,” he declared flatly, picking up his makeshift bag of clothes.

      “You’re crazy if you think I’m letting you—“

      The rest of that declaration was lost in a wheezing “whuaaff!” as Jason planted his foot solidly in Tim’s belly.  The dark-haired man literally sailed out of his room, across the hall, and then slammed into the door on the opposite side.  It split in two under the weight of the impact, and Tim spilled into Angie Harmon’s room, blood flowing out of his nose as Angie screamed in shock and outrage, scrambling to grab the towel on her bed to cover the fact that she was nude.  Jason stepped out of his room with his backpack over his shoulder, a bag of clothes in one hand, and a small suitcase in the other.

      “Later, Tim,” Jason said from the hall.  “I’ll call you when I get to my campsite.  Er, you tell him that when he wakes up,” Jason told Angie after realizing that Tim wasn’t going to be coherent for a few minutes.  “By the way, might I say, damn, woman,” he said with a sly smile and a wink, looking her up and down.

      Angie blushed furiously, but did give him a smile.

      “Call me if you ever need a date,” he remarked as he walked back towards the stairs.

      Everyone who was in their room was now at the door, and they watched Jason march past with strangely respectful eyes.  Jason had his chin up, his shoulders back, marching into the dark realm of uncertainty with dignity and courage.  He went down the stairs and to the foyer, then stepped back over the man who had accosted him earlier, who was still laying there groaning, holding his bloody nose.  They were following him, filing out of the dorm behind him as he went to the student parking lot, towards his beat-up old Corolla, shimmering in the hot summer sun.  He threw the bags in the trunk, dropping them on top of the duffel that held his prototype, then slammed it shut.  That was when he saw them all, standing there, staring at him silently.

      “Time for a vacation,” he called to them.  “I’ve been feeling a little stressed lately.”

      “You think?” someone called with a laugh.  Then, for the oddest reason, they all started clapping and cheering.  He had absolutely no idea why.

      Certainly, Jason wasn’t stupid enough to just drive off without some understanding of harsh reality.  He was planning on going to a lawless area with no real supplies or provisions, so that had to be addressed.  He had a plan, a simple plan; he was going camping.  He was going to outfit himself for a camping trip, and as far as the Faey were concerned, he would simply vanish during his trip.  If he did things right, they’d never find him, because by the time they realized he was missing, he’d have too much of a head start.  It also held the dual benefit of allowing him to buy everything he needed to do this, since camping equipment was exactly what he’d need in order to set up somewhere.

      He made a few stops on the way to his destination, buying nonperishable food, camping supplies, and after he got to Bell Chasse, he went to the Base Exchange and bought some extra gear, including one more little piece of equipment that might be useful to him later on, and something he could get nowhere else.

      Guns.

      The clerk almost had an apoplexy when he demanded a PK-319 metaphased  plasma rifle (the hunting version, with an energy output that wouldn’t make the target explode from the plasma) and two AM-10 plasma pistols, along with enough PPGs to power them to last him five years.  But his thumb on the reader showed her he had the money, and there were no laws against him buying weapons, not even as a native.  Anyone could buy anything in the Faey system…they just had to have the money for it.  She did try to probe him almost the entire time, but he put up a false front of buying them as a birthday present for his Faey girlfriend, whose relationship with him was the reason he had access to the BX in the first place.

      He also bought a new panel to replace the panel he threw out the window, one that didn’t have a tracking device in it like his school panel did, and a personal cell phone to handle communications with the outside world, one of the generic ones.  They’d be able to track him if he used it, but he wanted some way to talk to Tim and Jyslin if it was needful.  They might just send a search team, or train sensors in his direction, because they didn’t know he was running.  As far as they’d know, he vanished during a spontaneous camping trip.  That story would even let him keep his airskimmer, if he could find some way to hide it once he got to a place he liked.  They’d have no idea what happened to his skimmer, and he really didn’t care what they believed.  He bought two pair of hiking boots in the BX, plenty of spare socks and underwear, and even remembered to buy a fully equipped first-aid kit.  Everything a camper would need for a trip to the woods.

      He made one more stop, at a bank, where he withdrew C10,000 from his account and took it as hard currency.

      He had everything he needed now.  He drove over to the flight line and parked his car by his most prized possession, his airskimmer.  He spent maybe a half an hour transferring his gear into the skimmer, then parked his car in its space, just like normal.  He even locked it and took the keys, since Tim had keys to the car.  He climbed up the steps and into his skimmer, than sat down in the pilot’s chair.  He ran his hand along the display, then gripped the control stick gently.  He knew keeping it was going to bring them on him, but he didn’t care.  It was his, he bought it, he owned it, and he was keeping it, damn them, even if he never flew it again.  If it brought them to him, well that was too bad for them.  He fully intended on parking it somewhere, some parking garage in some abandoned city or getting it under some trees, so long as it couldn’t be seen from orbit, so it would be there if he needed it.  He might even live out of it, he didn’t know yet, but he’d be damned if he gave it up.  He wasn’t going to be afraid of the Faey anymore.  If they wanted to come after him, then they were more than welcome to do it.  But Jyslin and her Marine squad had discovered how dangerous it could be to keep coming after Jason Fox.

      With a cleansing breath, he turned on the radio.  “Tower.”

      “This is tower.”  It was Mari, a controller he knew rather well.  “Hey Jason.”

      “Hey Mari.  I’m requesting clearance for take-off.”

      “Destination?”

      “North,” he said.  “I don’t have a set destination yet.”

      “Gonna go wandering again, eh Jason?”

      “Something like that.”

      “Let me call it through,” she said, and there was a long pause.  “Ok hon, I got you cleared up through Cleveland.  You’ll get passed off to Montgomery control,” she answered.  “I’m showing no flight restrictions under 50,000 shakra or low-flying traffic along a northern vector between here and the hand-off point, so you’re clear, but Montgomery’s got some heavy traffic right now, so they’ll probably have some local restrictions.  Just stay under 50,000 and you’re in the green.”

      “Got it.  Local?”

      “Hold for local traffic.  About three minutes.  We have a freighter dropship inbound.”

      “Understood,” he said as he started the skimmer’s enginges, hearing that familiar high-pitched whine hum under his feet.  “They got the cruisers doing recon today?” he asked casually.

      “The Duchess is visiting, so they’re all probably busy with that protocol shit,” she said candidly.  “The Duchess loves to inspect the warships, you know.”  He’d forgotten that the Duchess Trillane herself was here, in the orbital station that controlled space traffic over the planet.  She probably had a host of warships along with her personal ship for protection, but they’d all be too busy right now worrying about her than they would be worrying about a single airskimmer who was flying an approved flight plan.

      A hovercar screamed onto the tarmac, racing towards him.  He glanced at it, but paid it little mind.  He was inside, the door was closed, and he was about 90 seconds from lifting off.  He finished his preflight checklist and glanced out again, then felt his heart seize a bit when Jyslin jumped out of the hovercar, with Maya getting out of the driver’s side.  Jason Fox, you idiot! she boomed at him with a powerful sending.  Tim called me!  Get your ass out of that skimmer right now, do you hear me?

      He looked at Maya, then flipped on the external speaker.  “No,” he answered bluntly.  “It’s been real, Jyslin.  I really enjoyed it, and you’re about the only thing making me regret this.  But I can’t do this anymore.  I can’t live in fear all the time, I can’t pretend that I can live like this anymore.  I’d rather lift off this tarmac and get blown out of the sky than live one more day under the Faey.  I have no idea where I’m gonna go or what I’m gonna do, but damn it all, I’ll be free.  And that matters more to me right now than anything else in the world.”

      Jason, do not do this!  They will come after you, don’t you understand that?  You’re not just any other student, you’re a candidate for research!  You’re too valuable to just let you walk off!  If they catch you, they’ll reprogram you, or worse!

      You don’t seem to understand, Jyslin, they won’t start looking for me until a few days after I miss my physical, Jason told her with an edge to his mental voice, sending tightly so Maya wouldn’t hear it.  I’ll have at least a week’s head start.  They’ll never find me.

      Oh, they won’t. I will.  You think I’m gonna just let you run out on me?  You’ve got another thing coming, buster!  You can’t hide from me, Jason Fox!

      You’d better calm down and shut up before Maya realizes that you’re open sending and not sending to someone without talent, Jason snapped at her tightly.  Maya already had confused eyes, looking at Jyslin like she was trying to convince herself that she was wrong about what she was thinking.

      “Local traffic is clear,” Mari called over the radio.  “You’re clear to take off, Jason.  Have a good one, hon.”

      “Thanks Mari.”  I’m not going to vanish, he told her.  I have your phone number.  I’ll call you.  I, I’m sorry to run out on you Jyslin.  You were the only thing holding me here, but I’ve had enough of sacrificing my honor because I want to be with you.  It’s time to start living up to my principles instead of compromising them every moment of every day that I stay in the Faey system.  But I won’t be a stranger to you, I promise.  As long as you and Tim keep your mouths shut, they’ll think I vanished on a camping trip, and I can keep in touch with you.  It’s only if you start spouting off at the mouth that you’ll get me in trouble.  Think about that.  With a light touch on the controls, Jason urged his precious skimmer into the air.  The skids lifted off the tarmac, and he looked through the windscreen down at Jyslin.  He regretted leaving her, but she was one of the reasons he had to go.  Staying with her would just make him more and more a Faey slave…and he just couldn’t live like that.  It wouldn’t be her fault, not really.  He’d just want to be with her, and to be with her he’d have to compromise his principles more and more every day as he got out of school, took his final training, became a part of Faey society, became a part of the Imperium.  He just couldn’t do that, not if he wanted to become the man he wanted to be.

      So, it was time to go.  Time to be the man his father would be proud of, time to be what he wanted to be, no matter how much it cost him.

      To be free.

      Jyslin, however, didn’t look like she was going to be quite that forgiving.  She turned and reached into the hovercar, then came out with her plasma rifle.  He saw her clearly bring it up and disengage the safety.  Jason had a brief moment of panic; she was going to shoot him down!  He scrambled to raise the ship’s shields, though they’d do very little against a metaphased plasma weapon…only shave about ten percent of the power of the plasma off, the part of the metaphased plasma that matched the state of existence of the shield.  His skimmer’s hull had no reinforced armor, that plasma rifle would blow holes the size of garbage can lids all through his ship.  Are you crazy, woman? Jason sent frantically as he tried to turn the ship so she couldn’t hit his engines.  If you hit the engines, you’ll blow us all to hell!

      Jyslin didn’t seem to care.  She raised the barrel of her plasme rifle, and Jason had a moment of terror where he realized that the only way he was going to save his ass was if he tried to subdue Jyslin with telepathy.  That, or open fire on her with the airskimmer’s defensive weaponry.

      But Maya reached over and put her hand on the top of the rifle’s barrel, and then gently started pushing it down.  Jyslin glared at her murderously, but the serenely calm look on her face, with just a hint of disapproval, seemed to take the fight out of her.

      Now I understand exactly what’s going on, Maya sent openly, which both of them clearly heard.  She looked right at him, and gave him a sly, slight smile.   Be more careful from now on, Jason, she warned.  That was an open send.  Now I understand what brought you two together, even though nobody in the squad could understand why Jason would do such a major about-face and go from hating Jyslin to being her beau.  You, Jason Fox, have talent.  And unlike that girl yesterday, you’ve had it for quite a while.  Probably since that night at the opera, I’d wager.  Jyslin saw what the rest of us missed, and she got you out of there, got you someplace safe.  And she trained you, didn’t tell anyone about you, because she likes you and she didn’t want the Imperium to hurt you.  She knew what the Imperium would do if they knew about you.

      Jyslin gave Maya a strangled look.  Now it was really over.  Maya would go straight to Lana, and both Jyslin and Jason were in big, big, big trouble.  The only recourse they had was for Jason to land and bring Jyslin along, because they’d probably make her wish she was dead.

      Well, far be it for me to rat on a friend, she sent with gentle eyes.  Go on, Jason.  You’ll be much safer wherever you’re going than you’d ever be here, because I’ll bet my breastplate that the Imperium won’t consider this girl to be an isolated incident.  Even if they do, that’ll change the instant another human expresses talent, which I’m sure will eventually happen now.  You never need worry that they’ll ever hear of it from me.  Me and Jyslin, we’ve been together too long, and besides, if I weren’t married to Vell, I’d probably have done the same thing.  You’re worth it hon.  Just don’t forget that I exist.  I expect a phone call from time to time, she said with a wink.

      Maya, Jyslin started, her mental voice anguished, upset, showing her raw emotion.

      Hush, girl.  We’re partners.  You’d think I’d give up our friendship when I agree with what you did in the first place?  We’ll only get in trouble if we blab.  You intend to suffer a bout of conscious and confess?

      No!

      Well, Jason, you intend on coming home and revealing yourself?

      Hell no, he answered immediately.

      Well, we’re all perfectly safe then, she reasoned.  So, you get going, Jason.  I suggest you keep your skimmer powered down unless you need it, and hide it in a cave or inside a tall building.  Faey sensors can pick up the plasma signature from something as big as a skimmer from orbit, no matter where you put it.  Not unless you encase it in a very heavy metal, like corbidium.  Burying it under a few hundred standard tons of stone will block their sensors from detecting it by its metal signature.  If worse comes to worse and you can’t find a good place to park it, just park it under a large bridge.  The bridge’s sensor signature will hide the skimmer well enough that only a master sensor officer specifically looking for it is going to find it.

      I’ll remember that, he promised, looking at Jyslin.  I’m sorry, Jyslin.  Don’t be too mad at me.

      It’s too late for that, she growled back at him.  But if you’re dead set on this, may the Trinity keep watch over you.  And if you don’t call me soon, you’ll regret it.

      Jason chuckled audibly.  Keep her out of trouble, Maya.

      That won’t be easy, but I’ll do my best, she replied with a smile.  Never forget, Jason, you do have friends here.  Don’t forget us, and don’t hesitate to think of us when you need us.

      I’ll remember.  Thanks Maya.  Jyslin…behave.  The tone of his sending betrayed the simple words.  It held within it all the regret he felt leaving her, all the worry of the danger she might be in because of him, all the concern he had for her, and it contained all of his feelings for her, his true affection for her, concern for her, maybe even a little bit of love for her.  But it also contained all the nervous excitement at the prospect of chasing a dream denied to him for years, to find that which so fundamentally made up what he was that it defined his very soul.  He was going to find something that meant as much to him as life itself, the only thing that could ever convince him to leave Jyslin, the one thing that he had craved since the day the Faey appeared and had been denied to him.

      Freedom.

      It was a very uncertain path he had chosen for himself.  He was going into the unknown, and he was leaving behind him the possibility that his past would search him out, try to hunt him down.  But it was worth it.  It was all worth it.  Jason was willing to die if that was what it took, just to taste freedom for one single day, to stand on a hilltop and watch the sun rise and know that for that moment, for that fleeting moment, he was the master of his own destiny, he was the one that controlled his fate.  The only thing he came close to regretting was leaving Tim, Symone, and Jyslin behind.  But they couldn’t follow him.  Tim wasn’t ready, Symone needed Tim, and Jyslin was part of the system, no matter how she felt about it.  He wouldn’t forget about them, and he wouldn’t break contact with them, but they could not go where he was going.  Maybe someday, much later down the road, but not now.

      Right now, he had some maps to look over, to find the best place to set down.  He didn’t look back at Jyslin as he brought up the throttle and left them behind, then put the skimmer on autopilot and brought up the planetary maps, looking for a destination.  It had to have access to a good-sized abandoned city, so he had scavenging opportunities, but not one so large that it was going to be swarming with squatters.  It would help if it was beside a large river, to give him a bridge to park under temporarily until he found something better.  It would help if the city itself was designed in such a way that he could quickly get from that bridge to a forest, for cover.  And he’d prefer that location to be somwhat close to Faey territory, probably within a hundred miles or so, so he could make forays into “civilization” for emergency supplies if it was necessary.  That was what the hard cash was for.

      Here.  This place had most of what he needed, and was ideally located.  Huntington, West Virginia (or what used to be West Virginia). It bordered the Ohio River, and the maps showed that it had three bridges spanning it.  The city wasn’t that large, built as a long strip nestled up against the river, meaning that he had to go no more than a mile traveling north or south to clear the city and get into forested wilderness, but, it was large enough.  It was probably picked over fairly well, but some of the things Jason would be looking for probably wouldn’t be seen as too valuable to most squatters.  The city was about seventy miles from the bright red line on his map that marked the border of patrolled Faey territory.  They had many farms out in Ohio, out where the foothills petered out and the land became flat and fertile.  On an airbike or in a car, that wasn’t far at all.  He’d have to be careful until he got the hang of crossing that border, but he didn’t plan on doing that unless he had no other choice.

      That was where he was going.  He punched up some information on the town, accessing old archives that the Faey had absorbed from the United States.  It had once been a manufacturing town and important railroad junction, but like most American cities in the `80’s, `90’s, and the early `00’s, it lost its manufacturing plants to overseas competition.  The city had had a large university, Marshall, and had still had a metal smelting plant in operation before the subjugation closed it down.  The city was located in a valley formed by the Ohio River, and the land of that region was dominated by rolling hills and thick forest.

      That was very good.  Access to scavenged goods, cover and concealment, relative proximity to Faey territory, and the opportunity to hunt.  He’d never really been hunting before, but he’d better learn.

      He glanced back at his railgun.  It was a good thing he had the scope he’d meant to mount on it in the box of junk he’d brought from his room.  With that scope on it, he’d be able to sit on hill and shoot the deer on the other.  All he needed to do was see them; anything he could see using that thing, he could shoot…no matter how far away it was.

      He had a destination.  He had the supplies.  He had the will.  He had a plan.  He was ready.

      It was time to live the dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To:   Title    ToC    5      7

Chapter 6

            Oira, 19 Oraa, 4392, Orthodox Calendar

            Thursday, 7 July 2007, Native Regional Reckoning

            Huntington, West Virginia (Native designation), Orala Nature Preserve, American Sector

      Jason Fox arrived late in the afternoon at his new home in a heavy, pounding rain, sliding his ship up under the concrete and steel of a green bridge that looked to connect the downtown area of the abandoned city of Huntington with a series of houses on the other side.  The skimmer was protected from the rain by the bridge, and to his relief, there was no one under that bridge when he got there.  He’d been worried that maybe there were squatters there, but then again, in a city this size, all the squatters were probably in abandoned buildings and houses.  Many of the houses he’d seen when he flew over had chimneys, so that was probably where most of them were living…if there were any.  This city, like all cities in the Appalachain Forest, had only been abandoned about three years ago, so most of everything was still in moderately good repair.  He’d noticed that the streets were riddled with potholes, and all the grass in the city was heavily overgrown, but aside from that it looked almost like there were still people living here.  It was an eerie ghost town that would look alive if there was electricity.

      It was a park of some kind, where he was parked.  Thick grass was all around, and he was up against a floodwall that had once protected the city from the river.  Further to the east was what looked like a small ampitheater built out over the water, and there were picnic tables and parking lots just inside where gates breached the wall.  It had to be some kind of riverfront park.  Jason opened the hatch and stepped out with a pair of binoculars, then used them to scan the opposite bank, what had once been the state of Ohio.  He saw the houses over on that side, but he could see no activity out there.  From the way it looked, at least for now, he had the place to himself.

      Carefully, Jason checked the radio channels, and then the proximity sensors, for signs that they noticed he’d landed.  He’d given no destination, and the last communication he’d made was with Columbus flight control about twenty minutes ago.  Their sensors would show that he’d descended, but unless they had a satellite overhead or were using a ship’s sensors, they’d have lost contact with him at about 500 feet.  Ground-based sensors had the same line of sight issues as old radar when it came to hilly terrain, because Faey sensors weren’t all that good at penetrating thick rock.  Not the kinds they used for tracking air traffic, anyway.  Space-based sensors didn’t have to worry about mountainous terrain, so they had the perfect vantage point.  He’d descended under that level some 50 miles upriver, then flown down here literally skimming the surface of the water.  He’d flown under most of the bridges easily, except for one at a place called Point Pleasant, which looked to have been damaged by something and had been partially collapsed.

      Aside from that, everything looked eerily normal.

      With a sigh, Jason shut down his precious ship, then went back into the cargo hold and pulled the portable PPG out of the habitat module.  That device would power all his Faey-based equipment easily, acting like a portable power generator, and it wasn’t so large that it would be detectable by Faey sensors.  He jacked it into the cabin’s power system and isolated it from the rest of the ship’s power system, which allowed him to bring up the radio, television, and other cabin systems except climate control without activating anything else.  The skimmer’s computer was connected to its own always-on backup PPG, so the computer had no trouble controlling the active cabin systems.  He kept an ear out for the regional command and military comm traffic, listening for any references to him as he pulled out his railgun and inspected it for any damage, then fitted it with sights and the scope, a scope that was both a laser sight and a telescopic sight.  He also tweaked its operating system to have it chamber and recharge the firing capacitors faster, which effectively allowed the weapon to fire as quickly as the reload mechanism could chamber the next round.  That was effectively as he could pull the trigger.  Both of those actions were governed by the software that operated the weapon.  Jason glanced down at the little ammo case he’d been carrying with it.  Inside that box was 1,500 rounds of ammunition, as well as five extra clips.  Each clip held 30 rounds; the rounds themselves were actually quite small, around the size of a .22 caliber bullet.  The size and shape of them would even allow him to manufacture them without a replicator, since they were fairly simple.  All he needed was a molcular sprayer to get the laminated titanium on them.  He had two sprayers, and he had a good stock of titanium in his box of junk..  He could make the rounds out of any magnetic metal, even the sheet metal of a car.  He could make a mold of a bullet in about 3 minutes with some wax, and he could use that mold and a molecular sprayer to take sheet metal as fuel and just spray the metal into the mold, like pouring water.  Coat them with titanium, and he was ready to go.  The sheet metal in one car would make a few hundred thousand rounds, so he wasn’t all that worried about getting ammunition for his railgun.  He’d need to restock his titanium, but a visit to a hospital would help there.  He seriously doubted that scavengers had taken all of the surgical instruments out of them, and many of them were made of titanium.  If worse came to worst, he’d cross over into Faey territory and visit a home supply store.  They had replicators on premesis, which they allowed people to use to replicate raw materials for a fee.  The lack of a replicator was his one glaring deficiency, but they were just too big, and consumed too much power.

      By the time he was done altering his railgun (he’d set the reload time like that on purpose to make sure it was going to work properly, though the weapon was capable of literally firing as fast as the trigger could be pulled), the rain had stopped, and the sun broke through a hole in the clouds and painted the muddy water of the Ohio River a golden brown.  Jason opened the hatch again and stepped out, breathed in the warm air, muggy from the rain, but it was the sweet smell of freedom that filled his nose with its intoxicating perfume.  He put a plasma pistol in the waist of his jeans, hidden behind his back by his denim overshirt, then affixed a carrying strap for his railgun and slung it over his shoulder.  It was time to go out and see what was about.  He went down the steps and touched the remote of his skimmer, which caused it to retract the stairs and close the hatch, sealing itself up.  The lightly armored hull would repel anything a squatter could conceivably throw at it, unless they had some plasma weapons, anyway.  It was invulnerable to gunfire, but it was more than vulnerable to metaphased plasma weaponry.

      He had to walk a while to get to the floodgate, and decided that a bicycle might be handy for a while, til he could find something better.  He came out behind what used to be a Red Lobster, its faded sign hanging precariously over a street that went along the floodwall.  He kept going up towards the town, and it was when he got up there that he noticed the first signs of habitation. Some abandoned cars had been pushed to block some streets, most of the glass windows of the stores along—he had to look at a fading sign at the corner—3rd Avenue were broken out, and whatever had been on display in them was gone.  Shopping carts and other debris were piled up in intersections to impede traffic, and he had to climb over a couple of them to continue up into the city.  He came up through what had looked like a plaza of sorts, and when he reached 5th Avenue, he saw his first citizen of this abandoned city.  It looked like about a thirty year old man wearing faded, dirty jeans and a black tee shirt, with a denim jacket over it despite the summer heat.  He had the hood of a car open that was parked a bit further up 5th Avenue, a green Buick Century with four flat tires that had been parked at the side of a street, yanking on something.

      “Excuse me!  Hey, you, I need some help!” Jason called, turning towards the man, going around a large overgrown bowl of sorts that held an overgrown shrub.  He opened his mind just enough to hear the man’s surface thoughts, so to better get a grip on what the man might say…and what he wouldn’t say.  Sure, it was cheating, but he needed all the information he could get.

      The man whipped out from under the hood with some kind of car part in one hand, and a revolver in the other.  His hair and beard were brown and unwashed, and his face was smudged with dirt.  Jason saw the fear in his eyes, sensed the rise of panic in his mind, and that made him react.  Jason turned and dove behind the potted shrub as the man brought up his revolver and fired.  He heard the bullet ricochet off the huge pot just before the loud report of the gun.  Jason got up to his knees and unslung his railgun, keeping crouched behind the large pot, but he could hear the steps of the man as he fled back up the wide, four lane street, and heard his terrified thoughts as he fled.  Gotta get back to the hill!  Gotta get back to the hill! he thought over and over and over, and from the sound of it, that was when he’d feel he was safe.

      Holy shit!  Were they really that paranoid around here?

      “Ok, important safety tip,” Jason breathed, trying to get over the scare.  God, that had been close.  If he hadn’t have been eavesdropping on that guy, he might have gotten himself shot.

      Why was he so afraid?  What was around here to be afraid of?  Jason stood up when the man was over a block away, then did what he should have done in the first place.  He swept the area around him with his gift, searching out other active minds, the very trick that Jyslin and Maya had once tried to use to find him, what seemed like a lifetime ago.  Jason was a very strong telepath, and his ability to seek out and detect other sentient minds had a range of nearly a mile.  He wouldn’t be able to make out any thoughts, but he’d know that they were there.

      There were 73 responses, and they were concentrated mainly to the east, down towards where the maps had shown Marshall University to be located.  There were eight people in his general area, moving in pairs, and all four sets of those paired responses were moving in his general direction.  They were coming to check out the gunshot, he realized, find out what was going on.

      Jason looked around, and saw that he was beside a public library.  He raced up to its rotating door, then found it jammed.  The window had been broken out of a handicap access door, so it was a simple matter to duck in and run into the building.  It had been ransacked, and moldering books, decaying in the unconditioned air, were littering the floor.  There was a check-in desk immediately in front of him, and he jumped over an access gate and knelt behind it, waiting for the first of those patrols to arrive.

      It took about five minutes, then he saw them.  Two men on bicycles, each with hunting rifles slung over a shoulder and pistols in holsters on their belts.  They had hand-held radios as well, very nice ones for that matter, and one was using it.  “Yeah, Jim, we’re at the library.  Nothin’ here.”

      There came the distant sounds of several gunshots.

      “We’re up by the park,” came the response.  “Whoever it was got up the hill.  Lucky bastard.”

      “You need to learn how to shoot, Jim,” the man called with a chuckle.

      “Why don’t I practice on your ass, Trev?  It’s big enough.”

      Hmm…that sounded odd.  Both of them weren’t really thinking about anything interesting, just bored and a little tired from biking around.  One was waiting to get his shift over so he could go home.  They weren’t much help.  Jason needed more information, but he also wasn’t going to hang his butt out where they could shoot it off.  He crept around the desk and through the access gate that kept people at one time from running out with the books.  He crept on all fours through the broken window, mindful of the glass, then got behind that same planter as the two rode up to the edge of the street.  He unshouldered his railgun, then rose up and aimed it at them.  “That’s about far enough, gents,” Jason called loudly.  Both froze, then one went for the pistol holstered in his belt.  “Keep reaching if you want to keep your head,” Jason snapped as he read their thoughts.  They were shocked, surprised, and now they were starting to become afraid.  They couldn’t see him, had no idea if he was armed or not, but both of them were pretty sure that he was.  “Both of you, hands up.”  They complied, as the one on the left started immediatley wondering if he was fast enough to grab for his pistol and shoot, but the fact that he was still on his bike would make it really hard for him to turn around.  “Now then, both feet on the ground.”  They complied.  Jason swept the area with his power, and found the closest pair of rovers was three blocks away, moving away from them.  That was good.  He slipped around them, coming into their view, and both immediately locked their eyes on his railgun.  Both of them registered surprise, and the one that was now on his right noted to himself that Jason’s clean clothes and hair meant he had to be new, and that he’d gotten his hands on a Faey weapon.  He relaxed just a little, as his mind saw the potential for having him join their gang.

      Gang.  He read more and more of the man’s thoughts, and saw that he was a member of a gang that held most of downtown and Marshall University.  They defended that turf from squatters out in the hills, who snuck in to steal anything that might be of use, tried to get in and steal the dwindling supplies of gasoline or canned, nonperishable food that the gang had managed to amass.

      “Well now, it’s nice to finally meet someone who didn’t shoot at me first,” Jason said in a grim tone, motioning with the barrel of his railgun.  “You, pull out your pistol with two fingers, and drop it on the ground.”

      The one on his left slowly reached down for his pistol, then he started preparing himself to lunge for it.  His mind told Jason that he was betting that this newbie didn’t have the reflexes or the killer instinct yet to shoot him.  Jason replied by firmly shouldering his weapon and aiming it at the man’s nose.  “Carefully,” he warned.   “If you think you can move that fast, maybe you can get your finger up fast enough to plug the hole I’ll put in your forehead.”

      Fear rippling through his thoughts, the fellow decided that going for it wasn’t such a good idea.  He pinched the butt of his revolver between two fingers and pulled it out, then dropped it to the ground.  “Good boy.  Now the rifle, one hand on the strap only.”  He complied, then Jason nudged his rifle at the other man.  “Same thing, slim.  Pistol first, real slow, then rifle.”  The man, holding the walkie-talkie, realized that he had it, and that he could warn the others of their situation just by pressing the transmit key.  “Well, let’s start with the radio,” Jason said, looking him in the eyes.  “No reason to invite anyone else to our little party, is there?  After all, we’re not here to shoot each other up.  At least I’m not.  So drop it.”

      Disappointment welling through his mind, the man dropped the radio to the ground, then carefully relieved himself of his pistol and rifle.  “Very good, gentlemen,” Jason said.  “Now scoot back from your toys, but don’t take either foot off the ground.”

      “How you expect me to do that?” the one on the left, the taller of the two with greasy long black hair tied in a tail, asked.

      “Shuffle,” Jason answered, bobbing the end of his weapon.  “Back.”

      They shuffled backwards awkwardly, for the bikes between their legs didn’t want to cooperate, their hands still up.  Jason used his foot to hook one rifle, then used it to sweep all four weapons out from in front of him.  He did not reach down for them.  Jason backed up a few steps, then sat down on the concrete edge of a raised earth bed, the kind of thing that probably once held flowers.  It was about fifteen feet across and the lip was about two feet off the ground.  Jason lowered his weapon slightly.  “Now then, gentlemen,” Jason said in a reasonable tone, openly listening to every thought they had, “as you’ve probably guessed, I’m somewhat new around here.  I decided that I’d had just about enough of the Faey, and decided it was about time to take a little trip.  As you can see, I managed to grab a few toys,” he noted, bobbing his railgun meaningfully.  “Now, since it’s obvious that people aren’t that friendly around here, you’re going to tell me all about who’s around.  You see, all I really want is a nice quiet place to move in and be left alone, and you two gentlemen are going to tell me where the best place might be.”

      “I ain’t sayin’ shit,” the one on the right said.  He was kind of portly, with brown hair and was missing one of his front teeth.  His face was a bit round and reddish, either from sun and wind or some kind of medical condition, and he had close-set brown eyes and a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap covering dirty hair.

      “Hey Mike,” someone called over the radio.

      “That’s me, I have to call in,” the man with the Reds cap said, though his thoughts betrayed that statement.

      “You just came down with a case of technical difficulty,” Jason told him bluntly.

      “They know where we are,” the other said, the one called Trev.

      “Sure, but they don’t know you’re in trouble,” Jason said with an evil little smile.

      “If you don’t let him answer, they’ll come looking for us.”

      “Fine.  Let’s just wait right here for them.  But while we’re waiting, you’re gonna tell me all about what’s going on around here.  You know, all the juicy gossip, like who lives where, what places I should avoid, that kind of thing.  I’m sure you’re just the veritable tour guide to the stars around here.”

      The man Trev—probably short for Trevor—frowned, and his thoughts told Jason that he was very worried, that Jason was way too comfortable.  That confidence had the man rattled.

      “Hey Jim, this is Mike,” someone called.  “What you need?”

      “Swing out towards First Street and check the roadblock on Washington, then pull back in.”

      “Sure, we’re not far from there.”

      “Aww, ain’t that too bad.  I guess someone else thinks he’s Mike too.  Too bad that other guy believes it,” Jason told the other man with a sly grin.  “Nice try.  So, start talking, and don’t be shy.”

      Jason listened, with both his ears and his mind, as they started talking. Their words were meant to get him killed, but their thoughts painted him a pretty stark picture of what was going on.  The city itself was controlled by three gangs.  This one, led by an evil-natured man named Joe Bueller, controlled downtown.  There was a smaller gang that controlled the eastern part of the city, and a third gang that controlled the west.  Beyond the city there were no gangs, just individual squatters and small groups that laid claim to this or that piece of territory.  Some of them, mainly the gangs, were armed.  The Faey had collected up most of the native weaponry, but in a state like West Virginia, where just about everyone owned a gun, even they couldn’t get them all.  They’d missed quite a few, and one of the first things those who had avoided the evacuation had done was tear apart the cities to find them.  In pawn shops, in residences, in one case an overlooked State Police armory, there were guns out there, and the squatters had managed to get their hands on them.  The Faey hadn’t bothered trying to collect up the ammunition, so there was plenty to go around.  Those State Police weapons were in the hands of the gang that controlled East Huntington and the towns of Guyandotte and Barboursville, that gang’s territory.  They had a few M-16’s with mostly nine millimeter pistols and shotguns, but the gang here in downtown had managed to loot some street weapons out of an abandoned police warehouse, where those guns had been evidence in crimes.  These two didn’t have machine guns, but some of the guards out there did; Uzis, Tek-9’s, and some other street weapons.  Joe Bueller kept those guns closer to the seat of his territory, which was a bar on 4th Avenue not far from the Marshall University campus.  Joe Bueller’s gang had twice the people as the other two, but their position in the middle didn’t allow him to kill off one without the other invading from the other side.  The gangs on each side hated each other even more than they did the gang in the middle, so there was no chance that they’d join forces and crush the ones in the middle.  So it was a balance of power that kept things from going all to hell.  The gangs maintained their members through the food they’d collected and what their foraging parties could find, or steal, out in the wilderness areas.  They were banded together for mutual protection, but unlike what Jason might imagine, they also took anything they could from anyone else, and killed them if it came to it.  Both of these men had killed people before, Jason discovered as he read their thoughts, both in defense of their territory and out on raids to take food or valuable equipment from individual squatters out in the hills.  Those squatters out there were very careful to keep hidden, because if a gang’s raiding force found out where they were living, they’d attack them.  So most individual squatters were semi-nomadic, moving from place to place, and were as nervous as rabbits.  Groups of squatters were out there, and their locations known, but they were too well entrenched or had too many people in them to make a raid on them successful.  Those people had literally walled themselves into defensible positions.  Joe Bueller would love to kill them off and take their stuff, but he’d lose too many men trying to take their camps, and those were men he couldn’t afford to lose if he wanted to protect himself from the other gangs.  So Joe Bueller’s policy was to have his foragers simply go out and ransack houses out in the rural areas, and kill anyone they came across—at least after they got them to take his raiding forces to where they kept their goods.

      Neither of these guys liked Joe Bueller, but he had a major mean streak and the loyalty of most of the people in the gang.  Nobody really liked him, but he kept them all alive and fed, so they overlooked his violent temper because they were afraid they’d be overrun and killed by another gang if he wasn’t there.  In general, just about everyone was going to act the way that first fellow did.  These people didn’t trust anyone that they didn’t already know, and thanks to roving groups of people like this gang who went out to steal anything they could get their hands on, they’d shoot first and ask questions later.

      Fear was the watchword out here in the wilderness, it seemed.  And those remaining behind had quickly degenerated into bands of vicious thugs who took by force anything they could, from anyone weaker than themselves.

      Such a pitiful, sorry remnant of what their once proud nation had been.

      Jason glanced down the street.  So, that single guy had come down to scavenge a car part…probably for a vehicle he either had or thought he could get running.  He’d noticed a lack of cars on the streets.  When they were evacuated out, the people were allowed to keep their automobiles.  So that hadn’t left too many behind, just those ones that nobody had cared to bring along, or ones that had no real owners.  Oh, he was sure that there had been cars galore to be had on the lots of auto dealerships, but that was only so many.  And after three years, even with such a limited number of cars out there to be had, those places that had gasoline had to either be empty by now, or that gas had turned to varnish and was unusable.

      Well…he had to find a new place to park his skimmer.  He wasn’t about to leave it down here.  He wasn’t going to get involved in these ridiculous turf wars.  Though it was apparent that the opportunities to scavenge weren’t going to be as plentiful as he’d hoped, on the other hand, he already had just about everything he needed.  He had enough food to last himself a month, and that should be enough to figure out how he was going to get himself set up.  If it came down to it, he’d just go to Faey territory and buy himself a major stock of food.  He had no qualms against buying from the Faey; they may be the conquerers, but they weren’t commanding him.

      Hmm…there was an old interstate south of the city.  He wondered if an overpass bridge over that highway was enough to hide his skimmer.  It would have the vertical clearance, that was no problem, since his skimmer was only a little higher than an old semi rig’s trailer.  Maya had told him to keep the skimmer under a bridge over a river, one with lots of concrete and steel.  An overpass would have lots of concrete, but maybe not enough steel.

      It wasn’t like he had much choice.  He had to find a place for his skimmer, he wasn’t going to lose it.  It meant so much to him, and it represented a part of his freedom, as much as his dad’s old Cessna had meant freedom for him before.  He was willing to face down the entire Faey military to keep it.  He would fight to keep possession of it.  It was just that simple.

      No, there was an easier place to park it…the other side of the river.  He just had to make he wasn’t going to be bothered.  Well, that could be done.

      Blowing out his breath, he stood back up and looked at the two men, who were now repeating themselves. Their thoughts told him that they had no more viable information.  “Very good, gentlemen, I think you’ve told me enough,” he said calmly.  “Probably more than I ever wanted to hear,” he sighed.  “Disgusting.  To think that we’ve come, we’ve come to this.  Fighting like wild animals over scraps.  I thought Americans had more dignity than that.”

      “Fine for you to talk, waltzing in here with your full belly and nice clothes,” the one named Trev spat vituperously.  “You ain’t got no idea what it’s like being out here.”

      “Fine.  Go to the Faey,” Jason told him with cold eyes.  “They’ll take care of you.  All you have to do is live under their rules.”

      “That’s worse,” he growled.

      “Then you deserve the life you’ve chosen.  Just don’t bring others into it.  Kill each other, leave those who want to stay out of it alone.”

      “I didn’t say nothing about anything like that!” he protested.

      “I’m not an idiot,” Jason said coldly.  “It doesn’t take a genius to piece together how you work.  Well, you’re a big fan of turf, aren’t you?  Well, here’s a new one for you.”  He quickly bent down and picked up the radio, and he keyed it up.  “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he said steadily into the microphone.  “Welcome to the new world.”

      “Who is this?  Get off the channel Terry!  We got no time for your jokes right now!” someone said immediately.

      “Oh, this isn’t Terry.  This is the new kid in town,” Jason said as he backed up and sat back down.  He set down his railgun, and both immediately started planning on lunging for the guns laying on the ground.  The shorter one was about half a second from it before Jason reached behind himself and brought out the plasma pistol, then levelled it at them.  Both of them seemed to know exactly what it was, and both of them froze, their thoughts both fearful and angry.  “I have your boys Trev and, what’s your name?” he asked the other man calmly.

      “I ain’t tellin you shit!” he shouted.  “We’re at the library!  We’re at the library!”

      “Yes, we do happen to be at the library right now,” Jason agreed pleasantly.  “I have your boys here standing with their bikes between their legs and their hands in the air.  You need to send someone down here to come get them.  I think they’ll need help getting home.”

      “Who the fuck is this?” someone called over the radio.  “Whoever you are, you’re the stupidest son of a bitch I ever heard of!  We’re gonna come down there and chop your fuckin’ head off!”

      “Don’t worry too much about me, neighbor, I’ll be just fine,” Jason said, leaning back a little.  “See, I just got here a couple of hours ago, and I find out that the place I picked to live is nothing but a war zone.  Well, I didn’t come here to get into a war.  I came here for peace, and quiet, and solitude, and I won’t have a bunch of idiots screwing up my good time.  So, ladies and gentlemen, here are the new rules.  See that river right over there to the north?  That’s the point of no return,” he told them.  “Anything that goes over that river won’t come back.  Ever.  This is your side of the river, ladies and gentlemen, and that side is mine.  So all you people over on the Ohio side of the river, I suggest you clear out.  In one hour, I’m taking possession of that side of the river, and I won’t be held responsible for anyone I catch on my side of the line.  Do we understand one another?”

      “You got some real fuckin’ guts, punk, I’ll give you that,” a new voice called.  From the thoughts of those two, he knew that this was Joe Bueller.

      “It’s not guts, Joe my man, it’s just plain old tiredness,” Jason answered.  “See, I got really burned out after living under Faey rule for three years, and I’m at the point where I just don’t give a fuck anymore,” he said with narrowing eyes.  “I came here to get away from the Faey, to find a new life, and I’ll be damned if a wannabe warlord with delusions of mediocrity is going to piss in my Wheaties.  Different rules are in the game now, Little Joe.  I’m the new king of the hill.  Now, if you want to do something about me, why don’t you just try to cross my bridge?  I’ll even let you get to Ohio.  But remember my warning, Joebob; you cross my bridge, you don’t come back.  Understand?”

      Jason sensed the approach of two people, coming from the west, up 5th Avenue.  They were about four blocks away, and they were approaching fast.  Jason glanced in that direction, then stood up and picked up his railgun.  “Off the bikes you two,” he ordered, though he had the radio still keyed up.  “And if either of you lean in the direction of the guns, you’ll lose anything that goes in that direction.  Understand?”  They quickly got off the bikes and backed up.  “Good, now turn around, kneel, cross your ankles, and put your hands on your head.”  They complied.  “Very good.  Now, if either of you value your hides, you’ll clear out,” he told them as he shouldered his railgun, then collected up their rifles and pistols.  He stomped on the tire of the smaller bike, bending it to the point of unusability, then picked up the larger bike and mounted it.  “Oh yeah, Joe,” he called over the radio.  “Trev here thinks you look sexy in leather panties.”

      “You son of a bitch!” the one named Trev shouted hotly.

      “Don’t see why, myself.  I’ve never thought beached whales in dead cowhide were particularly attractive,” Jason mused conversationally.  “Guess I’m just weird that way.”  He unkeyed the radio and put his foot on the pedal.  “Well gentlemen, I hope you’re not too inconvenienced.  I’m off to claim my side of the river.  I suggest you find a new line of work.  Oh, and have a nice day,” he added, then pedalled off quickly.

      It wasn’t easy riding with three rifles slung over his shoulders, but he managed well enough.  He didn’t have to far to go, and all he had to do was beat the first patrol back to the park.  The closest of them was the one moving in from the west, and they were going to go to the library first, to try to catch him.  He was already halfway to the park by the time they got there, threading his bike between two burned-out cars on 3rd Avenue.  By the time those roving guards had reached the other two and found out what was going on, Jason was already on the far side of the floodwall and riding back to his skimmer.  By the time they were at the street leading to the bridge, Jason was back inside his skimmer and had it powered up.  The skimmer wasn’t visible from the top of the bridge, so Jason just leaned back in his seat and put his hands behind his head and waited, using his telepathic ability to keep track of what was going on out there.  He let those two get about halfway across the bridge, as Joe screamed and yelled over the radio for them to find him, then brought up the skimmer’s engines and lifted off the ground.  He urged the skimmer forward, out over the river, quickly overtaking the two bicycles above.  He punched up some speed and came out from under the bridge, then swung the entire ship around as he rounded the edge of the bridge, establishing himself right in the middle of the end of the iron gridwork that acted as support for the bridge’s weight.

      The two bike riders saw that blue monstrosity appear at the end of the bridge, and one of them fell off his bike, rolling on the bridge several times.  The other slid to a halt, his wide face fixed with shock and a little terror.  Jason flipped on the external speaker and fixed the headset on his head.  “That’s right,” he called.  “Mine’s bigger.”  He picked up the radio he’d pilfered and keyed it up.  “Go ahead and tell them, boys,” he called over that radio.  “Make sure they understand.”

      “He’s—he’s—he’s got a fuckin’ plane!” he heard the one still on the bike reply.

      “That’s right, boys and girls, I’ve got a plane,” he affirmed over the radio.  “And what do you know, I know how to fly it.  So, let’s make this clear one more time, people.  That side of the river is yours, this side of the river is mine.  Anyone crossing my bridge is going to get the shock of his life.”  He engaged the skimmer’s defensive weaponry, which caused gunports on each side of the ship to open, and the barrels of MPACs to extend.  “Tell them what you see,” he prompted over the radio.

      “He’s pointin’ guns at us,” the mounted guard said in a frightened voice.  “Guns mounted on the plane.”

      “Now that everyone understands exactly what’s going on,” he said over the river, urging the skimmer forward just a little, “we can come to a mutual understanding.  That understanding is simple, Little Joe.  I own this side of the river.  Come over here, and you won’t be going back to your side.  And believe me, I have no intention of going on your side.”

      “Are you crazy buddy?  You stole a Faey plane!  They’re gonna come after you!” Joe said fearfully.

      “Let them,” Jason said coldly.  “I told you before, Joe, I don’t fuckin’ care anymore.  If they want this plane back, they can bring their bony blue asses down here and try to take it from me.  I’m not going to be afraid of them anymore.  No more.  It’ll be quite the show for you guys on that side of the river, I’ll wager.”

      “Buddy, you are crazy,” Joe said grimly.

      “If that’s what you think, then you’d better not push things,” Jason growled.  “Because I will make sure that anyone that comes on this side of my river never gets back across the bridge.  And if you’re thinking of trying to sneak over here and harass me, well, you never know, I just might snap and burn Huntington to the ground in a psychotic fit.  I certainly have the means.”  He blew out his breath; he was getting just a little angry.  “Anyway, that’s the deal.  I won’t bother you, you won’t bother me.  I’m willing to be a quiet neighbor, but I won’t ever help you, and be assured that I will never take sides.  You’ve made your way be killing other people, other Americans, for what you have.  No matter how bad you think things were, you made them worse by turning your back on your fellow man.  So go ahead and fight your stupid war, but keep it on that side of the river.  As far as you should be concerned, that land on the other side of the river is the far side of the moon.”

      He turned off the radio, blowing out his breath again, then realized those two were still there.  “Go back to your side,” he called over the loudspeaker.  “And never come back.”

      The one still on his bike turned and pedalled furiously towards the other side of the bridge, and the other one didn’t even bother trying to get his bike back.  He just got up and ran for the other side.

      That went moderately well.  Now they understood that they were dealing with someone with vastly superior firepower, and seemed crazy enough to use it.  Jason withdrew the skimmer and slid it back under the bridge, parking it on a little street that went under the bridge.  He didn’t want to live out of the skimmer with it being exposed to the other bank of the river, so he needed to go back to that little town to the west of the bridge and find a house to occupy.  It had to be close to the skimmer, but out of the direct line of sight of the opposite bank.  He could tell by using his talent to sweep the far bank that they were well away from the bank of the river, but he also didn’t want to run the risk that someone he thought was far enough away happened to have a very accurate gun.  It was almost sunset, so it was best to just wait until it was dark.

      He didn’t have long to wait.  He watched the sun set in the west as he listened to the Faey traffic control frequency, listening for any sign that they were coming for him, then he shut down the portable PPG, picked up a backpack and a flashlight, and headed out.

      Protected from view by the dim murk of sunset, Jason crept along several streets just off the riverbank, inspecting houses.  He ranged several blocks from the bridge on both sides, until he found the house he was looking for.  It was about a block and a half from the skimmer, facing away from the riverbank with a block of houses hiding it from the riverbank.  It was on the corner of 2nd Street and Oak Avenue, a large three story brick house with two chimneys and several nice windows that faced away from the riverbank.  The door was unlocked but not broken, and the interior made it obvious that the place had been pillaged.  But the rooms were large and spacious, and the place had plenty of room for him and all of his stuff.  It even had an attic and a full sized basement.  The place seemed defensible enough as well, placed on a corner which allowed him a good view of the surrounding area.  It was the tallest house on the block as well, giving him an unobstructed view of the other side of the river if he was atop it.

      He stood on the large porch, his mind already working.  It would take about a week to get everything set up to his satisfaction, and he’d have to work mainly at night.  He seemed to recall a pair of night goggles in that gear he bought, now that he thought of it, in the camping gear.  They’d let him see as if it was bright as noontime outside.  He bought so much, so fast, it was kind of hard to remember exactly what he had.  Maybe a detailed inventory was in order.  If anything, he’d have the time.

      The first step, obviously, was securing the skimmer and the bridge itself.  There were any number of things he could do to make those more than untouchable by anyone but a Faey.  He also had to take into account the possibility of one of the Huntington gangs using boats to cross in unexpected areas.  After those were secured, he’d have to secure the house and the area surrounding it, then devise a means of alerting him when people approached using the other two bridges across the river, both to the east and to the west.  His talent was more reliable than anything else he had available to him, but he did have to sleep.

      He was confident.  No two-bit gang boss was going to interfere with him now.  No way.  He’d chosen this place to set up, and damn it, he was not going to budge.  This was his place, and he was not going to give it up.  Not to Joe Bueller, not to the other gangs, not to the Faey, not to anyone.  This was his territory, and he would defend it to the death if that was what it took, because he was not going to move.  This was his home, that was the line, and God help anyone who crossed it.

      Pugnacious, yes, but he’d been feeling a tad aggressive since the epipheny that led him to find his freedom.  But he did mean it, oh yes.  It was better to die free than to live a slave.

            Kaira, 26 Oraa, 4392, Orthodox Calendar

            Wednesday, 13 July 2007, Native Regional Reckoning

            Huntington, West Virginia (Native designation), Orala Nature Preserve, American Sector

      The sun was warm, maybe a bit too warm, but Jason really wasn’t all that worried about that.  Gently biting his tongue, he worked out in the yard of his new house, lining up with mechanical efficiency a little purple flower in the flower bed outside his house.

      He was more than open about where he lived now.  After all, the gangs in the city across the river had no intention of ever bothering him again, the chatter on the radio he’d stolen made that abundantly clear.  They’d tried, that was for sure.  He couldn’t fault them for tenacity, but no matter how clever they were, they were no match for Jason Fox.

      Obviously, the first attempt was using the bridge, for it was the fastest way across the river.  Joe Bueller had sent four men armed with their precious machine guns over that bridge the day after Jason arrived, at dawn.  What they didn’t know was that Jason had been working all night on defending that bridge, and he was more than ready for them.  They rushed across the bridge on foot, knowing that the skimmer was parked under the bridge near where it joined to the ground, intent on capturing that prize for whatever might be inside it, before the Faey came to retrieve it.

      They never got off the bridge.

      They got very close to the edge, and then every piece of magnetic metal they owned suddenly slammed to the ground.  Their Uzis and Tek-9’s were ripped from their hands, their belt buckles yanked them to the ground, metal pocket knives tore holes in their jeans, and one unlucky fellow had his earlobes ripped when his earrings suddenly slammed to the ground.  It took them a few minutes to disengage their metal objects, for all four had to take off their pants and squirm out of them due to metallic objects in their pockets, or rivets in the pants themselves.  They all tried to yank their guns off the bridge, but found them stuck fast.  When Jason appeared on top of a house near the bridge, railgun prominently displayed, they all turned and ran back for the other side of the bridge.  Jason used binoculars to look over on the other side of the bridge after getting down off the roof and saw Joe Bueller himself, looking through binoculars back at him from the top of a building on the other side.  Jason blew him a kiss, which made him start silently shouting and throw his binoculars to the ground.

      Later that day, Jason came out, collected up the items left behind, protected from snipers by the curvature of the bridge, then retreated back out of sight.

      Oh, the joys of plasma magnets.

      The next attempt was by boat.  Bueller sent over three men in a boat in the middle of the night, and they were very good.  They used oars instead of a motor, and got across the river and to the far bank.  They quickly moved towards the skimmer, moving stealthily and covering each other, until they were all up to the skimmer.  The stairs were down, but the hatch was closed.  They seemed nonplussed at that, for the access panel beside the door was open, waiting for someone to come along and open the door.  One of them whispered that this was way too easy, and the other two agreed.  So they all got back and looked around, then carefully touched the access panel with a stick they’d found laying nearby.  Nothing happened.  A few other careful tests displayed nothing untowards, so they calmed down a little and tried to get the door open.

      A few seconds after they tried again, the entire area around the skimmer suddenly became alive with electricity.  Arcs of electricity danced around the skimmer, impacting the bridge, the ground, and the three men, making their hair stand on end and causing their muscles to lock in electrocution paralysis.  The lightning storm lasted almost five seconds, then ceased as quickly as it began.  All three men collapsed to the ground with smoke wafting up from their clothes, though all three were very much alive.  A little while after they’d been hit by the skimmer’s theft prevention system (which was standard on most skimmers), Jason came out and stripped them naked, then left and hid a discreet distance away.  He waited for them to wake up, then came back with his railgun as if to finish them off.  The three naked men scrambled back down to the river and jumped in their boat, then started the engine and raced for the opposite bank.  Jason let them get about halfway, then he allowed them and the men watching from the far bank to see his railgun fire.  There was that familiar BEE-yah sound followed up by the loud bang, like the crack of a large whip, but the round was already buried twenty feet in the opposite riverbank, below the water’s surface.  It had gone right where Jason had aimed it, through the neck of the outboard motor and through the back of the boat.  The round struck with such speed and force that it didn’t shatter the boat, it simply punched a hole in it.  The outboard motor, however, had the neck snapped in half from the impact, which broke the propellor away from the motor.  The three men looked back in surprise, and saw the outboard motor suddenly start to smoke.  They saw the dissipating corkscrew smoke trail that led back to the far bank, and it didn’t take them long to make the connection.  They jumped up and jumped overboard just as another corkscrew trail simply appeared, hitting the outboard motor squarely, then igniting the gasoline in it.  The boat caught fire immediately, and illuminated the heads of the three men as they swam frantically for the far shore.  Jason lowered the railgun and looked on with satisfaction, then simply went back to his house.

      That taught them that they weren’t getting anywhere near the skimmer, so, since Bueller wasn’t dumb, he knew that the only way to get past the skimmer’s security system was to have the owner shut it off.  The next attempt was the next night, as a group of six, armed with more machine guns, crossed the river by boat a goodly distance east of the skimmer, then made their way to the bridge on foot.  After they got there, to the little town of Chesapeake, which was where Jason had set up shop, they fanned out and started searching for his house.  He let them come in, let them get close to his house, and then he activated his countermeasure.

      The little town of Chesapeake suddenly began to vibrate.  There was no other explanation for it.  The ground buzzed like an angry hornet, which spooked the invaders, and caused them to retreat back towards the bridge.  Or at least try.

      One by one, they all went to set foot in the street, and when they did, they found their feet sinking into the asphalt.  Whatever it was didn’t affect the ground or the concrete under the asphalt, just the asphalt itself.  They all found themselves ankle deep in what was supposed to be a solid rock surface, and much to their horror, the now permeable asphalt street clung to their feet like thick mud, making it extremely hard to pull a foot out of it.  It didn’t help that every single one of them had fallen when the ground had grabbed their feet, so they all had their hands in it as well, and most had their knees down in it too.  Jason observed from the window of his house, and when his talent told him he had all six ensnared, he shut off the device that was causing a rare effect called liquifaction.  It was a phenomenon where a solid material became semi-liquid when exposed to a certain frequency of sound or vibration.  By setting his emitters to a specific composite frequency, it allowed them to induce liquifaction into the asphalt—specifically the tar that glued the asphalt together—but cause no damage or harm to any other material.  When the device was shut off, the asphalt instantly hardened, entrapping them all within it.

      He gave them a few minutes to struggle frantically, then came out of his house.  He was carrying a baseball bat, a pair of large pruning shears, and a portable radio/CD player.  All six were trapped within two hundred feet of each other, and he would be visible by all of them by setting up at the corner leading to the bridge.  He did so, putting the radio down and turning it on, filling the street with the gentle melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  He then put down the baseball bat, and snapped the pruning shears shut a few times.  “Good evening, gentlemen, and ladies,” he had told them, nodding at the two women and four men calmly.  “I seem to recall warning you not to come over here.  Well, I’m going to have to do something about that, I suppose.”  He had shouldered the shears as he stood up.  “I know I said you’d never go back if you came over here, but I’m really not into murder.  It’s not my thing.  I’m the kind of guy who much prefers letting you drag your asses back over that bridge thoroughly humiliated.  Death isn’t much of a life lesson, you understand.  So, let’s commence, shall we?”

      They were probably afraid he was going to torture them or cut off their noses or something, but when he started on the first person he reached, a middle-aged woman with tanned skin, some wrinkles, and dark hair, they understood.  Jason used the shears to literally cut the clothes off her body, took her weapon, then used those shears to cut the hair off her head.  What he left behind was so laughably uneven that only a shaved head was going to fix it.   She screamed bloody murder as he cut off her hair, and continued to curse vituperously after he moved on to the next person.  He had gone right on down the line, systematically stripping each person, then cutting off their hair.  When he was done, he collected up their guns and the scraps over their clothes, then wandered back to his house.  He left them stuck out there all night, and went back out in the morning to get them out.  He activated the harmonic emitters he had buried around his house and allowed them to pull themselves out, then marched them all to the bridge after forcing them to remove their shoes and socks.  He made them march over that bridge naked as they day they were born and with their hair cut off with pruning shears…so needless to say, they were a sorry looking lot indeed.

      Joe Bueller had an absolute fit, he heard over the radio after he sent the invaders packing.  Not only did they fail, but they also lost four more machine guns, and they were running dangerously low on them.

      With that afternoon came the culmination of Joe Bueller’s temper.  Twenty men and women launched from boats at the park and motored over in what could only be called an armed assault.  They landed about a quarter mile east of the bridge, then stormed towards Chesapeake with Joe Bueller himself leading them. Jason’s skimmer’s sensors picked them up and relayed the alert to his remote, and Jason just sighed and closed the book he was reading and went to deal with them.  Instead of going outside, he instead went to his basement, then waited for them to get close enough.  Once they were, he simply activated the last and most effective of his personal safety measures, yet another sound-based concept.  It was the same basic idea as the itchers he’d had Symone plant on the armor of the Marines that last day, but since he didn’t have the materials to build a bunch of individual ones, he instead went with the idea of a speaker.  It was located atop the steeple of the church down the block, and when he activated it, it emitted a hypersonic frequency that would create a similar effect.  The closer they got to the steeple, the worse the itching would get.  Jason had a damper going down in the basement, which was why he retreated to it.

      He waited until they were literally on top of the church, and he turned it on.  He had a camera up there as well, so he had the opportunity to see it in action.  He felt it against his skin as well, despite the damper, as a feathery touch all over him.  Those outside, however, suddenly felt like they were dipped into vats of live fire ants.  He watched with clinical interest as they all suddenly went wild, squirming, thrashing, most of them dropping to the ground and rolling around, doing anything they could to make it stop.  He let them endure it for about five minutes or so, when they started drawing blood clawing at themselves, then he shut off the speaker.  He picked up one of their radios and keyed it up.  “Fun, wasn’t it?  That was the low setting.  Want to see high?

      “No, I don’t think you would,” he added when Joe Bueller went for his radio.  “Now that you’ve done went and put yourself on my side of the river, it’s time for one of those important life lessons I’m so fond of handing out.  All of you out there on my street, start stripping.  All of it.”

      “You son of a bitch, there’s no way in hell—“ Joe Bueller started, but Jason simply turned the speaker on again.  His transmission was cut short when he dropped the radio and started rolling around on the ground again.  He let it go on for about a minute, then turned it back off and brought the radio up to his mouth again.  “Temper, temper,” he chided lightly.  “Face it, Joebob, you’re not getting out of here with your clothes.  Now, you can continue to fight and be an idiot and make everyone else suffer with you, or you can behave like a good little madman and start stripping.  And if you do do that, I’m fairly sure that they’ll all be really unhappy with you when you do manage to get back on your side of the line.  Now, all of you, start stripping.  You have one minute, and the clock is ticking.”

      Everyone else immediately started tearing off their clothes.  They did not want to go through that again.  Joe Bueller, however, seemed unwilling to do so.  He got to his feet, his shoulders huffing as he seemed to be trying to control a violent temper tantrum.  The others started shouting at him—Jason couldn’t hear it, his camera was video only—and Joe Bueller suddenly reached down and snatched up his M-16.  Jason quickly got to his feet and reached for the button on his remote as he whirled around and brought up the barrel of that weapon, his intent obviously to cut down his own people.  Jason realized he wouldn’t have time, that the hypersonic speaker wouldn’t stop him in time.  He had to take direct action.

      Jason had never attacked another before in earnest, but Jyslin had taught him well.  She had taught him how to attack and take control of a human mind, and he executed that attack instantly.  He drove a spear of consciousness into Joe Bueller’s mind, and felt that mind instantly yield to the power of the blow; human minds, which had no active talent, were defenseless against a telepath.  In an instant, he was inside Joe Bueller’s mind, and he moved at the speed of thought.  His power sought out the part of Joe Bueller’s brain that dealt with motor control, and then wrapped his power around it to smother any activity.

      Joe Bueller’s muscles locked up, even in the act of pulling the trigger.  The others looked at him with strangled expressions, then their eyes furrowed in confusion, for he was standing as still as stone, though his own eyes were wild and almost frenzied.

      Jason brought the radio up again.  “Would one of you kindly relieve Mr. Bueller of his gun?” he asked grimly.  “I assure you, right now he can’t move or speak, so it’s perfectly safe.  What I’m doing to him will do him harm if I keep it going for too long, so do it quickly.”  A young, rather pretty woman rushed up and ripped the rifle out of Joe Bueller’s hands, then trained it on him.  “That’ll do, young lady,” Jason snapped, even as he reached deeper into Bueller’s mind.  He touched on the man’s memory, then carefully wiped out the last few seconds, the part that would allow Bueller to remember the attack and realize that Jason was telepathic.  Then he touched one of the baser functions of his brain and caused Joe Bueller to pass out.  The portly man collapsed to the ground in a boneless heap.  He’d remain unconscious for about an hour or so, but that was more than enough time.  “When he wakes up, he won’t remember what happened,” Jason told them.  “But we digress.  All of you, strip.  And when you’re done, strip Bueller.  The clock is ticking, ladies and gentlemen.”

      He watched the monitor as the nineteen men and women quickly stripped bare, then two of the bigger men dutifully pulled the clothes off Joe Bueller.  Bueller, it turned out, was noticably fat, where all his followers looked undernourished.  “Very good.  In the brown house on the corner behind you, you’ll find a wheelbarrel in the garage.  Someone go fetch it, then dump Bueller into it.  I’m not going to make you carry him.  As fat as he is, that’d be cruel and unusual punishment.”

      One of the men rushed over and pulled the large, dirty wheelbarrel out of the garage, then four men hauled Bueller up—none too gently either—and dumped him in the wheelbarrel.  His arms and legs dangled out of it.

      “Very good.  Now, this is the third time you’ve come and broken the rules, people.  I’m losing my patience.  I’ve been accommodating this far because I know that you just couldn’t resist the temptation, and I really don’t like to hurt people.  But, now that you see just how forbidden this fruit is, I do hope you’ll realize that it’s out of your reach.  I’m growing tired of being merciful, people.  Next time you come over here, I send you back in a box.  Do we understand each other?  Just nod if you do, I’ll see it.”  Every one of them nodded.  “Good, good.  So, who’s rolling Bueller back over the bridge?  Raise your hand.”

      They all looked at each other, then one man raised his hand.

      “Ok, you who raised your hand, put your shoes back on.  You’ll chew your feet up trying to roll that heavy load up the bridge.”  They all watched the man put his boots back on, the young pretty lady who’d pulled the gun from Bueller’s hands trying to cover herself with her hands.  Jason found that amusing for some reason, like the stubborn denial of truth.  When he was done, Jason disengaged the power to the speaker.  “Alright, all of you, march.  Up the bridge, leave everything behind.  I will be watching, so don’t get any ideas.  Oh, and have a nice day.”

      That was the last time he heard anything from Joe Bueller’s gang.  The gang in the west end, after hearing about Jason, certainly made their own attempt, but their four man raiding party, riding in on bicycles in the middle of the night, had the bad luck of getting there after Jason had time to dig into his box of junk and scrape together the parts to build a proximity sensor that automatically activated the hypersonic irritater.  Jason simply moved his bedroom down into the basement.  They too left Chesapeake naked, but unfortunately for them, they had a mile’s hike to get back to the west end bridge.

      Needless to say, Jason had quite a collection of guns and bicycles now.

      But, things looked to be calming down.  He still had the radio the gang used, and from what he’d pieced together, Joe Bueller had met with an unfortunate end soon after getting carted back over into Huntington.  He wasn’t sure what happened, but odds were that one of the people who’d had the business end of that M-16 pointed at them took serious offense to the idea that Joe Bueller was going to shoot them because he was angry.  He had no idea who was in charge now, but the last couple of nights he’d heard sporadic gunfire to the east.  It seemed that Bueller’s replacement was having a territorial issue with the gang that controlled Guyandotte and Barboursville.

      As long as they kept it over there, he really didn’t care what they did.

      Today wasn’t like any of the other days, though.  He didn’t know exactly when it was, but he knew that his physical appointment had to have come and gone, so they knew that he was not in New Orleans. Well, they knew that already, but now they knew that he hadn’t come back.  So, it meant that from here on out, he wasn’t going to be overlooked.  He still listened carefully to the Faey traffic channels, listening for any hint that they had a transport or search party out looking for him, because he knew that they were going to start looking for him soon.  If they had any logs or records of his flight path from the space-based sensors, they were going to know where he was, and were probably going to send a detachment out to find him pretty soon.  Many of the defenses he had up around his skimmer and his house were intended for the Faey as much as they were for the gangs.  He’d have many more up, but he simply didn’t have the parts to put anything else in place, not without starting to take apart some of his other equipment.  That simply wasn’t going to happen.  He would simply have to rely on what he had.  He was pretty sure that the sonic emitter on the steeple of the church was going to be very effective.  It was going to make it clear to the Faey that he wasn’t about to budge, but it would be effective.

      That morning, he had done what was necessary.  He had emptied his skimmer out of all gear and equipment, then shut it down.  He didn’t even leave the security system on, since the threat of it would most likely more than suffice.  From this day forward, they were going to be looking for it.  The plasma signature of his smaller PPGs may or may not have showed up on their sensors, so he shut down the largest one, the one that came from the habitat module, and relied on the small ones to power a piece of equipment by itself, and only when it was needed.  He had one on his Faey transceiver, so he could monitor traffic frequencies, and also used that one to power his portable stove.  He relied on portable lamps for light.

      He’d gone out to do some scavenging of his own yesterday and today.  There were lots of houses on his side of the river, as well as a K-Mart and Walmart a few miles west, which had been all but stripped bare.  He wasn’t after what most others were after, however.  He scavenged some furniture and some decent dishware (which required extensive cleaning before it was usable), and also hunted down some supplies and equipment to get his house back in proper working order.  Things like flashlights and batteries were long gone, but Jason found lots of light fixtures and light bulbs at the Lowe’s home improvement store just past Walmart.  He scavenged some of those things, then used it to repair the wiring in the house.  After severing the house from the unused power grid, Jason was able to get the electricity back on in the house using one of his smallest PPGs and a simple generator he built out of his rapidly dwindling supply of spare equipment.  Generating electrical power was something that was considered child’s play to the Faey, and that tiny module with its slapdash generator could probably power the entire city block by itself.  The lack of running water had Jason concerned, so he went through the plumbing section in Lowe’s to try to come up with some ideas.  A water tank with a portable pump, maybe.  He’d have to dig up the water line and break into it, then hook up the water tank to it.  Wastewater wasn’t much of an issue, since the house was connected to the city’s sewer system, and that gave it somewhere to go.  Purifying the water was another issue, but not a hard one to solve, for the habitat module had a water purification system installed in it.  He could take that out and install it somewhere in the water line.

      Getting water and power back up in his house were important, but it was also important not to draw too much attention to himself.  The Faey would know exactly where to go if they saw a single house with lights on, given his background in engineering.  Getting the power back on in a house would be child’s play to him, and they knew that.  He’d already addressed that problem, however, by scavenging some very heavy drapes that weren’t in too bad of shape from several houses.  They weren’t exactly going to match his hodgepodge furniture, but he wasn’t doing this with an eye out for fashion.  He was not going to live in the dark.  He just needed to take certain precautions.

      Jason looked up as a gust of wind blew past him.  Wind.  It was always blowing out here, most likely because of the river.  With a little work, he could get a windmill of sorts up that could generate some electricity, get the whole block some power.  And the water system was still intact, it just lacked the power to operate…well, and qualified technicians to watch over it.  But, he could tap into the river’s water and set up a very small purifying plant of sorts, a single large tank with one Faey water purification system on the intake valve.  Rework the piping to close off the other blocks…he shook his head.  There was no reason to do any of that except for maybe the challenge of it.  It might be fun though, give him something to do.  Having things to do was important right now.  Keep his mind occupied.  The game with the gangs across the river was entertaining, but very, very short.  In a way, that was very good, because he didn’t feel like endlessly scrapping with them.  It did, however, keep his mind occupied, kept him from worrying too much.

      Kept him from dwelling on the past, and that was past was his friends.  He hoped Tim was doing alright, and as much as he hated to admit it, Symone, and Jyslin…and also Maya now.  He’d never thought he’d be worried about Faey, but Jyslin and Symone, they were friends.  Friends.  Jyslin was more than a friend, he had to admit.  Yes, he had Faey friends, and he was strongly attracted to a Faey.  But fate had written a different set of circumstances.  Everything about Jason that made him what he was wouldn’t allow it, and if he changed to allow it, it was making him something other than what he was.  He’d realized that before he left, realized that by bending for Jyslin, he was turning his back on his highly regarded principles, and those principles defined him.  Maybe he was too proud, a bit too arrogant, but that pride was a part of him, and without it he would be lesser of a man.  He’d been so infatuated with his telepathic talent that he had bent over backwards to justify fraternizing with Jyslin just so he could explore this strange, exciting power.  And even now, he had to admit that he liked Jyslin and Symone, that he did care about them.  It was hard for him to rationalize that, for they were Faey.  He was having feelings for the enemy.  He hadn’t wanted to, but it was so easy to see Symone and Jyslin as something other than Imperial agents after spending so much time with them.

      Yes…Symone and Jyslin were friends.

      Ok, he admitted that to himself.  Finally.  He did find, though, that it didn’t change his mind all that much.  They had made decisions that placed them on the other side of the line he had drawn in his own mind, and so had Tim for that matter.  But then again, Tim wasn’t really ready to do something like what Jason had done.  He would be too afraid, and despite not liking the Imperium, he did like the luxuries of his position. Tim hated the Imperium, but not on philosophical grounds, only on personal grounds.  If they treated him well, he would be content.  If they did not, he would not be.  Jason couldn’t really fault Tim for that, though.  He was a generous man, with a good heart and a kind disposition, but he, like most humans, was more concerned with his personal well-being than the state of the human race as a whole.  That attitude stemmed from the feeling of hopelessness that almost every human felt, knowing that there was absolutely no way to escape from Faey domination.  So Tim, like so many people, was just trying to make the best of it he could.  Many saw his relationship with Symone as selling out—those who didn’t know Symone, in any case—but those who did knew better.  Sometimes one just had to close one’s eyes to certain boundaries when two people who were meant for one another managed to meet.  He had no doubt that Tim and Symone would be together until death parted them.  May God see to it that that was seventy years down the road.

      Despite their political or philosophical views, they were still his friends, and he would always care about them.

      Wiping his brow, he looked at his little flower garden and nodded.  He’d found the plants at Lowe’s growing wild in a grassy patch in the parking lot.  They’d somehow managed to take root and grow in that patch, until Jason dug them up and brought them home, that is.  It took a while to separate them, and he wasn’t sure they’d all live, but they looked a heck of a lot better in his front yard than they did competing for sunlight with the weeds that were overgrowing them.  After he was done, he pulled an ancient manual grass mower out of the garage of the house beside his own, one of the old, old rotary clipper styles, then proceeded to mow the lawn.  Yes, it would make the house stand out, but he just couldn’t stand to see that knee-high grass any longer.  It took him about an two hours to mow around the front and side yard, since the grass was so high, then another hour to mow the back.  He went in for a drink and to check the Faey traffic radio, then came back out and started raking up the clippings.

      About halfway through, he started hearing it.  It was distant, faint, but approached rapidly.  It was an engine, a gas engine, and from the sound of it, it was a motorcyle.  It got very close, and from the sound of it, it passed by on Route 7, north of his street.  It got to about the bridge, then it seemed to turn around.  Jason swept out with his power and touched on a single mind, the rider of that motorcycle.  The thoughts of that mind told Jason that it was specifically looking for him, but had no hostile intentions.  Jason realized that the magnet trap was still active, and he fished in his pocket for the remote that would turn it off in case whoever it was went up over the bridge, but by the time he had the remote out, he spotted the motorcycle and the rider.

      It was a woman wearing a pair of dirty blue jeans with black chaps over them, and a white tee shirt with a black leather vest atop it.  She wore no helmet, but did have on a pair of old-fashioned goggles.  Her hair was very, very long, black and straight, and it looked tangled and dishevelled from her riding about.  She looked in both directions, then spotted him and turned her bike towards him.  She was riding a Harley Hog, a massive machine that most women wouldn’t dare to ride, due to the motorcycle’s great weight.  But this woman seemed to have no trouble with it, coming to a stop on the street right in front of him, then putting a booted foot down for a moment before turning off her machine.  She kicked the stand down, then leaned back on her bike and raised her goggles.  She was a surprisingly lovely black woman, without the wideness that was pattern in people descended from the cradle of civilization.  There was a delicate fineness about her features, with her high cheeks and sharp chin, and a slight slant to her eyes that hinted that this woman had some Asian ancestry somewhere in her bloodline.  But the mixture of Asian and African lineage gave her the best of both worlds, for this woman was both beautiful and tall.  He realized that when she stepped over the bike and stood before him.  She was easily six feet tall, maybe a bit more, and possessed of a figure that was perfectly proportional to her height.  Her thoughts were guarded, but were also hopeful.

      “Well, you must be the new guy,” she said in a distinctive Southern drawl.  “Welcome to the neighborhood, sugah.”

      “Excuse me, but who are you?” he asked.

      “Temika,” she answered.  “Temika Daniels, sugah.  I just rode down from Chilocothe and heard that someone done went and kicked Joe Bueller’s ass.  Ah just had to come meet you.  Maybe kiss you, I hated that vicious bastard.”

      “Well, nice to meet you. I’m Jason Fox,” he said, extending his hand.  She looked at it, then gave him a nervous glance.

      “Sorry, sugah, I don’t like tah touch people,” she hedged.  “It ain’t no offense or nuthin’, I promise.  Hope you understand.”

      Curious, Jason opened himself to listen to her thoughts.  She was very worried about touching him, or just about anyone else, for that matter.  She didn’t want it to happen.  He had no idea what it was, but whatever it was, Temika was quite fearful of it.  It wasn’t an irrational fear, it was an almost cold, logical fear.  Odd.

      “Might you see fit to offer a gal a drink?  It gets dusty out on the road,” she said hopefully.

      “Just water, I’m afraid.”

      “Sugah, that’s about all there is,” she laughed.  “I heard you just come from outside, it certainly shows.”

      Jason gave her a second look.  “Hold on.  You wouldn’t be the Temika Daniels who played for the Volunteers, would you?”

      She laughed.  “I’m surprised anyone remembers that,” she said.  “But yeah, sugah, that’s me.”

      “Surprised to see you out here,” he said.  “Come on in, I’ll get you some water.”

      “Well, it wasn’t entirely my choice,” she told him as she followed him.  Jason closed his mind again; he had a strange feeling that this strange woman could potentially be a friend, and he didn’t want a stray word to slip and make her suspicious.  “Ah bitch-slapped a blueskin cause she got in mah face, and got hauled to one of their ‘re-education centers’,” she grunted.  “Had a mindbender mentally rape me with a cattle prod, then they sent me to a farm.  Ah was never much of a farmer, so Ah skipped out a few days after Ah got there.  Mama always said my temper’d get me in hot water,” she said with a chuckle.  “Ah been out heah for about two years or so.  I do pretty well for mahself.  Ah get by running stuff back and forth for some of the more friendly people out heah.  Between what Ah can get doin’ that and what Ah can scavenge, Ah get by.  Long as Ah can get gas for my bike, Ah’m as happy as a pig in mud.”

      “You trade?” he asked, looking back at her as he opened to front door.

      She nodded.  “They ain’t all like Jim Bueller and the gangs in Huntington, sugah.  The peoples up in the hills, they more friendly, if’n you approach them the right way, you understand.  Cause Ah got a bike and the nerve to run the roads, Ah do fairly well enough deliverin’ stuff from one place to anothah.  The Becketts up in Fort Gay send eggs to the Prices ovah in Ona, who send a jug of milk down to the McMarrins in Wayne, who send some meat back to the Becketts.  That kinda thing, you see.”

      “And you’re the delivery girl.”

      “You bet, sugah,” she grinned as she sat down at the kitchen table, where he motioned.  “Ah also shuttle information around, keep everyone in touch with what’s goin’ on.  Every gang and the unfriendlies around heah would just love to shoot me off mah bike, but they ain’t managed it yet.  They lost count of the raids Ah done ruined when Ah spotted them slinkin’ up into the hills.”

      “How many people are out there?”

      “Not as many as it sounds, sugah,” she answered.  “Once you get out of the bigger towns, you can go twenty miles before you see a single soul.  The towns are where the stuff is, though, so that’s where most people come.  If they lucky, they get shot.  If they not, they become those bastard gang members,” she spat.

      “Why don’t those people out there just move away from the cities?”

      “Cause they ain’t as self-sufficient as some others,” she answered.  “The lucky ones, they got small farms out there, livestock, stuff like that.  They’s the ones that live way out, way down the back roads, where the raiding parties won’t go.  Those people who live by scavenging, they gotta live where the stuff is, you understand.  They mainly nomads, you see, moving into an area and tryin’ tah find the houses ain’t nobody else found, then move on when the food’s all gone.  And when they get desperate, they come down into the cities, tryin’ tah find stuff and get out before they done get caught.  Some have learned tah hunt, and some tah fish, but most that don’t got the setup still have to scavenge food tah make it.  The raids the gangs send out, they more to catch those kinds of folk than they are to catch the locals.  They know bettah than to go aftah some of the locals.”

      “Why is that?”

      “They’d get dead, that’s why.  The locals who live near town, they’re dug in like an Alabama tick, sugah,” she answered.  “The gangs learned that lesson the hard way.  Those raids, they generally just go ‘round and try tah find new houses, and pick off anyone they catch out in the open.  They know where it ain’t healthy tah go, cause they ain’t all gonna come back.”  She took a long drink from the glass of water he gave her.  “It’s cold!”

      “I got the electricity going,” he told her.

      “Well, Ah’m gonna come visit you more often, sugah,” she said with a brilliant white smile.  She obviously kept up with her oral hygiene.  “When it gets hot.  Why ain’t you got the AC on?”

      “I have to fix it,” he answered.

      “Get tah work, sugah,” she laughed.

      “So, what made you seek me out?” he asked.

      “Just checkin’ out the new neighbor, sugah,” she smiled.  “And of course, an opportunity for a new customer.  If’n you ever need anythin’, or need somethin’ sent somewhere else, you’re lookin’ at the gal for the job.  Oh yeah, y’all need a CB, sugah, most people ‘round here use CB channel 19 tah talk tah each other.”

      “They should listen in on the gangs,” Jason grunted.  “They use radios.”

      “They do, sugah, they do,” she winked.  “The ones with scanners do, anyway.”

      “I have, what, eight of them?  You can have a couple.”

      Temika laughed.  “War trophies?”

      “Something like that,” he answered.  “The only guy that came to my side of the river and got back with anything managed to get away with his shoes.  Every other person went back over the bridge naked.  I got it all.  Clothes, pocket knives, radios, guns, you name it.”

      Temika laughed brightly, slapping the top of the table.  Then she seemed to perk up a bit.  “Guns, you say?  Well, I know a few people that might like tah do some business with you on the guns.  If’n you don’t want them, that is.”

      “As long as they don’t use them on me, sure,” he answered.  “I don’t need them.”

      “Yah, we’ve heard.  you got some Faey guns, and a Faey airplane.”

      He nodded.  “I’ve been watching to see if, or when, they’re coming after it,” he told her.  “I have a pilot’s license, I know how their system works.  I think I did a good job in evading their systems, but I’m not sure.  If they had any orbital tracking up when I pulled my Houdini, they know where I am.  If they didn’t, then I have a good chance of them now knowing where I am.”

      “You were a pilot on the outside?”

      He shook his head.  “A student.  I just got lucky and came into a little money, and used it to get a Faey pilot license.  That skimmer down there is mine.  I didn’t steal it, I bought it.”

      “Wow, sounds like you had a good life.  Why’d you give it up tah come join the rat race?”

      “Because I remembered what it was like to be free,” he said simply.  “And I got tired of living in fear under the Faey all the time.  I decided it was better to live out here and be free than have all the money in the world, yet be part of the Faey system.”

      “Heh, I ain’t sure I woulda done it if our places were swapped,” she said.  “Sometimes I miss feelin’ safe.  And I certainly miss air conditionin’,” she laughed.

      “A person who is willing to give up part of his freedom to feel more secure deserves neither,” he quoted.  “Benjamin Franklin said that, or something close to it.  Not sure what he had to say about air conditioning, though.”

      She looked at him with those almond shaped brown eyes, then burst into laughter.  “Yeah, well, at least you got here with more stuff than most of us.  I got here with the clothes on mah back.”

      “Looks like you did well enough.  A motorcycle, nice clothes, and whatever it is you have I haven’t seen yet.”

      “Yeah, I do alright, but it certainly wasn’t easy,” she said with a wistful sigh.  Jason had to resist the urge to listen to her thoughts.  An attractive woman struggling to make it out here?  He had no doubt it would have been hard.  Then again, Temika Daniels was known for ferocity, not timidity.  She’d been the starting center for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team.  He remember watching her play once when they played against Michigan.  She was a wolverine out on the basketball court, huge compared to the other players, powerful, and very aggressive.  They called her the Queen of the Glass, because she was the most prolific rebounder in college women’s basketball.  Some not too kind to her in the press called her the Dennis Rodman of women’s basketball, but she really wasn’t that bad. She had the same aggressive demeanor on the court as that infamous professional player, but she didn’t pull the same off-court antics.  It would have been closer to call her the Shaquille O’Neal of women’s basketball, for she had the same towering presence, but lacked the ego.

      “Would you mind, sugah?” she asked, holding out her glass.

      “Sure,” he said, taking it.  He went back to the refrigerator and poured her another glass of cold water, then brought it back to the table.  “How hard is it to find gas?”

      “It’s gettin’ harder,” she grunted.  “Ah know a few places out in the boonies where they ain’t got all the gas out of the underground tanks yet, but Ah’ve been havin’ tah range out further and further.  Ah’ve been makin’ contact with more people, which is good, but Ah also don’t know the areas as well, and that ain’t good.  More and more, Ah’ve been demandin’ gas as pay, but Ah can’t eat gas, you know.”

      “You need an airbike,” he told her.

      “Ah wish,” she said with an explosive sigh.  “Ah’ve wanted one of those things since Ah saw it.  Ah don’t see how Ah could ever get one, though.”

      “Don’t you ever cross over into Faey territory?” he asked.

      “Surely, sugah,” she said.  “Ah’m one of the few who does, cause you have to sneak through their security.  But not many people out heah have Faey money, and the shops out there, they don’t take trades.”

      “What do you do over there then?”

      “Ah deliver messages,” she answered.  “They’s people on this side with kin on the outside.  Ah deliver messages back and forth.  They either write letters that Ah mail, or Ah use pay phones on the outside tah call ‘em.”

      “Why don’t they just get cell phones?  They’d never track them back in here.  Hell, the Faey wouldn’t even care.  As long as the people in here don’t mess with the system, they just leave you alone.”

      “Them phones cost money, sugah,” she reminded him.  “And that most certainly ain’t reality.  Every once in a while, the blueskins send patrols out.  They fan out and interrogate anyone they catch, then let ‘em go.  Ah’ve been caught a few times, and it ain’t no fun, trust me.  They get in your mind and take anythin’ they want.  It’s like gettin’ raped,” she said with a sharp snort.  “Then, if they like somethin’ you own, they just take it.  That bike out there, it’s my third.  They done took the other two.  They don’t like send troops in heah or nothin’, but they don’t just leave us alone, either.”

      “So, you know how to sneak across the border,” Jason mused.  “I think we’re about to do business, Temika.”

      “Yeah?  Over what, sugah?”

      “You’re gonna teach me how to safely get across the border, then take me across.  After you do, I’ll pay you.”

      “And just what are you willin’ tah pay, sugah?” she asked.  “What you want’s a fair piece dangerous.  Sneakin’ over the border ain’t for greenhorns, sugah.  It ain’t easy.  You’d better have something good tah pay for it.”

      “How about an airbike?”

      “As if,” she protested.

      “I have two in my airskimmer, Temika.  Teach me how to get across the border, and one of them is yours.  I’ll even teach you how to ride it.”

      “You’re serious,” she challenged.

      “I’ll show them to you right now,” he offered.  “I don’t need two.  Teach me how to come and go across the border as I please, and one is all yours.”

      “Deal,” she said instantly, putting her hand out, then blinking and quickly pulling it away.

      “Don’t you want to see the airbike?”

      “Sugah, you just became mah best friend,” she laughed.  “Yeah, Ah’d love to see them.”

      They walked out into the noontime sun and towards the bridge, and Jason took a moment to take stock of this woman.  She walked easily, fluidly, but there was a tension to her steps, like she was ready to bolt at the drop of a pin, the wariness of a woman who survived by her wits and her reflexes.  But there was an aire about her that let Jason trust her.  He didn’t know what it was, almost like a feeling that exuded from her, but he knew that she was sincere, and that she’d do exactly what she promised in return for the airbike he had promised in return.  Well, there was that, and the butt of a pistol jutting out from under the flap of her vest.  A big handle.

      “That’s a piece of hardware,” he noted, looking at her chest, and not at her generous bosom.

      “Aww, this ol’ thing?” she asked, reaching behind her.  To Jason’s surprise, she pulled out a long-barreled .44 Magnum revolver…one of the most powerful handguns ever manufactured.  “It ain’t nothin much, sugah.  Just for crackin’ the engine blocks of cars chasin’ me, that’s all,” she added with a sly smile.

      “I’m surprised you’d carry a gun that big around.  It must be hard to shoot with one hand.”

      “They all know Ah have it, sugah.  Just the threat of it alone’s usually enough tah make ‘em think twice.  And yes, sugah, Ah can shoot it with one hand.  Ah just gotta lock mah elbow, that’s all.  Hurts like hell and always makes mah arm sore, but Ah can do it.”

      “I wouldn’t even try to shoot that with one hand.  You’re a better man than me.”

      “Sugah, Ah ain’t no man,” she laughed, boldly patting her breast.  “Ah think these prove that.”

      “Hey, in today’s world, you never know…” he tapered off, which made her laugh again.

      “Ah got Ol’ Betsy here, and Ah have a 30-30 and a sawed-off shotgun in the saddleskirts of mah Harley,” she confided, replacing the weapon in the shoulder holster that was hidden under her vest.  “A girl of independent means has tah be able tah protect herself, you know.”

      “I can see that,” he chuckled.

      “Ah heard you got Faey guns. Care tah give a gal a peek?”

      “Not on me,” he answered honestly.  “I’ll show them to you later, if you still want to see them.”

      She tutted.  “That’s not a good idea, sugah.  Nevah go out yo’ door without a gun on you.  Evah.  you’d be smart tah carry around a gun with you when you’re inside, tah boot.  Ol’ Betsy heah don’t evah come off mah shoulder, less Ah’m takin’ a bath or Ah’m sleepin’.”

      “I don’t need a gun, Temika.  I have this.”  He held out his remote control.

      “And what’s that, sugah?”

      “An absolute guarantee that nobody within a quarter mile of my house is going to do anything,” he answered.  “It turns on that,” he explained to her blank  look, pointing at the emitter on the top of the steeple.  “It generates a hypersonic harmonic that causes severe itching.  Anyone within a thousand feet of that emitter would feel like they were dropped in a vat of itching powder if I turned it on.  Nobody would have the ability to shoot at me.”

      “Well, what about you?”

      “It would affect me too,” he admitted.  “But I have a safe room in my house.”

      “So you ain’t got no protection right now, ‘cept maybe me,” she said with a sneaky grin.

      “I’m perfectly safe,” he said calmly.  “I’m not sure the gang across the bridge even has any more guns to bring over here.”

      Temika laughed as they went under the bridge, then she pulled up short and gawked at his sleek winged skimmer for a moment.  “Ah always did love blue,” she sighed.  “She run?”

      “Yeah, but I have it powered down.  The Faey would detect her if I powered her up.”

      “Then they know you came heah.”

      “They weren’t looking for me when I left,” he told her.  “They probably are now, though.  I’ve missed an appointment that made them notice I’m not there anymore.  Come on, we’ll use the cargo door in the back.”

      “Can you open her up without power?”

      He nodded.  “The doors are only power-assisted.  They work just fine without power.”  He unlocked the doors with his skimmer remote, then pulled them open.  The two airbikes were stowed inside, side by side, at the very back of the rather small cargo area.  “There they are,” he told her.  “Two JX-31 recreational airbikes,” he recited, using the Faey language to give their names, as there was no way to translate it.

      “Yah speak they language, eh?” she said, leaning in and looking at the bike with undisguised longing.  “Yah know, they’d probably hunt me down if’n Ah started ridin’ around on an airbike,” she sighed.

      “Why would they?  Don’t squatters have some Faey technology out here?”

      “Yeah, but nothin’ quite so showy,” she said.  “Biggest thing Ah of is the vidlink that the Johnsons down by Milton have, but it don’t work no more.  Ah’d be afraid they’d come flyin’ in and shoot me down.”

      “I doubt it.  Even if they did notice you, I doubt they’d mount an armed expedition to come in here and try to capture you.  It would be a big waste of time.  Besides, it’s not like you have to ride it all the time.”

      “When the gas runs out, Ah will,” she sighed.  “But then again, at least then Ah’ll have some reliable transportation.”

      “It’s up to you, Temika,” he told her seriously.

      “Ah want it,” she said immediately.

      “Alrighty then,” he said, reaching in and touching a button on the side of the skimmer.  It caused the maglocks to disengage. He then turned the key on the airbike, which started its engine and caused it to rise off the deck.  A single hand on the seat pulled the machine out, where it hung in midair.

      “Now?” Temika asked.  “Sugah, Ah ain’t got no way to get it outta heah.”

      “You’re not taking it yet,” he told her calmly as he mounted it.  “But you do need to learn how to ride it.  I won’t give it to you until I’m sure you won’t immediately fall off and get yourself killed.  So,” he said, reaching behind himself and patting the saddle.  “For once, you have to ride shotgun.”

      Temika laughed.  “Sugah, Ah ain’t nevah rode in the bitch seat, and Ah ain’t about tah start now.”

      “It’s the back seat or the Harley,” he said seriously.  “You can’t learn riding one on your own, and I won’t let you have it until you can.”

      “Yah can teach me on the ground.”

      “I can teach you the controls, but until you ride one, you won’t understand what it’s like,” he told her.  “These aren’t a Harley, Temika.  Trust me.”

      “Ah, uh, well, hellfire,” she said with a rueful chuckle.  “Alright.  But mind you, sugah, Ah ain’t nevah rode on a bike that Ah wasn’t drivin’ mahself.”

      “I’ll be careful,” he promised.

      She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder, then moved to straddle the airbike after getting a foot on one of the footbars.  Her hand slid up his shirt, then the side of her finger made contact with his neck.  That physical contact acted like a conduit, awakening his talent almost against his will.  Her concern poured into him, her wariness, but also a desire, a need to trust him, to know that there really were good people out there besides the ones she already knew.  She was much more nervous than she seemed to be, but she felt oddly comfortable around him, more comfortable than she’d ever felt with any stranger.  The very idea that he was brave enough to walk around without a gun amazed her, impressed her so much that she was inclined to trust him, to take him at his word, even when every bit of her past experience warned her against doing that.  He was so calm, so confident, he radiated a strength that reassured her, put her at ease.  She felt very much at ease around Jason Fox, even though her instincts cried out against it.

      She was aware of the contact.  He sensed her suddenly react to the realization that she was touching his skin by immediately moving her hand, with a surge of fear accompanying it.  She didn’t want it to happen again.  The last time it happened, it took days for her to recover.

      Now, now he just had to know.  He opened his mind and touched her thoughts gently, listening to her surface thoughts, and also listening for the deeper thoughts that he could pick up without having to actively enter her mind.  Like any mind, there was much more going on in there than even Temika realized.  There were thoughts beneath thoughts beneath thoughts, a web of mental activity of which Temika was only dimly aware.  He listened, ignoring those thoughts that didn’t answer his question, actively ignoring the opportunity to listen to any number of juicy secrets about her, like private thoughts, desires, fantasies, and needs.  He kept a mental ear out for “it,” but nothing crossed her mind where he could see it.  He reached out with extreme gentleness, touching her mind, trying to gain access to it without attacking or intruding.  He didn’t want her to know what he was doing.  She said she’d been probed before, so he had to be careful.  She was a nervous, defensive woman, but her mind had no defenses in place, and he found that he could gain access to it by simply applying the lightest of pressures for a period of time, until he slipped through the natural defense that all sentient beings had around their minds, that wall of self that marked the boundary between them and the outside world.  Once he was inside, he was very, very careful not to do anything that would betray what he was doing. He moved through the upper layers of her mind like a ghost, doing nothing, not looking at any of her upper-layer thoughts.  What he needed to look at were her memories, so that was where he went.  He touched on her memory gently, carefully, kind of rolling through them looking for any memory that involved being touched.  He found one, then used that reference to track down the root cause of the event.

      What he did only took the blink of an eye; the rules of time in the mindscape were much different.  But when he was done, he pulled away from her, both disturbed and disgusted at the cruelty that some could exhibit.

      Her fear of physical contact was a triggered reaction to what the Faey had done to her the last time they’d captured and interrogated her.  That kind of deep probing required physical contact by anyone short of a Marine, and the Faey who had probed her hadn’t been all that good.  She’d been damn clumsy for that matter, and caused Temika to suffer psychotraumatic shock.  What that Faey had done to Temika’s mind was equivelant to someone whipping her with a scourge in a physical sense, tearing her mind open and leaving it raw and exposed, then withdrawing without trying to repair the damage she’d done.  It was a miracle that Temika was even sane, but somehow, she had managed to recover, her mind healing from that brutal experience.  Temika had buried the memory of that mental torture deeply into her mind, only remembering that it had involved touching.  So now she had a near phobia involving physical contact, terrified that if someone touched her or she touched another, she’d suffer that pain again.  It was a panic attack induced by touching, and it took her days sometimes to recover from them.

      Jyslin and Symone represented the best of the Faey’s traits, and knowing them had softened his concept of the Faey Imperium.  But it was times like this that he was reminded that they were the exception, not the rule.

      He said nothing, allowing her to get comfortable, then he felt her lean over his shoulder to look at the controls.  He explained them to her, showing her the differences involved in operating a bike that could move in all three directions, then he launched them from the street like a rocket.  Temika cursed in surprise, then laughed as she got a firm grip on his waist.  He turned hard, letting her feel the G-forces involved, making her understand that flying off the bike was more than a possibility if she wasn’t careful; airbikes did have seat belts, but not even those would save someone if they did a bad turn and submarined right out of the seat belt.  Jason never bothered with the seat belt himself; properly driving the airbike, he’d never be in a position to need them.  He was careful not to take them over Huntington, instead flying them out over the hills of southern Ohio, letting her enjoy the thrill of riding on the airbike and gawk at the view.

      When he set them down by the skimmer, Temika was out of breath.  “That was great!” she cried as she jumped off the back.

      “Yeah, they’re fun, but did you understand how I drove it?” he asked pointedly.

      “Yeah, sugah.  You have tah bank into your turns or you’ll fly off, and you have to be careful with speedin’ up and slowin’ down, especially when y’all are climbin’ or droppin’.”

      Jason nodded appreciatively.  “Not bad, you were paying attention.”

      “Sugah, they ain’t a bike been made that Ah can’t ride,” she said with a grin.  “Ah want a go.  Your turn in the bitch seat, sugah.”

      “Not with that hair flailing the skin off my face, it’s not,” he told her bluntly.  “You need to tie it up.”

      “Ah like it loose, Ah love the feel of it flyin’ in the wind,” she protested.

      “Yeah, and you’ll get dreadlocks if you keep it up,” he said, dismounting from the bike.

      “Ah know.  It’s hell pullin’ a comb through mah hair every night, but Ah do it cause Ah don’t want dreadlocks.”

      “Well, I’m not riding behind you, so I’ll get the other bike out and you can ride with me,” he said.  “I think you’ll be alright, you just need practice with the controls.”

      “It ain’t all that much different from a Harley.  You just got extra buttons, that’s all.”

      It certainly wasn’t planned, but the afternoon turned out to be rather fun.  Jason tutored Temika in operating an airbike, and though she was very clumsy and tentative at first, she learned very quickly.  Airbikes really weren’t that hard to fly, and it took Temika only about two hours to get the hang of it.  By the time the sun started to set in the west, Temika was zipping her airbike around as easily as she rode her Harley.  She had her goggles down, her vest flapping in the breeze, and she looked like she was having the time of her life.  She was visibly disappointed when they landed the airbikes by the skimmer, and he told her he had to put them away.  “Shit, Ah’m spoiled now,” she laughed.  “Mah Harley ain’t gonna feel like no fun at all.”

      “You can take your airbike any time,” he told her calmly.  “I trust you to hold up your part of the bargain.”

      She nodded.  “Any time you want tah go, sugah, just let me know.”

      “It won’t be anytime in the near future.  Not until I’m sure the Faey can’t find me.”

      “Okay, sugah.  Ah don’t listen to the CB while on the road mahself, but if I miss it, you put out the call that you’re lookin’ for me.  It’ll find its way tah me, and I’ll be on the way tah you.  Ah’m usually where Ah’m called within two days of the call goin’ out.”  She sighed and stroked the side of the airbike she’d been riding fondly, then patted it. “Ah’ll come back for this later, sugah,” she told him.  “Though Ah do much appreciateyou teaching me tah ride it today.  Ah haven’t had that much fun in months.”

      “Yeah, I had a good day too,” he agreed.  “You gonna get home before dark?”

      She shook her head.  “Ah don’t have much of a home, sugah.  Ah live off my bike more than anythin’ else.  Ah do have a couple of places where Ah keep some stuff, but it ain’t really like no home or nothin’.  Ah know a safe place to camp tonight, and it ain’t too far from heah.”

      “The houses around mine are all empty,” he told her.  “Just pick one.  Or, if you trust me enough, you’re welcome to crash at my house tonight.  I have some clean blankets and stuff you can borrow if you’re not cool with that.  You’ll be completely safe no matter where you stay, that I can guarantee you.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

      “No offense, sugah, but Ah’d feel much more comfortable campin’ somewhere Ah know Ah’m safe.  After Ah see you’ve been around a while, Ah’ll feel alright with crashin in yo’ area.  Ah have no doubt you think yo’ safe enough, but Ah ain’t so sure.”

      “No offense taken, Temika,” he said calmly.  “Well, if you’re going to go camp out, the least I can offer is dinner.  It’s gonna be TV dinners, but it’ll be better than whatever you manage to shoot out in the forest.”

      “You got yo’self a guest,” Temika said brightly.  “Ah never turn down a free meal.”

      It wasn’t fancy, but it was different, and that seemed to please Temika quite a bit.  They literally had TV dinners, with water to wash it down.  Afterwards, he showed her his plasma weapons, his railgun, and the collection of pistols, rifles, and machine guns he’d stripped off the gang members.  He kept them in a box down in the basement.  “Why do you sleep down heah?” she asked curiously.

      “This is the safe room that protects me from the sound-based defense,” he answered honestly.  “I have a damper installed down here.  It nullifies the hypersonic sound.”  He had no qualms with revealing those things to Temika, because the past touches he’d made on her assured him that she was trustworthy.

      “Nice,” Temika said, picking up one of the Tek-9’s in his box.  She was careful not to pull the trigger.  “Ain’t these the ones that use nine millimeter ammo?”

      “I guess so, I don’t know much about guns,” he replied absently, checking the diagnostic readout on his railgun.  “You like that?”

      “Yeah.  This is some firepowah, sugah.  If you didn’t notice, Ah’m a gal that loves her firepowah.”

      “Keep it,” he shrugged.

      “Sugah, this gun ain’t something yah give away,” she protested.  “Shit, sugah, you could get a year’s worth of fresh eggs out of the Becketts for this thang.”

      “It’s yours,” he told her.  “If only because you’re the first person I’ve met out here who didn’t immediately start shooting at me.  I’ve got six more in there,” he said with a slight smile.  “So it’s not like I’m giving you the shirt off my back.  Find one that has the shoulder strap.  If you want, you can take it out and make sure it works, but no shooting up the houses,” he warned.

      “Bring one of those out too,” she said, pointing at the plasma rifle he had in a gun case in the corner.  “Ah ain’t never seen of those fired before.”

      “Those are hunting versions, they’re nowhere near as powerful as military-grade weapons,” he told her.  “You’d be disappointed.  All you’d see is a red laser-beam like light, and a smoking hole in whatever it hit.”

      “That sounds powerful enough to me.”

      “The military grade weapons tend to make any small target they hit explode,” he explained.  “Including people.  Even being grazed by a military MPAC can blow off your arm.  If you took an MPAC  shot directly in the chest, they’d need a broom and a wetvac to pick up all the pieces.  They’re very brutal weapons.”

      “Eww,” Temika said with a shudder.  “Too much information, sugah.  That sounds really gruesome.”

      “I suppose it is.  The armor the Faey wear helps absorb some of that.  If you shot a Faey with her own gun, she’d get injured, but it would blow her to pieces.  From what I remember reading, the real armor they use can take several hits from an MPAC before being compromised.”

      “What do ya mean, real armor?”

      “The stuff they use down here is hundred year old surplus junk,” he told her.  “The only things they have that are current are their guns and their hovercars.  That armor the Faey wear, they stopped using it years and years ago.  They use it here because conventional guns can’t penetrate it.  It’s all the protection they need.  Their biggest worry is that somehow someone gets hold of an MPAC, and that’s not much worry at all.”

      “You got two right there.”

      “No, I have two hunting rifles.  Those aren’t MPACs.  This is an MPAC,” he said, holding up his plasma pistol.  “It’s not as powerful as a rifle, but it’s an MPAC.”

      “What’s the difference?”

      “Those fire a static charge of plasma.  This fires a charge of plasma that exists in multiple quantum states.  Think of it as the gunpowder in a bullet,” he said to her blank look.  “Those use weak bullets, this uses a really strong one.”

      “Oh, kinda like comparin’ a .38 to a .44,” she reasoned.

      “More like a regular gun to a magnum, but yeah, something like that,” he agreed.  “Well?  Pick out your gun.”

      She did so quickly, a Tek-9 with a shoulder strap, which she immediately slung over her shoulder.  She practiced a few times with reaching down and grabbing the weapon, then pulling it forward to aim in front of her while it was still slung over her shoulder.  “Good, this’ll work.  Ah’ll have tah find some way tah pay you for this, sugah,” she said appreciatively.  “Clem knows all about guns.  Ah’ll go see him tomorrow and have him show me how tah break it down so Ah can clean it.”  She laughed.  “All that nine mil ammo Ah had and traded away, and now Ah got a gun that uses it.  Ain’t life just the shit sometimes?”

      “I can’t help you there, all I got were the guns.  If you want the ammo, just go over into the city and find out where they keep all the ammo they have stockpiled.”

      She laughed.  “Too bad you couldn’t get some of that Faey armor fo’ me,” she told him.  “Ah’d love to be bulletproof.  Ah could march down intah Huntington and take on all the gangs by mahself.”

      It was like a little light bulb turned on in his brain.  What a great idea!  “Temika, I could kiss you,” Jason said ruefully.  “I never thought of that.”

      “What?”

      “Armor.  All that access I had to stuff at school, and I never once thought of making armor.”

      “You can make armor?”

      He snorted.  “Easily.  Or I could have, back when I had access to the school’s fabrication lab.  With the equipment I have here, it wouldn’t be easy at all.  Unless, I get some that’s already made,” he mused absently, rushing over to the desk by his bed and sitting down.  He pulled out his new panel which, thanks to backup memory sticks, had everything in it that his school panel did.  Including the phone number of a certain enterprising young lady.  He wasn’t too sure about accessing Civnet from here, because they might be able to use the signal to track him down, so he avoided doing that.  He instead ensured that Eleri’s number was still in his panel.  It was.

      He put it in standby mode and stood up quickly.  “I’m going out Temika.  Get what you need, cause I’m locking the house up.”

      “Where y’all goin’, sugah?”

      “I want to check Civnet, but I can’t do it from here.  They might use the panel to track me down, so I have to do that somewhere else.  I’ll go up to the border with Faey territory, it might not look too odd up there.  I’d be close enough to other traffic.”  He grabbed a satchel that was the carrying case for a panel, then stuffed the panel down inside it, then slung it over his shoulder.  He picked up the plasma pistol, then stuffed it into the belt of his jeans behind his back.  “I can think of several things that would be bulletproof off the top of my head.  I need to check them out, and figure out some way to get them here.”

      “Okay, sugah,” she said.

      It only took him a few minutes to get the house ready for him to leave.  Temika climbed up onto her Harley and turned the key, then gave him a grateful smile.  “You gonna be alright, sugah?” she asked.

      “I’ll only be gone a couple of hours,” he told her.  Oh, don’t come back tonight.  I’m gonna turn on my intrusion deterrent system.  You don’t want to be here when it’s active.”

      “Alright.  Ah’ll come by tomorrow afternoon sometime and get that airbike, sugah.  That okay with you?”

      “Fine.  We’ll probably be going into Faey territory sometime very soon.  Next week sometime, I think.  After I’m sure they’re not coming for me.”

      “Ah’ll keep in touch with you, sugah,” she promised, then she started her Harley.  The loud sound of its engine roared through the neighborhood.  She waved to him as she rode off, and Jason watched her go.  That, he told himself, was going to be one very good friend.  He already liked her, and he just knew that he could trust her.

      In five minutes, he was on an airbike and skimming the hilltops as he traveled northeast. He had the windscreen fully extended because he didn’t have a good visor or goggles or anything, and he spent as much time looking at the map display on the console of the airbike as he was paying attention to where he was going.  The bike was in collision detection mode, causing it to gain altitude whenever its lateral forward sensor detected an obstacle within a half mile.  That was the only autopilot an airbike had, but it was good enough for him as he studied the map.  The Faey border ran through southeastern Ohio, and the closest populated city of any size to Huntington was Columbus.  That was about an ninety minutes away by airbike, or a few hours by car.  But the border was some fifty or so miles southeast of Columbus, running just north of the abandoned town of Chilocothe, which was where Temika had come from, now that he remembered.  The closest settlement of any size on the border that was within what he considered to be his area of travel was a brand new town called New Eradin, which the Faey had built to be a collection area for produce and grain grown out in the fields.  It had evolved into an actual town, though one built of Faey plas-crete modular buildings.  It was only two miles from the border, and was about twenty miles north-northeast of Chilocothe.

      That was where he was going.

      He turned to line himself up with New Eradin, then opened the throttle as he tucked in behind the extended windscreen.  The airbike was screaming along at nearly two hundred miles and hour, but the widscreen kept the majority of that powerful wind off of him.  It didn’t keep it off his overshirt or clothes, though, so by the time he slowed down and dove down to the treetops, he realized that the tail of his overshirt was a little frayed and torn.  The border of the Faey territory was about five miles ahead, and it was a dramatic one, for it marked the border of the forest.  There was not a tree in sight anywhere past that line, it was all neatly maintained farmland all the way to the horizon, a horizon that held the small skyline of the town of New Eradin.  He looked down in the fading light of sunset and spotted an old abandoned road, and dropped down and eased back on the throttle to follow it.  He was under the treeline and out of sight.  He got to within a mile of the border and set the airbike down, then hid it in the gulley made by a stream flowing beside the road and continued on foot.

      When he got within five hundred yards of that border, as the trees started showing peeks of golden light from the setting sun, he stopped.  That was close enough.  He sat down on an old log and brought out his panel, then accessed Civnet.  He knew what he was looking for, so it only took a few minutes to bring it up.

      He was curious about two ideas.  First, a formal set of combat armor that made it abundantly clear that he was there on business.  The second was some kind of armored cloth that would be capable of stopping any bullet.

      The first idea took about ten seconds.  There were any number of Faey security companies that made armor for individuals, no questions asked.  After all, in the Faey system, nothing was really patently illegal, you just had to be able to afford it.  There were any number of these firms who manufactured combat armor for nobles.  After a single search, he came up with at least 200 listings for companies that sold armor, either off-the-shelf (which wasn’t very good) or custom made to spec (which was much more common practice).

      The second idea wasn’t as easy, because of the archaic nature of Terran weapons.  He had to reword his search to look for impact armor, not ballistic armor, and that tagged a few matches.  There was an armor material called meralite that was capable of stopping high-velocity impacts of up to 2,800 shakra per second.  The armor was actually a component of an armored cloth that was designed to help protect against MPAC fire.  Since MPAC fire actually relied on the velocity of the plasma charge to help induce penetration, stopping that round’s velocity was a critical aspect of protection against MPAC fire.  The heat of the round coupled to its velocity caused it to burn into its target, then when it slowed, the heat interacted with the material it touched to cause the MPAC charge to explode.  The volatile nature of the plasma charge caused it to start detonating the instant it hit a solid object, but the velocity of that plasma drove the explosion into the target.  That’s why MPAC fire blew people apart.  Most MPACs fired with a muzzle velocity of about 2,000 shakra per second, which made the weapon almost a line of sight weapon against anything within that 2,000 shakra.  This MPAC armor was designed to stop the round and redirect the explosion outward, since the velocity of the MPAC charge would be stopped by the meralite layer.  The armor at the impact site would be destroyed by the MPAC detonation, and the heat and some of the explosive energy of the MPAC strike would get through the armor and deal injury, but it would stop the shot and prevent instant death from being blown to pieces by the MPAC charge.  MPAC armor was literally one-use armor, and it didn’t prevent injury, only reduced it.  After it was hit, it was ruined, and the wearer had some burn injuries.  But it would help protect the wearer against the instant death that accompanied a direct hit from an MPAC.

      The reason this meralite material worked is because it was called phase cloth.  It was a material that itself existed in multiple quantum states of reality, and from what read as he researched it, it was actually a biological product, woven from the silk of certain arachnids called Mera Crawlers in the Meruki cluster.  This raw silk had the unique aspect of existing in multiple states because the Mera Crawlers preyed on another organism called a Phase Beetle, that had the ability to shift its mass out of quantum phase, making it intangible and untouchable to the normal world.  Evolution had provided them with a weapon to catch the phase beetles, and as a side effect, created probably the only material in existence—that he knew of—that was capable of stopping an MPAC.  The Faey had since created a synthetic version that was a component in their heavy armors, but the phase cloth was still the material of choice for personal inobtrusive armor.

      Very, very interesting.  The Faey were using the product of an animal to help protect themselves from the lethal aspects of their own weapons.  Then again, given the bloody and contentious history of the Imperium, a Faey probably needed to protect herself against her own kind much more than she did any other sentient race.

      Jason did some figures in his head, and realized that this meralite armor would stop virtually any round fired from any gun.  Easily.  It would leave spectacular bruises and might break some bones, but it would stop the round.  According to the specs of it, it was both very light and extremely strong, and was easily made into clothing.  But, the material itself was rather coarse, so it wasn’t usually made as clothing, but instead sewed as an internal layer within clothing.  It was most often used as a lining within clothing, but it was so light that it added very little additional weight.  It was sold by some of the same armor companies that built armor for people, and either came as rough material, or came as pre-made clothing.

      Alright, so there was armor out there.  Now came the problem of getting it to him.  He had three options that he could see.  First, he could have it sent to New Eradin, then find some way to pick it up.  Second, he could have it sent to Jyslin, and find some way to have her get it to him.  Thirdly, he could somehow have the armor sent directly to him inside the lawless area.  Each option presented its own problems and advantages, though.  The New Eradin option made it easiest for him, but forced him to either place his trust in a stranger or go out there and find some way to have his items delivered to a location…maybe to a mailbox or something like that.  But then he’d have to make sure that he was there at the right time to get it, then get away with his shipment.  The Jyslin option put his stuff with someone he could absolutely trust, but she’d have no easy way to get it to him, and he had no easy way to get to her.  The direct delivery idea got past those messy delivery issues, but it would give the Faey a hard location within the lawless area from which to start in order to find him, as well as make the deliverer answer all kinds of questions as to why they were delivering stuff inside a zone filled with squatters and outlaws.

      Hmm.  There was a fourth option, actually.  Instead of sending it to New Eradin and finding some way to deliver it to a certain place, instead he could just pick it up directly off the drop ship, or have the drop ship meet him at a certain place in Faey territory. Those options required using an agent he could trust, and he knew just the woman.

      Eleri.

      For a fee, she’d deliver what he bought just about anywhere he wanted.

      The heavy armor…there wasn’t much he could do about that now.  The fit of the armor was critical to its ability to protect, that was why off the shelf armor was so poor.  But the impact armor, that he could get immediately, and it was important to get it as quickly as he could.  It was dangerous out here, and his defenses only worked as long as they were actively turned on, and they utilized Faey energy sources that might be able to be picked up by Faey sensors.  Besides, he did have to leave his safe area, and eventually, someone was going to get close enough to take a shot at him, talent or no talent.

      Despite having no way to get it to him yet, he needed to secure it.  For now, he could either have Eleri hold it for him or have it sent to Jyslin, and then figure out how to get it later.  Using the panel, he called Eleri’s number.  He again reached a switchboard of sorts, manned by a bored-looking Faey man wearing the crest and livery of the Trillane noble house.  “Arcuri manor,” he said.

      “Eleri Trillane, please.”

      “What does this concern?”

      “I’m following up on a piece of equipment she sold me.  She told me to call.”

      The man nodded, and his face was replaced by a picture of the Trillane family crest.  A few minutes later, as the forest became darker and darker with the approach of night, Eleri’s pert little face appeared on the panel’s display.  The last time he’d seen her she was wearing a bikini.  Today she had on a tank top of sorts that left her arms bare, but ended just below her breasts, but was all that he could see of her.  Her white-blond hair was longer now, tied behind her with the tail thrown over her shoulder, to dangle down past his view.  It was some kind of exercise outfit, he reasoned.  “Eleri,” she said in her brusque manner, then she seemed to recognize him.  “Well, if it ain’t that human inventor.  Jason, wasn’t it?  What’cha calling for, babe?”

      “Hello, Eleri,” he returned.  “I have a question and a favor to ask.  You have a minute?”

      “Yeah, I was about to go do some running,” she said, rising up out of the camera’s view and giving him a good look at her very flat belly for a moment, then she sat back down a bit closer to the display.  “Sorry, had to sit down.  So what can I do for ya babe?”

      “If I gave you a list of a few things to buy, would you do that for me?”

      “Well sure, but why don’t you just buy it yourself?  I—oh, hold on.  I see outside behind you, and it’s dark there.  You’re in trouble, aren’t you!” she said with sudden excitement.

      “Well, I’m going to be very soon,” he admitted with a slight smile.  “Let’s say that I got tired of school, so I decided to take an extended vacation.”

      She laughed.  “Damn, Jason, you just make my heart sing.  I’ve been contemplating heading for the hills myself, what with my conscription coming up and all.  But I just keep telling myself that I’ve only gotta do it for five years, then it’s back to normal.  You okay?  Got a place to live?  Doing alright?”

      He nodded.  “Yeah, I’m hiding in one of the nature preserves where the Faey don’t patrol.  It’s filled with squatters and other people, and not all of them are friendly.  I came here with some equipment, but I wasn’t really prepared for the idea of having to actively fight to protect myself as much as I thought I was.  I need some extra stuff, and then I’ll be just fine.  I can’t really buy it myself now, so I have to find someone to buy it for me.  You’re about the only option I have.”

      “That’s good.  I kinda like you, babe.  Sure, I’ll give you a hand, and it’s yet another chance to piss off my mom, though she won’t know about this,” she said with a wicked smile.  “What do you need me to buy for you?”

      “Armor mainly,” he said, sending her a small file with some picturs of things he was looking at.  “I need protection against the old ballistic weapons my people used before the Faey came. This meralite armor cloth I found on Civnet is perfect for that.  I surfed around and found a few places that sell it.  I need you to buy it for me, then hold onto it until I can figure out some way for you to get it to me without either of us getting caught.”

      “There ain’t no list here, babe, just some descriptions and images.  What exactly do you need?  I need a shopping list.”

      “I don’t have one yet.  This call was just to see if you could do it.”

      “Yeah babe, I can do it, no problem.  I’d be happy to help you.”

      “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that, Eleri.”

      “I like you,” she grinned.  “I do things for people I like.  The fact that it’s more or less illegal just makes it more fun.”

      Jason laughed.  “Thanks, Eleri.”

      “Call me Kumi,” she ordered.  “All my friends do.”

      A kumi was a female vulpar.  It was the English equivelent of calling her vixen.  “Kumi, eh?”

      “That’s right, because I’m such a clever little tease,” she winked.  “Besides, if you call and ask for Kumi, I’ll immediately know it’s personal.”

      “Ah, I understand, Kumi.”

      “Ok, so, what do you want to get?”

      They went over some of the armor that was available, using an interactive window on their panels that both could manipulate and see in real time, and Jason decided on a few sets of rugged outdoor-like clothing, armored boots, and three duster-style long coats.  They discussed heavy armor, and Eleri agreed that he needed to be personally fitted for it, as well as agreeing that a set of heavy armor was definitely something he should have.

      “How are you on supplies?  Guns?  You got reliable transportation?”

      “I’m fine.  I have my skimmer parked under a bridge to help hide it from sensor sweeps, but I don’t have it powered up.  I’m getting around on an airbike, but I’m probably going to have to park it now that they know I’m missing.  I’m afraid the energy signature will be detectable from space-based sensors.”

      “It will,” she affirmed, “but there’s a way around that.  You need some military-grade airbikes, with signature maskers.  Let’s add those to the list.  You can just trade me the bikes you got for the new ones when I deliver this shit.  You’ll have to pay the difference between them, though,” she warned, writing that down on a notepad she had by the panel.  “Oh, shit, yeah, you’d better check to see if they froze your account.”

      “They don’t know I ran away yet, only that I’m missing,” he reasoned.  “I don’t think they’ve taken that step yet, because they know I have the airskimmer.  Right now, they probably think I’ve either lost track of time or I might be injured out somewhere.  But, if I did it right, they don’t know where to look for me.  I know how the traffic control system works,” he grinned.

      “If they didn’t have the space-based arrays on you when you ditched, they lost contact with you at about five hundred shakra.  And I know for a fact that they don’t have the entire planet covered by the space arrays on Terra,” she said with a grin.  “It’s a low priority.”

      “Exactly.  I’m glad you know how it works too.”

      “I’ve had my class three since I was twelve, babe.  Let me figure out what this is gonna cost, then you can try to thumb me the money.  That way you only have to access your account once.”

      “What will you say when they ask you about it?”

      “Give me some credit, babe,” she laughed.  “They’ll never find this bank account. It’d take them three cycles to figure out that the listed account owner doesn’t even exist.  And even if they do, why I never dreamed you were a fugitive!  I’m just shocked, you were such a nice guy!” she said in a little-girl voice, with a wide-eyed, innocent expression.

      Jason laughed delightedly.  “You’re a wicked girl, Kumi.”

      “I know.  Ain’t it fun?” she grinned.  Then she became thoughtful.  “You trust me, babe?” she asked.

      “What do you mean?”

      “What money you have in that account’s gonna get frozen when they realize you’ve relocated.  You won’t be able to use it.  I can deliver you cash.  You thumb me your whole account, and I give you the difference in cash.  For a transaction fee, of course, say five percent,” she winked.

      “You have the soul of a swindler, Kumi,” he chuckled.

      “I like ya babe, but business is business,” she smiled.  “I’ll leave that up to you.  After all, you’ll be handing me the whole bundle, and there’s no guarantee that I won’t just take it and run.  Then turn you in to top it all off.”

      “Hell, I won’t be able to use it.  I’ll agree to that, and you wouldn’t turn me in.  You have a deal.”

      “Coolies,” she said, scribbling on her notepad.  “This isn’t gonna be cheap, babe.  I’ll just claim that the new airbikes are the reason you thumbed me so much, but there might not be too much left over.  We’re up to about seventy thousand here.  You’re looking at over thirty thousand a bike to cover the difference in cost, going on list values.”

      “I had about a hundred and seventy thousand in the account before I left,” he told her.

      “Shit, new patent?” she asked with a laugh.

      “Royalty payment.”

      “Ah.  Okay, I got it, I’m sending you my account number.  Go ahead and thumb it over.  I promise I’ll give you the rest in cash when I deliver your stuff.”

      “I trust you, Kumi,” he said calmly.  And he really did.  So long as she thought she was getting into trouble but wouldn’t get caught, she’d help him.  Eleri was just like that.  Jason accessed his account, then authorized the transfer of his entire bank account, rounding it up to the nearest thousand to make it look official, and sent it to Eleri’s account.

      “Damn, that’s a sweet sight,” Eleri chuckled when she looked at her account balance.  “Okay babe, I’ll get to work on this.  Call me tomorrow and we’ll work out where you’re going to meet me.”

      “Meet you?” he asked in surprise.

      “Of course babe, meet me.  In person.  That’s how you’re getting this stuff.  I won’t trust this to a freighter.  So, I’ve decided I’m going to take a trip to Trillane’s newest holding.  Mother’s been on my ass about taking a more active role in house operations, anyway,” she sniffed.  “I’m going to visit Terra, take in the sights, and perhaps go on a nature walk,” she winked.  “Oh shit, what’s your size?  I need those, both shirts and pants.  And your height and weight.  Oh, and stand up and step back so I can get a good look at you.  Your body proportions matter.”

      He gave her his sizes, then put the panel down and let her get a look.  “Take your shirt off.”

      “What?”

      “Take your shirt off, babe.  Pants too.”

      “Why am I doing that?” he demanded.

      “Because proportions matter, babe.  I can get your height weight and size, but if the proportions are wrong, they’re not gonna fit.  Don’t worry, you don’t have to take it all off.  Just the shirt and pants.”

      He gave her a long look, but she seemed serious about it.  “Alright,” he growled, setting the panel down.  He then removed his shirt, shoes, and pants, and stood there in his boxer brief underwear.

      “That’s good, I got a pic of it,” she told him, rather professionally.  That surprised him.  “You can get dressed.” He did so quickly, and she continued to talk as he did so.  “Okay, let me get on this.  Remember, call me tomorrow, and do your best to do it as far from where you’re set up as possible.  They’ll notice if a panel’s accessing Civnet from an uninhabited zone.”

      “Yeah, I’m sitting on the border of Faey territory right now,” he told her, sitting down to put his shoes back on.  “Close enough for them not to be too sure where it’s coming from.”

      “Clever boy,” she winked.

      “Only problem is I had to ride my airbike over here, and it’s not too safe for me.  I’ll have to go back home then come back later.”

“Hmm.  Well, there’s really not much you can do about that.  Just stay under five hundred shakra and hope whoever’s on sensor duty isn’t paying too much attention.  Airbike signatures aren’t that big.”

      “Heh.  Whee,” he mused aloud.

      “Just hang in there babe, help’s on the way,” she grinned.  “I’ll be leaving for Terra the day after tomorrow, most likely.  You should have this stuff in three days.”  She clapped her hands and rubbed them together.  “I get to try out the new yacht,” she said eagerly.

      “Well, I’m glad for you.  I need to get off here, since I’m in the area, I need to make some other calls,” he told her.  “You pull the number off this panel?  It’s a new one.”

      She nodded.  “But I know better than to call it,” she winked.

      “Good.  I’ll call you about this time tomorrow my time,” he stressed.  “Twenty two standard hours,” he said after he converted the time.

      “Got it.  I’ll make sure I’m free about that time.”

      “Kumi…thank you.  I can’t tell you how much a lifesaver you are,” he said sincerely.

      “Hey, I’m getting paid, babe,” she winked.  “And I’m happy to help.  I like you, and I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

      “Me too.”

      “Ok, twenty two hours.  It’s a date.”

      “Not much of one, but one I intend to keep,” he smiled.

      “Don’t start digging the hole already.  By the way, you’re drop dead sexy,” she said with a wink and a wicked smile, and started reaching for the disconnect button.  “Fure!  Get in here!  I need—“ and then she ended the call.

      Calling Eleri was such a good idea, even if she couldn’t resist ogling him a little bit.

      That was the good one, now it was time for the bad one.  He punched up Jyslin’s number, and waited both anxiously and nervously.  It had been nearly a week since he talked to her, just that last day, so he wasn’t sure if she was still angry or not.  He waited…and waited…and waited some more.  Almost a minute went by, and no Jyslin, and what was odd, no answering machine.  He was about to end it and call Maya before she finally picked up the line.  It was audio only, only showing a still picture of her and her name.  “Hello,” she called shortly.

      “Jyslin?” he called.

      The picture of her was quickly replaced with a live image.  She was wearing a simple black tee shirt, sitting at her vidlink console.  “It’s about time,” she told him.  “Are you alright?  Are things well?”

      “I’m alright,” he said carefully.  “My vacation’s gone rather well so far.  I had a few run-ins with some unfriendly residents, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  Are things going alright over there?”

      She nodded.  “Fairly well.  Oh, two things.  First, your physical is on Friday,” she said strongly.  “I highly suggest you get everything ready before then.  You don’t want to miss it.  Second, you need to call in to traffic control.  They lost contact with your skimmer, and they don’t know where you are.  They thought you crashed until they brought in a space-based sensor array and searched the area, and saw nothing wrong.”

      He could have kissed her.  That meant that they weren’t actively looking for him yet.  That gave him two days of relative freedom.  She also managed to tell him that he had in fact managed to get his skimmer down and hidden from sensors without them knowing where he was.  That bridge was doing its job, hiding his skimmer from detection.  “I understand,” he said with a slow nod.

      “Tim’s really missed you.”  She pursed her lips.  “We need to talk about him, Jason.”

      “What about?”

      She glanced around, then looked at him with a grim expression.  “I’m starting to think that he has the same problem you do,” she said intensely.

      Jason was taken aback.  Tim?  Tim might have talent?  “Why do you think that?” he asked.

      “He’s showing some of the same symptoms you did,” she answered evenly.  “Now that I saw you come down with this condition, I’m starting to pay more attention to some other people.  Tim certainly seems to be showing some symptoms, but hasn’t come down with a full-blown case of it.  I’m not entirely sure he will yet, but I’m starting to think that he might.  The symptoms haven’t abated yet.”

      Jason swore.  “How long?”

      “Days.  Weeks.  Months.  It’s impossible to tell.  If he does have it at all, it might never show up.  If it does, there’s no telling how bad of a case it’s going to be.”

      “Is he going to be alright?”

      “As long as he doesn’t have too much outside interference, he should be just fine.  It’s nothing that someone like me can’t fix, and it’s certainly not something that he’d want bandied about.  That kind of embarassment, I think he’d prefer to avoid.  If it turns out that he does have too much outside interference, though, he might have to take a little vacation too, to settle his nerves.”

      Jason looked down.  If it was true, if Tim was expressing talent, then he fully understood what she meant.  If that really was the case, then she and Symone would train him, the same way Jyslin trained Jason.  She’d be a hell of a lot better at it than Jason ever would be.  But, if the situation with the Faey got too sticky, she’d have to pack him up and send him off to Jason, to live away from the Faey and away from danger.  It would be much more dangerous to train Tim than it had been to train him, because nobody would even conceive that a human could have talent when Jyslin trained him.  But since that girl expressed and they knew that humans weren’t completely devoid of telepaths, it would make training Tim a bit more dangerous.  Jyslin would probably have to really clamp down on him if it really happened, or have Symone stay with him nearly at all times to prevent an accident like the one that got that other girl discovered.

      “I understand.  Does Symone know?”

      She nodded.  “We decided not to say anything to Tim.  We want to see how this plays out.  We don’t want to worry him.  If it turns out to be nothing, then he’ll never have had to worry about anything at all.”

      “That’s a good idea.  Tim’s a bit high strung.”

  &nb