by John R. Plunkett
Interstellar space, on the fringes of the Terran Colonial Expansion Zone
"Extraction in five... four... three... two... one... now," Lt. Higgins reported. He touched a control on his panel, though the computer had already initiated the warp field shutdown.
Captain Van Nuys watched impassively as the front of the bridge appeared to recede into infinite distance. In spite of that, he could still clearly see the main screen. He blinked, and everything looked as it should. Canberra had returned successfully to its proper universe.
"Sir, why does Psi Corps insist on putting these bases out in the middle of nowhere?" Commander Roquefort whispered, keeping his eyes on the main screen."
"Depends who you ask," the captain replied. He'd been wondering that same thing. "Either it's so they can meditate and explore their inner selves away from the psionic noise of a settled system, or it's so they can conduct horrific, inhumane experiments and plot to take over the Federation."
The commander snorted softly. The corners of the captain's mount quirked up.
"Sir, we're being hailed by Stavronikita Station," Lt. Engstrom reported.
"Channel open," the captain directed.
"This is Stavronikita Control. Nice to see a new face, Canberra. Those guys on the supply ship always tell the same old jokes. Ah; the agent is ready for transport. Initiate at your convenience."
"Thank you, Stavronikita," Captain Van Nuys replied. "I'll have the XO send over some of his material. He fancies himself quite a wit." He cast a sidelong glance at Commander Roquefort, who grinned unabashedly. "Break. Bridge to transporter room; report."
"Handshake from Stavronikita is good. I have a lock and the board is green. Ready to engage."
"Very good. Carry on. Out." The captain rose. "You have the con, Number One. I'd better meet this fellow in person. I can't imagine anything happening out there-" he gestured toward the main screen- "that would be more dangerous than what's about to happen right here."
"I have the con, eye," the commander responded. He grimaced as he settled into the command chair. However much he wished it otherwise, he agreed with the captain's assessment.
Down in the transporter room, Chief Transporter Technician Harmon Isprey scanned his board one last time. "Energizing," declared, tapping the appropriate control with a fingertip. From there the computer took over. Nevertheless, he kept his attention on the board. If you always anticipated trouble, you weren't surprised on those rare occasions when it actually appeared.
The transporter field thrummed eerily as it built up, casting strange, flickering light on the walls. When the board indicated a successful transport Isprey looked up. By then all the interesting stuff had ceased, but the transportee stood easily on the pad, waiting to be acknowledged.
He didn't look like anything special. Youngish- mid twenties, at most- Terran male; straw colored hair cut short, but even at that it wouldn't lay smoothly; it stuck out all over at odd angles. Long face, a dusting of freckles, slight overbite. Lean, lanky body, with a touch of softening around the waist. A uniform cut Starfleet fashion but solid gray all over, as opposed to the black field and divisional color stripe. A badge on the left bosom... no, make that two. The first Isprey recognized: the Greek letter Psi, which reminded him of a candelabra. The other he didn't know; it looked like an O with an I superimposed over it.
"That's the GReek letter Phi," the newcomer volunteered. His voice had a slight nasal twang; Isprey bet he laughed like a horse.
"Psi Ph-" Isprey stopped, glowing at the stranger. "Oh sir, that's bad. Really, really bad."
The stranger grinned. "I know, but I couldn't resist. I always get a rise with it." He straightened to attention and saluted. "Sir, Lieutenant Benny Worster reporting. Permission to come aboard?"
"Granted," Captain Van Nuys responded, returning the salute then stepping forward and offering his hand. Lt. Worster took it and shook warmly.
"Thank you, sir," Worster said as he the captain strode briskly through the Canberra's hallways.
"For what?" the captain asked, surprised.
Lt. Worster bit his lip. "For not freaking out, if you'll forgive me for saying so. Ever since the Orwell Operation scandal, people treat us like lepers or monsters. I promise you, most of us aren't like that."
"If so, just out of curiosity, why didn't you do more to stop the ones who were?" the captain inquired.
"Because, when you aren't sure what to do, it's always easier to go along with what your commanders and your comrades tell you. Especially your commanders. They're trained to know what they're doing, and they can't always explain why it's important. You obey because it's your job. It's your duty."
"Only following orders?" the captain raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, but I only say so by way of explanation, not to excuse," the lieutenant clarified. "Bucking the system to make your own decisions is hard. A lot harder that people realize. And I hate it, Captain, because the Orwell Operation didn't just poison the people of the Federation against us. It wasted time and effort we could have spent helping people. Evidence suggests there's a lot more people out there with psionic gifts than we've ever previously thought. We could have been reaching out to them, getting them the help they need, and instead we're playing stupid power games. For that, the leaders of the conspiracy deserved everything they got, and worse."
The captain smiled. "I'm glad you feel that way, Lieutenant. I'm in a Hell of a fix here, and I need someone of great delicacy and compassion to sort it out."
"I'll do my best," Lt. Worster promised. "Delicacy and compassion is what the Corps is supposed to be about, and I'm honored that you think I'm up to the task."
A pair of Marine sentries braced to attention as the captain approached. One opened the door with a touch on the lock plate.
"Ah, you must be Selah," Lt. Worster declared, grabbing a chair and taking a seat. He turned it backwards and propped his arms on the back. "My name's Benny. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Selah wore a copper colored knee-length dress with a neckline that showed her modest bosom in the best possible light. A portable workstation lay open on the desk before her; Cinnamon Sugar stood behind, pointing to something on the screen. When the door opened Selah looked up, her ears perking. "Are you going to read my mind?" she asked. The prospect didn't seem to alarm her any; she sounded merely curious.
"In a manner of speaking," Benny replied. "What I'm going to do is monitor your thoughts for a while. People who've been conditioned have habits of thought that keep popping up. The people themselves don't even notice; they've learned to ignore it. I'll check to see if there's any evidence of that in you."
"I see." Selah nodded. "What should I do?"
"You can tell me what you've been doing with Doctor Cinnamon here," Benny said. "Or whatever else comes to mind. It doesn't really matter."
"The prospect of getting scanned doesn't bother you, Selah?" Cinnamon Sugar asked, casting a suspicious look at Benny.
"Not at all," Selah responded. "In his place, I wouldn't trust me either. Besides, it's possible that I am conditioned. Dr. Cooper could simply have erased my memory of it."
"I can help with that, too," Benny suggested. "Despite how it might sound, all Dr Cooper did was exploit a natural brain function. Memory isn't like a recording; each time you recollect something you effectively re-construct the experience, then re-store it. Each time you do that you change the memory slightly, based on what you're thinking and feeling when it happens. Over time you can change the memory into something completely different, without ever realizing that you're doing it."
"You remember what should have happened, instead of what did happen," Selah ventured.
"That's... an effective if rather blunt way of putting it," Benny allowed. "You can see it clearly if you show a group of people something, then ask them to describe it. Each person describes something different. They all remember different things, and interpret what they experienced differently. Even so, it is possible to get at the original memories; they don't completely disappear. They can be recalled with the right associations. When you look at a photo, for instance, you suddenly remember all kinds of things you wouldn't have thought of on your own."
"That makes a lot of sense," Selah allowed. "It's what I do when I'm looking for information. You talk about general things, and try to throw in ideas and remarks that'll stimulate recollection. When you approach things obliquely like that people say all kinds of things they wouldn't say if you asked them directly." Her ears twitched in a fashion that Captain Van Nuys couldn't help thinking of as mischievous. "Do you mind sharing what you've learned about me so far, Benny?"
Benny smiled crookedly. "Yes, of course I started scanning the minute I entered the room." His expression turned serious. "What I have learned from you, Selah, is nothing at all."
"Why not?" Captain Van Nuys demanded, frowning.
"I can't sense her thoughts," Benny explained.
"Is she shielded?" Cinnamon Sugar asked.
"It's not actually possible to 'shield' your thoughts in the way most non-Gifted think of it," Benny explained. "What actually happens is you project a thought or a feeling that overwhelms everything else. So a person scanning you only sees the noise, not what's under it. It isn't possible to think and not think at the same time, though, so a telepath who's sufficiently skilled can always poke through the noise. But that's not what's happening here." He focused his attention on Selah, regarding her thoughtfully. "I wouldn't even know I wasn't reading her mind if I wasn't paying close attention."
"That... doesn't make sense," Captain Van Nuys commented, looking baffled.
"Think of it this way," Benny suggested. "You find a book. You open it. The pages are covered with writing. The writing is divided up into words and sentences. But when you actually try to read the words, you find they're just groups of random letters. The strange things is, right up to that point you'd swear it was a real book. When you look at the sentences from a distance you can actually get a sense of their meaning. Only when you really look at them do they turn into nonsense. If you only glanced at it casually, you'd never realize you weren't getting real information."
"What does it mean?" Cinnamon Sugar asked, frowning, hir tail twitching restively.
"I'm afraid I have no idea," Benny admitted. "I've never encountered anything like it, nor can I recall anything similar from the Corps' records."
"Is it because of the Link?" Selah asked.
"That seems likely, but at this point I can't even begin to say what the significance of it is," Benny said.
"I know one significance," Captain Van Nuys growled. "It means-" He cut himself off abruptly, glancing uneasily at Selah.
"You can't tell if I'm lying," Selah supplied, calmly as ever.
"Well, yes, since you mention it," the captain admitted.
"Captain, is this really necessary?" Cinnamon Sugar demanded, crossing hir arms. Hir tail started lashing. "Selah has done absolutely everything we've asked of her, and she's positively bent over backwards to be helpful. It seems to me like you just can't accept that, and you'll keep digging until you find something suitably ugly. So what's next? Starvation? Waterboarding? Thumbscrews? The rack? Or hey, if you don't mind waiting we can throw her in prison for the rest of her life. Never mind that she hasn't actually done anything wrong. Hey, it's a matter of national security, so it trumps all that garbage about human rights and the rest of that whiny liberal crap."
"Doctor, this is a serious matter and I'd appreciate you treating it with the gravity it deserves!" the captain snapped.
"Believe it or not, sir, I am treating it with the gravity it deserves," Cinnamon Sugar riposted. "I really, truly, don't understand why you think Selah is so dangerous."
Captain Van Nuys took a deep breath then let it out slowly. "The problem is that Selah isn't just an escaped slave. She isn't even just an intelligent escaped slave. She's a cyborg, of a type we've never encountered before. We had no idea the Gosper Fringe was even capable of this. I only vaguely understand the technology, but I do know that creating her must have cost a fortune."
"Costs associated directly with my creation amount to approximately 69.7 million Fringe dollars, or 42.5 million Federation credits," Selah put in.
"You can buy a small star ship for that much," the captain continued. "What's more, the capital cost of the project that led to her creation had to be an order of magnitude greater. We don't need the numbers," he added as Selah began to speak. "Point is, Selah isn't just a tool. She's a weapon."
"How do you figure?" Cinnamon Sugar retreated a step, hir ears laying back.
Captain Van Nuys tapped his temple. "They say the most dangerous weapon is the one between your ears," he said. "Selah, this Link. You said it augments your brain. Does it increase your intelligence, your memory capacity, and the speed at which you can cogitate?"
"Yes," Selah replied.
"Selah isn't just intelligent, she's super intelligent," the captain continued. "She's Dr. Havershiem's personal secretary, but that's only the least of what you do, isn't it? You're his cabinet, his panel of advisors, and the entire bureaucracy of the General Secretary's office, all rolled into one person, aren't you?"
"Yes," Selah admitted.
"How do you know all that, sir?" Cinnamon Sugar demanded.
"Given what Selah says she can do, and what it cost to make her, it's the only logical conclusion," the captain said. "She spies on the doctor's enemies keeps him informed of everything he needs to know. She relays all his orders to other government agencies and receives reports back from them. She oversees the day to day operation of the General Secretary's office in order to keep all the routine business moving smoothly and efficiently. In short, she single-handedly keeps Dr. Havershiem in power. She can't be turned or corrupted because she's his Morph, loyal to him only." His gaze shifted to Selah. "Have I missed anything?"
"Only that he maintains a backup data vault in case something happens to me," Selah responded. "The data structure is unique to the Link, so not even another AI could decode it. If something happened to me, he could load my successor with everything I knew as of my most recent backup."
"He has four more clones ready to go," the captain added. "How long would it take him to bring one online?"
"Six weeks or so, assuming she survived Link implantation," Selah supplied.
"Now, Doctor, why would Dr. Havershiem send something so fantastically valuable to us?" the captain inquired. "Not only in terms of monetary cost, but in how she preserves his power base?"
"He didn't send her to us," Cinnamon Sugar protested.
"He was going to," the captain pointed out. "And it's a dead cert it wasn't out of the kindness of his heart. He meant her to hurt us. Enough that we'd back off on the sanctions. He's willing to risk the cost of her construction and her value to his regime because he's betting her against the survival of his entire nation. She is a bomb, doctor. One that's going to blow the shit out of us. And the kicker is, we haven't the faintest idea how."
"But she escaped," Cinnamon protested. Shi didn't sound nearly so sure now.
"She says she escaped," the captain corrected. "She's admitted that her memories can be tampered with. Maybe she just believes she escaped. We just don't know. Since Benny can't scan her mind, we have no way of finding out."
"Actually-" Benny began.
"In that case, what's the sense of wasting everyone's time?" Cinnamon interrupted. Shi spoke calmly, and seemed perfectly relaxed. "Just put her out the airlock and be done with it. Or cut her head off if you think the Link should be saved for study. Though out of kindness, you should at least have the guts to tell her to her face that she has absolutely no value to us as a human being. That she'll never see her sister, and all those dreams about freedom and equality are just that: dreams."
"Doctor, it's not-" the captain began.
"No, Captain, it's exactly that simple," Cinnamon cut in. "We're supposed to be better than them. The reason we're embargoing them is because we've decided that how they treat Morphs is unconscionable. But apparently we only mean it so long as it's not inconvenient to us in any way."
"Don't be naive!" the captain snarled. "What are you going to tell the families of all the people who end up suffering because of this? That's it's okay because we put the comfort of one Morph ahead of all of them? We have a duty to protect the Federation, Doctor! Have you forgotten that?"
"No, Captain, I haven't. But I also think we have a duty to protect Selah. The fact that we're even having this conversation means that we've already discounted her humanity. We've reduced her to a thing to be used and abused at our convenience. We're doing exactly what we despise the Fringers for doing, only we've prettied it up by pretending we have some noble, higher motive that somehow makes it all okay. I've read history, Captain. Every single atrocity ever committed has been done by people who were absolutely certain they were doing the right thing. Every single time, after the fact someone asks, why didn't anyone say anything? Why didn't someone try to stop it? That's what I'm doing, Captain. I don't say we shouldn't be careful. I don't say we should put the people we're supposed to protect at undue risk. But there has to be a way we can also look out for Selah's interests. If there isn't, then Starfleet isn't what I though it was. And frankly, I don't want to be a part of it." Shi opened hir belt pouch and withdrew a sheet of actual paper. "I hoped it wouldn't come to this, but I thought it might. This is my resignation."
Captain Van Nuys picked up the sheet of paper, rubbing the edges with his thumbs.
Benny drummed his fingers silently on the back of his chair, then looked up. "Captain... There is someone who might be able to help. Someone who just may be able to scan Selah's mind where I can't. It's highly irregular, possibly illegal, and it will for an absolute certainty offend some very powerful people. But I still think it's worth doing. I do appreciate the dangers. I agree with everything you've said about Selah and the risk she represents. But Dr. Cinnamon makes a compelling argument. Not so very long ago I was involved in a situation where I was told the ends justified the means, that it was necessary for me to do unpleasant things in service of the greater good. There were some, like Dr. Cinnamon here, who protested. Professor Kernigan ordered me to mind-wipe them. It was as much a test of loyalty as getting rid of dissenters. And I did it, Captain, because I hadn't the moral courage to object. Then the conspiracy fell apart and we all got arrested. The sentence passed on me by the tribunal was that I had to mind-wipe Professor Kernigan and all the other ringleaders. And yes, the court knew exactly what it demanded of me. That's why it gave the sentence it did." He closed his eyes, pressing against his temples. After a moment he opened them again. "I can't risk being on the wrong side again. I won't risk it. There has to be a way to protect Selah as well as the Federation. If not, we aren't the people we think we are."
Captain Van Nuys continued fingering Cinnamon Sugar's resignation, though his eyes didn't see it. "What do I tell my superiors?" he asked. "The ones who demand I confront the risk, and who haven't taken such an... enlightened view of the matter?" He looked up, pinning Cinnamon, and then Benny, with a hard, cold gaze.
Cinnamon flinched. Benny didn't. "You tell them I've examined Selah and am unable to make a determination," Benny replied. "Due to the immediacy of the threat, it is absolutely necessary to take the unconventional approach. There is no telepath in Psi Corps who is enough better than me to make a difference. Letting them try wastes time we don't have. There might be individuals among the Hall of Ancient Thought, the Order of the Subtle Mind, or the Brotherhood of Psi-Maestros who can do better, but those organizations aren't under Federation control. We can't compel them to cooperate. Worse, we couldn't stop them from going public after they'd examined Selah. This person I'm suggesting is the only hope of getting an answer quickly."
"How do we know your person won't blab or flake out on us?" the captain asked.
"He has a strong sense of duty," Benny said. "Captain Raskilov has seen to that."
"Wait," Cinnamon Sugar exclaimed. "You mean-"
"Yes," Benny cut in. "His name is Chase. You'll find him on Chakona."