I should never have tried to find it, really. I should never given any credence to the rumors and conspiracy theories. I should never have paid any attention to all those teachers and guidance counselors that had told me that I was special, that I should follow my dreams. The mistake wasn’t so much in thinking that I was different– oh, there was no doubt about that. But my ultimate downfall stemmed from pride, really. It was my desire to make something out of it that would be the end of everything for me.
People always said it would be in the last place I’d look. (Wink, wink and all that.) That’s how it was with me. Klesmer VII was my last stop. I couldn’t go anywhere else if I’d wanted to: I was out of credit. The best lead I’d gotten in my entire journey was from that disheveled Hype addict I’d met back in the Altair system. I’d bought my last passage, took my last ride down a space elevator, and hitched a ride to an innocuous, distant suburb of the world’s capital city. The place didn’t look like much. Half of the buildings were falling apart. They must have been built way back at the tail end of the Gorlock wars when all those space marines were coming back from the front to spend their Transition Bonds. The collapse of 2763 was only decades away, but even before that it was clear that no one need ever spend another cent on maintaining them. I made my way up the stone stair steps of the registrar’s building. A statue of Pizzaraplex’s Thinker stood by the entrance, holding one hand up to its marble brow. A statute like that stood on university grounds on thousands of worlds, but unlike all those others, this one did not reach out its right arm to the heavens. That arm was broken clean off.
I made my way inside and down the hallway, over black and white checkered floors. I passed by the occasional bulletin board plastered with out-of-date postings from the last couple weeks of the previous semester. There were couches outside of many of the offices, but they either had iris tape randomly distributed over their surfaces or else had stuffing poking out. At the end of the hall I came to the main offices of the campus. A secretary sat typing away on her Multi-Pad. She didn’t look up for even a second. Her fingernails were obviously fake, incredibly long, and obscenely colored– ten different shades of neon, to be precise. Their clacking was also extremely loud.
I looked at the name plate that sat on her desk. “Matilda Cunningham.” I was about to clear my throat when she interrupted me.
“Sorry, I can’t help you with that,” she said in the studied, emotionless tone of an expert bureaucrat.
“You can’t help me with what?” I asked.
“You’re too late to register for the fall semester. Come back at the end of Greptober and you can apply for our spring sessions.”
“No, we can’t make any exceptions. Regulations and procedures and all of that, you know.”
“No, we really can’t.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do about that, either.”
“Listen,” I said. “I traveled across a dozen star systems looking for a place like this. I came here to be assessed and I’m not leaving until someone here talks to me.”
“Well, I’m talking to you.”
I sighed at this point and tried not to lose my temper. “You don’t count,” I said… and I gave her my best steely glare. This of course turned out to be a mistake. She stopped typing and looked up at me for the first time. The slightest hint of a facial tick rippled across her face.
“I don’t count?” She looked at me in mock surprise. “I don’t count!”, she repeated. Her voice almost seemed to echo off the walls.
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.” She looked like she was about to snap– and her eyes flashed in such a way that I felt like they could burn holes right through me. “Look, I didn’t come here to apply to be a part of your school. I’m just here for an assessment.”
She folded her arms and leaned back in her office chair. Then she looked me up and down like I was a slab of meat. “What kind of assessment?” she asked.
I looked around conspiratorially and then leaned in to whisper, “you know… to measure aptitude for mentalist arts. The real thing, too, not those phony stage trick things, either.”
She was silent for several seconds and then… she laughed. It was a half-choked bark of a laugh that boiled with contempt. She stared into my eyes unblinking. “So… you’re not interested in enrolling, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. I mean, no. I mean… I am not interesting in enrolling in your program.”
“And you just want to be… assessed?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly.”
“Here, take your forms and have a seat over there.”
I took the clip board from her and sat down where she had pointed. I started to fill out the forms, but… somehow all of my personal information was already filled out on them. She picked up a phone receiver and I could just barely overhear her. “Dann? Yeah… we’ve got another one here. No, I couldn’t get rid of him; he’s insistent. Well can you see him? Okay, then. Yeah, I’ll take care of it.”
At this point, I wasn’t sure what I should do next. She went back to typing on her Multi-Pad, the sound of her fingernails echoing off the walls. I kept thinking she would call me over, but she just kept typing at an almost inhuman rate. Finally, after about twenty minutes or so, I decided she was waiting for me to give the forms back.
As I neared the desk, she spoke without looking up from her screen. “Dann will be with you momentarily,” she said in an almost expressionless monotone. I started to put the clipboard onto her desk, but she cut me off. “Give the forms to Dann when you see him,” she said… suddenly agitated.
I turned to go back to my seat, and I thought I heard her snort under her breath: “Aptitude…?! Hrumph!”
Two long hours later, this guy walked in from a side-hall and peers around the room as if he were searching for someone in a crowd of people. Of course, this was sufficiently strange that I didn’t speak or stand or try to get his attention. I was taken off guard after being so enraptured by their wonderful selection of magazines. (“Zee-Gee Hydroponics Weekly”…? I mean really….) Finally Matilda glared at me for a moment and then cleared her throat.
“Dann,” she said, “this is Derren Speckman. He’s here for an assessment.”
He looked at her as if he had trouble focusing on the source of her voice. Then he followed the line of her glare to where I was seated. When he finally made eye contact with me he almost started in surprise. He then strode across the room. Towering over me– he must have been at least seven feet tall– he leaned down and held out his hand. I shot up out of my seat in response and accidentally shoved my chair into the magazine stand– several of them fell onto the floor. Fortunately, “Dann” didn’t seem to notice the mess I’d made.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
“Welcome to the Institute– welcome! Where are you from, Derren?” He smiled at me with a toothy grin, his greying beard bristling out in every direction. He wore one of those tweed jackets with the patches on the elbows.
“I’m from the Esperence system. My dad’s a–”
“Excellent!” he roared. “Yes, yes… we have several clients there. Employees, I mean. Well… alumni, really. What did you say your name was again…?” He stroked his beard absently.
“Speckman. You see…”
“Speckman? You’re not related to a Lawrence Speckman are you…?”
“Yes, actually. He’s my grandfather… on my father’s side.”
“Excellent!” he roared again. His voice just boomed and seemed almost to echo through the hallways. “Well, just come with me we’ll see what you can do for us. What did you say you were here for again…?”
“An assessment, sir.”
“Wonderful, wonderful! Well now, if you’d accompany me to our conference room.”
“Certainly,” I said. I followed his lanky form down the hall, past a few doors and into a room with an out-of-date display-board and table-screen. The windows were at least a decade past needing replacements, but the office chairs were brand new. I could still smell the out-gassing of the fresh polymers.
“So, Zack… er, can I call you Zack…?” he asked.
“Well sure. But, uh… my name is Derren, though.”
“Derren… Derren…. Ah, now… where I have I heard that name?” He shuffled uselessly through some papers on the table-screen and then finally gave up. “No matter,” he muttered. That was when I handed him the clipboard, be he set it aside without looking at it. “So, Zack. I understand you’re an aspiring Mentalist…?”
“Not exactly. But I did want to be assessed.”
“Yes, yes… excellent.” He took a pack of cards out of his vest pocket and started shuffling them. “And when did you first realize that you wanted to seek out that sort of thing…?”
“Well… I tried to just ignore it for the longest time. But between the headaches and the nightmares, I finally realized that I had to find the people who would actually know what was happening to me.”
He nodded his head as he held a card, its plaid backing weaving an almost hypnotic pattern. “You’re not alone, Zack. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that exact story. Now… can you tell me what this card is…?” He smiled at me as if he were attempting to help me relax, but he failed. Something about it seemed off to me somehow. I couldn’t put my finger on what, though.
“Card tricks? Are you serious…?”
“Oh, just bear with me Zack.”
“Whatever. This card…. Can you see it… in your mind…?”
“Six of spaceships. But I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“You don’t, eh…? So then, you can read cards, but you’re not much of a mind reader, I see. What about the fifth card down from the top of the deck? What’s that one?”
“Duke of waves.”
He picked up cards from the top of the deck one at a time and flipped them over. Deuce of spaceships… empress of jewels… eight of jewels… a torch-holder… and then… there it was… the duke of waves. “Very nice,” he said, “but frankly, guys like you are a dime a dozen.”
“Oh really?” I asked.
“Let’s see if there is something that actually sets you apart. Tell me, Zack, how did you find out about us again…?”
“It was a Hype addict I ran into in the Altair system. He told me I would find an Institute here. A real one.”
“Do you normally place the burden of helping you sort out your greatest life decisions on the shoulders of such unreliable… people… like that…?”
“Well it’s not like I had much choice. Psionics are illegal in the Empire. I wouldn’t exactly bring it up in polite society, would I…?”
“No, no… of course not. So this addict. He of course asked you for credit, right?”
“Yeah, he did actually.”
“What do you remember about him. Anything particularly striking about him?”
“Well… he had a battered old porkpie hat. He stank… like a crab monkey. And thinking back, I remember he had a pack of cards peeking out of his jacket pocket.”
“Excellent, Zack! I want you to imagine that deck of cards in your mind’s eye, now. Can you do that…?”
“Okay,” I said, “but I don’t see–”
“Just imagine it,” he said sharply.
“Sure, sure. Okay, I can see it.”
“Excellent!” he roared. “Now… what is the tenth card down from the top of his deck?”
“I… I don’t know. I didn’t give his cards any thought when I talked to him.”
“But think back. Try to read the cards now. Just relax and try to imagine them.”
“TRY IT! What is the card!?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know!”
“You’re sure you can’t see it?”
I started to protest again, but I caught myself. I tried to visualize that Hype addict in my mind’s eye and I focused on that imaginary deck of cards. I wasn’t feeling or sensing anything, though. “Three of jewels,” I finally declared.
Dann didn’t flinch. He still looked at me, but he seemed to lose focus… as if he were looking though me.
The break in the conversation drug on and I started to fidget. “Did I get it right?” I asked.
He started in surprise. “Hm, what?”
“The card… did I get it right?”
“No, no you didn’t. I’m sorry Zack, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do for us.”
“Wait a second, what about my assessment?”
“Oh, that? You have a fine aptitude for the mentalist arts, Zack– but not enough to save yourself from what’s coming.” He held out his hand and flashed his toothy grin again. “Gook luck out there,” he said.
This wasn’t quite what I expected. I went out of the conference room, down the hall, and past Matilda’s desk. She didn’t look up from her typing. I walked to the exit with the sound of clacking keys dogging my steps. I stepped outside and took one more look at Pizzaraplex’s Thinker. The door slammed behind me and I wondered what to do next. I didn’t have much of a backup plan. I’d thought that just finding the Institute would be enough.
I took a deep breath and set off to stroll across the sad little campus. I passed several shabby buildings and a set of run down grav-courts. I followed some signs pointing towards a nature trail and made my way into the trees. It would have been peaceful, but I noticed the distant rumble of a scramjet. Then I noticed it getting louder. Looking into the sky, I finally sighted it. It was close enough that the nearby trees didn’t obscure it. It flew past… and I would have resumed my walk, but there was a deafening explosion. Needless to say, a Gorlock bombing run was the last thing I expected to happen on one of the interior worlds.
It was my first indication that reality itself was rebelling against my very existence.