Episode 201: Absent Friends
by BabyDoc

"It is hard to imagine that a short decade ago, our species...our world sat on the knife's edge of extinction. We survived the turn of the century and the threat of nuclear annihilation at our own hands, only to face destruction at the hands of another."

The reporter's face on the monitor was cool and controlled as he recounted the terrifying events of the recent past. Behind him was an image of the Earth encircled by the distinctive shapes of the alien creatures humans called 'warriors.'

"...But the enemy was defeated by a historic alliance; the free peoples of two worlds united to destroy the mindless, overwhelming evil of the Arachnid forces. That bond between Terran and T'Phetti, forged in the fire of war, remains strong and steadfast in our time of peace. On this special anniversary, UNN will expand its usual Memorial Day coverage. During our broadcast, we will take you live to Tophet, where our allies will join us in celebrating not only our victory, but also our unshakeable alliance. Then we will go to Bancroft station to observe one tangible result of that alliance; the christening of the Fleet's newest and most sophisticated cruiser, the Thomas Davis. This extraordinary vessel represents more than SICON's ongoing commitment to Alliance defense. It is also the fulfillment of a dream; the first complete integration of Alliance forces. Under the command of Admiral Carmen Ibanez, the Tom Davis will field the first T'Phetti fighter wing in Alliance history. All this, plus links to the world capitals..."

Carl, staring at the monitor, managed a rueful smile. The video broadcaster, so lean and tan and confident bore little resemblance to the frightened, untrained private he remembered from the Bug War.

"Higgins, my man," Carl chuckled softly to himself, "You have certainly aged well."

The same could not be said for Carl Jenkins. The trials of the war and its aftermath showed clearly on his face. The close-cropped flaxen hair, the slender face, the large expressive eyes were all still there. But fine lines now played around those eyes and the corners of his mouth. More importantly the light behind his eyes had changed. Once friendly and guileless, Carl's pale blue eyes now carried a veiled sadness; they were the eyes of one who had seen too much pain, who had entered places where no human should go. Though roughly the same age as his 'famous' friend Higgins, Carl looked far older.

He leaned forward and turned off the monitor. For Higgin's sake he had promised to watch the Memorial Day show, but the endless stream of SICON propaganda tired and frustrated him. The anniversary broadcast accurately recounted the terrifying peril of the Arachnids, the desperate war waged against them, and the narrow victory Earth and Tophet had achieved years ago. But it seemed as soon as the bug menace was eradicated, things began to go steadily wrong. Carl's position as director of Intel's PsiOps division offered him an unvarnished view of recent events. He knew the claims of 'peace' were overstated. Though the Queen was dead and the Arachnid hive was in terminal decline, they were far from gone. Like the snake that continues to thrash after its head is cut off, pockets of Arachnids on dozens of worlds continued to fight endless, mindless battles, guided only by their innate aggression. Cap troopers still dropped and died in small, nameless skirmishes that never made the UNN evening reports. And despite the pretty show around the completion of the Tom Davis, Fleet and the Mobile Infantry were weathering heavy budget cuts and force reductions, stretching resources perilously thin.

The much-lauded alliance between Earth and Tophet had also soured. The conflicts that had simmered during the war began to boil over in peacetime. They appeared in many forms but most could be traced to that flower of Terran civilization, prejudice. The strange appearance and customs of the Skinnies (as T'Phetti's were often called) were enough to fuel the hatred and suspicion of the ignorant and bigoted. Add the fact that the aliens were briefly our adversaries in the war and you had all the ingredients for resentment and animosity on a grand scale. It was the dirty little secret in SICON that no T'Phetti had ever been given a position of real authority in the organization.

Carl knew first hand, that while T'Phetti psychics were not uncommon, none had ever been admitted into the Intel organization. Skinnies fought and died as bravely as Terrans, but few were advanced in rank, fewer sent to OCS, and fewer still became officers. Unlike their human allies, the T'Phetti did not seem to have an innate sense of tribalism or prejudice, but they proved to be quick learners. After the war's end, they began to openly protest their second class status in the Alliance. Resentment was voiced by T'Phetti at all levels; anger returning anger. Of late, some of the most rancorous voices were coming from the highest echelons of T'Phetti government.

Not all unhappiness was reserved for governments and worlds. Carl carried his share of personal burdens as well. So many friends had died, so many hurt: there was Razak, his first CO, killed in the Earth campaign; then late in the war he lost his teacher and mentor in PsiOps. Freeman, the most brilliant and controversial instructor in the department had taken Carl under his wing early in his training, and opened his eyes to the remarkable psychic gift he possessed. Though a stern, unapproachable man, Freeman had been the sun in Carl's sky, the man who had shown him a whole new world. When Carl was injured on Tophet, it was Freeman that brought him back to life and sanity. But on an operation to Klendathu to find some clue to defeating the Bug Queen, the master psychic and his escort ships were lost. SICON lost their most gifted psychic; Carl lost a father.

After the war's end, there were more casualties. Carl watched the relationship of his two oldest and dearest friends, Johnny Rico and Dizzy Flores burn to the ground. Their shared pain not only kept them apart, but separated them both from him. Now he couldn't find Haley. He had tried calling her for days with no response. He had even resorted to a psychic 'page', a trick the two had mastered back in their student days. When that didn't work, he started to worry. Moving in the highly secretive world of Intel and PsiOps, genuine friendships were rare: there were too many secrets, too many games being played to really trust anyone. But Carl trusted Haley Roman.

They had first met when both were beginning students in Games and Theory; he was the 'old man' of nineteen, the most promising psychic Intel had seen in years. She was eighteen and fresh out of high school. Their friendship was still budding when Carl was sent to join the Roughnecks. They would meet again about a year later. Carl, now the celebrated veteran, the only psychic to confront and kill a brain bug, was completing his extended convalescence after service on Tophet. He and Haley became part of a select group enrolled in specialized training in the new PsiOps division. They were an unlikely pair. Carl had tested extraordinarily high in the psychic gifts SICON found most useful: mapping, reading, blocking, not to mention more lethal talents.

Haley Roman's gift was one SICON didn't usually value. She was a 'rock talker' in the vernacular of the psychics. She could sense the impressions left on inanimate objects by other psychic sources. Might be remotely useful in archeology, but in combat? Yet she had been chosen like Carl, to receive the most advanced training at the feet of the infamous Freeman. Carl was immediately drawn to her. Everyone, even Carl's friends harbored vague uneasiness about his psychic gifts. Haley who shared some of those same gifts seemed utterly unimpressed by them. She thought her ability to read thoughts or speak wordlessly with Carl was no more remarkable than the color of her eyes or her hair. (Both of which Carl found very remarkable...and lovely.)

He keyed her number into the viewer, attempting to call one more time. When the ringing stopped, Carl spoke.

"Open, Sesame" he began, trying to sound cheerful. It was their special greeting, jokingly based on Haley's gift for 'rock talking'. Even before there was an answer from the screen, Carl knew she was not there.

"This is Haley Roman," the recording replied, "I'm not here right now, but you can leave a message on my veemail server, and I'll get back to you. Sorry, to leave you talking to an inanimate object. Don't feel bad; I do it all the time."

Carl did not wait for the message to finish, "Haley, please get back to me. I need to talk to you."

He turned off the view screen. An inner voice was telling him something was amiss, something far larger than just an AWOL friend. He wanted to ignore it, chalk it up to being discouraged about the state of the world and his own sadness. But he knew better. His small inner voice had a nasty habit of being right.

For the longest time, Carl couldn't seem to breathe. He sat alone, dejected in his quarters holding the communiqué in his hand. He unfolded it trying vainly to reread it, but his eyes burned with tears and the typewritten message was an indecipherable blur. No matter, he knew what it said. It had been written in cool, passionless prose of the military:

"We regret to inform you that Col. Freeman, of the Games and Theory section has been lost in action and is presumed dead. In an intelligence mission to Klendathu, the colonel's vessel, the Gallipoli and its escorts were lost amid heavy plasma fire in low orbit of the planet. Review of the operation and salvage of any wreckage is currently underway. A full report of the incident will follow the completion of Fleet and Intel's investigations."

Carl already knew more than the message revealed. He had known something of his teacher's mission. With the war going badly on Earth, SICON was desperate for any information about the Queen that could assist them in defeating her. Freeman had volunteered to assemble a team to return to Klendathu to the Queen's hive to gather any information that might assist the war effort. As one of the Earth's experts on the Bugs and particularly the Queen, Freeman was the perfect choice to lead the op. Carl had volunteered to join him but Freeman refused preferring to take his more experienced subordinates with him. He had boarded the Gallipoli, a Methuselah class starship, and with the Stalingrad and several smaller ships returned to the bug's home world.

With a little detective work on Carl's part, he learned that the starship group had encountered massive plasma fire in low orbit over Klendathu when communication was abruptly lost. Recon vessels discovered large radiation residuals consistent with the detonation of a starship hyper drive at the group's last known position, and debris from some of the smaller escort ships was recovered. Further searches were underway for wreckage of the Gallipoli and Stalingrad, but if they fell into Klendathu's atmosphere (as seemed likely) they may have broken apart and burned on reentry leaving little to recover.

Carl just couldn't believe he was gone. Not only had Freeman been his teacher and mentor, but he was also the most formidable psychic in Intel. Carl and the other PsiOps students exchanged stories of Freeman's legendary exploits; demonstrations of telepathy, telekinesis, and telemetrics that far outstripped the abilities of any of his contemporaries (except perhaps Carl). When Carl began to discover the extent of his own gifts, Freeman had been the only instructor able to challenge him, push him, guide him to realms of the paranormal he had never reached before. His teacher seemed almost godlike, indestructible. He knew what you were thinking before you knew it yourself. How could anything, human or bug, touch him? But in the end he died like so many others, lost in a war that had claimed thousands. His empty casket would not be the first Jenkins watched cremated or committed to the vacuum of space. Slowly Carl's hand closed around the communiqué, crumpling the paper into a tiny ball. The tears that had welled in his eyes spilled down his face and Carl surrendered to the sadness.

It was not an impressive list: a column of 37 names, followed by their birthplaces. They came from all over the world: European Union, North American Protectorate, PanAfrica, Australia. None were important or famous individuals; all in fact had worked at appearing unremarkable, at least to the casual observer. What Carl knew, what had cost him three weeks of intensive research to discover, was that all these individuals had two things in common. They were all Level Two psychic adepts or higher, possessing skills SICON classified as 'essential', and all had vanished with little or no explanation since the war's end. If you counted Freeman and his psychic subordinates lost just before the war's end, the list swelled to 55 names. Carl ran the list and his concerns by his subordinate Li Chen Xian, a statistics savant. After an afternoon of analysis, Xian confirmed what Carl had suspected. Psychics had been disappearing at a rate exceeding that explained by chance or enemy action since the war's conclusion. More precisely, the disappearances started shortly after Freeman's ill-fated mission.

One name on the list stood out from the others: 'Haley Roman -- Toronto, North American Protectorate.' Of all the names, hers was the only one that had a place in his heart. She had been gone over four weeks now, and Carl was unprepared for the pain and fear it caused him. He had visited her apartment himself, searching for some clue to her disappearance. The Provincial police and Intel investigators had already gone over the place thoroughly. There was no evidence of forced entry or struggle; no notes or calendar entries suggesting her plans or whereabouts. Forensics found nothing suspicious.

Still Carl hoped he could find something the others had missed. He looked through her letters and papers, scanned her video logs, only to find his repeated messages to her untouched and unanswered. He studied her pictures, her personal things collected over a lifetime hoping they would give him some hint, some answer to the mystery. It was more than a little ironic that Carl did not possess the one gift he most needed now, the ability to draw from objects the psychic fingerprints of their owners. Haley had such a gift, she could have read the room like a book, but it was her room...and she was gone.

His eyes fell upon a picture on the dresser. It was Haley, during a brief vacation they had shared in Oregon two summers ago. She was in profile, her pale green eyes staring pensively at the spectacular rocks and beach of the Olympic coast. Her fair complexion was starting to freckle from time in the sun and her long brown hair was spilling over her face. She wore the chunky cable-knit sweater that was too big for her and made her seem even smaller than she was. She looked as young and beautiful as the day he'd met her a decade ago. If the terrible years of the Bug War had affected her, they left no traces on that face. Carl wasn't in the picture, but behind the camera.

There were no pictures of him in her room. That was his choice. He never liked to be photographed; he told himself it was the result of long years in Intel and the culture of secrecy it maintained. But in reality it was a product of what he was, what they were together. Psychics rarely wrote letters to one another or shared photos or keepsakes. They did not need them. People without the gift would use such tokens to express themselves to one another, to cross the barriers of time or space to touch one another. Carl and Haley needed no such devices. Sharing their gift, they could look within one another, sharing their thoughts and feelings without the clumsy intermediary of words or gestures. And they were not bound by distance. At any moment one could reach out to the other, passing into their lover's thoughts like a pleasant breeze. They were etched in one another's memory with a clarity and immediacy that no photograph could rival. It was a special intimacy that non-psychics could not understand.

For all that, Carl could not find her, could not reach her even with the power of his thoughts. He took the photo and slipped it in his attaché; he would notify Intel and they would clear it with the investigating authorities. In this place, surrounded by her memories, his emotions threatened to overwhelm him. He had to think clearly, make the right decisions, for Haley's sake. He knew that beyond her personal importance to him, she was important for another reason. Somehow she didn't fit and yet she was the key. Somehow he had to find her.

"In the biological imperative of race survival, the Arachnid hive model possesses a number of advantages over the human-government alternative. The Hive model is the penultimate example of centralized command and control. With the queen and brain caste functioning as coordination, the entire hive acts as a single mind, a single organism confronting the trials any society must face to survive. Unlike human centralized command structures (military dictatorships, monarchies and the like) where control must be enforced upon independent subjects, the Hive command faces no such limitation. Rather it represents the cumulative intellect of the entire hive; each hive member is but a fragment of the entire structure, and has no conscious existence beyond its participation in the hive mind. There can be no rebellion, disobedience, or dissent in such a society, no more than there could be the rebellion of a single neuron within the mammalian brain.

"Moreover, unlike human authoritarian societies, each tier of the Arachnid command structure is intimately conscious of each component of the hive; the Queen herself continuously sees through the eyes of the lowliest worker, knowing its every thought and experience. The keystone to this shared consciousness is the hive's continuous psychic interconnection. All members of the hive are joined being-to-being by psychic bonds that can transcend even the vast distances between the stars. No arachnid is ever alone; it is permanently, intimately, and continuously joined to every other member of its race." -- Monograph on the Arachnid Societal Structure: a Comparison of the Hive Model and Human Authoritarian Command Structures -- by Col. Freeman, Games and Theory Section, SICON Intelligence.

Carl sat in his office surrounded by a towering maze of boxes. The mystery of Haley's disappearance had become a part of a larger mystery. Psychics from across the globe were vanishing without trace. Carl had little doubt as to the cause: the Bugs must be behind it. He had little concrete evidence but his experiences in the war convinced him of this. Carl understood the Arachnids; he had walked the dark corridors of the Hive consciousness. In battle against the brain bug on Hydora, and later during his brief capture by the Queen, he had used his psychic gifts to enter the Hive mind, sharing the Hive's memories of thousands of worlds taken, adversaries conquered. The Hive had survived for millennia by conquest, adaptation, stealth, incorporation. Carl was the first to know that the Queen had survived attacks by SICON's ships, arrived on Earth and was continuing the war against the humans in secret. Even seeing the Queen destroyed in her cavernous lair deep within the Earth's crust had not convinced him that the war was over. The Hive would adapt, find a way to survive as it always had.

But there were too many mysteries, too many loose ends. Carl pushed his chair back from the cluttered desk. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples to ease the pain growing there. Where were the Arachnids? How were they operating? How could they operate without their Queen? What part did the psychics play? He needed help. The one man who could lay claim to expertise greater than Carl's, who could have helped him was long dead. Freeman, Carl's teacher had made the study of the Arachnids his life's work. Starting with early work in the field, then later as he rose in rank, through the compilation of reports from men in combat and his own work with captured specimens, Freeman amassed an unparalleled understanding of the enemy. It was his analysis that predicted the existence of the brain and royal command castes of the Arachnids, a fact Carl later confirmed in his confrontation with a Brain bug on Hydora. In probably his most stunning piece of Intel analysis, Freeman correctly identified the Queen's hideaway on Klendathu, determined solely from an analysis of bug numbers, disposition and movements.

Carl smiled remembering the Klendathu op. It was the first time he had worked so closely with Freeman, not as teacher and student, but as partners. The battle with the bugs had spread across dozens of star systems by that time, with SICON rooting the enemy out world by world until they finally got the break they needed. Almost by accident, Terran forces discovered the bug's home world, Klendathu. A possible end to the conflict seemed within reach. But the campaign on that toxic, misbegotten world did not go well. Every small advance was followed with stunning reversals, all at a tremendous cost of human lives. The bugs seemed endless, inexhaustible. Carl had missed most of the action during his long rehabilitation following his collapse on Tophet. It was in those final days of his convalescence and reconditioning that he was summoned by Freeman to help plan a bold and extremely dangerous operation. Based on Freeman's analysis two MI squads would be dropped on the bug mound believed to be the home of the Queen of the Arachnids. Their objective was simple: assassinate the Queen and hence destroy the entire Arachnid race. Freeman told Carl he would be the 'sword' in his hand. After several weeks of intense psychic preparation, Carl became just that; a weapon to destroy the Queen. And he almost succeeded.

Now all that was left of Carl's mentor were the boxes of papers and personal effects stacked around him. He had poured over Freeman's writings for the past week. The numerous papers, reports, and treatises Freeman penned revealed a deep understanding and not a little respect for the Arachnid civilization. At times Carl sensed Freeman was unsure whether humanity could defeat so vast, organized and formidable an enemy. His teacher marveled at the speed with which the Hive could incorporate worlds, converting their resources into the biomass of the Hive itself, and then spreading to more worlds.

What interested Carl most was Freeman's theory that there might be more than one Queen, more than one Hive. Using the Earth model of the social insects -- bees, ants and the like -- he had postulated that the Hive might periodically produce new Queens. They might depart to set up new Hives in distant star systems, or remain dormant, insurance against the death of the Queen or the destruction of the Hive. Any race as highly sophisticated and successful as the Arachnids could never have survived for millennia by "keeping all its eggs in one basket." Carl was certain he was right. Toward the end of his writings, Freeman's interest turned to the Queen herself. She was the heart of the Hive, its life and unifier. Most intriguing to Freeman was her ability to psychically control the Hive and its members. It was this link that bound the hive together and all to the Queen that most impressed his teacher. He felt the Queen's secrets and the key to the Arachnids wildly successful civilization could be found in their origins. To learn that he must first find their home world. Freeman was certain it was not Klendathu; that was only the most recent hive. Hives and Queens far older had existed, he believed, on other worlds. The search for the Arachnid "First Hive", their true home became his obsession. Sadly he was lost before he could find it.

Carl was also intrigued by what he did not find. He had collected all of Freeman's records and personal effects for his investigation. Since no living family was found to claim them, all of Freeman's personal documents, diaries and the like were available in Intel storage. Beyond the published writings, most of the personal material was ordinary and unrevealing. It seemed that Carl's teacher had little life outside his work and writing. But the record was incomplete. His computerized diary entries had large gaps, hundreds of files missing or removed. A quick search revealed that the missing files were not erased, or held in secure archive. They had been transferred prior to Freeman's death, most in the two weeks before his final mission. Freeman's last mission was a dangerous one, but no more than any other. Why had his teacher pulled so much personal material before this operation? And what did those files contain? It seemed the more Carl searched, the more questions he had.

He rose from his desk leaving the fortress of papers, books and boxes stacked there and traced his way through the larger boxes on his office floor. These contained some of Freeman's personal effects. Idly Carl rummaged through one of the open boxes; it was filled with strange artifacts, the objects Freeman had surrounded himself with in life. Each object was carefully nested in tissue or covered in bubble wrap. He removed one at random and carefully unwrapped it; another followed, and then another. Soon he was sitting on the floor hip deep in discarded tissues and wrapping. Around him were over a dozen small objects. They were obviously ancient, shards of stone and ceramic; some were clearly of intelligent manufacture. Others seemed like nothing more than bits of stone, utterly unintelligible.

At Freeman's death, SICON archeology had attempted a complete inventory of the pieces. Each box contained a list of its contents. Carl leaned over to peer into the box and quickly found the sheet. It revealed that most of the objects were of Earth origin, scattered crumbs of long dead civilizations. A few were T'Phetti and equally ancient in lineage. None were particularly valuable. Several of the objects were unclassified; SICON scientists had been unable to determine their age or identity. One object, Artifact AF122757, was not just unclassified; it was not of Terran-T'Phetti origin. Carl scanned the small army of objects camped around him and could not find any matching the description of the mysterious artifact. He pulled the storage box toward him and began rummaging through the packing and tissue at the bottom of the box.

There sitting amid the scraps, sparkling like a drop of water was a crystal. Carl paused trying to make sense of this strange find. He picked it up; though it was only the size of a small orange it was unexpectedly heavy in his hand. In the half-light of the office he could only appreciate it's glassy, translucent surface. It had to be a mineral crystal, maybe quartz or volcanic glass. Bringing it back to his desk he held the glistening object under the stronger light there. It was beautiful, roughly cylindrical in shape, edged in facets like a jewel. Holding it very close to the light Carl could see that it had a soft yellow orange color, much like topaz. As he turned it, the color changed subtly. It was not clear like glass or fine jewels. It's crystalline interior was crazed with flaws, hundreds of fine lines criss-crossing at every angle.

What a shame, Carl thought, Without those flaws it might be worth something.

Carl wasn't a geologist, but he knew something wasn't quite right about the crystal. Looking even closer, he realized that the fine lines etched into the it were not random flaws at all, but were ordered in a complex but decidedly intelligent matter, like the fine tracery of a microchip. He returned to the inventory sheet. The object was of extraterrestrial origin but was not T'Phetti. SICON archeology had been unable to date it, but the soil traces on its surface were millions of years old. Carl carefully laid the beautiful object on the desk, gazing at it with newfound respect. He couldn't take his eyes off it. More than the other artifacts, this one seemed to hold special significance. Then he remembered. This was Freeman's 'pet rock' as his students loved to call it.

During his teaching days Freeman was never without it; he was forever handling it or playing with it telekinetically. When Freeman was in his office, the stone had been a constant fixture on his desk. It seemed an endless source of fascination to him, though he never explained its significance and no one had the nerve to ask him about it. Imitating his teacher, Carl took the artifact and with the slightest mental effort, caused it to rise telepathically above his hand. The trick reminded him of his old teacher and made him smile for a moment. The crystal hung in the air, lifeless for a moment but soon it began to change.

At first Carl thought he was imagining it, but no, the crystal was starting to glow. A soft yellow light emanated from its interior. Then the wave hit him. Carl was so startled he lost concentration and the artifact fell, bouncing off his hand and tumbling below the desk. He hesitated a moment then retrieved the crystal. His respect for the object was now tinged with a trace of fear. Cautiously, like a child just burned from a hot stove, he returned it to his right hand and again raised it telekinetically in the air. The glow returned, and this time Carl braced for what was to follow. A non-psychic would have sensed nothing except perhaps the stone's soft glow. But Carl could hear the roar, the voices screaming from the crystal, echoing in his mind. It was a rush, a jumble of sound enveloping his brain like the crash of thunder or the sound of the sea. With great effort, he endured the psychic cacophony trying to understand it. There seemed to be voices in it; words, symbols, something intelligent, but vast and indecipherable.

After what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, he released his hold on the object. It fell to his hand, inert and silent. Freeman's obsession with 'meaningless' artifacts had always seemed strange to Carl, a minor pastime, an eccentricity harbored by a very strange man. Sitting now with the stone in his hand, he was not so ready to dismiss it as 'meaningless'.

The tiny screen of the videocom flickered to life, casting the only light in the darkened room. If there were eyes present to see it, they were hidden in the darkness. Even on the miniature monitor, the features of the caller's face were unmistakable: the flaxen, almost white hair, the large pale eyes. It was a face with the traces of youth still on it; the war had ended only a year or so ago, and the burdens of responsibility and authority had not yet cut wrinkles around the gentle mouth and the expressive eyes. Though the face was young, its expression carried the gravity that only age or sadness can bring.

"Dizzy? Are you there?" Carl's voice spoke to the unanswering dark. "Johnny gave me this number. I just wanted to talk to you, see how you're doing. I stopped by the hospital last April when...when you were there with Miguel, but they said you didn't want to see anyone. I held back, hoping I'd hear from you. Now Johnny tells me you've moved out."

Carl's eyes sank downward and his voice wavered. "Diz, I am so sorry about everything that's happened. I wish there was something I could do...something I could say that would help. I can't pretend to know what you're going through."

He swallowed hard trying to collect himself. "Johnny misses you like hell, Diz. Says he hasn't heard from you in over a week. He's frightened for you...and so am I. I wish I understood why all this was happening. Please call me. I'm always here for you, for both of you."

The face stared steadfastly from the monitor as if waiting for an answer. Then the image disappeared in a veil of static. In the darkness, a slender hand reached for the remote control and turned off the screen. The dark was unbroken once again.

Carl, his arms laden with boxes, papers and his personal attaché, barged into his office nearly tripping over the piles of boxes and papers that were permanently planted there. The end of another trip, another follow-up of a psychic disappearance, another cold, unproductive trail. He had been out of the country only a couple of days when word of the priority message reached him. Unable to establish a secure link in the field, he was compelled to return to Intel headquarters to receive the message.

A hurried flight and several limos later he was back in his office. He hoped he hadn't come 3200 miles in 9 hours for nothing. He tossed the attaché onto his chair, and dumped the boxes and papers onto the ever-growing pile on his desk. He leaned close to his secure office monitor, keyed the necessary access code and the screen brightened with a familiar face. It was T'Phai. Years did not tell on the alien's strange face. As far as Carl could tell, he looked the same as he did in his Roughnecks days.

Like Higgins, T'Phai had seemed to prosper in the war's aftermath. The most decorated T'Phetti veteran, an almost legendary figure on his own world, T'Phai had risen high in his government, becoming the chief ambassador of the T'Phetti delegation. In essence, he was the voice of his world in the Alliance Council. With the rising conflicts between Earth and Tophet, it was no longer as pleasant a job as it once was. Carl had spoken with him often since the war, discussing not only politics and problems, but more pleasant subjects as well.

M'Rette, T'Phai's daughter, was a particular favorite. Now fourteen and an adult in T'Phetti reckoning, she had become a formidable individual in her own right. Very much her father's daughter, she had entered Federal Service studying in the most prestigious academies on Tophet. More remarkably, she had tested psychic. Like their human counterparts, Tophet had its own minority of psychics; a few had gifts similar to the humans, but most had talents foreign to Intel experience. Carl had the chance to meet her once, when she was visiting Earth with her father a couple years back. As tall as her father, Carl had to gaze up at the seven-foot T'Phetti in the environment suit. The three spent an evening together exchanging old stories and catching up. In that time, Carl had the chance to share a brief psychic conversation with M'Rette. Careful to enter only where he was allowed, he enjoyed sharing the thoughts of one so clearly talented as she was. He was deeply interested in her gifts, so strange and different from the ones he'd known. She was delighted and not a little embarrassed by his interest; her talents seemed so small next to his. What a joy she would be to teach. It saddened him that Intel remained so provincial and would not admit off-worlders to their training.

As Carl watched the recorded message, he sank slowly into his chair. His face hardened into a pensive frown as T'Phai spoke. The news from Tophet was not good. Events were moving there that threatened the precarious status of the Alliance. More importantly, it was a personal call for help. The message ended and Carl purged the recording from the viewer. He looked down at the small attaché at his side in the chair. He placed it on his lap, opened it and examined its contents. The few toiletries and personal items would last him for another trip. Clothes weren't a problem; he'd be in a powersuit most of the time. In a small inner pocket of the bag he found the crystal. He had kept it with him since finding it in Freeman's effects weeks ago.

"Capt. Markham," Carl spoke to the viewscreen.

A young officer's face appeared.

"I need a flight off-world to Tophet tonight. Check the schedule. I'll take military, civilian, whatever; the fastest boat there. Call downstairs to see if the car that brought me from the airport is still there. I'll need it to get to Brigham."

"Sir, may I ask the reason for the trip?"

"Company business, Markham," Carl replied cryptically, "Don't know how long, I'll be gone. This is quiet, Will. Clearance amber." Markham would inform the necessary channels of Carl's absence but not reveal details of his whereabouts. Had to keep this thing quiet, at least until he could figure out what was going on. Carl turned from the screen to look across the office for any items he would need. After stuffing a few papers and his computer tablet in his bag, he returned to the viewscreen.

"Markham, how are we doing?"

"Sir, the car is waiting. I have a military transport departing Bancroft Station for Tophet in fourteen hours."

Fine. The car would get him to Brigham Field in plenty of time to could catch a shuttle to the space station. Carl rose from his chair, and stood a moment in the chaos of papers and boxes surrounding him. They were pieces of a puzzle that had pulled Carl, Haley, Freeman and dozens of psychics into its circle. The crystal artifact in the bag under his arm was another. The next piece would be found on Tophet.

Next Episode: 202: A Bell in the Night
"2nd Season" Fanfic Episodes:
200 | 201 | 202 | 203 | 204 | 205A | 205B | 206 | 207 | 208 | 209A | 209B | 210 | 211 | 212 | 213 | 214 | 215 | 216 | 217 | 218 | 219 | 220A | 220B | 221 | 222 | 223 | 224 | 225