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The Vintages: The Mindguard Saga, #2

The Vintages: The Mindguard Saga, #2

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The Vintages: The Mindguard Saga, #2

Length:
345 pages
8 hours
Publisher:
Released:
May 17, 2016
ISBN:
9781533718785
Format:
Book

Description

Ten years after the doomed mission to Carthan, a terrible disease is turning human Mindguards into a threat to society. The Enforcement Unit, the ruthless, peace-keeping arm of the Interstellar Federation of Common Origin, has outlawed their activity and is keeping them under strict surveillance.

 

Forty-seven prototech Mindguards who call themselves the Vintages have fled to the Hando Desert and seized control of the territory's thoughtenhancing drug trade. Under the leadership of the mysterious Jaycen Nemeth, the Vintages are rapidly becoming a danger to the IFCO, bringing them into direct conflict with the Enforcement Unit's uncompromising new Commander, Tamisa Faber.

 

As Nemeth's influence grows among the Desert Dwellers, the prospect of a new Mindwar threatens the future of mankind.

Publisher:
Released:
May 17, 2016
ISBN:
9781533718785
Format:
Book

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The Vintages - Andrei Cherascu

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Subscribe to my Newsletter to get your free copy of Humanity of One, a novella featuring Sheldon Ayers. The digital version of this story is available exclusively to Newsletter subscribers.

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To the memory of my grandfather, Ioan Cherascu.

Table of Contents

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PROLOGUE

CHAPTER 0

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

PROLOGUE

DECEMBER 5, 2326, TERRA ANTIQUA STANDARD CALENDAR

The definition of a tragedy: a disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life. Death is intrinsically inconsequential, therein lies its rationality. By itself, death cannot be a tragedy. For that it requires emotion — the grieving process. From this judgment results a great irony: that the death of one single person constitutes a greater tragedy than the extinction of mankind, when there would be no one left to weep.

Sheldon Ayers, Thoughts, Reflections and Patterns

Tamisa did not expect to set foot on Carthan again.

Every second she spent outside her shuttle was exhausting, even nauseating. She tried to stay calm and allow her senses to adapt to the hostile environment. She closed her eyes, but that only served to bring back violent memories.

The windswept planet was a malicious entity. It assaulted the mind like a sentient being, threatening and tormenting, trying to dig its poisonous talons into the very fabric of thought. In spite of that, Tamisa felt good.

A little over a month ago, she had left this world as an inexperienced Field Unit Leader. Now, she returned as High Commander of the Enforcement Unit, effectively the most powerful person in the universe.

The probes are nearing the impact zone, Commander.

The voice of Timekeeper Kernis startled her. She had momentarily forgotten that the auditory insertions were not connected to the cloud, which meant that they functioned even in the Desert. Wait, I’ll come inside, she answered. She took one more look at the leaden sky, made a disgusted grimace and entered the Enforcement Unit spacecraft.

She walked over to the holochamber, where her most capable Timekeeper was barely visible amid cascading data, and took a seat at the comdesk. Kernis, as always, chose to stand. Her retinal insertions displayed a stream of code in the numerical language only Timekeepers could decipher. The trackers found only traces of Sheldon Ayers’ DNA, Kernis translated. We can confirm that the cave does not contain the physical remains of Maclaine Ross or Sophie Gaumont.

I want to see, Tamisa said sharply. The numbers were replaced by an image: a collapsed cave, just as she had expected. The arachnid holocams were just small enough to fit through the tiny cavities in the rubble, but the picture they painted was clear enough – nothing and no one could have survived the cave-in.

And yet, there was only Sheldon’s DNA. Maclaine Ross and Sophie Gaumont had obviously escaped. Tamisa knew there could be only one possible explanation.

She had not told anyone about the journal she’d found in Sheldon’s office or the mysterious disease from which the Mindguard and his grandfather seemed to have suffered. The world was still shaken up by the actions of Thomas Liam Anderson, the Traitor. Such a revelation could cause panic and mankind needed stability. She knew, however, that she would have to act soon.

What happened here? Timekeeper Kernis wondered out loud before answering his own question: Ayers broke the Weixman Barrier!

Tamisa smiled like a proud parent. Very good, Irvin.

She was glad he confirmed her suspicion. She had known it from the start – something about the memory of the Carthan mission wasn’t right. It felt fabricated. Somehow, Sheldon Ayers had broken the Weixman Barrier and planted a false memory inside her mind, probably a fraction of a second before she’d killed him, sacrificing himself to save his friends.

Can I count on your discretion? Tamisa asked, though her tone made it clear that it was an order.

Do you want me to request unrestricted access to Horatio Miller’s intellectual property? the Timekeeper said, in place of an answer.

Not yet.

But ma’am…we need to find out where they went!

We will, she said calmly. For the moment, we don’t want to alarm the world. We both know how fearful a creature she is.

CHAPTER 0

NOVEMBER 24, 2327, TERRA ANTIQUA STANDARD CALENDAR

A telepathic society will find its level of intermind communication indirectly proportional to its degree of empathy and directly proportional to the amount of violence its members will inflict on one another. I call it the Weixman Paradox.

Sheldon Ayers, Guarding the Trade: A Study of the Mindguard’s Methods

From the moment Tamisa walked into the meeting room, all eyes were on her, studying her every move. A year ago, it would have made her uncomfortable. Now, it felt as natural as the air in her lungs.

In fact, she had learned to enjoy the attention. Those prying eyes exposed much more than they intended, and Tamisa valued information. She could read in them anxiety and weariness, which was normal. It was a difficult time to be president.

Even after a year, the citizens of the Interstellar Federation of Common Origin were unsure of their feelings towards the new Commander. Thomas Anderson’s betrayal was still an open wound, and the mysterious woman who had risen from Field Unit Leader to High Commander in the wake of Anderson’s trial was a controversial figure.

Though they didn’t yet entirely trust her, everyone was captivated by her. She became an icon, someone with the aura of a holo-starlet rather than a military leader, but she didn’t mind. She had learned to use every weapon in her arsenal. If she couldn’t have trust, she would settle for fascination, and she would use it to her advantage.

The Enforcers were completely behind her – that was the most important thing. She was a lioness and they were her cubs. She also had the support of the Council of Presidents. They had given her ample time to settle into the new position. She took it as a sign of their approval.

She spoke to her predecessor only once after being appointed Commander, just a few days before Anderson’s trial and subsequent conviction to death by telepathic assault. Like the time before, their conversation was off the record. She asked him about the Peace Preservation Initiative, memorizing the names of the Genetic Architects involved, all of whom were already dead. She and Thomas Anderson were the only people in the world with any knowledge of the Program.

You seem comfortable in your new position, he told her.

Anything else you’d like to add? she said in place of an answer.

Good luck.

Just that?

Yes, Ms. Faber, he said, smiling.

All right, then.

She turned around and left. It was the last time she would ever see him.

The men and women of the Council of Presidents had already taken their seats at the long moradium table. Behind them, the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed a stunning landscape: the sky scrapers of New Tokyo over the backdrop of the Gojyi Mountains.

Holding the Second Council Session on the topic of the Mindguard Registration Act on the planet Mars Three had been Tamisa’s idea. She had suggested the planet because it was a financial center and a place of political neutrality. It also had no ties to the Enforcement Unit as it did not host a local base. She knew that the High Commander’s power could be overwhelming and she wanted the politicians to be as comfortable as possible. She would have to tread lightly. She was about to play on the anxieties of people, which was always dangerous territory.

Thomas Anderson’s revelation — that she was the final result of the Peace Preservation Initiative — had cast a terrible shadow over her life. The purpose of this genetic program was to artificially create a human being with the precise physical and mental traits needed for dealing with the grueling requirements and exhausting responsibilities of being High Commander. Knowing that, how could she ever truly think of her accomplishments as her own? How could she summon up the feeling of pride that was the driving force behind every ambitious person?

In the end, she had accepted her position with surprising ease. She suspected it was the same paradoxical serenity with which believers in gods could entertain the vision that they are part of some grand universal plan, while still feeling responsible for their own actions.

Tamisa studied each of the seated presidents. On paper at least, they were the decision-makers for all mankind. She realized — perhaps too acutely — how out-of-place she looked among these politicians, in their modern diplomatic attires.

She had chosen a formal civilian outfit over her military uniform. Dressed entirely in black, a custom picked up from her old mentor Villo Kantil, she looked like a priestess or an oracle from ancient times. Perhaps it was fitting, since she was there to cast predictions about the future.

She took a seat opposite First President Ad’ifaah Masur. Scattered among the politicians was her own group of Advisors: Gracian Moss, Dieter Muench, Thaddeus Paro, Sebastian Gardner, Keiji Rhynso and Maik Rhus. The sight of the familiar faces gave her a feeling of comfort. She could tell that her presence did the same for them.

The room was rather small given the large number of people gathered at the table. The sleek, modern décor made it resemble a business meeting rather than a governmental convocation, which was good. Business meetings tended to be cold and calculated, while political gatherings could easily degenerate into impassioned rhetoric. She wanted a coolheaded atmosphere, given the topic’s moral implications. The Mindguard Registration Act had already been a controversial measure. The proposed amendments would undoubtedly spark violent opposition from the citizens. She needed the dignitaries on her side.

Ad’ifaah Masur greeted her with a slight nod. High Commander, she said. Tamisa thought she caught a glimpse of a smile on the woman’s usually stern countenance. From the beginning, she felt that the First President had a special fondness for her. She hoped the others would eventually share that feeling.

Esteemed Council, Tamisa answered. Her own voice echoed in her ears and she detected in it just a bit too much strictness. Fake modesty was one diplomatic trait she had not yet mastered, much to the frustration of Dieter Muench. She had gotten accustomed to speaking to everyone as though they were under her command. She needed to control herself. Offending the Council at this moment could have catastrophic repercussions.

The Second Session on the topic of the Mindguard Registration Act of 2327 is now open, declared First Secretary Linden Mastersen — a short, balding, overweight man with a double chin. In an era in which cosmetic enhancements tested the boundaries of physical faultlessness, Mastersen was one of the Federation’s most notable prototechs. That meant he belonged to a group of people who were either genetically incompatible with insertions, had phobias of such technology or whose personal philosophy rejected any genetic modifications to the human body. Tamisa wondered if his opinions on genetic modifications would prove an integral factor in the turnout of this conference.

The First Secretary cleared his throat and spoke: Commander Faber, I would like to open the session by inviting you to give an update on the progress of the Thought Integrity Preservation Program as well as the Enforcement Unit’s suggested amendments to the Mindguard Registration Act.

Certainly, she answered, smiling confidently. The Enforcement Unit appreciates that this is a very delicate situation. We have every intention of handling the matter with the greatest consideration. That being said, I think we can all agree that things are not getting better.

Any information on the fugitives?

According to our data, there are at this moment forty-seven unregistered human Mindguards. All are prototechs. She resisted the urge to look directly at the First Secretary. Our intelligence suggests they’ve fled towards the Desert regions.

How great a threat to interstellar security are these prototech Minguards?

The question had come from Ebi Nnamani. Though he was the youngest of the politicians, his word carried a lot of weight. He was the President of the United Nations of Free Africa, one of three representatives of Terra Antiqua. Despite the official status of equality between all IFCO planets, Old Earth still held a sense of moral authority as the Planet of Origin.

Tamisa flashed a playful smile. Vintages, she said.

Excuse me?

"That’s what they call themselves. Ever since this profession started gradually being taken over by AI, human Mindguards have begun referring to themselves as Vintages. Now the term is claimed by all prototech Mindguards who’ve fled the IFCO during the registration."

This sounds like they’re getting organized, starting a movement perhaps, Nnamani worried. He rested his massive arms on the moradium table. He had probably not intended for the gesture to come off as threatening, but Tamisa couldn’t help perceiving it that way. The tall, muscular man reminded her of Maclaine Ross. Though he was the most amiable and levelheaded of the politicians, even the hint of a physical resemblance to Ross made her instantly dislike him. Without thinking, she mimicked his gesture, though he didn’t seem to notice or just didn’t care.

Perhaps. But they are not a threat for now. She paused for a second. However, their genetic records indicate that some of them have an increased risk of developing Ayers’ disease. They could definitely become a threat in the very near future. We still understand fairly little about the malady, so it’s hard to predict its behavior. As you already know, the Enforcement Unit has set up a task force whose primary objective is finding and detaining the fugitives.

And how is that going? asked President Novali Vanhannen of Mars Three.

The fact that they are prototechs makes them difficult to track, which is how they managed their escape. From the corner of her eye she could see that First Secretary Mastersen was following the conversation with great interest. The Deserts offer them increased stealth.

"But you are confident that you will eventually capture them," Mastersen said.

Eventually. Right now, they are not the priority. Supervision of the remaining human Mindguards is our first concern. Unintentionally, she had already started revealing the core of this briefing session, but President Vanhannen cut her off before anyone else could notice: Speaking of Ayers’ disease, can you report on the developments in that direction?

Certainly. The Thought Integrity Preservation Program is still young. So far, Lead GA Ada Samson has been focusing on the genetic component of Ayers’. It behaves like a form of dementia but the causes are yet to be determined. The most concerning aspect is that, in its final stages, the disease leads to a complete breakdown of the Weixman Barrier, the cognitive limitation that Mindguards develop to prohibit them from interacting with the human mind in an abusive manner. As you know, Mindguards are not regular telepaths. The Weixman Barrier not only prevents them from reading a person’s mind but also, more importantly, from producing inside it synthetic cognitive structures like false memories or other types of hallucinatory visions.

This sounds alarming, said President Mons Baker, a particularly unlikable and extremely conservative old man, who had openly made disparaging comments about Tamisa’s appointment to High Commander. I mean, what if two Mindguards who suffer from Ayers’ get together? We already know that the power of telepathy increases exponentially with the number of telepaths. Can you imagine if a large number of them get together and plan some sort of retaliation?

No need to be frightened, President Baker, Tamisa said. She noticed the old man’s jaws clenching. Being predisposed to the disease and actually developing it are two different things. The disease is rare and the fugitives are mostly spread out over vast regions of space. The chances of several afflicted Mindguards assembling are slim to nonexistent. But yes, nobody wants a Mindguard who can plant thoughts into your head. Her skin crawled at the memory of Carthan. Which is exactly what I’ve come to talk to you about, she continued. The Enforcement Unit proposes increased surveillance of the registered Mindguards.

Increased surveillance? echoed First President Ad’ifaah Masur.

Tamisa nodded. We believe the threat warrants it. We would also like to revoke the working license of all human Mindguards.

An eerie silence fell over the meeting room. Gracian Moss, one of her Advisors, briefly made eye-contact and directed Tamisa’s gaze towards Mons Baker, whose expression suggested he was more than pleased with what he heard. Unlikely allies, Tamisa thought.

So, you’re basically saying we should declare human Mindguards illegal? the First President asked.

The number of human Mindguards has been decreasing for decades. Artificial versions have reached the success level of their human counterparts. In light of the effects of this worrisome disease, I feel we need to think in the interest of the common IFCO citizen.

I don’t know what to say, Masur answered. The Mindguard Registration Act is already controversial. Human rights activists are very vocal about a Mindguard’s rights to privacy. There is no use in pretending that we are not aware of their particular…neurological structure. But that makes the situation even more delicate. We do not want to stir up any discussions on what constitutes a person and send humanity back four centuries.

With respect, President, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. For reasons beyond the control of anything but biology, these unfortunate people have found themselves in the position of becoming threats to interstellar security. Safety has to come first, wouldn’t you agree? We don’t want to plant the seeds for another Mindwar. Tamisa observed the color vanishing from every politician’s cheek. Look, she continued, as you already know, one of the purposes of the Thought Integrity Preservation Program is to study Ayers’ disease and eventually find a cure. Perhaps one day the situation will be different and the Mindguard Registration Act will no longer be needed. Perhaps. Right now, my main concern is interstellar security and yours should be too.

Tamisa could see Dieter Muench tensing up. He shot her a direct glance and she got the message – Mind your attitude, Commander. Diplomacy comes first now. She looked at him from the corner of her eye, the briefest contact but an equally clear message – Fuck these little bureaucrats!

You are already drawing criticism, Commander, said President Jacques Belleville. There is talk that the Center for the Study of Ayers’ Disease is more of a maximum-security prison than a clinic. Some Mindguards have taken to the streets making accusations of inhumane treatment of the patients. You are not in a position of popularity right now.

Two things, President Belleville, Tamisa said sharply. Number one: I don’t have an electorate to worry about. She could hear the voice of Dieter Muench in the back of her mind, the voice of her conscience – "Do not forget that these men consented to your promotion to High Commander. The Council of Presidents had the power to veto our suggestion, but they accepted you. You owe them at least respect." But there was another voice inside Tamisa and it screamed that she owed nothing to anybody. That voice always won out.

Secondly, she continued, her tone unchanged, neither the Program nor the CSAD are under Enforcement Unit control.

Well, supervision, Belleville puffed. Many question the extent of this ‘supervision,’ Commander. Hell, many even question the meaning of the word.

Yes, the citizens love discussing semantics, Tamisa said drily.

You can’t ignore the impact this law will have on the thoughtprotection community. We know their neurological particularities. These men and women have gone through intense mental conditioning and years of rigorous training. Mindguards basically exist for their profession. I know exactly how that feels, Tamisa thought, but she remained silent. We can’t even begin to fathom the impact this will have on their lives and their psychological well-being. Treating them like criminals could turn them into just that. Pushing someone into a corner runs the risk of producing violent reactions.

You would be surprised how many things run the risk of producing violent reactions, President, Tamisa said.

I do not appreciate your attitude, Commander, Belleville spat.

What about other amendments? Ebi Nnamani intervened in an appeasing tone.

This was the deciding moment. The Council’s decision would be influenced by the way Tamisa managed to present the following information. She scolded herself for having already tested their patience. Now they were far less likely to support her. Again, she had let her temperament cloud her judgment. Then, she remembered Thomas Anderson’s words – There is no one more qualified, Tamisa. You are the one. There is no single trait of your character I did not want. There is nothing about you I did not foresee. You are perfect.

Sometimes she figured that, since it was her genetic destiny to become High Commander, there was no way she could even make a mistake. Other times, she came to her senses and realized with dread that this mindset could end up being her downfall.

Here she was, almost one year later, getting ready to propose the most controversial measure in recent human history.

Humanity had a deeply ingrained fear of artificial human life. The violent repercussions from the dawn of telepathy and the Great Mindwar had left deep scars and a powerful feeling of paranoia. The belief that genetic engineering could produce lab-grown human beings with increased powers of mind-to-mind communication led to a federation-wide ban on sapiogenesis.

Tamisa had every intention of challenging the world’s prejudice. She knew that it would be a risky move and could irreversibly damage her position, but her interest in the Genetic Program bordered on obsession. Was the threat posed by Ayers’ disease enough to change humanity’s opinion?

She was aware that the Council was waiting for a response, but her mind was a blur. She found it difficult to coherently organize her thoughts. For seconds that felt like hours, she could do nothing but stare at each of her interlocutors. She took a deep breath and prepared to speak, but the words froze inside her.

The change was subtle. Tamisa would not have been aware of it if she hadn’t felt it once before, if it hadn’t affected her life so profoundly. Whoever the attacker was, he was a very capable telepath. But he was no Sheldon Ayers.

Well? Nnamani urged. Tamisa looked at the Council, aware that what she was seeing wasn’t real. Panic took hold of her as visions of Carthan flashed before her eyes – a cave-in, bodies crushed under tons of rock.

The others obviously couldn’t feel it. They were unprepared. Perhaps they weren’t even there.

Her heart was beating with force. Where was she? Was she even in New Tokyo? When did this start? She calmed down when she realized that she had felt the exact moment it had started. It was such a strange feeling, so evident if you only knew where to look and so vague if you did not.

A memory came to mind – a nightmare from back when she was a little girl growing up on Aanadya, a place with an unparalleled potential for inspiring nightmares. It was shortly after her father died. She knew in her heart that Kaye Wright, the ruthless leader of the Union of Workers, had given the order to kill him.

In her dreams, a misshapen creature that had taken the form of Wright was chasing her through the vicious slums of Tuson. She ran as fast as she could but even though she was running and the creature just walking, it still managed to catch up with her. When its rotten limbs finally grabbed her, she would wake up in a pool of sweat.

Proud that at least she hadn’t screamed and woken her stepmother, she would succumb to a numbing sense of security. A voice inside her would whisper – You are safe now, it was all a dream. This is real.

Except it wasn’t. It was still the dream, passing itself off as reality. She would get up to get a glass of water but he’d be there waiting for her – immense, rotting, raging. When she’d eventually wake up — really wake up — she would be frightened to the very core of her being.

More than the nightmare itself, or the hellish creature that possessed Kaye Wright — himself a hellish creature — what frightened her most was her inability to recognize that the nightmare hadn’t ended. You are safe now, it was all a dream. This is real. That was exactly what she was feeling right now. How had he gotten in there? How could she even defend herself from him if nothing around her was real?

Commander!

It was the impatient voice of Ad’ifaah Masur. Tamisa looked at the First President and just absently shook her head.

Then, the man revealed himself. He seemed to appear

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