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Martyrs of the Mind: The Mindguard Saga, #4

Martyrs of the Mind: The Mindguard Saga, #4

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Martyrs of the Mind: The Mindguard Saga, #4

Length:
419 pages
7 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jun 10, 2019
ISBN:
9781393626428
Format:
Book

Description

In the aftermath of Earth's battle with the Vintages, an unlikely messenger delivers a shocking revelation: the existence of an advanced civilization that threatens to change the very core of human identity.

As the world falls into panic, a terrorist organization once thought extinct rises from the ashes of its violent past to embrace the dawn of a new era. Led by a charismatic prophet – a telepath with unprecedented powers – the Martyrs of the Mind wage a holy war on the Federation in the name of the God Revealed.

Now the de-facto leader of mankind, Enforcement Unit Commander Tamisa Faber must step up as the world's last guardian. But Tamisa is no stranger to war. As the crimes of her past return to haunt her present, Tamisa is faced with her own chilling revelation: humanity will need the Mindguards she herself has all but destroyed.

Publisher:
Released:
Jun 10, 2019
ISBN:
9781393626428
Format:
Book

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Martyrs of the Mind - Andrei Cherascu

41

Prologue

SUBJECTIVE COGNITIVE TIME, PIERCE-SAMSON COORDINATES PTFI 591.6379.1011.02, SIS V0X 176333, PS4DM 49.5.661.12, UNIFIED 25988

Everything changed. In the last few days, I’ve been betrayed by the person I trusted the most, people I thought were dead have come back to life and the one man I believed was invincible died saving my life. I discovered that my expedition was merely a façade for an attempted genocide, orchestrated by a man I realize I’ve never truly known. Everything changed but my purpose. I’m going forward with the mission. I am determined to pursue its original objective. This is no longer my father’s mission – it’s mine now. I’m going to turn his lies into truth. I’m going to build a cultural, diplomatic and scientific relationship with an advanced telepathic society.

The Diary of Sophie Gaumont

The man asked you a question, Sheldon.

The boy did not look up from his plate. With his fork, he tapped a quiet, irregular rhythm on the rim. The headache was building up again, at the back of his head and around his eyebrows. He needed to focus on the slow, silent pattern if he hoped to avoid another seizure. 

The last time the headache had come, it had been so powerful his body started shaking and he lost consciousness. When he woke, his forehead hurt from the giant bruise where his head had hit the marble floor. That was when he found out what a seizure meant. It was also when he discovered that his parents were helpless to protect him. He had to learn to protect himself.

Sheldon!

His father’s voice, once strong and confident, had grown jaded from years of having to deal with the nuisance that was his son. Sheldon had learned the term nuisance around the same time he’d picked up the meaning of the word seizure.

 Leave the boy alone, Robert, said Educator Baron. His tone was insincere, condescending.  

Sheldon was very adept at reading other people’s states of mind. He wished others were equally skilled at understanding his.

He’s just shy, the condescending Educator continued. Aren’t you, son?

Sheldon wasn’t shy, but he didn’t know how to tell him that. He had a hard time speaking to people, even his parents. Every time he tried to speak the way they did, he got dizzy and nauseated. Then, his headache reappeared. The greater an effort he made, the worse it became.

He knew what they would say before they did. At first, it was just a simple calculation. It grew complicated once the number of variables increased.

Every conceivable direction the conversation could take played out in Sheldon’s mind, imaginary dialogues branching out in his head at an exponential rate. He was aware of every answer he could give them. Every hypothetical answer increased the possible feedback, expanding the variety and complexity of this deluge of information until the noise in his head became pain and the pain became darkness.

The more complex his answer, the more it complicated their follow-up questions. He kept his replies simple – one word, two at most. They thought he didn’t understand them, so they spoke to him like a toddler. He preferred it that way. Most of the time, they abandoned the struggle and just talked about him like he wasn’t there.

It must be difficult, people said to his parents and by it they meant him.

Sheldon is a very special boy, his mother answered. By special she meant he was not like them.

He’d tried to explain that he wasn’t all that different, that he understood everything they thought he didn’t. He once tried to tell her about the hypothetical conversations, but he must have been really bad at it, because he’d made her cry. With tears in her eyes, she stroked his hair and told him how much she loved him. He appreciated that, though it had little to do with their conversation.

Everything, Sheldon finally said, answering the Educator’s question long after it had been asked. The man chortled. Sheldon didn’t like the sound of his laugh.

Everything? the man aped. You like everything? What a smart boy, then.

The Educator acted as though Sheldon’s answer had been silly. He acted as if he’d asked Sheldon what he liked to do. In fact, his question had been, What are you interested in? He’d probably forgotten his exact words in the time it took Sheldon to answer the question. Sheldon noticed that people did not have very good memories.

Do you like swimming? the Educator asked. He’d probably guessed how uncomfortable Sheldon was and decided to tease him further. Some people were like that. 

Sheldon, his father said, raising his voice, ordering his son to stop wasting everybody’s time.

Yes, Sheldon eventually replied. It was the answer that was most likely to produce the lowest number of imaginary conversations.

Your parents and I were thinking of spending a weekend together at my house in Medora, the Educator continued. That’s on a planet called Terra Nova. Think you’d enjoy that, little buddy?

No, Sheldon answered.

He knew this answer would bring about the most unpleasant consequences but it was also most likely to end the conversation quickly, before the headache intensified.

For heaven’s sake, his father cried, but the Educator cut him off.

Now, now, don’t get angry with the boy, Robert. He’s just being honest. I’m sure he’ll enjoy himself once we get there.

No, Sheldon said, doubling down on his previous answer, hoping it would reduce the length of the conversation by half.

It worked.

All right, that’s enough, his father said. Go to your room!

Without a word, Sheldon got up to leave. His father stopped him. Say goodbye to Educator Baron first, he commanded. Sheldon struggled to still his mind long enough to formulate a reply, but his father lost patience and finally dismissed him. Sheldon gladly obliged.

His room was on the second floor. He could hear them as he climbed the stairs. Why do you have to be like that, Robert? said Sheldon’s mother. You know he doesn’t mean to be this way.

He heard his father’s loud sigh, then the Educator’s honeyed voice: It must be so difficult for you.

Sheldon entered his room and sat on the edge of the bed. The headache was starting to dissipate. It often did when he was away from people.

He was starting to feel sleepy when the holopad rang and snapped him out of his daze. He read his grandfather’s ID and answered, excited.

Hey, Sheldon, his grandfather said. Guess what? I’m in town and on my way over. Get dressed, we’re going on a hike. Would you like that?

Yes, Sheldon answered truthfully.

What’s wrong? his grandfather asked after a small pause. He was the only person in the world who could understand Sheldon’s emotions.

Grounded, I think, Sheldon said.

Well, I’m un-grounding you.

How? Sheldon asked. He knew his grandfather was just humoring him, but he decided to play along.

Here’s how it works, his grandfather said. Your parents grounded you, right? Right! Now, it goes without saying you should always listen to your parents. Everybody does, right?

Yes.

"Well, I’m your father’s father, which means he has to listen to me. Does that make sense?"

Yes, Sheldon answered, amused. 

So, if he grounds you, I can invalidate his decision, right?

Right.

So I’m un-grounding you. It’s like the military – my order supersedes his. Just don’t tell him I said that.

Sheldon smiled.

Now go get ready and let me worry about the chain-of-command.

Okay, Sheldon said and ended the call.

He changed into his hiking clothes.

The Ayers estate on Catania, New Genoa consisted of seventy hectares of woodland, a vineyard and a small lake, landscaped in the fashion of Old Earth. His grandfather had bought it a few decades ago. He’d left it in the care of his son when he moved to Mars One, where his employers, Thames-Rhys-Johnson, had their main office.

Kinsey Ayers was a Mindguard. That much, Sheldon knew, though he wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. He’d noticed that people brought it up a lot. A few times, he overheard his grandfather explaining why the world’s most famous Mindguard did not run his own thoughtprotection agency. Sheldon knew that his grandfather owned a number of companies in different areas of activity.

It helps me focus on what’s important, he’d heard him telling people. Sheldon didn’t understand what that meant. He hoped to ask him someday, when he could find the best way to express the question. He also wanted to ask him why his hair was so white.

He got out of his room, stopping at the stairhead. Technically, he was still grounded, until his grandfather arrived to un-ground him.

He peeked down, eavesdropping on the conversation. He’d gotten there just in time to hear his father apologizing to Educator Baron, whom he’d invited to dinner to discuss investment opportunities in the Educator’s district.

I’m so sorry, Educator. He has the habit of showing up uninvited.

Nonsense, answered the dishonest voice. I’m looking forward to meeting the famous Kinsey Ayers.

The pleasure will be short-lived, believe me.

Whenever he talked about his father, Robert Ayers had the same tone of voice he used when talking about Sheldon. That made Sheldon happy.

The security system recognized Kinsey Ayers’ holo-ID and the door opened automatically. Sheldon’s mother was already there to greet him, while his father shuffled to the entryway, looking annoyed.

Hi, honey, said Sheldon’s grandfather, giving his daughter-in-law a big hug. He was more reserved when he hugged his son. Hi, Bobby, he added.

Dad, Sheldon’s father answered, with even less enthusiasm. What brings you here?

Before he could answer, Educator Baron entered the hallway without having been invited. He walked towards the new arrival with an outstretched arm. Sheldon watched his grandfather reluctantly shake the man’s hand. He didn’t know why, but he found it amusing.

Ah, the famous Kinsey Ayers, the Educator boomed. It’s an honor to meet you.

And who is your honored guest? Sheldon’s grandfather asked, addressing his son while completely ignoring the new acquaintance.

Sheldon’s father made the introductions with obvious chagrin. Dad, this is Educator Rick Baron. Educator Baron, this is… my father.

Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Baron, Sheldon’s grandfather said. That seemed to slightly bother the Educator and visibly irritate Sheldon’s father, though Sheldon didn’t entirely understand why. Kinsey Ayers was the only person in the world Sheldon couldn’t decipher. When he was around him, the noise of imaginary conversations died down, leaving room for nothing but his grandfather’s presence.

Don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair shortly, his grandfather said. I’m here to take my grandson for a walk. I miss him. He looked around the house, with an expression of exaggerated confusion. "Where is Sheldon?" he asked. From his vantage point atop the stairs, Sheldon chuckled. 

He’s grounded, said his father.

What for?

For being disrespectful to our guest.

His grandfather looked at the Educator with a funny expression. I’m sure the words of an eight-year-old boy couldn’t have been that much of an affront.

Dad, Sheldon’s father snapped, but the Educator eased the tension with forced laughter.

I’ll try not to lose any sleep over it, he said. He looked in the direction of the staircase and spotted Sheldon. He sneered, then looked away. The boy was just being honest. I like that, he lied.

Sheldon thought that was a good time to make his appearance. He quietly came down. His father noticed that he was wearing hiking clothes. He squinted at Sheldon, then at Sheldon’s grandfather, but said nothing.

As always, Kinsey Ayers’ face lit up when he saw his grandson. He was tall and athletic, especially for a man past his physical prime. His cold blue eyes and rich head of snow-white hair contrasted with the warm, soft features of his face.

Hi, Sheldon, he said lovingly, signaling for his grandson to come to him.

You’re still grounded, Sheldon’s father said.

Come on, Bobby, said his grandfather, it’s not like I get to see him all the time. I’m only here for a few hours, then I fly out to Johanson’s Bridge on Midway. Let me make the best of this brief visit. Let me spend some time with my grandson.

His father considered the situation for a while. Very well, he said coldly. Ignoring everyone else, he invited the Educator back to the dining room, apologizing once again.

When nobody else was around, Sheldon gave his grandfather a big hug. They stepped outside and walked around the large house to the backyard, where a hiking trail led into the forest. They headed in the direction of Linguaglossa, the nearest town and part of the metropolitan area of Catania. The late-afternoon sun was shining brightly, making his grandfather’s white hair look like a halo. Sheldon remembered what he’d wanted to ask.   

Was your hair always white?

Not always, his grandfather answered. But it’s been this way for as long as most people remember.

How old? Sheldon asked, feeling no need to complete the sentence.

I was about twenty when it started.

Don’t your insertions?

He meant to ask how come his grandfather’s genetic insertions didn’t prevent the effect, like they did in most people.

I don’t have any, his grandfather said, smiling.

Prototech? Sheldon guessed.

He’d heard the word recently but only half-understood what it meant.

That’s right. 

Can I? Sheldon asked.

Be a prototech? his grandfather continued. He often completed Sheldon’s sentences. Sheldon suspected it was a way of encouraging him to talk more.

You’re already one, his grandfather explained. Everyone is born a prototech. They remain so until they’re old enough to decide whether they want to put all sorts of techno-junk into their bodies.

Okay, Sheldon said, meaning to say that he was happy to hear that. His grandfather understood. Sheldon wondered whether he also understood that the only reason he wanted to be a prototech was so that he could be like him. He didn’t ask. Instead, he asked him something else.

Can I be a Mindguard?

Of course, his grandfather answered cheerfully.

Difficult? Sheldon asked.  

Easiest thing in the world.

Sheldon frowned. That’s not… what people say. 

Well, it’s not easy for most people. Just people like you and me.

I’m only eight.

Age has nothing to do with it, son.

Then?

It’s the stuff your mind is made of.

What?

You’ll find out someday.

Can you… teach me?

His grandfather’s face subtly changed expression. He stopped walking and looked at Sheldon. 

Of course, he said.

Now? Sheldon asked impatiently.

His grandfather laughed out loud, which was very rare. For a man who loved to smile, Kinsey Ayers was very economical with his laughter. Sheldon wasn’t used to making people laugh. He liked how it felt.  

No, not yet, his grandfather finally said. You’re too young.

Age has nothing to do with it, Sheldon said, echoing his grandfather’s previous statement. He managed the entire sentence without pause.

I did say that, didn’t I? his grandfather almost whispered. His smile hadn’t vanished, but the look in his eyes had changed. I’m not allowed to start training you until you reach legal age. It’s not up to me.

Why? Sheldon asked.

It’s against the law.

Why? Sheldon repeated, meaning to say, Why would anyone make up such a stupid law?

For your protection.

There was a sadness behind his grandfather’s words. Sheldon couldn’t guess its source. His grandfather put a hand on his shoulder. The touch felt almost weightless.

How are you feeling? he asked.

Sheldon was unsure of what to answer, so he remained silent.

The headaches, his grandfather insisted. Are they getting worse?

Sheldon was surprised. He hadn’t told anyone about his headaches, not even his grandfather. His parents knew about the seizures but not the headaches that preceded them.

How? Sheldon asked.

His grandfather sighed. I can tell.

Read… my mind?

Sheldon knew the topic was strictly forbidden among adults. He couldn’t understand why. If anything, he felt that it should be the most-discussed topic in the entire world. Instead, people treated it as though its mere mention could bring about terrible things.

Not exactly, his grandfather said. It’s a bit more complicated than that. I’ll explain it to you someday. I promise. 

Someday?

Someday soon, he answered, looking away, towards the horizon.

They had made it to the lake, which was their favorite spot. They remained silent for a while, admiring the color of the cloudless afternoon sky.

Let’s grab something to eat at Desi’s, his grandfather suggested. It was their favorite diner in Linguaglossa. I miss her lasagna. We got about three hours left.

Why are you… leaving again so soon? Sheldon asked.

I have to, his grandfather answered. I’ve got a mission.

A Mindguard mission?

Yes.

Can I come? Sheldon asked. It wasn’t something he thought about beforehand; the thought just came to him at that moment.

His grandfather looked at him with a strange expression. Would you like that? he asked. For the first time, he seemed like he had no idea what Sheldon was going to answer. Sheldon felt proud of the achievement.

Yes, he said.

His grandfather chuckled. I’m not sure your mom and dad would be okay with that.  

They would, Sheldon said. It’s difficult.

A look of profound sadness clouded his grandfather’s face. He sighed, gently stroking his grandson’s hair.

It’s not your fault, son, he said, looking into Sheldon’s eyes. Sheldon did not feel the need to look away, like he usually did with other people. It’s theirs. They don’t know how to take care of someone like you.

Why?

Because they don’t understand you.

Why not?

His grandfather smiled. Because they’re not like you and me. Everyone else… they’re like children. We have to take care of them. We have to make sure they don’t hurt themselves. Do you understand?

Sheldon felt like he did, but he didn’t answer.

What are we? he eventually asked.

We’re caretakers, his grandfather explained.

Why?

Because when you’re in the position to help, it becomes your duty. And your duty becomes your nature.

Sheldon nodded and his grandfather crouched to be at his level.

I’d like to talk to them, he said. I’d like to ask them if you could come stay with me for a while. Would you like that?

Yes, Sheldon answered.

Just give me a few weeks. I’ll wrap up my commitments and then we can take a little vacation together, just to be around each other for a while. I promise you’ll never have those headaches again.

Okay, Sheldon said, excited at the prospect of spending time with the man he loved more than anyone else in the world.

If I teach you to become a… caretaker, his grandfather said gravely, do you promise you’ll never tell anyone? Not now, not in the future. Never.

I promise, Sheldon said. 

His grandfather didn’t insist. He knew Sheldon was telling the truth.

Slowly, his right hand went inside his leather jacket, retrieving something from its chest pocket.

What is it? Sheldon asked.

Something to help get you ready, his grandfather answered.

The object was small, wrapped in a piece of aluminum foil. His grandfather unwrapped it, revealing what looked like a stick of chewing gum. He instructed Sheldon to pull up his sleeve and placed the adhesive substance on his skin.

At first, Sheldon felt nothing. The thing reminded him of a holotoy he’d gotten a couple of years ago. He’d stick it to his forearm and, when it came in contact with his skin, it projected a short, holographic animation that was different every time.

Sheldon looked at his arm, then at his grandfather, whose expression told him to be patient. He waited, but there was nothing.

He looked at the fog floating weightlessly over the still lake. He admired the wildflowers, their colors more vibrant than he remembered. Two kingfishers flew low above the waterline, their flutter unheard, as though they were nothing more than ghosts. He looked back at his arm, where the substance was starting to melt, dissolving into his body.

The pressure in the back of his head dissolved with it. Only then did he realize that the pressure had been there his entire life. He felt like his mind had been set free.

Free from what? he wondered, but he knew he would soon find out. Answers to questions he had never thought to ask appeared before him, floating in an ocean whose ebb and flow was Sheldon’s own mind.

He looked at his grandfather. He saw his own eyes looking back at him and he understood.

Chapter 0

JULY 10 2336, TERRA ANTIQUA STANDARD CALENDAR

Mac doesn’t think the village is real. He thinks it’s some sort of elaborate holoscenario, designed to serve as a symbolic bridge between our two civilizations. My father thought the same thing. He theorized that the prolonged state of intermind communication could have led to changes in the way the Opus Caine interacted with the surrounding environment, perhaps not only on a cognitive level, but a material one too. He thought the village might be part of a communication scenario meant to progressively breach whatever obstacles this telepathic evolution might have raised in the way of a coherent exchange of information. For now, we’ve camped out about a mile away and are still studying the planet, trying to gather as much information as we can before we make an attempt to communicate.

The Diary of Sophie Gaumont

When the holorecording stopped, the room was left in silence. Tamisa realized that nobody would speak until she did. She looked at Ebi Nnamani – the president of Free Africa, the boldest and most competent politician in the entire Federation. He looked back at her helplessly, like a boy seeking reassurance from his mother.

Play it again, she ordered.

Once again, the shrouded, disfigured shape of Nikolaos Apostolos appeared, delivering the scientist’s final message.

Silent and still, aware that everyone was studying her reactions, Tamisa listened to the incredible recount. She had understood it perfectly the first time, but she’d wanted more time to bask in the realness of the moment. She wasn’t concerned with the sociopolitical implications of a functioning telepathic society. For the first time in her adult life, Tamisa was concerned only with herself. 

A decade ago, her life was taken from her by force. Her very first mission as an Enforcer had set in motion a chain of events that culminated in betrayal, violence and death. Sheldon Ayers was universally mourned, but others had lost their lives that day too. Among them – Tamisa Faber.

The woman named Tamisa Faber, with all that she’d been and everything she’d ever done, had never made it back from the Djago Desert. Her spirit had remained behind on Carthan, trapped in that fateful cave-in alongside the corpse of Sheldon Ayers, while her body, devoid of sentience and free will, returned to the Federation to sit on mankind’s broken throne.

Her life had ended just as tragically as Sheldon’s. In its place remained an absurd, inescapable destiny, wherein every decision she ever made had the highest stakes and nothing she ever did truly mattered. 

Commander Anderson’s self-arranged downfall had brought with it the revelation that Tamisa’s life was nothing more than a carefully orchestrated experiment, the result of an incessant genetic reshuffling of the cards in pursuit of a royal flush. Tamisa – the person – didn’t exist. She was merely a fabrication – the product of a madman’s vision. Her entire existence was the result of a secret genetic experiment whose purpose was to construct a human being with the optimal physical and mental parameters required for the position of Enforcement Unit Commander, the most influential position of authority in the history of mankind.

Thomas Anderson had not only burdened her with this destiny, he had cursed her with the responsibility of guarding its secrecy. Since then, Tamisa’s life had been marked by an overarching, all-encompassing feeling of numbness.

Everything she ever did came with the acute awareness that it was all a result of an infinitely complex series of calculations, statistics and predictions. Every action she’d ever taken and every thought that preceded it had been little more than a shift in parameters within an acceptable margin of error. She was the most powerful person in the universe, but she lacked the ability to achieve a single act of consequence in her own life. Anderson’s agenda had clouded her life, trapping her in a deterministic prison from which she’d thought she would never escape.

Now, the path to freedom lay before her. It took the form of a revelation so strange, so unthinkable, it was beyond the scope of even Thomas Anderson’s vision.

The last will and testament of Nikolaos Apostolos – the single most important document ever uncovered – finally set her free from the chains of determinism. From this moment on, every decision and its every consequence would be her own.

Tamisa felt reborn.

Who else knows about this? she asked, realizing as she did that it was the first time she was speaking her own words.

So far, only the people in this room, said Uidichi Sen, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Passage Media Group.

Tamisa nodded. That’s good.

The journalist quickly glanced at her employee, Soonja Maar, who’d brought this story to light.

Passage plans on making this information public as soon as possible, she said. However, we understand the magnitude of this discovery and our responsibility to public safety. That is why we came forward with the information to President Nnamani first and he to you.

Tamisa took note of the unsaid implications: a long-time ideological opponent of the Enforcement Unit, Uidichi Sen would not have handed over the information to the Commander had the President not recommended it.

Also, the old woman continued, to protect the safety of myself, my employee and my publication, I’ve handed a copy of the holocylinder to a legal representative. She has instructions to make its content public should she not receive proof of our personal safety in twenty-four-hour intervals.

Tamisa smiled. No need to fear for your safety, Ms. Sen, she said. The Enforcement Unit is not in the habit of assassinating its ideological adversaries, otherwise we’d have to get rid of half the Federation.

President Nnamani let out a nervous laugh while Jaycen Nemeth, disguised as Tamisa’s closest Advisor, Dieter Muench, snickered just as Dieter would have.

Caught up in the implications of Apostolos’ revelation, Tamisa had all but forgotten Jaycen was even there. Concealed by an EMC-disguise and biosoftware, with a natural talent for theatrical performance, the former leader of the Vintages had effortlessly taken up Muench’s persona – a persona whose distinguishing features were the ability to be inconspicuous, to shadow the Commander and speak only when called upon.

Before either of the journalists could reply to Tamisa’s joke, Ebi stepped in with a conciliatory tone, as he was wont to do.

There is a protocol in place for situations like this, he said.

"Situations like this?" Soonja Maar echoed. 

Well, First Contact situations. 

First contact with whom exactly?

With a sentient extraterrestrial intelligence, the president answered reluctantly.

The young woman looked at her employer, then at Tamisa. "But this isn’t an extraterrestrial intelligence." 

It’s about as alien as anything we’ve ever encountered, Tamisa said. 

These are human beings, the reporter cried. 

There it is, Tamisa thought. A self-righteous streak. She’s constantly searching for perceived provocations so she can cast herself as a defender of the oppressed. Tamisa instantly knew that Soonja Maar was going to cause problems.

They are human at their core, she said, just to offer the woman the provocation she seemed to desire. But we can’t know the repercussions that sustained telepathy at this level can have on the human brain. The society they’ve built could be as alien to us as anything that would have originated in the farthest corners of the universe. Keep in mind, Opus Caine is the product of the seven hundred and ninety-two traitor telepaths. They fled the Federation precisely because their ideology was incompatible with our belief in freedom and individuality.

"They fled out of fear," Maar protested.

Nevertheless, said Ebi, I believe the First Contact protocol is the best course of action for a situation like this.

In the event that it’s true.

Everyone turned in the direction of Dieter Muench’s voice. Through Dieter’s eyes, Jaycen studied each of their faces, giving them pause to consider his words. We’re assuming these aren’t merely the demented ramblings of a dying man, he finally said.

I’ve spoken to the people of Kalhydon, Soonja Maar said adamantly. "These are the most honorable, upstanding men and women I have ever met. The trust and respect they have for the man they call Brother Torje is beyond question. He must have done something to earn that trust."

Mr. Muench is right to bring up the point, Tamisa said. We don’t know much about this Soixtet’s disease. Maybe it causes false memories or hallucinations. For all we know, this entire story could very well be the result of brain damage.

I’ve researched this disease extensively, Commander, Maar said. I can assure you, that is not the case.

Jaycen calmly shrugged, a gesture very common to the real Muench. Then maybe he’s lying.

Why would he do that? the young woman countered.

People lie for the strangest reasons, Ms. Maar, Jaycen answered calmly. He shot a quick glance to Tamisa. They make up stories that aren’t real, they pretend to be someone they’re not.

Horatio Miller’s actions from a decade ago seem to support the story, said Uidichi Sen. I mean, the very fact that Apostolos was alive disproves Miller’s account.

The fact that one man is lying does not mean the other is telling the truth, Jaycen said.

Then there’s the Ayers-Ross unauthorized transportation… the old woman insisted. This is too strange to be a coincidence.

Until that moment, Tamisa hadn’t realized the implications this revelation carried for the Carthan mission. For a decade, she had relentlessly chased the mystery of what happened that day. It had been the fuel for everything she’d done. She’d clung to it as something to give her meaning, perhaps secretly hoping the answer would lead to something incredible – something so unpredictable it could restore what she’d always felt she’d lost that day: her free will. 

Here’s what this First Contact protocol involves, said Ebi, trying to move the conversation forward. If a scientist – that would be you, in this case, Soonja – makes an independent discovery suggesting the existence of a sentient, extraterrestrial intelligence, she is lawfully obligated to contact the Presidential Office on her planet of residence or employment. Now, this would have been known to any astronomer in the First Contact program. We weren’t exactly expecting a reporter to stumble upon the discovery. No offense, Soonja.

The journalist smiled, with a hint of pride. None taken.  

Ebi turned to Uidichi Sen. That being said, you acted very responsibly, Uidichi. Thank you! The old woman simply nodded. Tamisa could sense a trace of familiarity in the way

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