The bite of the usqui, a blood-loving fly native to the rainforests of Naleobaseq, delivers a parasite that renders victims psychically mute and deaf. Its effects on telepathic races are quite profound. The resulting silence, a cold psionic exile from kith and kin, so shocks the infected that they’ve been found in fetal curls, talking to themselves to keep from feeling so utterly alone. —Entomological Survey of the Vast, Vol. 131.7
To kill time during the stakeout, Shaeon composed psychic poetry for her beloved, Kiress. Not far away, vermilliath flowers whorled in scarlet murmurations above the city’s defensive walls, and sometimes, when the wind shifted, she heard the rush-water sound of fluttering blossoms. Enthralled by the shivers it gave her, Shaeon grafted it synesthetically to the sibilant where Kiress’s name appeared in the poem, along with petrichor scent of the promenade
By the time Mataras kissed the horizon, the sky blushing in reply, most of the basement shops fronting the curved street below had closed. Some laborers trudging home past the fortune teller’s place bore the telltale circular welts of animute infection, unaware a black-market cure beyond their finances waited behind the door with the great eye sigil. Shaeon felt a fleeting temptation to let them know, to watch them batter down that door. But, since they weren’t receiving anymore, she’d have to yell the news down to them with lungs and lips, with a tongue that always found speaking uncomfortable. Such things, made for air and food and water, felt clumsy and inadequate for real communion.
Whatever Oryniri did with his stakeout time, tucked into the shadows on the other side of the pedestrian bridge, he wasn't sharing. Taking this to mean he might be bored, Shaeon telepathically sent him the newest line of her poem.
He pathed back with a terse nice, and they spent the next few minutes in psionic silence.
With twilight there arrived two yaruks, which reared into the sky to feast on the flying blossoms like whale through krill.
The first telepathic alarms were rippling across the populace when one of the mighty beasts came down hard with its forelegs to crack the surge wall, then clambered onto the crumbling fortification, horned head darting from new heights to chase a river of petals.
Guards raced from streets and minor walls to defend the surge line. The steeple-high creatures weren’t carnivorous and feasted on neither bone nor blood. But they got such a narcotic buzz from vermilliath petals that most adults of the species were thoroughly addicted. Enough that they’d cheerfully endure bullets and lasers to gorge on gardens of the stuff, careless of what they trampled under their massive hooves.
Think our thief will capitalize on this distraction? Shaeon pathed.
Probably, Ory answered.
They stayed put, stayed quiet.
As the yaruk on the wall charged bellowing through a phalanx of defenders, a young lashunta urchin scurried past the fortune teller's storefront. Though the Face wasn’t a telepath, she employed a few. Two days earlier, they’d marked this girl as one of her messengers.
Inside, the Face crouched to peer through the window of her shop, adjusted her mask (which today resembled an impressionistic insect), and then passed through her door, hunching so her head wouldn’t scrape the doorframe. From the middle of the street, she watched the wall battle for several seconds before a passing man bumped into her.
The bumper—a korasha lashunta, stocky and scarred—paid the scene on the wall little heed and instead hurried into a narrow cut-through that zagged up to Expatriate Highway.
Handoff, Ory pathed. I've got the tail.
On relay, Shaeon answered, and darted across the crushed-shell blocks of the Gyre.
She was rounding the Gyre’s south bend when Oryniri’s mind blurted in alarm, then went silent.
Gods be still. No, dammit, no.
Feet a blur, Shaeon took the broad slabs of the Thirty-Four Steps two at a time. She brushed past a stubbled, thimble-hat tourist gaping at the yaruk brawl and reached the spot where the cut-through, the Steps, and highway met at odd angles.
Oryniri’s crumpled form lay in the cut-through, blood seeping into porous stone. A touch from her mind told her it was just fluids now, soul already departed.
On the other side of Expatriate Highway, a stocky shadow slipped into an opposing alley. Shaeon sprinted after him, arc pistol drawn. The shrouded alley bent among buildings like a branch seeking sunlight before opening into a cloistered courtyard.
There, a man waited, backdropped by—
—the glittering tower of a lashunta corporation, reflections of the fight on the wall playing out across its silvered surface. Each flash of laser and cannon flare limned the tower's angles and protrusions, giving an impression of—
Shaeon shook her head.
A gun pressed to her neck.
“On my wrist is a telepathic scanner,” said a voice by her ear. “If you so much as bleat telepathically, it’ll show, and I’ll remove your head at the neck."
Shaeon’s mind cleared. Someone had diverted her with that tower imagery. Nice job, too. She guessed whoever did it was lashunta, like herself. Lashuntas practiced diverting as children, squaring off like gunslingers. Fastest mind wins. Slowest comes to in the middle of the quad, pants around his ankles. She wasn’t used to being the slow one.
Across the courtyard, the korasha raised one hand, pacifying, the other hovering near a gun on his belt. “Come on, man. We don’t do this.”
“I do,” said the man behind her, voice human, accent from off-world—Akiton, maybe. The tourist from the Steps, she realized. “Already did her partner. Now drop the weapon.”
Shaeon dropped her pistol before realizing the human might have been talking to his partner.
“She was diverted,” the korasha said, his hand unmoving. “I could have escaped.”
“Yeah? And what was she gonna do when she recovered?”
“You ain’t faster than thought. You’d be surrounded in no time. Come on, Romalo, you’re the telepath.” Romalo winced at the disclosure of his name. Shaeon realized her chances of survival just dropped. “What the hell were you thinking, going back to the fortune-teller?”
“One of the flies bit my cousin,” Romalo said, peacemaking hand extended, two fingers and thumb loosely curled. “I had to do something.”
“No you didn’t. You put all of us at risk, you monumental fool.”
Fair critique. An alien disease, animute was hard to diagnose. After the first symptom, a victim had maybe six hours to take labat before the affliction became permanent. All of which meant anyone responding quickly to an animute infection was probably in-the-know. After learning the Face obtained labat days before the heist, and guessing she must have supplied the team, Ory and Shaeon had monitored the Face in case the outbreak forced her customer back. Clearly the human was the sensible one—but also the one immune to the disease’s worst symptom, telepathic isolation.
“Someone’s gonna see us,” the human continued. “We need to kill her. Now.”
All of us, the human had said. Implying more than two operatives on the heist. How many in this alley?
Romalo’s hand caught her eye. Two fingers fully extended.
Shaeon had always been fast at diverting, but she’d never tried to beat a mechanical sensor before. She counted down with her left hand against her leg, one two—Romalo’s eyes twitched—three.
She hit the human with her psychic poem.
Romalo drew, fired, and the human slumped against her, tumbled to the ground, pushing Shaeon down with his dead weight.
Then Romalo tried to flee. But, as he reached the mouth of an alley, Shaeon pathed an image of her sighting his back with her recovered arc pistol.
My cousin needs me, he begged.
Your fault, she thought, getting to her feet. You brought the usqui flies. Released them.
He slumped. They were never supposed to spread, just disable the guards’ telepathic alarms.
But they did spread. In the smugglers’ defense, they’d sterilized the queen that they used to whip up the usqui swarm. But it died, and they apparently had no idea that some warrior usqui mutate in the absence of queen pheromones. Into queens. Now Qabarat had an invasive species and Shaeon had a case to close.
I know. But my cousin—
She shot him.
It was an arc. He’d recover. In a cell.
Quiet reigned in the villa, all its bustling servants gone.
Shaeon frowned at the unwonted stillness.
In the reading room, Kiress's parents faced each other, tear-streaked, locked in silent argument. Kiress was outside, staring at the courtyard wall, back to the door.
Everything o—? Shaeon started, and then recoiled.
Where Kiress’s mind should have been, she’d found nothing.
As she drew close, Kiress looked up and the cause was revealed. Shaeon traced the telltale bumps on her neck.
“How long?” she asked.
“It’s okay,” Kiress answered. “He’ll be back soon.”
A shiver settled into Shaeon’s spine.
“You haven’t met him, but my cousin’s back on Castrovel now, and he’s gone to fetch a cure,” Kiress said, waving a hand at the wall. “Sit with me and wait.”
Mind numb, unable to speak, Shaeon sat.
“Any minute now,” Kiress continued. “You’ll see. He’s never let me down.”
About the Author
A product of California, Graham Robert Scott now resides in north Texas; a born scofflaw, he owns neither surfboard nor cowboy hat. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Nature, Barrelhouse Online, X-R-A-Y, and Pulp Literature. He tweets semi-regularly at @graythebruce and maintains a blog at hemicyon.wordpress.com.
About Tales from the Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.
Tales from the Drift: Walls
Thursday, December 12, 2019