The Ingesterie
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Stephen Goldin

Chapter 1


Alain Cheney sat quietly in the spaceliner's passenger lounge, face buried in his hands. He caressed his forehead delicately with his fingers, as though by massaging the skin outside his skull he could ease the pulsing pain that was growing within it. His eyes were closed against the bright light of the room, and he had intentionally slowed his breathing down to a steady, rhythmic pattern to help him cope with the pain.

There was a presence approaching him. With a minimum of mental exertion, Alain could read that it was a ship's steward who had noticed this one passenger left sitting in the lounge. As the man came nearer, a picture of conflicting emotions grew sharper in Alain's mind. The steward was concerned because the passenger was not looking well; he was also annoyed because he'd hoped to leave the ship early, and this complication could conceivably delay his departure.

As he came within what he considered acceptable limits, the steward spoke aloud. "Are you all right, sir?"

Alain lifted his head and opened his eyes. He looked straight into the man's face and tried to project both confidence and normality. "Yes, fine, thank you."

"Almost everyone else has disembarked, sir." Assured now that the passenger was not ill, the steward's mood shifted subtly over to impatience. As an afterthought he added, "Were you needing any further services?"

"No, IÉ I just wanted a few last moments here in the lounge before leaving. It was such a nice trip that I wanted to store up my memories of it by sitting here a while longer. I hope I'm not inconveniencing you."

"Oh no, sir, not at all," the steward said, while all his thoughts contradicted his words. This was an inconvenience, and the sooner the passenger left, the better the steward would like it.

"I was just about finished anyway," Alain said, standing up. The calm of the room had been shattered for him; the steward would now be hovering over him constantly with subtle hints that he should be on his way. The mental oppressiveness would only make his condition worse. He might as well leave and face the inevitable crush outside.

Alain took one last look around the lounge. He had spent a great deal of time here on the journey from Leone to Earth. Even though the ship had carried nearly a hundred people, comparatively few of them were ever in the lounge at any given moment, which meant that the number of minds pressing onto his own would be minimal. He had spent most of the voyage staring into the infinite blackness of space, letting all sensations go numb and reveling in the oblivion the enormous viewscreens provided.

Now those same viewscreens merely exhibited the hell that was waiting for him outside the ship's hull: Vandenberg Spaceport, Earth--a seething mass of humanity in perpetual Brownian movement down the scrubbed tile corridors. It was hard for him to think of Earth as "home" any more--he had spent so little of his adult life here that he felt almost a stranger to its ways.

The steward's relief was almost tangible as Alain left the lounge and began walking down the halls to the main hatch. There would normally have been a smartly dressed attendant standing at the doorway to wish him goodbye, but the ship had been aground so long that the attendant had left the post; maintenance crews were now swarming over the ship, checking out its condition after its trip through interstellar space, and preparing it for its next voyage in a couple of days. The mechanics paid scant attention as Alain walked out the hatchway and started down the ramp toward the customs building.

Leaving the ship was like a physical blow; every step down the ramp was a hammer pounding at his skull. Ahead of him and through those ominous double doors were people--hundreds, if not thousands, of them--each thinking individual thoughts and broadcasting them randomly into the air. To Alain Cheney, a trained telepath, it was a raucous shouting that could not be stopped by simply plugging his ears.

Most telepaths used drugs to dull their powers and drown out background "noises." Knowing that he was landing on Earth, an overcrowded world, Alain had downed two extra trimethaline capsules earlier that morning, but his precautions seemed inadequate now. Even trimethaline did not help much these days.

By the time he reached the foot of the ramp, the telepathic din was a surf pounding at his skull. He paused, bracing himself for the ordeal to follow, then pushed open the doors and entered. The audible clamor only added to the psychic Babel beating on his brain. Mobs of people pushed through the large open chamber before him, shoving and shouting in impersonal confusion. Loudspeakers blared incoherently from the low ceiling, and no one paid them the slightest attention. Vidicams in the upper corners scanned the scene coldly, noting any and all possible transgressions. Guards armed with variable-speed Horgan z-beam repeaters were stationed every few meters throughout the throng to correct any situations the vidicams spotted.

There were more vidicams and guards than he'd ever seen here before, he noted as he pushed his way through the riots of colors and the stench of all the mingled bodies. Nearly twice as many. Things must be tight, he thought. Maybe I should be glad I don't live here.

His luggage had already been offloaded, and was sitting on a counter. Alain waited in line, suffering through the tensions of the people around him until his turn came. He gave the customs officer his claim check number and his suitcase was pulled from the rack and placed on the inspection table.

"Travel card," the officer said routinely. Her thoughts revealed her as a woman bored with her job. It was near the end of her shift and she was anxious to get home.

She inserted the card in the comp slot and looked to her screen for a readout. Her eyebrows arched slightly as she scanned the information; but though her face did not register much emotion, her thoughts were abundantly clear to the telepath. She looked at the special orders and checked Alain's appearance extra carefully with the photo on the readout. She stared back at Alain, and one hand reached surreptitiously under the table to press the special "attention" button. "Your papers seem to be in order, sir," she said evenly, "but there is a question about the baggage. You'll have to speak to my supervisor. Come this way." And she opened the gate to let Alain through.

"If you insist." Alain was trying desperately to keep his face free of the pain he felt at the overflow of thoughts and emotions bombarding his mind. He'd never suffered from ocholophobia this severely before, but he braced himself against it and followed the officer into a small, brightly painted office where a man was waiting for him.

This dark-haired man was thin and weaselly, and looked much too young to be in this line of work. He was wearing civilian clothes: a silk pullover shirt with wide blue and red diagonal stripes, dark blue trousers that were tightly fitted at the thighs and then bagged ridiculously the rest of the way. The pants legs were tucked into blue suede boots that reached to midcalf. The young man's eyes were steadfastly serious.

The man stood up as Alain entered. Dismissing the customs officer with a curt wave of his hand, he faced Alain and said, "These interstellar voyages are quite wearing, aren't they?"

Alain had been expecting his contact to be somewhat older and dressed with considerably more conservatism. But there could be no mistake; this somber young man had delivered the proper recognition signal. "I've made the run often enough before," Alain said, giving the appropriate countersign.

He could tell from the other's mind that the preconditions of the rendezvous had been completed, but the contact was still showing signs of irritation. "Where have you been? Your ship docked two hours ago."

"I had personal duties to attend to."

"I've got more important things to do than sit around here all day waiting for you." Visions came to Alain of a busy office, piles of correspondence, hectic routine. They vanished quickly, though; this young man knew how to keep his mind in order when dealing with a telepath, and very few extraneous details escaped to the surface.

The contact walked over and belatedly offered his hand. "I'm Morgan Dekker. I've been instructed to see that you're well settled in while you're here." His handshake was firm, his tone cool and efficient. "Your bag is already on its way to the hotel room we've arranged. Come with me."

The two men left by a back entrance and began walking down a long, dim corridor. "I must commend old Tšlling on his efficiency," Alain said as they walked. "This is the best handled arrangement I've been through yet."

Dekker stiffened. A blur of conflicting images raced through his mind before he brutally closed the door on them again. "Gunnar Tšlling was terminated seven months ago," he said brusquely.

The other man's tone sent a chill down Alain's spine. Gunnar Tšlling had been in charge of Operations ever since Alain had joined the Agency. That he could be "terminated" so abruptly spoke volumes about what was happening here on Earth these days. Alain wondered whether "terminated" meant what he thought it did.

Dekker's manner indicated that questions would not be welcomed, but Alain could not let the subject drop with so ungraceful a thud. "Who's in charge of Operations, then?" He tried to make the question sound nonchalant.

This time Dekker's voice was a little warmer. "Joby Karns."

That news was both surprising and welcome. Alain had gone through the Academy with Joby Karns; she was a very beautiful and resourceful woman. The two of them had even been lovers for a brief--very brief!--period; it hadn't worked out, but he'd always had warm feelings for her since then. He hadn't heard anything about her for the last ten years--and now here she was, suddenly, his boss.

"That's very good news," he said aloud. "She and I go back a long way together. I hope I'll have a chance to see her while I'm here."

"I doubt it. She's at Headquarters in New York, and very busy."

They reached the end of the corridor and stepped out onto a pirt platform. Dekker stepped up to the signal box and rapidly punched out a series of numbers, then inserted his plastic ID card into the slot. Within minutes, one of the personal, independent rapid transit cars came gliding quietly up to them and stopped.

The pirt car was little more than a large box on wheels, with seats inside for as many as four passengers and small windows for viewing the passing scenery. There were no guidance controls, merely a control panel into which the destination's coordinates could be entered. The machine drew its power and instructions from the computer lines buried beneath the streets.

This particular car was painted red and white on the outside, with a neutral gray interior. The inside walls had been painted and scratched with standard graffiti comments. The two men got in and Dekker punched their destination into the car's circuits. The doors clicked shut and the vehicle rolled off along the street.

Neither man spoke during the journey. Dekker was busy keeping up his mental shields; he obviously had been informed that Alain was a telepath and was determined not to allow very much of himself or his thoughts to slip out. Alain, while curious about this strange young man, was too busy fighting off the throbbing pain in his mind to bother with more than a superficial glance into the other's thoughts. Instead, Alain leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, trying as best he could to let tranquility wash over him. It wasn't easy.

Occasionally Alain would glance out the window as the pirt car made its way to his hotel. He was vaguely disturbed by what he saw. Was it only his imagination, or were things looking dirtier, less cared for than during his last visit here? The people who clogged the streets were all dressed in brightly colored clothing, but the mood was anything but cheerful. Pedestrians stared fixedly ahead, scarcely bothering to look at the world on either side of them. There were neither smiles nor frowns in evidence, and the overwhelming feeling that bombarded his mind was apathy. People just did not care.

There's always been a listless portion of the population in any human society, Alain rationalized. It's probably just the route Dekker programmed that's taking us through a less affluent neighborhood, that's all.

But the depression that began on the trip from Leone to Earth remained with him even after Dekker dropped Alain off at the hotel where his reservations had been made. The telepath flopped down wearily on the bed and tried in vain to blot from his mind the impressions that were impinging from people in adjoining rooms.

I'm glad I'll be seeing the doctor tomorrow, he thought. Maybe he can suggest something for this condition.

Dr. Javier daPaz looked suspiciously at the file projection on his computer screen. It was a profile of the telepath he was scheduled to examine tomorrow, Alain Cheney. He had seen the man on three previous occasions, once every two years when he was called in from the field for the required mental and physical tests.

There were two lines scrawled at the bottom of the notes on the last examination. Translated from daPaz's personal shorthand, they read, "Signs of incipient psi instability noted. Telepause likely within two to three years."

Not much to hang a death sentence on, is it? he thought bitterly. He dreaded the examination tomorrow and what he feared he'd find in Cheney's mind. He dreaded even worse the consequences of his findings, for there would be no way to hide them; the Agency would be monitoring all his instruments, and would know the results as soon as he himself did.

He had joined the Agency many years ago as a dedicated young doctor, full of zeal at the thought of doing his own small part to help Earth's defense against the outsiders.

But as the years wore on, the sheen of his enthusiasm was eroded by the rust of cynicism. He began noting the recurrence of certain patterns--the most disturbing of which was the one that occurred in the strongest, ablest telepaths once they reached the stage of development labeled "telepause." Once that was diagnosed, they never returned for subsequent examinations.

He was not sure when he realized the telepaths were being deliberately eliminated by their own side. At first, his assumption was that they were simply being reassigned to less strenuous duties in view of their delicate condition-but gradually that opinion was turned around. There was no single cause; merely a word here, a significant glance there from the Operations people--little clues that weighed on his mind and made him uneasy with his task.

Then, just after the last case he'd diagnosed, he happened to spot a small item in the evening newsfax about an unidentified body being washed up on the beach near San Luis Obispo. The woman had had red hair and only four fingers on her right handÉ which sounded suspiciously like the woman he'd recently diagnosed as telepausal. Try as he would, he could find no other information on the dead woman--and a call to the coroner in the area brought him a sharp reminder to mind his own business.

He'd taken a week's vacation time and gone on a binge of drinking and drugging to try to wipe the guilt out of his mind, but the death was not so easily assuaged. He thought then of leaving the Agency, trying to decide whether it would be an act of bravery or cowardice. He had reached no resolution and, from sheer force of habit, slipped right back into the Agency routine once his vacation was finished.

Now the problem was facing him again, in a way he could not avoid. Tomorrow, Alain Cheney would walk into this office with a probable case of telepause. And then--

DaPaz rose from his desk, went into the adjoining bathroom and looked at his prematurely lined face in the mirror. And then what, Doctor? he asked himself. What will you do then?

Chapter 2

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