what you need
There were four files on the desk. Papers bound in black cardboard, backed
with a reinforced spine and tied with bleached cotton string; the name of the
subject hand-written on a removable white label beneath the Esset logo.
Not many people ever saw these originals, but physical connection sometimes
made it easier to See, so here he was - sitting in the high-tech security fileroom
of HQ handling low-tech hardcopies and trying to make a decision in a single
afternoon that would shape the rest of his life. It was times like this Crawford
wished he smoked.
He worked his way methodically through the top three files despite the itching
niggle telling him he was wasting his time. Compulsion twanged at his nerves,
raising irritation in a welt over his patience. He ignored it, determined to
examine each option carefully before making the final choice.
The first prospect was quite talented but prone to careless mistakes - the red
threads of his future ravelled into a tangle of errors. Eventually Crawford
would be forced to terminate the man, and probably a large number of spectators
at the same time. Selecting him would be a flaw of judgement Crawford was uncertain
he himself could survive, and that type of risk had no place in his life.
The second prospect didn't correspond to the details in her file. He could See
she was insultingly weak, both telepathically and personally. Her futures ruptured
out before him in a tumble of glinting crystal fragments. She'd be dead or the
permanent inhabitant of a little white room before she was twenty. Crawford
sublimated his urge to snarl at the test into a slight clenching of the jaw.
He'd be damned if he betrayed his anger to the surveillance cameras and hidden
The third prospect easily held the most potential of the three - a rising star
in the field, excellent marksman and fighter, socially adept, intelligent, articulate.
On the surface, the ideal choice. But the Esset grapevine hissed a tale of internal
rot and psychosis, and the future swirled around him deceptively, hidden undertows
dragging Crawford's Sight down into a morass of malevolence, battle for dominance
and betrayal. This one would always be the worm in the peach, the canker in
the rose. He'd never fought them, never disputed their ownership of him
- he'd accepted it, embraced it; willingly warping his mind and personality
into the darkest shade of nightmare Esset could craft. Having him on the team
would be like having their own portable version of the hell that was Rosenkreuz.
So. Eliminating the first three prospects as useless left just a single viable
option. Crawford looked at the fourth black folder with a sense of resentful
inevitability. It was, it seemed to him, typical that the one file his instincts
itched to examine was thicker than the other three put together. Without even
opening it he could see the tags of official reprimands forming a scarlet ruffle
down the side. A troublemaker wasn't what Crawford wanted on his team.
He wanted a telepath who was easily controllable, easily intimidated. Someone
blind to Crawford's goals - though the less thought about that, the better.
No, a hothead - even one as supposedly gifted as this Schuldig - was not what
But there was really no getting around this. Crawford sighed and opened the
file. His head ached already. He'd stretched his Talent further into the future
than it liked to go, and he could feel the onset of a debilitating migraine.
Studying the celluloid smirk in front of him, he took several deep breaths then
pushed and pushed and... the future exploded in a fan of light and heat,
tracking outward like flame down lines of gasoline.
Paul made a pleasingly meaty thud as he hit the mat. Schuldig's mouth twisted
into an unkind smile. Looked like the little Schleimer wouldn't be getting
up in a hurry either. Oops. He could have gone easier on Paul, but screw it; he
figured anyone too stupid not to realise that their thoughts on what they'd like
to do to "that pansy-arse little mindfucker" could be read by said pansy-arse
telepathic little mindfucker, didn't deserve 'easy'.
The sound of slow clapping interrupted Schuldig's gloat. He turned and was surprised
to see Haden, the combat instructor, had company. Well-dressed company too. Whom
he hadn't notice arriving - and thrashing Paul didn't take that much
concentration. Mr Suit & Tie was quiet, both physically and mentally.
Schuldig sent a light probe at the man's mind, but it bounced off secure shields.
*Hmm, locked up tighter than a good little Catholic schoolgirl's panties,*
he mused, receiving only the crumbly residue of amusement.
Schuldig had learnt the hard way not to get insistent with stranger's minds
around the school, so he switched targets. Haden was staring at him in what he
supposed the combat instructor thought was a warning manner, but which actually
just made him look like he was sucking a lemon.
He plucked out the stranger's name from the stream of dislike in Haden's thoughts,
*Who, moi? When am I not careful?* Schuldig thought, then grinned at Brad
Crawford Sonofabitch Precog, bowed slightly in a mocking fashion, and gave him
the once over.
Not bad. Actually worth a twice over. Very American 'Clark Kent'-ish. The
only thing wrong was the colour of the eyes. Oh, and the total air of 'don't
shit with me'.
Haden practically pushed a mental resume at Schuldig. Surprising, seeing he thought
the telepath was an obnoxious little shit. Schuldig sifted through the information
rapidly, just picking the highlights out.
'Graduated' Rosenkreuz four or five years ago. Esset Field-team Leader.
Strong precognitive. And favoured by the Old Farts in Charge. Talented. Intelligent.
Aggressive. A rich plum flare of intense humiliation. Crawford defeating Haden
in front of his superiors. Disintegration of images into a stream of emotion…
And he was here, now. Something indecisively poised between fear and expectation
started to curl up in Schuldig's stomach.
Another flash - the precog hated being called by his first name. No-one did it.
"Did you want something, Brad?" Schuldig's nasal accent lingered over the name.
Crawford's small smile took on a cruel tinge. A barely discernible wave of irritation
rippled across his shields.
*Oh dear, I think I annoyed him.*
"Certainly, Schuldig," Crawford shrugged off his jacket, handing it to Haden as
if he were a cloakroom attendant rather than one of Esset's most feared combat
Schuldig was diverted.
*Pretty ballsy for a tealeaf reader. I think I like this guy.*
Crawford strolled onto the mat, rolling up his sleeves, "May I have this dance?"
Crawford toyed with Schuldig at first, the telepath's drawling use of his name
having eradicated any fleeting intention of soft-pedalling their first encounter.
After a few missed swipes, Schuldig caught on, and started to pick up his pace,
attacking with determination. But Crawford was just never there, or blocked perfectly,
throwing him back time and again, evading all blows with nonchalantly smiling
ease. Frustration shaped itself into a scowl on Schuldig's face - he was unused
to being ineffectual.
"When you said asked me to dance, I thought you actually wanted to fight,"
he snarled. "Not prance around the mat."
Crawford punched him in the face.
Schuldig's head snapped sideways and he staggered back several steps. He blinked,
dazed, hand reaching up to touch his face as if he couldn't believe Crawford
had actually connected. A snigger erupted from the small crowd that had collected
Crawford looked over at them,
"Leave," he commanded.
There was muttering but no one dared object, force of personality and the fact
that he was trouncing the telepath who routinely beat them all making a persuasive
argument not to. The dojo quickly emptied.
"You too, Haden."
The combat instructor's eyes narrowed but he didn't say anything, merely dropped
Crawford's jacket to the ground and headed for the door, affront in every line.
"I wish you joy of him," he muttered.
Which of them he meant was unclear. Combat recommenced.
"You've been chosen for a new assignment, Schuldig." The telepath narrowly
dodged another blow to the head. "A field team."
"Please tell me... " Schuldig attempted, futilely, to sweep Crawford's
feet out from under him, "you're just here as messenger boy."
"Of course not," A couple of hard punches landed on Schuldig's torso, staggering
him. "I'm your new team leader."
*I've changed my mind - I hate this guy. I think that first hit loosened some
The encounter was not going the way Schuldig expected.
*Just stand still and be hit, you bastard.*
A punch to the head, narrowly missed only because of Schuldig's unnatural speed.
He hadn't had this sort of trouble with the precogs he'd previously met.
*New assignment? Scheiße.*
It was one of the most commonly found Talents - and one of the least commonly
found in useful strength. Most people had a touch of it. Déjà vu,
Luck, 'Feelings'. Business acumen. All just slivers of Talent, pointing the best
way to go.
"Please tell me," *please, please,* "you're just here as
Precognition as a full-blown Talent, however, was another thing. And the customary
physical and mental defects that went with it were usually incapacitating.
Crawford, obviously, was one of the rarest of the rare - an accurate precog
capable of working in the field.
*Ow. Fuck. Fuck.*
A couple of punches to the chest backed up that deduction.
*Don't look at me like that, you bastard. No one owns me. Niemand. Not
Rosenkreuz, not Esset, not any one of the hundred pieces of shit who've tried
to drag me down. And certainly not you. Screw it. Shields or no shields, you're
Schuldig smiled, a baring of teeth that held everything of feral and nothing of
humour in it. Crawford knew he'd finally antagonised the telepath into using
his Talent offensively.
There was the Foreseen blow to his shields, so he opened his outer defences slightly.
Schuldig's mind poured into his; fervid and angry, sweeping through the outer
reaches in mere seconds. It was more than he'd expected - the telepath was stronger
than he'd anticipated. Control was wrenched from him.
Crawford's mind became the hiss of white static, the bark and roar of a forest
fire. Reason and purpose blurred. His inner defences wavered. He could barely
hear himself think anymore, just a nasal voice at the heart of the flame; laughing,
His deepest shields shook again under the pressure of the telepath's attack.
Panic heaved itself out of its grave, dragging self-preservation with it. Reflexive
instinct more than intellect triggered his own Talent, pushing it hard as he could.
There was a fraction of endless time when it seemed this was one of those not-infrequent
moments his Talent wouldn't respond; then like an elaborate origami flower unfolding,
possibilities and probabilities opened out into the usual intricate, anarchic
tumble of images, sounds and sensation.
To a precognitive, genetically hardwired for such unnatural input, it was possible
to make sense of this deluge, to navigate its riptides safely. To a telepath however
- a Talent based on memory and sequence - it was a banshee shriek of chaos.
Given that the inside of very few people's heads reflected their outward appearance,
Crawford's mind was an unexpectedly orderly place. Schuldig looked forward to
dirtying it up a bit.
*Let's just tear down these secondary shields (nice work, recognise the style,
must have been trained by Choriko), do a little rewiring, and not only will Brad
Crawford feel a new man, he'll actu... Was? Scheiß... aaaaahhhh...
The laughter became a scream, one that swelled louder in intensity and fear instead
of fading. Caught in the backwash of his anger, Crawford didn't even think of
Schuldig had lost any bearings. Insane minds felt something like this - so disconnected
from time and rationale that you drowned if you went too far into them. This was
worse. He could almost grasp there was a pattern, but his Talent couldn't cope
with the lack of linear progression, the sheer weight of probabilities. He was
being inundated from all sides with a cascade of broken mirrors, each reflecting
a warped image, a barrage of permutations of an instant. They scored deeply into
Schuldig's psyche, whittling and slicing away at him.
He could sense Crawford still releasing his Talent, thrusting it savagely into
that section of his mind where Schuldig was. He was too besieged to stop him.
Schuldig could feel his mind and will disassociating, and desperately tried holding
The scream had died into gasping whimpers. Crawford took a deep breath, though
he was barely aware of his physical body, and released his hold on his Talent.
It stopped cold.
It was like being spat out from a whirlpool. One second he was being mentally
torn apart by elemental forces; the next he was crashing into hard ground. He
found himself beached, shivering and naked, on an abandoned shore.
Schuldig had a brief moment to register pain and shock before sliding out of the
structured terrain of Crawford's outer psyche and into oblivion.
Crawford stretched slowly, loosening rigidly tense muscles. He picked up his coat,
shook it out, and put it on. Then he retrieved a chair from the sidewall of the
gym, placing it beside the mat where Schuldig lay in a curled-up crumple. The
temptation to kick the downed telepath was reluctantly quelled. He sat down to
It could have gone better. Had he not lost his temper, it undoubtedly would have.
But he hadn't foreseen every detail, although the Schuldig's aggression and
attitude had been as he'd expected.
He studied the telepath's slack face, pallid amidst the flashy spill of his
hair. Schuldig looked even younger than he was, and disturbingly powerless in
unconsciousness. It was almost a pity (if Crawford had believed in indulging such
an emotion - which he didn't) that he'd had to start their association in
such a manner. Had he time, he might have gentled Schuldig to his hand, wooed
him to his way of thinking. Circumstances and Esset precluded that luxury. He
would just have to control the telepath through harsher means.
The first thing he saw was a pair of brilliantly polished shoes. The first thing
he felt was the almost irresistible urge to throw up on them.
The shoes moved, and a voice said,
"I strongly recommend you do not vomit. You will not enjoy
A dagger split his skull at that moment, and any stomach upset was forgotten in
sheer agony. It took him minutes to staunch the mental wounds enough to take further
note of his surroundings.
Brad Crawford was sitting in a chair beside him, looking relaxed and calm, a smug
smile on his face. Schuldig was too incapacitated to do anything more than snarl
at him weakly.
"And now you now what happens when a telepath attempts to interface with
active precognition. And please, don't fool yourself into thinking that's my only
defence," Crawford eyed him coolly, as if he were some tiresome adolescent
caught shoplifting or playing hooky, "Given that it's natural for one of
your temperament to see how far you can push, I shan't mention this little act
of insubordination to anyone. This time."
In one swift movement he crouched down next to Schuldig. Schuldig struggled onto
his elbows, pain and nausea battling the refusal to lie there like some defenceless
Crawford continued, a hard tone to his voice now,
"But the next time you try anything - anything at all - I'll fuck you up
so badly you'll think that up is down and this ride was a kiddie's merry-go-round.
Schuldig glared, all hatred and pain. Scheiße, but he'd love to blast
the bastard - mindscour him back to a drooling infant - but he doubted he could
even manage a telepathic whisper right now.
Crawford reached out, large hand warm against the shock-cold skin of Schuldig's
cheek, almost encompassing the whole side of his face. Schuldig tried to pull
away, but he was too weak.
"You understand me?" Crawford repeated.
"Fick dich," Schuldig's answer was a bare wisp of shaky defiance.
Crawford laughed, white teeth flashing. He twined a finger around a strand of
flame-coloured hair, then slowly drew it back, letting it unravel and fall.
He bent so close Schuldig could feel breath upon his cheek as Crawford murmured
in his ear,
"Who knows? Maybe later - I've always had a thing for redheads."
Schuldig gave a grunt, jerking his head back. Crawford laughed again, then rose,
walking towards the entrance without a backward glance.
As he opened the door he turned his head to the side and said,
"Report to Room 423, North Wing, tomorrow at 0600. And be punctual. Tardiness
will result in punishment."
He left, shutting the door behind him.
Schuldig slumped back onto the mat. Lay there until the world stopped spinning,
until the pain and telepathic bleeding in his head diminished enough that he could
move. Lay there some more until his eyes stopped watering and he'd wrestled the
little screaming voices back into their cages. Then he just stared vacantly at
the ceiling until it occurred to him to wonder why no-one had come in to roust
or medicate him.
Neither prospect seemed to be happening, so he lurched to his feet, staggered
to the door and from there to his room. He collapsing onto his bed fully clothed,
his last thoughts of the different ways he could make that Wichser pay
and pay and pay...
The surprise Crawford
received the next morning wasn't that Schuldig was late to the meeting - he'd
Foreseen that. The surprise was that the redhead had dyed his hair green.
War had been declared.