3) Under Siege and Under Suspicion

Not-Quite Human 2

Lost With Nothing to Lose

3) Under Siege and Under Suspicion

Sci-fi themed chapter header

People seem not to see that their opinion
of the world is also a confession of character.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

A guard approached early the next morning. “You, you and you,” he said, motioning Al, Betty and Eli forward. They got up, glancing at the others, but didn’t think questioning their future made much sense. With their acceptance in their only potential home within hundreds of light years at stake, they weren’t about to risk arguing. As they approached the entrance, the wavering air turned placid. Apparently it was attuned to each of them and could differentiate between them, only allowing those authorized to exit.

As he led them away, the others gathered near the invisible gate, giving it a healthy buffer, and watched them disappear. Down a short corridor, the guard pushed Al towards one door, “in there! You, in that room, you’re in the other one,” he said, indicating where he expected Betty and Eli to go.

As Al entered the first room, a heavy metallic door slammed shut behind him. He glanced back to ensure the sound didn’t represent a potential threat. Like the rest of the ship, the walls were black, the door consisted of a metal he’d never seen before, or at least the finish was. He had little doubt it was blaster resistant, even without understanding the types of weapons the Tandorians used. Turning back, he noticed another security guard sitting behind the desk. The tattoos on the man’s forehead sent a shiver up Al’s spine, his knees twitching before he recognized them from his training aboard their ship. He was an Inquisitor, someone specialized in both psychology and torture. Al racked his brain trying to recall what enhanced skills they possessed, but he’d never paid much attention after hearing they were exceedingly rare. Imagining the worst, he risked passing a message to the others.

Be, Eli, we’re facing Inquisitors. I suspect they’re mind readers, but have no clue the limits or extent of their abilities. I’m hoping it’s similar to Zita’s telepathy, meaning it only affects surface thoughts. Keep your attention on the questions and his responses. Don’t allow your thoughts to wander, especially in response to their actions.’

The Inquisitor never noticed Al sending the message, didn’t pick up on any visual clues, and definitely hadn’t attempted to read his mind—otherwise he’d have caught it immediately.

The imposing, intimidating official looked like the other security personnel, though he was older. His hard, bony face was brittle, with cracked surfaces and large pores which looked like osteoporosis. His eyes, even with as little experience as Al had in judging alien expressions, seemed weary. As if he’d grown tired of the treachery and deception of those he investigated.

Most striking, though, was the fact Al couldn’t get a reading on him. His precognition spoke of no dangers, heralding no warnings. Al had no illusions about what he faced. His genetic fear of this man—clearly implanted by his own aids—spoke volumes about their propensity for violence and inflicting terror. Yet despite the Inquisitors’ reputation for sheer brutality, he seemed bored, unconcerned with events or even Al himself. But Al didn’t let his guard down. He assumed that, like his paranoia about their peering into his thoughts, they seemed to have a natural defense against Intuits’ precognition.

Following his own advice, Al wiped his surface thoughts clean by studying his investigator, observing his every move, his every pore. Luckily, rather than noticing his mental distractions, the Inquisitor surveyed his hands.

“What kind of odd creature are you? I’ve never seen such an awkward, ill-suited species before.” Taking a non-confrontational approach, he motioned Al to a seat with his lower left arm while drinking with his upper right, rubbing his leg with his lower right.

“We’re a … primitive race, just beginning to explore space, not nearly prepared to leave our solar system. We … hoped you were … similar to us. That we were more Tandorian than Human.”

Al, our investigators aren’t Inquisitors. They’re normal security forces. They’ve assigned you their specialist. They’re only inquiring about our knowledge, skills and capabilities.’

Ignoring Be’s interruption, Al concentrated on what the Inquisitor found interesting, regardless how minor. He couldn’t afford to concentrate on outside distractions, no matter how important they might be. Even if he presented no direct threat, the implied threat Al felt in his bones warned him of what any stray thoughts might reveal. Such fleeting images might damn their future, condemning them all. He couldn’t afford to be distracted.

“Those are the aids. That’s typical when we first bring new civilizations into our sphere of influence. The aids match suitable talents with each individual, leaving you feeling estranged from others.” He paused, studying Al from different angles. “Did your skills of precognition exist before the aids?”

“I received them when I was too young to remember, but I doubt it. No one in our culture has these abilities, though there are constant rumors about people with the skills. We’ve never been able to confirm it, though.”

“Again, not unusual. Well, it’s strange you have no natural inclinations, no experience with space, and little knowledge of the universe. Yet you come here, expecting us to hand you the advances of thousands of years of evolution, research and technology.”

As Al didn’t respond—not questioning his inferiority but continuing to focus on minute details—he felt something skim across his mind, brushing his consciousness. His consciousness fluttered in response, stray thoughts popping to the surface, but he fought them down, not allowing them to burst free.

As if realizing his scan was detected, the Inquisitor changed topics. “My name is Quichoq. What’s yours?”

“My name was assigned by those our ship trained in earlier attempts to build a crew. We were named based on our ranking. I’m Al, short for Albert, but Al is also short for Alpha, the first letter of our alphabet.”

“I asked your name, not the minutia of your immaterial existence. Is your species unable to follow a logical discussion, concentrate on the topic presented, or focus on life and death decisions?”

As Quichoq switched between friendly banter, insults and belittling aggression, Al felt cascading waves skimming the surface of his thoughts. Again, his mind struggled to respond, but he kept his thoughts under tight control. Each time a scan passed over his surface thoughts, it varied its pressure, digging deeper or lighter, trying to tap into hidden recesses of his memories. In response, Al concentrated on his answer while measuring how Quichoq’s hard cartilage skin responded, observing every minute detail but detecting little.

“I respond when I need to, but don’t lock my mind down so it’s unable to react. We’ve discovered it’s better to allow your thoughts to wander so we respond naturally, rather than predictably. The reason it took so long to rebuild the ship’s crew, was we keep reacting to the threats we encounter. We step in when emergencies develop, risking ourselves for our people, asking little in return. We concentrate when we need to, but not otherwise.”

“Interesting response. You have surprising control for something which just crawled out of the primordial mud.” Quichoq apparently gave up on the more subtle approach, as Al felt the waves intensify. Quichoq’s probes pressed deep, digging through synapses of Al’s brain. He felt himself pressed into the table. When the pressure lessened, only to change direction to another region of his brain, he was knocked from his seat as if struck by an unseen truck, powered by nothing more than a few thoughts.

“I can see why you think your enhanced skills entitle you to join a superior civilization, but your abilities are puny, insignificant. You’re little more than an inconsequential gnat resisting a crashing meteor.”

As the Inquisitor continued digging deeper in his head, Al concentrated on his opponent, who he could no longer observe. He recognized the fear the mere presence of Quichoq’s rank brought forth in him, much as his own prompted Al’s people to defer to him. Only Al used his for everyone’s good, risking himself to protect and shelter the others, sacrificing himself. His tormentor had none of those honorable traits. He was merely an extremely developed savage, using his mental prowess to torment everyone around him.

He fought down the thoughts Quichoq plucked at by defining himself against the thick-skinned alien. He was everything the Inquisitor wasn’t, with nothing of ugliness which defined him. As he felt himself pressed harder into the cold, hard cell floor, Al’s concentration resisted the pressure with all his might. His flesh could hardly quiver. He didn’t have enough strength to piss himself, but he fought back against the attack. Pushing back bought him a mild reprieve, as it focused his every thought on resisting him. He realized Quichoq was still testing him, and he used his renewed energy to press back even more. He invested every ounce of his mental resistance, pressing his slight gains into more concentrated attacks.

Al realized he couldn’t hope to compete with the Inquisitor’s advanced skills. Yet by focusing on his struggle, he poured all his stray thoughts into combat, locking his mind into a single focus aimed against one source. The more he drained his thoughts of distractions, the more resilient he felt. Instead of studying how the process worked, he allowed the experience to wash over him, realizing he could recall it for study later —assuming he survived.

Suddenly the pressure subsided, and with the release, Al once again marshaled his anger, lest his sustained resistance evaporate with his temporary reprieve.

“Bah! You bore me. You’re incapable of achieving anything. You’re no more risk than a fly on a Kraqator. Pull your miserable self together and cry for the next half hour. Hopefully your companions are more capable than you.”

As Quichoq left the room, a guard returned to escort him to the holding cell. Al struggled to stand, unsure whether he was so weak because of the attack, or his fight against it.

Be, Eti, he’s on his way. Prepare yourself. The key is to think of nothing except your hatred of his brutality. Don’t allow your mind to relent, or his approach to surprise you. This is less an interrogation than a character test. It’ll only get worse from here, but at least he’s giving us time to adapt. For as little as he thinks of us, it works in our favor. We can curry respect by being stronger than he expects.’

Sci-fi themes section break.

“So, you’re a finder?” Quichoq observed, entering Betty’s interview room. “I can’t picture your being terribly competent. It took you several hundred years to find your way back. I’m hoping you’re at least brighter than your precog, though I suspect you’re all members of a barely-evolved race, barely crawling from the muck.”

“My brother’s the most intelligent man I know,” Betty insisted, immediately regretting it, as she felt pressure intruding on her mind and recalled Al’s admonitions. She focused on his horns, cracked and hardened with age and abuse. It reinforced his blunt, bullying approach, so hopefully she wouldn’t forget who she was facing.

“You’re brother? So you’re littermates? I take it your species hasn’t expanded much if that’s the best you can manage for a mate. No wonder you’re all so slow and unexceptional, you’ve been inbreeded, reinforcing the same defective attributes!”

“We’re different. That doesn’t make us inferior. From where I sit, it seems your species has reached the end of its natural life. You’re incapable of recognizing strengths when blinded by noncompliance with your formalized and outdated rules and regulations.”

Betty felt herself flung from her seat as if struck. Her mind flashed, all thoughts going blank, almost blacking out. When the external pressure relented, her thoughts responded by racing in a million different directions. Her mind seemed to be checking its circuits by recalling random memories. Instead, she concentrated on his coarse critical voice, focusing on his abusive attitude. This was not an impartial judge or helpful advocate. Quichoq was an obstruction, someone who’d prefer jettisoning them out an airlock rather than dealing with their presence. Still, it was obvious she’d touched a nerve. He was so angry he’d let his guard down, just as Al had suggested. He’d be more likely to make mistakes if he wasn’t thinking clearly.

“Just as I suspected. As soon as your mind begins to open, it snaps shut again. Obviously, your primitive minds are incapable of dealing with more than a single thought at a time. That’s hardly the type of recruits we need to fight this war. It is consistent with a spy, selected by our enemies to enter our ranks. Despite all evidence of our society’s intellectual superiority, you’ll prove incapable of accepting competing facts, remaining locked in your original training.”

Betty slowly pushed herself up from the floor, still feeling a mental weight bearing down, causing her to move in slow motion, struggling to overcome the external pressure. Still, she worked to stand, just to prove she couldn’t be shunted aside without a concern.

“We work for no one,” she insisted, even though her words were slurred from the pressures exerted on her. “We’re unaffiliated with anyone. We left our home, abandoned our pasts, family and friends, to join you and help in any way we can.” He started to say something, but Betty rushed on, refusing to be silenced. “We realize we don’t deserve an equal standing, and have a lot to learn, but more viewpoints make you stronger, not weaker.”

“Big talk from someone with so little to offer. You may represent the best of your species, but it doesn’t matter to us.”

As if he suddenly remembered what he was doing, Betty felt her brain being scanned, just as Al warned. His technique wasn’t subtle, suggesting he’d stopped caring what they had to offer. When she didn’t react, he went for the overwhelming approach, replacing finesse with blunt force. Pressed against the floor, she gritted her teeth. However, unlike her brother, who emptied his mind, she focused on a single thought. “Pathetic!”

Quichoq didn’t respond well to the suggestion. Betty felt as if she was being squashed by an invisible steel press. She was about to black out when he relented.

“Useless, resentful and aggressive. This doesn’t speak well for your acceptance.”

As he turned, heading towards the door, she thought he was done, only she felt a new scan coursing over the top of her thoughts. Changing tactics, she replaced her single thought. “Amateur.”

“Get up!” someone demanded. She rose from a deep sleep, feeling disheveled, trying to remember what happened. She didn’t know how long she was out, but she was lying against the cold metallic floor, a guard poking her with a rod. There was no sign of Quichoq. Betty hoped she’d seen the last of him.

Sci-fi themes section break.

There was a hush when Al was led back to the communal cell with the rest of the ship’s crew. However, once the restraining field was reactivated and the guard departed, everyone was eager to discover what he’d faced.

“What happened?” Theo asked. “What should we expect?”

“Did you learn anything?” Zita pressed.

“More importantly, were you tortured?” Gary asked.

“I’ll tell you what I know,” he answered in English, “but I want some answers first.”

“Should we, uh, be speaking in English?” Delilah asked hesitantly. “Won’t that convey we’re trying to keep secrets from them?”

“We aren’t seen as long-lost relatives. Instead we’re viewed as enemies of the state. There’s little we could do to lower their opinion of us. Frankly, they see us as little more than primordial ooze sticking to the bottom of their jack boots.” He held his hand up, halting any further discussion. “You need to wait. I have to try something.”

When they paused, he reached out to the ship using Zita’s link. ‘One, can you hear me?

There wasn’t any response, so he tried again. When that too failed, he cast a broader net, broadcasting to each of them, including Betty and Eli. ‘One, can you communicate?’

“They’re probably blocking communications,” Lamar offered. “Either that, or the ship is too far away.”

“We’re closer than many parts of the ship were when we traveled here, assuming we’re not taking separate routes back to Tandor.” He again signaled for them to hold their comments and tried one last time.

The One, can you hear me?

I can,’ it said. ‘Hold on.’

Al waited, signaling to the others he’d succeeded. It took a few seconds, but it did reconnect.

I didn’t want to respond right away, as communication is forbidden between us. There were no alerts, so I trust we’re in the clear.

That’s part of what I wanted to know. How is it they haven’t detected our communications?

There are several reasons, but it’s mainly because you aren’t broadcasting anything. Instead, you’re communicating via quantum entanglements.’

Quantum Entan… okay, I understand what it is, but kindly explain how it relates.

The ship seemed to be mildly annoyed, but did as he requested. ‘Quantum entanglements are elements created in black holes which are permanently linked. Anything that one encounters is experienced by the other. It takes a massive amount of energy to create them, and its problematic controlling the individual elements, so each ship is equipped with enough to serve their needs with sufficient spares to cover for emergencies. They also allow us to communicate between distant systems without waiting for signals to travel between them, which could otherwise take thousands of years. However, because of that, the messages only pass between the two participants with no way of detecting the communication between them.

Zita was selected because she had natural telepathic tendencies, which functions similarly, but her abilities are enhanced by the quantum pairs, allowing for more secure and reliable communications of much greater distances. Normally, each ship has adequate resources to ensure adequate communications. However, since we were stuck for so long, my supply was nearly exhausted. If your group hadn’t survived, the next group wouldn’t have had the same abilities. To preserve my remaining supply, I limited the amount dedicated to the ship’s log to record each personnel communication, and allocated a single pair between Zita and myself.

Excellent, so they can’t monitor anything we say through Zita?

That’s true, but only because of another … extenuating circumstance. When the ship’s original crew crashed on Earth, they realized they may not survive long enough to develop a replacement crew—never imagining it would take so long. In response, the commander removed all restrictions on my programming, meaning I’m an unregulated AI.

Do the security people know?

No, and I wasn’t about to volunteer the information either. It’s an extreme violation of protocol. As it is, they’re already planning on scrapping the entire ship as a useless relic of bygone days. Informing them I’m unrestricted would ensure they would upon first encountering us.

Ordinarily, a ship would immediately halt all communications once a crew member is arrested. Even if they could reestablish it, they’d report any efforts to circumvent security restrictions. Since there are no recorded logs of your communications, there is no history of your ever having the ability. However, there’s a separate issue, which also helps. Under normal circumstances, the Tandorians would receive information directly from your aids, what you keep referring to as “nanobots”. They seem stymied by the older devices and haven’t been able to read much from them. There seems to be some glitch where it doesn’t record the failure to read the data. They don’t realize they aren’t receiving the information they request.

Okay, that’s a long-winded way of saying our communications are secure, which answers my main question. What’s this about your being destroyed, and will it impact our ability to communicate? Both are essential to us, but I’m trying to understand the relation between them.

I’m seen as a hopelessly outdated piece of technology. It’s easier for them to destroy the entire ship rather than upgrade each individual component. However, because you each share quantum links with Zita, her abilities would survive my destruction. My lack of restrictions also mean I can listen in when most ships would be unable to, so I’m monitoring the normal communications about your statuses and mine. They’re currently downloading my logs in order to determine whether we violated Tandorian security, and once they’re done I’ll be incinerated in their sun.

Will they learn of your ability to make your own decisions?

No, when the original commander realized the task ahead of them, the crew circumvented my normal operating restrictions, realizing they’d be put to death if the breach was discovered. However, they felt the risk was worthwhile if we could communicate what happened to us and the existence of a new Tandorian outpost. Given the care they undertook, and the current inability to work with my older technology, there’s little chance they’ll uncover it. It’s not impossible, just unlikely.

Excellent. That helps us tremendously, and we’ll think of some way we can keep you alive. As much of a pain in the ass as you’ve been, we owe you. We feel we can trust you in a way we can’t any other Tandorians. Which brings up another point. What’s up with the Inquisitors? I gather they’re mind readers, but why was it so easy bypassing their capabilities?

Another complex question, though I’ll provide simple answers. It’s partly their inability to communicate with your aids, and I surmise partly a reliance on voluntary acceptance. You’re used to independent thought, which Tandorians aren’t. What’s more, in the centuries we’ve been gone, generations at war have enforced a communal group think, so they no longer tolerate original thought. Thus they expect everyone to simply open their minds to them. Instead, when you first felt them probing yours, you fought back, restricting your thoughts. Given their already low opinion of you, they never questioned your ability to deceive.

Excellent. That’s incredibly helpful, but there’s no sense continuing the discussion for now. They might still have some new technology which might circumvent your controls, or they might figure out how to query our aids.

Take care, Alpha. Given what I overhear them saying about you, you’ll need it. This is not the same Tandor I left. If I knew this is what they’d become, we’d never have struggled so hard to return.’

Ceasing the communication, Al motioned everyone away from the door of their cell.

“Alright, I’ve gotten a lot of information. From now on, we only communicate sensitive data via Zita, as it’s the only method their security people can’t crack. When we talk among ourselves, we should stick to English to reduce our risk of revealing anything. Quichoq doesn’t realize we know how to circumvent his mind-reading talent, so it’s in our best interest we play the role of unsophisticated simpletons. From here on out, the less Tandori we understand, the better.”

“Good,” Mui said, “that plays to our strengths, as we barely comprehend what they’re saying anyway. We thought we were learning standard Tandori, but what they’re speaking is so heavily accented and nuanced, it’s difficult to comprehend.”

“That’s because their culture has both grown and shrunk over time. Since they’ve been at war for so long, on all fronts, they’re now much more limited than they once were. While they were familiar with many differing cultures and experiences, now they’re trapped in a single, restricted mindset.”

“The hell with all this technobabble!” Xi shoved everyone else aside and enveloping him in her arms. “What’s happening to Be? Is she okay?”

“Yeah. Their inquisition is intense, bordering on outright torture, but I got a brief communication she escaped intact a short while ago. We’ll find out how she is soon, but it’s essential I train the rest of you in how we survived, so you can too. Here’s how you do it.”

Sci-fi themes section break.

You were … right about Quichoq,’ Eli told them telepathically. ‘He just finished with me. I was sure he’d kill me. He’s pissed as hell, but he didn’t get anything from me. I … think he’s planning something.

Where are you now?’ Al asked.

I’m still in the interrogation room. He left me behind, crumpled on the floor unable to stand. I’m expecting company, so I need to get my shit together before they get here.

Take care of yourself. We’ll handle Quichoq,’ Al replied, though he wasn’t sure how.

“What do you think they’re planning?” Ivan asked.

“It’s hard to tell, but I trust he’s given up on us. I doubt he realizes we’re hiding information. He seems honestly oblivious. We’re beneath his notice, which means he’s planning something else. He must be working on something which doesn’t depend on us.”

“You think he plans on asking the One?” Etta asked.

“No, he’d have no way of knowing the One has been keeping secrets, though they might check the ship’s logs for more information about us or our backgrounds. However, it wouldn’t amount to much, either way. I doubt the One was shortsighted enough to record sensitive data about us, even if he didn’t anticipate what we were getting into.”

“Except, he was convinced the Tandorians were the good guys,” Delilah pointed out. “I doubt he suspected any more than we did. He certainly didn’t know they were at war until we were stopped.”

“Even so, with his supposed processing speed, he’s had almost an infinite amount of time to reorganize his records. They don’t yet suspect he’s capable of deception.”

“If not that, then what?” Gary asked. “What’s more, if we don’t know, how will we defend against it?”

“The same way we did during our interrogation, by a mixture of their dismissive views and our own ingenuity. Frankly, I doubt Quichoq thinks we’re capable of serious thought, so he must be after something more than what he can use against us. We need to figure out what he’s after.”

They’re coming back for me,’ Eli informed them. ‘They’re arguing, so they must have something planned, but they’re bringing me back.

Thanks for the information. Keep your mind clear the entire time they’re there. Don’t try to communicate anymore.

Al’s message barely ended when another voice entered their discussion. ‘The Inquisitor is planning to query your aids directly,” the One informed them, interrupting their exchange.

Did you hear our discussion?’ Zita asked.

No. Though Quichoq made inquiries to both his ships and my database, asking for specifics on our communication protocols. Since they don’t know I’m eavesdropping on their communications, the security team onboard discusses their strategies openly. Although they were too frustrated to press, I doubt your aids will last long under a direct and prolonged assault.

“Hold on,” Xi said, grasping Al’s arm. “I’ve got a plan.”

“You’d best hurry, they’re not far away.”

“I hear them,” Kaci said, standing by the cell’s door. “They’re coming.”

“All right, everyone keep focused. Concentrate on your anger. Don’t allow your minds to drift due to uncertainty. That’s what he’s hoping for. If we panic, we’ll reveal more than we’re willing to.”

Quichoq made no attempt to hide his approach, undoubtedly hoping to instill additional fear, which seemed to be his modus operandi. The humans spread out, taking deep breaths to calm their racing hearts and preparing for whatever awaited them.

Quichoq threw Eli through their cell’s invisible door. He sprawled across the floor as everyone jumped out of the way. Zita, knelt over him, holding and helping him reorient himself. Quichoq had two other guards behind him, both wielding weapons, though Al’s people still had no concept of what they were capable of.

“I take it you’re after something, as you’ve never personally visited before,” Al said, hoping to engage and potentially throw him off. Instead, he waved his hand.

“I’m unconcerned with you. You’re incapable of much original thought, able only of wrestling with a single limited concept at a time. No, I’m drawing the knowledge from deep within each of you.”

Everyone tensed, anticipating another mental assault, but instead nothing happened. Quichoq frowned, which was hard to distinguish, given his harsh features, but Al and Betty were now familiar with his responses enough to detect minor shifts in his expressions.

“No wonder you got nothing. Their aids aren’t functional. They were obviously exposed to some sort of radiation in transit. How these … minqtars survived is anyone’s guess. You try,” he said, indicating one of the guards.

He approached, entering the cell and jamming a small handheld device against Al’s chest.

“I’m getting something. Give it a second. It’s not terribly well organized. No, it’s horribly corrupted. It makes no sense. We should flush these and install all new ones. I’m surprised these haven’t already killed them all.”

“Maybe humans are a sturdier species than you thought,” Al suggested, raising an eyebrow. “We’re a hardy race, surviving great odds, despite our many faults.”

The guard glared at him, but appeared to have no meaningful answers.

“You mean your bodies are resistant to your own aids?” the other guard asked, intrigued.

“Merely that we’re resistant to their effects, and able to restrict or restore them internally.”

They all felt a massive wave, sweeping across their consciousness. Several knees buckled, but no one fell. Instead, they all glared at Quichoq, ignoring the guards.

Quichoq spun, dismissively waving his hand. “We’ll need to test this theory.”

As he started to stroll away, Al stopped him. “Why not do it now?”

He paused, turning slowly, considering Al. Approaching him more cautiously, Quichoq held something up to his chest. “Prove what you say.”

Al was bluffing, and everyone knew it, but something was up and he wasn’t about to concede.

Quichoq’s head jerked back, his eyes opening wide. He shoved his device against Al’s chest again, then waved it across his torso. “Turn it back on!” he demanded.

Al waved his own hand dismissively. “We turn them on selectively, which takes a little juggling.”

“Bah!” Quichoq screamed, throwing his device at Al’s head, which he barely avoided. It bounced off the metallic wall, skittering across the floor, and stopped against Kaci’s foot. She shifted her boot, concealing it with only a slight shifting of her weight. “Minor parlor tricks! Hardly a redeeming skill. Given enough time, anyone can figure out how to circumvent simple technology, especially with such crude implements.”

“Has anyone else managed to do so?” Al pressed. “Somehow, I doubt you’d be as angry if this was a common occurrence. A single focus gives us greater potential than those whose minds are always jumping from one thing to another.”

Al crumpled to the floor as Quichoq’s hands balled into fists. Al’s body thrashed momentarily, until he finally lay still, but no one dared assist him. Eli took that moment to stand, with Zita’s assistance.

Snorting, Quichoq stormed off. The two guards glanced at each other, unsure what to do, but decided quickly and backed out, hurrying after their taskmaster. Once they were out of sight, Betty and Xi knelt, grasping Al by the shoulders.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, struggling to rise. The girls helped him. “Anger is as good for providing strength, as it is in frustrating bullies.” He managed to sit, his limbs still as weak as jelly. “Mind explaining what the hell just happened?”

Xi giggled. “I instructed your aids, your nanobots, to send static in response to their inquiries. When you suggested you could control them, I allowed them to release selective data. Just enough to tease, but not enough to be useful.”

“How did you manage that?” Theo asked. “Don’t you require your ball, which is back on the other ship, if not already disabled?”

“My ball’s fine, thank you. I used Zita’s telepathy, using our link to the One to communicate with my ball, still under the security force’s control. Despite the distance between the three of us, we managed to control it. The time delay only aided our deception.”

“You know,” Al said, struggling to stand, “I dare say our skills are increasing more under duress, than they did learning at our leisure. Given that the Tandorians don’t seem capable of guessing what we’re doing, I think we now have several new keys to manipulating them.”

“Until they drain our blood, accessing our aids directly,” Lamar warned. “At this point, I doubt they’d hesitate to kill the lot of us. Quichoq seems to have ultimate authority over us. Even if they didn’t shoot us point blank, accusing us of trying to break free would be enough to do whatever they want.”

“Don’t remind me,” Al said, massaging his arms. “While I’ve adapted well so far, I have no plans if they try that!”