“And… remind me again… this is the group that you’re trying to get back into by killing one of them?” Imogen asks.
“Yes,” Malorn affirms. “I don’t see what’s so complicated about this.” Imogen stares at him. “I understand you have more primitive systems of succession and promotion in your Dominion, but in tal’darim society we follow the ceremony of Rak’Shir. When you wish to ascend to the next position, you challenge that person.”
Imogen tries to clarify for Malorn the source of her confusion. “It just seems like you’re not actually supportive of any of the tal’darim policies…”
“Well, if I want to change any of their ‘policies’, their rites, I need to ascend higher to have any hope of doing that. There are a few others like me along various other points in the chain of succession as well, but we are currently of minority status. Well, I’m of exiled status.”
Imogen quickly fills the uncomfortable silence, not giving Malorn a chance to grow too sulky. “All right, well, do you have something in mind, or are you just going to show me how to use this thing?” She pulls out her psi-gauntlet. She has studied Egon’s notes and hopes to put what he theorized into practice.
“That is a slightly more advanced case. If you show sufficient capability, then we can move on to that. But that is, as you have perhaps learned, not the safest place to start.” Imogen looks down at the psi-gauntlet as he speaks, and he snaps at her, “Stop looking with your weak eyes. Look with your weak mind.”
Imogen clenches her jaw for a moment, holding back a response to Malorn’s jerkish comments. She needs to relax. Neiman told her meditation was the place to start. She breathes deeply, letting Malorn’s antagonism roll over her. She feels calm, in the zone… It’s good to finally have an educated teacher. The peace is shattered by a loud rap on the coffee table.
“No! No! Meditation is for pointless ceremonies. What you need is focus! Try again!”
Rather than try to center herself on… herself, Imogen focuses on the psionic sensations around her, the lifeforms she can feel in the vicinity with which she is already familiar. Lilly is in the next room, and Imogen senses a vague feeling of concern. Snowball is there, on patrol. Sunshine is a sated animal, stuffed full, sleepy and content. And then, briefly, she touches another mind, a foreign one. Pain, flashes of a miserable youth. Torture? She is not sure if that is the right word. He is slapped, buffeted, as he goes through his training. She senses a yearning for acceptance, maybe long-standing. Over it all now, though, is the immediate feeling of frustration.
“What do you see?” Malorn asks.
Rather than answer, Imogen throws a question back at him. “What is it about psionics that every culture thinks you need to be mean to people to teach it to them?”
“It turns out traumatic experience is a very effective way of bringing out one’s abilities. And weeding out those who are not strong enough. It is simply a matter of science.”
“I guess if you’re trying to make warriors…” Imogen allows.
“That is the only thing my society tries to make,” Malorn declares.
“Is that what you’re trying to make out of me?”
“I’m not trying to make anything. There are some who are clay that people can craft. You are a pile of mud that I’m going to fling into my rival’s eyes. So, don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t care what you become.”
“Well, good. Maybe you won’t need to do to me what your people did to you.”
“I doubt you would survive that anyway.”
“I wouldn’t want to!” Imogen is ambitious. She craves understanding of her power and desires to grow it, but she will be damned if she is going to let someone torture her into becoming a weapon. That cannot be all this power is good for.
“Indeed, that is a choice that many came to make. Do you purport, with all your knowledge of psionics, that there are other means to unlocking one’s potential?” Malorn asks scornfully.
“I just mean that there’s an awful lot of skills that people learn not by having traumatic experiences thrust upon them. But every time I’ve talked to anybody, protoss or terran, about this sort of thing, it’s always, ‘Oh, this is dangerous,’ or, ‘Oh, I was tormented as a child.’ That’s not how people learn science. That’s not how people learn sports. That’s not how people learn to fire a gun.”
“People learn how to fire a gun by shooting a gun. People learn how to fight by fighting. If you can find a better way to exercise your—let’s suppose there’s strength—then feel free to try it. This is the method that I am familiar with.”
“Well, you can continue your shouting. I’m just saying, I don’t see how that’s going to make me feel the emotions of people around me better.”
Frustrated, Malorn cannot contain yet another sigh. This terran does not understand the point. “Not everyone you encounter will be as accommodating as I am. The minds you see are going to be of a wide variety, even among terrans. Your associate Lilly Washington might be very safe to sense, but many others will throw up defenses or their minds will be chaotic, random. Some people, with the appropriate training, their minds may even be traps that you can get caught in, that can do real pain to you, not just the sense that you are feeling pain. So you need to be familiar with what you might encounter out there. If you are trying to survive in the wilderness, you need to know its dangers.”
“Is there some sort of beaconing aspect to this?” Imogen asks. “There’re people who have told me that if I start developing my skills, others will know.”
“If you are not careful, it is certainly possible that you will alert someone who is looking for this. Certainly, merely by listening or seeing, you are more easily seen in this regard. But, in general, I would not consider your powers to be particularly notable. Perhaps among terrans, they might be worth mentioning…”
“And what do you know of my powers?” Imogen demands. “Have you submitted me to some test I’m unaware of?”
“Nothing so bothersome. You’ve clearly touched my mind and seen what I’ve seen. Likely your associate’s as well. That’s a typical capability. Among my brethren on Aiur, they live every day like that, as one. They live in the Khala, where everyone can read everyone’s mind all the time.”
“That sounds horrible,” Imogen says. She cannot think of anyone whose mind she would want full access to, let alone anyone she would trust with all her secrets.
“I personally agree. They believe it is necessary for the unity and stability of their society. You could choose to learn from them. But if you had secrets you wished to keep from them, you would not be able to. Of course, you might learn all their secrets as well, so perhaps that is a trade you would be willing to make.”
Imogen leans back against the arm of the couch and takes another swig from her kombucha. Dealing with Malorn’s prickly personality is exhausting enough, let alone trying to extract knowledge from him.
Malorn looks at the terran in front of him. “Your strength is weakening even further still. More training tonight would be pointless. We shall resume tomorrow.”
Imogen straightens back up. “Do you have a place to stay, or do you need our couch?”
“I do not need to sleep in the same fashion as you and your associate. This room will suffice, smelling as foul as it does.”
Lilly comes out into the living room and cracks some windows open, letting in both the night air and the constant sounds of the city. The air, polluted as it is, is still better than that of a ship crammed full of sweaty terrans. She heads to the shower to do something about her own smell, and when she comes out, Malorn is alone in the living room, sitting cross-legged on the couch, eyes closed. He is quiet and does not even seem to notice her there. She pulls an extra blanket out of the closet and leaves it on the couch next to him. She briefly considers talking to Imogen about Snowball’s battery, but it is pretty late and she can see that the light is already off in the Umojan’s room. She will just have to remember tomorrow. She returns to her own room, sharpens her knives, and goes to sleep herself.