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With her own residual telepathic enhancement, Kalliana was tempted to reach out and pluck the concerns directly from Tharion’s mind, to prepare herself—but after her years of rigorous ethical training, she would never do such a thing.
Guild Master Tharion lowered his voice, commanding her attention. “There may be more to this case than the murders, Kalliana,” he said. “It troubles me deeply. You know that Strone used to be one of our elite guards, but he left us just after I became Guild Master. Very mysterious. He always seemed a bit of an odd sort, but reliable. He escorted me many times when I was younger. I got the impression he revered the Truthsayers, looked up to us as great dispensers of truth, wielding the sword of justice.” He laughed, then frowned, letting his thoughts come through.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking … and I cannot help but wonder if he may be a pawn in a larger, older plot against … us? Against some of the landholders? I don’t know.”
Kalliana frowned, not sure what he wanted from her. “What makes you say that? Murders were committed, and this man was implicated. It’s up to me to declare whether he is guilty or innocent.”
“There may be more,” Tharion said. “Given the constant delays and frequent setbacks on the rail-construction project, Hektor Carsus has informally petitioned me for some answers. If any information comes to light during your reading of Strone …”
“What kind of information?” Kalliana asked, suddenly wary. She knew clearly, from her years of ethical training, exactly how far she was expected to go inside the criminal mind. “I am not required to read any deeper than necessary to determine his guilt or innocence.”
“Just be watchful. Perhaps his motivations will be plain enough,” Tharion said, a pair of small creases forming between his pale brows. “We all know Hektor Carsus is a suspicious hothead, but he does have certain valid points. From the day he and Janine Bondalar announced their plans to form a marriage alliance, the mag-lev project connecting their holdings has been beset with unreasonable problems. Cursed, some people might say.”
Tharion wove his long fingers together. “I have privately brought some of his concerns to Guild Mediators. There’s a distinct possibility these murders might be another attempt by some rival landholder to destroy the direct rail link. Strone may just be a hired killer—or a patsy who hasn’t really done anything.”
Kalliana considered this and nodded uneasily. Tharion looked at her with an open expression, not quite a plea. “When you’re inside Strone’s head, try to determine whether he was acting under orders from someone else. Is this just a random act of violence, or is there a deeper plan?”
“If he is guilty at all,” Kalliana pointed out.
“True,” Tharion said, embarrassed. “We need that answer too, of course.”
She could hear the continued droning of the crowd in the plaza, rising and falling in irregular waves. “Why should Truthsayers worry about more landholder rivalries? They always squabble with each other—but we are independent, and have been for a hundred years. Let them do their own investigations, their own snooping. I won’t be a spy for Carsus or Bondalar or Dokken or any other landholder—”
Tharion held up his hand. “Not for the landholders. For us. Because if another landholder is working this plot, then we are being manipulated.”
Kalliana finally saw his logic and could not think of an excuse to deny his request, despite her reluctance. She nodded and followed him out the door. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
The huge ground level opening of the half-buried spaceship, the SkySword, had originally been designed for loading cargo and launching military assault vehicles, but the Truthsayers had replaced the doors with ornate slabs of metal cast in the foundries of one of the mountain holdings. The regal portals were inlaid with beautiful and complex mosaics of bright polished rock. Grandeur to impress the masses.
A cascade of sunlight spilled into the main corridor as the doors swung open. Kalliana walked down the ramp beside the Guild Master, her petite form dwarfed by the immense size of the Guild Headquarters.
Outside, a group of elite guards flanked the door, ready to escort her through the crowd to the speaking platform in the center of the plaza. Kalliana raised her chin and walked forward, her feet bare on the shadowed flagstones, her white robe fluttering around her in the breeze. The air outside smelled dry and flat, like rock dust, without the enriching moisturizers and perfumes that circulated through the Guild’s confined chambers. She felt instantly uncomfortable, but she would be back inside soon, as soon as she finished her duty.
The elite guard fell silently into ranks beside her, their scarlet gauntlets and boots, deep blue uniforms, and goggled helmets setting them apart from the citizens. Kalliana ascended the granite steps to the speaking platform.
Overhead, the skies turned gray with an approaching cloud front, one of the fast-moving storms that cruised over the surface of Atlas. The orbital Platform had not issued a weather warning, but she wondered if it would rain soon. The water would probably make a big difference to those living in the outer landholdings, though it wouldn’t matter to the Truthsayers inside their Headquarters. Often, she found it soothing to listen to the raindrops beating an irregular rhythm against the hull plates and watch them stream and ripple over the stained glass windows.
Kalliana would need some forced relaxation after this ordeal in front of so many people. She hated murder cases.
The crowd was larger than usual. Eli Strone’s alleged crimes were so heinous that many had come even from the far landholdings to witness her pronouncement. Guild Master Tharion seemed pleased at the turnout.
As she walked among them, Kalliana felt the surge of anticipation from the audience, a maelstrom of conflicting thoughts that forced her to put up mental barriers. Though she had not taken a booster dose of the mind-enhancing drug Veritas in days, she still felt the backwash of their thoughts—disjointed hopes, bitterness, frustration, new love, anticipation, even physical thoughts of muscle aches and noontime hunger.
She shook her head to clear her mind, pushing back the psychic babble. While she was required to experience the sins—if any—of Eli Strone, these other citizens could keep their weary lives to themselves.
Kalliana didn’t comprehend how all these people lived, what their dreams were, how they coped with such a bleak and difficult existence. The colonists often seemed happy, though she could not understand it. She had seen so much anger and misery in the minds she had truth-read. Nervously, she glanced behind her at the polished hull of the Guild Headquarters, her landmark of safety and shelter.
In the front row of spectators, sitting in canvas chairs covered with sun shades, swarthy Hektor Carsus sat beside his betrothed, landholder Janine Bondalar, who was at least fifteen years the man’s senior. The two held hands and stared woodenly ahead, waiting to hear Kalliana’s judgment about the man accused of killing so many of their workers.
Kalliana wondered what they wanted to hear—did the allied landholders wish to find a scapegoat so they could start another feud with somebody? Hadn’t Atlas already suffered enough bloody civil wars during its two centuries of colonial history?
But it didn’t matter what Carsus and Bondalar wanted to hear. Kalliana would speak the truth of the case. The consequences were not her concern.
The Guild’s other eleven Truthsayers sat on shaded stone benches to the side of the stage; many of the crimson-sashed Guild Mediators, those who had lesser telepathic powers but greater skills as negotiators and politicians, had also come to watch Kalliana’s pronouncement, though they were not required to witness the spectacle.
From the height of the raised platform, Kalliana looked down at the intimidating sea of faces, all strangers to her. The citizens gazed up at their Truthsayer. They did not know her, because their names were not divulged. To them, all Truthsayers were identical, equally trained, equally capable.
And they were right.
The Guild Master took the center of the stage, raising his arms so that the wide white sleeves of his robe pooled around his elbows. His bright blue sash made him look regal; his sun-yellow hair blew in the breeze.
“The Truthsayers Guild does everything in its power to see that you remain safe,” Tharion said, thrusting his voice into the hush of the crowd. As he grew more accustomed to his position as Guild Master, his voice seemed to grow stronger, Kalliana thought. “Your lives are difficult enough, trying to wring an existence from our untamed world, and we do all we can so that you may go about your business without fear of violent crime or war.
“But sometimes we fail. Here, the Guild has failed twenty-three citizens, now dead, found murdered as they worked to construct a new mag-lev rail line that would have benefited the holdings of Carsus and Bondalar.” Tharion drew a deep breath, and paused meaningfully.
“When the Guild fails to protect the people, the best thing we can do is to make certain that justice is done, that a criminal does not escape punishment—and that an innocent person is not convicted of someone else’s crime. Today, the Truthsayer will determine the guilt or innocence of the man accused of these murders. The dead cannot be brought back to life, but your safety can be assured.”
Tharion swept his pale gaze over the gathered people, hesitating on the calm figures of Hektor Carsus and Janine Bondalar, then moved on to glance at the other landholders, each standing separate from their rivals in the crowd. Kalliana noted that Tharion’s friend and mentor, the landholder Franz Dokken, had not bothered to attend the trial.
“Over the years,” Tharion continued, “despite the best efforts of the Council, some landholders have still attempted to settle disputes through violence, or to usurp lands or resources that have not been distributed to them. For generations, under the authority of the Truthsayers Guild, regiments of soldier-police have been stationed at each holding to deter such hostilities. In the wake of these new murders, I have asked that the sol-pols step up their patrols, keep a more diligent watch for violence brewing in outlying lands as well as here in First Landing. Until we can all work together, Atlas will never become the Eden we were promised it would be.”
Looking satisfied, Tharion took a step backward until he stood next to Kalliana again. “Now let us determine the truth about Eli Strone, and learn whether or not we can sleep safely tonight.”
Guild Master Tharion gestured, and one of the white-sashed Guild children came up to Kalliana bearing an ornate brass and copper case that held a booster dose of the precious Veritas drug. Kalliana took the case without smiling, and the white-robed child ran back to her companions.
From the gilded, fingerprint-locked cache, Kalliana withdrew one of the sky-blue Veritas capsules. She rolled its smooth shape in her palm. Then, turning her back to the crowd and looking up at the towering metal curves of the Guild Headquarters, she popped the pill into her mouth.
Drawing a long breath, she cracked down on the capsule to make it work faster. The bitter syrup spilled along her tongue, down her throat. She swallowed repeatedly as she gazed up at the motto of the Truthsayers Guild emblazoned on the metal bulkhead over the arching structure of the derelict starship. She stared at it hypnotically, concentrating, focusing.
Truth Holds No Secrets.
Kalliana straightened her white robe, swallowed, and let the Veritas boil within her mind. She closed her dusty blue eyes, nodded, then opened them again. One of the elite guards gestured. From the detention decks beneath the Guild Headquarters, Eli Strone emerged.
Already feeling the psychic rush building in her mind, Kalliana turned to look as the accused murderer was brought before her.
When Strone walked forward, a mental hush fell over the crowd. Kalliana detected a faint, indescribable change in the smell of the air, like ozone. A cool breeze rippled across her white robes, as if presaging a storm from the gunmetal gray clouds. She stiffened.
Tall and angular, Eli Strone seemed incredibly placid. His face showed nothing but peace, and he presented a totally cooperative demeanor—but the sol-pol guards had shackled his ankles and chained his wrists, nonetheless. These were primarily symbolic bonds, because if Kalliana pronounced him innocent, she would remove the chains herself, freeing Strone in front of all the spectators. But the bonds also kept the prisoner under control on the off chance that he turned violent.
Kalliana looked down at the accused, bracing herself, but not yet releasing her telepathic abilities. She wasn’t ready, but she couldn’t show it. She rubbed sweaty palms against her white robe. The weight of the golden collar on her shoulders seemed to increase as she studied the man before her.
The big man wore a gray jumpsuit, barefoot, bare-handed. His knuckles were large and bony, his wide hands callused as if he was accustomed to heavy labor. His hair was a rich, chocolate brown, cut short, but with an unruliness that implied wild curls. What did his thoughts hold?
If Strone had actually committed the killings, Kalliana would find out the moment she looked into his mind—and he knew it. The entire justice system depended on the infallibility of the Veritas drug. No one on Atlas could get away with a crime if brought before a telepathic Truthsayer. The guilty ones often confessed and accepted a lighter punishment rather than be taken before a Truthsayer. Therefore, since Strone insisted he was innocent, Guild Master Tharion’s suggested conspiracy might indeed be true. And that would mean the real murderer remained out in society, uncaught.
Eli Strone stood directly before her, gazing into the bright wash of translucent sky. Something about him made Kalliana’s skin crawl: an inhuman quality that made him seem aloof from his own circumstances. His eyes, the color of rusty water, were wide, almost circular with unblinking detachment. Guilty or not, he was a strange one, no question about that.
Strone gave her a thin-lipped smile and raised his chin. Kalliana focused her mind. The sol-pol guards placed their hands on their weapons. The gathered audience in the plaza held its breath.
Kalliana touched Eli Strone’s temples with her short delicate fingers. She closed her eyes —
And entered a chamber of horrors.
The first work gang of eight: he had shot them all in the middle of the night as they slept huddled for warmth under their tents in the wasteland. The blood was black as oil in the starlight.
Strone cleared his thoughts to make it easy for Kalliana. Proud, he wanted the Truthsayer to see, to understand. He thought of nothing but what he had done to those abominably guilty human beings. He expected some sort of reward for what he had done.
Strone had been with the team only three days—but that was enough for him to see their sins, the guilt written all over their faces, their expressions, their manners. They coveted things that didn’t belong to them, they fantasized about other men’s wives, they thought of violence toward one another. They were so twisted. Their evil ran so very deep. In these outlying lands there was no one to dispense justice … no one but himself.
Sick with revulsion at their guilt, Strone had crept out of his own tent, blinking his eyes in the watery light of the silent greenish aurora overhead. The mag-lev rail under construction stood like a sentinel, a silver line drawn by a hooked claw across the rocky landscape, raised up on boxlike pedestals with induction coils, transformers, and magnetic boosters. Dust blew across the open desert like a lost sigh.
Strone had killed the sentry first, lulling the man by distracting him, volunteering to take night watch for a few hours since he couldn’t sleep anyway. Then, Strone had balled his fist and punched like a sledgehammer into the side of the man’s head, cracking the eggshell-thin temple bone. As the sentry slumped, Strone wrapped his forearm around the man’s neck, settling the chin into the crook of his elbow. He knelt, using his knee and his back muscles to snap the sentry’s neck so thoroughly that Strone could have ripped his entire head off if he had pulled just a little harder. That wouldn’t be necessary, though.
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