Free Fiction Monday: Voyeuristic Tendencies

Free Fiction Monday: Voyeuristic Tendencies

Maggie knows things. She reads a person’s thoughts and uses that information to make a living.

But when she meets the old man, everything changes. He knows things he shouldn’t, things that threaten Maggie’s sense of security.

He also says he knows her future. And that terrifies her more than anything.

Providing a whole new perspective to a beloved classic, “Voyeuristic Tendencies” is an homage to Robert Silverberg’s novel Dying Inside.

“Voyeuristic Tendencies” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.

 

 

Voyeuristic Tendencies

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

 

The old man found me. I didn’t know how. That was my first concern. How did he find me? How did he even know to look for me?

No one finds me. I am a ghost. I find other people. I spy on other people and they do not know it. I learn everything about them, and they never even see me.

No one sees me, except a few delivery guys. Various ages, various ethnicities. And only a few of them remember me, and only because they’ve been coming to the apartment for a very long time. To the rest, I’m the androgynous skinny kid in the unwashed t-shirt and ancient jeans, grabbing some crumpled twenties from my pocket, then snatching the greasy bag away as if I haven’t eaten for a week.

I always eat. That’s rule number one.

Rule number two? Sleep—at least eight hours.

Keep the mind fresh.

The old man tells me sleep doesn’t matter. Food doesn’t matter. All those exercises the “experts” recommend for keeping a sound mind well into your dotage—those don’t matter either. Crossword puzzles, music lessons, one hour of exercise per day—none of it will matter.

I will lose my mind somewhere around forty.

When the old man says he lost his.

 

***

 

The old man found me in, of all places, the Carnegie Deli.

I love the Carnegie Deli. It’s so big I can slide in after a show ends, listen to the theater traffic, pick up tidbits from the tourists excited to be in “The Big Apple.”

Like we call it that. New Yorkers. To us, it’s the City, a place the tourists visit and pollute with their Disneyfication and their gawky mawkishness at Ground Zero. They get coffee at Starbucks and eat at the McDonald’s on Times Square, spurning the real places, showing up at Sardi’s and the Carnegie only because it’s part of their theater package or because the concierge at their hotel recommended it for the real New York experience.

The Carnegie, it is a New York experience. A real deli, serving real corned beef and matzo ball soup and cheesecake made from real homemade cream cheese, so light and fluffy you wouldn’t know it has more calories than a Big Mac with fries, not that I care. I can eat a gigantic slice of Carnegie cheesecake every week, along with some real New York pizza, one of Nathan’s dogs, a bagel every morning and twice on Sundays and never gain weight.

That’s one of my special talents—a real talent, considering I’m female and most females store fat for that day when their body fulfills its primary use and carries a child. Maybe mine knows it’ll never carry a child, so it doesn’t do the yeoman’s work.

Or maybe the high metabolism is a result of my other special talent, the one that brings me to the Carnegie.

After all, the old man had that same talent, and the old man was never fat.

I know this because he’s shown me pictures. He even had me read his journal, written in 1976, when he lost it all. That was an experience, let me tell you, reading some old man’s secret thoughts. It’s not like what I usually do. Usually I steal a moment, maybe troll for some secrets, and then I get the hell out.

This guy voluntarily wrote this crap down, about women and douching and muffdiving (he doesn’t call it that) and taking LSD and sleeping around and all the good and the bad, mostly the bad, of his small little life.

We all have small little lives, but most of us aren’t aware of that. Those lives seem important to us.

And I can speak in the Royal We because I know. I’ve been in other people’s minds.

That’s what I do. I peer. I slide in, steal what information I need and a lot that I don’t, and move along. I am a one-way telepath. A stealth telepath, if you will.

I can reach in, explore, learn all about you, and you’ll never even know I was there. But I can’t talk to you. I can’t fill your brain with my thoughts. I can’t send over long distances. Hell, I can’t send over short ones, not even if we were touching foreheads and concentrating.

I can only nab what’s in your head—and it’s not like reading.

It’s like peering in, looking through a foggy window—at least at first—and then things become clearer and clearer and suddenly I’m inside. Your thoughts to my thoughts or my thoughts to your thoughts, whatever the hell Spock says in the Vulcan mindmeld.

Only Star Trek likens a mindmeld to rape at worst, a joining at best. As usual, the larger culture gets it wrong.

It’s not a joining. It’s more like a piggybacking, a parasitical adventure. You don’t even know I’m there, unless I reveal myself—verbally, aloud, I make some kind of mistake, knowing something I shouldn’t know.

And even then, who suspects telepathy? I’ve been accused of overhearing phone conversations, of peeping through keyholes, of reading private emails.

I do none of those things.

I don’t have to.

I just have to dip into your mind, and I know it all.

Or at least, I know what you know. For that moment anyway.

And sometimes—often—that moment is enough.

 

***

 

So, the old man. The old man is David Selig, seventy-five, graduate of Columbia University, Class of 1956. Has an apartment he bought in the late 1970s with a down payment he borrowed from his sister. She took pity on him, because he had lost everything—her words, not his, although he thought that accurate at the time.

Lost everything and gained a comfortable life. Amazing, he thinks even now with a sense of disbelieving awe, amazing the benefits a normal life can bring.

I don’t believe that. I don’t want a normal life. I like mine. I’m thirty-two years old, live in an apartment I bought at the height of the real estate boom with money I earned because of my special talent. I don’t regret the loss of equity these past few years. I don’t regret paying too much. I like where I live. I like the stone building with the thick, old-fashioned walls, the solid floors. So many in Manhattan complain about the noise, but I don’t hear much of it. I’m protected by masonry and windows two inches thick, a corner apartment overlooking a little-used courtyard, and one giant television set in the second bedroom (yes, I have a second bedroom) along with Bluetooth headphones that broadcast in stereo.

I can literally shut out the world, and I do on a regular basis. After reading the old man’s journal, I think he didn’t shut it out enough.

But I didn’t tell him that.

I didn’t tell him anything. I never tell anyone anything.

Why should the old man be any different?

 

***

 

He scared me when he slid into my booth at the Carnegie a few weeks ago, smiled, and said, “Maggie,” like he’d known me all my life. He even called me Maggie the Cat, which is what my dad called me from when I was little, not—like I used to think—because I padded through the house on little cat’s feet (I was a great lover of Sandburg, even from an early age) but because of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which I wasn’t allowed to see or read until high school, and then I saw it on Broadway, and felt shocked that my dad—my prudent prissy dad—would nickname his daughter after such a woman.

But Maggie, they tell me, was my grandmother’s nickname, although my father never would have called her Maggie the Cat, even if she had deserved it in later years. (Sometimes he would wonder how he could be so embarrassed by the woman who gave birth to him, and I would so want to volunteer to tell him, but I never could since he never expressed the thought out loud.)

But the old man, who didn’t remind me of my father at all, said, “Maggie,” as if he had known me, as if we’d met. We hadn’t met. I would have remembered him.

He didn’t look seventy-five. He was that nebulous age men get where they could be a distinguished fifty or a well preserved eighty. His back was straight, his hair so silver it looked like it could have come from a bottle. No wrinkles, except around his eyes, and those looked more sun-kissed than anything. He was slender, and he had sharp features—high cheekbones, a pointed chin—which kept him from looking too old.

And those eyes. Clear, and filled with a deep intelligence.

“Do I know you?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. I’d had a sense of him as he came into the deli. Lifelong New Yorker, a bit of contempt for the tourist crowd, disliking the bright lights from the remodel up front, remembering an older, more distinguished deli that seemed—from his memory at least—a bit shabbier, but cozier, and the food homier.

Not that it could be homier for me. I was eating pastrami on rye, stacked so high that I couldn’t bite it without mashing it down. String fries on a separate plate, and the best coleslaw in the city, bar none. I was eating slowly, trying not to fill up, because this was once-a-month-cheesecake day, even though I’d had a slice the previous week, celebrating a large success and an even larger check.

I had left his mind after that initial unpromising encounter, dipped into a few others, searching for a somewhat furtive tourist mind, one that held just a bit more guilt than usual and a touch of excitement as well.

I hadn’t found one yet, but I would before the night was out. Then I’d search even harder, find the name of a spouse or someone who “couldn’t know”—and dig until I found the address or a phone number. God bless cell phones. Seriously. People look at them, see the numbers and don’t really see them at all.

But I do.

Then I tap them into my iPhone, and let technology do the walking. I got an illegal app downloaded from a floating site that gives me the power to find everything from a credit history to an email address with just a few taps on my clear little screen.

My iPhone is my own personal god. I use it to take pictures, capture information, and write my emails, all of which allow me to get a lot of money from unsuspecting people.

Or I should say, previously unsuspecting people.

I troll the Carnegie to get the out-of-towners. The ones whose spouses are on vacation—often with someone else’s spouse—so excited over the illicitness of it all that their brains broadcast.

I get the illicitness, the secrecy, the guilt, and the arousal it all brings from their minds. I get the phone number by looking from their eyes at their own cell phone screens. I get names, email addresses, and income verification from my lovely little app. Then I find out where they’re staying with their paramour, along with their schedule. I show up at the hotel as they’re checking out or if I’m really ambitious, for breakfast.

I take pictures in the deli first. Usually innocuous things on the surface—an intimate smile, a clasp of hands on the tabletop, a kiss promising more later.

Usually it’s more than enough to show the cuckolded spouse the lovers in the deli in New York. The deli photos usually work because the cheating spouse isn’t supposed to be in a deli or even in New York. The cheating spouses have lied, saying they’re traveling somewhere else, working late in the office, any one of a dozen excuses. The excuses are even easier now, because of cell phones. (Gotta love ’em.) Now the cheating spouse can be in, say, Cancun, and the cuckolded spouse can just call the cell, and the cheating spouse can look at the weather channel and say, Jeez, you wouldn’t believe the snow here in Denver, and the cuckolded spouse says, you should see it here at home and oh? How did the meeting go? And the cheating spouse makes up some lie or maybe it’s not a lie like, The meeting went beautifully. Only the cuckolded and the cheating spouses would be talking about two different kinds of meetings.

That’s the beauty of what I do, the meeting of my mind with the cheating spouse’s. I not only get the images, the furtive guilt, and a few voyeuristic memories to tide me over on the lonely nights, I also get the excuses, full blown and clear. Often I get the excuses first, in fact, because the cheating spouses are always worried about how to spin the trip so that they don’t get caught in a lie.

Except by little nosy parasites like me.

I take the pictures and make notes of the lies. I gather up a few clients on tourist nights, because those are the most lucrative. Experts say a cheating spouse spends upwards of 5K over the space of a year for an out-of-town affair, so that spouse comes from a household where 5K can be spent, spun, and not really missed.

Which means my fee looks cheap by comparison.

And that’s what I say when I email the poor cuckolded spouse. I use a high-end laptop for the email. I bought the laptop for cash in Chicago, even though I use it in New York. That’s the first sidestep, should anyone want to track me. The next is the email addresses I use. I use seven different proxy sites, bouncing my emails through countries that don’t cooperate with U.S. investigations very often.

I learned a lot from some pedophiles I found accidentally (those are minds you really don’t want to troll). I gathered information on them too, and mailed it to the police. I do that occasionally, find people doing something illegal, and I get proof and I stop it. But from a distance. No one ever knows it’s me, just like the cheating spouses never know I ratted them out. I spy, literally. Invisibly. I make good use of my voyeuristic tendencies.

At least, I like to think so.

In the case of the pedophiles, I learned a lot on my way to getting them arrested. I learned how many proxy servers it takes to keep a website hidden and how many emails you should send before you shut down the account and get a new one and how to scrub your computer (laptop) so that no one can find incriminating photos—and on and on and on.

Those guys were a wealth of information, which I feel was more than enough compensation for the crap memories they gave me, the ones I’ll never be able to get out of my mind.

I gotta tell you, there are times this mind-surfing stuff is just plain disgusting. So disgusting you want to scrub your mind the way you’d scrub a gas station toilet before you ever sat down on the damn thing.

I use a lot of those computer skills in my cheating spouse business, which is where I make the bulk of my money. I send the anonymous email, say I’m a friend they actually know—often, I pick convincing details from a variety of friends, courtesy of the cheating spouse’s traitorous mind—and then I volunteer to hire someone who can spy and see if this is more than an innocent misunderstanding.

One in ten say no, they trust good old cheating spouse.

But those nine who say yes do so within a day, and then I contact them with a new email address, pretending to be the private detective mentioned by me in a previous email, a private detective who takes payment via Paypal, thank you very much. Five hundred dollar retainer, more if they want video, and I promise to have the entire thing resolved within a few days.

A week’s work would pay my bills. But there are so many people out there, and so much trolling, and I get out a lot, this being New York, and I don’t like having a lot of interaction—at least of the talking kind—so I usually have five to seven years expenses in the bank, not counting the investments—and me, I never invested in securities or those risky derivatives or anything that wasn’t pretty much a sure thing, just because I knew the financial guys weren’t investing in the products they were peddling either. And if they’re not going to put their money in their products, neither am I.

But I digress.

Because the old man bothers me.

He’s bothered me since I met him.

He sat down, looked at me with those clear, intelligent eyes, and said, “Maggie the Cat,” and then he waited.

In fact, he waited for me to say, “Do I know you?” because he knew I’d make a verbal gambit while I slid into his mind.

Hello, he thought. I can almost feel you barging around in here.

He replayed the thought twice, which let me know he couldn’t feel me, but by then I was so startled, I almost backed out.

I’d met a few other stealth telepaths—that’s creepy enough. They read me, I read them—it almost mimics real telepathy.

But the old man had no telepathy.

Now.

He’d had it and lost it, two years before I was born.

There’s an empty spot in his mind, a burned out spot. I’d felt empty spots before, in Alzheimer’s sufferers (please God don’t ever let that happen to me), in people with traumatic brain injuries—that kind that impair their minds, and in people in comas (I tested that only a few times. Never again. Sometimes there’re awake, trapped people in there, screaming but making no real sound).

But I’d only experienced the burned out empty spot a few other times before, mostly in recovering drug addicts. (You can’t tell with current drug addicts. They’re scary and I stay away from them, because otherwise, I might share their trip.) The recovering longtime addicts have a lot of empty spots in their brains. These folks are never quite right again, even if they’re off the junk, and I know why.

It’s like someone fried the circuits. Literally. There are normal connections, and then there are gaps. Big gaps. Empty spots. But more precisely, burned out spots. Like a fire went through, but only destroyed selected parts of the building. The rest remains standing, but no one rebuilds the ruined parts.

The old man had a burned out part. I checked. He only had one drug trip, and that one was accidental and odd, leaving no chemical reaction. It wasn’t until I read his papers later that I realized he had vicariously shared an LSD trip, and it had destroyed a relationship with a woman he truly cared about.

I almost felt sad for him then. But I didn’t entirely, because I wanted to know how he found me. Why he found me. What he wanted from me.

And those thoughts were carefully guarded in his mind.

Most people, when they guard, make the mistake of putting the guarded thoughts front and center. But the old man, he knew the best way to guard against a stealth telepath is to forget what you know. Put it away, far away, and don’t think about it. Deny it. Don’t remember it. Certainly don’t concentrate on it.

My frustration must have shown on my face, because he smiled.

Then he stood. “I know you have questions,” he said aloud. “I’ll answer them tomorrow—at your usual Friday lunch place.”

And he walked away. Quickly, almost at a jog.

He knew, the bastard. He knew how hard it was to probe over a distance, how much harder it was to go deep in a crowd. Other thoughts intrude, thoughts not his, not mine, random thoughts, other people’s thoughts.

Guilty thoughts.

Damn. There were potential jobs in this deli.

That thought was enough to distract me, just for a moment, and I lost the thread of the old man’s mind. David Selig’s mind.

David Selig, Columbia graduate Class of 1956’s mind.

I pulled out my iPhone and began tapping.

But for once, the damn program wasn’t helping me. It was telling me things I already knew.

 

***

 

Five potential clients. Five. A better than average night.

I should’ve been elated.

Instead, it was everything I could do to get home, upload the pictures, and send the first emails. I had four hotels to hit in the next three days. (One couple was a twofer—she was guilty, he was guilty, they both worried about their spouses—and each other’s spouses. [How civilized of them.])

I did my work, stared at my big screen, and thought about some mindless entertainment, but I knew it wouldn’t help.

I needed more information on Selig.

I spent half the night trolling the web, and found out a bunch of random, somewhat useless things.

David Selig wrote for a living. Useful things, cheater kind of things, like English Literature for Dummies (which wasn’t the exact title, since he wrote for a Dummies rip-off company, not the real Dummies company). He wrote teacher’s guides on how to spot forged term papers. (I didn’t realize the irony until later, when I learned he used to make his living writing term papers for lazy students.) He wrote all kinds of things, as well as freelanced edited, and freelanced copy edited.

He even wrote one novel, badly received, on, of all things, telepathy. The dumb reviewers claimed that Selig didn’t add anything new, that he seemed not to understand the phenomenon at all.

I was of half a mind to order the book, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure how deep I wanted to get with this guy.

I had no idea then that we’d get deeper than I ever expected.

 

***

 

“How did you find me?” I asked.

We were in the Chinese restaurant around the corner from my apartment. I didn’t know the name of the place because I’d never bothered to look. It was old like the Carnegie Deli, but had never been remodeled. Ancient food smells caked the interior like the yellow paint.

I had ordered family style before he arrived, figuring if the old guy had been bluffing, I would have food for the next few days. A gigantic bowl of hot and sour soup steamed on the Lazy Susan, along with an appetizer platter and a big plate of General Tso’s chicken. The old guy showed up and added a platter of stir-fry chicken with asparagus, a meal designed more for the health conscious than the things I’d ordered.

I’d ignored his food, concentrating on mine while I waited for him to answer. I wasn’t asking how he found my regular Friday lunch spot, although I very well could have been. I was asking how he found me. Just me.

He ignored my question, at least at first, maybe waiting for me to probe his mind for it. I could, I suppose, but that empty spot in his brain bothered me. I deliberately didn’t touch him mentally, listening instead to the random noise around me. Most of the thoughts were from the staff, and they weren’t in English. They were in Mandarin or some other dialect, which I didn’t speak. Sometimes you could get context from mood, but I wasn’t trying. I let the unfamiliar sounds wash over me like a piece of music I hadn’t heard before.

Finally, the old man used his chopsticks to remove a pot sticker from the appetizer platter.

“It bothers you that I found you,” he said. “That’s why you want to know.”

He smiled at me. I dug into my General Tso’s chicken, keeping an eye on him, and trying to conceal my own expression.

He was irritating me already. People did that. In direct conversation, they often bothered me, just because their thoughts ran a half to a full step ahead of what they were going to say, and what they edited was a lot more interesting than what actually came out of their mouths.

But I wasn’t monitoring his brain. I just didn’t like his tone.

“You know what’s fascinating,” he said. “If you want to find someone nowadays, all you have to do is Google, and you get all kinds of information about a person.”

He couldn’t have Googled me and found me. I’d done it, which showed me just how little information there was on me. My name only appears a few times—in two separate alumni lists, one from high school and another from college—and in the blog of an old boyfriend who called me freaky and weird, which was a lot better than the terms he used for other old girlfriends, who were generally (according to him) slutty and stupid.

“All you need are a few contacts,” the old man said, “and you can go beyond Google. You can, for example, find a driver’s license or track a credit card or—”

“What do you want from me?” I snapped. I no longer cared if he knew that he was bothering me. He was trying to bother me, and he was succeeding.

He set the chopsticks down. He hadn’t eaten the pot sticker. It sat in a pool of soy sauce, getting soggy and inedible.

“You’re related to a man by the name of Tom Nyquist.” All of the charm (what little there was of it) had left the old man’s manner. He was deadly serious now.

I didn’t know the name Tom Nyquist. I searched my memory, seeing if I’d ever run across it, and just as I was about to deny the connection, I remembered that there were Nyquists on my mother’s side.

“I never met a Tom Nyquist,” I said.

“I would be surprised if you had,” the old man said. “He avoided family.”

“No one ever mentioned him,” I said.

“That’s not a surprise either,” the old man said. “He’s a cousin five times removed or something like that. Your great-grandmother’s cousin, I think. I’m don’t remember exactly.”

But he did remember exactly. I got the self-satisfaction of that thought without even trying. However, I didn’t probe to find out the exact relationship.

Instead, I ate another bite of the General Tso’s then decided it was greasier than usual today. I grabbed a spring roll. “So? I might be related to some guy. So what?”

“So everything,” the old man said. “There’s a genetic component to your—what do you call it? Talent?”

That’s what he used to call his. Along with a curse and a blessing and a special gift, and all those things you use when you’re ambivalent about a part of yourself.

I shrugged. I wasn’t going to tell him anything.

“That genetic component is rare. In my lifetime—or at least, in the lifetime of my gift—I’d only met a few people with the same ability. A few—”

And there he had a dim memory of a boy in school, a boy he hadn’t liked. Somehow I was inside the old man’s head even though I didn’t want to be. That meant his personality was powerful.

As if I couldn’t have figured that much out on my own.

“—didn’t have much ability at all. Just a glimmer. But some had it strong. Just like I did. Just like you do.”

“You think you know something about me,” I said.

“I do know something about you,” he said. “I know how you make your living. Smart, that. But sad, too. And dicey. It could get you in trouble.”

“I don’t do anything against the law.” I sounded defensive, even to me.

He looked at me for a long moment, sizing me up. I almost dove deeper into his mind then, but I held back. Sometimes you really don’t want to know what someone else is thinking.

“I suppose, technically, you’re right,” he said. “There are no laws against what you do because so few people can do it.”

My cheeks warmed. I poured myself a cup of oolong tea just to cover my own discomfort.

“It wasn’t your work that gave you away, though,” he said. “It was your blog.”

I started. No one was supposed to know about my blog. I signed up for it under a false name on a freebie site, and accessed it through my favorite proxy servers.

“Random Thoughts,” he said. “Cute title. Enough to make people nervous, I bet, since the random thoughts aren’t yours. They’re theirs.”

The real name of the blog was Random Thoughts Overheard Around New York. I did post random thoughts, the most interesting, the most unusual, the most bizarre. Sometimes I made comments—but usually only when I got mad.

I didn’t get a lot of visitors, but those I did get returned often.

“Your proxy servers are good,” the old man said, “but my guy’s better. He found you. And you were on my list.”

I didn’t ask what list. I went into his brain this time. I was tired of the dance, tired of trying to stay out. He had something to tell me, and he was going to tell me the way most people did—avoiding the center of the topic, going at the edges, taking my damn time until I asked enough questions to show both interest and ignorance. Then he might—might—tell me what caused him to track me down.

The list was the beginning. His list was a long one. It had the names of all the biological relatives of himself and this Tom Nyquist. Selig never married. His family line ended with him; his sister was adopted. But he had cousins and second cousins and all kinds of peripheral relatives.

Nyquist had never married either, but he had accidentally fathered a few children. He also had a slew of nieces and nephews, whom I apparently descended from.

The list had actual highlights in Selig’s mind. The highlights were in various reddish hues. It only took me a moment to figure out that he had highlighted anyone with a glimmer of telepathic ability. I found it amusing that he actually mentally saw the highlights in color.

If I hadn’t already known the man was a perennial student, I would have realized it then. That highlighting of important information was trained, so ingrained in the older generations that they often thought in highlights—but usually in faded yellow highlights, covering black and white thoughts.

Selig’s highlights were easy to track, not only because they were in color, but because he had memorized the names (and addresses) of the important ones. Out of several hundred relatives on both sides of both families that he found, there were about five names in red, four in pink (lesser talents, he dubbed them) and a few a pale rose.

My name was bright red and starred.

“So I’m related to these people. So what?” I said, mostly to keep him talking while I investigated the answers myself.

The deeper I went, the more emotion I found. Beneath it all, an anger, a sense of loss so profound that it almost unhinged me. Selig wanted his talent back. He wanted it back and he wanted—

“—to use it to communicate. I think we only got half of the talent,” he said. It took me a moment to realize that the calm words he was speaking matched the charged emotions I found in his head. “If there’s a genetic component, it has to be more than just a random mutation. The genes had to exist for a reason. And it stands to reason that there’s another group out there, one that can insert thoughts.”

I shuddered. Insert thoughts. Instead of passively receiving other people’s thoughts, someone would be able to control what others actually thought.

I had tried doing that early on, particularly with good-looking boys back when I was in school. I wanted them to think I was attractive. I wanted them to see me as something other than the skinny toothpick of a girl whom they felt sorry for because she wasn’t pretty or built or even very interesting.

Little did they know about how interesting I was.

And that was the problem. Little did they or anyone else know.

Except this Selig guy.

He knew—and it made me uncomfortable.

“You don’t have any talent any more,” I said as brutally as I could, mostly to shut him up.

It worked too. His mouth clamped closed, and anger flared at me—stupid cunt, who the hell does she think she’s talking to? Doesn’t she know—and then he clamped on the thoughts as well, getting up, leaving his napkin on the table, murmuring an excuse, and I thought—stupidly and inconsequentially—that he was leaving me with the bill, not that it mattered, I could afford it, but it was that kind of rudeness, that kind of thoughtlessness that made people undesirable to me, any interaction always left me feeling like I was stuck with the bill, the emotional bill mostly, the shadow of someone else’s pain or the force of someone else’s anger, the names he just called me in his head, the filth trailing away with him as he disappeared—not out the door, but in that narrow corridor that housed the men’s room.

He was calming down.

I had to do the same.

I pulled the wadded twenties out of my front pocket. I never carry a purse because a purse would identify me as female. Nowadays I like being the androgynous scrawny kid, even though I’m really not a kid any more.

I had gotten most of the answers I wanted. He found me through a name, a relationship, a blog, and “a guy” who had hacked his way to me, just like I hacked my way to my clients.

And he wanted something from me, something that had to do with that burned out spot in his brain.

I had long ago stopped caring about people who wanted something from me. It turned out most human interactions were all about wanting. Wanting to ease loneliness. Wanting to get information. Wanting to get even the scrawny girl into bed because a little sex with an ugly person was better than none at all.

I waved the money at the waiter, who came over with some to-go boxes, bags, and the check. I put the twenties on top of the check and was packing up the food when Selig came back.

“Caught you. Good,” he said. “Because otherwise I would have had to go to your apartment.”

He said that to put me off balance, and it worked. Of course he knew where I lived. Of course. He had found my blog which was the hardest thing about me to track, so he had found everything else as well—the bank accounts, the investments, and the apartment with my address front and center and only around the damn corner.

He was still angry, but he had tamped it back, knowing that I could have found worse things, things that would have angered him more, and I hadn’t.

I could look now, but I didn’t want to.

I just wanted this lunch to end.

“Sit.” he said.

I did, leaving the food half packed. I stared at him as the waiter brought back my change. I didn’t touch that either.

Selig held out a giant cotton swab wrapped in plastic. “All I’m asking is that you rub this on the inside of your cheek. I’m going to send it to a lab for a DNA profile. It’ll be anonymous.”

I stared at him.

“We’re doing a study,” he said, his mouth a quarter step behind his thoughts. “You, the others I can find, to see if there’s—”

I stopped listening to his words and concentrated on his thoughts. They were looking for a genetic marker for telepathy. This was actually legitimate research, with real funding, albeit from a private company out of California. The daughter of one of the red highlighted names, who knew all about the telepathy and hated it, decided to see if she could find the marker so that she could abort any of her fetuses who had it.

Selig disapproved of that. He disapproved of a lot of reasons behind the research, but he was willing to use her. Just like he was willing to use a few other interested parties, to see if they could find the corresponding gene, the one that allowed thoughts to transmit.

Privately, he wondered if some of the people called charismatic had that ability. The power to charm, to persuade, might simply be a mental push—

“Bullshit,” I said. “There’re no mental pushes. I would have found them in all the searching I did. No one ever convinces anyone else of anything, not just by thinking of it.”

He looked startled. Apparently his thoughts were way ahead of his mouth or maybe he hadn’t meant to say any of that.

I had probed deeper than I had planned.

“You just want this research to work so that you can get your power back,” I said. “You feel so weak and ineffectual without it. You—”

“I felt weak and ineffectual with it,” he said. “It doesn’t change your life.”

“You don’t believe that,” I said. Because he didn’t. He missed it. He missed knowing what people thought. He really missed learning where he stood with other people, who they really believed him to be, what they wanted him to be.

He missed it now, in conversation with me.

“You should care about this research,” he said. “Because you’re going to lose your ability. Everyone does. I’ve studied that too. Somewhere around forty, forty-one, forty-two, it just fades away. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I felt stunned. I probed a bit more, saw the evidence he had seen—everyone he had known with the gift (from a glimmering to a full-blown power) had lost it in middle age.

My stomach clenched—and I knew that wasn’t because of the greasy General Tso’s.

Another word floated through his head.

Yet. That was the word. There’s nothing you could do about it. Yet.

Because behind the hocus-pocus and the dream of two-way telepathy, he hoped for gene therapy. Maybe some stem cell research, the ability to regrow that burned-out portion of the brain.

His hope was so deep that it pained me.

I looked away.

Then I grabbed the stupid cotton swab. I opened the package, pulled out the swab and rubbed it on the inside of my cheek. Then I held the wet thing out to him.

“Now what?”

But he was already pulling out a plastic container.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll let you know the results.”

“Please don’t,” I said.

He looked at me then, his face full of contempt. “You’ll wonder.”

“No, I won’t,” I said.

“When your abilities go,” he said. “You’ll wonder if I found the solution, if I could have helped you before the talent frizzed out. Because that’s what mine did. It frizzed out. Like a radio signal, getting dimmer and dimmer, until you can’t hear a damn thing. You’re all alone in your head.”

I wanted to be alone in my head. I’ve always wanted that. I live among crowds because it’s safer than living with one other person. Crowds provide white noise. One other person’s thoughts seep into mine, like his had done.

But I also live among crowds because I can’t stand to be alone. Living in a house on some deserted island would drive me insane. I need interaction. I need to see varied faces. I need stimulation from new cuisines to new entertainments, and I wouldn’t get any of that by being alone.

“Your scientists won’t find anything,” I said.

“Nonsense,” he said. “We will. You know we will. We’ve already found a lot. We’ll find more. And you’ll want to know.”

I could feel his desperation as if it were my own. Or maybe it was my own. He had tapped into something I thought buried. My fear and concern and love of my difference.

That ambivalence, the kind I accused him of. I have it too.

He had tapped into my ambivalence because he still had his. About himself, about his past, and about his present.

He had hated who he was then, and he hated who he was now.

I don’t hate myself, not with the vehemence that he felt.

But I don’t like myself much either.

I feel as trapped by my abilities as he had, maybe more so, because I use my abilities to make my living. He had resisted that, and when he tried, he had done it badly—deliberately, it seemed, because he worried about other people’s privacy.

In the 21st century, privacy is an old-fashioned concept.

Even he had to know that.

“Fine,” I said after a moment. “So tell me. But don’t expect me to care.”

“Oh, you will,” he said. “Believe me you will.”

 

***

 

I played that conversation over and over in my mind. Both of the conversations I had with him, replaying them like a CD stuck on repeat. For a while, I wondered what about the conversations so obsessed me, and then I realized what it was.

He knew me better than anyone else. Certainly better than anyone I knew now, and maybe better than anyone I had known before. I don’t make friends easily, and I had never told anyone about my abilities. Not even my parents.

I hadn’t even really told him. He had figured it out.

Because he had had the same abilities once.

And those old abilities meant he understood me, maybe better than I understood myself.

I did some research on my own, going over the names I’d seen on his list, reviewing, finding the few people he had known who had the same abilities. Tom Nyquist killed himself shortly after his fiftieth birthday—alone and unmourned. Selig was still alive, and so were those people with glimmers—although the glimmers, what they called their intuition, had indeed faded with age.

And that terrified me.

The thought of losing my ability—of having it burn out—terrified me.

I found myself studying professional athletes, wondering how they lived with their inevitable decline. Most of them became regular citizens, like Selig. Forgotten except for dusty images on old sports programs, except for names and stats in old record books.

I wouldn’t be forgotten because I was never known.

And that was how—that was why—I ended up spending more time with the old man. I didn’t believe his genetic pipe dream. I figured there were a lot better uses for gene therapy than rebuilding some psychic’s one-way communications equipment. And I met (and didn’t trust) the lead scientist, a woman set on eradicating psychics with pseudoscience, the way that certain Christian sects wanted to eradicate homosexuality with prayer.

I’m a planner. Worse, I’m a planner with a pessimistic bent. I can’t assume that science will save me. Nor can I hope that I’ll avoid the old man’s fate.

So I had to figure out how to survive that fate, just like star athletes survive retirement. I probed Selig’s mind. I read the journal he kept as the talent faded. And I looked deeply at that burned-out spot. It did seem like a reservoir that had emptied of water, and then imploded by trying to force itself to refill.

I could ease off the probes of other people, but then I might be wasting the last decade of my talent. I wouldn’t panic like Selig had. But I knew I’d be at loose ends, like he was even forty years later.

I needed something to keep me occupied, and that something couldn’t be the dream of a miracle gene therapy resuscitation.

It had to be something else.

And finally, the answer came from a completely unexpected place.

 

***

 

It started with six kids, six teenagers riding the 1 train down the island, trolling, as it turned out, for victims.

I caught edges of their thoughts in a crowded subway car. I wouldn’t have noticed, except that the thoughts were loud and insistent and excited. The kids used to bum bash but had moved on to rich snobs—their term—which really was cover for beating poor middle-class wage earners just trying to survive the day.

The kids played it like a mugging, usually after dark, and they always recorded it. Then they’d upload it to a YouTube wannabe site, competing with other kids for prizes—like the best bruising, the worst beating without serious injury, the most cash recovered, and on and on.

I only figured out who belonged to the thoughts because everyone else on the car was moving away from them. Subtly moving, sliding just a bit to one side or turning their bodies away so their backs would be to the kids.

I couldn’t tell if the movements were because the kids were big—and they were, football big—or because of the things the kids were saying.

I was having trouble differentiating what they were saying from what they were thinking; the thoughts were that loud.

I snuck out my own cell phone and recorded them, capturing audio and visual. If they said anything incriminating at all, I could use it, because I also had their names, their home addresses, and the name of the website along with the titles they’d given to the videos they were oh-so-proud of.

I didn’t follow them—I figured I didn’t need to (and didn’t dare, since my skinny kid looks and my middle class bank balances put me in two of their target demographics). I got home, so furious that I could hardly think.

I logged onto my blog, wrote down their thoughts, wrote down my reaction—and, spent, paused.

I wondered if I’d be able to do this when the ability burned out. This vigilante shit both frightened and exhilarated me. It made me feel a bit like the Batman, fighting crime when no one knew exactly who I was. I’d lose this too, and I’d miss it a lot more than the income. I’d miss this most of all.

I ended the blog with a statement of disgust, then uploaded the video from my cell phone so that I could email it to police.

And as I watched it, I realized that the kids said enough to incriminate themselves. They spoke half of their thoughts aloud, which was why people moved away. They were trying to scare the folks on the train—and they succeeded.

But they also confessed, enough that someone with my tech skills who wasn’t psychic would be able to find their posted videos, enough that I could still contact the police—only without the names and addresses.

And, I would wager, I might have had enough to find that if the kids were in the system. I could illegally download face identification software.

There is no privacy in the 21st century.

That’s what I realized, deep down, maybe for the first time. There is no privacy at all.

And somehow that relieves me. Even worst case still allows me to spy on people. Sure, I can’t find out what they thought of me, but that matters less to me than it had to Selig. I’m more disconnected than he was, and I want to remain that way.

But I want to spy more than he had ever wanted to. And I will still be able to do that.

I will plan for the death of my talent. That’s what I’m calling this potential event. Not some dramatic term like losing my mind. Selig may have lost his, but I’m going to keep mine—at least as much of it as I can.

I eat well.

I sleep every night.

I still do the crosswords and the language exercises. I use my talent, each and every day.

And hope that I’m going to be the lucky one, the one whose talent survives. Because if we’re talking science—and the old man does all the time—we don’t have a large enough statistical sample to know if everyone’s talent flames out at forty or if only a few people’s do. Or maybe, with practice and less angst, the damn talent will remain—like aging athletes in golf and cycling and baseball—tearing down records, doing what was once considered impossible.

The old man scares me, but he also saved me.

He not only gave me hope for the future, but he gave me a future. A future I didn’t even know I had to plan for, at least until I met him.

I repay him with an occasional swab of DNA, a bit more truth than I would give to other people, and some help in his search for more people like us.

I owe him that much.

I owe myself that much.

And we both know it.

 

Voyeuristic Tendencies
Copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The Book of Silverberg, edited by Gardner Dozois and William Schafer, Subterranean Press, April 2014
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2022 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Rolffimages/Dreamstime

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