“Strong, well-written, complex.” The Horn Book on Psion
“One of the most impressive practitioners in the genre.” Science Fiction Chronicle on Joan Vinge
When first published, readers young and old eagerly devoured the tale of a street-hardened survivor named Cat, a half-human, half-alien orphan telepath. Named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Cat's story has been continued by Hugo-award winning and international best-selling author Joan D. Vinge with the very popular Catspaw and Dreamfall. Now, 25/i>/i>
When first published, readers young and old eagerly devoured the tale of a street-hardened survivor named Cat, a half-human, half-alien orphan telepath. Named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Cat's story has been continued by Hugo-award winning and international best-selling author Joan D. Vinge with the very popular Catspaw and Dreamfall. Now, 25 years later, this special anniversary edition of Psion contains a new introduction by the author and "Psiren," a story never before included in any trade edition of Psion. This tough, gritty tale of an outsider whose only chance for redemption is as an undercover agent for an interstellar government that by turns punishes and helps him, is as fresh and powerful today as it was in 1982.
“Strong, well-written, complex.” The Horn Book on Psion
“One of the most impressive practitioners in the genre.” Science Fiction Chronicle on Joan Vinge
It started where it ended, in Quarro. Quarro is the main city on Ardattee, the garden spot of the galaxy, the Hub, the Heart, the Crown of the Federation. Somehow it always looked more like the garbage dump to me; but that was because I lived in Quarro's Oldcity.
My name is Cat. Cat's not my real name, but it fits, and I like it. I don't know my real name. They always called me Cat on the streets because of my eyes: green eyes that see in the dark, that don't look human. I have a face that makes people uneasy. If you want the story of my life, it goes like this: I was standing in an Oldcity alley when I was maybe three or four. I was crying, because the hunger in my belly hadn't gone away, because it was so cold that my fingers were blue--because I wanted somebody to do something about it. Somebody came out of a doorway and told me to shut up, and beat me until I did. I never cried again. But I was hungry most of the time, and cold. And doing dreamtime, when I had any money for drugs--dreaming the kinds of dreams they sold on the street. No excuses. To have dreams of your own is the only way to survive, but Oldcity had killed all mine. Reality was nobody's dream.
I didn't have any reason to think it would ever be any different, either. Not at the start--or at least that piece of time where the past and the future come together and catch you in the middle, to make it seem like the start of something.
At the start I was being hauled out of an Oldcity Corporate Security detention center. I didn't really know where I was going, just what I wanted to get away from. I'd been at the station a couple of days, under arrest for beating up three Contract Labor recruiters who'd been trying to do the same to me. The Corpses had done everything they could to make me miserable; then out of nowhere they'd offered me a chance to volunteer for a "psi research project." With no sleep and nothing to do but think up worse things they could do to me, I guess by then I would have said yes to anything. So I did.
And so the Corporate Security officer took me outside into the hot, stinking afternoon and pushed me into the back of a mod with winged FTA insignias on its sides. I'd never been in a mod before; the only ones I'd ever seen were the aircabs the upsiders used to get into Oldcity and get out again. Without a databand on your wrist all you could do was look. Without a deebee proving you were alive you weren't just poor--you didn't even exist. And without a deebee you stayed in Oldcity until you rotted. I didn't have one. The Corpse sat up front and said a few words; the mod floated up from the ground and out of the courtyard. I held my breath as it carried us over the crowds, through the streets half as old as time. I'd spent my whole life on those streets, but everyone I saw, looking down, was a stranger. They tried not to look up; I tried not to think about why they didn't.
The mod reached Godshouse Circle and began to rise even higher: Godshouse Circle was the only place left in Oldcity where you could move between worlds, between the old and the new. We were going upside, into Quarro. I hunched down in my seat as we spiraled higher into the light, feeling a little sick, trying to remember why I'd always wanted to see Quarro. . . .
Quarro was the largest city on Ardattee, but it hadn't always been. A handful of interstellar combines had split up the planet when it was first discovered. Then after the Crab Nebula sector opened up to colonization, Ardattee became the jump-off point for the colonies.
Every corporate holding on the planet had grown fat off the trade. Finally the Federation Transport Authority moved in to get its cut. It had moved its information storage here, and claimed Quarro to set it down in. Quarro had become a Federal Trade District, a neutral zone where no combine government had official power, but all of them had hundreds of spies and spooks trying to get one up on everybody else. Not all the dirty deals that were made in Oldcity were made by criminals. Quarro had become the largest cityport on the planet by a hundred times. Earth lost its place as the crossroads of the Human Federation, and Ardattee became the Federation's trade center, economic center, and cultural center. And somewhere along the way somebody had decided that Quarro's old, tired colonial town was historic and ought to be preserved.
But Quarro had been built on a thumb of peninsula between a deep harbor and the sea. There was only so much land, and the new city went on growing, feeding on open space, always needing more--until it began to eat up the space above the old city, burying it alive in a tomb of progress. The grumbling, dripping guts of someone else's palaces in the air shut Oldcity off from the sky, and no one who had any choice lived there anymore. All of that I knew from things I'd seen on the threedy, even though I didn't understand most of it; even though it didn't make me feel any better.
We were rising through color now, soft, formless, mostly greens. Plants--more plants than I'd ever seen, or even imagined. The Hanging Gardens, somebody had told me once. The Hanging Gardens were Up There. . . .
And then we were up above the gardens, tier after tier of them; moving through the honest-to-God light of day. Towers, shining and flowing, speared the bright blue air on every side, reflecting the sky until it seemed to flow into them and through them . . . I shut my eyes, giddy and tingling. I looked out again after a minute, at the endless height of the sky and Quarro shining down below me like . . . like . . . Knowing there had to be words somewhere for what I saw, but not how to find them.
The Corpse sat silently with his back against the barrier between us. The city lay like a long slender hand between the bay and the sea, jeweled fingers shining into the haze. Mother Earth--I live here? I felt the binders cutting into my wrists.
But then we were dropping down through the air. We settled on a ledge where a couple of aircabs already sat, halfway down the side of a silvered building wall. There was an entrance waiting for us, one that didn't look like it got much use.
It was some kind of a hospital, I knew it as soon as we stepped inside. A hospital was a hospital, no matter how much they spent to make it look like something else. I stopped dead. "What is this? What do they want with me?"
"It's Sakaffe Research Institute," the Corpse said. "I don't know, and I don't give a damn. C'mon, you asked for it." He was between me and the door, there was no way I could leave, so I went on in.
He asked a passing tech for directions. She was carrying a plastic bag with what looked like someone's liver inside it, floating in purple sauce. It didn't make me feel better. She nodded over her shoulder, and we walked on down the silent hallway to a waiting room. I looked in. The far wall was a sheet of tinted glass; light poured through it in a blinding flood that made me squint.
"Over there." The Corpse pointed, and then I saw the others, sitting along a cushioned seat below the wall of glass. He reached out and demagnetized the binders on my wrists; they dropped into his hands. He gave me a shove toward the window and told me, "Siddown, shuddup, and don't pull any stunts." Then he went back out into the hall. I knew he'd be waiting for me there in case I did.
There were half a dozen people sitting under the window already. I felt them giving me the eye as I limped toward them across the thick, sunlit carpet. I knew I was something to stare at--smeared with blood and dirt and dye; wearing a paper coat the Corpses had given me to cover most of the bruises, and over my ankle brace, pants so old they were ready for a museum. I wondered why we were all here, and what I'd really got myself into. I wished I had a camph to chew on to steady my nerves.
I stopped in front of the bench and looked for a place to sit down. The group of them had spread out on it like they were staking territory, until there was no room left. There were two women and four men. All the men looked poor, a couple of them looked tough. One of the tough ones had a stretched earlobe with no combine's tag in it--a busted spacer. One of the women looked rich, the other one just looked afraid. Nobody moved. They just stared, at me and through me, or at their feet. Finally the spacer said, "Up there."
I looked where he was looking. Past the end of the bench, in the wall on my right, there was a closed door with a blue-hazed window. "The front of the line?"
"Pretty smart, kid." He thought he was smarter. "One look at him, they won't be so choosy about the rest of us." He laughed and then they all did; strained, nervous laughter.
I wasn't laughing. "You want to eat that?" I moved toward him.
"Listen, you, don't make trouble," one of the women--the rich one--said. She was dressed like all the ones who came to Oldcity for laughs. Her round face was patterned with tiny red and gold jewels, matching the color of her hair.
"Butt out. This ain't your affair." I glared at her.
But her eyes said that it was. And then I saw that so did everyone else's; they were all looking at me now. Nobody moved.
"Any time, kid." The spacer grinned. "That Corpse out in the hall would just love to see you try it."
I let my hands drop and went to the head of the line. The frightened woman moved in from the end of the bench, either to let me sit down or because she was afraid I'd touch her. I stuck my aching leg out into the warm sunlight and pulled my paper coat tighter to my chest. Then I twisted to look out the window, letting my eyes follow the flow of clouds and towers, pretending I was alone. I looked down, and down, and thought about falling.
The door to the next room opened and someone came out. His face was grim and disappointed; he looked like a gambler who'd lost his Last Chance. And everyone was looking at me; and so was the man standing in the doorway. "All right, who's next?"
Me. I was next. I looked down at the rip in the knee of my pants, and couldn't make myself move.
But then the woman sitting next to me stood up. "I'll go," she said. She looked at me for a minute as if she knew, before she looked at the man in the doorway. "I'm next." I stared at her. She was holding something and she dropped it into my hands. It was a piece of soft cloth, a scarf.
I wanted to say, "What's it to you?" but she was already gone. I looked back at the rest of them, half heard the rich bitch say something snide. I frowned at her, and she said, "What are you staring at?"
I looked back out the window, with the face of the frightened woman still caught inside my eyes. I tried to stop seeing it, wanting to forget about her; but I couldn't. She was older than I'd figured, somewhere in her twenties in standard years. Her hair fell almost to her hips, as black as midnight in an Oldcity alley. Her clothes were dark and peculiar, layers of shirt and shawl wrapping her in mourning shrouds. She was tall, and too thin, and tired. But her eyes: cloud-gray, upslanting . . . and when she'd looked at me, empty. She'd gone ahead of me to help me, but it hadn't been personal. It was only a kind of reflex action, like pulling away from a flame; something you did to stop your own pain. I felt strange when I realized that; invisible. I didn't know what to think.
So I didn't think about it for long. I didn't need favors from some burned-out fem anyhow. I looked down at the scarf, as green and gentle as moss bunched between my hands. I let it slide between my fingers, feeling the clean softness of it, breathing in a spicy smell like incense. Then I spat on it, and began to wipe off my face.
She was in the other room for a long time. I wondered whether she read minds, if that was why we were here. If that was how she'd known. And I wondered whether knowing what everyone thought was what had made her eyes so empty. The thought of having to live like her, like a freak that everybody hated, made my skin crawl. Then I wondered why the Corpses even thought that I could do it. Because I couldn't; I wasn't some kind of freak. Someone had come and tested me at the detention center, and afterward the Corpses told me I was a psion, I could read minds. I told them they were full of shit. They just looked at each other, disgusted, and said, "You're a lucky freak, Cityboy." After that they had put me on a truthtester and asked me a lot of questions I couldn't answer. And the next thing I knew they were asking me if I wanted to get out of there.
But they were still crazy--I'd never read a mind in my life. That meant I didn't have a chance, if mind reading was what they wanted from me here. . . . I was almost glad, thinking about that woman with her dead eyes, every day of her life spent knowing how much everyone hated her because she knew. . . . But then I remembered I sure as hell wasn't glad about how I was going to end up if they didn't choose me.
The door was open but the mind reader didn't come back, and the red-haired woman nodded as if she'd known. I got up, stuffing the scarf into my pocket. My legs felt paralyzed, but somehow I made it to the doorway.
The man who'd been standing there before was already sitting down, behind a desk/terminal. Daylight poured over it from the window wall. The desk, the chairs, the tables in the room, were made of real wood. I wanted to touch something, but I didn't. I wished again that I had a pack of camphs on me. There was a genuine sculpture painting on the wall behind him, not a cheap holostill; I'd been around enough stolen goods to know quality when I saw it. I stared at the thick raised wood grain on the curve of his desk and took a deep breath, before I looked up at him.
He was about thirty-five, maybe a little older. His face had a pinched look, like the face of someone who'd been sick a long time; but something about his expression told me he was no easy mark. His brown hair was cut short and it was already graying. He hadn't tried to hide that. The yellow collarless summer shirt he was wearing was good stuff, imported from offworld--that must have docked him plenty. But he didn't have on a drape or even jewelry, except two plain rings on his left hand, third and fourth fingers: a widower? He wasn't smiling.
I tried my best handout smile on him. It didn't work. His eyes were hazel--green and brown. They stared at my face and down at my clothes, back at my face again. I figured this must be the one the Corpses in Oldcity had told me was "Dr. Siebeling," the one they were sending me to see. My leg hurt. I wanted to sit down too, but the way he looked at my clothes kept me on my feet.
"Rather young, aren't you?" That wasn't all he thought was wrong with me. His hands cupped a glass ball with a hazy image inside it. He stroked it with a kind of absentminded need, like it was helping him stay calm.
I shook my head. My own hands tightened. Everyone thought I was younger than I was--softer, stupider, easier to use or push around. It was like I'd been born a victim, somehow; like they could smell it. I had a lot of scars on me from proving they were wrong.
He said, "Prisoner nine-double-oh-five-seven." I nodded, even though it didn't mean anything. He had what must have been the report from Corporate Security on the terminal, and he stared at it for a while before he looked up again. "This says you've got a record of petty thievery, and that now you're charged with assault and battery against three recruiters for Contract Labor. That you attacked one man with a knife--"
"Is that what he said? That croach. I didn't need a knife." He looked up at me with eyes like stones. "It was a bottle."
"Attacked one man with a knife, struck another, and kicked a pile of boxes down on a third. You ran away, and were arrested by Corporate Security after you broke your ankle in a fall. You were out on drugs at the time?" He sounded like he didn't believe it.
I didn't say anything.
"Why did you do it?"
"Because I didn't want to be shipped off to some sewer world where they can't get nobody sane to go, and rot there for half my fucking life. Why do you think? The stinking Crows . . ."
He looked bored. "There was kadge in your bloodstream when you were picked up. That was two days ago, and you're not climbing the walls--you're not addicted?"
I shook my head. "I can't afford it."
"None of them can afford it, but most of them aren't that lucky. In fact, I've never heard of anyone who could take it or leave it."
Neither had I, when I thought about it, but I only said, "You have now."
He glanced down at the report again. "This says you're also no mind reader. You tested wide-spectrum on telepathy but entirely dysfunctional. I've never heard of that before, either. You must have given the techs a real challenge: you show a ten-plus resistance to probe. I show an eight; that's high. You have control like that and you've never used it?"
I was remembering the test: the veil of tingling mesh they'd fastened over my face back at the Corporate Security station, how I'd felt when my mind began to unravel. . . .
"Well? I asked you a question, Cityboy. Answer it." His voice hit me like a slap.
"I got a name, asshole! It's Cat." I was starting to believe in hate at first sight.
His hands tightened on the desk edge. "Don't you get smart with me. I'm sick and tired of you and all the rest. Why the hell can't they send me something besides criminals and addicts?"
"Okay, okay. I didn't mean nothin' by it." I raised my hands. I hoped I looked as sorry as I felt--sorry for me. The last thing I wanted was to give him a reason to send me back out that door, back to the Corpse with the binders waiting in the hall. I tried to make my answer come out smooth and soft. "No. I didn't know I was a mind reader till the Corpses told me so. I never felt--never even f-f--" Black lightning flickering at the core of my mind, someone screaming . . .
Siebeling stared at me with a peculiar expression on his face. All his anger was gone. "What is it?"
I shook my head, rubbed my eyes, feeling cold and confused. "Nothing . . . No. I don't want to be a mind reader; who would?" The words spilled out before I could stop them. "All the psions I ever saw were crazy. They don't call 'em freaks for nothin'." I grimaced.
"How much do you know about psionics?" His face was empty again. He pushed the glass ball away from him on the desktop.
"Nothing. What do I care about a bunch of freaks?"
"Psionics research"--he let it sink in--"is what you volunteered to participate in."
"Oh." My ears burned.
"That's all. Thank you." He stood up. The door was open. I knew then that the interview was over. And that I'd failed it.
I went out the same way I'd gone in, wishing that I could make myself invisible. But I couldn't. I walked past the rest of the freaks like I'd lost my Last Chance, and I saw their faces. I felt mine get hot again.
"Wait a minute."
I stopped, and heard Siebeling asking if anyone there was a telepath.
One by one, they shook their heads and said, "No."
I looked at him again, even though I was afraid of what showed on my face. He frowned, and then he gestured me back. Suddenly I wanted to walk out on him. I nearly stepped on him instead, getting through that door before he changed his mind.
The first thing he said was: "Don't think this makes anything different. You're here because of your resistance level, but that's the only reason. I'll still drop you the minute you fall short anywhere. Contract Labor has requested you be turned back to them, if that means anything to you."
I laughed, but it wasn't funny.
He stood there like he was waiting for something. "Don't you even want to know what you'll be doing?"
I shook my head, as much because he wanted me to nod as because I really didn't care. "Why? Nobody's gonna miss me." Everything was lousy; at least this was a choice.
But he said, "The experiments we'll be doing involve psionics--'mind over matter.' Mainly it will be a group of people with undeveloped mental abilities working together to learn how to control those abilities. We'll teach you how to be a mind reader without going crazy. That's all you need to know for now." I shrugged. He touched something on the terminal and a door stood open in a wall again. A different door; I uncrossed my fingers. "How long have you known the woman who came in here ahead of you?"
"Why?" I frowned.
"Curiosity. She suggested that I give you a chance. I wondered why."
"I never saw her before today." I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I just stood and waited until he pointed toward the door.
"Through there. They'll tell you what to do."
"Psiren" copyright © 1981 by Joan D. Vinge. First published in 1981 by Berkley Books in New Voices IV, edited by George R. R. Martin. All rights reserved.
Bestselling author JOAN D. VINGE won the Hugo Award for her novel The Snow Queen. Her other novels include The Summer Queen, World's End, and Heaven Chronicles. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
and post it to your social network
See all customer reviews >