There were four files on the desk. Papers bound in black cardboard, backed with a reinforced spine and tied with bleached cotton string; the name of the subject hand-written on a removable white label beneath the Esset logo.
Not many people ever saw these originals, but physical connection sometimes made it easier to See, so here he was - sitting in the high-tech security fileroom of HQ handling low-tech hardcopies and trying to make a decision in a single afternoon that would shape the rest of his life. It was times like this Crawford wished he smoked.
He worked his way methodically through the top three files despite the itching niggle telling him he was wasting his time. Compulsion twanged at his nerves, raising irritation in a welt over his patience. He ignored it, determined to examine each option carefully before making the final choice.
The first prospect was quite talented but prone to careless mistakes - the red threads of his future ravelled into a tangle of errors. Eventually Crawford would be forced to terminate the man, and probably a large number of spectators at the same time. Selecting him would be a flaw of judgement Crawford was uncertain he himself could survive, and that type of risk had no place in his life.
The second prospect didn't correspond to the details in her file. He could See she was insultingly weak, both telepathically and personally. Her futures ruptured out before him in a tumble of glinting crystal fragments. She'd be dead or the permanent inhabitant of a little white room before she was twenty. Crawford sublimated his urge to snarl at the test into a slight clenching of the jaw. He'd be damned if he betrayed his anger to the surveillance cameras and hidden watchers.
The third prospect easily held the most potential of the three - a rising star in the field, excellent marksman and fighter, socially adept, intelligent, articulate. On the surface, the ideal choice. But the Esset grapevine hissed a tale of internal rot and psychosis, and the future swirled around him deceptively, hidden undertows dragging Crawford's Sight down into a morass of malevolence, battle for dominance and betrayal. This one would always be the worm in the peach, the canker in the rose. He'd never fought them, never disputed their ownership of him - he'd accepted it, embraced it; willingly warping his mind and personality into the darkest shade of nightmare Esset could craft. Having him on the team would be like having their own portable version of the hell that was Rosenkreuz.
So. Eliminating the first three prospects as useless left just a single viable option. Crawford looked at the fourth black folder with a sense of resentful inevitability. It was, it seemed to him, typical that the one file his instincts itched to examine was thicker than the other three put together. Without even opening it he could see the tags of official reprimands forming a scarlet ruffle down the side. A troublemaker wasn't what Crawford wanted on his team.
He wanted a telepath who was easily controllable, easily intimidated. Someone blind to Crawford's goals - though the less thought about that, the better. No, a hothead - even one as supposedly gifted as this Schuldig - was not what he wanted.
But there was really no getting around this. Crawford sighed and opened the file. His head ached already. He'd stretched his Talent further into the future than it liked to go, and he could feel the onset of a debilitating migraine. Studying the celluloid smirk in front of him, he took several deep breaths then pushed and pushed and... the future exploded in a fan of light and heat, tracking outward like flame down lines of gasoline.
Paul made a pleasingly meaty thud as he hit the mat. Schuldig's mouth twisted into an unkind smile. Looked like the little Schleimer wouldn't be getting up in a hurry either. Oops. He could have gone easier on Paul, but screw it; he figured anyone too stupid not to realise that their thoughts on what they'd like to do to "that pansy-arse little mindfucker" could be read by said pansy-arse telepathic little mindfucker, didn't deserve 'easy'.
The sound of slow clapping interrupted Schuldig's gloat. He turned and was surprised to see Haden, the combat instructor, had company. Well-dressed company too. Whom he hadn't notice arriving - and thrashing Paul didn't take that much concentration. Mr Suit & Tie was quiet, both physically and mentally.
Schuldig sent a light probe at the man's mind, but it bounced off secure shields.
Hmm, locked up tighter than a good little Catholic schoolgirl's panties, he mused, receiving only the crumbly residue of amusement.
Schuldig had learnt the hard way not to get insistent with stranger's minds around the school, so he switched targets. Haden was staring at him in what he supposed the combat instructor thought was a warning manner, but which actually just made him look like he was sucking a lemon.
He plucked out the stranger's name from the stream of dislike in Haden's thoughts,
Who, moi? When am I not careful? Schuldig thought, then grinned at Brad Crawford Sonofabitch Precog, bowed slightly in a mocking fashion, and gave him the once over.
Not bad. Actually worth a twice over. Very American 'Clark Kent'-ish. The only thing wrong was the colour of the eyes. Oh, and the total air of 'don't shit with me'.
Haden practically pushed a mental resume at Schuldig. Surprising, seeing he thought the telepath was an obnoxious little shit. Schuldig sifted through the information rapidly, just picking the highlights out.
'Graduated' Rosenkreuz four or five years ago. Esset Field-team Leader. Strong precognitive. And favoured by the Old Farts in Charge. Talented. Intelligent. Aggressive. A rich plum flare of intense humiliation. Crawford defeating Haden in front of his superiors. Disintegration of images into a stream of emotion...
And he was here, now. Something indecisively poised between fear and expectation started to curl up in Schuldig's stomach.
Another flash - the precog hated being called by his first name. No-one did it.
"Did you want something, Brad?" Schuldig's nasal accent lingered over the name.
Crawford's small smile took on a cruel tinge. A barely discernible wave of irritation rippled across his shields.
Oh dear, I think I annoyed him.
"Certainly, Schuldig," Crawford shrugged off his jacket, handing it to Haden as if he were a cloakroom attendant rather than one of Esset's most feared combat instructors.
Schuldig was diverted.
Pretty ballsy for a tealeaf reader. I think I like this guy.
Crawford strolled onto the mat, rolling up his sleeves, "May I have this dance?"
Crawford toyed with Schuldig at first, the telepath's drawling use of his name having eradicated any fleeting intention of soft-pedalling their first encounter. After a few missed swipes, Schuldig caught on, and started to pick up his pace, attacking with determination. But Crawford was just never there, or blocked perfectly, throwing him back time and again, evading all blows with nonchalantly smiling ease. Frustration shaped itself into a scowl on Schuldig's face - he was unused to being ineffectual.
"When you said asked me to dance, I thought you actually wanted to fight," he snarled. "Not prance around the mat."
Crawford punched him in the face.
Schuldig's head snapped sideways and he staggered back several steps. He blinked, dazed, hand reaching up to touch his face as if he couldn't believe Crawford had actually connected. A snigger erupted from the small crowd that had collected to watch.
Crawford looked over at them,
"Leave," he commanded.
There was muttering but no one dared object, force of personality and the fact that he was trouncing the telepath who routinely beat them all making a persuasive argument not to. The dojo quickly emptied.
"You too, Haden."
The combat instructor's eyes narrowed but he didn't say anything, merely dropped Crawford's jacket to the ground and headed for the door, affront in every line.
"I wish you joy of him," he muttered.
Which of them he meant was unclear. Combat recommenced.
"You've been chosen for a new assignment, Schuldig." The telepath narrowly dodged another blow to the head. "A field team."
"Please tell me... " Schuldig attempted, futilely, to sweep Crawford's feet out from under him, "you're just here as messenger boy."
"Of course not," A couple of hard punches landed on Schuldig's torso, staggering him. "I'm your new team leader."
I've changed my mind - I hate this guy. I think that first hit loosened some teeth.
The encounter was not going the way Schuldig expected.
Just stand still and be hit, you bastard.
A punch to the head, narrowly missed only because of Schuldig's unnatural speed. He hadn't had this sort of trouble with the precogs he'd previously met.
New assignment? Scheiße.
It was one of the most commonly found Talents - and one of the least commonly found in useful strength. Most people had a touch of it. Déjà vu, Luck, 'Feelings'. Business acumen. All just slivers of Talent, pointing the best way to go.
"Please tell me," please, please, "you're just here as messenger boy."
Precognition as a full-blown Talent, however, was another thing. And the customary physical and mental defects that went with it were usually incapacitating.
Crawford, obviously, was one of the rarest of the rare - an accurate precog capable of working in the field.
Ow. Fuck. Fuck.
A couple of punches to the chest backed up that deduction.
Don't look at me like that, you bastard. No one owns me. Niemand. Not Rosenkreuz, not Esset, not any one of the hundred pieces of shit who've tried to drag me down. And certainly not you. Screw it. Shields or no shields, you're fucked.
Schuldig smiled, a baring of teeth that held everything of feral and nothing of humour in it. Crawford knew he'd finally antagonised the telepath into using his Talent offensively.
There was the Foreseen blow to his shields, so he opened his outer defences slightly. Schuldig's mind poured into his; fervid and angry, sweeping through the outer reaches in mere seconds. It was more than he'd expected - the telepath was stronger than he'd anticipated. Control was wrenched from him.
Crawford's mind became the hiss of white static, the bark and roar of a forest fire. Reason and purpose blurred. His inner defences wavered. He could barely hear himself think anymore, just a nasal voice at the heart of the flame; laughing, gloating.
His deepest shields shook again under the pressure of the telepath's attack. Panic heaved itself out of its grave, dragging self-preservation with it. Reflexive instinct more than intellect triggered his own Talent, pushing it hard as he could. There was a fraction of endless time when it seemed this was one of those not-infrequent moments his Talent wouldn't respond; then like an elaborate origami flower unfolding, possibilities and probabilities opened out into the usual intricate, anarchic tumble of images, sounds and sensation.
To a precognitive, genetically hardwired for such unnatural input, it was possible to make sense of this deluge, to navigate its riptides safely. To a telepath however - a Talent based on memory and sequence - it was a banshee shriek of chaos.
Given that the inside of very few people's heads reflected their outward appearance, Crawford's mind was an unexpectedly orderly place. Schuldig looked forward to dirtying it up a bit.
Let's just tear down these secondary shields (nice work, recognise the style, must have been trained by Choriko), do a little rewiring, and not only will Brad Crawford feel a new man, he'll actu... Was? Scheiß... aaaaahhhh...
The laughter became a scream, one that swelled louder in intensity and fear instead of fading. Caught in the backwash of his anger, Crawford didn't even think of stopping.
Schuldig had lost any bearings. Insane minds felt something like this - so disconnected from time and rationale that you drowned if you went too far into them. This was worse. He could almost grasp there was a pattern, but his Talent couldn't cope with the lack of linear progression, the sheer weight of probabilities. He was being inundated from all sides with a cascade of broken mirrors, each reflecting a warped image, a barrage of permutations of an instant. They scored deeply into Schuldig's psyche, whittling and slicing away at him.
He could sense Crawford still releasing his Talent, thrusting it savagely into that section of his mind where Schuldig was. He was too besieged to stop him. Schuldig could feel his mind and will disassociating, and desperately tried holding them together.
The scream had died into gasping whimpers. Crawford took a deep breath, though he was barely aware of his physical body, and released his hold on his Talent. It stopped cold.
It was like being spat out from a whirlpool. One second he was being mentally torn apart by elemental forces; the next he was crashing into hard ground. He found himself beached, shivering and naked, on an abandoned shore.
Schuldig had a brief moment to register pain and shock before sliding out of the structured terrain of Crawford's outer psyche and into oblivion.
Crawford stretched slowly, loosening rigidly tense muscles. He picked up his coat, shook it out, and put it on. Then he retrieved a chair from the sidewall of the gym, placing it beside the mat where Schuldig lay in a curled-up crumple. The temptation to kick the downed telepath was reluctantly quelled. He sat down to wait.
It could have gone better. Had he not lost his temper, it undoubtedly would have. But he hadn't foreseen every detail, although the Schuldig's aggression and attitude had been as he'd expected.
He studied the telepath's slack face, pallid amidst the flashy spill of his hair. Schuldig looked even younger than he was, and disturbingly powerless in unconsciousness. It was almost a pity (if Crawford had believed in indulging such an emotion - which he didn't) that he'd had to start their association in such a manner. Had he time, he might have gentled Schuldig to his hand, wooed him to his way of thinking. Circumstances and Esset precluded that luxury. He would just have to control the telepath through harsher means.
The first thing he saw was a pair of brilliantly polished shoes. The first thing he felt was the almost irresistible urge to throw up on them.
The shoes moved, and a voice said,
"I strongly recommend you do not vomit. You will not enjoy the consequences."
A dagger split his skull at that moment, and any stomach upset was forgotten in sheer agony. It took him minutes to staunch the mental wounds enough to take further note of his surroundings.
Brad Crawford was sitting in a chair beside him, looking relaxed and calm, a smug smile on his face. Schuldig was too incapacitated to do anything more than snarl at him weakly.
"And now you now what happens when a telepath attempts to interface with active precognition. And please, don't fool yourself into thinking that's my only defence," Crawford eyed him coolly, as if he were some tiresome adolescent caught shoplifting or playing hooky, "Given that it's natural for one of your temperament to see how far you can push, I shan't mention this little act of insubordination to anyone. This time."
In one swift movement he crouched down next to Schuldig. Schuldig struggled onto his elbows, pain and nausea battling the refusal to lie there like some defenceless victim.
Crawford continued, a hard tone to his voice now,
"But the next time you try anything - anything at all - I'll fuck you up so badly you'll think that up is down and this ride was a kiddie's merry-go-round. Understand me?"
Schuldig glared, all hatred and pain. Scheiße, but he'd love to blast the bastard - mindscour him back to a drooling infant - but he doubted he could even manage a telepathic whisper right now.
Crawford reached out, large hand warm against the shock-cold skin of Schuldig's cheek, almost encompassing the whole side of his face. Schuldig tried to pull away, but he was too weak.
"You understand me?" Crawford repeated.
"Fick dich," Schuldig's answer was a bare wisp of shaky defiance.
Crawford laughed, white teeth flashing. He twined a finger around a strand of flame-coloured hair, then slowly drew it back, letting it unravel and fall.
He bent so close Schuldig could feel breath upon his cheek as Crawford murmured in his ear,
"Who knows? Maybe later - I've always had a thing for redheads."
Schuldig gave a grunt, jerking his head back. Crawford laughed again, then rose, walking towards the entrance without a backward glance.
As he opened the door he turned his head to the side and said,
"Report to Room 423, North Wing, tomorrow at 0600. And be punctual. Tardiness will result in punishment."
He left, shutting the door behind him.
Schuldig slumped back onto the mat. Lay there until the world stopped spinning, until the pain and telepathic bleeding in his head diminished enough that he could move. Lay there some more until his eyes stopped watering and he'd wrestled the little screaming voices back into their cages. Then he just stared vacantly at the ceiling until it occurred to him to wonder why no-one had come in to roust or medicate him.
Neither prospect seemed to be happening, so he lurched to his feet, staggered to the door and from there to his room. He collapsing onto his bed fully clothed, his last thoughts of the different ways he could make that Wichser pay and pay and pay...
The surprise Crawford received the next morning wasn't that Schuldig was late to the meeting - he'd Foreseen that. The surprise was that the redhead had dyed his hair green.
War had been declared.