The sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as anyone who’s ever heard one knows, is not something that’s likely to go unnoticed. There are other noises in the world that might be construed as more noticeable; but not every little kid points and hollers “Semi” when one rolls by.
Garth was well aware of this fact as he leaned the bulk of his bike into a breakneck turn at forty miles an hour. It wasn’t often he regretted his choice of transportation, but right now he was having second thoughts. Owning a Harley was simply a fact of life. Quite literally, he doubted if he could live without his bike. The roar, that purr of over a thousand tigers, of a Harley kept him sane.
Not for the first time, he cursed the twist of fate that made him so vulnerable. It had all started about fifty years ago. Early twenty-first century man, wallowing in his own decadence, had unleashed the Eugenic Wars. The waning glory of Earth was felled; mankind brought to his knees as millions upon millions of people died. They were the lucky ones. Those who survived were standing upon the face of a planet irrevocably changed from the paradise of before. Even today, nearly half a century later, new variants of the original viruses released during the Eugenic Wars occasionally popped up, wreaking havoc among local populations.
The Eugenic Wars also claimed victims who weren’t quite dead, but might as well be as far as most of humanity was concerned. Mutants. Some, more enlightened, preferred to call these pseudo-victims “altered humans”, but the cold, hard truth was that humanity was infected with a new disease: Mutants.
Looking over his shoulder, a dangerous move on rocky terrain, Garth noticed that all of his pursuers were strictly NORMAN’s. NORMAN was a generic term that applied to any human that was not a mutant. NORmal huMAN; a corny acronym, but someone had coined it and it had stuck.
Garth quickly returned his attention to the road. His furtive glance to the rear had offered some heartening news. Only three of his pursuers were left. Apparently he had lost the others. Not surprising since they were all riding old Japanese bikes. Less maintenance than a Harley, but infinitely less rugged. They couldn’t be converted to all terrain use as easily or as effectively as a Harley. Garth had taken pains years ago to ensure that his bike would perform under most conditions. His Harley had once been painted bright red, but years of exposure had faded it to a dingy maroon, flecked with scratches. His pipes and handlebars, once shiny chrome, were now faded and pitted. That was fine, though. It made his bike appear less valuable than it was and was thus less likely to be stolen.
Ahead was the deserted city of Orlando. It wasn’t deserted in the normal sense of the word. After the War, as civilizations collapsed around the world, most of the knowledge and technology of mankind was lost as well. Forgotten was the means of supplying electricity to the former metropolis. The closest suitable farmland was a good twenty miles away, so Orlando was effectively shunned and, eventually, forgotten by the decent citizens of the area.
Not all citizens were decent, however. Orlando thrived with a life all its own now. Any lowlife, tranq-head, or criminal sought refuge inside the bowels of the dead city. No local authorities dared enter. There were many rumors that the city itself was haunted.
Garth knew better, though. Any ghost the city might have laid claim to had long since vanished, leaving room for the gangs and breeders. Only the worst possible elements dared live in Orlando. Garth had called Orlando home for almost a year now.
He lived in there not by choice, but by design. Garth was shunned more than any mutant. Mutants, at least, were granted quick death at the hands NORMANS. Only madness waited for himself, and others like him. Without knowing it, every thinking being on the planet systematically assaulted and tried to kill Garth.
I am a telepath, Garth thought sourly. And telepaths always ride motorcycles. Harley’s in particular. Through some strange twist of fate, the Eugenic Wars had actually stumbled upon a potential benefit for mankind. Spawned in the dying throes of the War and fostered by the ignorance of a paranoid government, a new virus was released. And so, telepaths were born.
Garth’s ability had made itself known when he was sixteen. For no apparent reason, he contracted a lesser degree virus. For days he was in a sweat-ridden comatose state. The local healers could do nothing save apply fever-reducing salve to his tongue, with little or no effect. His parents, after a week of hoping, began to realize that there was no way Garth would emerge the same. His fever had run unchecked for too long. At the very least, he would suffer minor brain damage.
After being tormented for fifteen days, Garth seemed to be recovering. His fever had abated, but he was in obvious pain. Whenever anyone approached too closely, he cried out and thrashed until they let him be. Finally, he woke; gaunt and bleary-eyed.
Too young to know the magnitude of his new ability, Garth made it clear from the start that he was a telepath. This was embarrassing to his parents and frightening to the entire village. After three months of recovery, he was banned from the entire Miami area. Any person caught aiding Garth would be put to death. Justice was swift and harsh.
Hurt and enraged, and more than a little insane from his telepathy, Garth had beaten up and stolen the town’s only Harley from the mechanic, along with the most prized possession in Miami; a technical book describing how to repair a combustion engine.
Being a telepath was worse than being a mutant. Garth had once read a pre-War novel which depicted telepaths as enlightened beings who could turn their power on and off at will. An incredibly naive concept. Garth could no more turn his power off than he could control the changing seasons. The only way to be rid of his power was to be killed. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, he was forced to endure the incessant hammering of of NORMAN thoughts in his head. The most likely NORMAN equivalent would probably be having to endure a cymbal crashing in his ears every day for the rest of his life.
Any lesser man would be driven to insanity. Indeed, though Garth had never witnessed it personally, he was constantly hearing rumors of fledgling telepaths who did succumb and go insane or killed themselves. The first year was the hardest. Every trivial detail that crossed a NORMAN’S mind was shared with a telepath. Every thought, every want, every need. It would be bearable if it was only one person at a time; but usually a telepath picked signals from hundreds of minds at a time. It was, indeed, easy to go insane from such a constant barrage of human intellect.
Garth had survived after his power had manifested, barely. For better or for worse, he thought. Probably worse. Only a cosmic sense of humor allowed him to survive. After the first five months of near insanity, he realized that NORMANS almost invariably never thought of anything important. For all the facade of maturity and alertness, the most common question on a human’s mind was “What do I get out of it?” Small wonder that mankind had achieved civilization in the first place. Every human he had ever met was more concerned about themselves than anything else. Friendships were a lie. Alliances were mockeries. Love was most often a lure for sex.
Yes, Garth grinned, I almost fell prey to the madness. Then I realized that it’s all a joke. Give a monkey a club and he hits himself with it. Give him a brain and he destroys it.
Thinking of monkeys, Garth hazarded another backwards glance. His pursuers were persistent. While he might be able to elude them once in the city proper, it would probably prove more beneficial to confront them and garner any information he could from them. Three to one odds weren’t that bad. The familiar weight of his Luger 9mm at his side assured him that things could definitely be worse. Best to confront them now, before reinforcements arrived.
Garth eased back on his throttle, turning onto Church Street. The old railroad station was as good a place as any to confront his pursuers. There was adequate cover if he needed and a way out other than the way he was currently entering. It would be very hard to be trapped in Church Street Station.
Dismounting, Garth turned as his pursuers screeched to a halt. With his bike shut off, Garth winced as the flood of telepathic awareness assaulted his senses. The extreme vibration of a Harley coupled with the loud noise effectively dampened his ability to receive the thoughts of others. It was his only saving grace. When he was riding, Garth was a normal human. He couldn’t pick up thoughts and he wasn’t tortured by the minds of those around him. Without that release, Garth knew he would soon go insane. His Harley was an integral part of his life that couldn’t be removed any more than his brain could be taken out of his head.
Garth, walked about five feet from his bike and watched with apparent disinterest as his pursuers scrambled off their bikes. They were new prospects, apparently, for Garth had never met them before. That figured. The regular members of Death Ritual were too complacent to effectively give chase. These prospects, eager for approval, had given a full measure of themselves and had doggedly kept up with him.
“What do you want?” Garth pointed to the tallest one. He was a young man, younger than himself. His long black hair was pulled away from his eyes and pushed into a pony-tail. He was lean to the point of looking undernourished.
He was afraid. Garth was afraid too, but this one’s fear bordered on hysteria. The fear flickered across his mind like lightning, affecting every cell in his body. Garth concentrated harder, ignoring the pain beginning to strike behind his eyes. His name was Ian. He was told to bring Garth back, dead or alive, or not bother coming back at all.
“Y-you’re coming with us,” Ian stated, pushing out his chest and fingering his stiletto. He looked to make sure his companions were still behind him. Ian’s gaze lingered a moment too long on the prospect to the right. A vestige of a thought touched Garth and he realized that Ian wanted, no, needed this one’s approval. He was dependent upon him.
Garth smiled, “And if I refuse, Ian?”
The boy jumped like he’d been shot at the mention of his name, glancing again nervously at his companions. His fear abruptly became a barrier to Garth, so strong it blocked deeper probing.
Garth glanced at the prospect to his right. He was well-built and carried himself with an air of authority. A small scar twitched under his eye as he glared at Garth. Realizing that Garth was staring at the scar brought it to the forefront of his mind. He had, as a child, fallen from a ruined building and scarred himself. He told the others, though, that it was a battle scar, trying to bolster his image. His mind was more cunning than afraid. His surface thoughts began blasting at Garth at a furious rate. His name was Darius. No god-damned mutant was gonna stop him from becoming a full-fledged member of the gang. He didn’t look so tough. A little tall, but skinny too. Probably never been in a real fight.
Garth growled ominously, his hand sliding closer to his holstered weapon, “I’m not a mutant, Darius.”
Darius had been broadcasting his hatred so loud that Garth had failed to notice the third member taking careful aim with his crossbow. Isolating a single mind took almost complete concentration and, as such, it was easy to tune out the rest of the world during a mindscan.
Too late, Garth picked up a stray thought and realized his mistake. A fraction of a second before the bolt was released, Garth jumped to the side. Cold fire exploded in his shoulder. Dazed, Garth slumped to the ground realizing dumbly that the intended target had been his neck. His trenchcoat, damp from blood at the shoulder, picked up a clot of dirt, irritating the wound further.
“See,” Darius howled, “I knew he was cake. He ain’t even got the strength of a virus. “
“I’m not so sure,” Ian declared, “Brahms said he was the most dangerous man in Orlando.” Ian’s fear, even after Garth’s fall, was considerable. If I don’t kill him, Garth thought grimly, he won’t last a month here.
“He was right, Ian.” Garth pulled himself to one knee. Pink flashes of light sparked before his eyes, and he felt for sure he’d pass out any moment. They must have tranqed the bolt, he realized. Trust Brahms to think of everything. If he wasn’t such a bastard, he might even be likeable.
Ian stumbled back at the simple statement from Garth. Darius tersely fingered his own crossbow. Glancing to the side, Garth realized that he’d picked only a very few random thoughts from the third. It was very rare to find someone who could so effectively “not think.”
Then a thought hit him, lashing out with a force strong enough to make Garth stagger on his knee. He didn’t have a tongue. His name was Noise,a cruel reference to his inability to speak. As a mute, his mind was hardly ever filled with the stray thoughts that attacked every telepath. To a person who can speak, it’s only natural that the surface mind be filled, ready to supply something, anything, to the vocal chords at an instant’s notice. A mute’s mind need not prepare for such an event.
With obvious effort, Garth raised his hand, palm outward. “What do you think you’re doing, boys?” He had to distract them long enough to get away. If only he could reach his gun!
Ian pointed his stiletto at him, “Don’t make us shoot you again, Garth.” He nodded to his silent companion, “You don’t want Noise here to shoot his weapon again.” Ian was trying hard to appear strong, but his constant glances at Darius lessened the effect. He was strong only in his presence. Oddly, Darius seemed oblivious to the fact.
“No,” Garth agreed, ” I wouldn’t want that.” He looked hard at Noise, trying to push aside his jacket and get to his gun. It was no use. They had shot him in the arm where his gun was and he couldn’t get to it without attracting attention. He would have to come up with something else.
“I can understand them wanting to join up with Death Ritual, but why you? They’ll never let you be an equal. You’re deformed. You’ll forever be just a servant and never a master.”
The thought carried the force of a sledgehammer. Garth winced, “I applaud your diplomacy and tact, Noise. I’ll give you an example, though.” He closed his eyes and concentrated.
“Darius plans on taking full credit for my capture when you return. Knowing that he can bully Ian into submission and you can’t protest anyway, he’s going to take that full-membership right from under your nose.”
“That’s not true!” Darius lowered his weapon, his scar twitching furiously, “I’m gonna kill you, Garth. That’ll shut you up.”
“Maybe,” Garth returned conversationally, his mouth abruptly drying up, “but then you’ll never learn that Ian there, your bunkmate, has definite homosexual feelings for you.”
“Lies!” Ian hissed, eyes darting furiously between Garth and Darius. “Shoot him Darius!”
“Not so fast,” Garth interjected. Search your own mind, Darius. It’s there. I can see it. All the inconsistencies. Why does Ian follow you everywhere you go? Why do you wake up and Ian’s prepared the morning meal for both of you?” Garth climbed shakily to his feet, grasping the bolt in his shoulder. His stomach rebelled, rejecting the poison in his system and it was all Garth could do keep from vomiting. To vomit would show weakness, something he couldn’t afford right now.
“Why, Darius, do you wake up some nights to see Ian awake and staring at you? He’s homosexual, I tell you. You know it too, but have never fully realized it.”
Darius glared over at Ian, his scar turning a livid red, “You’re a fag? Man, I never realized it before, but Mutie’s right.”
Garth seethed inwardly at being called a Mutie, but knew when to keep his mouth shut. He had planted the seed of dissension among them and, with careful fertilizing, he could bring it fully to life.
Ian’s fear assumed new heights as he stammered towards Darius, “I ain’t a fag, man. You know,” he pointed at Noise, “just last week I bumped Tashi at Lake Eola. You were watching, remember?” There was a desperate tinge to his voice. He needed confirmation. Darius and Garth both looked to Noise, also. Garth knew that it was close. He hadn’t been able to read Ian so deep to know that he was really a hetro with homosexual urges. Ian did indeed have claims to substantiate his story!
Looking Darius straight in the eye, Noise shook his head, denying Ian’s story.
“Why’re you lying? What’d I do to you, man?” Ian brought his knife up as if it alone could ward off the accusations. He turned his attention again to Darius, “Man, you gonna believe a mutie and a handicap over me? Look at…”
A bolt appeared suddenly in Ian’s neck, choking off his final words. Sinking to his knees, he clawed frantically at the offending object at blood coursed through his fingers. With one final gurgle, a release of blood from the neck really, Ian fell to the ground.
<I’m NOT handicapped!>
Seeing the deadly force of the crossbow suddenly jolted Garth back to his own situation. The pain in his shoulder was becoming overbearing. His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears that Noises’ last thought almost didn’t get through. Smiling mirthlessly, Garth made mental note of the fact. Extreme pain also dampened his ability to receive incoming thoughts.
Darius glanced back from Ian’s corpse to Garth, his mind very obviously detaching itself from Ian. Garth decided then that Darius was possibly the most cold-blooded bastard he had ever met.
“One less freak to deal with. Now it’s your turn.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a gun so small it seemed like a toy.
Noting his surprise, Darius spoke, “Raven Arms .25 ACP. Stainless steel finish, six in the clip, one in the hole. Makes nice little entry wound and bounces around the inside of the body, ripping to shreds any organ it contacts. More deadly, in it’s own way, than a .357.” He grinned, wiping back a greasy mop of hair from his face, “Let’s see what it does to the inside of your head.”
Garth shook his head, trying to clear the fog in his eyes. His ploy had failed and he could see no conceivable way out now. He had foolishly walked away from his bike and couldn’t reach into his jacket to bring his Luger to bear in time.
He suddenly lost feeling in his legs and slipped to the ground with a groan. Laughing, Darius loaded his .25 and squatted close to Garth.
“Have any last words mutie?” Darius leered down at Garth, “Anything at all to say before we see the other side of your skull?”
Garth tried to spit, but even that was beyond him. The poison had dried his mouth and he could feel his tongue beginning to swell. Now that death was near, Garth found himself thinking one thought, over and over again: finally, to be rid of the voices in his head.
<Take me with you and I’ll let you live.>
<Do not speak. I have no future here; you were right. Take me with you and I’ll take care of Darius.>
Numbly, Garth realized that he had a ticket out now. He tried to speak, but again his voice failed him.
<Lift your left arm if you agree. I have antidote for the poison in your system.>
Noise knew of his limitation. A telepath could only receive, not broadcast. It was impossible to hold a telepathic conversation with a NORMAN. Two telepaths could converse, by picking each other’s thoughts, but it was an unpleasant experience for both parties.
With considerable effort, Garth managed to raise his left arm. It was a costly effort, however. As he lost his grip on consciousness, he thought he saw Noise reload and aim his weapon at Darius.
Author's note: I started this story in 1990 and never picked it back up again. I figured it's time for it to come out of the drawer and onto the website.