When the guards marched me up to the infamous headquarters of the Inquisition, I almost lost control of my sphincters. Fortunately, I did not add utter embarrassment to my heart-pounding fear.
They locked me in a tiny cell and disappeared without another word. I alternately sweated and shivered as I listened to a variety of moans and sobs, punctuated by an occasional scream, from voices I assumed were other prisoners. I recalled the vids I had watched that featured all sorts of torture and wished I had stuck to the Walt Disney shows.
Hours later, a taciturn Neanderthalic guard packing a very large blaster unlocked my cell. I assumed it was morning, but they had confiscated my comm unit, and the room had neither a window nor a chronometer. He marched me up a flight of stairs and down a corridor then shoved me into a small room furnished with a plasteel desk and three chairs. My glance slid behind and above the empty desk. A veritable museum of torture instruments decorated the institution-gray wall. I had visualized many of them during the night: thumb screws, branding irons, spiked whips and scourges, electric prods, and more. As my mind wrapped itself around their meaning, I heard the door close and turned.
The rebbe who addressed me the previous evening in the tavern stood by the door. His face had haunted me in my cold cell all night. The reality was worse, and my gut clenched.
He smiled through his chest-length black beard, a smile that belied his underlying hostility. I kept my shields firmly in place; I did not need a repeat of last night’s nausea and headache. His beard contrasted with the shiny bald head he unveiled when he doffed his fedora to me.
I did not return his smile.
He replaced his hat. “I am Reb Levi Schvartz, a member of the Rebbinical Council. You may address me as Reb Levi.” His voice grated like rough ball bearings against rusted steel.
I assumed he knew my name and did not respond.
Built like a fireplug, the man looked to be in his early forties. His midnight black attire— suit, shirt, tie, socks, shoes, and hat—seemed to suck the light from the room. His matching black eyes sat above a large, hooked nose that, as prominent as it was, could not rival the size of my mammoth schnoz. His pale scar gleamed against his ruddy face and disappeared into his beard.
He moved behind the desk and sat in the only padded seat, then motioned me to a straight-backed metal chair across from him. I surreptitiously looked for electrical connections before I sat.
A knock preceded the entry of a third person. To my amazement, the Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine appeared. I had met him twice, both times when I had challenged the intelligence or the personal habits of one of his faculty members. He was a gray man—like the walls. He would not meet my eyes as he moved to sit in the hard chair next to me.
Reb Levi rubbed his fingers over his scar. “Mr. Berger, your seditious diatribes have caused considerable consternation among the members of Rebbinical Council.”
The Dean coughed as if the rebbe’s words had choked him.
My gut writhed like an eel in a net.
“Last night was just the latest of your transgressions.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. The Dean’s sallow face turned even paler, and I wondered if mine looked the same.
“The Dean tells me that you are at the top of your class, academically. Commendable. He also tells me that you are a kochleffl”—he used the Yiddish word for troublemaker— “even at the Academy. You realize that you could be subjected to the Inquisition, do you not?” He raised his right eyebrow and his scarred left cheek twitched in response.
My heart skipped a beat. I glanced over his shoulder at the wall of torture implements and prayed it was only a museum display, although the past night’s sounds suggested my prayer would not be answered.
He waited for a response, although I was not sure what I could say. Recant my “seditious” pronouncements? I would not back down on my beliefs—well, at least not yet. Be tortured? That fear played more games with my sphincters. I’m no hero; I’m a chicken when it comes to pain. Disappear like others before me? Scuttlebutt said two radical students who dropped out of school last year had not been seen since. But if they were going to get rid of me, why was the Dean here? My hands twisted around themselves as if they had a life of their own.
The silence lengthened until the Dean cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. Berger—”
“No,” Reb Levi said. “Let him speak.”
For once in my life, I could not. I froze. I could not clear my mind of the old vid images of torture victims. I don’t know how long the silence lasted before I broke free of my paralysis. “Wha-what do you want from me? Are you going torture me, for God’s sake?”
The Dean gasped.
The Rebbe’s eyebrows bunched up like some huge black caterpillars. “Despite your blasphemy, we have no wish to torture you, Mr. Berger. Not if you accede to our wishes. On the contrary, we might have a job for you.” His smile reminded me of Dracula inviting a victim to rest in his coffin. His antipathy seeped around my mental barriers.
A job? What in hell did that mean?
Reb Levi tented his fingers. “Mr. Berger, you are a challenge, for your professors and the Rebbinical Council. Because of your sedition, the Council would see you leave Dovid’s World…permanently.” He stroked his scar.
My heart bounced off my diaphragm. Exile? My family—
Before my thoughts went further, Reb Levi added, “Or, perhaps, if you were to remain you could be taught to see the error of your ways.” He smiled and followed my glare over his shoulder to The Wall. It had taken on a life of its own in my mind.
My body trembled. The man exuded malignant pleasure as he watched me, and my stomach twisted again, despite my shields.
“I see either option as a waste,” he said. “You are among the brightest young persons at the Academy. Therefore, we have proposed a compromise.” He turned to the Dean and nodded. “You may explain, Dean Altschul.”
Altschul cleared his throat. “Mr. Berger, the Council has suggested several things. First, they would like to see you gone from Dovid’s World within a month.”
I felt like I had been gut-punched. When I caught my breath, my next words were comical considering my situation. “But I have final exams…and graduation.”
“Yes, yes.” The Dean waved off my outburst. “There is no problem. You could fail all your finals and still graduate with honors. The Rebbinical Council has ordered the Academy to waive your examinations and confer your degree early.” He stood and held out his hand. “Congratulations, Doctor Berger.”
My mouth hung open. Was he serious? Things were happening too fast. Had I just gone from the Inquisition’s prisoner to a full-fledged Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in the span of minutes? I finally stood and shook the Dean’s hand, confused but not so befuddled that I didn’t know to wait for the other shoe to drop.
Dean Altschul sat again and I followed suit.
“As Reb Levi said, we have a job for you. One that will not entail your permanent separation from our world.”
I let out the breath I had held, but took particular note of the “we” and waited for more.
“As you may know, our College of Veterinary Medicine once had many students from other worlds, but for various reasons we now have no students from offworld. We need someone to go to other planets, to seek out and recruit students, to entice them to enroll here. It is important to the, um, finances of our Academy. Income from other planets has been lacking since our government—” Altschul snapped his mouth shut and glanced at Reb Levi. His fear that he had said too much permeated the room.
Reb Levi’s eyes did not change, but a wave of disapproval radiated from the man’s brow.
After an uncomfortable silence, Altschul coughed and began again. “Dr. Berger, you are a persuasive speaker as you have shown both inside and outside the Academy. We feel this would be a good opportunity for you.”
Anger began to replace my fear of Reb Levi. Blood pulsed in my temple. Good opportunity? Leave my home, for God’s sake? And why me if I was such a pain in the ass? The obvious answer hit me like a bucket of ice water. No matter how they cut it, they were getting rid of me.
“We will empower you to offer scholarships to accomplish our goals.”
Your goals, not mine.
“What do you say?”
Was I supposed to agree to give up my plans and aspirations for my own veterinary practice? The farmers and ranchers in my home county needed a veterinarian, and I had planned to go home to fill that role. Was I to Leave Dovid’s World and my family? Like hell, I would. I conveniently submerged any thought of my precarious situation.
“No thanks. I’m not leaving my home.”
Reb Levi’s voice cut through me like the parting of the Red Sea. “The Council would very much like you to take this assignment, Dr. Berger. Though you have spoken harsh words about our government, there is no evidence that you are an active revolutionary. This appointment will give you a chance to prove yourself.”
“I don’t need to prove anything—”
“And to see that your family remains in good health.”
My heart clutched in my chest. I turned to him. His face was smooth. A slight smile curved his lips. His blunt fingers stroked his scar as his left eye twitched. I did not need my empathic ability to read him. I was now responsible for my mom and dad, whether or not they would become targets of the government, victims of the Inquisition. This was torture in itself. My fists clenched. I had to restrain myself from attacking him bodily. I had trained in martial arts as a teenager, and I wondered if I could take him. He looked strong as a bull.
The Dean must have taken my silence as acquiescence. “Ah, good. Good. I knew you would be willing, Dr. Berger. We can work out all the details later. See my Associate Dean for recruiting. She will train you.”
I glared at Reb Levi, fists balled. What I saw made further protestations moot. His eyes were narrow, and he nodded once, sharply, as if to shake something unpleasant out of his nonexistent hair. His demeanor was clear: Take it or suffer—you and your family. There were no alternatives.
“One last thing,” the Dean said. “You will have a companion on your travels.”
I arched my eyebrows.
I glanced at the smiling rebbe and shuddered. I’d rather share a spaceship with a giant Antarean scorpion. I wondered if only one of us would return from this journey.