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I read a thriller/sci-fi novel about 15 years ago involving a government program using telepaths as spies. This is during the Cold War, so the Russians have a competing program. The down side is the telepaths die very young from their powers.

I recall they called the telepaths "Aces."

I seem to remember the hero running off with his girlfriend and making a living by winning (very easily) at poker. Oddly, I also recall a circus being involved in the big finale.

The big reveal is :

The government actually fakes the disease and kills the telepaths young to prevent them running off or gathering too many secrets.

Two clarifications: This is not the film "Speed of Thought" from a couple of years ago, in fact that movie is the reason I ask the question. The plot is identical, but the movie does not reference the book I read at all. Also, it is not from the "Wildcards" series of super-hero books, even though they both use the "Aces" label for powered people.

Thoughts?

  • I know this one, I just can't think of the title or author. The girlfriend is a russian telepath, and they die young from, er, something syndrome? At least that's what they've always been told... – Joe L. Apr 25 '15 at 3:27
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I think this is it - The Sensitives, by Herbert Berkholz. First published in 1987.

from the Amazon editorial review:

The "sensitives" are bright adolescents and young adults with a useful but limited ability to read people's thoughts and communicate wordlessly with each other. As soon as they are found, they're brought to a special center in Washington, run by kindly Pop Mickelson, and trained for intelligence work. But the condition that blesses them is also their curse: Rauschner's Syndrome results in death by the age of 32. One of the sensitives, ace agent Ben Slade, has a pivotal role, in a race between the superpowers for a new computer component. Interpolated in the account of his disillusionment with the dirty tricks of the intelligence business are the international adventures of his chums, who stick together like a cliquey group of honors students.

Here's a passage from chapter 2:

    ...We had a fair idea, by then, of what we were. We knew that we were psychic freaks with a talent beyond explanation. We knew that we were the aces; the deuces had been weeded out by then. We knew that we were something special. What we did not know was the price we would have to pay for that special talent.
     It was Pop's job to tell us that part of it, explaining Rauschner's Syndrome. It was a sad job, and a delicate one. He had to tell us that Rauschner's was a neurological disorder that we had been born with, that there was no cure for it, and that the survival rate was zero. That the blessing which had given us our rare abilities eventually would kill us.

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