The young acolyte tapped once on the open door to Omega's private tabernacle quarters. "Senior Acolyte Axel Schu, O Prophet," he fluted, a trace of nervousness apparent in his face and manner.
"Thank you, young Heir," Omega nodded solemnly. "Let him enter."
The Ten stepped back, and the tall preteen strode in, his eyes still puffy with sleep above his hive-issue robe. "You sent for me, O Prophet?" he asked. His voice, at least, was respectful.
"Close the door, Acolyte Schu, and sit down," Omega invited him, waving to the ornate chair opposite his own.
Axel chose to obey the orders in reverse order, settling himself in the chair before turning his head and teeking the panel closed. "Normal daytime hours not long enough for you?" he asked, a little grumpily.
"You didn't give the messenger a hard time, did you?" Omega frowned, recalling the acolyte's nervousness.
"Whatever I gave him he deserved," Axel said shortly. "I thought being a senior acolyte was supposed to keep me from being woken up at—" he squinted at the desk clock—"at two in the gracking morning. I don't stay here on Saturday sleepover very often; I don't appreciate being interrupted when I do."
"Even when the Prophet of Truth has need of you?" Omega asked softly.
Axel emitted a short bark of a laugh. "Oh, come on—you don't have to pull that earwash on me. I figured you out months ago."
"Oh, really?" Sitting back comfortably, Omega crossed his legs and eyed the preteen with interest. "And what exactly did you figure me to be?"
"A complete fake, who's leading a whole bunch of gullible jerks by their noses," Axel said promptly, with an air of enjoyment at finally getting to say the words out loud. "I don't know exactly what you're having us build out here, but if it's a temple, I'm a furhead."
"I see," Omega nodded noncommittally, a shiver running up his spine in spite of himself. Axel's hypocrisy was no great revelation, of course, but having his camouflage verbally ripped away was still an uncomfortable experience. "If you feel that way, why are you still hanging around?"
"Oh, for—" Axel waved a hand impatiently. "Whatever you wanted me for, let's get it over with so I can get back to bed, huh?"
Omega remained silent, and after a moment the preteen sighed heavily. "Okay, okay," he shrugged. "I'm sticking around because I want to learn now you do it. I'm going to hit Transition one of these days myself, and when it happens I want to be ready."
"You enjoy having power over people; is that it?"
Axel shrugged again. "Sure. Who doesn't?"
Omega nodded with satisfaction. He'd read the other correctly—and that lust for personal power would serve quite adequately as a substitute for loyalty. "Good," he said. "You'd like to have my verbal power. How would you like to have some real power, too?"
"What kind of real power do you have in mind?" Axel countered.
"Possibly the ability to delay Transition in anyone you choose," Omega said softly. "Would that be enough power for you?"
Axel's face went rigid. Slowly, the muscles relaxed and he swallowed carefully. "Yes," he said, almost calmly. "I think it would." He looked around the room once, almost as if seeing it for the first time, and then returned his gaze to Omega. "I don't think there's any chance of me falling asleep on you now—you want to give me the whole story?"
Omega smiled. "Certainly. I had a visitor a few minutes ago—Weylin Ellery, from Barona. You know him?"
"Uh... isn't he a police righthand or something?"
"Right. At the moment he's working closely with a Ridge Harbor detective named Tirrell... and Tirrell thinks the kidnapper they're chasing is doing some serious experiments with the Transition point." Omega gave the preteen the gist of Weylin's most recent report, carefully emphasizing certain facts and speculations and omitting others.
"Holy grack," Axel murmured when Omega had finished. His eyes fairly glowed. "Holy grack."
"Agreed," Omega nodded, hiding his amusement at the preteen's childlike awe. "The major problem, of course, is that with their direction finders in place now the police will probably find them before we could even begin to search the twenty-thousand-odd square kilometers of forest he could be hiding in."
"Oh." Axel suddenly looked stricken.
"But," Omega continued, "since the police will be mainly concerned with the boy's safety, they should move in slowly. Since we don't have to worry about that, we may be able to get the jump on them, provided we're ready to move."
Through half-closed eyes Omega watched Axel's face carefully. This was the make-or-break point; if the preteen showed any qualms whatsoever over the implication that Colin Brimmer was expendable, Omega would have to dump him and get someone else for this job. But Axel merely nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah," he agreed. "But how will we know when they find them?"
"Weylin has a phone number in Plat City to call when that happens. The man at that number will radio me here and we'll leave right away." Omega pointed a finger. "And that's where you come in. We'll need to have at least twenty kids here every evening from now on. How can we do that?"
Axel frowned. "Well... we've got sixty kids here right now, but Saturday sleepover is really the only time you can get that many to stay overnight."
"Why? I'd think that if you could get your roommate to cover for you one night a week, you shouldn't have any trouble getting him to do it other nights, too."
"The problem is timing," Axel said. "Except for the weekends, most of us have to get up at six and leave for work by about seven. That would mean even kids from Plat City would have to leave here by five or earlier if they didn't want to be caught sneaking back into their rooms. Other kids would have to leave even earlier."
Omega remembered bed checks and work details being easier to duck when he was younger. "All right, then, how about this? We set up a system in each hive where we can alert one of the kids and he'll pass the word quickly to all the others. That way we can make do with only a few here at any one time and still scare up a sizable force on short notice."
"I guess that'll work," Axel said slowly, doubtfully. He peered at Omega with narrowed eyes. "You sure everyone'll go along with you on something like this, though?"
"I'm sure many of them won't," Omega corrected him. "At the service tomorrow—I mean this morning—I'll give a talk about the 'evil child-snatcher' that'll lay the groundwork in case we need to get rough later. Part of your job will be to assemble a group of kids—preferably the older ones—who'll obey any order I give without question. They'll be our basic troops. Anyone else we'll use up to whatever point they decide not to cooperate."
"Which brings up the other part of my job, huh?"
"You're not squeamish about pushing people around, are you?" Omega asked mildly.
Axel simply snorted.
"Good," Omega nodded. "Then you might as well go back to bed—you'll want to be alert enough to watch people's faces at the service."
"Okay." Axel got to his feet and tightened his robe sash. "See you later, O Prophet," he added with an elaborate bow. Grinning, he left the room.
Omega sat where he was for another moment, gazing at the closed door. Ambitious, self-serving cynics, he thought. How would we ever accomplish anything without them? Almost a pity, in a way, that this one would eventually have to be eliminated, but Omega could already see the seeds of betrayal taking root behind the preteen's eyes. By the time Jarvis's technique—whatever it was—was in their hands, Axel would have decided he no longer needed Omega's help and have taken steps to end their relationship. Omega would simply have to make sure his steps in that direction were faster.
Sighing, he got up from his chair and went over to his desk. He was dead tired—the Saturday crowd had been unusually wearing—and he'd had barely an hour of sleep before Weylin's arrival, but he needed to at least sketch out what he was going to say to the assembled Heirs of Truth at the morning service. To persuade a group of generally idealistic kids to violate the most basic laws of their society for even their spiritual leader was no mean rhetorical task. Still, the chance to become perhaps the most powerful man on Tigris was certainly worth some effort and a few hours of lost sleep.
If my words really could be backed up by results! If I really could preach and then demonstrate some kind of power over Transition whenever I chose. Spiritual and political leader of Tigris? Why not? Who could possibly oppose me?
For a moment the vision threatened to overwhelm him, rising above his original paltry ambitions for this game Tike the mountains surrounding the temple site soared over scrubweed. Master of Tigris. It was headier stuff than he'd ever before tasted.
But it won't happen unless I get to Jarvis first, he reminded himself firmly. For a moment he gazed down at the papers on his desk, thinking hard. Tirrell wasn't likely to be simply sitting around waiting to get a good trace on Jarvis's phone. He'd be out poking around for leads... and Omega had had firsthand experience with Tirrell's ability to breathe life into icy-cold trails. If he did it again now, the police could conceivably have the area around Jarvis's cabin completely cordoned off before Omega even heard about it—and a full-fledged battle with the police was the last thing in the world he wanted.
Of course, if he could get hold of Tirrell's notes somehow, the odds would be even again. Have Weylin steal them, perhaps? No, that would be about as clever as sending the detective an engraved invitation to the First Annual Matthew Jarvis Race. And besides, Tirrell would be bound to have an extra copy of his data tucked away someplace. What Omega really needed was to get a private peek at the detective's notes.
Send Weylin into Tirrell's office some night with a camera? Risky; cameras small enough to be easily concealed didn't exist, and trying to sneak a larger one in past the desk man would be tricky. Teeking the camera in from outside would be equally hazardous, given the alarms police station windows were invariably equipped with. If only Weylin could get him in... but the old Yerik Martel wanted poster was undoubtedly still posted, and even though he didn't resemble that photo very much anymore, it would still be a stupid chance to take.
With a sigh, Omega put the thought on his mind's back burner. Time enough to worry about beating out the police after he had a force to beat them out with. Picking up a pen, he began working out his speech.