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Chapter 17

Saturday dawned bright and clear, with strong southerly winds that promised unusually warm temperatures even for August. Good weather for flying; but despite that, Lisaher spirits initially revived by the hope Camila had given herfelt herself slipping into gloom again as the two preteens headed south toward the Tessellate Mountains. Second thoughts were beginning to nag at her, and now with this headwind cutting drastically into the speed they could make, this trip was going to take even more time than she'd expected away from her search effort. The universe, she decided glumly, was still out to get her. Lisa had flown among the lower slopes of the Tessellate Mountains several times in the past, but such trips had almost always been to the west, toward Rand, where the peaks were taller and more majestic. Much of the territory Camila led her over was therefore unfamiliar and, within a very few minutes, began to look disturbingly alike. "How do you find this place?" she shouted to the other preteen.

Camila pointed behind them. "We started into the mountains right where the Nordau River comes outwe passed over an abandoned metal refinery just over the first ridge, if that helps you." She raised her hand and pointed ahead. "See those two funny-shaped peaks therethey look like someone took bites out of them? Stay to the left of those and you fly right into our mountain. We're building the temple on the eastern slope, where we'll be able to watch the sun rise. Wait'll you see the model the senior acolytes have madeit's going to be beautiful."

Lisa made some kind of polite reply and drifted away, settling back to her flying again. Camila had already shown herself more than willing to talk at length about her club, and Lisa was in no mood to hear how the Heirs of Truth was doing wonderful things in someone else's life. Not yet, anyway. If this Prophet Omega helped her find Daryl... well, maybe then she'd be willing to believe this was more than just another kind of hive club.

The first jolt to her skepticism came as they approached the mountain and began to circle to the eastern side. Four or five figures could be seen at first hovering or darting near the slope; but as Lisa and Camila continued circling, more and more kids came into view until Lisa realized with a shock that there had to be a good hundred of them working on the temple site. The number staggered hershe'd envisioned perhaps twenty or thirty members at the most. Maybe there is something to all of this, she thought, daring to hope again. The size of the hole the kids were digging into the mountain gave a second, equally strong jolt. Already it looked deep enough to swallow the fourteen-story building she was helping build in Baronaand according to Camila it had to be made still bigger! For the first time Lisa began to understand the excitement Camila felt for what was happening here.

Coming close, Camila pointed downward. "There's the tabernacle," she said. "You ready to meet him?"

Lisa looked at the tent nestling casually beneath the jagged rocks being teeked out of the mountains. Inside that tent was the man who led all of this. "I guess so," she said. I hope so, she thought.

Arrayed in his white robe and gilt-edged stole, his chair flanked by two senior acolytes, Omega listened in silence as Camila explained the newcomer's problem. His first hopethat the "missing friend" she sought was Colin Brimmerhad been quickly dashed, but he was careful not to show his disappointment. A Prophet of Truth cares about all people, he reminded himself; and if showing some interest and making some promises could entice a new member into his fold, it was time well spent. It made a good break from all these damn confessions, anyway. His eyes flicked to the silent group of waiting confessors just as another kid slipped through the meeting room door and joined them.

Camila finished and bowed. "Thank you, Acolyte Paynter," Omega said, nodding his head in return. Shifting his gaze to the newcomer, he said, "Please come forward, Seeker Lisa." The preteen took a hesitant step forward and he continued, "The Truth that dwells in us can locate your friend, wherever he may be. Do you believe this?"

Lisa licked her lips. "I'm... not sure, sir. I mean... it sounds impossible...."

"It sounds impossible because you do not yet recognize that Truth resides within you," he chided her gently. "Like your muscles, the use of your inner power must be trained and exercised. Here, we can train you; but only if you are willing to put forth the effort."

He stopped, watching closely the play of expressions across her face. Camila had jumped the gun, he decided; Lisa wasn't quite ready to join up. Still, she was close. With a little effort they might still manage it.

"Sir..." Lisa began.

"Do not be troubled," Omega put in kindly. "Your friend is certainly uppermost in your mind right nowthat is only natural. When we have found him perhaps you will let us show you the power Truth can give to your life."

A flicker of surprise was followed immediately by relief, and Omega knew he'd played it correctly. The casual reading of her thoughts plus the promise of no pressure had clearly enhanced his credibility in her eyes. "The Truth," he continued, "knows no bounds, no obstacles. If you will tell me everything you know about your friendeverything that you and he have done or spoken of togetherthe Truth will seek him out."

It was as if a cloud had passed in front of her face. A very dark cloud. "Everything?" she asked, almost whispering.

"The more you tell me, the faster he will be found," Omega told her, his eyes taking in her slim, prepubescent body as he wondered about her sudden mood change. Had they been experimenting with sex? Unlikely... but her friend was a teen. That might explain both her reticence and the teen's disappearance, if they'd been caught at it. But she was never going to admit to something like that out here. "Perhaps you would feel more comfortable if we discussed this in private," he suggested, rising from his seat and extending a hand in invitation. "We can go into my private rooms."

She hesitated, then nodded. "All right." She stepped up to him but didn't take the proffered hand.

Lowering his arm smoothly, Omega nodded to Camila. "Acolyte Paynter, please take the confessors back to the temple site to continue their service. I shall send for them when I am ready."

Camila bowed and headed back toward the group by the door. With a reassuring smile, Omega gestured to Lisa and led the way through the rear curtain of the meeting room and to the door of his office. Opening it, he ushered her through and indicated the chair next to his writing desk. "Please sit down, Lisa; I'll be with you in a moment."

Omega closed the door behind them, then slipped off his stole and hung it carefully across its hooks. Turning around, he took a step toward the deskand froze with astonishment.

Lisa was leaning toward the desk, her head cocked slightly and her gaze on the copy of the Bhagavad-Gita he'd left propped open while working on his Sunday talk. Even from the door he could see her eyes tracing a rhythmic left-right pattern.

She was reading the book!

The first word that came to mind was one he hadn't used since escaping from Ridge Harbor. Lisa jerked her eyes away from the book with guilty speed, but fortunately she didn't seem to know what the word meant. Forcing a smile, Omega continued forward, swiveling his desk chair to face Lisa and then sitting down. "You are interested in the ancient Scriptures?" he asked her, indicating the Bhagavad-Gita.

"I... was... just looking at it, sir," the preteen said. Her eyes were wide, with lines of tension around them, and she seemed to be having trouble breathing. "Iit has those shiny edges and"

Lisa," he said sternly. "You cannot lie to the Truth within me. Nor should you deny such a great ability," he added in gentler tone. Reaching over, he turned the book to face her. "Please show me how well you can read."

"I can't," she whispered, staring at the book as if it would attack her.

"You must," Omega said, putting all the command he could into his voice. If he could force a surrender on this point, he sensed, all other resistance could be broken with relative ease. "I want to help you, Lisa, but if you deny any of what you are, you will merely hinder the very spirit of Truth which seeks to free your friend. Come; release your fears to the wind and allow your own Truth its freedom."

Lisa swallowed hard and dropped her eyes to the desk. Slowly, haltingly, she began to read aloud.

Omega sat quietly, an eerie feeling of unreality bringing a strange numbness to his limbs. To sit and listen as an unschooled kid read to him was probably the last situation he would ever have imagined himself in... and as Lisa's initial qualms faded and her confidence grew the sense of wonder increased. She was gooddamn goodstumbling over only the most uncommon words and even then sounding them out correctly half the time. This wasn't a simple case of selfteaching, he realized; this kid had had help.

Of course.

"That will do," he spoke up, cutting her off in midsentence. "Your friend taught you well. Is that why he has disappeared?"

For a second her eyes resisted, but then they dropped in defeat. "Yes," she murmured. "At least, I think so." She looked up at him again, her expression pleading. "But I didn't mean for any of this to happenI didn't know anyone would punish Daryl for lending me his books."

"Of course not," Omega soothed. "What you are seeing is one part of the same rejection of Truth I have suffered among adults, which is why I have in turn rejected them. The Truth within you has given you the desire and ability to read, which they now seek to repress. But the Truth can yet overcome and restore things to their rightful places. And I say now: it will do so."

Lisa seemed to ponder that for a moment. "Does that mean you're going to help me?" she asked, a bit timidly.

He gave her his best smile. "Within four days I will deliver to you his location," he declared confidently. After all, chances were that Daryl had simply been reprimanded and transferred to another school somewhere. Once Lisa told him the teen's original school and last name, it should be a simple matter of having someone pry the information out of the authorities in the guise of a relative or interested friend or something.

"You mean that?" Lisa breathed.

"I am a Prophet of Truth," Omega reminded her. "My word will not come to nothing. But." He raised a finger. "Before I do this for you, you must agree to do something in return for me."

"Of course," she nodded eagerly. "Anything I can."

"Good." Omega paused, preparing his words carefully. An incredible opportunity had dropped into his lap with this girlan incredible opportunity and an equally incredible risk. He had to be careful now not to scare her off. "The Barona policewho serve those who would stifle the Truth within youhave in their possession certain secret papers whose contents I must learn. I would like you to go into their station tonight and read them for me."

Lisa's eyes went wide. "Break into the city building? Oh, no. No, I couldn't"

"Peace," he said, cutting her off. "There would be no need to break in; you would be accompanied by one of my acolytes, who serves also as a righthand there."

"Why can't he steal these things for you, then?" she demanded hotly.

He had a split-second decision to make on how to react, chose to go with gentle forgiveness. "My young Seeker," he said with a forbearing smile, "I do not steal from anyone. The papers are the police's, and they will keep them. But unless I learn what is in them, a young boy who has been stolen from his parents will remain lost."

"But" She gestured helplessly. "It would still be wrong."

"Is it wrong to try and rescue a terrified child from an evil man?" Omega asked gently. "You fear for your friend Daryl, who isat the very leastable to understand what is happening to him. Can you imagine how little Colin must feel, alone and frightened?" He shook his head. "No, the wrong is in those who could rescue him but will not do so. What I am asking you to do is the response of the Truth within me. Examine your own heart, Lisa, and you, too, will feel a yearning to see this child freed of his prison."

For a moment he was afraid he'd piled it on too thick; but it was quickly apparent he'd touched a nerve. Lisa obviously liked children, and he could see that his slightly colored version of Colin Brimmer's plight was affecting her strongly. Time, he judged, to give the screw one last quarter-turn. "Will you do this, Lisa? Not for me, but for Colin... because you are the only one who can do this."

Her surrender came in the form of a long sigh. "I... have to think about it."

"Certainly," Omega said, suppressing a triumphant smile. "We would be honored if you would spend the remainder of the day with us, sharing in our work and fellowship and perhaps learning more of the freedom Truth gives to us. Later, when the Heir Ellery arrives, I will give you both more detailed instructions." He reached over and patted her hand in a warm, Senior-like way. "The Truth will reward those of us who give unselfishly to others, Lisa. Such is the first law of the universe." Leaning back, he smiled. "And so now I give to you. Tell me all you can about Daryl, that we may free him from his bondage."

Trudging through the knee-high bristleweeds, Tirrell rounded the last conetree to find that, as usual, Tonio had gotten back to the car first. "Well?" he asked the righthand, sliding gratefully into the driver's seat as the other teeked the door open for him.

Tonio pointed northwest through the windshield. "There's a patch about three kilometers away that's thick enough to hide a cabin from the airconetrees mixed with some kind of wide tops. No driveway I could see, but the main road's only a half kilometer or so away, and it looks like you could get a car through."

Tirrell had the map spread across the steering wheel. "Three kilometers northwest... yeah. About five by road, I'd guess. A little off the edge of the rock-mud region, actually, but I suppose we ought to check it out." Refolding the map, he took a quick survey of their surroundings. "I was right back there, you know; we aren't going to have room to turn around in here. You want me to get out before you do your stuff?"

The car rocked gently, rose a couple of centimeters, and settled back down. "Yeah, I think we'll both have to get out," Tonio admitted.

Sighing theatrically, Tirrell swung open the door and climbed back out onto the muddy grass. Without its passengers, fortunately, the car proved easy for Tonio to handle, and within a couple of minutes the detective was carefully driving along their earlier tire tracks toward the narrow backwoods road they'd been working off of for most of the afternoon.

"I gather you didn't find anything of interest at the last spot?" Tonio asked.

"As a matter of fact, I did," Tirrell told him. "Nice little cabin snuggled up under the edge of one of the conetrees."

"What?" Tonio spun half around in his seat.

" 'Course, half the roof had rotted out and there were scrub bushes growing in the living room," Tirrell went on casually. "I figure it's been deserted ten years or so."

Tonio settled back down. "You rat," he muttered.

Tirrell smiled a bit. "Come on, I deserve the chance to get a good zing in every once in a whileI'm the one who's been walking his legs off in that soggy ground for two days, after all."

"Trade you jobs," the preteen offered. "There's a lot more glare up there than you might think, and staring down at shiny conetree leaves gets awfully hard on the eyes after a while."

"If you've got a headache, there's aspirin in the first-aid kit," Tirrell said. Reaching into the storage area behind the seats, he located one of the canteens. "There's water left to take them with, too," he added, sloshing the canteen experimentally before handing it over.

"Thanks." Tonio was already rummaging through the first-aid kit. "I sure wish this was Decemberwe'd have had Jarvis in nothing flat."

Tirrell nodded. Conetrees exchanged their leaves for pinelike needles in wintertime, cutting down at least a little on the cover Jarvis's cabin would have. More importantly, though, the steam and smoke from the generator and wood-burning stove Jarvis had bought would make a pointer visible for kilometers. "Damn inconsiderate of him not to wait six months to pull this," he commented.

"Maybe that's why he grabbed Colin in June," Tonio suggested.

"Maybe. Of course, there was the whole thing with Colin's fifth birthday, if you'll remember."

"Oh. Right." The righthand sounded deflated.

Tirrell smiled. Ahead was the road they'd been following, and as he turned the car onto it he glanced first at his watch and then at the swath of sky visible above them. "We've got maybe two hours of daylight left, if your eyes can hold out that long. Show me where this latest patch is, okay?"

Chapter 16 | A Coming Of Age | Chapter 18