Outside the lounge windows the last traces of sunset had finally faded from the sky, and the crescent shape of Tigris's larger moon was occasionally visible through the swaying woodland treetops. Sighing, Lisa straightened up in her chair and looked around her. The lounge was relatively empty; most of the other preteens were probably either outside or else downstairs in the entertainment rooms, enjoying the extra freedom Friday evenings brought. Of the few other girls present, most were sitting alone, either dozing or just enjoying the silence. In one corner five others had teeked their chairs into a circle and were carrying on a muted conversation. Lisa found herself staring at the group, searching their faces for some trace of the depression she herself was feeling.
But if the imminent loss of their teekay was bothering any of them, they hid it well. Laughing and smiling, they seemed as happy and unconcerned as Eights. Idiots, she thought peevishly and was instantly sorry. It was she, after all, who was behaving like a kid. Closing her eyes, she sighed and willed the world to go away.
A creaking of wood some time later made her open her eyes again. The group in the corner was breaking up. Watching incuriously, she noticed a sort of hand signal pass furtively among the girls as they threaded their way through the circle of chairs and disappeared out the door. Looking after them, Lisa felt older than ever. Secret clubs were always cropping up in the hive, usually among new preteens. Her own brief stint with such a club had been four years ago, just after her tenth birthday and the move upstairs to her present room. Then, she'd been more than a little scared at the new responsibilities her age was about to bring her... but on the other hand, the coming Transition had seemed as distant and academic as the end of the universe.
To grow is to change. Gavra Norward's oft-repeated line ran through Lisa's mind, but it wasn't especially comforting. I don't want to change, she thought angrily. I like being who I am; I like the power and—
She blinked as the thought caught her squarely across the face. The power. Not just the teekay, she realized with sudden clarity, but also the authority and status that went with it. Preteens were the top of the heap—more important even than many adults, she'd often thought. And as for herself... well, Gavra had said it just that morning. There's no one else I'd trust with a flock of Sevens. Lisa was one of the best, and she knew it... and she was about to lose it all and become an anonymous student.
Abruptly, she couldn't bear to sit still anymore. Getting to her feet, she looked around the lounge. A few others were still there, but they were all girls she knew only casually. No one she would be comfortable talking to... and, actually, she didn't really feel like talking, anyway. Stepping to the room's French doors, she opened them and walked out onto the balcony.
For a wonder, the wide ledge was deserted. Leaning on the railing, Lisa gazed down into the hive's landscaped courtyard, picking out figures moving around in the dim light. Above, the night was coming on rapidly, with only a small patch of blue still showing through the trees where the sun had gone down. Here and there she could see the distant specks of other kids flying about, a few off by themselves but most in groups of three or more. A faint giggle reached her along the breeze, adding that much more to her sense of frustration and loneliness. In the west the smaller of Tigris's moons, Sumer, was rising higher, and she had a sudden urge to go and chase it. Glancing around quickly, she stepped back to the building's wall and teeked herself straight up. Technically, flying off of balconies was forbidden, but preteens were generally allowed to get away with it as long as they made sure younger kids didn't see them. A hundred meters above the hive she leveled off and headed west.
The evening air, warm enough when one was stationary, was rather chilly when passed through at forty kilometers an hour, and Lisa wished momentarily she'd stopped by her room first to pick up a sweater. But the sheer exhilaration of flight quickly drove such thoughts from her mind. She passed the other kids without pausing; passed the outskirts of Barona itself; and within a few minutes she was over the woodlands surrounding the city, as isolated from the world as it was possible to get. She'd come out here often lately, as if distance alone would let her escape the pressing reality of Transition....
For a long time she simply played—games of speed and altitude she'd enjoyed as a young girl, and the more daring tricks of free fall and spinning spiral that had once won a brand-new preteen the admiration of both her peers and even some of her elders. Time and again she soared high above the woodlands surrounding Barona and let herself drop, relying more on instinct than on the dimly seen, dark gray-on-black treetops to judge when to pull out of her dive. The hard knot of bitterness underlying her sport she did her best to ignore.
Finally, the tension within her was exhausted, and she leveled out. Flying westward toward Rand and the Tessellate Mountains, she fixed her gaze on the rising moon and tried to sort out the tangled-yarn pattern of her thoughts.
She didn't mind the idea of being an adult; of that much she was pretty sure. People like Gavra Norward and the architects she knew from her building work had shown her that growing up didn't have to mean loss of all power, that being an adult didn't mean being a nobody. The attitude such thoughts implied still bothered her, though—she didn't like to admit that having power over other people was so important to her. But I don't want to push people around, not really, she decided after a moment of conscience-poking. I just don't want them pushing me around. And that, she realized suddenly, was what she feared most about Transition. She would be beginning school exactly equal with everyone else her age. A new situation, with new rules and relationships—and no teekay to compensate for her small size. Just thinking about it brought a tightness to her jaw.
To her right a flicker of light showed briefly through the trees. Moved by idle curiosity, she veered to investigate.
She could always simply run away, of course. Gavra had once said that over half of Tigris was still uninhabited, so it would be easy to find a secluded spot where she would never be found, using the remaining year or whatever of her teekay to build a house and clear some land. But after Transition... without the slightest idea of how to survive in the wilderness, things could turn ugly very fast. Besides, she wasn't really the hermit type. What she really needed was a way to get a jump on her peers at the school itself.
Again, the light flickered. This time Lisa was close enough to recognize it: a car's headlights, moving along the forest road from Barona toward Rand.
For a moment she paralleled the road, wondering what to do. She wasn't especially interested in chasing the car... but on the other hand, she'd seldom if ever seen anyone driving west of Barona at night. Perhaps there was some sort of emergency—and if so, her teekay might be the difference between life and death for someone. Dropping to treetop level, she increased her speed and headed toward the lights.
She caught up easily enough; the car seemed to be staying at the posted speed limit, and Lisa didn't have to bother with the road's occasional curves. How to approach without startling the driver right off the road was a matter for a few moments' thought; she solved it by flying a hundred meters ahead of the car, matching its speed, and dropping to just within headlight range. When she was sure she'd been seen, she reduced both her speed and height a bit more, and soon was pacing the vehicle at window level.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" she shouted, trying to minimize the nervousness in her voice. Flying at seventy kilometers per hour high above the trees and at a single meter above the ground made for two entirely different sensations, and she was acutely aware that a slight drift in practically any direction would slam her hard into something solid. Keeping her eye on the speed-blurred road beneath her, she opened her mouth to shout again—
The car vanished, and abruptly a bright light exploded in her eyes.
She was three meters up and heading higher before she realized that the driver had simply put on his brakes, dropping him behind her. Thankful that the darkness hid the hot flush spreading across her face, she circled back around, landing next to the car as it coasted to a halt.
"Is something wrong?" the driver asked, rolling down his window.
Lisa ducked her head and peered inside. The driver was a middle-aged man, dark-haired, dressed in a casual but nice-looking outfit. In the backwash of light she could see traces of the tension that some adults seemed to continually carry around with them. "I just wondered if something was wrong with you," she explained, suddenly feeling a little silly. "I noticed you driving at night, and..." She trailed off.
Surprisingly, the tightness in his face eased and he even smiled. "Oh, no—there's no trouble here. My nephew and I were just going back to Rand from a day in Barona. The time sort of got away from us and I have to work tomorrow."
"Oh," Lisa whispered; she hadn't noticed the sleeping child in the passenger seat. "I'm sorry—I was worried that there might be something wrong—an emergency or something."
"No, we're fine; but thanks for stopping. If it had been an emergency, I sure would have been grateful to have your help."
"Oh, that's all right," Lisa said, her face warming again. "I'd better let you get your nephew to bed. How old is he?"
"Almost five," the man said.
"He looks younger," Lisa commented, studying the boy briefly. A pang of sympathy touched the back of her throat; smaller than most of his peers, he was going to run into a lot of the same problems in his hive that she had had in hers.
"His mother was short," the driver said. "Look, we really have to go."
"Oh, sure—sorry." Lisa stepped back from the car. With a wave, the driver rolled up his window and the car again headed down the road.
Lisa watched its taillights disappear around a curve and then, with a sigh, teeked herself into the air and headed back toward Barona. So much for making a hero of myself, she thought, rotating once as she flew to get a last look at the glow of headlights. But even as she started to look away the lights made a sharp turn and disappeared behind a particularly thick patch of the woods.
She'd never noticed a turn quite that sharp in the road, and for a moment wondered if perhaps he'd lost control and driven into the ditch. But an instant later she saw the glow again, a little further on. Reassured, she circled back toward the distant slice of pinprick lights that was Barona. With the excitement over, she turned her mind back to the problem that had driven her out here in the first place.
She struggled with it for another half hour, and through all the tangle two thoughts gradually seemed to emerge: one, that to get the edge she desired over her peers she would need to start learning ahead of time the stuff the school would be teaching; and two, that the first thing on that list was reading.
Reading. Even just bouncing around in her head the word was a little scary. Reading was something only adults did, like driving cars or making money—something that took a lot of time and hard work to become any good at. Could she possibly get anywhere with it in the few weeks or months she had left? After all, she'd always heard that reading was too hard for kids and preteens to learn—else why wait until after Transition to put people in school?
But I'm almost a teen, she reminded herself firmly... and now that she thought about it, she couldn't remember anyone ever saying that a preteen couldn't try to learn reading. If she could even just learn all the letters it would give her something to build on later. It was certainly worth a try, anyway.
And with unusually good timing the idea had even come to her when she could take advantage of the extra free time the weekend provided. None of the books in the hive's entertainment center had anything but pictures, but the Barona Library was open to anyone; and while Lisa had been above the first two floors only once, she knew kids were allowed up there. Provided the library opened early enough on Saturdays, she should be able to get busy right after breakfast.
For a moment she frowned, and her thoughts went back to the man in the car. What sort of job did he have, she wondered, where he had to work on Saturday but not on Friday? The mines in the Tessellate Mountains near Rand worked eight days a week, she'd heard—a few of them a full twenty-one hours a day—but he hadn't looked much like a miner. Perhaps he was a supervisor of some kind. Certainly he'd sounded educated enough to be somebody important.
And that apparently was the secret of adult life. Education is power... and power means not being pushed around. Smiling to herself, Lisa increased her speed, hoping to get to bed early for a change. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Dr. Matthew Jarvis let his car coast to a stop by the cabin wall and breathed a sigh of relief as he flicked off the headlights. For a moment he sat in the darkness, letting his eyes adjust. Then, opening the door, he reached over and scooped up the sleeping boy beside him. Maneuvering carefully to avoid banging either of their heads, he got out of the car and carried the child into the dark building.
Inside, he headed straight for the kitchen table, the only flat surface he was willing to try and get to in complete darkness. He made it without running into anything and laid the boy down. Feeling his way to the nearest door jamb, he flicked on a light and then reached around the door to his study to turn on the lights there. Picking up the boy, he transferred him to the study couch and then went back to the car to retrieve his small travel bag, confirming on the way that the lights didn't show from outside the cabin. Back in the study, he collected the vials and hypodermics he would need and set them out neatly on the end table by the couch. Finally, he pulled a chair alongside the sleeping boy and sat down.
For a long moment he gazed into the child's face as an odd mix of emotions swirled inside him. The decision on whether to proceed was still not irrevocable... and the fact that he'd made it this far without getting caught meant that choice was now solely in his hands. Even at this late stage that wasn't something he could casually dismiss.
But the moment passed. Reaching over to the end table, he carefully prepared the three hypos he would need: the first with a chemical to neutralize what remained of the sleeping drug in the boy's system, the second with a mild hypnotic. In the third... Jarvis squinted at the clear brown fluid, marveling again at how innocent the stuff seemed. Certainly there was nothing in its appearance to suggest its creation had cost four years of blood-sweat... or that it might very well turn Tigrin society upside down as drastically as the sudden appearance of the teekay talent had nearly two hundred years earlier. Brown dynamite—a kiloton of it in every hypo.
Feeling a tension in his jaw, he put the vial down carefully and picked up the first hypo and a disinfectant swab. Cleaning a patch of skin on the boy's upper arm, he injected the neutralizer and swabbed over the needle mark. Moving a couple of centimeters down, he repeated the procedure with the second hypo. Then, his hand on the boy's pulse, he settled back to wait.
He'd preferred to err on the side of caution with the doses, with the result that it took nearly an hour for the child to drift from his original comalike sleep into the half-awake state Jarvis needed. But finally he was ready.
"Colin, can you hear me?" Jarvis asked softly.
The boy stirred, and his eyes opened into slits that still showed mostly white. "Uh-huh," he murmured.
"I'm going to tell you some things, Colin, and I want you to promise me you'll remember. Okay?"
"Okay. Open your eyes and look at me." Colin did so, and Jarvis continued, "My name is Matthew Caleb. I'm a friend of yours and the Brimmers, and you'll be staying with me for a few months—a sort of vacation in the woods. You're very excited and happy to be here, of course, and will want to stay as long as you can. Will you remember all of that?"
There were other things Jarvis wanted to tell him, but they could wait for another day now that the groundwork had been laid. "Good. Now, turn your head and look into the corner over there. Do you see the red disk? I want you to try and lift it straight up along the metal bar."
Colin nodded and Jarvis turned his attention to the corner. The device there was essentially a homemade version of a standard hive teekay tester. Twenty metal disks, each weighing one kilogram, rested on a vertical pole that was tapered from bottom to top; the different sizes of the disks' central holes let them rest a few centimeters apart on the pole. As Jarvis watched, the bottom disk—painted a bright red—wobbled once and began to rise. It picked up the disk above it without slowing; and the next, and the next. When the pile finally came to a halt, it consisted of eight disks and was almost able to lift the ninth.
"That's fine, Colin; very good," Jarvis said, marking the figure down in a small notebook. Average, or perhaps a bit weak for his age, though Jarvis had no doubt a careful brain and metabolism analysis would show the boy to be on the proper teekay curve. Again, that could wait until tomorrow. "You can let the disk down now." The pile returned smoothly to its original configuration, and Jarvis turned back to the boy. "Now, Colin, I'm going to give you a shot. I don't want you to feel it, though, okay?"
Colin nodded. Picking up the third needle, Jarvis prepared the arm and, with only a slight hesitation, injected the brown fluid. His hand was trembling noticeably when he returned the hypo to the table. "Very good, Colin. Now, there's just one more thing, and then I'm going to let you go to sleep. I'm going to have to give you these shots every couple of days for a while, and I don't want it to bother you in any way. So whenever you hear the word 'Miribel,' I want you to go immediately into a deep sleep. You won't wake up again until you hear the word 'Oriana.' Do you understand? Repeat the two words to me."
"Miribel," the child murmured. His eyelids were drifting shut as the hypnotic began to lose its hold on him. "Oriana."
"That's fine, Colin. Now in a minute you'll go to sleep, and when you wake up in the morning you won't remember this conversation. We're going to have a good time here together, and you're going to learn a lot about woodland life. Above all, don't worry about anything, because I care a lot about you. All right? Good. You're a good boy, Colin, and you may go to sleep now."
A moment later the boy was fast asleep, his mouth slightly open, his breathing slow and regular. Checking his pulse one final time, Jarvis carefully covered him with the blanket he'd had ready. Just as stealthily, he gathered his equipment and drugs and locked them away in his work table.
With one last look at the sleeping child, he turned out the study lights and softly closed the door. Strangely enough, though his hands were still trembling a bit, the earlier tension was gone... and the reason for that was obvious. By illegally injecting that drug into Colin's body, he had placed himself neck-deep in the Rubicon.
For all intents and purposes, the decision to proceed was now irrevocable.