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Al Bester strained his small body to its limit, reaching on tiptoe for the next branch. The tips of his fingers just brushed it. Above, the waxy leaves of the oak danced in a sudden warm breeze, tantalizing him with glimpses of the beckoning sky beyond. Al loved the sky. In the shapes of cloudssometimes in the stars at nighthe thought he could see the faces of his parents.
He steadied himself and looked down. The ground seemed unreasonably far away. Maybe he should be happy he had managed to get this farmost kids his age couldn't. After all, two branches down, you had to swing around the trunk, hang in space by one hand for a moment to grip the next limb up.
This limb he simply couldn't reach, and the trunk was still too thick to shimmy up. He was stuck. He would have to wait until he grew taller. If he ever did.
Orhe looked up again, speculatively. Or he could jump. The branch was thick, and he would have to jump pretty high, but if he could snag it, he might be able to pull himself up.
But if he missed, he would probably fall.
He was still staring wistfully up at the unattainable heights when he felt minds stirring below.
Hey, Alfie! Come down! We're gonna play cops 'n' blips.
Why were they bothering him? Couldn't they see he was busy?
He looked down reluctantly. Seven kids from his cadre stood below. Way below. He suddenly felt a little dizzy.
"Give it up, Alfie," their leaderBrettcalled up. "Even I can't get that one."
Like Al, Brett was six years old, but Brett was a good head taller. And everyone liked Brett.
Yeah, come on. Before you hurt yourself. That was Milla. Milla was his height, and he secretlyvery secretlyadmired her golden hair and blue eyes. He liked the way she laughedwhen she wasn't laughing at him.
"Oh, Milla is worried about Alfie," another girlKeefasaid. "Woops. Anyone catch that? What she was just thinking?"
Al strained, but caught nothing. He would love to know what Milla thought about him.
But then he did catch something. An interweaving mant from below.
ALFIE & MILLA
He turned his face to the bark, so they wouldn't see his angry and embarrassed blush. His feelings were harder to hide, but he squeezed them in tightly, balling his left fist as he did so, for concentration.
He wouldn't be a baby. He wasn't a babyhe was too old to wet the bed, too old to go in his pants, too old to bloop his feelings all over the place. If the teachers caught you blooping, they made sure everyone knew. That was the next worst thing to being punished by the Grins.
Frowning, he looked determinedly back up at the branch and jumped as hard as he could. That would show them.
But his timing was a little off. He got his arms around the branch all right, but his fingers never quite met up around the thick bough. There was nothing to grab onto, and only pressure and his nails in the bark kept him therepressure he couldn't keep up for long.
He looked down, and that was worse. He was hanging above and off to the side of the limb he had been standing on. He would never land square if he droppedno, he'd fall the whole way, and probably break something.
One nice thing, at leasthe had shut the others up. Or rather, stopped their stupid manting. Now what he got was a shim-shimmer of worry and excitement, with at least two strong desires to see what would happen when he fell.
"Hang on, Alfie, I'm coming up to get you!"
Brett. Brett was coming to save him and be the hero. The taller boy was already clambering up the tree.
No way, Al thought. No way.
He swung himself and dropped. The kids below gasped like a crowd watching a circus performer as he hit the branch feet first, teetered for a long, terrible moment, and then found his balance. He stood there, fighting the urge to hug the branch, breathing hard. Below, he sensed a restless pause.
He peered down. That had been a girl. Milla? He wasn't sure.
"You were lucky. You should have waited for me to help you," Brett said. "You shouldn't even be trying to climb it alonethis is constructive play time. We're supposed to play together. Will you come down now?"
Al bit back an urge to dare Brett to duplicate his feat. It would be great if Brett tried and failed, but what if he managed itor did better? Right now, at least somebody was impressed with Al Bester. A girl somebody.
"Okay," he said. "But I won't be the Blip this time." He started the descent.
He had played a Blip many times, and that part offered no real challenges.
He reached the soft grass of Alpha Quad and turned to face the others.
"You get to be the Blip, Alfie," Azmun said. Azmun was an ugly boy, with a face like a bat.
"I said I didn't want to be the Blip."
"We voted, Alfie. You have to do what we say."
"Yeah. It's for the greater good of the Corps," Milla put in.
So Milla didn't like him. His momentary elation vanished, but his stubbornness remained. "I didn't get to vote," he complained, stubbornly.
"Okay," Brett interjected. "All in favor of Alfie being the Blip, raise your hands."
All hands went up except his own. Of course.
"I was the Blip last time. This time I get to be a cop," Al insisted.
"But you were a good Blip. You'll probably grow up to be a Blip," Azmun argued.
Anger boiled through Al so fast it felt like his scalp would pop off. His fist actually seemed to ache with a need to punch Azmun's stupid bat-face. "You take that back. You take that right back right now," he said.
Azmun hesitated. Al realized his demand had come out calmly, not like he was really mad at all. The way Teacher Hua's voice did, when he was mad. It had a similar effect, too, because the anger behind his words was clear, despite his blocks. Weird, and scarier than someone acting mad.
He would have to remember that.
Basically, Azmun was a coward. Unless someone joined in with him and gave him courage, which could easily ...
"Hey, Azmun, don't say things like that," Brett interposed. "Apologize, or I'll tell the teachers, and they'll send the Grins after you."
An involuntary thrill of fear ran around the circle.
"I'm sorry," Azmun mumbled reluctantly. "What I meant was, you're good at playin' the Blip. 'Cause you've got strong blocks 'n stuff."
"C'mon, it'll be dark soon," Brett said, "and we've already blown most of constructive play time. What if Teacher Hua or Ms. Chastainor the Grinsscan us and find out we didn't play anything approved?
"Tell you what. Alfie and I will both be Blips. Okay? Alfie?"
Al blinked at the older boy. What was Brettoh. That was it. He hadn't saved him in the tree, so he would save him now. That was Brett, always trying to be the older brother.
"Okay," he said, having no choice at all.
"Three goals," Azmun said. "The statue of the Grabber, the spout at the fish pond, and the red knob at the rail station is the third. But you both have to choose the same one. Okay? But if one of us touches you, you're caught."
"No problem," Brett said. "You'll never catch us, Psi Cops. Count to fifty. No cheating. C'mon, Alfie."
"We should say the pledge first," Al pointed out.
"Oh. Yeah." Brett looked a little sheepish and cleared his throat. He hurried through the pledge, and the other kids followed, some just mumbling.
"I pledge my body, heart, soul, and mind to the service of Earth Alliance, and the people who dwell on her myriad spheres. I promise to keep the laws, to keep the faith, to keep my eyes on the truth. I pledge to serve my comrades, my cadre, and the Corps. The Corps teaches, guides, and provides. The Corps is mother, the Corps is father. We are the children of the Corps."
"Now, catch us if you can!" Brett said, and he started off. Al followed,
counting under his breath. Despite himself, he began to feel the excitement.
He loved hunting, but it was more challenging when the odds were against you.
People were more impressed when you won. He edged nearer Brett, so they were almost touching. Which goal?
The statue would be the hardest, Brett responded. I say that one.
Okay. I'll lead them off toward the rail station and then double back, Al told him.
No! Brett shook his head. We should stick together.
Why? Blips wouldn't.
Yes they would. Blips are dumb. That's why they're Blips.
You want to get caught? Al glyphed the other kids laughing at them.
No. But Blips are supposed to stick together.
That's not a real rule, Al 'cast.
No. But it's what we're supposed to do.
Right. So let's do something different.
Brett considered for a moment. Okay,&bnsp;he 'cast, after a moment.
Listen, we'll hide and make a quiet place. When we figure out which way they think we went, we'll go to the other.
Why not split up, like I said? He was beginning to get irritated. Then at least one of us makes it.
That's not how Blips think. Blips are selfishthat's why they're Blips. We have to act like Blips.
I thought Blips were Blips because they were stupid,Al rejoined, sarcastically.
Stupid, selfishsame thing. Didn't you watch John Trakker last night?
He couldn't argue with that. John Trakker, Psi Cop, often made that very point each week, as he led captured rogues off to be reeducated into productive citizens. And week after week, Blips showed how stupid they really were. Al never missed that vidthey showed it in the common room, complete with popcorn. And he had read all of the books, too.
Still, it seemed to him that some Blips might be smarter than those John Trakker came up againstlike, what if a Psi Cop went Blip, one who knew all the tricks? That had happened once on the show, to John's partner Heng, but only after he had been drugged by an evil rogue, so that wasn't really the same.
No, a Psi Cop would never turn rogue while he was in his right mind.
Well, he wasn't a rogue anyway, and he didn't want to be one, even in a game. He was going to change the rules. He was going to pretend that he was a Psi Cop and that those chasing him were rogues. And Brett ...
Brett might be a Psi Cop, or he might be a rogue, pretending to be his friend. He would have to keep his eye on Brett. The tell-tell would be if Brett seemed to be trying to get them both caught ...
They wound their way past the 3-5 cadre house, where he had lived the year before, and it struck Al how small it was, compared to the 6-10 house where he lived now. Of course, his cadre was bigger now, toothirty instead of the twelve last year. And there were more cadres in the 6-10 house.
Ms. Chastain said that was because some teeps didn't join cadres until they were older. They were late bloomers and had to stay in the latents' dorm. The other kids called the latents' dorm the "Basement," and nobody ever went there unless they had to.
Al couldn't imagine not having any psi. How could you have a real cadre without psi? The kids from the Basement were good at playing normals in the games, but everyone made fun of them. Mostly they kept to themselves until they got their psi and could join a real cadre. Some got really old before that happened.
Brett had gone silent, but his blue eyes darted here and there, searching for a hiding place.
The two of them ran up one of the duracrete drainage ditches past the new construction site. Brett trotted a couple of feet out into the mud and leaped up on a fresh foundation. Then, with a running jump, he returned to the ditch, leaving what looked like a one-way trail. Al had to admit it appeared convincing. Maybe Brett was on the level after all.
From the ditch they hopped over to the lawn in front of the infirmary, and then around back.
"Quick," Brett whispered. "Let's get up on the roof, here. We'll be able to see and p'see and hear and p'hear them from way off."
Al nodded, and the two of them went quickly up the slightly creaky metal ladder attached to the corner of the building. They crawled across the roof and lay peering over the raised edge, minds alert for the faintest shim of their pursuers.
The paths of Teeptown were relatively empty, at two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. He saw a couple of women in grey suitsthey weren't teachers or cops or boots, so they were probably busybodies, teeps not strong enough to be cops. There was old man Tareq, cleaning up the quad. A boot in EarthForce uniformAl p'squinted the shim of each, and his eyes widened. The boot was a normal.
You didn't see many normals in Teeptown. But when you did, they were usually important.
"Hey, Al," Brett whispered. "Make a quiet place, remember?"
Brett was already doing it, glyphing himself as a part of the building. Al, slightly red-faced, joined him in the illusion.
"You're not a bad guy, Alfie, just a little weird," Brett confided.
"I'm not weird."
"You're always playing alone, always have, even when we were really little. And you don't get excited about anything. If Azmun had mouthed off like that to me, I'd have punched him, good."
"It's wrong to hit someone in your cadre," Al replied. "'What hurts one hurts us all.'"
"Yeah, but sometimes you have to show a guy. You've just gottaI meanI don't know. People want to like youthe cadre's gotta hang togetherbut you're just a little too weird. You need to act more regular, you know?"
Al shrugged. He didn't care what Brett or anyone else thought.
Yeah. If he kept telling himself that, it might eventually be true.
"There," Brett whispered, suddenly.
P'squinting, Al could make them outKeefa, anyway. Keefa was a weak blockershe'd probably end up a busybody or a boot, but never a cop.
A few moments later, they came into sightbut only Keefa, Jon, and Roberto. That was a little worrisome. Where were the rest?
"That's to distract us, I bet," Al whispered. "They know Keefa bloops like a teek!"
"Maybe." They watched the three move up to Brett's false trail, mill about for a moment, then follow it.
"All right," Brett said. "They think we went to the rail station. So we'll go to the Grabber." He started crawling toward the ladder. Reluctantly, Al followed.
Halfway down the ladder, Al caught it. A shim-shimmer of triumph.
"They're here!" he shouted.
Cursing, Brett hurried down the ladder, just as Azmun, Ekko, and Milla came around the corner.
Brett made it to the ground in time to run, but Al had to jump. He hit hard enough that breath whoofed out of him and his chest hurt. Nevertheless, he ran after Brett.
He had made up his mind now. Brett was a traitorone of the rogues. He'd been planted in Psi Corps to betray Al. No Psi Cop would be as stupid as Brett. John Trakker would never have ignored Heng's advice, not the way Brett had ignored him.
Brett was playing his part well, though, running so hard that Al had trouble keeping upas if Brett really didn't want to get caught.
As he ran, Al tried to drop distracting glyphs: Scooters about to cross the road, Grins stepping out of the shadows, ladders falling on their pursuers. He couldn't be sure if they were doing any goodit was hard to form the images while concentrating on running. But he sensed that Brett and he were pulling ahead.
Brett sensed it, too, because as they came to the corner of one of the dorms, he suddenly changed course, ducking down stairs that went to the lower, back side of the building. From their hiding place, Brett glyphed an illusion that had them still running, and despite his suspicion, Al joined him.
It worked. Azmun and the others whizzed past.
"Ha," Brett said. "Now ..."
But Al p'heard something Brett didn'tthe other three pursuers coming close behind. And Brett didn't notice Al slipping into a recessed doorway.
There, under cover, Al steeled himself, then closed his eyes tightly, calling up an image of Brett's face. He imagined himself as Brett. In his mind, he merged his own face and Brett's into one, then changed Brett's into his.
It wasn't easy, and he didn't think it was working, until he suddenly heard Milla shout, "Hey! We've got Al!"
To clinch it, he blew sparks in Brett's mindnot a nice thing to do, but then, Brett was a traitor. So instead of running, Brett just stood there stupidly, long enough for them to catch him.
Then Al bolted, feeling their confusion paralyze them as they suddenly saw two Als.
They were all behind him now. No one stood between him and the statue of the Grabber. All he had to do was run, and he could run faster than any of them except Brett.
But as he reached the statue, he slowed uncertainly. Standing nearby, looking up at it, was the normal he had noticed earlier, in the EarthForce uniform. As Al approached, the man turned his gaze from the statue to him. There was something very unpleasant about that gazethe man's eyes were the color of pencil lead, his face very pale. When he saw Al, he seemed to not like what he saw. But when he spoke, his tone was mildly friendly.
"A little out of breath, young man?"
"You look like the devil's chasing you."
"Some kind of game, I hope?"
"Yessircops and blips."
"Oh, very goodthat's one of the approved games, yes?"
"Is this statue your goal?"
"Better touch it, then."
Al hesitated another instant, then did so.
The uniformed man looked up at the statue again. It portrayed a man, leaping, with outstretched arms, a look of noble determination on his face.
"Tell me about this statue."
"It's the GrI mean, it's William Karges. He was the bodyguard foruhPresident Robinson. Nobody knew he was a teep, but one day he p'heardI mean heard with his mindsomeone who wanted to kill the president, an' he got shot warning her. Nobody liked teepsI mean telepathsback then, and they weren't supposed to have jobs or rights or anything. But because of what Mr. Karges did, President Robinson made Psi Corps, to reward us, so teeps would have a place they could be safe and productive."
The man smiled gently. "They taught you that in school?"
"Yessir. And we watch the movie every Birthday."
"Did they also teach you that Washington chopped down the cherry tree?"
"Never mind. Here come your friends. What's your name, son?"
"Alfred Bester, sir."
He nodded, then returned his gaze to the approaching mob of children, led by Brett. Al could feel the anger shimming from all of them. He had expected Brett to be angry, but why the rest?
"Looks like he won," the normal remarked. "Better congratulate him."
Brett hesitated an instant. Al could tell that, if the normal weren't around, they would all be shouting at him now. But no telepath was ever allowed to fight with another telepath around normals. Never.
So Brett held out his hand. "Good goin'," he mumbled. But as their hands touched,
he 'cast something very different. We're gonna get you, Alfie, you slug.
That was bad, but it wasn't the worst thing. For a second, Al felt an intense flash of anger, hatred even. And it wasn't coming from anyone in his cadre.
It was coming from the normal.