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"What did I tell you about doing that here?" Marion Mahata scowled at her adopted son from the study doorway.
Rael shut down the access port of his mother's terminal and released his compu-link with a flick of a thought before the door whooshed shut behind her.
"You look lovely today, Momma M," he lied.
Marion sighed as the give-away glimmer of the tiny temple plates beneath his shaggy platinum hair played out.
"Don't start with me, young man." She stepped further into the room. Her usually jovial round face showed no hint of forgiveness this time. "Three different departments detected your presence in restricted systems."
Rael remained unflappable. "Which three?"
Marion glared back in silence.
Rael rose from behind the desk and lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mom. I was just exploring the star base on-line, and I guess I got carried away."
Marion examined his still stoic expression and then sighed. Eighteen years, and this is as close to remorse as I'll get. Even as a baby, when she had rescued him from The Hive planet, she had never heard him cry.
"Rael, this station isn't like the others. The danger is real here. The entire outer level houses nothing but PSI operatives. Your compu-link disrupts their ability to function."
She stared into her son's dark eyes. "It hurts them, Rael. When you compu-link too near to them, you scald their senses. Why do you think I arranged for our quarters to be as far away from the upper levels as possible?"
Rael frowned slightly. "I thought it was to protect you--in case of attack or something. You're supposed to be in charge now, aren't you?"
Marion shook herhead. "Why can't I get this through to you? We've never been housed near a branch of PSI Ops before, so this is going to get tricky, but I'm being called to the mat on this. The time has come to finally see what you can and cannot do."
She gauged Rael's almost empty stare with the insight of a mother. "Bottom line, we don't need highly placed officials campaigning to send you back to The Hive Planet, so you need to start paying more attention now." She paused for effect.
Rael scooted out from behind her desk and dropped into one of the two seats before it. "Did I hurt anyone?"
"Not this time," Marion replied, "but PSI Ops detected your activity on-line as did Payroll and Dark Ops security. Rael, you're old enough to be perceived as a threat, and these are the people who deal with threats in the known universe. Remember that next time you get curious."
Rael seemed intent on examining the carpet at his feet.
"Why didn't you wait? Didn't I promise you a higher security clearance for your birthday?"
"I must have back-doored the upper levels--maybe through a surveillance channel."
Marion's jaw dropped. What am I going to do with this boy?
"Why would Dark Ops keep watch on the main business and recreational levels? I was just skimming through surface lines." Rael stopped suddenly. "Mom, are we being monitored here?"
"This IS a high security base, son," she replied, but mentally, she resolved to look into it.
Rael leaned back into his seat. "I will be more careful from now on. I promise."
"Good. Now let's get back to business." Marion Mahata seated herself at the desk and flipped on the intercom. "You can come in now."
The office door slid open, and a tall, slender woman, not much older than Rael, stepped into the room. She had crimson hair and a strong gait to her walk.
Rael studied her as she took the seat next to his. She dressed in the service standard gray uniform, wearing a rank he did not recognize and a Dark Ops insignia above her pocket instead of implanted on the back of her slender hand. Well, she's not an operative. He met her gaze, unexpectedly and stopped. "You have the most unusual colored eyes. Are they blue or green?" he asked without thinking.
The young woman smiled. "Both. They are blue-green, actually. I'm told it's a very rare side effect of genetic enhancement."
Rael's temple plates flickered as he flash-searched the subject through his mother's terminal. "It really is," he told her. "If you want, I can relay several extensive studies to your port. The data base here contains.... "He fell silent under his mother's icy stare.
"You see my problem here, Lythia," she said. "It's like telling a fish not to swim."
Lythia smiled. "Then perhaps we should concentrate on teaching him how to map the waters instead."
Rael looked quizzically at his mother. "I don't understand."
"This is Lythia Lyconza. She is my new assistant here, and her first assignment is to indoctrinate you to the dos and don'ts of Dark Ops Central Command. After her tutelage, your security clearance will be raised, as I promised." She turned again to her aide. "Lythia, my adopted son, Rael Pointe. Try not to let him drown you in the deep end."
Lythia smiled. "If you'll come with me, Rael, I'll show you around the base."
Instead of hanging it up, Rael dropped his jacket onto the couch in his quarters. "Lythia, come on in," he called back over his shoulder. "Sorry if it's a bit warm. I don't think I'll ever get used to this station's icy climate settings."
He luxuriated in the warmth, rubbing his hands together to reestablish circulation. "I thank God for thermostats every time I walk in here." He started for the kitchenette. "Would you like something to drink? I found some imported coffees at the commissary."
"Sure." Lythia noted the empty walls of his living quarters. "I guess you haven't started decorating yet, huh?"
"I like them the way they are," he called from the kitchen before rejoining her. He settled a tray with two flash-cups and an assortment of coffee packets onto the small table before the couch. "I decided to let you choose for yourself." He grabbed up a packet and poured its contents into the cup without examining it. It flash-heated, filling the room with a sweetly tinctured aroma of coffee.
Following his lead, she picked one at random and prepared it. A second, spicier scent burst forth. Lythia breathed it in and then ventured to taste the steamy liquid. "Mmmm, I've always wanted to try these, but they're so expensive." She fell silent, realizing that Rael had comfortably sunk back into his chair and was grinning at her. "What?" she asked.
"You are not the usual frumpy old type of guardian I've always had to tolerate in the past. In fact, we're almost the same age, and you're a high-level computer specialist, aren't you?"
Lythia grimaced. "When did you get into my file? You haven't had access to a terminal since this morning, before you met me."
Rael sipped his drink and closed his eyes, savoring its warmth and flavor. "There's something almost sacred about coffee during that brief interval when it's at just the right temperature, don't you think?" At both of his temples, tiny flashes of silver played amidst unruly locks of hair.
She stared at him, momentarily dumfounded, then set the steaming cup onto the table. "How can you compu-link without a portal?"
Rael half-opened his glazed eyes and swirled the last of the coffee in his cup before draining it. "My portal is on the desk over there." He pointed to the alcove across the room from where they sat. "When I was younger, I had to physically plug into compu-lines. But with age, little by little, I became able to achieve a wireless link. In fact, I can compu-link with any port in any room I enter. Just like this."
The terminal flickered alive at the desk. "I've turned the screen on for you to see what I can do," he tapped his head, "in here."
Lythia crossed the room and looked. "You got this from your mother's personnel files, didn't you?"
"Why are you showing me this?"
"Because I'm tired of baby sitters. If you think you can teach me something useful, that would be great. But I could have given a better tour of this station than you did. And it took you all day to do it. Air ducts, escape pods, maintenance tunnels, special elevators, room sizes, portal locations, I already knew them all."
Station blueprints, schematics, area surveillance footages, all flashed across the screen at a dizzying speed.
"You can do all this without even touching a port?" Lythia asked.
Rael looked annoyed. "I said so, didn't I?"
Lythia returned his stare. "Well this confirms your mother's assessment of your skill level, so you can wipe that look off of your face, mister. If you ever want to become more than an anomaly of circumstance in the free universe, you need to shape up. You now have two years to hone these skills into a pliable trade and to learn respect for others." She reached down and typed in a clearance code before calling up another file. "This is your real file," she stated flatly.
It popped onto the screen.
"Now, give it a read."
Rael's smile faded as he scanned a lifetime's worth of data at the speed of thought.
"What's the matter? Did you never suspect these surveillances, not even once during all those years?"
Rael's mind raced at the ramifications. For nineteen years, he had been watched and studied; his every awkward endeavor had been recorded. He looked to Lythia with a new respect as he realized that the entire day had been meant to test him.
"Despite your arrogance, lack of social skills and your inability to fully grasp your own potential," Lythia continued, "Dark Ops has deemed you suitable to train." Menacingly she held his gaze. "This isn't some little service base or ambassador station you're dealing with now. This is Dark Ops Central Command for the Universal Government." She searched his face for the answer to a question unasked.
Rael remained pensive.
Deciding to allow his silence, she clicked off the computer, walked away from the portal and seated herself across from him on the couch, turning all her attention to her drink.
"You can tap the flash on that cup and re-warm it a bit," Rael suggested, breaking the silence.
Lythia stared at him, waiting. Rael's met her gaze with an unfathomable expression.
"I owe you an apology," he finally said.
She smiled to herself. I can work with this. Setting her cup back onto the tray, Lythia considered her words carefully. "Will you be staying or leaving this station now?"
"I will stay only if you will train me," he declared.
Lythia choked back her surprise. "Why do you say that?"
"When you entered your security code, you knew that I would have it, so I located and checked out your file after mine. You are only three years older than me, but you are genius level and our psychological profiles are compatible. I can learn from you. When do we start?"
"We have just finished our first session, Rael." She stood up, intending to head toward the door. "That security code that you filched is yours; a birthday gift from Momma Mahata." She smiled sweetly at him. "The rest is homework. We will not resume lessons until you find a way to circumvent detection within this system." She motioned toward the port. "Go back and check out your file again."
Rael's temples flickered, and he shook his head. "This new security code is saving my transactions exactly like all the others did. There's no difference now, it's just another tool designed to spy on me. So, since surveillance has been this heavy all along, I'll never be able to circumvent detection from within the system." He paused, a look of realization dawning across his face. "So, you finally want me to access The Hive System. Right?"
"Yes." Lythia watched carefully as her charge considered facing what had to have been his lifelong nightmare. But she did not see any fear in his eyes.
He placed his empty cup on the table. "Does Momma M know about this? All my life she's insisted that The Hive is too dangerous for me." He tapped his temple plates. "So far, I'm the only one that's ever gotten away."
"You're definitely uncharted territory," she replied as she sat back onto the couch. "Nobody even knows if you can tap into The Hive. I mean, you're wired for it, but," Lythia shrugged, "no one knows if the control drug is a necessary part of the actual interface. In fact, nobody knows much of anything about how The Hive works, except for the corporation that owns it."
Rael found her pretty eyes to be a momentary distraction as she spoke, so he dropped his gaze to the table.
"Of course, the biggest danger is that you could become ensnared within it and lose your autonomy," she finished.
"My life, you mean."
"Quite possibly." She leaned forward. "Rael, I do not broach this subject lightly, but I must know your mind while there are still options."
"My mind," he said quietly. "Finally, someone is asking what I want to do." He stared right into her eyes, this time not noticing their color at all, and stated flatly, "I have always wanted to Deep-search The Hive. Whenever I'm near a Hive-link, I hear, no, I feel a purr, almost a hum, in the air. Without words it beckons, almost pleads for my attention, but all my life I have been held back and stopped from getting any nearer. It's like living on a beach and not being allowed to get wet." He noted the surprise on her face.
"How do you know that this lure is not meant to trap you, to steal away your freedom, to condemn you to a drug-laced life of servitude?"
Rael shrugged and wondered at the concern and fear on her face. "So, can I or can I not finally find out? I've already located the offices with Hive temp-terminals here. With your help, we could arrange for someone to call in an absence so I can splice into that Hive temp-worker station when it activates. You can monitor me or whatever you want while I do this." A small smile played across his lips in anticipation. "If I'm right, I should be able to back-door access any system The Hive links to. Lythia, imagine the possibilities, all the places I could go...."
Momma Mahata sat, silently awaiting her son in the tiny office she had commandeered for the experiment. The sight of The Hive temp-terminal sitting ominous and dark in the corner was setting her on edge. "I know we need to do this," she said to Lythia, "but I'm so afraid." She looked to her aide for assurance. "Is there nothing more we can do to make this safer for him?"
"No ma'am," Lythia replied softly. "In the past, our systems were able to identify his presence by his lack of ID. Whenever a system was entered without a source or sign-on, and he was known to be active, it was him. Our security system, basically, tracked him after the fact. So, that's all we've got and only within this station's systems."
"It's mind boggling, isn't it?" Marion said as she checked the time on the wall screen. "He should be here soon. You told him it would activate at 0800, right?"
Lythia nodded. "We've requested it stay open until manually released this time, in case there are any problems."
They both started as the door whooshed open unannounced. Rael entered, full of confidence and joined his mother and instructor at the desk across the room from The Hive station.
"Rael Pointe, reporting for duty, ma'am." He imitated the praetorian salute of the Services and smiled at his mother's response. "What? You don't want me in the family business?"
Marion Mahata shook her head. "Again with the antics. At least tell me that you've thought this through and considered all of the ramifications of this experiment."
"Oh, come on, Mom," he leaned down and kissed her forehead, "you're the only person in the universe who cares for me, and I do appreciate that. But this is what I was born to do. It's only a matter of who I work for, isn't it?" Uncharacteristically, he winked at her. "Don't worry, I'll do you proud ... even if it's only as a world class filing clerk."
Lythia resisted the urge to reach out and slap him on the head.
Mahata only frowned. She'd never seen him look so anxious or excited about anything before. She took in his ruggedly handsome appearance. He was dressed all in black again, his favorite color, since he liked how it provided a striking contrast to his always tousled silver hair. Nineteen years worth of memories swarmed her consciousness. Had it really been so unhappy for him? she wondered. "What do you plan to do when you access that thing?"
Rael's attention snapped to the corner, as the SYSTEMS ON light announced the workstation's activation.
"You really can feel it," Lythia marveled.
"Like the draw of a magnet," Rael replied as he dragged a desk chair toward it. "I was thinking that at first I would like to just watch what it's doing." He braced the chair against the wall next to the unit. "You know, follow our little temp while it does its job. Then, if I can, I want to take control of its action. I'll be able to report or signal my successes if that works." Fishing in his pocket, he procured a tiny data disc. "This is a sorting assignment for the temp." He inserted it into the work unit. "You need to open up your portal now and watch for me," he told Lythia over his shoulder, and noting that she had done so, he dropped into the chair, shuffling ever-so-slightly to get comfortable. "I'm going to attempt to initiate access points through all The Hive terminals on this station--especially the ones that haven't been activated." He leaned his head against the wall. "I don't know how easy or hard this will be, but eventually I want to backtrack to The Hive itself."
Mahata shot up from her seat. "No. I forbid it."
Rael smiled. "Too late, Mom." His temples flickered, and his eyes glazed over.
Marion Mahata slammed her hand on the desk.
Lythia scrambled to call up the assignment from Rael's disc onto her portal. She found each file already reorganized and placed in consecutive order. Nothing stood out. Then with a flicker, the file order reversed, and a message appeared across the screen: HI MOM, I AM FINE. HOW ARE YOU?
Lythia's laugh brought Momma M to her side.
"Oh, thank God," Marion said as she dropped into a desk side seat. "If I threaten him, he may not come back," she murmured, then squinted at the screen. "So, how long do you think he can stay in there?"
Lythia looked back to the screen. Posts from all over the station began to stack up before her. Plowing her way through them, she pieced together Rael's one-word-at-a-time message: THIS ... IS ... WORKING ... JUST ... THE ... WAY ... I ... THOUGHT ... IT ... WOULD.... SEE ... IF ... YOU CAN ... DETECT ... MY ... PRESENCE ... ANYWHERE.
Marion reached over and picked up her com unit. "Security, scan all systems for anomalies and give me an intruder report."
A few seconds later, a security message appeared on the screen: NO INTRUDER DETECTED ON SECURITY CHANNELS ... WE HAVE HAD A SUSPICIOUS RASH OF MINOR MALFUNCTION REPORTS ON CLERICAL LEVELS ... AND PSI SCANNERS SENSE ACTIVITY BUT CANNOT LOCATE IT.... (SO HOW AM I DOING MOM?)
Marion sighed and spoke into the com again. "Report these findings to me again--verbally this time."
The confused security guard repeated the message verbatim without her son's input.
"That's what I thought. Thank you, officer. That will be all." She disconnected the line. "Can you locate him within the system at all?" she asked her aide.
Lythia shook her head. "Not at all. Ma'am, I think the only reason we know he's there is because he's telling us."
Marion Mahata dropped her head into her hands and frowned. "Oh my God, we've created a monster."
"But I'm your monster, mother." Rael sat smiling at them from across the room. "And no one will ever command me but you." He stood up from the chair and stretched, popping the stiffness from his neck.
"Yeah, right," his mother mumbled. "That didn't seem to matter when I told you not to go to the source, did it?"
Rael feigned a wounded look. "But I didn't, Mom." He savored her surprise and then grew serious, "Because I hadn't had a chance to discuss it with you."
"It's been thirteen days, Lythia! What are we waiting for?" Rael dropped onto one of the park's pedestrian rest benches. "We're just dancing around what needs to be done next. What do I have to do to get her to let me deep-dive The Hive?"
Lythia sat next to him and tapped a message onto her hand-held notebook.
"Yes, I can pick that up too," Rael responded without looking at her. "I thought we already established I can open link with damned near anything I get close to--"
Lythia's slender fingers flew across the tiny board again.
Rael turned to face her. "I thought I wasn't allowed on the upper levels."
Lythia snapped the notebook closed and batted her pretty eyes at him. "There's a restaurant up there that I think you will like."
"Hmmm." Rael nodded. "You're the boss." He rose and offered his arm. "We might want to hurry, or we'll catch the lunch rush."
Lythia took his arm and guided him further through the park, away from the interior business district, toward the outermost elevators.
"I'll never get used to seeing parks on each level here," Rael said. "It's almost like being outside every time I leave a building ... or office." He frowned.
"It's part of the illusion cast by the designers. Keeps everyone a little saner in a contained environment. Just like the sky blue ceilings on each level's 'outdoor' ceiling."
"Yeah, I understand the principle, but it's interesting to actually feel the effects. Mom and I have always lived on planet-bound bases. This is kind of nice."
Lythia thought she caught a glimpse of a flicker across his temple plates.
"Do you know the grass here is genetically designed to never grow more than three inches tall? It doesn't need but three inches of soil to grow because it spreads by using underground runners. What a clever idea."
Lythia glanced at his innocent expression and tried to imagine what it would be like to so easily access the answer to any question. "Yes, the universe is filled with amazing things." They traversed the rest of the long walkway surrounded by bright green grass and sporadic beds of colorful flowers without talking. But by the time they reached the elevators Rael could not keep quiet.
"What level are we going to?" he asked as they entered the elevator.
"Dark Ops Central, Intelligence Central, and diplomatic and VIP housing. Where's this restaurant?"
"You get a wider variety of food at the VIP eateries."
"Not really," Rael stated flatly. "The Level 3 food court offers more."
"Where did you get that from?" Lythia asked. "There are no terminals on the elevator."
Rael nodded toward the tiny notebook in her hand.
She stared at the subtle glow of the activity indicator. "But it's not ... Never mind."
The door whooshed open, and another expanse of lush green grass and blue flowers lined the walk leading through the Dark Ops sector. "Hmm, color coded plants." He motioned toward the blue line that ran all along the escape units that made up the entire wall of this section.
"Colors make for easy deck identification," Lythia said. "Didn't I tell you that during your orientation?"
"I was practicing small talk." Rael started down the pathway. "Mom says I need to."
"So what do you want me to do now that we're here?" Rael asked while perusing the menu terminal at their table.
"I thought we would experiment with proximity to PSI personnel."
"There are some here?" Rael looked around the food hall.
"Several that I can see right off. They have to wear gloves, even if they are not contact activated. It makes everyone feel more secure."
"So what do I need to do now?"
Lythia opened her little notepad and typed, "How many PSI agents are sitting at the table in the back corner? Respond through this unit." She noted Rael's hesitance. "Do it," she said.
"Mom said it hurts them," Rael began.
"That's what we're here to prove, or disprove." Lythia typed. "Do it now!"
FIVE appeared on the tiny screen.
From around the room several heads snapped up and began to look around.
"What are they doing now?" she asked and motioned to the machine.
THEY ARE LOOKING AROUND ... NO. THEY ARE ALL LOOKING AT ME.
An unfamiliar woman's voice registered in Lythia's mind, Stop what you are doing.
Lythia turned in her seat to face the corner table as if to address the telepath who had contacted her. But from behind, she felt a tap on her shoulder. Swiveling around to face them, she found herself looking up at three very big, very armed, male PSI sector security guards.
"Agent Lyconza, you will come with us, please," the nearest one said.
Lythia rose slowly and motioned for Rael to follow suit. "Good idea. I think I'm ready to involve PSI Sector control now. Take me to your leader."
Rael followed suit in silence, but a backward glance made him even more uncomfortable. Too many cold eyes stared at him from behind, and he realized he would never have friends on Level One.
Commander Ezra Mu had fine dark hair he wore very short. As head of PSI Sector, he had learned the value of not letting anyone take him, or his people, for granted. He had agreed to allow the cafeteria test only with the understanding that he would be permitted to follow up with tests of his own.
He had sent many levels of skilled PSI agents to eat there without any explanation, and now he skimmed through the reports of their 'encounter.' Incredible, he thought to the man outside of Rael's containment cell. I will have to know more. Push him over the edge.
Officer First Class Larr Arina braced himself before he threw open the door to the containment cell and bore down on the youth without warning. "Against the wall!" He jerked the young man from where he had been seated and slammed his back into the wall.
Totally caught off guard, Rael gave no defense against the blow to his midsection. He crumpled to the floor, barely able to breathe. Scarcely able to lift his head, he caught a glimpse of his attacker's hands. Gloves. He's PSIonic. Rael reached out wildly. The room's lights snapped off; the surveillance cameras zoomed in and out, and the intercom clicked off and on.
Officer Arina stumbled away with his hands to his head.
Rael stumbled up and headed through the still open door, slamming it shut behind him. The lock activated with a click. He felt the presence of a control terminal nearby. He staggered in that direction until he found it in one of the smaller rooms. He locked the door and dropped onto a chair, then dove into the terminal long enough to figure out his location and message his mother for help.
Rael sat still and silent for a moment before taking in the sights. Finding the security cameras proved too easy. Scanning the activity on Deck One, he realized what he had done. The entire quadrant had been evacuated. The communication unit buzzed. Rael dropped his head in his hands. "Yes?" he answered.
Momma M's voice sounded over the unit. "Open the door, Rael; I've come to take you home."
Rael pushed the door release and watched it whoosh open. The look on his mother's face told him that he looked as bad as he felt. "I don't know what happened, Mom," he began.
"Shhhh!" She helped him out of the chair and toward the elevators.
Marion Mahata fought against overwhelming odds to keep him safe. The PSI Sector insisted he was a threat to station security. Intel Sector saw great potential as a weapon. They wanted him trained. But it was Lythia who came up with a viable plan that satisfied them all.
Rael did not leave his quarters after that, and no amount of enticement could move him. He requisitioned all food and needs from there, refused visitors and sat alone, except for the computer.
Two months later, while Rael was eating breakfast, his console activated of its own accord, and a thin man with a dark complexion and a big smile appeared upon it. "My name is Rassa Re. I am an engineer of sorts, and I have a surprise for you. Meet me at the shuttle door closest to your quarters. Say hi to Marion for me too."
The small shuttle ship awaited them beyond the dock door near the same elevator that had led to the upper decks. As one door closed off the station behind them, the other clicked and unlocked the door before them, allowing them to gain access to the docking bay shuttle.
Rael pressed past the seats lining the walls to stand before the huge viewing screen for a better look. Before them, a vast array of private and station defense ships could be seen docked within the Base's spherical wall. The shuttle pulled away from the door-dock and glided effortlessly forward beyond the private and defense ship bays. The huge blast shield drew back to allow them passage from the star base and into the inky black of space.
Rassa pointed toward a barely visible, dark ship hanging in the distance. "Behold, the next phase of your training, young man." He clicked on the transponder, and a sleek ship with graceful lines lit up. "She's a state of the art, star-chaser class cruiser, fully modified to meet your needs. On her upper deck she has a bridge, a sick bay, a large common room, six private quarters. Below she has a cargo bay and loading dock, and there's an area that would make a nice hydroponics bay if you like. I've set everything up for you to learn how to run her by yourself. And you can fine tune your compu-link skills to your heart's content."
Rael shot him a sideways glance. "What do I have to do?"
Rassa smiled a disarming smile. "In exchange for the ship, proper preparation and training, the Universal Government would like to enlist your services as a Dark Ops field agent. If all goes well, Marion Mahata has proposed the formation of a special team, and you will have final say of each member, but that's in the future. For now it will be just you, me and the Nemesis.