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Authors: Timothy Zahn

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BOOK: Coming of Age
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She nodded, a single forlorn jerk of the head. “I'm sorry,” she said miserably.

Glancing around, Tirrell caught the eye of a policeman and beckoned to him. “I'm going to ask you to go down to the station with this officer,” he told the teen, “and describe this Mr. Oliver for one of our artists. Okay?”

“Sure.” She sniffed once more and left with the policeman, her shoulders curled with dejection. A motion off to his left caught Tirrell's eye, and he turned as Tonio landed a few meters away.

“Couple of messages for you, Stan,” the preteen said. “First: the address is a phony. No one there's ever heard of this Oliver guy or anyone with his description.”

“Big surprise,” Tirrell growled. “You're going to like this guy, Tonio—he's got your warped sense of humor.”

“What do you mean?”

“The term ‘fagin' originally came from a pre-Expansion Earth book, whose title happens to be
Oliver Twist.
What's the other message?”

“Colin's parents are here.”

Tirrell glanced once at the men working on the bench. “Good. Let's go talk to them.”

The detective had never met the Brimmers, but their reputation was well-known in official Ridge Harbor circles. Both in their early forties, they had been foster parents to six children over the past eighteen years, providing the close family background that seemed to best minimize the later transitional shocks to hive, school, and adulthood. Their record had been one of the best in the city … until now.

They were standing together near the row of police cars, obviously upset but under much better control than the teen sitter had been. The man took a step forward as Tirrell and Tonio walked up to them. “Are you the officer in charge here, sir?” he asked.

Tirrell nodded. “Detective First Tirrell; this is Tonio Genesee, my righthand. You are Thom and Elita Brimmer, of course. First of all, do you know anyone named Oliver, or anyone who has gray hair, a beard, and wears glasses?”

Both shook their heads. “We've had a few minutes to think about it—the policeman who drove us here gave us Lenna's description,” Elita said. “We're quite sure we don't know anyone like that. But I wonder whether or not the hair and beard are a disguise. In that case he probably could be almost anyone.”

“Good point.” Tirrell had come to that obvious conclusion long ago. “Next: is there any reason to suspect Colin may have been kidnapped for purposes of ransom? Or that someone might want him in order to force you to do anything?'

Again, two solid negatives. Tirrell hadn't expected anything else, but the questions had to be asked. “All right. Then I'd like to go to your house with you and look over both Colin's things and any photos you have of him, especially recent ones taken outside. After that I want you to tell me everything you can about Colin, your friends and acquaintances, your daily schedule—everything that could conceivably give us a clue.”

“We're at your complete disposal, Detective,” Brimmer said. “We want this man caught as badly as you do.”

I doubt that very much,
Tirrell thought blackly as he led the way to his car. The Brimmers had most likely never seen what could happen to a child who was brought up by a fagin. Tirrell had.

It wasn't something he was anxious to see again.

Chapter 3

O
UTSIDE 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.

BOOK: Coming of Age
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