Telepath Sample Chapters

 

Telepath – Sample Chapters

Telepath is the first book set in the HIVE FUTURE where humanity lives in great Hive cities.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

HIVE MIND 1 NEW COMPLETEForge and Shanna led our group out of the lift into the forbidden territory of Level 1, the highest of the hundred accommodation levels in our Hive city. I stopped for a moment, dazzled by the splendour of the shopping area in front of us. The Level 1 shopping areas always had the finest decorations in the Hive, but this was the last day of Carnival, the annual Hive festival of light and life, so there were added gold and silver streamers everywhere.

Shanna glanced back at me. “Come on, Amber!”

I hurried to join the others under one of the giant overhead signs that said “Level 1”. We automatically formed into a circle with Forge and Shanna standing in the centre. Twenty-two of us, all wearing traditional gold and silver Carnival costumes, and carrying masks. Forge was the one exception, conspicuous for choosing a costume and mask in the red and black colours of Halloween, the ominous Hive festival of darkness and death. Forge had constantly been challenging Hive rules on Teen Level, and wearing a Halloween costume during Carnival was his final act of defiance.

I noticed that a couple of men dressed in the blue uniforms of Health and Safety were standing nearby and watching us. On any other day, the hasties would have been scolding us, telling us that a group of teens had no business in one of the shopping areas reserved for the most important people in the Hive, and sternly sending us back down to Teen Level 50.

This wasn’t any other day, because we were eighteen. Tomorrow the million eighteen-year-olds in the Hive would all enter Lottery. We would be assessed, be optimized, be allocated, be imprinted. The Lottery of 2532 would decide our future lives, what profession we would work at, and whether we would live in luxury on a high level of the Hive or in a cramped apartment somewhere in the depths.

Shanna smiled at the rest of us. “We aren’t going to be like all the other teens. We won’t split up from our friends after Lottery. Let’s promise that we’ll all meet up two weeks from today.”

There was a muttering of promises in reply, my own among them, but we all knew we were lying. We’d lived on the same corridor on Teen Level 50 for five years, and shared thousands of moments of laughter and arguments. Now the notoriously unpredictable verdict of Lottery would send some of us higher up the Hive and others further down, label some of us a success and others a failure.

Shanna had boundless confidence. She was sure she’d be one of the successes, even be among the elite who lived in the top ten accommodation levels of the Hive. The rest of us felt far more uncertain about what lay ahead. We wouldn’t want to meet up again if we were among the failures. I knew I couldn’t face the others if…

I fought back against the nightmare doubts. The verdicts of Lottery were unpredictable because of the sheer complexity of the automated decision process, but there was logic behind them. Everyone said I was bright and articulate, and I’d followed all the advice about spending my time on Teen Level doing preparation work. The Level 99 Sewage Technician, butt of all the jokes, couldn’t happen to me. Please, not to me.

“Good luck,” said Forge. “I hope all of you will be high up.”

This time the response was wholehearted. “High up, everyone!” we yelled in unison.

There was a second of silence, and then twin chiming sounds as the doors of the two nearest lifts opened. More groups of teens were arriving, and the watching hasties were waving at us to signal that we couldn’t linger here any longer. Forge put on the Halloween mask that transformed his handsome face into something demonic. Everyone else put on the joyful masks of Carnival, and followed him across to the moving stairs in the middle of the shopping area.

We jumped onto one of the handrails of the downway. Forge first, then Shanna, and then the rest of us in turn. Riding the handrail was the classic act of teen rebellion. The hasties usually intervened to stop it, telling us to travel sensibly and safely on the moving stairs instead.

They wouldn’t intervene today. This was our last day as teens, and Hive tradition gave us the right to one last act of rebellion, starting to ride the handrail on Level 1 itself and continuing on down as deep into the Hive as we could.

I caught a glimpse of us in the mirrored wall beside me. A proud line of twenty-two masked figures, spectacular in our glittering costumes. As the handrail plunged down from the Level 1 shopping area to the one on Level 2, Forge raised his right hand and shouted the ritual words.

“Ride the Hive!”

“Ride the Hive!” We yelled the words back to him.

The shoppers turned their heads to watch us go by, applauded, and called their good wishes to us. “High up to you.”

“Ride the Hive!” We yelled the words each time the moving stairs went down to the next level. We’d never be together again. We’d never be the same people again. Lottery would do more than assess our abilities, optimize our possible professions to give us the one most suitable for us and useful to the Hive, and allocate us our level. It would imprint our minds with all the information needed to do our assigned work.

All our lives we’d known and accepted our minds would be imprinted during Lottery. We’d discussed it dozens of times, eagerly looking forward to being given a wealth of knowledge. Over the last few weeks, the tone of those discussions had changed from joyful anticipation to nervous whispers about exactly what imprinting would do to our minds.

Now Lottery was upon us and we were terrified. The assessment stage lasted between three and five days. By this time next week, we’d all be imprinted and beginning our new adult lives. We’d no idea if we’d be high or low level. We didn’t know what profession we’d be given. We weren’t even sure that we’d be the same people after our minds were imprinted. We were facing the black unknown, and we screamed defiance to block out the fear.

I was fifth in line when we started on Level 1. Riding the rail was hard, so two of us had fallen before we even reached Level 5. As the overhead signs told us that we’d hit Level 18, I counted the figures reflected in the mirrored walls. We were down to fifteen now, and I was third in line. The ones who fell down from the handrail onto the moving stairs didn’t climb back on the handrail again. Custom decreed that the last ride was over when you fell.

I focused my eyes on the two figures still ahead of me. Tall, heavily muscled Forge, his black hair matching his red and black costume. Slender Shanna behind him, her fair hair cascading down the back of her silver dress. She was perfectly poised and elegant, looking as if she could ride the handrail forever, but then her foot slipped as the rail made the bend to reach Level 46.

Shanna flailed her arms, teetered wildly, and tumbled down onto the moving stairs next to her. She’d barely got time to stand up before the downway reached the Level 46 shopping area, where she stepped off and waved at the rest of us. I heard her final cry come from behind me.

“Go Forge! Go Amber! Ride the Hive!”

I daren’t look back as she called my name, but I held up my arm in salute and farewell, and blinked back tears from behind the fake smile of my Carnival mask. Shanna had been my best friend for all my years on Teen Level. I’d lived in her shadow, been alternately grateful to her for being my friend and jealous of her self-confidence, and now I’d never see her again.

There was a faint chance that one of my old friends would come out of Lottery as the same level as me and we could stay in touch, but I knew it wouldn’t be Shanna. She was bound to be rated far higher level than someone as ordinary as me.

I concentrated on the red of Forge’s shirt ahead of me, and the difficult job of keeping my balance as the rail flattened out, turned, and dived down again at each level change. We were below Level 60 now, I was shaking with the effort of the ride, and my legs stung from scratches as my silver sequinned skirt blew around them.

We were still descending through shopping areas, because all the accommodation levels of the Hive had their shops, but they were plainer here, selling more functional goods. There were no fancy mirrored walls now, but I caught a reflection of us in some glass on Level 63, and saw there were only four of us left. By Level 70, there was no one behind me, and at Level 72 Forge fell and I was left alone.

I kept riding the rail on down, all the way to Level 100 itself. There were no shops or people there, just dusty pipes to salute my triumph as I jumped to the ground, but I’d ridden the Hive.

I only felt the briefest moment of celebration before depression hit me. I’d ridden the Hive, I’d screamed defiance, but it hadn’t changed anything. Tomorrow morning, I would enter Lottery, because there was nowhere else I could go and nothing else I could do. There were one hundred and six other Hive cities in the world, but I wouldn’t have the right to ask to move to one of them until after I’d been through Lottery.

Even if I could ask for a Hive transfer right now, I wasn’t courageous enough, or foolish enough, to take that leap into a darkened lift shaft. I’d no idea what life was like in other Hives. Our Hive news sometimes mentioned their names, but never gave any details about them. The occasional malcontent claimed other Hives were far more luxurious places to live than ours, but they obviously hadn’t had enough courage in their convictions to apply to move.

Moving Hive wouldn’t help me anyway. My problem wasn’t with my Hive, but with suffering the suspense of waiting helplessly while my profession, my level, my whole future life was decided for me. Every Hive would have its own equivalent of Lottery, and it was better to face it here than in an alien place.

I yanked off my mask, turned round, and stepped onto the upway. I stood there, weary and defeated, letting it carry me back towards my sliver of a room on Teen Level 50. It would have been much faster to take a lift, but it somehow seemed appropriate to go back the same way that I’d arrived.

I was on Level 56 when I heard the chanting ahead of me that warned a telepath was nearby. I was looking forward to changing out of the Carnival outfit that had been chosen by Shanna, and was far too spectacular and revealing for someone like me. I was thinking about packing my bag to take to Lottery. I was planning to have an early night so I’d be well rested tomorrow. There was nothing in my head that was incriminating, but I joined in the chanting just the same.

“Two ones are two.”

“Two twos are four.”

“Two threes are six.”

The upway reached Level 55, and the people in the shopping area here were shouting it.

“Two fours are eight.”

“Two fives are ten.”

“Two sixes are twelve.”

I saw the crowd of shoppers move aside to let through a figure dressed in grey and wearing a matching grey mask. That was the telepath, the nosy, with their escort of four blue-clad hasties following behind to guard him or her.

“Two sevens are fourteen!”

“Two eights are sixteen!”

Everyone was screaming it now, and I was yelling as loudly as any of them. People said that filling your thoughts with numbers stopped a nosy from reading your mind. I didn’t know if that was true, but it was worth a try. I didn’t want anyone seeing my private thoughts. I wanted the nosies to catch the criminals, to keep me safe, but I hated the idea of someone snooping inside my own head.

The nosy seemed to be looking at me now. The bulging shape of the grey mask, and the hint of strange, purple eyes behind it, showed that the wearer wasn’t entirely human. I was grateful that the upway was carrying me to safety on the next level.

Once the nosy and the chanting crowd were left behind, I rode on in silence again. I finally reached Level 50, scurried along a couple of corridors, and made it into my room without seeing any of the people who’d once been my friends. We’d said our goodbyes, and Carnival and our teen life was over. Tomorrow, Lottery would begin.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

I woke the next morning, gasping in panic. I’d been trapped in a nightmare where I’d overslept and got lost on my way to Lottery. I couldn’t read any of the signs. I was running along the belts, asking people which way to go, and none of them would help me. When I eventually reached my assessment centre, a man stood blocking the doorway.

“Too late,” he said, and handed me a card saying Level 99 Sewage Technician.

I hadn’t overslept, it had just been a ridiculous dream, but my taut nerves refused to relax and I could only eat half my breakfast before my stomach rebelled. I threw the remains of the food down the waste chute, with inevitable thoughts about whether I’d be joining the low-level workers who ran the waste system, and then concentrated on getting everything I needed inside the one large bag I was allowed to take to Lottery.

Bag packed, I started hurling the rest of my possessions into the storage locker next to my room. I was aware that someone further along the corridor was loading things into their storage locker too, but didn’t turn my head to look at them. I couldn’t face yet another pointless conversation of goodbye and good luck.

Once my room was empty, I used its built-in comms system to call my parents. Their faces appeared on the wall, smiling anxiously.

“I’m ready to go,” I said.

“You’ll do brilliantly.” My mother turned to my father. “Won’t she?”

“Definitely,” he said. “I know it’s hard, Amber, but try to relax during the assessment process.”

“And we’ll still be here for you afterwards,” said my mother. “No matter what.”

My father nodded.

“Thanks,” I said.

I knew they meant what they were saying. The Hive encouraged new adults to make a fresh start after Lottery, breaking free from old teen friendships that would fuel discontent in those that were lower level, but it recognized that it could be psychologically damaging to break close ties between parent and child.

Families keeping in touch whatever the Lottery result was accepted, even encouraged, but many parents would still dump an embarrassingly low-level child. Mine wouldn’t. Whatever Lottery decreed for me, whatever new life I was thrown into, I’d have the comfort of one link to the past. My parents would still keep calling me their daughter, and I’d be welcome to visit their home.

They’d have to follow the social conventions though. My Lottery result would decide whether my photos stayed in one of the public rooms of their apartment, or were hidden away privately in their bedroom.

My parents were Level 27. Lottery would have to rank me at least Level 29 for it to be socially acceptable for them to keep my photos on public display for their friends. If my photos vanished, then those friends would know what it meant and do the polite thing. Never ask how I’d done in Lottery, or mention my name again.

If I did very well, the situation would be reversed. The photos would be proudly centre stage, and my parents would glow with pride and talk of my success.

Right now, I had a gut feeling there was little chance of that. My photos were heading for the bedroom.

“Gregas!” my mother called. “Come and wish your sister a good Lottery result.”

There was a pause before my brother reluctantly came to join them and muttered something inaudible. He was looking pretty strained himself, and I could understand why. Gregas was thirteen. In four short weeks, he’d be moving to Teen Level.

“Good luck to you too, Gregas,” I said. “Moving to Teen Level, living on your own in a small room, will seem strange at first, but you’ll soon get over that. There’s no more school, you can try out all the activities on offer in the community centres, join any sports team you like, go to parties and have a great time.”

He grunted a reply, but didn’t seem convinced he was going to have fun. To be honest, I wasn’t too convinced myself. It was vital to make friends during your first few weeks on Teen Level, and Gregas wasn’t very sociable.

“When you move here,” I added, “spend as much time as you can in your corridor community room. Everyone on your corridor will be new like you, and they’ll all want to make friends. Remember that it’s horribly rude to ask what level they came from, or mention what level your own parents are. Your family background doesn’t matter once you’re on Teen Level, because all teens are Level 50 and equal.”

Gregas grunted again, and I gave up. I’d done my best. I’d told him the right things to do, and warned him of the one social blunder he mustn’t make. There was no need to emphasize the point about taking part in activities. Gregas would have had plenty of school lessons about the importance of using your time on Teen Level to prepare for Lottery.

I didn’t want to talk about the activity sessions anyway. I’d dutifully attended every type my local community centre had to offer, but failed to discover any especial gift for painting, costume design, or a hundred other things. My instructors had said that wasn’t a bad omen for the future, because the activity sessions mainly focused on work involving creative skills. Lottery would test all my innate abilities, and search among tens of thousands of other possible professions in the Hive to find the one that was perfect for me, so I still had every chance of becoming high level.

Back when I was fourteen or fifteen, I’d accepted those comforting words were true. Now I was heading into Lottery, I found them far less reassuring.

“I’ve got a long way to go,” I said, “so I’d better get started.”

My parents nodded. “High up to you,” they chorused.

“Thanks.” I ended the call.

I gave one final, nostalgic look round the room where I’d lived for five years. Once Lottery was over, I’d come and collect my belongings from the storage locker, but maintenance workers would already be overhauling the room itself by then.

I pictured them painting over every familiar scuff mark and scratch on the walls, eliminating every last trace of my residence here ready for another girl or boy to move in. It might even be Gregas who came to live in this room next. Teens were always allocated rooms in their home area, so the support of parents was just a lift ride away.

I picked up my bag and went outside. My door slid closed behind me for the last time, and I hurried down the corridor. At the first crossway, it met a wider corridor with a slow belt lane. I stepped onto the moving strip and rode it to the nearest major belt interchange.

Once there, I took my folded dataview from my pocket, tapped it to make it unfurl, and checked the instructions I’d been sent. Lottery testing was done in the Teen Level 50 community centres, but teens were always allocated to centres a long distance from their home area to make sure they wouldn’t be assessed by a friend of their family. I had to travel all the way from my home area of 510/6120 in Blue Zone, to the area 110/3900 community centre in Yellow Zone. I glanced at the overhead signs, and stepped onto the northbound slow belt, before moving across to the medium, and then the express.

Once I was on the express belt, I put my bag down and sat on it. My old friends would all be riding the belt system too, making equally lengthy journeys to different community centres.

It was like a sad echo of the wild ride yesterday. All the Carnival decorations had been taken down, leaving just the usual amateur wall paintings of Teen Level to brighten the corridors. Everyone’s Carnival costumes had been replaced by standard teen outfits too, mostly leggings and tunics emblazoned with the emblems of favourite singers or sports teams, though some of the girls wore the fashionable tops and skirts that Shanna adored.

The eighteen-year-olds dotted the express belt, sitting on their bags like me, while the younger teens stood by the corridor walls and watched us go by. I’d been a watcher myself in previous years, wondering what the travellers were thinking. Now my turn had come, and my thoughts were a confused, dejected jumble. I wished the trip was over, but I didn’t want to arrive.

“Warning, zone bulkhead approaching!” A voice boomed from overhead speakers, and red signs started flashing countdown numbers.

On any other level, people would start moving across from the express to slower belts, or even get off the belt system entirely so they could walk across the boundary between the two zones.

This was Teen Level, so we just stood up and picked up our bags. The bulkhead approached, its massive blue and turquoise striped doors wide open as always. I saw the boy ahead of me toss his bag across the narrow gap between the end of the Blue Zone belt and the start of the Turquoise Zone belt, then leap after it. A second later, it was my turn. I braced myself, hurled my own bag ahead of me, and jumped.

The safety bar between the two belts made it impossible to fall down the gap, but there was always a fractional difference in speed between two express belts. I staggered on landing, swayed for a moment, but managed to stay on my feet.

“Eight!” screamed a set of voices from over to my left.

There were always some self-appointed judges giving points on how well you managed the zone boundary jump. I didn’t turn my head to look at them, just retrieved my bag and sat down on it again.

The watching younger teens wore clothes decorated with the turquoise emblems of Turquoise Zone sports teams now. I travelled on through more bulkheads, crossing from Turquoise Zone to Green, and Green Zone to Yellow, before changing to a westbound belt.

When I finally reached the community centre in 110/3900, I double and triple checked I’d got the right number and the right place, then dug my assessment card out of my pocket and slid it into the slot beside the door.

“Welcome, Amber, you are now registered for Lottery assessment,” it said, spat the card back out at me, and the door slid open.

The inside looked exactly like the community centre back in my old area. All the chairs were out in the main hall, and some teens were already sitting on them, each with a large bag at their side. The huge display wall at the front of the hall was filled with instructions. I picked a chair as far away from the other teens as possible, sat down, and started to read the text.

“Lottery welcomes the candidates of 2532. You should wait in this hall between tests, but are advised to avoid interaction with other candidates. Do not be concerned if your tests are not following the same sequence as those of others. Every candidate follows an individualized test progression, where the results of each test determine what other tests should follow. There may be a delay at times until staff and facilities are available for a key test.”

A banner flashed into life at the top of the main screen. “Ricardo, please go to room 17.”

A gangly lad scrambled to his feet, looked at the map of the centre on the side wall, and scuttled off down a corridor. I went back to reading the general instructions.

“Do not be concerned if you appear to perform badly on any particular test. Your weaknesses are not important. You will be allocated to a profession that matches your strengths, with priority going to professions harder to fill and more vital to the Hive.”

That was the end of the instructions. I focused my attention on the banner now, getting nervous as the minutes went by without my name appearing. The instructions said there could be delays, but…

The banner was showing my name! “Amber, please go to room 23.”

I stood up, checked the map, and headed to room 23. A smiling blonde woman was waiting for me inside what looked like a standard medical room. She asked me to roll up my sleeve, and then held a metal gadget to my arm.

“I’m taking a blood and tissue sample. This will feel cold, but it won’t hurt.”

I’d had blood and tissue samples taken at every one of my annual medical checks. The next bit was just like an annual medical too. The woman turned on a scanning grid, and I stood inside the field while it made murmuring noises.

“Your medical records show you had an allergic reaction to face paints at age three,” she said, “and another allergic reaction to the contraceptive pellet implanted in your arm at age sixteen.”

I frowned. Would a history of allergies damage my chances in Lottery? “I haven’t had any problems since they changed the pellet to a different type,” I said hastily.

“You also have occasional headaches. Any other health problems, Amber?”

“No.”

The woman turned off the grid. “That’s all for now, Amber.”

I went back to the hall and sat down next to my bag. It was a quarter of an hour before my name appeared on the banner again, sending me to room 9. This held a central chair facing a wall covered with randomly moving, glowing clusters of colour. A young woman was studying a small technical display in the corner of the room. She only looked a year or two older than me. It wasn’t long since she’d been the one being assessed to decide her future career, and now she was assessing me.

“Please sit down, Amber.” She gestured at the central chair.

I sat down, and she gave me the same blandly reassuring smile as the earlier woman. Did the information imprinted on the minds of medical and assessment staff include the correct professional expressions?

“I’m taking baseline brain activity measurements.” She came across to position a metal blob on each side of my forehead, and then returned to check her technical display.

I sneaked a look at the display myself. A lot of little lights were bouncing up and down. It meant nothing to me, but my tester seemed happy with it.

“Your records show that you followed the recommendations to try all the introductory activity sessions at least once during your time on Teen Level.”

“That’s right.”

“I need you to watch the colours on the wall now.”

I sat back in the chair, and watched the colours floating around. I was a ragged mess of nerves, but there was something about the patterns that was soothing. The colours slowly merged to form an image of someone painting a mural on a corridor wall.

“Did you like painting murals, Amber?” the woman asked.

“I loved it.” I hesitated a moment. “I was dreadfully bad at painting though.”

“For the purposes of this test, all I need to know is whether you enjoyed an activity or not.”

The colours in the image drifted apart, and then reformed to show a man peering into the top of a machine.

“Did you like embroidering?” asked the woman.

I’d been frustrated by the painstakingly slow and detailed stitching. “No.”

“How about working with clay?”

I’d disliked the faint smell of the wet clay and the touch of it on my hands. “No.”

“Singing?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

The woman tapped at her controls. “I’ve calibrated your responses now, so you can just watch the images without saying anything.”

I was bewildered, but obediently watched the glowing colours change and merge, shifting between a series of images. They changed faster and faster, the colours moving, blending, separating…

“Amber, wake up,” said a soft, female voice.

I jerked upright, hot with embarrassment and horror. I’d fallen asleep during a Lottery test! “I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night. Can we do the test again?”

“You did perfectly well, Amber. The test was supposed to have that effect. You can go now.”

I stumbled off in confusion, unsure now if I’d actually fallen asleep or not. When I got back to the hall, it was almost empty. The display on the end wall announced a rest break, and said that refreshments were available in a side room.

I wandered through some open double doors, picked up a tray, and joined the end of a queue. There was a startling range of luxury food available. I’d hardly eaten the previous day, and only had half my usual breakfast this morning, so I was starving hungry. I waited impatiently until I reached the head of the queue, loaded a plate with a spoonful from each of twenty different dishes, added a bread roll and a glass of my favourite melon juice, and found a place at a table to eat.

There were plenty of spare seats, since half of my fellow sufferers had only collected drinks before retreating back to the main hall. Those at my table were obeying the Lottery rules by eating in silence and carefully ignoring each other, but a girl behind us was talking to herself in a ceaseless, barely audible monologue. It was obviously just her way of reacting to stress, but it made me feel uncomfortable.

I’d nearly finished eating, when the boy next to me suffered his own individual reaction to stress by throwing up on the table. I abandoned what food was left on my plate and retreated, feeling queasy, into the hall.

The end wall was displaying the standard instructions again. After a few minutes, my name appeared on the banner, and I was sent to do a test involving putting groups of pins into tiny holes, which I was fairly sure was about dexterity. Next came what seemed like a straightforward running speed test, and then I had a long wait before being sent to room 11. I was greeted by a young man with red hair, whose professional smile kept lapsing into a casual grin.

“Hello, Amber.” He handed me an oversized dataview. “You’re going to try to solve some puzzles. Don’t worry if a few of them make no sense to you. I’m not sure what half of them are about myself.”

I took the dataview and sat down on the chair provided. I saw a sample puzzle and solution appear on the wall opposite me. The first real puzzle followed it, and I selected what I thought was the answer on the dataview. The comedian settled down in his own chair by a technical display, and appeared to fall asleep from boredom.

The first puzzles were reassuringly simple. Little diagrams where I had to choose the odd one out. There was a pause and then I got a new batch where I was supposed to pick the next coloured diagram in a sequence. After that, it got more involved. There were some tests that I understood, so I was confident I’d be choosing the right answers. On others, even the instructions seemed to make no sense at all, and I just picked answers at random.

Eventually, the wall went blank. The comedian gave a yawn, took back the dataview, and connected it to his technical display. “Thank you, Amber, you can…”

He was interrupted by a soft chime and lights flashing on his display. I saw him turn and stare at it. “Please wait here for a moment, Amber.”

He went out of the room, and I turned in my chair and stared at the door closing behind him. Something had happened, but I didn’t know what. I looked back at the technical display by his empty chair, but it just showed a meaningless jumble of letters.

After long minutes of suspense, an older man entered the room. “Hello, Amber. We don’t have the facilities here for your next recommended test, so we’re sending you to another centre.”

He handed me a new assessment card, and I stared blankly down at it.

“Don’t worry,” he added. “This is perfectly normal. It’s impossible to equip all the centres for every test, so sometimes people are transferred.”

There was no point in me asking what had happened in the last test. The Lottery rules stated that candidates should never be told the reason for a test or the results of it. At the end of my assessment, I’d simply be told my assigned profession, and be sent for imprinting with the appropriate information.

I accepted there were good reasons for those rules. It would be hard for someone to live with the knowledge that scoring just a little better on a test could have made them twenty levels higher. I still wished I understood what was happening.

I turned, went out of the door, and headed back to the hall. Everyone stared at me as I picked up my bag and walked out. There were hundreds of eighteen-year-olds at this centre, and I was the only one leaving. That had to mean either something very good or something very bad, and I didn’t know which.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Once I was outside the centre, I had a cowardly urge to run to my parents’ apartment and hide in what had once been my bedroom. New arrivals on Teen Level sometimes ran away, returning to the comforting familiarity of home and parents. Counsellors would follow and coax them back, embarrassed and blushing, to face the ordeal of growing up and being their own person. Running away from Teen Level made those who did it look ridiculous. I’d look even more ridiculous if I tried running away from Lottery.

I took a deep breath, and headed for the new community centre. I had another long journey to reach it, and of course it looked virtually identical to the last one. I put my new assessment card into the door slot to gain entry.

“Welcome, Amber, your Lottery assessment registration transfer is now complete.”

I noticed the different message and was vaguely reassured. I’d never heard of people being transferred during Lottery, but clearly the system was designed for it. I went inside and found a deserted hall with a screen covered in names and room designations. Everyone must have already left for the night, so I found my name on the list, made a note of where I was supposed to be staying, turned round and went back out of the centre.

My designated room was only a few corridors away. I walked there, still obsessing over why I’d been transferred to a different centre. If it was true the old centre didn’t have the facilities for my next test, that surely meant it was an unusual test for an uncommon profession.

Was something astonishingly good happening to me or was this a disaster? Was I being tested for an important, high level profession that would give me a glittering future, or for some hideous work deep in the bowels of the Hive? I alternated between excitement and depression, but depression was winning. Even if I was being tested for something high level, I’d probably fail the test and be sent back to my original assessment centre.

I reached a door with the right number on it, opened it, and took my bag and my uncertainty into an unwelcomingly bare room. I set the wall display to show one of the standard pictures, and brilliant blue cornflowers sprang into three dimensional life. The flowers made me feel a bit more at home, but I still missed having all my old familiar clutter of possessions around me.

I’d lost my appetite, so I didn’t bother getting any food from the tiny kitchen unit, just stripped off and showered. It seemed a waste of effort to dress again afterwards, so I activated the sleep field, and then dimmed the lighting. I lay enfolded in the darkness and the cushion of warm air, watching the glowing flowers on the wall.

A million other eighteen-year-olds would be in bare rooms like this one, trying to relax after the strain of their first day in Lottery. I briefly wondered who was in my old room now, then drifted on to picturing my old friends. Margot frowning in disapproval of something. Linnette daydreaming. Shanna anxiously studying her reflection in the mirror. Forge…

I pulled a face at the thought of Forge. I’d been fixated on that boy from the first moment I saw him on Teen Level. He’d looked straight past me at Shanna, never thought of me as more than a random member of the group who trailed round in their wake, but my obsession with him had controlled my life for five solid years.

It had made me become Shanna’s best friend. It had made me take up swimming. It had made me spend endless tedious hours at the Level 50 beach, cheering for Forge as he took part in the teen inter-zone surfing competitions.

Having a secret, unrequited crush on someone like handsome, reckless Forge would have been embarrassing but perfectly normal. This didn’t seem like an ordinary crush though. I didn’t long for Forge’s kisses, or want to replace Shanna as his girlfriend. I just wanted to watch Forge’s face and know he was pleased and happy.

There was the dream as well. A weird, repeating dream that had been haunting my sleep all through Teen Level. It centred on Forge, but it wasn’t the sort of dream I’d expect to have about a boy I found attractive. The dream didn’t even make any sense.

The strangeness of my reaction to Forge had bothered me enough at times that I’d considered asking to relocate to a room in another corridor, but I couldn’t face being the unwelcome new arrival amongst an existing group of friends.

Well, my time with Forge was over now. Lottery had ended it, like it ended all teen relationships. Once I’d been given my result and imprinted, I’d go to live on my adult level, have my work to occupy my days, and a host of new people around me to make me forget about Forge. As everyone always said, Lottery was both an end and a new beginning.

I closed my eyes and relaxed. As I sank into sleep, the repeating dream about Forge began. The two of us walked together, hand in hand, through a strange park with impossibly tall trees. It was hot, far too hot, and the suns in the ceiling were blindingly bright. I was terrified and desperately looking for the exit door.

“Good girl, Amber,” said Forge. “You’re a good girl, Amber.”

I forgot my fear when he said that. Forge was pleased with me, and pleasing him was the most important thing in the world.

 

 

When I woke up, I found I’d had ten solid hours of sleep, and I felt wonderful. That was the good side of having the Forge dream. I always woke feeling blissfully content, with the echo of his words in the back of my mind. The oddest thing was that Forge had never said those words to me outside the dream, and his voice sounded deeper than usual when he said them.

I was in a decisive and optimistic mood about everything now, even Lottery. If the change in assessment centre meant I was being offered a chance at something special, then I’d do my best to grab it. If my best wasn’t good enough, then I’d just have to accept it, the same way that most teens had to accept they weren’t special or high level. Whatever level I ended up living on, my life would improve. I’d have a proper apartment instead of a teen room, a proper income instead of the miserly teen living allowance, and a proper purpose in life.

I picked out fresh clothes to wear, ate breakfast hungrily, and left my belongings scattered around the room. I’d never managed to keep my old room tidy, and there was little incentive to care for one that would only be mine during Lottery.

Back at the centre, I sat watching the display wall, waiting for my name to appear, keyed up for the magical test where success or failure could mean everything for my future. Five minutes, ten minutes, and my name was there. I had to go to room 4.

I hurried there and found an elderly man with dark skin and receding hair. “We’re testing your reaction speed,” he said. “You sit at this table opposite me.”

I took my seat. There was a partition between us so I couldn’t see his hands. In front of me was a row of dimly glowing lights in different colours.

“We’ve both got matching rows of coloured lights,” he said. “I touch one on my side, and that colour brightens on both rows. You have to touch the matching bright light on your side as fast as you can.”

I frowned. The unquestioning happiness of the Forge dream aftermath was wearing off now. I didn’t understand this test at all. What professions needed special reaction speed? I dismissed that thought as the test started. The reason behind it didn’t matter. I had to focus on touching the bright light as fast as possible.

At the end of the test, there was nothing in the man’s expression to tell me whether I’d done well or badly, but he didn’t send me back to my previous assessment centre. That was good. Probably good.

There was a wait in the hall after that, followed by a session where I wore an electronic armband and sat watching a series of pictures. People working, shopping, talking, arguing, and in one case actually fighting. There were people from all levels. Some in party clothes, some dressed for work. Some tall, some short. Some old, some young.

When the pictures finally stopped, I expected to be asked questions, but there weren’t any. I headed back to the hall where the other eighteen-year-olds sat, each in their own isolated bubble of anxiety, but barely had time to sit down before I was called for a very straightforward fitness test where I pushed my hands and feet against cushioned, resisting bars.

There was something relaxing about simple physical tiredness, so I was able to eat lunch during the rest break, though I took my plate back into the hall to avoid the risk of anyone being sick near me. There was another girl sitting only two chairs away from me, but she wasn’t eating or drinking, just staring at a holo picture of a fair-haired boy.

After one glance in her direction, I kept my eyes firmly on my plate. Even if I’d dared to break the Lottery rule of silence, I couldn’t say anything to help her. The boy in the picture had obviously been her boyfriend. They’d have said goodbye before Lottery, the way that teen couples always did, but she hadn’t given up hope that they’d get back together. I pitied her. If they came out of Lottery the same level, they might be reunited, but what were the chances of that happening?

I hoped she wasn’t counting on love triumphing over a level difference. Yes, it was theoretically possible if a couple were just a few levels apart, and the higher level was prepared to move down, but how often did that happen outside romantic bookettes? In reality, the higher status partner never made the offer, or the lower status partner was too proud to accept the sacrifice.

The girl should be sensible and accept that teen relationships always ended at Lottery, but I knew that was easier said than done. I’d spent five years trying, and failing, to be sensible about Forge.

My train of thought was interrupted by the display wall coming back to life, showing my name listed for another test. I abandoned the congealing remnants of my lunch, and went to another bewildering session of watching seemingly random images. There was music this time as well, with odd sliding notes that did disturbing things to my nerves. It was followed by a peculiar hearing test, where I sat in pitch darkness, trying to hear faint sounds and work out their direction.

There were several more incomprehensible tests during the afternoon. When I went back to my room, I spent the evening pointlessly wondering what skill they’d been assessing. Was I still following the special testing route that had involved me changing centre, or had I already failed it?

When I went to bed, I dreamed of the hearing test. I was alone in the darkness, hearing strange noises. The dream changed into a nightmare, where I groped my way blindly through a maze of corridors, trying to find the source of the sounds. If I didn’t find them, something dreadful would happen.

 

 

The next morning, I gave up wondering what my testers were trying to achieve, and abandoned myself to the strange, limbo existence of the Lottery. There were tests. There was a break to eat. There were more tests in the afternoon. I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on, or how well I was doing.

As the last few minutes of the afternoon ticked away, the rows of chairs in the hall gradually filled up with nervous, expectant teens. No one said a word, but I knew the same thought was in everyone’s head. Third day. Some would be told their results now, good or bad.

I didn’t think I’d be one of them. I’d lost time being transferred, so it would be tomorrow at the earliest for me. Probably. Almost certainly. I couldn’t be entirely sure, but…

A new display came up on the end wall. A dozen names were asked to go to specific rooms. My name wasn’t on the list.

The rest of us were told to leave and return tomorrow. There was the soft sound of held breath being released. I watched the chosen ones hurry off, and left the assessment centre feeling a mixture of relief and disappointment.

When I got back to my temporary room, I checked the time and hesitated. No, it was far too early. Candidates had to be told their results and imprinted before their new professions were publicly posted. Eight o’clock. I should wait until eight o’clock.

So I ate, tried watching the Hive news, and then a swimming competition between Blue Zone and Yellow Zone, but couldn’t concentrate. Once it was eight o’clock, I used my dataview to access the Lottery listings, and started entering each of twenty-one identity codes that were as familiar to me as my own.

Not yet available.

Not yet available.

Not yet available.

Linnette 2514-1003-947. Animal Care Expert. Level 41.

I knew Linnette would like that. She’d always loved all kinds of living things. It was good news. I was happy for Linnette. For some strange reason I was crying.

Not yet available. Not yet available. The same words kept repeating again. I’d saved the most important two identity codes for last.

Shanna 2514-0118-223. Not yet available.

Forge 2514-0253-884. Health and Safety, Law Enforcement. Level 20. ARU77139.

The words danced in front of my eyes. They made no sense. Forge was a rebel, constantly breaking the rules. The hasties had scolded me a dozen times for riding the rail, but Forge had gone far beyond that minor act of teen defiance. I remembered when he was caught crawling through the vent system, and forced to wear a child’s tracking bracelet for weeks afterwards, all his male adolescent pride embarrassed at being treated like a baby.

Now Forge was a hasty himself. I turned on the sleep field and lay back on it, laughing at the thought of the rebel Forge dressed in a blue uniform, picturing him sternly lecturing teens on the dangers of riding the handrail.

Somewhere on Teen Level, Shanna would be looking up results just like me. I wondered what she was thinking now. She’d always dismissed the hasties as stuffy prudes who were out to spoil people’s fun.

The Level 20 next to Forge’s name meant nothing. Everyone assigned to a branch of Law Enforcement, whether high or low level, would live on Level 20, which had a mixture of accommodation from simple to luxurious. If I’d understood the code ARU77139, it would presumably have told me Forge’s true level, whether he’d have an important post in Law Enforcement or not, but it was better not to know.

Forge was on the other side of the great divide between hasties and citizens. I could picture him as an anonymous figure dressed in blue, which would help me forget him.

Eventually, I rolled out of the sleep field to eat and undress for the night. Tomorrow would be day four of Lottery, when assessment finished for all but a handful of people. By the end of it, I should know my future profession and level. I’d reached the point where I could accept anything Lottery decreed for me, except a Level 99 Sewage Technician, with gratitude.

I went to sleep expecting the usual dream about Forge, but instead I dreamed about flowers, endless racks of flowers in a huge hydroponics area. Bees hastened between them and their hives at the end of the racks.

I knew these bees well. Striped gold and blue, they flew busily round the parks as well as hydroponics. I’d been fascinated by them as a child, and the way they lived in their own little hives, just like we humans did in our much bigger one. I’d reach out a finger and gently stroke their tiny furry bodies. My parents would watch me and smile. They worked in genetics, and told me how the bees had been bred from their wild ancestors to be good natured, hard working, and without stings.

In my dream, I was one of the bees myself. I gathered the pollen and carried it back to my home hive, crawling through the tunnels inside, listening to the reassuring hum of my companions around me.

 

I woke up the next morning feeling oddly disoriented, and a sense of unease clung to me all through breakfast, the walk to the assessment centre, and more confusing hours of tests. By the afternoon, I had a splitting headache, like a hammer pounding away inside my skull. I blamed it on the light displays in the morning tests.

I fought to ignore the headache, struggling on until there was yet another session with light displays. The throbbing in my head reached a crescendo. I gave a moan of pain and buried my head in my hands.

“What’s wrong, Amber?” asked my tester, an elegant woman of about thirty who’d been giving me several of my most recent tests.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve got a terrible headache.”

“I’m a doctor,” she said. “I’ll give you an injection that will help the pain, and then you can lie down and rest for a while.”

I held out my arm, and she gave me a shot with a pressure jet. I still felt awful, but I couldn’t stand these tests dragging on into a fifth day. “I don’t need a rest.”

“You aren’t well enough to continue at the moment.” She gave me the standard reassuring professional smile, and uttered the words they all kept reciting. “Don’t worry.”

Her face seemed to blur and sway in front of my eyes, and everything went black.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

When I woke up, I opened my eyes, and saw the ceiling above me curved down to meet the walls in a strange way I’d never seen before. I studied it for a bewildered second, then remembered getting ill during the test.

I sat up in panic, found I’d been lying on some sort of couch, and looked around. I was in a long, thin room, with a lot of cushioned chairs set formally in pairs on one side. My couch was on the other. The walls had curious metal plates attached to them at intervals, and the place felt odd. I felt odd too.

The doctor who’d treated me was sitting in one of the chairs. She saw my movement, and turned to look at me.

“How do you feel, Amber? Headache gone?”

“Yes,” I said. “My head feels…”

I broke off. I’d been about to say my head felt totally normal now, but there was still something peculiar. I frowned as I tried to pin it down.

“It seems very quiet here.” That sounded silly, so I hurried on. “I’m sorry I fainted, but I’m better now and can get back to doing the test.”

“You didn’t faint, Amber. I sedated you. You’ve been asleep for twenty-seven hours.”

“What?” I shrieked the word before I could stop myself. It was stupid to yell at assessment staff, so I hastily apologized. “I’m very sorry. I was startled. Can I continue my tests now?”

The woman took two drinks from a dispenser, and brought one over to me. “My name is Megan.”

I took the drink and sipped it. My favourite melon juice. My throat was dry, so I gulped the rest down greedily.

Megan took the empty glass from me, refilled it, and brought it back. “You aren’t at the centre any longer, Amber.”

I looked round at the weird room again. “I’m in a hospital?”

“You’re in an aircraft. That’s a transport vehicle that…”

I knew what an aircraft was. They were used to travel to outlying supply stations or the even longer distances to other Hives. I dropped my glass, and it rolled across the floor spilling a pool of juice. I didn’t care.

“I’m outside the Hive?” Everyone knew the dangers of Outside. Truesun could blind you if you looked at it.

“We’re not in our Hive any longer, but we aren’t Outside either.” Megan sat down opposite me. “We travelled while you were sleeping. This aircraft is now inside Hive Futura.”

I closed my eyes, covered them with my hands, and listened to my breathing for a moment before looking at Megan again.

“Hive Futura was our seed Hive, founded in the Hive expansion phase, but it doesn’t exist any longer. The world population dropped. Most seed Hives were reabsorbed by parent Hives, and now there are only one hundred and seven Hive cities.” I recited the familiar facts I’d learnt in school, trying to block off my terror, trying to make sense of things. “We can’t be inside Hive Futura.”

“Hive Futura wasn’t totally abandoned. If our Hive population increases, we may need it again, so basic maintenance is still carried out here.”

I stared at her. “But why am I here? I’m supposed to be in Lottery.” I was losing the battle against my terror.

“Try to stay calm, Amber,” said Megan. “Your Lottery assessment is finished. It finished on the second day.”

Nobody ever finished their assessment on the second day, and I’d been having tests for four days already. “This is another silly nightmare, isn’t it?”

She ignored that. “On the first day of your assessment, you scored an interesting result on a special test that included questions with no genuine answers. As you reached each of those questions, the tester was instructed to concentrate on thinking of one possible answer. You almost always picked that answer, Amber.”

What was she talking about? I remembered the test, but… I thought back to that bored looking tester. He’d seemed to be half asleep.

“There were over a million eighteen-year-olds in assessment,” Megan continued. “Thousands of candidates had significantly high scores on that special test. You were all moved to different assessment centres to increase the pressure to do well. You remember the reaction speed test that came next?”

I nodded, still bewildered.

“You chose your colour too fast for human reflexes, Amber. On seven occasions, you chose the correct colour before it even had time to light up. You were reading your tester’s mind to see what colour he was going to touch.”

I shook my head. This couldn’t be happening to me. I couldn’t read minds. Everyone knew that telepaths had to wear masks because they weren’t quite human, and I was a perfectly ordinary girl. Lottery had made a dreadful mistake.

Megan turned her face away from me. “We knew then we’d found a true telepath. I took a specialist team into the assessment centre to take over your whole testing process. Since birth, you’d been protecting yourself from the hundred million minds around you by blocking your telepathic abilities. Most of the tests we gave you were aimed at lowering your mental barriers and bringing your ability to the surface. When your headache started, we knew you were now hearing nearby minds, and it was time to get you out of the Hive.”

“No!” I snapped the word at her in flat denial. “You’ve made a mistake.”

She just kept talking as if I hadn’t said a word. “We brought you to Hive Futura so you could learn to control and filter the telepathic input without being overwhelmed by the number of minds. Our pilot has already left in another aircraft, so there are only the two of us in Hive Futura now. We’ll remain alone here until you complete the first stage of your training.”

“It’s a mistake,” I repeated. “I’m not a telepath.”

She turned to face me again, and her lips weren’t moving. “I stopped talking two minutes ago, Amber. You’ve been pulling the pre-vocalized words directly out of my mind.”

There was a moment of blank disbelief before panic hit me. I was a telepath. I was a nosy. I’d spend my days wearing a grey mask, walking through hostile crowds with my bodyguard of watchful hasties surrounding me.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t be this. I can’t be a nosy. Everyone will shout at me. Two ones are two. Two twos are four. Two threes are six. Two fours are…”

“Amber!” Megan spoke aloud this time, interrupting my hysterical chanting. “It won’t be like that. The nosies dressed in grey aren’t telepaths. They’re fakes, decoys, ordinary hasties dressed up to make them look alien and frightening.”

This didn’t make any sense. “But why?”

“People working in Law Enforcement know the nosies are fake, but everyone else in the Hive believes they are genuine telepaths. They see the nosies everywhere they go, in the shopping areas, the corridors, riding the belts, going through the park. Anyone considering committing a crime is scared that a nosy will spot their guilty thoughts. In most cases that’s enough to make potential criminals abandon their plans. The deterrent value of the nosy patrols is massive, but it’s all bluff.”

I stared at her. She didn’t seem to be joking, but she couldn’t be serious.

Megan studied my face for a moment before she spoke again. “The bluff works because we do have genuine telepaths, but painfully few of them. Lottery discovers almost a thousand people each year with some level of telepathic ability, but virtually all of them are only capable of random, intermittent glimpses into the minds of people around them.”

She paused. “That’s enough to make borderline telepaths highly valuable to the Hive in areas such as counselling. The real treasure though is the incredibly rare exception capable of true, consciously controlled telepathy. The exception like you, Amber.”

I tugged at my hair. “I’m not exceptional.”

“We had four true telepaths to watch over the hundred million people in our Hive and protect them from danger. Now we’ve found you, so we have five. We won’t waste your precious time by dressing you as a nosy and letting crowds of people chant at you.”

“Five true telepaths? How can five people watch over a hundred million?”

Megan smiled. “I realize this news is a huge shock. You’ll need time to adjust to what I’ve told you before I explain more details. I expect you’re feeling hungry. Shall we go to your apartment so you can eat?”

“I’d rather get on with the imprinting. When I understand what I’m supposed to do, this will… may… be easier.”

“We never imprint telepaths,” said Megan.

I’d always known that I’d be imprinted during Lottery. As a child, I’d daydreamed about the day I’d be given all the knowledge I needed for my new profession. As I approached Lottery, I’d had last minute fears about the imprinting process, but the idea of not being imprinted was shattering.

“But you have to imprint me,” I said. “Everyone is imprinted. If you don’t imprint me, then I’ll never grow up. I’ll be stuck as a teen forever.”

“That’s not true,” said Megan. “Life experiences make you grow and mature as a person. Imprinting only gives you a lot of information very quickly. In your case, it’s not worth the risk.”

“There aren’t any risks. The stories about minds being damaged by imprints are just myths.” I pleaded for reassurance that some of the things I’d believed were still true. “They are just myths, aren’t they?”

“Imprinting is perfectly safe for other people, but not for you, Amber. There’s an obvious genetic factor involved in people becoming borderline telepaths, but we don’t understand what makes someone move beyond that and develop into a true telepath. There’s a danger imprinting could adversely affect your ability, so we don’t take the risk.”

Megan stood up. “I’ll take you to your apartment now. We’ll be staying in Hive Futura until your training is complete. By the time we return to the Hive, your unit will be ready for you.”

She opened a door. I looked warily past her, and was relieved to see our aircraft was safely inside a huge, featureless room. I followed her down a short and awkward flight of steps to the ground, and we walked across to another doorway. My mind was still struggling to absorb the fact I wouldn’t be imprinted, but I finally caught up with her last words.

“Unit?” I asked. “What do you mean by my unit?”

“You will have a Telepath Unit to assist you with your work,” said Megan. “I’m your Senior Administrator, responsible for staffing and the day to day running of your unit. Your Tactical Commander will be in charge of the actual unit operations.”

“You told me you were a doctor.”

She opened the door ahead of us, and we went into a corridor. “I am a doctor. As your Senior Administrator, I need both administrational and medical skills. Your training, health, and wellbeing are my primary concerns.”

As we walked down the corridor, I glanced sideways at the doors we were passing. “This looks like an ordinary housing warren, except that it’s totally empty.”

“This section is where the maintenance crews stay when they visit to do essential repairs.”

“Are we really the only two people here?”

“Yes. When you’ve completed your initial training, your other three team leaders will come to join us. Remember that you’re in charge of your Telepath Unit, Amber. If you’re uncomfortable with any of the staff I’ve selected, or with me, you just have to say so and replacements will be found.”

I blinked. “You’d find your own replacement?”

“Two alternate candidates for my post are already on standby.”

Megan stepped off the belt. I automatically followed her, and saw a door with my name on it. Megan opened it and led the way inside. I looked round at a large hallway, with cream walls that matched the thick carpet underfoot. Several doors led off it.

“Can I explore by myself?” I asked. “I could use a bit of time alone to… adjust.”

“Of course.” Megan smiled. “You’re in charge.”

I’d no idea what I was doing, and I wouldn’t be imprinted with any information, but Megan said I was in charge. I just had to say the word and she’d be replaced by someone else. This was ridiculous.

“My apartment is next door,” Megan continued. “Just use the comms system to call me when you’re ready.”

She went back out to the corridor and closed the door behind her. I looked round the hall, and opened a random door into what was clearly a bedroom. I wandered inside and touched the wall to open the storage space. I saw a set of clothes. My clothes.

I’d left those clothes in my temporary room back in our Hive. Some of them had been packed in my bag, others discarded on the floor. The whole lot seemed to have been laundered before being hung up here, and the bag itself was sitting on the floor underneath them. I investigated and found it was empty.

I panicked, looked frantically round the room, and then saw the small cube sitting on a table by the side of the sleep field. I went across to touch it with my hand, needing the physical reassurance that its precious holos were safe. These images were all I had left of my life on Teen Level now. I’d never see Forge, Shanna, Linnette, Atticus, Casper, or any of my other old friends again in real life.

Once I’d calmed down again, I carried on exploring. The second room I entered was a dedicated bookette room, an impressive luxury, but I was more interested in food right now. The third room had a table, chairs, and a staggeringly large kitchen unit. I eagerly called up the menu to see what was on offer. Dishes scrolled seemingly endlessly down the front of the unit, and I selected half a dozen to see if they really were all in storage.

Five minutes later, I was sitting at the table with enough food for several people in front of me. I was hungry, and everything tasted wonderful, but I had a host of worries nagging at me. How could someone as ordinary as me be a telepath? What work would I be doing? Why did I need a unit full of people to help me with it?

A shattering new thought suddenly overrode everything else. My parents and Gregas loathed the grey-clad nosies almost as much as I did. How would they react when they saw my Lottery result? It had been hard to say goodbye to all my friends from Teen Level. I couldn’t cope with losing my family as well.

I dropped my fork onto my plate, and used the apartment comms unit to ask Megan to come back. She arrived a minute later, smiling as usual. I saw her glance at the plates of spare food, and hastily gestured at them.

“Please help yourself.”

She pulled up a chair and sat down facing me. “I’ve already eaten,” she said, but picked up a pastry anyway.

“Have I been listed as a nosy yet?” I asked. “It’ll be a huge shock to my parents. They really dislike nosies.”

“The last batch of this year’s Lottery results should be posted within the next hour,” said Megan. “You’ll be included in the results, but not as a telepath. It’s essential for the security of the Hive that only approved members of Law Enforcement know the true information about telepaths. Given your parents’ attitude to nosies, keeping your telepathy secret from them will be best for your family relationships as well.”

I waved my hands in despair. “So what do I tell my parents?”

“The established method of dealing with this situation is to list true telepaths as Level 1 Researchers.”

“Level 1 Researcher!” My jaw must have dropped low enough to hit the floor. “My parents will ask me lots of questions. What do I say? What am I supposed to be researching?”

“You just explain apologetically that you aren’t allowed to answer any questions because your research is classified.”

I considered that. My parents would have a shock all right, but not the horrible shock of finding out I was a telepath. They’d be ecstatic at the news their daughter was a Level 1 Researcher. My photos would be centre front with flashing lights round them. Their friends would get sick of hearing about me.

“If Telepath Units are part of Law Enforcement, does that mean I’ll be living with the rest of Law Enforcement on Level 20?”

“No,” said Megan. “You and all your staff will be living at your Telepath Unit. You can tell your parents that you have a dedicated Research Unit to assist you in your vital work. Explain that you and your staff need to live there for security reasons, and because some work has to take place at unusual hours.”

She paused for a moment. “We can’t allow anyone from outside Law Enforcement into the operational section of the unit, but your parents will be able to visit your apartment in the accommodation section if you wish.”

I gave a disbelieving laugh. A Level 1 daughter with her own Research Unit. My parents were going to faint from joy. I’d be fainting from joy myself if only it was true.

“We want you to be able to relax and sleep properly, Amber,” continued Megan, “so your Telepath Unit will be on Industry 1 in an area surrounded by things like water storage tanks that need minimal maintenance. You’ll rarely be troubled by the nearness of unfamiliar minds in the daytime, and never at night.”

There were a hundred accommodation levels in the Hive, with Level 1 at the top. Above that were fifty more levels that held all the things like manufacturing centres, air purification, recycling, and hydroponics, which were too messy, noisy, or took up too much space to be on an accommodation level. If my Telepath Unit was on Industry 1, the highest of the industrial levels, then it would be right at the top of the Hive!

I had a sick, fluttery feeling in my stomach. “There’s a solid ceiling on Industry 1? Truesun won’t be able to get us?”

Megan’s expression flickered as if she was struggling not to laugh. “The ceiling on Industry 1 looks exactly like the ceiling on any other level. Above it are some special maintenance areas, then the Hive outer structural shield, and then a thick layer of soil and rocks.”

She paused. “Should your parents question the remote location of your Research Unit, you can explain that it’s dictated by the nature of your research.”

Her words triggered another dreadful realization. As soon as my parents had got over the shock of my Lottery result, they’d try to call me, but they wouldn’t get an answer because I was in Hive Futura. They’d think I was ignoring their calls, and jump to the obvious conclusion that their Level 1 daughter was dumping her Level 27 parents.

“Megan, you have to get a message to my parents,” I said urgently. “Give them some reason why calls won’t be reaching me for a while.”

She smiled. “You can call your parents yourself, Amber, or they can call you. We’ve got a secure link to our Hive, and all calls for you will be automatically routed here.”

I gave a sigh of relief.

“You obviously can’t tell your parents that you’re in Hive Futura,” added Megan. “I suggest you tell them you’re in temporary accommodation while you’re setting up your unit. They’ll be able to visit you as soon as you’ve moved into your permanent apartment. Would you like me to leave you alone until you’ve talked to your parents?”

I nodded, watched Megan go out of the door, and then reached for my dataview. If I could make calls to people in our own Hive, then I should be able to access information too. I checked to see if the final batch of Lottery results had been posted yet, saw they’d just gone up, and automatically started looking to see how my friends had done. This time I started with the most important one.

Shanna was a Level 9 Media Presenter! She’d made the elite top ten levels of the Hive just as she’d expected. I might see her presenting the inter-Hive news or…

No, I couldn’t imagine Shanna presenting the news. It seemed far more likely that she’d be covering social events. Whatever programmes she’d be presenting, Shanna must be thrilled that her Lottery result was such a huge success.

After a few moments imagining what Shanna was doing and thinking, picturing her buying all the high level clothes she’d been dreaming of for years, I moved on to checking my other friends.

Margot was a Level 30 Protein Enhancement Supervisor, which was funny because she’d always been so fussy about her food.

Casper was a Level 61 Restaurant Service Specialist. He’d been born with a genetic condition that affected his ability to learn, but had an enthusiasm and infectious happiness that made him a popular member of our group. He loved helping people, so he’d take pleasure in bringing people their food, and they’d enjoy sharing the warmth of his smile.

Reece was a Level 93 Pipe Technician. I cheered aloud. Reece was a bully who’d grabbed every chance to push people around on Teen Level, especially targeting me, Linnette, and Casper. He could try bullying pipes now, and see how far that got him.

Atticus startled me. Level 3 Physician Surgical. High up! A year or so ago, when I was trying to break my obsession with Forge, I’d had a few dates with Atticus. He was a quiet, serious boy with…

“You have an incoming call,” the comms system announced.

I took a deep breath and accepted the call. Holo images of my parents appeared in front of me, looking so real that I could imagine reaching out and touching them. This apartment comms system must be a top model, nothing like the basic one I’d had in my room on Teen Level.

“Amber!” My mother gasped my name. “We saw your Lottery result. When there was no news yesterday, I started getting worried, but this is incredible.”

My father just gave me a dazed look, seeming completely lost for words.

“I’m in shock too,” I said.

“This is your new apartment?” My mother looked round the room. “Very nice.”

“This is my temporary accommodation,” I said. “I’ll have an apartment at the Research Unit, but setting it up will take a few weeks.”

“You won’t live on Level 1?” She looked disappointed.

I remembered my cover story. “I need to live at the Research Unit because I’ll be working odd hours.”

My father finally found his voice. “What sort of research will you be doing?”

“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to tell you any details. It’s classified.”

“If you’re Level 1, you must have an important post at this Research Unit,” he said.

“It’s my Research Unit,” I said. “It’s being specially set up to help me with my work. That means…”

“Your own Research Unit!” My mother turned to look to her left. “Gregas!” she yelled. “Your sister’s got her own Research Unit!”

There was a grunt from somewhere off image. I could tell that Gregas was much less thrilled than my mother. I could see his point. He had a Level 1 older sister with her own Research Unit. Anything he did now, short of inventing the elixir of life, was going to be an anti-climax.

“I’ll be wildly busy for the next few weeks,” I said, “but once my Research Unit is ready you can come and visit me. I won’t be able to show you the unit work areas for security reasons, but you can see my apartment.”

“We understand,” said my father.

“You’ll be tired after the imprinting, so we’d better let you go.” My mother’s expression suddenly changed to something vulnerable and anxious. “You’ll keep in touch?”

“I’ll keep in touch.” I knew my parents really needed the reassurance of me visiting them in person, but I wouldn’t be able to do that for weeks. I thought of something that would please my mother. “I’ll need you to advise me about clothes. I’ve no idea what to wear now I’m Level 1.”

“That’s a good point,” said my mother. “You can’t keep wearing your old teen clothes in your new position.”

“I’ve no time for shopping right now,” I said. “Could you find some clothes you think would look good on me and mail me the details? I can order some of those to start with, and later we can go shopping together.”

“I’d love that,” said my mother. “We can go to the 500/5000 shopping area on Level 1. The finest shops in the Hive!”

I laughed at the delight in her face, said goodbye, watched my parents’ holo images vanish, and gave a sigh of relief. I’d told them a host of lies, but at least the lies had made them happy.

I went back into the bedroom, and picked up the cube that held all the holos of my time on Teen Level. I hadn’t played them since the last day of Carnival. I wanted to play them now, but almost every image of my friends would include Forge. If I watched them again, I’d be taking my teen fixation with him into my new life.

There was only one way to stop myself doing that, so I did it. It was surprisingly hard to smash the small cube. Not just mentally hard but physically as well, because it was a tough little thing, and stubbornly dented rather than breaking in pieces. I had to pound it with a chair for several minutes before it shattered into sad little fragments. I collected them up, cutting my right forefinger on a sharp edge, and dumped the lot down the waste chute.

It was done. I’d made a clean break with the past, and could focus on the future. I’d hoped that Lottery would make me high level, and it had made me Level 1 but a telepath. I wasn’t sure if that was a dream come true or a nightmare.

© 2016 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.

 

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