Chapter 14

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I was becoming accustomed to the fancy meals stored in my food cube. That morning I was eating a porridge flavoured with berries and seeds. The package had even included a small cup of coffee, which managed to be smooth and bitter and rich all at the same time.

I knew that any one of these meals could be my last, but I had no complaints about the quality. Hell, I had spent three days in a crawlspace eating rations. I was determined to enjoy the important things along the way. Good food. Excellent scotch. Comfortable clothes.

Fion.

A soft chirping from my hidden locker interrupted my train of thought. The pattern-matching program. 0900. Time enough for the darling children of Melchi Prime to be delivered to their respective Ed-Cents.

I retrieved the crystal from the locker and detoured via the food cube on my way back to my desk. I rummaged through the packages until I found another porridge. I was too full to eat another meal, but that coffee...

I sat at my desk, tapped the crystal and there they were. It was that simple. It helped that they were the only children to have left the HQ that morning.

The program identified six adults that had also exited the HQ and arrived at the same ED-Cent as the children. Two women walking fifty metres in advance of the children. Two women accompanying the children. A man and a woman twenty metres behind. All six had shown up thirty minutes later at the farthest of the three Education Centres.

I took a celebratory sip of my coffee and zoomed in on a frame of the children. As I had suspected, a girl and a boy. It was the first time that I had actually seen the face of my target. The girl looked to be about ten, the boy was a bit younger, maybe six. They were both blonde, like Trip-G. I couldn't make out the colour of their eyes from this frame, but they looked dark. The girl wore her long hair up high, in a kind of twist. It made her look mature, serene.

The security detail was good. They must have been a regular presence in the lives of the children. They seemed comfortable hugging and kissing their 'parents' goodbye. The two women who formed the advance element continued past the Ed-Cent. They then did a slow loop back towards the way they had come. They chatted with hands flashing and gesticulating, but their eyes were always scanning the hallway, the other parents, the children.

The man and woman bringing up the rear had stopped for a cuddle and a chat fifteen metres behind. They were of similar height - he was looking over her shoulder at the school and the children. She was looking over his shoulder, watching their back trail.

The whole charade took less than two minutes. Another adult came out of the Ed-Cent, a slim woman with long black hair. She walked over to the children, took their hands and led them back into the building. Presumably a teacher. The 'parents', having bid their fond farewells, returned the same way that they had arrived.

The cuddling couple disengages as the 'parents' passed them. The man turned back and followed the 'parents'. The woman continued forward and entered the Ed-Cent. The security detail must have been keeping her posted inside, doubling as staff.

I replayed the scene a dozen or so times. I studied the movement of the three couples and the other children and adults milling around the front of the Ed-Cent. I revised my initial assessment of the security detail. They weren't good. They were very, very good. Smooth, natural, relaxed, very alert. I had no doubt that they could spring into action in an instant. They were wearing civilian clothes, but would be carrying bio-coded blasters that were registered with the alarm systems.

I enlarged the frames of the two 'parents' as they hugged the children and said goodbye. The love and affection on the faces of the two women looked real to me. They adored their principals. Which suggested that they would be fearless in defending them. Willing to die for them, even.

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