“It’s an underground city,” Lexi said as El gave her and Basil a tour.

They were several levels down, having recently stepped out of the elevator pod at the top of giant subterranean atrium.

Lexi stood with El at the edge of a handrail looking down. Basil, suffering from a sudden onslaught of vertigo, backed up to the wall of the corridor, away from the magnificent view.

Down below, Lexi could see a large park and what appeared to be crops planted in small indoor fields. Hanging in hydroponic pods from several of the open hallways surrounding the vast atrium, she could see other plants growing as well. All were bathed in sunlight, a mix of artificial rays and what appeared to be the real thing piped in by mirrors. In the very center of the domed roof, a large five-meter circle shone brightly.

El noticed the direction of her gaze and said, “Yup. Light pipes. That’s the main one. When a cloud comes over, it can get dim in here. We do supplement with artificial light, but at night we keep everything muted. Helps keep track of whether it’s daytime or not.”

She pointed down to the park below and said, “We have one half square kilometer of floor space down there. We grow a lot of our own food. You’ll see tomatoes and other easy to grow items in the pods up here on the railing, catching the rays.”

El waved at the different levels they could see, circling the atrium. She said, “Most of our living quarters face out on the main atrium. This is our most open area, and with the sunlight it approximates the outdoors. Lots of people like to walk around in the garden below, too. We take volunteers if you have a green thumb.”

“So, you grow everything yourself?”

“We could. At the moment, we still have the freedom to bring in food and other items from the outside. No one has bothered to check our purchasing invoices, but if they did they would find nothing amiss. We have a large staff here, officially. If we spend money on food for them, no one thinks anything of it.”

El took a deep breath, the older woman looking around at the open hallways on different levels, the greenery from the hanging hydroponics. Someone had even hung laundry out to dry in the sunlight.

She said, “But, if things get to the point where we need to cover our tracks by suspending food shipments . . . or if we need to withdraw from the world, we are completely self-sustaining here. Our current staff is just under a thousand people. We can house and feed up to three thousand without too much difficulty. It may get a little claustrophobic, even with all this space, but we can do it.”

“But why?” Basil said, his back still against the wall. Lexi thought he might be looking a little green in the face.

El turned and smiled at him, raising an eyebrow. She said, “I thought that was understood. We are the Resistance. Our purpose here is to thwart the Tetrarchy. To bring about a change in government. To bring democracy to the League.”

Both Basil and Lexi stared at her.

El shrugged. She said, “We’re trying to do what your little group at Epsilon U was forming to do, before everyone got rounded up. Come on, let me show you some more of our underground city and we can talk along the way.”

They headed back to the elevator and El waved a finger through one of the holographic numbers. It started moving again.

She said, “You can get everywhere by elevator pod. They go up, down, and sideways. You can’t go higher than the flight deck, though. And you can’t go outside. Everything is controlled by buttons in the elevators. StarCen has a . . . ‘presence’ here, as you’re about to see. But, she is unavailable for use, as you might imagine. There is no contact with the outside world.”

Lexi said, “How have you managed to keep all this secret?”

“Well, for one thing we don’t let people like you to ever leave.”

El smiled at the looks on their faces. She said, “Don’t be so glum! I told you, eventually the war will be over and the day will come when SSI won’t be hunting down everybody who even thinks about overthrowing the government. You’ve got to believe that or you’ll just get depressed.”

“But some people do leave,” Basil said. “You and your driver came and got us.”

El nodded and said, “There are regularly scheduled deliveries between this complex and the campus. We do sometimes smuggle things, or people, in and out. I am an official Thespar employee. I live in a town not far from here, actually.”

She grinned and said, “You know the old saying about what happens when more than one person knows a secret?”

Basil said, “If you tell someone, it’s not a secret anymore.”

“Right. But . . . if you tell someone, and they will die and everybody else will die if they say something . . . things tend to stay secret. So, a few trusted people are allowed to go outside and do things. We have precautions in place in case of capture, too.”

The expression that crossed her face was a dark one at that last statement. Lexi found herself wondering what the precautions were. It must involve instant death, she thought.

The elevator stopped again and opened into a long, wide corridor. El stepped out and headed toward a distant doorway, the two students following.

Basil said, “How is this done? How is it you can hide an entire city here in the mountains? And you said something about Thespar?”

“Thespar owns all of this. The joy of bureaucracy! I’ll give you a little history lesson. For years, some of the scientists and other people working for Thespar grew increasingly alarmed at the direction the League was taking, insofar as government power. They had access to StarCen’s core. Thespar computer engineers designed StarCen 1.0 back in the day, and they’ve been here for every upgrade. They could see what the League was using the AI for, how it was becoming a tool of oppression and control.

“So, a few of them decided to do something about it. They had to approach everything in utmost secrecy. They siphoned off funds through ghost budgets and had this facility built. The upper levels were already in place to serve as a site for one of StarCen’s core locations. They simply upgraded the facilities in secret.

“Around the time war broke out with the Republic, they made some modifications to StarCen, working carefully so nothing would be noticed. We also made some key allies around that time, gaining valuable assets in the field. Our modifications are such that it is very difficult for anyone outside the loop to realize they have been performed.”

She stopped as they came to the double doors. She placed a hand on the palm panel and the doors slid open. They walked inside another large room and looked down at StarCen’s core.

It reminded Lexi of a giant gray egg, with multi-colored node clusters that looked like jellybeans on the biomatter’s surface. That was the first thought that came to her: a giant gray egg covered in bright clusters of jellybeans.

El said, “This is one of StarCen’s cores. She has several, on Epsilon and the other primary planets. But this one is completely under our control. From here, we can make modifications if we need to. It’s a very tricky process, because we have to be careful and make sure no one can tell the modifications have been made. But, our people are very good and mindful of details.”

She made a gesture, pointing at a far wall. Lexi and Basil looked and saw a glass window, with people sitting at a control board. One of them waved. Lexi waved back.

Basil looked at the core, then at the window and the people behind it.

He said, “I would very much like to be on the team that hacks StarCen.”

El smiled. She said, “We’ll find places for you both. I’m sure you will be very useful.”


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