by Sarah A. Hoyt
When he heard the sirens and understood their meaning, Jarl knew he was going to die.
He closed his eyes, then opened them again. He looked down at his hands, in the gray fingerless gloves, holding the circuits for the holo advertisements that flashed high on either side of the zipway, right above him, where he straddled the zipway wall. Beneath him flyers zipped, end on end, hundreds of miles an hour, towards Friedstadt and Eastern Europe beyond.
The zipway bisected Europe east to west and the speeds and closeness of vehicles were only possible because driving had been turned over to a series of control towers. The passengers in the flyers had nothing to do but read the advertisements, until the zipway exited them at their chosen destination.
His fingers were a purplish blue, the result of the biting cold of this December night. His body felt just as cold, of course, insufficiently protected by the baggy gray tunic that billowed in the snow-laden wind. And the knit pants that molded his skinny legs below weren’t much help, either. At least he’d put on two pairs of—borrowed—socks, beneath the thin slippers, which were all Hoffnungshaus ever gave its inmates. Which meant he could sort of feel his feet, and was probably not at risk of losing a toe or three.
In fairness to Hoffnungshaus, Jarl had to admit the inmates weren’t ever supposed to leave Hoffnungshaus. Though he did, of course. And paid the price. He shrugged his sharp shoulder blades under the tunic, feeling again the sting of the last whipping.
That was no matter. Nor were any other penalties associated with leaving Hoffnungshaus, nor even what they might do to his roommates, Bartolomeu and Xander, for having let him out yet again. No.
Despite the cold, he felt sweat rolling down his forehead towards his eyes, and wiped it with the back of his sleeve.
None of that mattered. Not his infraction in leaving Hoffnungshaus. Not how they might punish Bartolomeu and Xander. Nothing mattered because Jarl would be dead before morning.
He looked down at his fingers in the open circuit box, purple fingers against the blue, green and red wires, and the snowflakes drifting in.
Above him, the holo ad remained unchanged. He knew, from analyzing it, that it advertised the resort just up the zipway, at the next exit, from this spot. Eden Cavern, it was called, and he had no idea what it was like except for the advertising line that ran in cool green holographic letters, A taste of paradise.
He couldn’t see the holograph—not the whole of it, at least—from where he sat. It was a mere shimmer of colors and disconnected dots, meant to be read from the zipway itself, as flyers zoomed by at hundreds of miles per hour. It was only through fast math that he could see, in his mind, clear as day, what it would look like and say to the people below. And he’d be a cyborg if he had the slightest idea why a resort used a naked woman wrapped in a serpent and holding up an apple as an advertisement.
Perhaps they have prostitutes, he thought. And then the siren went again, and another series of sirens, and over the zipway, but facing him a long distance away—which meant he could read it even from where he was, a holographic sign showed, deep red against the black of the snowy night:
Break from Freiwerk. All exits past Eden Cavern are closed. Traffic in the zipway will be stopped. Every flyer will be examined. For your safety cooperate with the authorities.
Shit, I am so dead. His mind formed the words clearly. His body refused to get the message. Even as he thought the words, his numbed fingers were closing the control box on the wall, not bothering this time with re-locking the genlock he’d hacked into, just slamming it shut to prevent more snow from getting in. There was no point in wanton destruction.
He felt at his waistband for his stolen burner, then looked towards the zipway, where flyers were slowly coming to a stop, starting at the distant horizon. The other way were dark fields, a couple of country roads, a golf course, a hunting preserve, and ten miles off, as straight as Jarl could run, Hoffnungshaus, where he would be missed as soon as head count was done at dawn. If he could get to it, he would be protected. Getting to it was the problem. What “break from Freiwerk” meant was that mules had rioted again, and a few of them had managed to escape the fortified work-camp. And if the authorities thought even one among them might be able to pass as a normal human, they would be looking at everyone’s hands.
Jarl’s fingerless gloves stopped just short of the bright red band embedded in the skin of the ring finger on his left hand. The mark of a made human, an artifact. No different than the mules that had just escaped. In this sort of circumstances, he would be shot on sight. And that was if the mules didn’t get him first. Creatures manufactured as slaves, created to serve humans all their lives, were remarkably lacking in fellow feeling. And even if they could understand Jarl’s own situation, they’d probably feel zero empathy with him.
The thing was—there were burner indentations on the side of the wall towards the fields. He’d made them and climbed up them just an half an hour ago. There were none on the other side, where fifty feet below, the flyers on the zipway were coming to a stop.
Normally descending towards the zipway and running across would have meant death. Just the friction of heated air in the space beneath the flyers was enough to kill. But as the flyers stopped there was just a chance . . . Only it had to be done before the authorities got there to check people in the flyers. He had to be across and up the other wall, and over the side, into . . . He wasn’t sure what was on the other side. Other cities and fields, he imagined. But what wasn’t there was Freiwerk. Freiwerk was on the same side of the zipway as Hoffnungshaus, which meant it would be the side of the highway that escaped mules—without burners or the agility to scale the walls of the zipway—would roam, and where their pursuers would scour.
He bit at his lip and frowned. His gray attire would be conspicuous as he was descending the wall, and people in the stopping flyers might call the law on him. On the other hand, the night was dark, there was snow, and the light of the suddenly unreadable holographic advertisements above would cast a pattern of light and shadows on the walls anyway. Moving light and shadows. It was just possible, in the confusion, he would pass unnoticed. If he could be fast enough. Fortunately, he’d been bio-engineered to be fast. Among other things.
Getting to the other side of the zipway would get him stranded away from Hoffnungshaus, and he would still have the trouble of being an escaped bio-engineered artifact, proscribed on his own and acceptable only under supervision of the authorities. On the other hand, it would keep him alive past the night. He could always get back to Hoffnungshaus, if he survived. He could always steal a flyer. He’d done it before.
His body had already made the decision for him. He bent sideways, pointing the burner at a point down the zipway wall, melting an indentation deep enough for a toe hold. Then he swung down, holding on to the top of the wall, setting his foot in the indentation, and thinking fast.
The problem was he usually did this going up—not coming down. Going up, he made toe holds and hand holds, and then toe holds again, all the way up. Coming down, he’d need to make handholds, and rely on his cold fingers to hold him up. Difficult. Not impossible.
Working quickly, he melted an indentation for his hand, waited a few seconds for it to cool in the December air, and, holding onto it, melted an indentation further down.
He scrambled, hand over hand down, sometimes rushing it and getting singed fingertips, feeling as if he were going incredibly slow but knowing he was faster than any normal human. The sirens still sounded down the zipway, and the flyers below him were still moving, though slower, as the central control slowed them down so it could stop them.
By the time Jarl was near enough that the wind of normal zipway traffic would have knocked him down, the flyers were going slower and it was a mere stiff wind. He waited there, poised in the area of darkness below the light cast by the holographs and above the lights of the flyers below, hearing the sirens come ever closer, feeling the wind die down.
He could hear his heart beat loudly. The sound of blood rushing in his head made him near-deaf. His fingers felt numb with cold, and he wished the flyers would stop before the sirens got any closer. But he couldn’t change either rate. He could only hope it would work out for him. He could only stay there, suspended halfway between the top of the wall and the zipway, and wish would all come out all right. He’d taken a gamble, and sometimes you lost gambles.
He felt more than saw the flyers stop, and he dropped down the remaining meter and a half to the surface of the zipway. The flyers, in stopping, had come to rest on the zipway. It was something he hadn’t counted on, which was stupid. Parked flyers always rested on the ground. But he’d counted on that space of darkness beneath the flyers, to run to the other side of the zipway. Stupid Jarl. So much for bio-engineered for intelligence.
Now he faced nine rows of flyers, side by side, with their lights on in an endless traffic jam extending way back, completely obstructing the zipway. He had to run among them, somehow, without getting all of those people on their links, calling the authorities.
The only thing he could think of—the only thing he could do—was what he used to get out of trouble at Hoffnungshaus, or at least to keep his trouble as limited as he could. Look, he told himself, as though you have every right to be here.
He added a minor flourish, by rounding a flyer in such way that for people of other flyers, it would look like he had come out of it. Why anyone should come out of a flyer in these circumstances was anyone’s guess. But people did things like that. At least Jarl thought they did. He’d read about them doing things like that. Truth be told, other than books and holos he knew precious little about what real people outside Hoffnungshaus did or why. But he would pretend he came out of the flyer, and walk sedately across.
The problem with walking sedately across was the ever-closer sirens. But Jarl didn’t dare run. He felt as though he were holding himself sternly in hand, and not rushing across was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
By the time he reached the other side, right by the wall, it had become obvious that he had already lost too. The sirens were close enough that he could hear the voice blared at intervals: “Do not let anyone into your flyer. Some mules have penetrated the zipway.” The Peace Keepers were close enough that in another five minutes their floodlights would illuminate the flyers in the zipway and the wall on each side as starkly as the full light of day, if not more.
Even Jarl could not climb the wall that fast, bio-engineered or not. And if caught halfway up, they would know there was something wrong with him, and he would probably be shot down. But if he didn’t try it . . .
He could as easily be taken on the ground.
Wild thoughts of dropping to the ground and knitting himself with the base of the wall crossed his mind and were quickly dismissed, followed by thoughts of running, using his extra speed—just running between the flyers and disappearing. But you could not disappear when each flyer contained people who could come out and grab you. Or shoot you.
Do not let anyone in your flyer. The words, coming over the announcement system of the Peace Keeper flyers seemed to echo themselves in Jarl’s head, in his own internal voice. If they were saying that, it was because people might.
Fine. Jarl in their place would never do so, but he didn’t understand people and would freely admit that he couldn’t imagine any of them being silly enough to allow a stranger into their flyer with mules on the loose.
Whenever there were reports on mule riots and mule outbreaks, they went out of their way to tell everyone that some mules looked just like any other humans. Their lack of soul wasn’t visible from the outside—hence, the artifact ring. This made it hard for Jarl to believe he could find refuge due to his youthful appearance, even if he faked innocence.
On the other hand, Jarl had a burner. And many, if not most people were unarmed.
He took a deep breath, again, feeling the cold air singe his lungs with a burning sensation. It was a risk. Perhaps too great a risk. Anyone coerced at burner point to let him into their flyer was likely to turn on him the minute the authorities arrived. That was almost certain. But not certain. Not absolutely certain. While getting shot standing out here was absolutely certain.
He scanned the flyers around. Most of them were too small for him to climb aboard and conceal himself when the authorities arrived. But nearby was an eggplant-colored one. It seemed to be a family flyer—six seats at least—and unless there were little ones asleep on the seats, it had only a man and a woman aboard.
Jarl walked back towards it, dipping his hand under his tunic for the burner. He must not show it before he was behind the flyer, because if he did, then the people in the flyer behind or to the side might call the authorities.
So he kept his burner in his waistband, until he got right behind the flyer, then shielding it with his body, started burning the genlock. This would set off alarms in the flyer, but it was better than going to the window and waving the burner and demanding to be let in. First, because a lot of the flyers had burner-proof dimatough windshields. Second, because—
Second, because by the time the man clambered back over the seats, towards the rear door, the genlock had burned off, the flyer was unlocked, and Jarl could pull the door up and clamber in, burner in hand, all without being seen to be armed by anyone else but his victims.
The man, standing in the middle of the last row of seats, facing the cargo area, was probably forty. At least, he looked like the director of Hoffnungshaus, who was forty. He had streaks of gray hair back from his temples, marring his otherwise thick mahogany-red hair. He was thickly built too—powerful shoulders, strong legs, big hands clenched on the back of the seats.
But I have a burner, Jarl thought, and brought it up, to point square at the man, at the same time looking up into blue-grey eyes. The eyes glanced at the burner, then at Jarl, then the man said, softly, “You might want to close that back hatch, son.”
“I have a burner,” Jarl said, his voice reedy and thin as it hadn’t been for at least four years.
“So I see,” the man said. “If you’re not going to close that hatch, let me do it,” his voice was mild, concerned, seeming not at all worried by Jarl’s burner, or what must be the sheer panic in Jarl’s eyes. Jarl felt that panic mount. What sort of man wasn’t afraid of a burner? He’d read. He’d seen holos. He knew that people were afraid of death. Weren’t they? Jarl sure as hell was.
He realized he’d started trembling so badly that his teeth were knocking together, and he was shaking with it, as well as with reaction to the warmth of the flyer after nearly freezing atop the wall. He realized the burner was shaking too hard for him to point at anything. He knew the man must think the same because he pushed past Jarl, closed the back hatch, and did something to it that secured it in place. “There, that will hold,” he said, then turned around. “And now, son, what are we going to do with you?”
Jarl shocked himself with a sob, though it was probably just a reaction to the temperature difference. But there was this long breath intake, and his voice came as wavering as his trembling hand, “I can shoot. I can. I can burn you.”
“Of course you can. But the way your hand is shaking, you’re more likely to set the inside of the flyer on fire, and I don’t think that’s what you want, is it?” the man asked. And then very gently, “Give me the burner.”
Jarl tried not to, but the large hand reached over and took it before he could control his shaking hand. And now Jarl was unarmed and the man had a burner. And Jarl couldn’t even see what the man was doing, through the film of tears that had unaccountably filled his eyes, in probably yet another reaction to the cold. What is the use? He sank down to his knees, then sat back on his heels, as he waited for the burn he was sure would come.
He heard a click as the burner charge was pulled, the burner safety pushed in place, then a low whistle. “A Peace Keeper burner. Where did you get this?”
“I—It was months ago. I stole it. What does it matter?” Now Jarl’s voice sounded hysterical. He could hear the sirens drawing ever closer. A light like full daylight only brighter came through the windows, blinding them. “Shoot me and be done.”
“Give me your left hand,” the man said, his voice still very calm. And then, “I see.” The sound of a deeply drawn breath. “This will wait. They’re here. You’ll never pass. Not dressed like that.”
Jarl found himself hauled up by his left hand and thrown, forcibly, to lying down on a seat. Something fluffy was thrown over him. The man’s voice whispered, “Do your best to look ill and sleepy, can you?” And to the other person in the flyer, the one who’d remained quiet through all this. “Jane, make this disappear as much as you can.”
“I can’t make it disappear. Not enough to—”
“Enough that it will pass unless they take the flyer apart. My job is to make sure they don’t. And give me an ID gem. Male. I’d say around fifteen. Or can pass as such. Quickly, Jane.”
And suddenly, there was a rush of fresh air, cold and smelling of snow, and Jarl realized that the man had opened the door to the flyer. “How may I help you, officer?”
Jarl’s heart was beating so loudly that he had trouble hearing what the Peace Keeper was saying, though he caught the words “mules” “riots” and “forty dead.” And then a polite request for the family documents.
Jarl heard gems handed over and the clink of their fitting into a reader. “Mr . . . Carl Alterman, and your wife and son?” the Peace Keeper asked.
“Yes,” the man said. “Our son has been having high fevers. We think it is one of those new viruses. We’re headed for Friedstadt, to see a specialist? Nothing else has worked.”
“Oh,” the Peace Keeper said, and though Jarl had absolutely no idea why, he could hear the dread in the Peace Keeper’s voice, and had the feeling he wouldn’t be touched.
The Peace Keeper said, in the official voice, again, “If you’d put your fingers in this machine? It detects the genetic markers of mules, even if the ring has somehow been lost. It’s just a formality.”
The woman must have gone first, because Jarl heard the ping, and then she leaned back and said, “Honey, do you think you could wake enough to—” Just before a ping sounded that Jarl guessed meant the man too was not bio-engineered.
But the Peace Keeper spoke up before Jarl could answer—even had he known how to—“No need, ma’am. If he’s contagious it could be a public health risk.”
And then the door closed, and Jarl found himself taking big gulps of air.
He heard the locks closing on the flyer, and the woman said, softly, “Don’t sit up. They can still see in here, but we need to talk.”
Jarl thought it was funny how the woman’s voice sounded so very different than even in holos. He’d never heard a woman’s voice without electronic modulation, and it was higher than men’s, sure, but it also sounded . . . richer, in ways he couldn’t quite express.
“Yes,” the man said, before Jarl could speak. “We must know what we’re up against, if they’re serious enough to test the genetic markers. Let’s start at the beginning: are you a mule?”
“No— Yes.” Jarl took a deep breath. “Maybe.”
He shouldn’t have been hurt by the woman’s musical giggle, but he was. And then surprised by the man’s less tense voice as he said, “Promising! Are you from Freiwerk?”
“What? No. Hoffnungshaus. I am . . . I am bio-engineered. And all my . . . all my . . . kind are too, but we are not mules. We’re not gestated in non-human animals, and we’re not subnormal. We’re rather . . . the other way.”
A sharp sucking in of breath from the man, and Jarl had the impression he’d said something terribly wrong, but he wasn’t sure what.
“I see,” the man said. “So, the rumors aren’t just rumors. What is your name?”
“Jarl Ingemar,” Jarl said. “We were named by the people who designed us, you know, the national team. I . . . was sent over from Scandinavia at three, when it was decided—”
“Yes, yes. So, if the rumors are true you’d be what? Twenty? Twenty-one?”
A breath like a sigh from the man, and a noise Jarl couldn’t interpret from the woman, followed by, “Starved.” And something that sounded like “Poor boys.”
Then the silence went on so long that Jarl wondered what he had said that was so terrible. And then he had to know. “Please, sir,” he said. “What do you want to do with me?”
“Uh? Do? Nothing. But—”
“But once he’s known to be missing they’ll turn the countryside inside out looking for him,” the woman said.
“And won’t stop till he’s captured or there’s proof he’s dead and gone. They’ll want to keep their dirty little secret hidden. . . . Making supermen, indeed.”
“I don’t want to die,” Jarl said, reflexively, understanding nothing but that. His teeth had stopped chattering and the blanket made him feel warm. His fingers stung lightly, where he’d burned them. And he realized he was very hungry. And he didn’t want to die.
“No, of course not,” the man said. And then after another deep sigh, “What were you doing out there? I suspect they guard you precious few even better than the people from Freiwerk. Don’t tell me that there was a riot at your place, also?”
“Uh? No. We . . . There aren’t enough of us to riot. And I’m one of the oldest.”
“So, how did you get out? What are you doing here?”
Jarl squirmed. How to explain his private obsession, his driving need? How to do it without sounding completely insane, or worse, like a vandal? These people had given him shelter. His entire survival was staked on their continued good will. If they turned him out of the flyer, if they called the Peace Keeper over, Jarl would be done for.
“It’s the angel,” he said, and then realized he had started all wrong. “I mean, we can see the zipway from our window,” he said. “From my window. I can see the zipway and the glow of the holograms above,” he said. “Not what they say, of course. Not without calculating it. I mean, they’re designed to be seen—”
“Yes,” the man said. Curtly. A demand that Jarl go on, without saying it.
“Yeah, well. I used to dream about it. About the zipway. When I was really little. I dreamed about flying in it and reading the holograms.” He paused and sensed the puzzled impatience of his hosts. “Only then, when I was four or five, I saw a picture of an angel. You know, a being with wings?”
“We know what angels are,” the woman said, very softly.
“Well . . . and then I dreamed that I was flying with my own wings, down the zipway, and all the lights and I . . . and I was free.”
Another silence followed, and then the man said, “I still don’t understand what that has to do with your being out here.”
“The angel, darling,” Jane said. And then in the tone of someone who didn’t think she should have to explain further. “I read about it yesterday. Perhaps you missed it because you were concentrating . . . Well, because of this trip. But I told you. Some group has been vandalizing the holo ads in this stretch of zipway, climbing up and changing the circuits and reprogramming and making it into the image of an angel with a sword, and sometimes of an angel flying away.”
“What?” the man said. “That? But that’s a group with technologically advanced tools. Has to be. There’s no way a single person could calculate how to change the holograms so that going that fast and—”
“It can if the rumors are true and the idiots are now creating super-slaves . . . super-bureaucrats.”
Jarl sniffed. “It’s not that difficult," he said. "I was altering the one for Eden resort. I can see the back of the holograms from the window, and I can calculate how it would be seen at speed and I can figure out how to change it. It’s not hard.”
Another long silence. He felt the question “but, why?” unspoken, hanging over all of them. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know why I do it. Escaping is hard, and they usually catch me returning and whip me for getting out, and sometimes my roommates too, but . . .”
“But if I don’t do it, all I can think of is being an angel and flying away.” He breathed deeply, feeling suddenly ashamed. Not of escaping. Not of stealing from advertisers a few hundred minutes of their advertising budget, before the repair crews set it right. No, he felt ashamed of letting Bartolomeu and Xander be whipped for his fault. Not that they ever complained, but . . . They were so little. And they deserved better from him. While he deserved nothing, and certainly not the kindness of these chance-met strangers. “Look,” he said. “I’ll go. I’ll turn myself in. I’m a danger to—”
“No. Protection is freely given,” the woman said. “We do not pass by on the other side. And we— Never mind. You’re not who we came to save, but you are as in need.”
The man said something about throwing the food of the children to the dogs, but Jane came back, “He’s as hapless as any of them, Carl. Don’t.”
“So what do you propose to do?”
“What we’d planned, what else? Only a little modified. Can you give him the serum now? It should have acted by the time we get in, when they unblock the way, if they check.”
The man was quiet a long while. “They’ll turn the area inside out . . .”
“Yes, which is why it’s important that he be genetically our son by then. Or test as such. Come, we’re not planning to be here long. They’ll comb the fields and streams first, and assume he injured himself or drowned. Particularly if he’s in the habit of getting out at night, and he clearly is. No one will want the news of the existence of bioed supermen getting out to the civilian population, so they’ll hesitate to search there. By the time they do, we will be well away and near Haven.” She paused for a moment. “Please?”
“Yes. Of course. You’re right. Of course. The alternative is turning him out, and I don’t think . . . Well.” He fumbled in something then said, “Jarl, give me your arm.”
Jarl extended it, protruding from the end of his sleeve. He needed to get a new tunic. Supposing he ever got back safely to Hoffnungshaus. Supposing they gave it to him. They might not, after this exploit. Even if he got back safely.
He felt the pinprick of the injector, but he didn’t feel any different afterwards. He thought it would be a genetic spoofing, designed to show that he was their son, should he be tested. At least that’s what he understood from what they said, and he had read about such substances in the sites Xander had hacked into on Hoffnungshaus’s links. They weren’t very good and they didn’t last very long, but as faulty as they were, people worried they would be just the beginning of a slippery slope that would allow mules—eventually—to pass as normal humans. He didn’t understand what was so scary about mules integrating with the population since, as Jarl himself, from what he understood, they’d been modified so that they could not reproduce. But it seemed to scare people a lot.
Jane was handing him a bundle of cloth, under the blanket. “Here,” she said. “Put these on, under the blanket. They won’t see clearly enough in here to see what you’re doing. Besides, if you had a fever, you’d thrash about. Then hand me your suit.”
Jarl obeyed. He couldn’t see the new suit, though it seemed to be larger than the one he’d worn: stretch pants and shirt, it felt like. He handed his suit back to her.
“I wish I could give you a haircut,” she said. “But not while the light is shining on us.”
It seemed absolutely nonsensical, because he’d had his hair cut just three months ago, and wasn’t due for the next for another month, when they’d shave all their heads to prevent lice. But he didn’t say anything, and just lay there, feeling oddly comfortable, oddly warm.
He didn’t remember falling asleep, and was shocked at waking up. Shocked, because he was in a huge bed, and because he couldn’t hear his friends. Instead, he heard birdsong and some distant noise of cutlery approaching closer.
He opened his eyes, then he sat up. The room was at least as large as the big dorm, and might have been larger. It was hard to judge, since it looked completely different from the big dorm and was, in comparison, almost empty. Instead of twenty beds, side by side, it had one very large bed, where Jarl lay, and a big dresser in a corner, then a desk under the wall.
The man he’d seen the day before was walking towards the bed, carrying a tray. “Good morning, sleepyhead. Jane said that I should bring you food so that you didn’t freak at the robot servers, which you were likely to do otherwise. I thought you might be starving, as much as you were tired, considering you fell asleep and nothing would wake you and I had to carry you in.”
He set a tray on the little table next to the bed. Jarl stared at it agog. “Yeah. Jane said they didn’t look like they’d fed you much. Considering that you boys are their pride and hope for the future, you’d think— But they only know one way to do things, and when you consider humans tools . . .” He shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t have time to talk to you just now except to tell you quickly that we have given you a temporary spoofing treatment. A more . . . permanent one can be procured, but it will have to be elsewhere, because it needs several treatments. This one will keep you safe while Jane and I . . . While we do what we came here to do.”
Jarl set the tray on his knees and started eating. There were three eggs, and large buttered slices of bread, and orange juice, and milk, and thick slices of bacon. Surely there was enough here for three people? But Mr. Alterman didn’t stop him as he ate, and after a while, Jarl drank a sip of the milk and said, “Please, sir, can you put me on the other side of the zipway tonight, so I can get back to Hoffnungshaus?”
Alterman frowned. “You want to go back?”
“I have to go back. Otherwise if I’m caught I’ll be killed. I—”
“You didn’t understand a word I said, did you? You don’t need to go back. We can do a very minor operation and remove your artifact ring. And the genetics can be changed permanently, given enough time and treatments.”
“But they’ll catch me before that!”
The man smiled. It was the first time that Jarl saw him smile, and it was a surprisingly cheery expression. “Not where we’re taking you. But first . . . There are other people we are here to help. So Jane and I have to go out. We’ll be back before tonight. We’ll arrange it all then. Meanwhile you have this room. No one should come in. I recommend you bathe, and then—Jane put some clothes in that dresser over there. Dress in clean clothes, and wait for us. Don’t talk to anyone. There is a gem reader there and some gems. Or you can sleep. It will be a long trip for all of us, so you might as well be rested.”
He left before Jarl finished eating. He went through a door on the side of the room, into what looked like a connecting room. Alterman left the door open, and Jarl could hear him talking and Jane responding, but he had no idea what they were saying.
By the time he set his empty tray aside, they were gone. He knew this, because he poked his head in the room next door, and found it empty except for some luggage in the corner.
Then Jarl used the fresher and later he would be ashamed of how long he took about it. Part of it was that he’d never seen a fresher like this. They had freshers at Hoffnungshaus, of course. But washing consisted of standing beneath tepid jets of water and scrubbing as fast as you could before the jet turned on again to rinse you.
Here the jets of water massaged and soothed, and there was a little machine by the side of the shower which cleaned your clothes at the press of a button. Only Jarl was in his underwear—he suddenly blushed at the idea the woman might have undressed him, an idea so strange as to be unbelievable—and he couldn’t find the suit they’d given him the day before.
The fresher had mirrors, too. Hoffnungshaus didn’t. He’d seen himself before, of course, on darkened windows and other surfaces. But he’d never seen himself this clearly: too-thin freckled face, wide green eyes and his hair . . . He saw what Jane had meant. His hair was a wild straggle all around his face. He could not cut it—but after bathing—in a real tub, immersed in water, and with all the time in the world, he found an elastic strip and tied it back. Then he found a suit that fit him in the drawers in the dresser in his room. It was royal blue, and the type of clothes he saw teenagers wearing in holos—almost shapeless and stretchy. But it felt comfortable, it was not too thin or too tight or too small, and it looked like something he might have worn if he’d been one of the normal people out there, or their children.
There were slippers too, that looked even less substantial than the ones Hoffnungshaus gave him, but which felt warmer and more protective on the feet.
Then he roamed the room, restlessly for a while, and started reading a couple of gems, but couldn’t concentrate on them. The softness of the bed called to him. The bedside clock said it was mid-afternoon on the 24th of December when he gave up resisting and went to lie down. It would pass the time, and then Carl and Jane would be back, and then he would find out what they meant. What kind of place could there be, where Jarl wouldn’t be caught? And where he would be free, like normal people?
Despite his curiosity, the comfort of the bed made him fall asleep, and he woke up with someone pounding on the door. The pounding was followed by a voice saying, “They’re not inside, sir. I told you that. They left this afternoon to go sightseeing.”
A voice sounded, sarcastic, clearly mocking the very idea of sightseeing, though Jarl couldn’t understand what it said.
“They got a map from the concierge. Here, sir, let me open the door.”
There was the sound of someone fumbling with the lock. Jarl wasn’t even fully awake, but he reacted the way he would have reacted to a similar situation at Hoffnungshaus. He rolled off the other side of the bed, then edged under it, finding that at least maid service was much better than at Hoffnungshaus, since there was hardly any dust.
He made it just in time. The door opened. The light came on. It shone reflected under the sides of the bed, and Jarl bit his lip and hoped that no one would feel the bed to see if it was warm. They would have at Hoffnungshaus.
But the voices came from near the door. “As you see, they’re not in. They said they were going sightseeing and their son would be out exploring the resort.”
There was a long silence, then a male voice with a raspy, dismayed tone said, “I don’t think that was their son. It was probably one of the escaped mules. Did you check?”
“Sir! We don’t make it a habit of checking guests.”
“Well, let me tell you who your guests are, then. These people are part of a notorious ring of mule smugglers.”
“Mule—” the man sounded as though he choked on the word and was, thereafter, incapable of speech.
“They call themselves Rescuers, or something equally ridiculous. The freedom network. They’re part of a radical sect that considers mules as humans and try to rehabilitate them. They often take the more functional ones, the foremen, and make them . . . pass. They let them infiltrate humanity.”
“Sir!” There was now true horror in the man’s voice. “I take it . . . that is, you have captured them?”
“No. We got their flyer, but they seem to have gotten hold of another. They abandoned their flyer and were seen to leave in a sky blue Gryphon, but when we tried to find it, it didn’t exist, not by that transponder number.” He made a sound that might have been the click of his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Well. We shall lock this, and get the investigators assigned to this task force to come and look through the luggage. And meanwhile, I suggest you make an announcement to have their so-called son picked up anywhere he’s seen on the resort.”
“I can . . . I can tell our personnel. An announcement . . .”
“Do as you will, but get moving with it.”
Then Jarl heard the door close and lock. He still stayed for a while, under the bed, with his cheek flat against the floor which appeared to be made of real wood, thinking. They were mule . . . rescuers. They believed mules were real humans.
Though Jarl doubted the similarity would impress those mules who’d escaped from Freiwerk, he was too well aware that those mules—those poor unfortunates created in labs and gestated in large animals, even if the animals had been bioed for the purpose—were in a way kin to him and his kind.
Oh yes, those unfortunates had been made more or less haphazardly from nationalized stores of ova and sperm. Sometimes they’d been grown from frozen embryos. At best there was nothing special about them but the markers that showed them as artifacts. At worst, the conditions under which they’d been gestated—even if the animals had been changed to supposedly secrete human pregnancy hormones and enzymes at the right time—left them mentally deficient and physically deformed. In fact, the news holos made it sound like all of them were deformed and mentally slow. And Jarl didn’t doubt that even the best of them were damaged. After all, they were raised in very large groups and taught only the absolute minimum to survive and to be able to work at manual labor.
They were all male, and many were strong, and a tight discipline was maintained over them to keep them quiescent and well behaved. Only now and then they boiled over in riot and escaped.
Jarl and his . . . kind, back at Hoffnungshaus, were not mentally deficient. Rather the opposite. They hadn’t been haphazardly brought to life from stored genetic materials. They had been carefully assembled, DNA strand by DNA strand, and characteristic by characteristic, designed to be the best of their kind, the best of their sub-race, the best of their nationality. Their designers had proudly given them their own names.
They were supposed to help manage the increasingly more complex state. Since it had been realized that the planned economy, the planned society couldn’t work unless something better than humans could be found to lead it, something better than humans had been created. They were supposed to shepherd humanity into a new age.
Because each nation feared that the other’s creation would have no sympathy for them, it had been decided, by treaty, that they’d be brought up at Hoffnungshaus, all together, no matter where they came from in the world. Most of them had only ever known Hoffnungshaus. Jarl, because he was one of the older ones, remembered his first three years, hazily. There had been a family and a woman he called “mother”—he remembered being hugged and kissed.
In Hoffnungshaus he was never kissed or hugged, or touched, at least not by the caretakers and not unless he was being punished. He wasn’t stupid enough, he thought, pressing his cheek harder against the floorboard, to think that he had it as bad as the mules, and he was sure most mules would think Hoffnungshaus was a resort, as nice as this one. But he also wasn’t stupid enough not to see the resemblances. They were all male, kept isolated. They were brought up by males only, probably because mule riots always involved rapes of nearby females, and the caretakers saw the resemblance between the people in Hoffnungshaus and mules. And they were disciplined somewhere in a way resembling historical prisons and reform houses—possibly because while they were needed, as the mules were needed, if for different things, they were also feared. The mules were feared for their strength. Jarl and his kind were feared for their intelligence. There always hung around their caretakers the faint suspicion that their charges could outwit them without effort, and that the only protection was to keep the young bio-improved boys terrified.
All that Jarl could understand—had understood for a long time, without much thinking—that he was both more and less than normal humans. His mind was more powerful than theirs, but there were things he’d never know: what it was like having a family or growing up in the midst of his equals, freely. He watched enough holos—because Xander was really good at hacking link units—to know how other people lived and how odd and stilted his life would appear to them.
He also knew that most normal humans would be just as horrified at having one of Jarl’s kind in their midst as at having a mule.
And yet there were normal humans, free humans—Mr. Alterman and this woman, Jane, whom he’d heard but never yet seen clearly—who would risk everything including arrest and possibly summary justice to free mules.
Jarl never made a decision. Not consciously. But his body knew what to do. Once he was sure the men had really left and weren’t trying to trick him into showing himself, he crawled out from under the bed.
He was going through the Alterman’s bags before he was sure what he meant to do. But by the time he found a small bag and started throwing into it gems, ID gems, anything even vaguely identifiable, plus two bottles of odd serum and a row of empty injectors, he knew. He was going to get out of here, find them, and take them the things they might need to execute their mission and leave. They’d risked everything for others, and he’d risk everything for them.
At the bottom of Jane’s bag—he presumed hers, because it contained both a small flask of perfume and what looked like a hairstyling brush—there was a small black book embossed with the words “Holy Bible.” It was an old-style book, made of paper and probably expensive, and though it had nothing written on it that might identify her, it looked well thumbed through, and he thought she might very well be upset if it went missing. So he put it in his bag, too.
Finding the burner was harder. It took his almost taking apart their big suitcase. But he thought that they wouldn’t be able to come back here anyway. The burner—burners, actually, as there were two besides his own—were in a false bottom which took him quite a while to work out how to open, even though it was obvious from the dimensions it must be there.
He took the belt and holsters there, and put all three burners around his waist.
Things were barely packed, when he heard the murmur of voices outside the room. Time to go. He’d heard the sound of birds outside the window, so there must be an outside to the resort. However, he remembered he was supposed to be exploring, and that resort employees were supposed to be on the lookout for him.
Better leave through the window than through the corridors, where people would spot him. He knew enough of human nature, from Hoffnungshaus, to know most resort employees would prefer to patrol in the cozy inner halls than outside.
The window opened easily and he almost suspected a trap when he realized how close the tree branches were. They’d never allow that at Hoffnungshaus. But he didn’t hesitate, because he could hear people right outside the door. He jumped to the tree, then leaned over and closed the window, so as not to leave any sign of his departure. As he did, he could see the door open, but no people yet. Right. He’d left just in time.
And he truly couldn’t believe his luck. He found himself in what might have been a primeval forest, if primeval forests had the sort of gardener that made sure everything grew in the most aesthetically pleasing way. Where he’d jumped onto the tree, there were many trees, clustered together, so that he could move from one to the other, without ever touching ground.
As he ran, he caught glimpses of guests. Men and women walking together. Children running around, playing. A little girl crying at the top of her voice. Something like longing swelled in him. The Altermans had said they’d help him become just a normal human among normal humans. He could have this. He could have a family—maybe not natural children, but a family. He was smart enough that he could have wealth and . . . and come back to this resort, and be like these people, just enjoying themselves, with no supervisors, with no restrictions.
He didn’t let it delay him. He moved fast, from tree to tree, as far away from people as possible, till he glimpsed the entrance to the resort. And then he stopped, clutching at the branches of the tree he stood in. He couldn’t go out that way. There were guards. Or maybe it wasn’t guards. Resorts probably didn’t have guards, even if they were dressed in uniforms. Colorful ones. Porters or valets or whatever they were called.
Then he noticed that on the other side of the little massif of trees there was a river, and that the river flowed out of the resort. Right.
Making it to the edge of the river was not very difficult, dropping into the river without making a sound was. First he closed the bag he had on him. The material looked impermeable, and he hoped it was. The gems would survive a dunking, but the book wouldn’t. He closed it, tying the top to increase the chances it would not let in water. And then he climbed down from the tree, ran along very soft grass to the river side and dropped in.
They’d taught him to swim as a matter of course. They’d taught all of them to swim. He swam in the same direction the river was flowing. There was no one here, this near to the outer wall of the cave from which this resort had been made. Probably an artificial cave, and the daylight and the sky above would of course be artificial lighting and a holo. No. There was someone near the entrance. Two someones. But from the soft sounds emanating from the green shadows under the trees, Jarl thought he would be the last thing on their minds. He grinned to himself, then held his breath and dove under, going into the tunnel under the wall, into which the creek disappeared.
There was a moment of panic, a moment of darkness, the certainty that this tunnel would go on forever, that he could never surface, never breathe. Then he glimpsed light ahead. That was just a moment before he realized the creek was outfitted with a bio-barrier. That meant no fish or plants imported into the idyllic stretch of river inside the resort could make it outside.
Most bio-barriers had a size limit. And, Jarl thought, this one could not be set to kill people swimming out. It could not because people, or children, could fall into the river. And once you were in the tunnel there was no way out but through. It would take more strength than Jarl could muster to swim up-current, back into the resort.
He closed his eyes and let the current carry him. On the other side, he told himself that he was not—not even a little—surprised to be alive. But he scrabbled out of the river and away from the resort, following no road, as fast as he could make it, which was faster than most normal humans.
First, the Altermans had taken a flyer, so he needed a flyer. Second, he must figure out where they had gone. The Peace Keepers believed there was a clue in their possessions, and Jarl had to hope that he had got everything that could give him that clue.
The flyer was a matter of finding a large, public lot. He’d never quite got in as hair-raising an adventure as this one, but he’d been in trouble before, and once or twice it had involved stealing a flyer. He passed a few individual houses but ignored the flyers by them. If those went missing it would be discovered far too quickly.
So he trotted along until he came to a large building—probably an administrative building of some sort—with many flyers parked around it. He chose one of the cheapest flyers, both because it would raise less outcry and because it would have less secure locks and transponder.
He still had to fry the locks, and when he got in he fried the transponder, too, but carefully, making sure the rest of the link still worked. There was a reason for this.
He’d noticed certain marks in the Holy Bible book, and he thought he might be able to use them to figure out where Jane and Carl Alterman had gone. But there was another chance. Peace Keepers communicated via links. One of the things that Xander often did, and that Jarl had learned to do by watching it, was alter links so they got the Peace Keepers communication wave.
Jarl would try to figure the codes and find the Altermans, but if the Peace Keepers found them first, Jarl wanted to know.
He set the link to scan Peace Keepers’ communications, then piloted the flyer out of the parking lot, first on a low flying pattern, so that if the owner looked out the window, he or she wouldn’t see his own flyer going by.
When he was a good distance from the building, he gained altitude, merging with and feigning tower control, so that it would look to anyone outside as though he’d turned direction of his vehicle to the local traffic stream.
The Peace Keepers’ bandwidth kept quiet save for a report of a flyer collision, and reports of catching a local thief.
Then suddenly, just as Jarl headed down to the shelter of a nearby wood, to try to park and figure out the code in the Holy Bible book, it crackled to life in an exciting way.
“. . . Have the smugglers surrounded. I repeat, have the smugglers surrounded. Need backup with all possible urgency.”
There could be other smugglers in the area. Given the vast amount of goods that were forbidden to trade or buy—mostly for the public’s own good—there certainly were. But Jarl felt his hair rising at the back of his neck and, almost instinctively, programmed in the coordinates the Peace Keepers called out.
It wasn’t so far. Less than twenty miles. From the air he could see them. A dark blue flyer—did they have color altering abilities?—backed up against a cliff face and surrounded by orange flyers in a semi-circle.
Jane and Carl stood, in poses that indicated they had weapons trained on the police. Behind them, three mu— three people were crouched, next to the flyer. By the light of sunset, which gilded the Peace Keepers flyers to a color that did justice to the popular nickname of Pumpkins, it looked like a hopeless situation.
But his situation had been hopeless on the night they’d rescued him.
Jarl flew wide of the gathering, and up behind where the cliff was. By the time he found a treed area in which to hide his stolen flyer, it was full dark. He trotted back to the top of the cliff, overlooking the Peace Keepers and the Altermans. The Altermans had very powerful beams tracked on them, so they stood in relief, illuminated, like statues. He’d like, Jarl realized, to make a statue of them like that, defending the defenseless.
It was the first time he saw Jane clearly. She was young, younger than her husband—was he her husband?—blond, and very pretty. But on her face, as on her husband’s, there were the marks of strain, and a certain resigned expression as though, at heart, they didn’t expect to escape with their lives. They were holding hands, Jarl noted, with the hands free from the burners.
The Peace Keepers were blaring something about surrendering and submitting themselves to the law. The law, Jarl thought, allowed some people to be created to be used—for their bodies or their minds, but to be used for others’ benefit without ever having a hope at freedom. The law, he thought, needed correction.
He laid flat on his belly and started firing both burners at the lights that lit up the scene: the bright floods on top of the orange flyers, but also the flyers’ headlights. As soon as he started firing, he started getting return fire. He heard Jane scream, “Keep down,” but he was fairly sure she was speaking to her charges, not him.
After a few moments, the scene was dark, except for flashlights held by individual Peace Keepers, and the beam of those could not possibly illuminate well enough to let them see what he was about to do. And what he was about to do was first set up rocks, precariously balanced on an incline on the right side of the gathering. There were paths of sorts down, on the right and the left, where the cliff effaced downwards towards the surrounding landscape. Jarl set the rocks up so that with a very little touch they would cascade down the right side path, and made sure they were large enough rocks to make quite a lot of noise falling.
Then he turned to the left side path, tripping and grabbing onto bushes to keep himself from sliding all the way down and yet managing to be almost completely silent. It brought him behind the nearest orange flyer. The Altermans were on the other side, and he must get to them.
Getting to them could be done two ways, and he chose the least likely one. He’d gathered from the Altermans’ talk that he was undergrown for his age. Well. He’d make use of that. he dropped to his stomach. The flyers were slightly curved below as well as above, an ovoid shape, which, at rest, touched the ground only in the center of its underside. This left a large area of darkness underneath, if one were able to slither underneath quietly.
It wouldn’t do for the Altermans. There were five people to get out from behind there. And he didn’t know how agile the mules were. But it would do for him.
Holding his breath, almost not daring to think, in a way that seemed to him excruciatingly slow, he crawled under the flyer, and out the other side. He approached the group, still crawling on his belly, and got behind Jane, but not before she turned towards him, the burner almost but not quite swinging his way.
“It is I,” he said, standing up and speaking as close as he could to her ear, and as low as he could. “Jarl Ingemar.”
She took a deep breath. “Jarl,” she said. She pronounced it properly too, ee-arl. And she smelled different from men, in a way that Jarl could not define, but which hit him like a kick to the head, making him feel suddenly slightly drunk. “How—”
“No,” he said. “No time. No time to talk about it. I’ve set things up. Here, here is your bag. It has everything but your clothes and toiletry articles in it. I couldn’t bring anything more. They were looking for you at the resort. I thought— When I start the distraction up, you are to leave, crawling under the that flyer on the left. I’ll show you where. All of you. I left a flyer for you,” he told her the coordinates. In the dark, he could see her hand that held Carl’s move. It seemed to him she was tapping on her husband’s wrist with her finger. He thought she was telling him what he told her. “On my mark, be ready to go.”
“No,” she said. “No. What about you? You must come with us. We’ve talked. We’ll adopt you. Where we live, no one knows what we do. We have no children. My husband . . . He was rescued, years ago. We can’t have children. We’ll adopt you. We’ll erase the markers. You can live a normal life.”
Jarl closed his eyes. The temptation was almost unbearable. He wanted that normal life. He wanted the freedom he’d seen back at the resort. But if he filed in after them—if no one stayed in the circle to distract the Peace Keepers—they’d be pursued. And, on foot, with the Peace Keepers in flyers, they’d be caught. They’d be killed.
“No,” he said. “I’ll stay. Don’t worry. I have no intention of dying for this. I’ll get out of it—somehow. And I’ll get back to where I’m supposed to be. Besides, I have friends. Xander and Bartolomeu are supposed to keep me from getting out. They’ll be half killed if I don’t come back. Now, mind you, on your mark.”
“We do this,” Jane said. “because we believe that God made man in his image and semblance and that his son once took human form, and therefore every human form is sacred.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jarl said, slightly impatient. “I have a human form.”
“You have a human heart,” she said, softly. “And today is the anniversary of the day we believe the son of God was born. They say angels sang in the sky to heraldhim. You’ve been our angel tonight.”
It was nonsensical and stupid, but he felt tears in his eyes, even if all he could get out was a gruff “Go.”
And then took the rock he’d put in his pocket, and making use of those bio-improved physical abilities, he aimed at where he left the rock pile, and threw. Hard.
The sound of someone slipping and sliding down the path on the right came. “Go,” Jarl whispered to Jane.
She got the mules out first, crawling beneath the edge of the flyer, the way Jarl had come in. It was easy, because all the Peace Keepers had run to the end of the other path, hoping to catch Jarl.
Jarl waited just long enough to make sure that the Altermans were some way away, then he started working on his own escape. He pointed at the nearest flyer, and burned. Then the one next. Then the other. He knew precisely where the power packs were—he’d stolen one of these before. Hitting them in the power packs caused a most satisfying explosion, and then some of the debris caught the other flyers, until even the blue flyer behind him was burning.
Jarl dove behind it, anyway, for some modicum of protection from the flying debris. Most of the Peace Keepers had run the other way, to avoid the debris, and he could hear them calling frantically for help, so they must have at least one working transponder. He could vaguely see orange flyers converging.
But they weren’t here, yet, and the other Peace Keepers were too far away to fire at him. The cliff face was craggy and naturally had much better hand- and footholds than the wall around the zipway. And he could move fast. Very fast.
He climbed the cliff face quickly, thanking whoever had designed him for superhuman speed, coordination and balance. The God of normal humans might have made them in His image and semblance. Jarl’s creators had improved on the design.
He was at the cliff top before the Peace Keepers’ reinforcements arrived and started sweeping the cliff face with brilliant lights. They found nothing.
Jarl found nothing as well, when he got to where he’d parked his flyer. He’d hoped to find nothing. He hoped they were well and away.
As for him, he turned and, tiredly, started to make his way towards Hoffnungshaus. If he got there in the next twenty-four-hours, perhaps Bartolomeu and Xander would avoid extreme punishment.
He couldn’t leave for a week after that. Not only was he too sore from the truly spectacular whipping he’d got as punishment, but he wasn’t left unwatched a single night. And he was not just watched by Bartolomeu and Xander, but by a sentinel, outside this door.
But after a week on his best behavior, vigilance relaxed. Hoffnungshaus did not have the resources to devote that much to their most troublesome charge. And besides, Jarl might escape, but he always came back and of his free will. While they held his friends, he would not disappear for good.
And so a week later, Jarl escaped and made it back atop the zipway wall, where he’d been when the sirens first sounded.
When he opened the panel, there was something in there, besides the circuits. At first he thought snow had got in there and not melted, but that was stupid. It would, of course, have melted. Touched, the whiteness revealed itself for a slip of paper. By the light of the holograms he read it. “Dear Jarl, I want you to know you are on our thoughts and in our prayers. On Christmas night, you were our savior angel. I don’t think we can rescue you—even if we found the location of your creche, it would be very well guarded. But we want you to know the mules you rescued that night are your age, quite normal as to intelligence, and will have a chance at a normal life because of you.” It ended with a very odd phrase in quotes, something Jarl had a vague memory of hearing sung in an old holo, “Angels we have heard on high.”
He let the paper go in the wind, of course. He could not take it back to Hoffnungshaus, but in a way it would always be with him.
Jarl’s fingers worked furiously, blindly, tying and connecting the circuits in a way they’d never been meant to go, and then tapping a mad dance on the buttons, reprogramming the hologram.
By the time he climbed down from the wall and beat a hasty retreat through the fields to Hoffnungshaus, making sure to lay a false path so no one would think this was him—even if they believed a single person could make the calculations to change the holos—he knew that from down in the zipway people flying towards Friedstadt would see an angel all in white fly away to disappear into the dark snowy night.
Jarl half dreamed that Jane and Carl would be out again, on one of their missions of mercy, and would see it, and know he was well and had got their message.
Angels he had met right here.
Copyright © 2012 by Sarah A. Hoyt
Sarah A. Hoyt’s Darkship Renegades, the sequel to Darkship Thieves debuts in December.