"Well . . . do you guys trade things? Earn points for good behavior or good grades? Nothing? Yow. Right. There's a vendo mart. Let me inventory what I stole from the guards."
He dug into his pack and pulled out the wallets he'd taken.
I can't believe I took the dead guys' stuff!
I can't believe I touched them!
"Right, see these are cash cards, they're the easy way to buy stuff. And these are ID cards. They can be use to access money in banks. But anything over . . . I think it's twenty-five cred, you have to approve it with a finger print. And since we don't have the right finger prints . . . "
Kit looked at all the blank incomprehension. "Oh. Okay. Look at your fingers. See the tiny little ridges? Everyone's are unique. So we can buy things with the ID cards, so long as we keep the total under twenty-five. The cash cards are worth a certain amount, when they run out, It's gone forever."
Jane shifted her well wrapped lag. "Does the money come back to the ID cards?"
"When you have a job, the company you work for puts money in."
"So. Let's go buy some stuff."
Junk food and clothes. T-shirts, mostly. And extras for Susan, Jane, and the slumbering twins.
Then back to the bus and they pulled out of the parking lot hearing sirens . . .
You don't see a bus. There's no bus.
Flashing light coming at them, a black and white car zooming past.
It probably had nothing to do with us. Kit peered in the rear view mirror and saw the police car turn into the parking lot of the vendo mart.
He hit the brakes as a car tried to occupy what the driver saw as empty space. Kit turned at the next corner and stopped thinking invisible thoughts.
Unfortunately, this street turned to gravel in half a block and a turn to get further out of sight put them on a dirt road between rickety shacks. Most of them with open fronts and some sort of work going on in them, or big drum and crates, or old men sitting around smoking . . . glaring at them . . .
And then they were out in a field of tall . . . Corn? Kit had seen pictures . . . he stuck to the rutted wheel tracks.
"Kit? Where are we?"
"Well, we've left that town, and I doubt the police will follow us out here . . ."
He caught the noise then, a helicopter. "That's not good . . . but if we can get to those trees and under cover before they swing out this way looking for us . . . look around, see if you can see them?"
And abruptly they were out of the cornfield, The road ended in a T-intersection, tracks running off both directions. There was a big tree with long overhanging branches to the right. Kit turned and took aim at a spot between the low main limbs.
"If we can get under there we should be out of sight." Kit winced. "Going to scratch the paint though. I just hope there's nothing bigger . . . What the . . ."
The leafy branches, far from bending or breaking were sliding right through the bus. "It's like a hologram. Some sort of projection?"
A screechy scrape from the right side, and he steered left, slowing his crawl. "So it's a real tree, just . . . augmented?"
"Why? Who would do that?" Tansy peered out. "And why are you stopping?"
"Because I can't tell the real tree from the hologram. I'm going to go out and feel around."
"I want to see the magic tree!" The six-year-old galloped over the piled center aisle, her "twin" on her heels.
"Stay under the tree, where the helicopter can't see you." Kit opened the door and followed Tansy and the twins out.
And the weirdest thing wasn't the intangible parts of the tree . . . it was the other people's reaction to the real tree. Feeling the bark, crunching the dry leaves underfoot. Sniffing the damp earthy smell as they circled the tree trunk, and tripped on the raised roots.
They've never been outside. That dome has been their entire lives.
Kit took off his red T-shirt and swung it around, especially over head, and quickly found the path under the tree, and then into a thinly treed brushy strip . . . with a dirt road under an illusion of brush.
He listened carefully. No sound of a helicopter.
"Much though I'd like to stay here . . . I think we'd better keep going. Those people in the shacks saw us, so the police will be back on our tracks pretty soon."
Ian looked around. "Do you have a plan?"
"I'd like to find a place to hide for the rest of the day, then see if we can get back to the gate and go to some other World." Kit bit his lip. "We may need to hide for several days."
The kids were reluctantly herded back aboard, and Kit drove carefully down the invisible road. Found a curve by feel, then Tansy and Ian got out and walked ahead of the bus. They found a split in the road and he pulled the bus up to take a look himself . . .
"What's that white circle?" Susan propped her self up. "It looks like one of those gates, doesn't it?"
A gate? Just . . . out in the country? At the end of a magically hidden road? What the hell?
Kit waved Tansy and Ian aboard, then turned and drove carefully through brush and a completely fake tree.
And through the gate.
Colonel Jiang scowled at the small screen on the security center's desk.
"Well. That was certainly interesting." The dome had been well supplied with surveillance vidio cams. One of them close enough to pick up the staffs dinner conversations. Which reiterated the scene in the Project manager's office when he got the orders.
"Good" he said. "Those kids are starting to creep me out. Especially the little girls."
He told the staff in private, but they still said enough that those kids are looked pretty nervy. And dammit, Gunner Boy was right under the cam, so we don't have any good close ups.
"So they had orders to bring the young women to someplace else to 'complete their training,' and terminate the other experiments."
Sergeant Borchshodt sighed. "I suppose they were going to lock them in their rooms and kill them one by one. I know they're genetic monsters, but how could they deal with them everyday and have no qualms killing them?"
"The guards on these projects are chosen for their mindsets, not their ability to fight. They may or may not have considered the kids to be genetic monsters, but they just tipped them in being actual ones." Jiang backed up the recording to the best picture of the Gunner Boy and copied it. "If this boy isn't one of the monsters, I'll find out who he is. The kids are calling him 'Kit.' Am I correct in thinking this is a diminutive of Christopher?"
"And he appears for the first time when he walks out of the hallway with the smaller blonde boy and just lines up and grabs dinner like he belongs here."
"And the smaller boy went in alone about fifteen minutes earlier." The Sergeant frowned. "I wonder if the staff knew he went there?"
"I'll interview them again." Jiang checked the time. "And I have a gate to catch. Take inventory and see what they took with them. I'll see if this Gunner Boy really did just stowaway on the wrong bus at the wrong time."
"Oh, every time we looked around, one or the other of the horrid little monsters would sneak off. We were very careful to keep the doors locked, so they couldn't steal anything."
Jiang eyed the woman. "So . . . what were you teaching the children?"
"Math. They weren't stupid, you know. Just . . . abnormal."
"I see. Thank you, Miss." Jiang walked out of the hospital room.
Dismissed from two teaching jobs "for lack of empathy" indeed.
The Project hired these . . . teachers because of their issues, not in spite of them.
He checked his messages, and blinked.
Transit guards at the bus and underground terminal reported an unauthorized entry. A boy getting off the bus from the Hague, who ducked into the underground, took a tram to the warehouse districts, where they lost track of him.
Maybe he really did drop out of thin air and into the Project, on the day it was terminated.
And another message from Social Services in Voorshoten? A quick check, a satellite city of the Hague. Pretty well engulfed by the metropolis.
They had a truant, Christophe Antoine, age 14. The picture certainly bore a close resemblance to Gunner Boy.
The phone number appended got him a Mrs. Lainer.
"Most disrespectful, disobedient child imaginable. He's only been in the system two years, and this is the fourth time he's run away. Where did he wind up this time?"
"We need to talk to anyone who knows him well, get an idea of his background."
Sniff. "That's our job . . . or has he finally committed a serious crime?"
"Humph, hardly a surprise, with his background, his mother was not married and elderly when he was born, and no doubt unable to properly raise a boy! And that obnoxious uncle is a policeman. Totally unsuited to have charge of a child! He says he hasn't heard from the boy."
"Ah. It sounds like I need to speak to the uncle. Do you have a contact number?"
Sniff. But she did have a name and phone number.
The uncle was concerned, and quite willing to come to Nowhereistan on his nephew's behalf.
A trim grey-haired man, a bit above average height, a policeman's habit of taking in his surroundings. "Colonel Jiang? I'm Martin Antione."
"Right. Come this way. We're using a secure room for this investigation." Jiang led the way and ushered the man in. Closed the door and triggered the electronic cage.
"And what has Kit gotten himself into?"
"If this is your nephew, a whole lot of trouble. Let me show you some videos."
The policeman watched the security camera record of the two boys walking out of the hallway and lining up for dinner, carrying trays to the table.
The man nodded, and spoke formally. "Yes. The brown-haired boy exiting the hallway is my nephew Christophe Martin Antione." He eyed Jiang, saying nothing more.
Jiang pulled up a security form. "Your nephew has entangled himself in a highly classified project. I would appreciate your insight, but I cannot give you any further information without a security check and your acknowledgment of the classified nature of this information and a non-disclosure form that details the penalties for talking about any of this. Would you prefer to continue in ignorance?"
Antione reached for the pad. "I'm in."
"Read it. I'll be right back." He turned off the cage and stepped out to check for messages.