Spirits were high in response to news that an Intercolonial Carnival had arrived at Liberty 314B that week. The orphans didn't have enough credits between them for the entrance fee, let alone for rides and food, but with Hans arriving that afternoon, they knew he would be coming with a plan. Lamp was waiting patiently with them, but he was not quite as enthused, his mind on other matters.
He sighed, gazing up at the Homeworld.
As the sun set on the horizon out beyond the shuttle docks, the sky turned a pale red and the Earth glowed above his head, a waning blue-green half-crescent just beyond the synthetic atmosphere. The sight of Earth from the satellite colony was less magnificent than the view from inside shuttles, which Lamp used to see all the time back when his parents were alive. He used to travel regularly with them back and forth between Liberty 314B and Earth. Now, from where he sat in the orphan hideout, the full view of the Earth was always blocked by at least one of the four skyscraper housing units that hugged the hideout.
The hideout was located at the intersection of two alleyways, blocked off on four sides by brick walls. On the inside along each wall was a pair of bunk beds, built from whatever scrap material they had been able to find. (The real trick had been getting the old used mattresses over the ten-foot walls.) The hideout was bare of all but the simplest luxuries. Some kept good spare clothes folded at their bedsides; others kept small boxes of credits or tradables in obscure hiding spots.
Most of the beds were empty that evening, except for the one next to Lamp, where Colby sat with his little sister Reini in his lap, playing some hand game with her. At the center of the hideout was a card table, which didn't have much other than cards and toothpicks passing over it most of the time. Three of the younger orphans Eko, Rex, and Chris were getting some practice in, while Duette looked out over the eastern wall from her top bunk, idly running her fingers over a comb that was missing half its teeth.
From the top bunk next to Lamp, Colby had been watching him in silence. "Homesick?"
"Me too," he lamented, looking up at the Homeworld.
"Remind me again, why don't we get the hell out of here?" Lamp sighed, his voice lowered to a quiet mutter no one else in the hideout could hear. "I'm not afraid of the Feds like Jale and Eko are. I don't see why you and me don't just go to them ourselves. They'll send us back to Earth, they know who we are."
Colby made a slow, solemn shake of his head. Reini sat in her brother's lap, clutching at the arms wrapped around her, staring with wide blue owl eyes at Lamp as he spoke.
Lamp turned and caught her stare. "Oh, right." Unlike Colby and him, Reini didn't have Earth citizenship. "How are we so sure they would separate you two?"
"I'm not. But the way things have been running around here, I don't want to take my chances." The only response this statement elicited from Lamp was a blank stare. After a moment, Colby sighed and said, "It seems like, having been an orphan for four years, you would eventually learn something."
"I just don't think they would do something as cruel as that," Lamp said.
"You really overestimate the nobility of this government."
"My parents were part of this government."
"Well, they're not here to protect you now."
The hostility in this statement was not lost on Lamp. He looked at his friend, startled, but Colby just looked away, turning his attention to his sister.
Lamp's face burned and flushed red. Even Colby, as much as he was like a brother, couldn't understand what it was like to feel responsible for the deaths of one's own parents. Colby had at least been able to save himself and his sister when the vaccines arrived. His story was one of such heroics that, when he told the other orphans, Lamp was ashamed for feeling victimized by the Plague at all. Even after four years, the guilt he felt for abandoning his family in that time had not waned.
In retrospect, the problems he was having at home weren't worth running away over, which made Lamp's remorse all the worse. Thinking back on it, he just felt like a spoiled brat. He had passed himself off as an orphan to the others and justified it by pretending his parents were dead to him. By the time Colby had joined their ranks shortly after the vaccines arrived, Reini became a constant reminder of the responsibilities Lamp wished he still had to his infant sister, Patrice. If he had been more willing to take care of her, perhaps he could have been around to save his family.
As Lamp was silently reminiscing, Hans climbed over the north barrier, landing squarely between the two bunks along the wall. He was small for his age, even relative to the other underfed thirteen-year-olds in the group, and had a matted head full of muddy brown hair, which even when brushed still didn't look quite in order. Eko sprung from her card game and ran to the round-faced, thin-limbed Hans, enveloping him in a passionate embrace. Except for her blonde hair and slightly thicker limbs, the two looked fairly similar. Duette often remarked they were a "cute couple" especially when they talked to one another, as they were now. Their hands moved in a rapid pattern of signals like two pairs of dancing bumble bees, indecipherable to everyone else, who waited patiently for Eko's translation.
While he was usually gone for weeks at a time, Hans was regarded as a valuable member of the group. In his earliest years as an orphan, even before Lamp and Colby had joined their ranks, it was a topic of heated debate, whether or not they should "feed him to the Feds." He never said anything, never did anything, and seemed pretty dim-witted. The group was starting to feel like he was a heavy burden on them, consuming their scarce resources and contributing nothing. They couldn't afford to be dragged down by him. When Hans was seven, Eko, then nine, joined their ranks and took an interest in him, a curiosity that later developed into romantic feelings. She suggested to the group that perhaps Hans was mute. As the two developed their own sign language (since neither Hans nor Eko knew actual American Sign Language), it became clear that her diagnosis was spot on.
They all thought Hans was also deaf until he started coming back to base with information he'd overheard from other gangs about plans, resources, and gossip, among other things. It turned out that all the other gangs thought he was retarded too, so didn't seem to mind or care when he wandered into their bases and explored. Sometimes they would even feed him, as if he were a family pet.
"Today," Eko announced, "Hans not only has a plan to get into the carnival, but he even found a way for all of us to get a bath." All orphans present cheered and sang praises to Hans's subterfuge, excited by the prospect of cleaning the months of grime from their bodies.
Even on Earth, the homeless managed to bathe, but there were no public baths or bodies of water at Liberty 314B. The colony was built on what was essentially a giant metal moon, and the infrastructure of Outer Colony consisted of pretty much nothing but housing units, government buildings, and space ports. The only place with a publicly accessible water supply was the sewage system, and even then, the water was putrid and, worst of all, too close to Inner Colony for comfort. A lot of orphans were uncomfortable about getting "too close" to Inner Colony because of rumors they had heard, though Jale was the only orphan in the group who knew for a fact that the slavery in Inner Colony was more than urban legend.
To get into the carnival, they needed to go in groups of three which Hans said he would explain on the way. Since there were fifteen orphans at the base at that time, and at least four had to stay behind to guard the base, nine were actually able to go on this trip. Today, Hans and Eko would lead Colby, Reini, Duette, Lamp, Jale, Chris, and Rex to their baths and entertainment. Hans promised to bring the others along at the next opportunity. Grudgingly, the other children obliged and remained behind.
Lamp noted, as they traveled onto the open street to the fish farm, the night sky on the colony was a dramatically different color than on the Homeworld. On Earth, the night sky was pitch black, with little white pinholes scattered across the dark canvas. Here on Liberty 314B, the artificial atmosphere made the night sky a dark purple, the color of an extremity when the circulation is cut off. Even the stars were pale blue specks, winking like feeble candle flames out in the universe. He had to look back down onto the street, where the world at least seemed a little less like a perverted imitation.
The sidewalk under his feet framed the pod paths that were woven through the colony's arcology. It more resembled the metropolises of Earth. This was a kind of architectural comfort blanket for the original generation of colonists. Though, he used to live in one of the government mansions out beyond the space ports in the Upper Sector (which weren't really mansions, so much as they had a slightly lower population density than other housing units), so had been used to a more luxurious life than in the sprawling Middle or Lower Sectors.
But now, having lived for several years as one of 314B's many forgotten orphans, his figure had slimmed dramatically, and what was left of his baby fat was stretched over his lengthening body by the forces of puberty. His hair, having not been cut or trimmed since the Galactic Plague swept through, hung down his back in long, tangled black ropes, and a fine, mossy stubble was beginning to come in on his upper lip and jaw line. Under the layer of grime that came with homelessness, he was beginning to see the ghost of his father.
His Earth family always compared him to his father on the outside the dark hair, his chocolate eyes, the slender curve of his jaw but when people saw him playing at home, how everything he did with his peers started to look like a game of follow the leader, people knew he was his mother incarnate. She was a forceful personality, an essential player in establishing 314B's dominance as an American colony, and bringing home the funding and resources necessary to maintain that position. She continued to work through her pregnancy, he was told, and wanted her son to be born a colonial citizen. His father, wizened to the more clandestine practices of the colonial governments of that time, insisted that she stay on Earth in the last months of her pregnancy, to ensure their son's birthrights as a citizen of the North American Union.
"Hans says Earthside always visits the tanks at this fish farm for baths," Eko started telling them as they got closer to their destinations. "Once we're in the warehouse, the tanks are uncovered and unguarded. Hans says this is about the time the guards go on break, and the automated security is pretty easy to avoid if we go around back to the broken cellar window."
"Cellar?" Jale's pace slowed, and Chris and Rex lingered back with him.
Some of the orphans had a hard time believing Jale's stories about being trapped in Inner City because there were so many other times when he would tell tall tales. But any time they traveled anywhere below the surface of the colony, whether it was in the sewers, on a subway pod, or in a cellar, Jale would become jittery, sometimes to the point of vomiting.
"Jale, it's just a cellar," Duette reassured him. "It's kilos from Inner City."
"We're almost there, that's it up ahead," Eko announced, jumping up and pointing to a fenced-off warehouse in the distance.
As they got closer to the fence line, Jale began shivering. "Maybe I should stay back here. You know, to keep watch."
Duette sighed, but left Jale's pride intact. "All right, I suppose we could use back-up. Chris and Rex can stay with you, and if you guys notice anything, one of them can come in after us, or you can create a diversion. We shouldn't be longer than twenty minutes or so."
When they climbed up out of the cellar, they saw the open warehouse floor, full of about twenty ten-meter-high tanks that looked like round, welcoming above-ground swimming pools. They moved slowly toward the closest tank, following behind Hans, who strutted up it. He stood by a step ladder on the side, and grinned at his friends. When none of them moved forward, he gave them all a puzzled look that needed no translation: "Well, what are you guys waiting for?"
It was Lamp who broke the nervous tension by stripping off all his clothes and climbing up into the tank first. Looking over the edge into the dark waters, lit only by faint warehouse lights, he could see a few different fish swimming around. He climbed over the edge and dipped his foot into the rippling waters, and immediately felt half a dozen tiny fish lips pecking between his toes. The surface of the water just around his foot splashed with gleeful fish. He climbed full into the pool, submerging himself completely. In an instant, his whole body was assaulted by swarms of voracious fish, pecking at every part of his exposed body.
For just a moment he thought he'd made a huge mistake, and that the fish might start taking huge bites out of him, mistaking him for food. But once the onslaught began, he couldn't help but giggle and writhe in the water. The sound of his tickled cries first came in broken, surprised yelps, and quickly degenerated into a long, uncontrollable fit of laughter. For a moment he was afraid he might tire from the thrashing and be unable to tread water anymore, but the mass of fish bodies around him seemed to help keep him afloat.
When the others finally joined him, at first confused about the commotion, their experience was the same. Hans was the only one who seemed unphased, and Colby was the only one who seemed terrified by the experience. While Colby had been to Earth as often as Lamp had growing up, and had experience swimming in her lakes and oceans, this was a new experience for Reini, who thrashed about in the water and let out the loudest, highest-pitched giggles of them all.
Once they were able to recover from the initial shock of fish, everyone stopped clinging to the sides of the tank and took to learning how to swim. Colby didn't even know if Reini could swim, but she didn't seem too worried. As it turned out, Reini took to the water like a duckling. And Colby hovered over her like a mother duck.
Eko had never had any kind of experience in bodies of water, so initially flopped and seemed to struggle to keep her head above water. Hans, having been to the farm several times before, began instructing her on how to actually swim, starting with a clumsy freestyle stroke, and a comparatively elegant breaststroke.
Lamp trod water and swam in circles, letting his body relax. Swimming reminded him of traveling through space to the Homeworld, and the periods of zero G he enjoyed most of all. He swept his arms up from his submerged sides, propelling himself completely below the surface. His hair floated out behind him, fish swimming between the locks with occasional nibbles at dandruff and drowning lice. He closed his eyes, and a steady stream of bubbles erupted from his nostrils.
There was a tug at a clump of his hair, pulling him back to the surface, his head bobbing back into the realm of gravity, of burden. Lamp swiveled in the water to glare at Duette, who smiled and waved a comb at him. "While we're all getting clean, why don't we do something about this rat's nest of yours? Fish can't brush it themselves, you know."
Slowly, Lamp began treading backward toward the center of the tank. "I don't think so."
Duette grabbed a lock of his hair again, pulling him through the water with little resistance. "I promise to be gentle. Besides, it'll be a lot easier with your hair wet."
"How would you know?" he sneered, eying her short black hair.
Lamp clung to the edge of the tank, bracing himself against the crimes about to be committed against his scalp. He was surprised when his agony was minimal. Taking up one soaking lock of hair at a time, Duette combed through the end, slowly moving her way up the lock with short, quick strokes with the comb. In a few minutes, she had reached his scalp. When she tugged a little too hard, or Lamp grunted in mild discomfort, she would coo and soothe him tenderly. He didn't think he was attracted to Duette, but when her bare body brushed up against his back, his body was telling him otherwise. He crossed his legs under the water.
It seemed natural that he would have feelings for Duette. She was the first orphan he met in the first few days he was living on the streets. She was fifteen at the time, and already had a small band of orphans following her. She always reminded him of some of the older Senators from the North American Union, the ones who were old enough to remember the days of the Old United States and the dreams it once incited in those who dared to start their lives anew there. They always had a slight slouch from the years of disappointment and broken dreams that hung on their shoulders. But still, their eyes shone with a youthful, almost violent persistence.
The group started to grow when children fled, or were pushed out from, their tainted homes and sick families. After about a week and a half on the streets, with the Plague spreading like wildfire, Lamp decided to go home and make sure his family was all right.
As a wealthy political family, he was confident they would have access to the best medicine, and kept dismissing the idea that they could be dead as he passed the bodies on the side of the road on his walk back to his home in the Upper Sector. The corpses were piled up in the streets with swollen purple lumps all over their bodies, like mutant chicken pox, some of them scratched open and spewing pale yellow puss mixed with black blood. As he passed this showcase of death, he tried not to think of his mother, or his father, or Patrice.
His block glowed in the night as towering flames engulfed many of the mansions. Some of the buildings were already charred skeletons, others day-old smoldering rubble. Lamp's home was nothing but a cascade of dancing flames roaring in the dead stillness. Fire agents were still standing by monitoring the burning. Just across the street, Colby's home was in flames as well. Death sat there, a solemn, heavy lump in his stomach, and all he could do for the next several hours was watch the flames laughing at him in the night.
There was a tug on the mass of his hair, shaking him from his silent mourning. "I'm all done," Duette announced.
Lamp pulled his newly braided hair over his shoulder and inspected it. It looked like an organized series of knots to him, which seemed like a strange arrangement to make since she had just finished removing a bunch of tiny knots. "Don't try to take it out, or you might mat it up again," she warned. He smirked at her.
As Lamp was pulling his pants on and the rest of the fully-dressed orphans were chattering jovially amongst themselves, they fell silent at the sight of Rex, gesturing wildly from the cellar door. A large heavy door creaked open and shut in the distance. A beam of light flickered in the spaces between the tanks.
"I don't hear anything John, where did you say it was coming from?" a gruff voice bellowed.
Reini giggled nervously. Everyone else shot glares of accusation at Hans. He grimaced, and could only shrug.
"Go back down to the cellar," Duette whispered to the group, waving them toward the cellar door along the back wall. They didn't move. Just stood there like stunned animals.
Lamp let out a hushed hiss; "Go, go, go!" This startled them. They began following Duette.
Terror seemed to amplify all sound, so that every breath sounded like a gasp from a broken air conditioner. A child's single footfall on the concrete floor sounded loud as a brick being dropped into a metal pan. When they reached the cellar door, it opened with an obscene screeeeeeee.
"What was that?"
The beam of light swung in the general direction of the cellar door. It was too far away to reveal anything, though. It started bouncing closer and closer to them, zigging and zagging between tanks. The children lost all consciousness of the sounds they produced and plodded down the stairs.
Lamp stayed behind, counting each of his friends as they passed. Duette was the last out the door. She paused, looking Lamp over for a moment, then met his gaze and gave him a warm smile, which seemed to linger forever even after she turned and headed down the stairs.
Lamp saw the guard first. He was tall and slender, dressed in the grey and tan uniform of the North American Space Force, his muscles bulging from regular maintenance under his mocha skin. Lamp let the cellar door fall shut as he bounded in the other direction. Before, he was sure he and the others could outrun the guard, but this wasn't what he was expecting. Somehow Hans had failed to mention this farm was owned and operated by the Feds.
"Hey you, halt!" he cried out, and gave chase. Lamp was relieved, at least, that the soldier wasn't interested in anyone who might have escaped through the cellar door.
Lamp was probably the fastest among his group. But the soldier's physique matched his own. Lamp started to gasp for air, his panic stealing his breaths as quickly as his exertions were. But the soldier maintained a steady pace, running with a military persistence, almost patience. The gap afforded to Lamp by his head start was quickly shortening.
When he reached the door, a second soldier was on the other side, a pistol pointing at his nose. "He said halt, citizen."
That's it, Lamp thought. I'm an Earth citizen. They can do nothing to me if I cooperate. He slowly raised his empty hands. Despite his self-assurance, his terror would not subside.
"Cuff 'im, Jim," the soldier with the pistol said, in the tone of a veteran to a rookie. His eyes still locked with Lamp's, he pressed a button on the side of his head, activating his headpiece. "Captain, Marson and I have detained a 314-beta-opera-alpha, do you copy?" A moment later, he asked, "What are your orders?"
Cold metal wrist cuffs clasped around the length of Lamp's wrists, and clapped together when the magnetic fields in them were electronically activated. They were loose around Lamp's slim, wet wrists, and he was already wiggling out of them.
The senior soldier never broke eye contact with Lamp, and when he received his commands from his Captain, the corners of his mouth curled upward. "Looks like Inner Colony has another worker bee on its way."
The cuffs were still scraping the sides of his palms as he writhed. Beads of sweat, or blood or both rolled down his fingertips. Terror bubbled up from Lamp's stomach, lurching forth into his throat. "You can't do this! This is a violation of my rights."
This seemed to give the soldiers pause. They looked at each other. But then they began to snicker.
He continued to yell over their laughter. "My name is Shamus Arcturus O'Lamp. I'm an Earth citizen."
"Sounds like that dead ambassador what was her name?"
"Sara O'Lamp, I believe," the senior soldier said, still locking eyes with Lamp. "Can't be you boy, that whole family died years ago of the Plague. Gonna have to do better than that to convince me."
Lamp stared back at him, incredulous and shaking. "I wasn't in the house, I wasn't at home, my parents died, my sister died, but not me, I'm alive," he insisted. The soldiers seemed amused by his certainty. They lost all sense of professionalism when Lamp bellowed, his voice cracking a little, "I demand to see my lawyer!"
Jim Marson snorted, but his partner was howling madly, tears welling up in his eyes and streaming down his cheeks. "Go ahead," Lamp insisted, as his hand crushed its way to freedom, "do a DNA test, Sara was my mother."
"No one'll believe you enough to waste a single cred on something like that," Marson managed before his speech devolved into a fit of laughter.
"C'mon, let's get this kid to the IC shuttles with the rest."
One of Lamp's hands finally slipped free of its magnetic cuff.
Lamp swung hard, right into the older soldier's solar plexus, and made a run for it. Stunned, Jim took a moment to assess what just happened. Lamp bolted around the warehouse, and headed straight for the hole in the chain link fence they had all come in at. Jale, Rex, and Chris were still waiting there for him. When they saw Lamp rounding the corner they stopped the plotting of their rescue plan and cheered him on. As he got closer, they took up big handfuls of broken concrete sidewalk and pelted them at Jim. Lamp was able to crawl through the opening, get on his feet, and make a run for it after the others.
"So your real name is Shamus?" Jale asked, as Chris and Rex began to laugh about all they had overheard.
Lamp was too mortified to be embarrassed by them. Seconds ago he was a heartbeat away from being sent to Inner Colony, something he thought himself invulnerable to for so long. It seemed as if the world had shifted right beneath his feet.