In the second half of the 21st Century that was no longer true.
The man who slept exhausted in the worn out second cockpit seat knew that all too well.
2082 – Now
Strictly spoken, the Mendell wasn't a passenger ship. The papers identified it as a light freighter, but its Captain, Gregor Johann Roberts, conveniently forgot that if someone paid enough for the transit. In fact, this forgetfulness was the reason the Mendell, originally a blockade-runner in the Colonial Wars, was still in the business though it wasn't traveling under the protective flag of one of the big companies. The various companies had claimed a lot of the colonial worlds for themselves until these worlds had decided that that was a protection 'from' and not against something and had declared most of these suffocating economical treaties obsolete, ending the company dictatorship but unfortunately also most of the inter-colonial freight transport, which left the owners of small independent vessels like the Mendell in the lurch.
GJ threw a look back at the sleeping man. He had long since learned not to ask his passengers any questions on the three or four week-long travel to one of the now independent ex-colonial planets. Often, he didn't even know their names. They seldom got to know his either. And that was most likely better for all concerned.
However, this one was different.
He estimated him of being in his forties, possibly even in his fifties, given his white hair and wrinkled face that spoke of humor and somehow gentleness, which fit with the plain, but good clothing and the proper, manicured hands. Definitely not his usual runaway criminal on his flight to the lawless outskirt planets. The man had paid in cash, no ecards or risky trusts or something, but plain cash.
A less honest being than GJ would likely have considered robbery and a dump into vacuum, but the Mendell had a name for reliability – and a scar across a third of his rib cage had taught Roberts that even harmless looking being could be dangerous.
The military APG he'd spotted later had confirmed his beliefs in that regard. On board a ship an LG couldn't be fired at dangerous energy levels without risk of penetrating the hull, so a firefight would have been a calculated risk, but those Automated Projectile Guns were unpredictable in that regard. He was glad he hadn't even considered the plan. Somehow, the passenger made him curious. Curious enough that he finally broke his iron rule of not asking anything but the liquidity of the passenger and the desired aim, and begged for the name. And the man gathered himself tiredly up in the only barely comfortable chair, and said after a moment: "Tom Sawyer."
GJ grinned. "And your best friend is Huck Finn, right?" At the astonished look of his passenger. "Hey, just because I fly a puny freighter like the Mendell doesn't mean I never saw a school from the inside. – Anyway, it's okay. I'm JR for you. – Do you like Twain's writing?"
Max sighed. Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" was the last story he'd read to Billy. Frances had made him a scene afterwards for feeding their nice boy ideas for pranks and nonsense. That his five-year-old son had fallen asleep in the middle of the scene with the fence painting hadn't mattered to her, that he seldom caused any trouble hadn't either.
Max remembered that at the sight of his sleeping son he'd wished he'd been able to read this story to another five-year-old some years ago, who'd never have fallen asleep in it, and who likely would have kept them all on their toes with the mischief he'd have made for sure afterwards...
The guilt about that feeling had stabbed at him. It wasn't Billy's fault that he wasn't as bright and lively as Joe's boy had been back then in spite of the circumstances he was living in. Billy was calmer, less curious about the world around him, and in a way it was better so, otherwise Frances wouldn't have been able to care for him while he was at work during the weeks.
They had always had kind of a 'weekend marriage', with him working at a secret military project and his wife, Frances, being the ultimate female home broker, online from dawn till dusk, and not necessarily dawn and dusk of the time-zone they were living in. Nobody had been more surprised than Frances herself when she'd learned that at the age of thirty-eight she really was going to have a child. She'd thought she had an upset stomach when she'd gone to the doctor.
Their relationship hadn't really endured Billy's first year. What had been a warm home with agreement and tolerance on both sides when they were both at home had soon turned into a nest for Frances and her child, with Max not much more than a guest, welcomed in the beginning, but only felt as a disturbance as time went by. But they had seen each other seldom enough that they never really had a breakup.
Now, aware that he'd most likely never return to their house, he realized bitterly that such a dispute possibly would have been better. At least, it would have sorted things out. And whatever it might have brought, at least she'd have known how it hurt him when she told her son aloud, that 'his daddy is the man that visits us on weekends.' Us. As if he didn't belong to them.
He sighed. That was past. A wasted chance. Lost. He had to forget it.
He'd made the decision a long time ago.
Without even noticing it.
And all he could do now, after InterSec had stormed his house, threatened his family and confiscated his personal files in the name of Senator Wheiner, was to beg his friend to keep an eye on them, too...
GJ threw another look at his passenger. Definitely not his usual customer in many ways. But absolutely normal in one: he didn't seem to want to talk. Okay.
Three days ago
"I should send you a stuffed animal when something's wrong with your family?" Joe asked, astonished.
"Yes," Max kept sorting the few belongings he had in his room at the base, "this one would be best. I'll recognize it."
Walsh caught it as he tossed it towards him, looked at it and raised a brow. "A hedgehog?"
"It reminded me of an error I made with the boy I didn't repeat."
"I folded a paper plane while he was around at my desk before I continued working on his samples, consciously leaving him out of my sight – remember that, Joe. He'll never do anything if you watch him. He's too cautious for that. At first, I thought he hadn't taken the bait, but later, after I was done, I discovered that he hadn't used the paper sheet I left lying around for him but that he changed mine." He hastily sorted through his belongings. "He improved it with strengthened wing edges and tailfins. The thing really flew afterwards, my version just spun to the floor. Anyway, I was so impressed that I asked him the next day how he did it and he denied doing anything immediately." Max sighed and looked over to his friend. "He never touched paper in my lab again unless he was directly ordered, and then he produced nothing better than any of the others would." He nodded at the stuffed animal in Walsh's hand. "He's like a hedgehog. Whenever something comes close he curls up and erects his spines, sometimes for months." He pulled the straps around his bag tight and scanned the room with a final quick glance. "I must go, or they'll catch me here." He stopped at the door and looked back at the commander. "You have to find somehow a way to get him two extra liters of water a day, Joe," he said urgently, "he needs it. Your boy's strong, Joe. Despite PTS, IP, and all that shit, he's still more than a weapon. Help him to stay that way."
"Don't." Sawyer shook his head, interrupting him. He had to keep going or he'd collapse right on the spot. "I don't regret what I did, Joe. Not at all. Your boy's possibly the one good thing to come out of the hell this project turned out to be. I just hope you can get him out of here before he really loses."
"I'll take care of Frances and Billy."
He nodded. "Thank you. If something's really wrong, send the hedgehog to the IPS-number box. It'll reach me."
"I will. Good luck."
"Keep it. You two are going to need it much more than me when the senator puts the information in the confiscated papers together correctly. Maybe I'm wanted." He tried to sound eager as he slung his bag over his shoulder, and knew he wasn't convincing with it. "But I'm surely not important enough to search all the independent planets for me."
"InterSec is already on the base, Max." Joe gave him an APG. "Hurry."
He shook his head. "I can't use those things. You know that."
"You don't have to use it. But you're leaving the planet, wear it in plain sight then. On spacecraft APGs are unpredictable weapons. Whoever you run across will think twice before risking an attack." He nodded towards the door. "Use the supply tunnel. And if you want it or not. Good luck."
This time, he nodded.
Max sighed again, aware that Joseph would have a much harder stand than he had. As the military base commander he didn't have a reason to regularly spend time with the boy to find out what was going on with him, and in addition, Shane trusted him even less, was even more on the guard. The PTS had taken care for that. And likely the thing with the A's. He was sure that the boy had figured out a long time ago which two persons on the base could assign A's, and Joe was one of them, which meant that he literally had the power over life and death. And he doubted that the little Goose could believe in a merciful god.
Three days ago
He hurried through unlighted corridors and nearly collided with the tall shadow that suddenly appeared in front of him. At fifteen, the boy had almost reached his full height, with glowing eyes that scrutinized his face in the dark. For a brief moment Max wondered how he had escaped the sleeping cubicle, but he had no time left to worry about that. "Goose, I'm sorry, but I have to leave."
"I know." He stood dead still, barely more than a shadow in the unlighted corridor. With any other trooper, Max would have been frightened out of his mind now.
"And I can't come back."
The boy closed his eyes quickly. Barely more than a longer blinking. "I know that, too. Your bag's stuffed, and authorities are frisking the lab." He drew a deep breath. "Make it."
He recognized it as the farewell that it was meant to be. "I will, I'm a geneticist. I know everything about 'survival of the fittest'."
The boy's face stayed earnest. Max didn't expect anything from the young trooper and was surprised when he spoke anyway. "It's an illusion. Among humans it's survival of the seemingly fittest."
"There's one last thing – Trust the commander." He saw the sudden wariness in the Goose's eyes and continued before the boy could retreat. "He doesn't want you harmed in any way." Gods, he wished he'd have more time to convince him.
Goose made a step to the side, breaking the moment. "Your hunters are close. Don't waste time."
He just hoped that Joe would find a way to get the boy out of that living hell Negata's project had become over the years.
Nobody deserved such a treatment. And for sure not a child like the little Goose.
He'd been disappointed when Billy had fallen asleep during his reading, when he hadn't been interested in making things out of wood and paint, but now he thought of his friend who'd never even gotten the chance to tell his son a fairy tale in the evening, or to fly a kite, or go fishing, to a baseball match, or whatever, who instead had to worry about untrained full body transformations, sharp ammunition, drug doses and side effects, close combat and test results.
And he couldn't keep himself from screaming inwardly, that it wasn't fair! That a child who had all this was simply not interested in it and developed with his five years a fascination for slingshots and hand-to-hand fighting that he'd watched with more than just concern, and on the other hand, another one, so lively and curious, who watched the few glimpses of the world he got to see out of great wondering green eyes full of fascination – even joy if he felt unwatched – never got the chance to see all the wonders the world held out for him and instead was forced to be barely more than a weapon.
It wasn't fair!
And an ugly voice oozing of cynicism asked him what kind of a father he was thinking that way about his own natural son.
Frances suffered a heart attack. She's fine at the moment, but the doctors doubt that she'll recover enough to care for her child again. William is currently staying with her sister in Canada, but he doesn't seem to be happy or welcomed there.
I can arrange a transport for him if needed.
Contact me as follows...
p.s.: whatever you heard about the riots wherever you are: he's fine.