For a perfectly logical reason, the food preparation area tended to be free of life forms when no cooking or cleaning activities were being engaged in. Mainly because no one in their right minds would try to sneak food that they wouldn’t eat even if someone paid them.
Kerr reached behind him, took hold of a reluctant arm and pulled a slender boy forward. "This is Vila. He's going to help us."
Charles's eyes raked Vila from the top of his dishevelled hair and smudged nose to his noticeably lower-grade clothing. He stared at the young boy with a mixture of wariness and amusement. The boy seemed nervous and seemed to want to hide behind Kerr again. "Who is he?"
"I told you, his name is Vila."
Charles said, "That doesn't tell me anything."
"He's a friend."
Charles grinned mischievously, "I'd already guessed that or you wouldn't have said that he's going to help us. Unless…you paid him to help us."
Vila frowned and said, "I don’t like him."
Kerr looked at the grinning Charles with annoyance. He said to Vila, "Give him time. He might grow on you."
Vila sniffed. "Not sure I want to stay that long. Is he the one you want me to help? I hope not."
Charles laughed. "I like him."
Kerr brushed off some of the tunnel dust from the back of Vila's shirt. "Vila's mother is one of the nurses in the security ward."
Charles reacted with surprise. "The security ward? Your last name wouldn't be Restal by any chance?"
Vila looked at him suspiciously, "Yeah. How'd you know?"
"I think I've met your mother."
"My mother never said anything."
"It doesn't matter. It's just a coincidence." Charles studied the boy carefully again. "So you're a Beta-grade. That's why I've never seen you here before. And it explains your clothes."
Vila looked down at himself and said defensively, "What's wrong with my clothes?"
"Nothing that some credits wouldn't fix. Lots of credits."
Vila looked up at his friend, "Kerr, I really don't like him. He's a snob."
Kerr gave Charles a hard look. "You have to stand up to him, Vila. You may be as smart as he is. Don't let him push you around."
Charles returned Kerr's gaze with amusement. "This is interesting. Could he be one of those Progressives I've heard about? I thought they were a myth."
Vila looked to Kerr with a question, "What's a Progressive?"
Kerr said, "It's someone born in a lower grade but who grades higher."
Vila had a broad grin on his face. "I must be one of those then."
"Most likely," said Kerr.
Vila straightened up as tall as he could, which wasn't very yet, and turned to Charles. "Just because I don't have snazzy clothes doesn't mean I'm not smart."
Charles met the challenge. "I never said that."
Vila emphasized, “I’m here to help Kerr because he’s smart. I bet he's ten times smarter than you.”
Charles chuckled. "It looks like you have a fan, Kerr. Can I borrow him?"
Kerr said with exasperation, "Stop playing. We're trying to save Jack."
Charles had a flash of guilt. "Sorry. I like your friend. He's fun." He gave Vila a friendly apologetic smile.
Vila smiled back cautiously. "That's alright. You're Kerr's friend." His slight smile became a wide grin. "You can't be all bad."
Charles asked Kerr, "What do you want to do? It might not be easy to get Jack to agree in his own rescue. He'll think he's running away."
Vila was puzzled. "But he is. Isn't he?"
Kerr said, "Jack has some strange notions. You're right, Charles, he won't want to run. He likes facing things head on."
Charles said, "Then it won't be any use helping him. Unless you plan to knock him out and tie him up first. Let me know when you're done. I can send flowers."
Kerr pursed his lips, "Then we'll have to convince him."
"In that case, can I sit and watch? Vila could sell tickets."
Vila couldn't understand what Charles was going on about. He didn’t know Jack. "Why would I want to do that?"
Kerr scowled at the blond boy. "Jack's not thick. He's very smart. He just has principles, which is more than I can say for you."
Charles said in jest, "And charitable people would say that he's just stubborn. It's an endearing quality really."
Kerr continued scowling. "Are you going to help or not?"
Charles let up on the humour. "Of course I am. I'm surprised at you, Kerr. Don't you know when I'm joking?"
Kerr said significantly, "Do you?"
"Well, what do you want to do?"
Kerr said, "Vila is very good at sneaking into places around here."
Vila said with embarrassment. "Any very talented person could do it."
Charles said teasingly, "Wow, he's modest too."
"Vila is going to get some Beta clothes for Jack. You and I will provide a distraction while Vila leads Jack past the security area and into the workers' section. Then Jack will go out with the other Grades. Vila has found a place he can stay for awhile."
Vila said, "Yeah, it's an old building that’s supposed to be torn down for a new residence building but they haven't got around to it yet. He'll be safe there. I'll bring him food."
Charles look worried. "But what if they look for Jack and find him missing before he escapes?"
Kerr said, "Leave that to me."
The way Kerr said it made Charles ask suspiciously, "What are you going to do?"
"It's better that you don't know."
Charles asked nervously, "It's something to do with the computers isn't it?"
"You don't know anything."
"I won’t know if you don’t tell me."
Charles realized Kerr was trying to protect him. "Why don't you go with Jack? You should escape too. It'll be easier to convince him if you go. He'll think he has to protect you."
"I have to handle the computers and the cameras."
Charles offered, "You could…show me."
"The idea is to escape, not get caught."
Charles said reluctantly, "I suppose you're right."
"Are we clear what we need to do?"
"It's easy," said Vila confidently.
Kerr found Jack in his favourite place, the gym with the training dummies. Jack's kicks struck the dummy with a solid thud, causing it to rock back violently. With hands up in guard position, he seemed block-like and unyielding. Kerr folded his arms across his chest and watched for a while, admiring the smooth motions and the force behind each kick. It was almost like a dance. Jack's body glistened as each muscle bunched and released with power.
Kerr waited until the boy had finished a round of kicks before saying, "Jack."
Jack let his arms fall to his sides. He smiled, "Hi, Kerr."
"I don't get it."
Picking up a large white towel Jack asked, "What don't you get?" He began towelling himself off.
"If you don't like killing people, why do you practice martial techniques with the dummies?"
"It's not about the killing. It's fun hitting things and it helps release stress. I have a lot of…natural aggression. That's what they said. So I have to work it off."
"Who said that?" Kerr asked suspiciously.
"The therapists. They said it gets worse as I grow older. It's something to do with my genes."
"That doesn't make any sense. I've never heard of anything like that."
Jack draped the towel around his neck. "That's what I said. But they said that I'm a kid, I wouldn't know these things. Besides, I'm not in the advanced bio classes."
"Is anyone in your family like this? Your father or grandfather?"
Jack's brows creased in thought. "I haven't noticed but they're not around much. They're usually off-planet with the fleets. But I didn't feel like this before so they were right about that."
Kerr frowned as a thought came to him. He mused, "Or they've been playing with you too."
Kerr asked with abrupt urgency, "Jack, do they send you to the learning machines?"
"Of course. I thought they did that to everyone."
"Not everyone. Do you remember what they teach you?"
"We're not supposed to, are we? It's supposed to be…sub-liminal. Teaches innate abilities. Like me being able to learn fighting techniques faster." Jack went to the training dummy to demonstrate.
"You don't need to show me."
Jack looked disappointed. "Alright." He noticed that Kerr was heavy in thought. "Is there something wrong?"
Kerr looked him directly in the eyes. "I don't think that's all they're doing. Do you experience pain in your head when you have the learning sessions?"
Jack put his hand to his head in a practiced gesture. "Sometimes. But they give me pills for it and it goes away."
"Jack, you need to get away from here."
"Weren't you worried that they'd be able to turn you into a killer?"
"Yes. But I'm not going to let them. I'm going to fight them. They can't make me do what I don't want to."
Kerr shook his head. "Jack, you won't be able to stop them. They're already starting. Don’t you see?" He grabbed Jack by the arm; the hard muscles in the forearm were like forged metal. Jack would have immediately reacted and broken the hold, Kerr could feel the quick tensing of the muscles, but there was no movement. There was trust between the two boys that overcame natural instinct.
Kerr said warningly, "You have aggression that is growing. That isn't normal, no matter what they tell you."
Jack looked down at where Kerr was holding him. There was a slight uncertain tremor in his voice. And he almost spoke in a whisper, "I think I always knew that. I tried to fight it by taking it out on the dummies." Pained eyes met his friend's face. "Kerr, what am I going to do?"
Kerr let go of his arm and said decisively, "Escape. I've arranged it all." He proceeded to tell him about Vila and the details of the escape plan.
Afterwards, Jack touched his friend's arm in gratitude. "Thank you." He seemed to think of something. "Kerr, you should come with me. They're doing the same thing to you. I mean not exactly the same thing but…something. It's just as dangerous for you. I'm not going to go unless you do."
Kerr said, "Jack, don't be silly."
"Who's going to take care of you and Charles?"
"I'll take care of Charles."
"I don't know…"
Kerr said firmly, "Yes, you do. Jack, you have to do this. When you get out, you can help me. I want you to find my parents. I still don't entirely believe that they abandoned me. I…don't want to believe it. If you find them, tell them to come for me. I have to stay here to handle the computers and security so you can escape. I've arranged for a friend to help. His name is Vila. He's the son of one of the nurses."
"Oh. Which one?"
Kerr tilted his head in puzzlement. "Why are you and Charles so interested in a nurse?"
"Well, you don’t remember but when they had you locked up in one of the security wards, Charles persuaded one of the nurses to help us get in to see you. They caught us though and we got into trouble. You never woke up. I felt bad that nurse may have been in trouble but nothing happened to her. I'm glad of that. I would've felt really bad. I told Charles he shouldn't have done it. But...we had to make sure they weren't hurting you."
"That's a coincidence. It shouldn’t matter though."
"When are we going to do this?"
"I've arranged for tomorrow."
Jack took the towel around his neck and twisted it absently in his hands. "So soon?"
"We shouldn't wait."
Jack looked up into Kerr's face. "I…" He looked embarrassed. What did you say to a friend who was risking everything to help you? "I won't forgive you if you don't escape after I do."
A bare grin appeared on Kerr's face. "Well, we can't have that can we?"