Beggars Ride

Beggars Ride

(Sleepless-3)

by Nancy Kress

Acknowledgments

For Jill Beves, R.N., CCRN,

who could never be replaced by a nursing ’bot

Prologue

The prison door swung open and she stepped through.

The aircar waited in the parking lot a hundred feet away. She had asked her husband this: Don’t come for me. Let me come to you. Will Sandaleros had understood. He waited in the car, alone.

Jennifer Sharifi stood still, surveying the outside. Grass. Trees. Flowers, genemod marililies and silver roses, sweet william and moonweed. It was full summer. The warden, beside her, said something. She didn’t hear him.

Twenty-seven years.

Everything had changed. Nothing had changed.

Twenty-seven years since she had been tried, convicted, and imprisoned for a crime she most certainly had committed, treason against the United States of America. Except that it had not been a crime. It had been a revolution, a fight for freedom from the Sleepers that had tried to plunder and destroy Jennifer’s people. The government had used that modem weapon of destruction, ruinous taxes that eviscerated productive life, and Jennifer in turn had used one even more modem: genetic terrorism. Jennifer Sharifi and her eleven Sleepless allies had held five American cities hostage to genemod retroviruses, until the Sleepers let her people go.

Only they had not done so. But not because the Sleeper government could outwit Sleepless. Jennifer’s defeat had come from another quarter. And Jennifer and the others had gone to prison with varying sentences, Jennifer’s the longest. Twenty-seven years.

A second groundcar pulled up beside Will’s. Reporters? Maybe not, in this changed world. An old woman got out of the car, walked in the opposite direction. Jennifer watched dispassionately. The old woman—in her eighties, from her face—moved with the smooth-jointed walk and fluid arm swings they all had now. Since the Change. But the woman was still old: used up, nearly finished.

Jennifer Sharifi was 114. She looked thirty-five, and would continue to look thirty-five. But twenty-seven years had been lost. And her world.

The warden was still talking. Jennifer ignored him. She concentrated on her rage: massive, molten, welling up like slow thick lava from the planetary core. Coldly she walled it off, contained it, directed it. Undirected rage was a danger; directed rage was an inexhaustible force. It was an engineering problem.

Not a muscle of her beautiful face moved.

When she was ready, Jennifer walked away from the gabbling warden, away from Allendale Maximum Security Federal Prison, where she had spent twenty-seven years for treason against a government that, by now, barely existed.

Will didn’t kiss or embrace her. But he reached for her hand, and he sat motionless a moment before he started the car.

“Hello, Will.”

“Hello, Jenny.”

No more was needed.

The car rose. Below her, the warden dwindled, and then the prison. Jennifer said to the comlink, “Messages?”

“No messages,” it answered, which wasn’t surprising. The link wasn’t shielded. Her messages would be waiting on Will’s link, wherever he was living temporarily. There would be a lot of messages, and more in the days to come, as Jennifer gathered up once more the strands of her enormous, tangled corporate and financial web. But not in the United States. Never again in the United States. There was one call to make on an unshielded link.

“Connect to Sanctuary, public frequency.”

“Signaling Sanctuary, public frequency,” the comlink said. Will glanced at her, returned his gaze to the car.

Jennifer’s screen flashed the access codes, immediately replaced by her granddaughter’s face. So Miranda had been waiting, had known the hour, the minute, of Jennifer’s release. Of course.

“Hello, Grandmother,” Miranda Sharifi said, from 200,000 miles above Earth. She and the other third-generation Sleepless had been in possession of Sanctuary orbital for years now. Of Sanctuary, which Jennifer had built to keep the Sleepless safe. Jennifer didn’t enjoy irony.

Miranda did not say Welcome home. Her plain face, with its oversize head and unruly black hair, did not smile. Jennifer looked at her granddaughter, and remembered, and held back the walls around her rage. It was Miranda who had sent Jennifer Sharifi to prison.

Jennifer said in her clear cold voice, “I am resuming possession of Sanctuary. It is legally mine. Your father’s authority of guardian-in-law is void by my release. Both of you will vacate the orbital, along with the twenty-six other SuperSleepless and all those who have any formalized business arrangement with you, within twenty-four hours. If you do not, I will bring against you all the corrupt legal force of government that you brought against me.”

Miranda said expressionlessly, “We will vacate Sanctuary.” The screen blanked.

Will took Jennifer’s hand.

The car approached a Y-energy security dome in the middle of an Appalachian upland. Old, worn hills, rounded on the top, gentled to leafy dark green, ungenemod. Will signaled the shield and it let the aircar through. He landed on the roof of a stone house, nanobuilt, on a low hill. They got out.

Below Jennifer stretched a meadow of clover and daisies and bees, bounded by a shining stream that broke at the north end into a waterfall. Beyond, mountains rose in blue mist like smoky cathedrals. The sky arched milky white, faint gold at the western edge.

Will said softly, “You’re home.”

Jennifer looked at it, all of it—house, meadow, mountains, sky, country. Her face didn’t change, except that she closed her eyes, the better to see the meticulously engineered rage.

“This, home? Never. This is only a battleground.”

Will nodded slowly, and smiled, and they went inside.

I

November 2120–January 2121

If wishes were horses, then beggars might ride.

—John Ray, English Proverbs, 1670

One

There it was. Lying on a sidewalk on Madison Avenue in the Manhattan East Enclave. Almost it could have been a fallen twig overlooked by a defective maintenance ’bot. But it wasn’t a preternaturally straight twig, or a dropped laser knife, or a truncated black line drawn on the nanocoated concrete, going nowhere. It was a Change syringe.

Dr. Jackson Aranow picked it up.

Empty, and no way to tell how long ago it had been used. The black alloy didn’t rust or dent or decay. Jackson couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen one lying around outside. Three or four years, maybe. He twirled it between his fingers like a baton, sighted along it like a telescope, pointed it at the building and said “Bang.”

“Welcome,” the building said back. Jackson’s extended arm had brought him within sensor range. He put the syringe in his pocket and stepped into the security portico.

“Dr. Jackson Aranow, to see Ellie Lester.”

“’Alf a minute, sir. There you go, all cleared, sir. ’Appy to be of service, sir.”

“Thank you,” Jackson said, a little stiffly. He disliked affected accents on buildings.

The lobby was expensive and grotesque. A floor programmed with a yellow brick road whose bricks shifted every thirty seconds to a different path, all ending up at blank walls. A neon-green Venus with a digital clock in her belly, sitting on a beautiful antique Sheraton table beside the elevator. The elevator spoke in a high, singsong voice.

“Please to be welcome, sahib. I am being very happy you visit Memsahib Lester. Please to look this way, allow me humble retina scan… thank you, sahib. Wishing you every gracious thing.”

Jackson didn’t think he was going to like Ellie Lester.

Outside the apartment door, a holo of a black man materialized, wearing a faded calico shirt, barefoot. “Sho is glad you here, sir. Sho is. Miz Ellie, she waiting on y’all inside, sir.” The holo shuffled, grinned, and put a translucent hand on the opening door.

The apartment echoed the lobby: a carefully arranged mix of expensive antiques and ugly, outrageous kitsch. A papier-mâché rat eating her young atop an exquisite eighteenth-century sideboard. An antique television polished to a high gleam under a diamond-filament sculpture covered densely with dust. Faux, chairs, all dangerous angles and weird protuberances, impossible to sit on. “In an age of nanotech, even primitive nanotech,” said the latest issue of Design magazine, “the material presence of objects becomes vulgar, even irrelevant, and only the wit of their arrangement matters.” The two goldfish in the atrium were artfully dead, floating beside a small holo of a sinking Pequod.

Ellie Lester strode out of a side door. She was genemod for size, which gave Jackson her age: female children engineered to top six feet had been briefly fashionable in the late eighties, when material presence hadn’t yet been irrelevant. Now that Design had decided it was, Ellie compensated for her height with wit. Over her bare breasts she wore a necklace alternating glowing laser beads with nanocoated animal turds; ...

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