Prologue: The Future

 

“WHAT DO you think?” Siam asked, seeing the look on his boyfriend’s face. “Be honest.”

Years on the run had taught Jettrin how to school his features, but it was hard to conceal his skepticism at Siam’s handiwork. The dented, scuffed, matte-black plastic casing of the alarm clock was gone. The only original remnants looked to be a circuit board, a digital display, and a disc-shaped speaker, all nested in a tangle of discarded wires fished out of the same garbage bin where they’d found the clock. That morning, near Khaosan Road, Jettrin had seen a tourist ride a scooter right over a rat, and the resulting mess somehow struck him as less gory than this Frankenclock Siam had assembled.

Jettrin took a deep breath. “Does it work?” he asked at last. Siam plugged it in, and the display lit up with a line of red zeroes. Both boys grinned.

“Set the alarm for 5:00 a.m.,” Jettrin said.

“That’s too early,” Jai finally said as Siam set the time. He’d watched the entire operation from the corner of the squat, limbs folded resentfully around his body.

“Go to bed,” Jettrin hissed.

“I’m not tired.”

“I didn’t ask. We’re leaving before the sun’s up whether you’re rested or not. Go.”

Jai cursed Jettrin under his breath but stalked off to the tiny bedroom and shut the door snugly behind him. At least he didn’t slam it.

Siam finished setting the alarm, and both boys curled up on the makeshift bed of piled tattered blankets, gripping each other tight.

Jettrin dreamt again of the man from Countermind. Wherever they fled, wherever they hid, that phantom pursuer was there, always standing outside their window, gazing up from the sidewalk below with those cruel eyes and that dark smile.

The dream wasn’t quite a nightmare this time, but it was enough to rouse Jettrin from slumber. Groggy, he pulled himself up out of bed, felt his way through the darkness to the bedroom door, and eased it open.

He could hear Jai whimpering. Jettrin sat on the bare mattress and gently jostled his little brother awake. Jai responded by burying his face in Jettrin’s shoulder, crying for a few minutes, and then passing out again. Jettrin kissed him on the forehead, lowered him onto his back, and made his quiet way back to Siam.

Jettrin had never actually seen the man from Countermind. Only when Jai had this nightmare and, panicking in his sleep, reached out for his big brother telepathically, only to involuntarily share the dream with him. Drifting into unconsciousness again, Jettrin hoped the interruption wouldn’t cause them to oversleep.

It wasn’t why they overslept. When Siam had fixed the clock, they’d checked that the time worked but had never actually tested the alarm.

Jettrin woke first, rolled over, and looked at the alarm clock. The numbers glowed red within the jumble of wires. The time, per the dozenal numerals shining through the black glass of the display, was 10:A4.

Jettrin snapped instantly to full alert. He yelled at Siam, kicking him out of bed, and the two of them pulled on their jeans, socks, and tennis shoes, tottering precariously while dressing, with nothing to steady themselves against but filthy pockmarked concrete walls. Once clothed, Jettrin strode to the bedroom door, crossing the tiny squat in just two lanky steps.

The door opened from the other side before Jettrin reached it, and Jai stood there, scratching sleep from his eyes, still dressed in an oversized logoed T-shirt dangling past his knees.

“Did you sense me coming?” Jettrin demanded.

Jai was defensive. “No, I heard you. You’re loud.”

“Then why aren’t you dressed? Put your damn clothes on.”

Jai vanished back into the bedroom to change. Jettrin turned to the window to examine the noisy avenue in front of the apartment building, pressing his forehead against the rusting iron bars. The obstruction limited his field of view, and the traffic was too thick for him to easily pick out any threats. With the cacophony of shouts, ringing bicycle bells, and honking cars, he had to wonder whether the alarm would have done any good even if it had worked.

“Is the little bother ready?” Siam asked from the front door.

“Don’t call me that,” Jai said, reappearing in the bedroom door. Now fully dressed, his threadbare backpack in hand, he gave Siam a surly look. Jettrin shouldered his own backpack off the floor, took Jai’s small wrist in hand, and led him to the apartment’s entrance. But he stopped short of opening it onto the hallway, first pressing his ear against the door.

Sounds of domestic life spiraled into his cochlea: spouses arguing, parents scolding children, infants screaming, and everywhere footsteps crisscrossing creaky wooden floors above, below, and beside their squat. But he heard no one directly in the narrow hallway outside.

“It’s safe to go,” Jai said, annoyed.

Jettrin turned on him. “How do you know that?”

“Because the landlady sleeps late, and she doesn’t even live here. And what will she do, throw us out? We’re already leaving!”

Jettrin tried to read Jai’s expression, knowing he was correct to a point. Bangkok traffic was the worst in Thailand. But if the landlady spotted them on the premises, and if she reported them to the police for squatting, the subsequent chain of events would probably end with Jai being identified as a psychic, Jettrin arrested for abetting his flight, and Siam arrested for more obscure crimes of his own. The risk was too high to flout. The confidence on Jai’s face meant the seven-year-old was either unaware of the risk or was psyching. Jettrin looked for any indication of the latter, in which case he’d whack Jai on the ear.

Siam, exasperated, pulled out his computer and unfolded it.

“Put that away,” Jettrin hissed.

“I can check where she is.”

“There’s no time!” Jettrin bit out. “We’re leaving right now anyway.”

“Then let’s fucking go already.” Siam snapped the computer shut and shoved it back into his bag.

Jettrin undid the dead bolts and chain and slid away the concrete block they’d used as a stop, allowing the door to swing inward. He pressed his shoulder against the doorjamb, hand under his shirt in case he had to defend himself, and then darted his head out for just a second, as if imitating a hero cop from a crime film.

“It’s clear,” he told the others.

Jai and Siam rolled their eyes in eerie unison.

For all Jettrin had urged discretion, the three of them veritably stampeded their way down the flights of cracked concrete steps. Thinking it safer, they used the side exit to the quiet, dark side street running between the building and its neighboring apartment block, rather than through the front door to the avenue. It was a good idea, but Jettrin had scoped out the avenue through the window, not the side street, which was why they were surprised to find the building’s landlady there, in the middle of an animated argument with a discontented pair of municipal safety inspectors.

She stopped to squint at the three strange boys leaving her building, no doubt wondering whose family they were with and why she’d never seen them before.

Avoiding eye contact, Jettrin, Siam, and Jai immediately tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. For a trio of unkempt male minors, this meant loudly berating and shoving one another, while peppering their speech with profanities and indulging in a solipsistic disregard for anyone else around them.

The key to going unnoticed, they knew, was to be so obnoxious that people made an active effort to ignore you.

The boys made their raucous way to the avenue without looking behind them. The safety inspectors evinced no reaction beyond irritation, but the landlady still watched them as they brushed past, and Jettrin, though no psychic, was certain he could feel her eyes on the back of his head. His heart thudded like a subwoofer, and it wasn’t until a brief lull in the noise of the traffic, when he overheard the three adults resume their argument about fire alarms, that he felt safe. If the landlady had residents she was unaware of, she wasn’t going to let any city employees know about it.

If she’d inspected the boys any longer, she would’ve had no trouble guessing which two of the three were brothers. Jai was half Jettrin’s age and height, but both were darker in color and slenderer in build than Siam, and their small noses, large eyes, and round faces gave them the look of startled tarsiers. As for Siam, his aversion to natural light had left his skin paler. His torso was squarer, his shoulders broader, his face boxier, and his expression had a perpetually sardonic mold to it. You wanted to punch him as soon as you met him.

Or Jettrin had wanted to punch him, anyway.

The trio rounded the corner onto the street and picked up their pace, occasionally shouldering their way through the crowded sidewalk. It wasn’t a long journey from this part of Khlong Toei to the river, but they’d overslept, they had a boat to catch, and they were running scared.

 

 

EARLIER THAT week, Jettrin had arranged passage aboard a handysize cargo hauler bound for Hong Kong via Ho Chi Minh City. He’d been careful only to deal with a crewman who didn’t seem the least bit curious about them, passing over anyone who’d asked why they were leaving or if they were in trouble or so much as expressed concern for their well-being. People wouldn’t have a problem transporting three poor, homeless kids looking for a cheap fare. But no one would risk smuggling a seven-year-old fugitive psychic.

It was a short time frame for an international escape, but Jettrin didn’t feel safe making long-term plans. He couldn’t risk thinking too far ahead. You never knew when a state psychic was reading your mind. Supposedly the government liked to send telepaths into highly populated cities, where they would randomly dip through people’s minds, hundreds in a day, thousands in a week, searching for any stray thought that portended possible criminal behavior. Better off not knowing what you were going to do next for as long as possible and then act on your decision as soon as you made it. Not a relaxing way to spend your adolescence, but it kept the three of them safe.

Their contact in the crew was a large, taciturn slab of a sailor who’d grunted his way through most of their negotiation, so Jettrin was relieved to find the small ship waiting exactly where he’d been told to expect it. After paying their fare in cash, the three boys were ushered down to a pile of spare bedrolls and deflated pillows in a dark, secluded corner of the main hold, where they huddled on the cold deckplates and waited as the ship’s cranes lowered containers into the far end of the hold. The waters of the Chao Phraya were steady, but Jettrin expected the sailing to grow choppier as they left port, and he watched the other two for early signs of seasickness. Siam looked antsy but confined his nervous energy to a drumming of his fingers. Jai just looked bored.

Jettrin slid down next to where his brother sat. “Are you doing okay?” he asked him.

Jai hummed a short affirmative.

“Did you have bad dreams again last night?”

Jai looked away, guilty.

Jettrin put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You need to learn to dream more quietly,” he advised, though he had no clear idea how exactly a person could follow such bizarre advice. Jai frowned, evidently sharing in his confusion.

Jettrin sighed, aware how badly he was about to mix his signals. “But I need you to do something, just this once.” Jettrin lowered both his head and his voice. “The crew on this boat,” he whispered. “Can you look at them?”

Jai studied him, eyebrows rising as understanding dawned. “You mean…?”

The odds of one of these sailors being psychic (or, God forbid, Countermind) were infinitesimal, so there wasn’t much chance of Jai being detected scanning the crew. Still, Jai obviously couldn’t believe his brother was asking him to run such a risk.

Jettrin nodded. “But just the men working on this ship. No one else. Make sure none of them are planning to hurt us, or report us, or kidnap us, or fuck us.”

He didn’t see the point in sparing his brother’s young ears. Censoring his instructions might lead Jai to overlook a threat he wasn’t specifically searching for.

Jai swallowed, turned his head, and focused his eyes on a point in the middle distance. Sixteen minutes passed, and then he shook his head. “No.”

“No what?”

“None of them are planning to do any of those things, okay?” Jai’s eyes glistened as he spoke, his gaze fixed on the deck.

“What’s wrong?” Jettrin asked.

“Nothing.”

“Are you scared?”

Jai answered with a minute nod, and Jettrin reached over, gave him a tight hug, and muttered an apology. The telepathic scan would have to suffice. Once the ship was away from port, one of these guys might get drunk, or angry, or greedy, or horny, or just plain change his mind about the three boys hiding downstairs, but there would be no anticipating it. Even mind readers couldn’t predict the future. If a threat arose, Jettrin would, with a move he’d practiced a hundred times, reach under his shirt for the small wood-handled steak knife hidden there, the one he wore dangling from the thin leather thong around his neck. With a single hard yank on the hilt, the slipknot in the thong would come undone, and Jettrin would be armed. And anyone who made a move on him, his boyfriend, or his little brother would lose their goddamn testicles.