Orson Scott Card
Hot Sleep: The Worthing Chronicle

1



JAS WORTHING was being kept alive by State Paper FN3xxR5a, and he knew it. He didn't need an assistant professor of education to tell him that. But once Hartman Tork had begun a lecture, he was unstoppable.

"There's no way, Jas Worthing, that you could have made a perfect score on that test. The information is classified, it was only bumped onto the computers by a mistake in the program —"

"Your mistake," Jas pointed out.

"Maybe not a mistake at all," Tork said, his face turning red with anger. "Maybe we've found out something about you that we desperately wanted to know. You couldn't possibly have copied off anyone else's paper —"

"Are you accusing me of cheating? Because the juvenile code requires a proper hearing and substantiating evidence —"

Tork whirled around on his swivel stool and stood up. He walked around the glowing teacherboard until he stood only a meter or less away from Jas. Again, as a hundred times before, Jas felt the vertigo of childhood, realizing that everything is up, that only when he tumbled into the future would he be as large as those who manipulated him today — or tried to, anyway.

"I've had enough," Tork said, softly, trying to be menacing; and though Jas knew that the menace was a facade worn to intimidate the small and weak, he also knew that behind the facade the threat was very, very real. "I've had enough of your cocky smartass self–assurance. Now you're going to take that test over again."

And in spite of himself Jas was trembling, though he kept the quaver out of his voice. "Unless you can prove malfeasance —"

"I know the juvenile code, Jas. And I don't have to prove malfeasance if I can prove something else."

His look of triumph was disconcerting. Jas gripped the sides of the nearest console. "I didn't cheat, Mr. Tork, and unless you have a witness —"

"The law, boy, is a lot more open when it comes to the question of the Swipe." Tork pounded his finger on the teacherboard for emphasis.

"Are you calling me a Swipe, Mr. Tork?" Jas asked. This time the quaver came into his voice.

"That's slander, Mr. Tork, unless you can prove —"

"I'm working on that, boy. Now get out."

Jas got out. But at the door he heard Tork call after him, "You got those answers out of my head and I'm going to prove it! You passed that test by picking my brains!"

Jas turned around and said, "Assistant professor Tork, no one in his right mind, given a choice, would pick your brains." Tork didn't answer, just smiled savagely. But Jas felt a little better for having said it.

He was shaking and weak all the way home.

His mother met him at the door of their flat. "What happened?" she asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice, as if it couldn't be read on her face.

"Tork yelled a lot."

"What about the proof? Did you have the proof?"

"Your bloodiest came out okay, mom." Jas sat down on the bed that doubled as a sofa in the living room. "Sorry you had to get jabbed."

His mother sat next to him and took his hand. Her palms were clammy. "I was so afraid. They were so sure."

"I guess they can't cope with somebody outsmarting their stupid tests." Jas lay back on the bed and breathed deeply, "I need to rest, mom," he said. His mother nodded and got up and went to the kitchen–dining–bathroom to ring up dinner.

Jas lay on the bed, his heart still pounding. He had been stupid, not to realize that they'd know. But it had been so easy — the test in front of him, and then just by looking at Tork the answers so clear, sitting right behind Tork's eyes. It was as if for a moment Jas had forgotten that telepathy was a capital crime. In fact, of course, he hadn't really realized, not for sure, that what was happening was telepathy. It had grown so gradually, his gift — beginning when he turned twelve — fleeting glimpses at random of what people thought, what they felt. And then in the room last week, just as a child might discover a new muscle that let him wiggle his ears or twitch his scalp, Jas had realized he could control it. Not just random glimpses, but a deep, hard, long look into their minds.

The Swipe? Swipes were monsters, Swipes were planet–wreckers, Swipes weren't kids in" schoolrooms taking calculus tests.

He stared at the picture of his father on the ceiling. The tiling had been there since their last authorized remodeling, when Jas was seven, and he had instantly seen the picture. That squiggle was the nose; the dark space his eye; the lips the gentle curves just below. It was a benign face, kind if monstrous, trustworthy if incredible. How had he decided that it was his father? Jas knew. After all, he had seen no other picture.

He wanted the face to smile, but it always just smirked, as if just about to laugh, or as if it had just tired of laughter. Or as if it knew that a meal was coming. Jas shuddered.

And as he did his mind gave his body a reason for the fear. How was I to know, he asked himself. How was I to know that the last three questions were cross–programmed from another classroom, a classified, advanced, damn–it–but–it–all–made–so–much–sense classroom, and Jason rolled over and dug his hand into his mattress, partly because it felt good, and partly because his mother had told him, "When you muck up the mattress it has to be replaced early, and if it has to be replaced early, the government gets angry."

Advanced astrodynamics. Well, it just felt like more math, how was I to know I was playing little games with stars and planets? And I understood it, once I got the answer. Jas rumpled the bed again. Once he got the answer: that was the problem. He couldn't show them any figuring. He couldn't show them how he arrived at the correct answer. "I figure in my head," he said, and they showed him the paper where he had done some other figuring, and Jas had smiled and said, "Sometimes, anyway."

If only Tork had been a moron and had remembered astrodynamics wrong.

If only God were still alive and not just a face on the ceiling.

"I'm a Swipe," Jas said under his breath, trying out the words.

Suddenly a hand was fiercely clamped over his mouth. Startled, he opened his eyes to see his mother glaring down at him.

"Fool!" his mother hissed. "An intelligence that can't be measured and you talk as if the walls weren't listening!"

"I was joking," Jas stammered, "I didn't think —"

"In this world, boy, don't ever not think. Why do you suppose your father died?" She wheeled and left the room.

Jas looked after her. "Father didn't have a chance!" he shouted.

"Shut up and eat your dinner," his mother snapped, surly again. Again? Still.

The answers had just been sitting there, like a disc ready to be played, a book ready to be read, waiting for him behind Tork's eyes. Jas looked up and saw his mother watching him. He looked at her tightly–set lips, glanced at her wrinkled forehead, and saw (just behind the eyes) that she would suffer any torture if it would bring Homer Worthing back to her for one bright day, for one penetrating touch, for one last kind, delicate, ravishing night.

"I wish I looked more like him, mother," Jas said, wanting the wrinkles on the forehead to go away.

She just narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't," she whispered, and then pushed a plate of the stiff gel that was called soup in the catalog across the table toward him. Jas sat for a moment, then leaned across the table, took his mother by the shoulders, and pulled her close. His mouth by her ear, he spoke so softly that he could barely hear his own voice, and said, "It's true."

She tried to pull away, shaking her head.

"Mother," Jas insisted, pulling her closer still, "I'm a Swipe. I got the answers from the teacher's mind."

She shuddered. "Impossible," she said softly.

"I know."

She got up from the table and took him by the hand. Together they left the flat and walked down corridors and ramps to the tube. At that hour it wasn't crowded. She dragged him along until they got to a women's lavatory. She started to pull him in.

"I can't go in there," Jas whispered.

"You're sure as hell going to," she hissed back, her face ugly with fear.

He went in. It was empty. His mother leaned against the door, facing him.

"Maybe," she said, "this place isn't bugged. But if it is, we won't be known."

"Voiceprints."

"Whisper, then," she whispered. "I said it's impossible. I've had two blood tests. Once before your father's trial, and this time for you. I do not have the Swipe on any of my lousy DNA. My X chromosomes are clean. Do you understand that?"

"I know what I did."

"You couldn't have gotten the trait from your father," she said, holding tightly to the boy's arm, "because it's carried on the X and he only gave you a Y."

"I've taken genetics."

"Then why did you say what you did?"

"Separate mutation," Jas said, and she clenched her grip on his arm. It hurt, but he was afraid to try to pull away. He had never seen her this angry and afraid at the same time.

"Do you think they didn't check that? It's the first thing they check. Your cells don't show any mutation."

"Then it's magic," Jas said, and she relaxed just enough that he felt safe in trying to pull his arm free. She let him.

"Magic," she said, and then she covered her face with her hands, digging her fingers into her eye sockets so fiercely that Jas worried, fleetingly, that she might be trying to blind herself, even though the cost of a transplant would wipe out her earnings and her pension for years. He gingerly reached for her arms, to pull her hands down, but when he touched her she erupted, shouted at him, forgetting the danger that one of Mother's Little Boys might be listening. "Listen to me! It's impossible! You're just hallucinating because of your father. They warned me it might happen, that children of Swipes sometimes react this way, pretending to be Swipes because of guilt feelings about the way their parent died. But whether it's real or not, it can get you killed if you go around claiming to be a —"

"I don't feel guilty about my father's death!" Jas said angrily. "I wasn't even born when he died. I wasn't even conceived. If you didn't want a crazy child, why did you go to the sperm bank —"

"I wanted him to have a son —"

"Well, he's got one! But don't try to transfer your psychoses onto me!"

She fell silent, her jaw slack. And as Jas leaned against the washbasin he again had a flash; but this time not a thought, this time a picture: A man smiling — not a handsome man, but a man used to power, a man sure of himself, a man with huge, powerful, sweet hands that reached out and touched —

"No!" his mother shouted at him, and she pushed his hand away, and he realized that he had touched her just as she was remembering his father's touch, that he had been acting out her memory.

"Don't touch me!" she said. "Not like that."

"I'm sorry. I just — I couldn't help it — mother, why do you remember him laughing, when he —"

His mother shook her head violently. "You didn't see," she hissed, more to herself than to him. "You didn't know, you didn't see." She was not looking at him. Is she even sane, Jas wondered for a moment. And then realized that the answer to his question was no, had always been no.

Suddenly his mother relaxed and smiled. "Of course," she said. "You're just insightful. It's a family trait. Your grandfather was just like that. As if he could see into your soul." She laughed. "Little Jason Worthing, just like your father's father."

"And my father."

"No!" she said fiercely. "He was a Swipe. But your grandfather. He just looked at me the first time Homer brought me home, just looked at my eyes and then he smiled and he said to me, ‘Nita, you're a good woman, you're right for my son.'

And from then on it was like he'd known me all my life. He knew he could trust me. And he could, he could."

Somebody pushed on the door, trying to get in.

"We've got to leave, mother," Jas said.

"Not until you promise me," she said.

"What."

"That you'll never say that again. To anyone. About being a —"

"I promise. Do you think I want to get killed?" Jas lunged for the doorknob. His mother backed away, and the door slid open as Jason twisted the knob.

A woman with a little girl who was dancing up and down shot them a dirty look as they came out. Then she did a double take when she realized that Jas was a boy.

"Perverts!" the woman spat as they hurried through the cars to the exit.

The next day at school they tried to trap him. Tork wasn't in the test room. Jas went in for his regular weekend quiz, and an empty–headed woman with thoroughly observable décolletage greeted him in a whispery voice and told him his test was ready. Jas guessed what they were going to do. To make sure, he looked into her head. Behind her eyes? A love life. No answers to tests.

And sure enough, the test was not on the topology of speed–of–light motion, the study topic for the week. It was, once again, astrodynamics. All new questions, of course. But the same topic.

Jas had to work on this one. Of course, his mind being what it was, he remembered perfectly everything he had taken from Tork's mind the week before. Now he had to apply the principles, think them through. But his logic kept up with the questions on the test.

He did miss one question. But ninety–nine was close enough to a hundred to be statistically insignificant.

When the computer printed out his score, Jas stood up and announced to the woman, "All right, lady. When you see Tork again, tell him for me I'm going to press charges. This test was illegal."

The woman was genuinely surprised. "What could be illegal? I just pressed the button and —"

"I know, I know. Just tell Tork for me. Can you remember that long?"

She sniffed her disdain. "You boy geniuses all seem to think you're the only ones with minds."

When Jas left the school he had every intention of going straight to the CRL for a lawyer to press his case — it was airtight, there'd be no way to hide their tampering with the computer program to put the wrong test on it. And without a writ they had no right to double–check his score.

But then he realized that he didn't want to attract too much attention with this. Because if rumor got around that he was suspected to be a Swipe, the doors would start to close to him. His unmeasurable intelligence would be worth as much as a moron rating.

No, let them sweat, but don't make too many waves.

Somehow the tests had all come out negative. But Jas knew he had the Swipe. And they might have other tests that would discover it.

"Insightful," his mother had said, "just like your father's father."

Father. And me. And grandfather?

But grandfather was dead.

Jas went to a directory and found the listing: "Genealogical program, G55Nxy3. He put his credit card (nearly worthless for purchasing, but good enough for this) into the computer outlet and punched in the program.

"Genealogy: Name research, 4n; inheritance tie–ins, 4i; name similarities..." Finally Jas found what he wanted, punched in his own name and birth date, and waited for the reading.