Paris, France – Friday, the 8th of June, 2012. 09:19 PM.
Jasper Davis couldn’t recall the exact time when he last visited a fun fair. It probably hadn’t been since the early 2000s, when he lived in London with his father and his older sister Hannah. She was always the adventurous sibling, dragging him onto the crazy rides even though the mere sight of them twisted his stomach.
Funny how life turns out, he mused as he gazed up at the motionless Ferris wheel as it loomed over the abandoned amusement park. Hannah got a biology degree and a wedding ring, and I got superpowers.
He had never been a huge fan of amusement parks, but this one had a unique kind of charm to it. It had been closed off by the authorities after some of the activists who were protesting the Covenant set up shop there. The troublemakers didn’t lingered for long, however, and the park was spared apart from some graffiti and a few upended trash cans.
Granted, all of the booths and stalls had been closed so he couldn’t buy Sarina a ticket to ride on the Ferris wheel—he was sure that she would have enjoyed it—but the Nameless were having a good time anyway. Snow was exploring a field of flowers which surrounded a small picnic area, pausing every so often to add a few more to the small bouquet in her hands. Ace and Tess sat on one of the wooden benches, engaged in a lengthy conversation. They looked relaxed for a change. Tess wore Ace’s hat, and had hooked both of her elbows over the backrest so her arms dangled. Sarina and Sunny had gone off to hunt for ice cream.
Jasper rested his elbows on the top rail of the steel fence that surrounded the swing carousel and closed his eyes. He appreciated the quiet atmosphere more than anything. He was better now at shutting out the noise than he had been right after his transition, but large groups of people still overwhelmed him if his concentration slipped. The earphones that had become his trademark blocked out the cacophony produced by crowds of people.
Most people weren’t pleasant to listen to for him. They emitted jarring, dissonant sounds that didn’t jibe and insulted his composer’s sense of aesthetics. Some people gave off actual melodies or fragments of one, and those were the individuals who inspired him. They tended to be Evolved or the kinds of personalities that inspired others, too. Authors, artists, leaders.
Jasper told Sarina that he had a pretty good people sense. That wasn’t exactly wrong, but it wasn’t exactly right, either. The sounds he heard were an expression of people’s moods and personalities. Some were more complex than others, but most were interesting in their own way. He wished that he could have listened to someone like Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King and Ludwig van Beethoven intrigued him as well, but, to his disappointment, his power only extended to the living. Usually he had to be within a hundred meters or so to hear them, but sometimes he managed to pick up some people’s sounds by talking to them on the phone, reading their books, or studying their art.
In one recent case, he had been blown away while chatting online, but he never assembled the courage to tell Sarina the truth about their real life encounter. When they met, the sound of her had drawn him to her like a lantern draws a moth. That was a subject best saved for another time, or perhaps another life, if Jasper could somehow figure out how to reincarnate himself into one of the handsome, slightly older men she preferred.
He could tell because her melody changed whenever she looked at one of them.
The sound of footsteps drew Jasper’s attention back to the here and now. Straightening, he looked behind him to see Sarina and Sunny returning from their mission. The kid grinned like a Cheshire cat, clutching a bundle of plastic-wrapped ice cream bars with both hands. Sarina had one in each hand, and she wagged one in his direction when their eyes met.
“You two didn’t hold up a convenience store, did you?” Jasper called over. “Are those police sirens I hear in the distance?”
“I wish,” Sunny grumbled. “Sarina insisted that we find a vending machine, even though no one would have noticed if we had taken them from a store.”
Sarina stepped up to the rail, and thrust a frozen chocolate rocket in his face. “He makes it sound like it was easy, but it wasn’t,” she said as he took the proffered treat. “Even the vending machines were locked away.”
“We should get rid of the evidence anyway,” Jasper said, biting off half of his ice cream bar. As he fought off an ice cream headache, he gave Sunny’s ice cream bouquet a doubtful glance. “How fast can you eat all of those? They’re going to melt.”
“I can eat at superhuman speed,” Sunny joked.
Sarina rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you and every other thirteen-year-old boy.”
“I’m almost fourteen,” Sunny cut in.
“You should at least offer one to Snow,” Jasper suggested. “She would forget to eat if we didn’t remind her.”
Sunny twisted his mouth into a pout as he eyed the white-haired girl in the field. “She didn’t say anything when I asked who wanted one.”
“She’s quiet. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want any.”
Sunny squinted back at him. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “You guys want to be alone. O … kay.” He bundled up the ice cream bars against his dragon-printed shirt and strolled off to Snow, walking with deliberate casualness.
Sarina laughed, pressing the back of a hand to her mouth. It was a soft, subdued sound, and the fact that she tried to hold it back made it all the more endearing.
Jasper adjusted his focus, and allowed his senses to become flooded by the sound of her. The gentle harmonies that joined in with the chime of her laughter were of an ethereal quality, unlike any instrument he ever heard. Some of the chords that he produced with his composer’s software came close, but they sounded cold in comparison. Inorganic. What was most fascinating was her music reinforced the natural sounds of life around her without drowning them out. Birds warbled with more clarity as the voices of their fellow team members carried across a greater distance. Even the chirping of the crickets gained a better quality.
“Jasper, are you zoning out again?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. The late sun set her hair afire with a glow of reddish gold. “You’re so frustrating sometimes. One Snow is enough.”
“Not zoning out,” he murmured, focusing on the words she spoke rather than the composition of chimes surrounding her. “Just thinking.”
“Well, either way, your ice cream’s melting.”
“Oh.” Jasper looked down at his half-eaten chocolate rocket to see it drip down his hand onto the front of his shirt. He took another bite, trying to shut the sounds out of his mind.
As he gazed up at the swing carousel on the other side of the fence, he wondered what would have happened if they never met online. If they just passed by each other on the street, strangers who happened to take the same subway or grab a coffee at the same café. He could have picked her out of a crowd of thousands.
Hello. What’s your name? You sound nice. Would you mind if I just sat here and listened to you for a while?
“Seriously, what are you thinking about?” she asked, following his gaze up to the motionless carnival ride.
“Have you ever been to a carnival before?” he asked, grasping the first thing that came to mind.
“Once,” she said. “It was a fall fair, but it was small. Not like this.”
“Just once?” Jasper remembered to take another bite of his half-melted ice cream. “My sister used to drag me to at least two of them every year.”
“The Scotts, my last family before the Baumanns, were pretty strict.”
“Very,” she said emphatically. “They picked a ‘problem kid’ from the juvenile shelter, after all.” She lifted her hands from the fence to indicate air quotes with her fingers.
Jasper’s brows furrowed. “If you were a problem kid, I would be locked away already.” He tried his usual approach to lighten the mood. “Swiss juvenile shelters must have really broad admissions criteria.”
“My last foster parents dropped me off there after my foster mom had a nervous breakdown.” Sarina’s face was distant, eyes fixed on the shadows beneath the looming Ferris wheel.
“See?” Jasper said. “It wasn’t even your fault. I lost my tuition fee for the Royal Academy of Music by gambling with some idiot who looked like my best friend after half a bottle of whiskey. That was my fault. My father grounded me for two weeks. He mentioned that he would disown me at least three times.”
“But he didn’t,” Sarina whispered.
Jasper cursed at himself for saying such a thoughtless thing. He was searching for a way to apologize when Sarina spoke again in her normal tone. She didn’t sound offended at all.
“Mr. and Mrs. Scott thought they had been chosen by higher powers or something to set me straight,” she explained. “Mr. Scott said over and over how I would always be a nobody until I earned my place in society. They gave me rules for everything. How to eat, how to dress, how to do my homework. I wasn’t allowed to have any mirrors in my room because I had to defeat the ‘ugliness inside me’ before worrying about looks.” More air quotes.
“Wow. That is strict,” Jasper muttered. It explained a lot of things about her, though. He never met a girl with less self-awareness than Sarina.
“If I did everything right, I was allowed to spend the evening with them, watching TV or going for a walk,” she continued. Then her voice was so quiet it was barely audible. “But most of the time I screwed something up and spent the evening in my room. Alone.”
Jasper didn’t know what to say. His instinct was to offer her a hug, but he didn’t want to startle her. It all felt so grotesque to him. There wasn’t a single thing about Sarina he would change. The setting sun cast a golden glow over her heart-shaped face, enhancing her strong cheekbones and the adorable quirkiness of her slightly uneven eyebrows. Her full lips were slightly parted, making him wonder if they tasted like vanilla ice cream.
He could imagine what she might have looked like a few years ago. Pretty on the verge of gorgeous, forced into some kind of mousy outfit by her foster parents. Shy and insecure, desperate to make friends.
He realized he was staring. “What about school?” he asked, hoping to avert an awkward moment.
“Mrs. Scott tutored me at home for a year,” Sarina said. “Then my social worker arranged for me to go back to a public school when I was thirteen. I had a few friends there, but they weren’t the best kind of friends, you know? I tried coke for the first time at one of their birthday parties, at my boyfriend’s suggestion. He probably wasn’t the best influence either.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he assured her. “You were young. Only thirteen, right?” She looked so vulnerable. He just couldn’t understand how anyone could ever do anything to harm her.
“I was fourteen,” she said. “But maybe it’s just in my genes,” she answered. “My real mom was on heroin. That’s why I got taken away from her in the first place.”
Jasper ignored the part about genetics, refusing to reinforce it with an answer. He hoped that one day he could help her to understand how ridiculous the idea was, but now wasn’t the time.
“Fourteen-year-olds can get coke in Switzerland?” he said instead. “I should write a serious letter to your government.”
Sarina shrugged her shoulders. “My boyfriend was seventeen. And a lot of rich kids in Zürich take it.”
“I’m just glad it’s all behind you, and you found parents who actually deserve you,” he added.
Sarina gave a weak grin. “Me, too.”
Jasper wasn’t sure if he should say anything more. He wanted to show his interest, but he didn’t want to probe if she didn’t feel comfortable sharing.
“The Scotts sent me to rehab when they found out about the coke, but never came to pick me up,” she told him in a small voice. “I think they went back to England or something. So it was back to the juvenile shelter for me. Again.” The sun sunk below the tree line, highlighting the vulnerability in her face as she stared off into the red sky.
“My social worker was pretty awesome, though. She found the Baumanns for me three months later, and my mom—well, I think of her as my mom now—said she had really looked forward to meeting me.”
Maybe she could hear you, too, Jasper thought, resisting the urge to open his senses to the sound of her. He didn’t want to zone out again. Not now.
“That’s amazing,” he said, partially distracted by the wisp of strawberry blonde hair that blew across her lips.
Her face broke into a genuine smile for the first time since their conversation had turned serious. “They are amazing,” she corrected. “Mrs. Baumann even quit her job to look after me, so I wouldn’t fall back into my old patterns. Because they lived in Bern rather than Zürich, I didn’t see my old friends anymore which turned out to be the best thing for me.”
Jasper glanced at Ace and Tess, still engaged in casual conversation on their bench. Not far away, Snow and Sunny ate their ice cream amid the flowers, content in their shared silence.
I hope these guys will turn out to be good for you, too.
He had listened to them, and decided they were pretty alright people. Snow had a very peculiar sound to her: a slow adagio piece of delicate notes spaced out so much they barely sounded as though they were connected. Ace gave off an energetic combination of strong notes without any of the undertones typical of misconception or aggression. Tess sounded so complex that he barely identified the various elements, but her dulcet piano core was heard through the piece while Sunny’s animated rhythm of wind instruments chimed with youthful insecurity.
What worried Jasper the most was the change he observed when Sarina’s power surfaced. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but the shift in tune was so extreme, it hinted at some kind of personality disorder. And the other version—the power version—wasn’t pleasant to hear. Its dissonant and thundering percussive pulsations had a dark intensity which overpowered everything else. He suspected that she might need help to stand her ground against the darker side of hers.
“I wish every day could be like this one,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “I mean, I miss home, of course, but this is almost like … a vacation. I half expect I’ll write some postcards about how the weather is great.”
“And how you hung out at an amusement park that was closed for everyone except you,” Jasper added.
“Rau … ight,” she said, affecting Ace’s Australian accent.
Jasper scanned the park, awash in the sunset’s last hints of reds and golds, and his eyes landed on a small pavilion at the eastern end of the picnic area.
“Come on,” he said, touching her arm with his fingers before heading off in the direction of the pavilion. After several feet, the sound of footsteps told him that Sarina was following them.
After she caught up to him, she gave him a skeptical look. “Where are we going?”
Jasper took the ice cream wrapper from her and threw it in a nearby trash can along with his own. “You’ll see,” he said in what he hoped was a mysterious tone.
And we’ll both see if I chicken out or not.
He reached the wooden steps, leading up to the pavilion, first and took them two at a time. The wooden construction creaked beneath his shoes. “Can’t you just imagine an orchestra playing here?” he asked as she came up the stairs behind him.
Sarina surveyed the small gazebo. It was about sixteen feet in diameter, surrounded by a waist-high railing with spindles that were alternately painted in red, white, and blue. A French flag hung overhead, swaying in the wind.
She nodded. “Yeah. It would be wonderful to see.”
From up here they had a good view of the entire park. Their team was assembled around a newspaper kiosk, checking out the display of magazines. Ace and Tess stood side by side, sharing one of the headlines.
“Do you think Ace and Tess are a couple?” Sarina asked.
“Nah. I don’t think Ace would be into a tech girl who could knock him out with one blow of a wrench.”
Sarina giggled. “You’re probably right. I bet he likes French strippers, like Eve.”
“I’m not so sure about that. That woman is poisonous. She would scare any man away.”
“How did you meet these guys, anyway?” Sarina nodded her head at the rest of their team. “I’ve wondered.”
“There’s an Evolved community for the UK and Ireland,” he said. “I met Tess and Sunny at one of its gatherings. A little while after they disappeared, Tess got in touch with me through one of her hacker friends. I’m pretty sure that they decided to disappear because the kid surged. Can’t say I blame them.”
“What about Ace and Snow?” Sarina asked.
He shrugged. “When I agreed to meet up with Tess and Sunny, they brought Ace and Snow along. They had already formed their group by then.”
They fell into a short silence.
Jasper cleared his throat, suddenly nervous. “Has anyone ever asked you to slow dance before?” he asked, fixing his eyes on hers.
“Sure. You think I lived in a cave?” Then her eyes narrowed curiously. “Can you even dance?”
“Not well,” he admitted. “They offered some classical dance courses at the Royal Academy of Music that we all had to sign up for, but I really stunk at it.”
“So you made it there after all, in spite of the whiskey-fueled gambling.”
“Yeah. I went for almost two years, until I transitioned, then the other students got intimidated by the skinny Evolved guy’s music projects.”
“Their loss,” she said. Then she paused, brows furrowing. “We’re still driving out of Paris tomorrow, right?”
“Headed for where?”
“Not sure yet. Ace was on the phone with Gentleman for half an hour this afternoon, and they made some kind of a plan.”
“We’re still in agreement, right?” she asked, her eyes locked onto his face.
“We do,” he said, nodding. Wherever she went, he would follow. No questions.
Sarina broke the awkward silence that followed, taking a step closer to him. “Well, what about that dance you promised? Don’t tell me that you were bluffing.”
“Not bluffing. Just remembering what they taught in that dance class.”
“I think a waltz starts like this,” she said, taking his hand in one of hers while settling her other on his shoulder. And with that, they shuffled their feet in tune with a melody that wasn’t heard by anyone except them.