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Warchild

By´╝ÜKARIN LOWACHEE

PART I

I.


You didn't see their faces from where you hid behind the maintenance grate. Smoke worked its fingers through the tiny holes and stroked under your nose and over your eyes, forcing you to stifle breaths, to blink, and to cry. Footsteps followed everywhere that smoke went on the deck— heavy, violent footsteps—and everywhere they went, shouts went with them. Screams. Pulse fire.

You hardly knew what to listen for, where that one voice you wanted to hear so badly could be among all the other voices that rose and fell on the other side of your screen. Your shelter. Your cowardice.

But your parents had told you to hide if something like this happened. There'd been drills, even in the middle of your sleepshift, so you knew when the klaxon wailed and Daddy and Mama went for their guns and ushered you into the secret compartment in the floor that you were doing what was right, what you were told to do. Pirates or aliens or the Warboy could attack Mukudori and you had to stay hidden, just in case, just like you practiced. Daddy and Mama would come back and get you when the klaxon stopped and they'd say you did good, Jos. Daddy would call you his brave soldier boy, and you would believe it. When they lifted you out of that hiding place and smiled at you so proud, you didn't feel like an eight-year-old at all.

But they hadn't come back to the secret compartment. The little yellow light in there winked as if something was wrong with it, on-off, on-off, until you shut your eyes and just listened. But you were under the skin of the ship, like Daddy said, and it was quiet. You didn't hear outside, and outside couldn't hear you. It kept you safe. It was too dark so you opened your eyes and looked up, touched the light, touched the rough walls, but time went away with every yellow blink and nobody came. It got too warm, as if somebody had shut the air vents.

You waited until your legs were numb from sitting in that small space and Mama and Daddy didn't come back. Everywhere was silence and you were too scared to move your fingers and unhook the latch that would open a way into the bedroom. But eventually you had to. Eventually you had to find out why Daddy and Mama hadn't come back like they always did at the end of drills. They never forgot. Daddy would brush off your bottom and ruffle your hair while Mama locked the guns back in the cabinet. They thought you didn't know how to open it. But you did. You thought of that cabinet as you finally crept out of the compartment and made a run for the other side of your bed. You peeked above the rumpled covers but there wasn't anybody in the room and you couldn't hear anybody in the outer room either. So you climbed over your bed and then over your parents' and ran to the outer room so you could take the comp chair and use it to get to the cabinet. Quick before somebody came in.

You stood on the chair and poked the right numbers that you'd seen Daddy and Mama use, then the green button, and waited. The cabinet comp beeped, then the lights behind the buttons glowed green and you grabbed the handle and tugged. A rack of guns. You couldn't remember exactly how to use them but you probably could figure it out. You'd seen Daddy and Mama use them on the firing range. Daddy and Mama were good with guns, even though they were engineers. Everybody old enough had to be good with guns, Daddy said, because of the war. Nobody could predict aliens or the symps like the Warboy, and merchants like Mukudori could get caught between some Hub battleship and a strit one, you just never knew. And pirates were worse. Pirates liked to take hostages.

Never can be too safe, Mama said, when she locked away the guns after a drill.

You took the smallest one in the cabinet and looked at it all over, where the activation was, where the safety was, where the kill release was. Your friend Evan was older and he'd explained all the parts before, even though he never let you touch one. But now you could protect Mukudori like Daddy and Mama did, if you had a gun. You hopped down and ran to the hatch to put your ear against it like when you played hide-and-seek with Evan and Derek.

Now you heard the noise, muffled, and smelled smoke very faintly. You didn't want to go out, it was better to hide in the room and wait. But what if something was wrong with the ship and you had to evac? What if something was wrong with the intercom so you couldn't hear the captain telling you to go? What if Daddy and Mama got hung up somewhere and couldn't come back for you? Strits or pirates attacked merchants, Mama said, because the Hub warred with the strits and the pirates were greedy. What if they were out there now? You knew you were breaking regs by opening that hatch but you couldn't sit and wait when it had been so long without anybody coming to tell you anything. You had a gun. You could help.

So you opened the hatch. It took a lot of tugging, and the noise got worse. You crept down the corridor, twitching at every sound. Voices around the corner screamed words Daddy had told you never to repeat. The sound of pulse shots bounced toward you. Someone fell into view. Derek. Just this past goldshift you'd played with Derek in the gym and there he was on the deck, looking at you, but he wasn't looking at you. He was bleeding from his head. He didn't move. The screaming kept on but it wasn't the klaxon, it was Derek's mother. Even distorted you recognized her Martian accent.

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