By Karin Lowachee
Published by Aspect
April 2002; 0-446-61077-1; 512 pages
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. Foot-steps 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.
Then she went quiet and a suited form walked around the corner. You didn't see the face. It wore a helmet with no markings on it, not like Mukudori helmets, and thin armor. You stared.
You stared. It came toward you like a creature from the vids, black and sleek, scarred on its reflective face, carrying a big gun. Rifle. It took its time. It said, "Kid," in a hollow voice that didn't seem to come from anywhere near where the mouth should have been. It walked toward you like you were no threat, walked over Derek where he lay still and staring. It tracked blood across the deck and that would've made Cap very, very mad.
You went deaf.
You raised your gun and shot the creature directly in the chest. Somehow your fingers had found the release and the trigger and the small gun went pop pop in your hand, spitting out two bright red pulses that burned the creature through its armor and cast it to the deck.
Two more came around the corner, faster.
Your hand spasmed again, raining red on the creatures so they scattered. Then you turned and ran because suddenly space became noisy again. Now you weren't deaf. Footsteps chased you. The creatures chased you. You knew all the towersteps and you took them, holding the rails, hooking your ankles and sliding down the way you'd done a hundred times, playing.
But somewhere along the line you'd dropped the gun. Going down the stairs.
Stupid, stupid Jos. They shouted above you on crew deck, below you from engineering deck. Now you were on the command deck where Cap should have been. You pounded away from corridor mains and into corners you knew from years of exploring. You remembered the best hiding place in the galaxy. You squeezed into that maintenance shaft and shrank back in the shadows, hoping the ship would not lose gravity, violently, and send the loosened grate across the deckplates. You smelled smoke and tried not to breathe.
Mukudori was dying. The steady low thrum of her atmospheric controls whined to a halt. You knew the word "die." You'd seen it now. Somewhere Simone shouted "No!" You heard Hasao screaming for Johann, you heard all the silences after, silence creeping toward you from all over the ship, deck by deck, until nothing remained but your own breathing.
Dead in space.
You lost the gun. You lost the gun and now you had no defense. Were you going to sit and wait for the creatures to leave the ship and shoot it from wherever they'd come from? Mama said that was what pirates did. What aliens did too, because they didn't like to take prisoners. Were you going to go out and look for Cap, for friends, for family? Daddy and Mama didn't know where you were. You shouldn't have left the secret compartment. You shouldn't have gone so far because now if they were looking for you they would never find you. You were in the best hiding place in the galaxy.
You couldn't breathe. The shaft was filling with smoke. You shut your eyes and covered your mouth with the bottom of your sweater but it didn't help. You coughed, big wracking coughs as if your lungs were going to fall out your mouth and onto your lap.
The grate opened and a thick, gloved hand reached in and dragged you into the blinking red lights that meant the ship needed help. You couldn't stop coughing, even when the hands pinched and felt you all over in places nobody was ever supposed to touch-Daddy had said so when you'd gone on stations and into playdens with other kids. But these hands poked and Daddy wasn't anywhere to hear your voice. You kicked and swung fists but the hands hit you then. The creatures kicked you and yelled at you to stop it or they'd shoot you. The violence of it shocked you motionless.
"He ain't armed," one of the creatures said. "He was. This is the one killed Martine."
They hit you again. You stared at their boots. The deck was cold against your cheek. Above your head, far up against the lights the creatures carried on their distant, hollow conversation. You blinked and your eyes ran. Something red made a film over your sight.
"He'll be good. He's strong."
"He'll grow. What does he look like, six?"
"Hey, kid, how old're you?" Something prodded your back. You couldn't answer. "Look at his tag."
The gloved hand came back, smacked you when you tried to roll away. Your head spun and you couldn't see clearly. The hand reached in your sweater and yanked out the chained disk from around your neck. The reflective helmet that gave no features came close, looking at your face on the tag and all the basic information it held in case you were lost on station and something had happened to your parents or the ship. Something had happened. But these were the wrong people. They wouldn't help you.
In the helmet you saw your own eyes. They were black holes.
"Eight. Small for eight."
"Can use a P-90 well enough."
"Yeah, Falcone will wanna see him." The hand let your tag drop, lifted up your head by the hair and turned your face this way and that, then pried open your mouth and looked in. You bit. The creature slapped you again. Hard.
"Gonna have to beat the attitude out," was the last thing you heard.Copyright © 2002 Karin Lowachee
Reprinted with permission.
Committed to finding science fiction's voices of the future, Warner Aspect sponsors worldwide searches for debut novels. The competition's first winner, Nalo Hopkinson, quickly became one of the most acclaimed authors of her generation. Now, from a selection of over one thousand entries, Warner Aspect is proud to present WARCHILD, by Karin Lowachee, the engrossing story of a young boy's coming of age amid interstellar war, a riveting saga in the tradition of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.
The merchant ship Mukudori encompasses the whole of eight-year-old Jos's world, until a notorious pirate destroys the ship, slaughters the adults, and enslaves the children. Thus begins a desperate odyssey of terror and escape that takes Jos beyond known space to the homeworld of the strits, Earth's alien enemies. To survive, the boy must become a living weapon and a master spy. But no training will protect Jos in a war where every hope might be a deadly lie, and every friendship might hide a lethal betrayal. And all the while he will face the most grueling trial of his life...becoming his own man.
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Karin Lowachee and her family moved from Guyana, South Africa to Canada when was two years old. After a fairly typical childhood, accept for perhaps, the fact that she saw and was influenced by Star Wars at the age of four, she entered university with the single-minded intention to writing. After university she bided time in typical jobs that had little to do with novel writing, before she was rejected from the graduate writing program at the University of British Columbia. So instead she went to Canada's small tundra community of Rankin Inlet, which sits on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Karin submitted her first completed novel to the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, clearly not expecting to win.