"Sister Alice -- Chapter One"
by Robert Reed
Xo told their squad this was a lousy place to build and their fort was sick with flaws, and the Blues were sure to crush them, and, of course, every disaster would be Ravleen’s fault. He said it with his best whiny voice, making it impossible to ignore his grousing. She had no choice but to come over, interrupting their drills to tell Xo to quit. But he wouldn’t quit. He laughed in her face, and said, “You’re no general.” Ord heard him plainly. Everyone heard him. Ravleen had no choice but to knock him off his feet and give him a good sharp kick. Xo was a Gold, and she was their Sanchex, the Gold’s eternal general. She had every right to punish him, aiming for his belly and ribs. But Xo refused to cooperate. He started cursing, bright poisonous words hanging in the air. “You’re not Sanchex,” he grunted. “You’re just a Sanchex face stuffed full of shit, and I’m not scared of you.” Ravleen moved to his face, breaking his nose and cheekbones, the skin splitting and blood spattering on the new snow. Everyone watched. Ord stood nearby, watching their snow melt into the blood, each diluting the other. He saw Xo’s face become a gooey mess, and he heard the boy’s voice finally fall away into a sloppy wet laugh.
Tule stepped up, saying, “If you hurt him too much, he won’t be able to hurt anyone else.”
Ravleen paused, panting from her hard work. Tule was right. Their general dropped her foot and pushed her long black hair out of her eyes, grinning now, making sure everyone could see her confidence. Then she knelt, making a ball out of the bloody snow, asking, “Who wants to help this shit home?”
Tule was closest, but she despised Xo. She didn’t approve of disobedience; it was her endless duty to keep their clan working smoothly, bowing to every one of Ravleen’s demands.
On the other hand, Ord was passingly sympathetic. Xo wasn’t his best friend, but he was a reliable companion. Besides, for the time being they belonged to the same squad. A soldier had a duty to his squad, and that’s why Ord stepped up, saying, “I’ll take him.”
“Then come straight back,” Ravleen added.
He gave a nod, and asked Xo, “Can you stand?”
The bloody face said, “Maybe.” A gloved hand reached for him, and Ord thought of the battered ribs as he lifted. But the tortured groans were too much; Xo had a fondness for theater. “Thanks,” he muttered, then he reached into his mouth, pulling out a slick white incisor and tossing it at the half-built fort. With a soft ping, the tooth struck one of the robots and vanished.
They walked slowly, crossing the long pasture before climbing into the dark winter woods. Xo stopped at the first tree, leaning against it and carefully spitting out a glob of dark blood. Ord worked to be patient. The tree’s rough bark formed words, and he spent the moment reading about the Chamberlain role in some long-ago treaty. Then he stared back down at the pasture, watching the robots strip it of snow, building their fort according to Ravleen’s exacting designs. A simple titanium pole, topped with a limp golden flag, stood in the future courtyard. Tiny figures wearing clean white snowsuits were drilling again—six squads honing themselves for snowfare. It looked like an easy pasture to defend. On three sides, it fell away, cliffs and nearly vertical woods protecting the fort. The only easy approach was from here, from above. Ravleen was assuming that the Blues would do what was easy, which was why the nearest wall had the thickest foundation. “Keep your strong to their strong,” was an old Sanchex motto. But what if Xo was right? What if their general was leaving the other walls too weak?
“I can’t walk very fast,” Xo warned. His swollen face was inhuman, ruined flesh and bits of bone floating in a masticated stew. But the bleeding had stopped, scabs forming, and the smallest cuts beginning to heal. Speaking with a faint lisp, Xo admitted, “I sound funny now.”
“You should have left your tooth in,” Ord countered. Gums preferred to repair teeth, not replace them. “Or you might have kept your mouth shut in the first place.”
Xo gave a little laugh.
Something moved in the distance. Ord squinted, seeing an airship carrying sightseers. The distant sun glittered against the ship’s body, and he imagined curious eyes watching only him.
“Let’s go,” he urged. “I’m tired of standing.”
They walked on a narrow trail, their pace more leisurely than slow. Snow began to fall, and the woods were already knee deep in old snow. They weren’t far from the lowlands, and sometimes, particularly on clear days, city sounds would rise up from that hot flat country, forcing their way through the acoustic fence. But not today. The snow helped enforce the silence. To step and not hear his own footfall made Ord a little anxious. He was alert, as if ready for an ambush. The war wouldn’t start until the day after tomorrow, but he was anticipating it. He was ready. Unless the fight had made him anxious, which meant that he was distracted and sloppy.
“Know why I did it?” asked Xo.
Ord said nothing.
“Know why I pissed her off?”
The battered face grinned, Xo proud of the gap in his teeth. “I don’t have to play this war now.”
“Ravleen’s not that angry,” Ord countered. “She isn’t even half-enough pissed to ban you.”
“But I’m hurt. Look!”
“So?” Ord refused to act impressed. Glancing over a shoulder, he observed, “You’re walking and talking. Not talking fast and your words are dumb, but still, you’re not that hurt.”
But Xo’s Family—the great Nuyens—were ridiculously cautious. A sister might see his suffering and order him to remain home for a few days. It wouldn’t be the first time, particularly if Xo moaned like he did now, telling Ord, “I don’t want to play snowfare.”
Wincing, Xo pretended to ache. But by now a cocktail of anesthesias was working, and both of them knew it.
“If you can stand, you can fight,” Ord reminded him. “When you became Gold, you took a pledge to serve—”
“Wait.” The boy waded into the deepest snow, heading for an outcropping of cultured granite. He found a block of bright pink stone and carried it back, dropping it at Ord’s feet. “Do me a favor?”
“But not too hard. Just nick me here.” He touched his stubby black hair. “I’ll pay you back sometime. That’s a promise.”
Ord lifted the stone without conviction.
“Make it ugly,” the boy prompted.
Ord shook his head, saying, “First you’ve got to tell me why you don’t want to fight. Is it Ravleen?”
“I don’t care about Ravleen.”
“Tell me the truth, or I won’t help you.”
With his white gloves, the boy touched his scabbed and unnaturally rounded face. “Because it’s stupid.”
“This game. This whole snowfare silliness.”
Calling it a “game” was taboo. Snowfare was a serious exercise that taught you to give orders and obey orders and think well for yourself when there was nobody there but you.
“We’re too old to play,” his friend persisted: “I know I am.”
This wasn’t about Ravleen, which left Ord with no easy, clear rebuke. He asked, “What will you do instead?” He assumed there was some other diversion waiting for Xo. Perhaps a trip somewhere. Not off the estates, of course. That wasn’t permitted, not at their age. But maybe one of Xo’s siblings wanted to take him on a hunt, or somehow else share time with him.
But the boy said, “Nothing. I’m just going to sit at home and study.” He paused for a moment. “Put the pointed end here, okay? Drop it next to this ear. And I promise, I’ll tell my sisters that Ravleen did it.”
Ord watched the boy lie on the hard white trail, his face cocked a little bit to his right. He was waiting calmly for his skull to be shattered. The stone couldn’t hurt him too badly. Eons ago, humans gave up their soft brains for better ones built of tough, nearly immortal substances. The worst Ord could manage would be to scramble some of the neural connections, making Xo forgetful and clumsy for the next few days. The body might even die, but nothing more. Nothing less than a nuclear fire could kill them. Which was the same for almost every human being today.
“Are you going to help me?” the boy whined.
Ord watched the hopeful face, judging distance and mass, deciding what would make the ugliest, most spectacular wound. But he kept thinking back to Xo’s comment about being too old, knowing he was right. Some trusted spark for the game had slipped away unnoticed, and that bothered the boy.
“Will you hurry up?”
He let the stone slip free of his grip, and the earth pulled it down with a smooth perfection, missing Xo’s head by nothing.
“No, I shouldn’t,” Ord said. “I won’t, forget it.”
“Be that way!” The boy lifted the stone himself, groaning as he took aim, trying to summon the courage to finish the job. He was invulnerable, but so were his ancient instincts. This was not easy. His arms shook, then collapsed. The attempt looked like a half accident—a slick wet thud—and his head was left dented on one side. But not badly enough, they discovered. Xo could stand by himself, a little dizzy, but still on his feet. He touched his wounds one after another, telling himself, “At least I’ll get tomorrow to myself.” He wasn’t looking at Ord, and he was talking to himself. “This is good enough,” he claimed with a soft wet voice that instantly got lost in the muting whisper of falling snow.
©2003 Robert Reed -- All Rights Reserved
This page last updated: April 30, 2008