art by Jason Stirret
by Davyne DeSye
The two-year-old in the corner clutches her collection of candy wrappers and odd papers to herself as if they were dragon's horde. The stripped vault I've closed us in--me and twenty-seven children--shudders once, twice, and the already dim lighting wanes; the two-year-old looks briefly up toward the lights set around the edges of the metal ceiling, but is far more interested in the crinkling sound of her treasures.
We've been in the vault too long. The sealed room smells of a day's worth of urine and worse. Resilient, adaptable, none of the children cry out at this latest attack. The wispy hair that frames the two-year-old's face seems to glow even in the low light, and I find myself wondering if all two-year-olds look as cherubic. Not that I really care.
"What ever happened to the magic mirror?" asks an older girl sitting amid five other girls quietly clinging to each other. They're six, eight, maybe ten years old. I suppose I should know, this being my third child rescue detail, but frankly, I've never much paid attention to children--at least not until a girl is old enough to be sexually interesting or a guy old enough to be trouble. Child rescue wasn't my idea of how to get involved in the war. I wanted the real work of war. Man against the Ants. Fights behind enemy lines. Impossible odds. Call me a romantic.
"That's the end," I tell her. "The evil queen is dead, and the prince and princess live happily ever after." The girl's dark eyes never leave mine and I realize that she has already perfected the feminine art of pouting. She frees her hand from the clutches of a friend, and pulls at the dark curls that fall over her shoulder. The vault shudders again, and in the blinking of the lights I picture the curls spilled over her dead face, no longer as lustrous, but even in death still obscenely curly. Somehow, I think, the curls should die too.
"Tell the girl what she wants to know." The falsely deep voice accompanies a jab in my ribs from behind. I raise my hands slowly. The girl's younger brother steps around me, arms poised as though cradling a rifle, and grins at me. "Otherwise, I'll have to shoot ya."
The two-year-old cries out as two wrestling tomboys knock her over, and continue unheeding of her protests. I start to lift myself from my position on the floor, but before I can loose myself from the open-mouthed boy asleep in my lap, the cherub has already re-collected her horde and is quietly transferring the pile, one piece at a time, from beside her left knee to a spot beside her right. A small boy beside her parts and combs his hair with his father's comb as he has already done countless times over the past several hours.
"What ever happened to the magic mirror?" the girl asks again, louder this time. The pile of girls amidst which she sits blinks at me, waiting. My mind races in blank circles like a one-legged robot. After the adrenaline of locating the children--two or three at a time, rushing them quietly and in an ever increasing group toward the safety of this vault, and then hour upon hour of stories and the soft sternness of sudden fatherhood--my mind is numb. I long for the stark clarity of the heated battle.
From my left: "Are you our hero?" asks a thin morose boy who, until this moment, has not spoken during the twenty-six and a half hours we've been in the vault. His voice is very small. "Are you like Captain Star, here to save us?" He is standing extremely close to me, chin to chest, looking out at me from under long, straight bangs. His hands fidget constantly with his fly.
"I'm just a Lieutenant, kid," I answer him, flip in my exhaustion. His shoulders slump and his eyes drop as he turns and shuffles back to the boxes in the corner that he's been hiding in. "Hey kid," I call after him, "Captain Star sent me, okay? I'm going to do my best to--"
A violent blast rocks the vault and sends the children screaming. The blackness in side is complete. I am surrounded by a many-limbed, wet and sobbing mass, clutching at me as though it would drown without me. I speak loudly, and with the warm voice of authority that the children are looking for.
"Everything is going to be okay," I say over and over, feeling myself rock with the dreamy monotony of the phrase. "I'm here to protect you." Only the last is a sure thing. The blast was close: the generator in this sector wouldn't have gone down without a direct hit from a demi-nuke or worse. Either our guys just broke through and we'll be rushing out into the cruel efficiency of the extraction team that gets us off-station, or we'll soon be dead. All except those curls.