―Will you tell me your name?" asked Dr. Halsey. She made no move to squat down in front of the boy, to smile, to do anything at all to come down to his level. Instead she remained standing, her posture neither friendly nor threatening, but simply as neutral as she could make it. Her gaze was steady, interested.
The boy looked at her from across the room. He was only six but the boy's gaze was just as steady as hers, though there was perhaps a trace of wariness in his eyes. Completely understandable , thought Dr. Halsey. If he knew why I was here there'd be more than just a trace. He held his body just as noncommittally as she held her own, though she could tell by the tightness in his neck that that might change any moment, without warning.
―You first," the boy said, and then moved his mouth into something that could pass for a smile.
His voice was calm, as if he were used to being in charge of a situation. Not afraid, then. Not surprising, thought Dr. Halsey. If the report she'd read was correct, he'd managed to survive on his own, in the Outer Colonies on the planet Dwarka, on an illegal farm in the middle of a forest preserve one hundred kilometers from nowhere, for nearly three months after his parents had died.
Surviving under normal circumstances on a harsh world still in the process of being terraformed was hard enough. But for someone who was barely six years old it was inconceivable.
―I already know your name," Dr. Halsey admitted. ―It's Soren."
―If you knew, why did you ask?"
―I wanted to see if you'd tell me," she said. Then she paused. ―I'm Doctor Halsey," she said, and smiled.
Soren didn't smile back. She now saw more than a trace of suspicion in his gaze, suspicion that sat strangely in his face alongside his straw-colored hair and his pale blue eyes. ―What kind of doctor?"
―I'm a scientist," said Dr. Halsey.
―Not a sigh-, not a sigh-"
―No," she said, and smiled. ―I'm not a psychiatrist. You've been seeing a lot of psychiatrists, haven't you?"
He hesitated just a moment, and then nodded.
―Because of your parents' deaths?"
He hesitated, nodded again.
Dr. Halsey glanced at the holographic files displayed discreetly on the interior of her glasses. His mother had apparently succumbed to a planet-specific disease. Treatments were readily available, but a family living off the grid wouldn't have been aware of that. Instead of reporting immediately to the planetary officials as was required by law, the boy's parents had dismissed the symptoms as those of a cold and had kept working. A few days later, the mother was dead and the stepfather sick.
Soren, perhaps because his younger immune system had adapted more readily to Dwarka, had never become ill. He had, according to his stepfather's dying wish, buried the bodies of both of his parents, then continued to live on in their farmhouse until supplies were almost gone, finally setting out by foot to cross 112 kilometers of blue-gray forest and arrive at the beginning of authorized farmland.
Was she right to consider him for her team of Spartans? Certainly he was bright and resourceful.
He was tough and clearly wouldn't give up easily. But at the same time, what would it do to someone to go through that experience? Nobody knew how traumatized he was. Nobody knew for
certain what it had done-and might still be doing-to him. Probably not even him.
―Why are you here?" he asked.
She looked at him and considered. There was no reason to tell him anything; she could simply do as she and Keyes had done with the others and make the decision for him, flash-clone him and kidnap him for, as she'd started telling herself, the greater good . But with the other children she'd in part assumed they wouldn't understand. Here was a boy without parents who, despite being only six, had had to grow up fast, much faster than her other recruits. Could she tell him more?
―The truth is," she said, ―I came to see you."
―Why?" he countered.
She returned his even gaze. Suddenly she made her decision. ―I'm trying to decide if you're right for something I'm working on. An experiment. I can't tell you what it is, I'm afraid. But if it works in the way we hope it will you'll be stronger and faster and smarter than you could ever imagine."
For the first time, he looked slightly confused. ―Why would you want to do something like that for me? You don't even know me."
She reached out and tousled Soren's hair, was pleased when he didn't flinch or shy away. ―It's not for you, exactly," she said. ―I can't tell you much more. It won't be easy; it'll be the hardest thing you've ever done-even harder than what happened with your parents."
―And what have you decided?" he asked.
―I've decided to let you be the one to decide," she said.
―What if I say no?"
She shrugged. ―You'd stay here on Dwarka. The planetary authorities would arrange a foster home for you." Not much of a choice , she thought. He's between a rock and a hard place. She wondered again if she wasn't being unfair putting the choice on the boy.
―All right," he said and stood up.
―All right what?" she said.
―I'm coming with you. When do we leave?"
LATER, BACK on board, when she spoke with Keyes, showed him the vid of her conversation
with Soren, he asked, ―You're sure about this?"
―I think so," she said.
He just grunted.
―As sure as I am of taking any of them," she said. ―At least he has a notion of what might happen to him."
―That's an awful lot to lay on a child," said Keyes. ―Even one who's grown up fast."
She nodded. Keyes was right, she knew. The terms for the test subject known as Soren were different from those of the others-he was coming into the program in a different way from the very beginning. She'd have to remember that and keep an eye on him.
What neither Doctor Halsey nor Lieutenant Keyes knew-and what they would never find out,
since Soren, though only six, was smart enough not to tell them-was what really happened to him during those three months alone. That was something that Soren, or Soren-66 as he would come to be called, didn't like to think about. It had been terrible when he realized his mother was dead and that the reason she was dead was because his stepfather had been too worried about going to jail for his illegal farm to take her to a doctor when she got sick. By the time his stepfather was convinced there was no other choice, it was too late; his mother was already gone.
But his stepfather had refused to face it. He moved Soren's mother's body into the box room and locked the door, telling Soren that it was not possible to see her, that she was too sick and needed to be alone to recover. That had lasted a few days until finally, late one night, his stepfather had had too much to drink. Soren stole the key and crept slowly through the door to see her there, lying on a pile of flattened boxes, the skin of her face tight and sallow. She smelled bad. He had seen and smelled enough rotting animals in the woods to know that she was dead.
He cried for a while and then sneaked back out of the room, shutting and locking the door behind him, returning the key to his stepfather's bedside table, and then sneaking out again. In the kitchen he sat brooding, wondering what to do. His stepfather was responsible for his mother's death, he sensed, and as far as he was concerned he should have to pay. Just thinking about it made him tremble.
Thinking this and things like it led him to get off his chair and take the sharpest knife off the counter. He knew it was the sharpest because his mother had never let him use it without her help.
He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach it. It was big, heavy. He stood staring at the low flicker on the blade in the half-light and then slowly made his way to his stepfather's bedroom.
His stepfather was lying in bed, still asleep, groaning slightly. He stank of liquor. Soren pulled the chair closer to the bed and stood on it, looming now over his stepfather. He stayed like that, clutching the knife, trying to decide how to go about killing the man. He was, he knew, small, still a child, and he would only have one chance. The neck , he thought. He would have to jab the knife in quick and deep. Maybe that would be enough. He would fall onto his stepfather and stab into his neck at the same time and then before his stepfather could do anything he would start running, out into the forest, just in case it didn't kill him. Fleetingly the thought crossed his mind that to do something like this might be wrong, that his mother would not approve, but having grown up off the grid on the edge of the civilized universe, living under a man growing illegal crops and possessed of a mistrust for the law, it was hard to know where wrong ended and right started. He was angry. All he knew was that his mother was dead, and that it was the fault of this man.
Years later, when he thought back to the situation, he realized there were nuances to it that at the time he had no chance of understanding. There was something seriously wrong with his stepfather, an inability to face up to his wife's death, that had let him simply block the death out. Yes, he'd been wrong not to take her to town at the first sign of illness, but his behavior afterward had been less maliciousness and more a sign of how deeply troubled he was. But at the time, all Soren knew was that he wanted whoever was responsible for his mother's death to pay.
He waited there poised on his chair for what seemed like hours, watching his stepfather sleep, until light started to seep in. Then he waited a little more, until his stepfather stretched and rolled over in his sleep to perfectly expose his neck.
He leaped forward, bringing the knife down as hard as he could. It turned a little in his hand as it struck, but it went in. His stepfather gave a muffled bellow and flailed around him but Soren was already off the bed and running out the bedroom door. He was just opening the outer door when his stepfather appeared, red-eyed and swaying in the bedroom doorway, the knife jutting out between his neck and shoulder a little above his clavicle, his shirt already soaked with blood. He cried out again, a monstrous sound, like an angry ox, and then Soren had the door open and had plunged out into the crisp morning air, vanishing into the forest.
He was well-hidden within a clump of bushes by the time his stepfather came out, the knife out of his flesh now and in his hand, the wound sprayed with biofoam. The man was grimacing, clearly in pain.
―Soren!" he cried out. ―What's wrong with you!"
Soren didn't say anything, pulling himself deeper into the bushes. His stepfather came in search of him. Whatever was wrong, the man claimed, could be sorted out if Soren would just come out and explain it to him. He passed very close, so close that Soren could hear the ragged sound of his breathing. His stepfather nearly stepped on his hand, and then he continued on deeper into the forest, occasionally stopping to call out his name.
THAT WASas far as Soren's plans went. He couldn't, he felt, go back into the house, not now that he had tried to kill his stepfather. And yet, where was he to go? They were in the middle of nowhere, miles away from anything.
The first night was difficult, the air cold enough in the dark that he kept waking up shivering, his teeth chattering. He kept hearing things, too, unsure whether it was his stepfather or the animals of the forest-and, if the latter, whether they were just small rodents or something larger that might be carnivorous. His mother had always warned him not to go far into the forest. ―It's not like the parks back home," she had claimed. ―It's not safe."
He awoke at dawn, hungry and bone tired. He crept to the edge of the clearing and watched the prefab house from the safety of the brush, wondering if he could sneak in and get some food. He was getting ready to do so when he caught a brief flash of his stepfather through the window, standing just inside, waiting for him.
He slunk back into the forest, stomach still growling. He wanted to cry, but the tears just didn't seem to come. Had he done the right thing stabbing his stepfather? He wasn't sure. In any case it hadn't worked, had only made things worse. He should have had a better plan, he thought, or at least figured what to do next. This was no time for crying, he decided. He had to figure out what to do next.
The first thing was to have something to eat. He couldn't get into the house for the food in there-he should have thought of that before stabbing his stepfather, should have taken some food out of the house and cached it in the woods. But it was too late for that now. He would have to make do.
At first he tried to catch an animal, one of the toothless squirrellike creatures that slid silently as ghosts around the trunks and boles of the trees. But after only a few minutes he realized they were much too fast for him. Next, he tried to sit motionless to see if they would come to him. They were curious and got close, but never quite close enough for him to grab one. Maybe he could kill one by throwing rocks? He tried, but mostly his aim was off, and the one time he hit one it simply gave an angry chitter and scuttled off. Even if I catch one , he suddenly realized, how am I going to cook it? I don't have anything to start a fire.
What could he eat, then? Some of the plants were edible, but which ones? He wasn't sure. His family had never harvested from the forest, sticking instead to their prepackaged provisions.
In the end he stepped on a dry, rotten branch and heard it crack, an eddy of bugs pouring out of the gap and quickly vanishing into the undergrowth. He heaved the branch over and saw, along the underside, pale white larvae, worms, large-jawed centipedes, and beetles spotted orange and blue.
He avoided the beetles-if they were that brightly colored there must be something wrong with them-but tried both the larvae and the worms. The larvae had a nutty taste and were okay to eat if he didn't think too much about them. The worms were a little slimier, but he could keep them down.
When a few hours had passed and he didn't feel sick, he turned over a few more fallen logs and ate his fill.
Before night fell he started to experiment, moving a little farther away from the house and making several beds out of the leaves and needles of different trees. One type of leaf, he found, raised a row of angry, itchy red bumps along his wrist when he touched it; he made a mental note of what it looked like and from then on avoided it. He tried each of the other beds in turn until he found one that was soft and a little warmer. He was still cold during the night, but no longer shivering. He was far from comfortable but he could stand it, and even sleep.
In just a few days, he had started to understand his patch of forest. He knew where to go for grubs, when to leave a log alone for a few days and when to turn it. Watching the ghost squirrels, he learned to avoid certain berries and plants. Others he tasted. Some were bitter and made him sick to his stomach and he didn't return to them. But a few he went back to without any ill effect.
He watched his stepfather from the bushes. He was there to see him in the morning, when he came out of the house and went to the crops or to the processor that refined them into a white powder, and there to see him as well at night. Each time his stepfather left the house he carefully locked the door, and though Soren had tried a few times to break his way in, the windows were strong and he wasn't successful.
Maybe I'll make a trap, he began to think. Something his stepfather would step in or fall into or something that might fall on him and crush him. Could he do that?
He watched. His stepfather took the same route to the field every day, a straight and
straightforward line along a dirt track his own feet had carved day after day. He was nothing if not predictable. The path was clear enough that there was little chance of hiding something on it or digging a hole without his noticing. Nor were there trees close enough to drop something from above.
Maybe it had been enough, he tried to tell himself. Maybe he could just forget about him and leave.
But even though he told himself that, he found himself returning, day after day, to stare at the house.
He was growing stronger, his young body lean and hard, nothing wasted. His hearing had grown keen, and his vision was such that he could now see the signs of when something had passed before him on the paths he traveled. When he was sure nothing and nobody was listening, he told himself stories, mumbled whispered fables, versions of things his mother had told him.
Several years later, thinking it over, he realized that he had become trapped, neither able to go into his house nor leave it behind completely. It was as though he was tethered to it, like a dog chained to a post. It might, he realized when he was older, have gone on indefinitely.
And indeed it did go on, Soren growing a little more wild each day, until something suddenly changed. One morning his stepfather came out and Soren could see there was something wrong with him. He was coughing badly, was hunched over-he was sick, Soren realized with a brief shudder of fear, in the same way Soren's mother had been. His stepfather went to the crops, weaving slightly, but he was listless, exhausted, and by midday he had given up and was headed back. Only he didn't make it all the way back. Halfway home, he fell to his knees and then laid there, flat on his stomach, his face pushing into the dirt, one leg jutted to the side. He was there a long time, unmoving. Soren thought he must be dead, but then as he watched his stepfather gave a shuddering breath and started to move again. But he didn't go back to the house. Instead, he crawled his way to the truck and tried to pull himself into it.
When he failed and fell back into the dust, there was Soren, above him and a little way away, his face expressionless.
―Soren," said his stepfather, his voice little above a whisper.
Soren didn't say anything. He just stayed there without moving. Watching. Waiting.
―I thought you were dead," said his stepfather. ―I really did. I would have kept looking for you otherwise. Thank God you're here."
Soren folded his arms across his tiny chest.
―I need your help," said his stepfather. ―Help me get into the truck. I'm very sick. I need to find medicine."
Still Soren said nothing, continuing to stand there motionless, waiting, not moving. He stayed like that, listening to his stepfather's pleading, his growing panic, followed by threats and wheedling.
Eventually the latter passed into unconsciousness. Then Soren sat down and stayed there, holding vigil over the sick man, until two days later his breathing stopped and he was dead. Then he reached into his stepfather's pocket and took the keys and reclaimed the house.
IT WASN'Teasy work to drag his mother out of the house and bury her, but in the end, his fingers blistered and bleeding from several days of slow digging, he managed. His stepfather he buried less from a sense of obligation and more because he wasn't sure what else to do with the body. He liked to tell himself in later years that he had buried him to prove that he wasn't like him, to prove he was more human, but he was never sure if that was the real reason. He buried him where he had fallen, just beside the truck, rolling him into a hole that was just deeper than the body and mounding the dirt high around him.
He stayed in the house for a few days, eating and building up his strength. When the provisions began to run low he finally managed to shake the house's grip on him, walking out into the forest, making his way slowly in the direction that he thought a town might be. He was in the woods for days, maybe weeks, living off berries and grubs. Once he even managed to kill a ghost squirrel with a carefully thrown rock and then slit the fur off with another rock to eat the spongy, bitter meat within. After that, he stuck to berries and grubs.
And then, almost accidentally, he came across a track that he knew wasn't made by an animal and followed it. A few hours later he found himself standing on the edge of a small township, startled by how the people stared at him when he emerged from the underbrush, his clothing tattered, his skin covered with dirt and grime. He was surprised by the way they rushed toward him, their faces creased with concern.
With such experience under his belt, life on Reach in the Spartan camp seemed less of a challenge to Soren than it did to many of the other recruits. After living in the woods alone, he felt he was ready for anything. He was quick to figure out the best way through an obstacle course. He could fade quickly into bushes and undergrowth when on mock patrol. Camouflage was a way of life for him: He faded into the background too when in groups, wanting neither to come to attention as one of the leaders of a group nor to be seen as an outsider. He stuck to the anonymous middle.
But despite that, there were times when he noticed Dr. Halsey standing at a deliberate distance, watching him with an expression on her face that he could not interpret. Once, when he was nearly eleven, she even approached him as he ran through an exercise with the other children, standing at a slight remove, as he hesitated, wondering which team to join. He couldn't decide if he was having trouble because she was scrutinizing him, or if he always waited until the last minute to make his choice and it just took her presence to make him realize it.
―Everything all right, Soren?" she asked him, her voice carefully modulated. Officially he was now Soren-66-a seemingly arbitrary digit for recruits, decided by the Office of Naval Intelligence for reasons they kept to themselves-but the doctor never called him by the number.
―Yes, sir," he said, then realized she wasn't a sir, or even, for that matter, a ma'am and blushed and looked guiltily at her. ―Yes, Doctor?" he tried.
She smiled. ―Don't get distracted by irrelevant data," she said to him, and then gestured idly past him, at the two teams already running for the skirmish ground. ―And above all don't let yourself get left behind."
DON'T LET yourself get left behind. The words echoed for him not only through the rest of the exercise but for a long time to come, haunting him long after he was sure Dr. Halsey had forgotten them. There was, he slowly came to sense, something different about him, something that the other recruits either didn't have or didn't care to show. For that matter, he didn't show it either: as he grew, he was very careful not to let anyone see anything that would make him different, would make him stand apart.
When he was very young, six or seven, he had been less careful. He hated sharing his room, found it exceptionally difficult to sleep hearing the sounds and the breathing of his fellow bunkmates. In their breathing he heard his stepfather. Sometimes he waited until they had fallen asleep and then slipped slowly out of his bed to hide under it, sleeping in the damp, musty space near the wall. He felt safer there. But when one morning he had slept late and hadn't returned to his bed before the others had started waking up, the way they looked at him made him feel less safe. No, he would have to play along, would have to learn to go through the motions that all the others seemed to make so naturally. He wanted not so much to fit in as to fade in.
But after a while, it didn't seem like an act anymore. He liked many aspects of the life of being a recruit. He enjoyed the challenge of it both mentally and physically. Having grown up off the grid, he had never been around people who were going through the same things he was; at times, particularly when they were darting through the forest together or crawling their breathless and silent way through a ditch full of mud, it was like being surrounded by many other versions of himself. It was comforting. Indeed, he felt closer to the other recruits than he had to anyone but his mother. Dr. Halsey, too, was the next best thing to a mother to him, though often distant, often preoccupied. But there was something about her that he found some strange kinship with.
He still needed time to himself, still found himself figuring out ways of being off on his own or, if not on his own, of creating a kind of momentary and temporary wall between himself and the others as a way of trying to think, to breathe, to be more fully himself. He realized very early on that he was never going to be a leader. He was not very communicative, but his instincts were honed and good and he was willing and able to follow orders. The others knew they could count on him. He felt in this the beginnings of a sense of meaning and purpose to his life, and he felt better than he had ever felt. He was keeping up. He wasn't letting himself get left behind.
And yet he was still haunted by the past. Sometimes, particularly late at night, in the dark, he couldn't help but think about what had happened when he was younger. He knew that whatever it was that made him different from the others came from that. At first the past was something he tried to push away, tried to forget, but as he grew older and smarter his thoughts about it became more and more conflicted. In his early teens, he began to see his stepfather less as a monster and more as someone who was scared and confused, somebody disastrously flawed, but someone who was also human. He fought against that realization, kept pushing it away, but it continually surged back over him. He had watched his stepfather die-it had been so quick, almost no time at all between the first symptoms and that strange transition from life to death. Which made him wonder, with a disease that moved that quickly could his mother really have been saved?
All in all, he was neither the best nor the worst. He was a solid recruit and trainee, someone who, though haunted by his past, was doing his best to move beyond it. Perhaps, he thought, for the moment that was all he could ask for. Perhaps for now it was enough.