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art by Jason Stirret

Mirror, Mirror

This story came to me after watching a young lieutenant interact with one of my children. Even though the lieutenant was a young adult, in many ways he seemed as much a child as my little one. On one level the two connected, and on another, they didn't. And although gruff around his pals with his need to "be manly," he was clearly very good at heart. Since I had recently written a story about "ants" invading Earth, the setting simply suggested itself.

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.
I have orders to kill the children rather than let them be taken, and I've seen enough of the human zombies fighting for their side to want to include myself in the list of casualties if it comes to capture.
The screaming has stopped, although the sobbing hasn't. Some older child has finally found his way to the two-year-old and is comforting her in a low lulling voice. Although I can't see anything, I picture the boy rocking the baby in time to his chant. I wonder if they are related.
"Didn't someone ask me what happened to the magic mirror?" I ask into the rusty grinding of tired sobs. After a moment I hear a barely audible Yes.
I take a deep breath and wish to myself for the hundredth time that I had been a better marksman, so I could be shooting at Ants rather than pacifying children and waiting for... I don't want to think the word--DEATH--but I can smell it in the room. I'm no good at this. I find myself wanting to know the name of the girl who asked about the magic mirror, but I keep myself from asking. Better that they be nameless.
"Everybody gather 'round, close," I say. "I've got a secret." I pause for the drama. "I KNOW what happened to the magic mirror." I hiss the last as though I'm whispering, although it's loud enough for all to hear. I wait until the breathing around me is close and palpable. I pull the poison gas pellet from my vest, my hand bumping the gas mask that could save me if I had the urge to live. I used to wonder that they gave the soldier a chance to live through the poisoning, but after one GI who'd lost his mask let the whole group be captured rather than die with it, I quit wondering.
"This is the secret," I hiss. "I've got the magic mirror with me. It's been passed down through the generations by long lost relatives of the prince." Gullible in their neediness, no one challenges me. I hold the gas pellet high above my head glad the lights are out. "Lean in closer," I tell them, then: "I'm looking at it now. Can you see it?" The press of small bodies around me gets tighter as several voices whisper they cannot see it yet, and one authoritative voice announces that it can. In the dark I cannot tell if the voice belongs to a boy or a girl.
"The mirror is telling me everything is going to be all right. Can you see it yet?" A dull thud convinces me that, friend or foe, someone has closed on the vault. I pull the safety off with my teeth and put my thumb on the release. I think briefly of the explosives within the vault that will detonate when my ID beacon dies with me. If I've got to go, I'm going to take some Ants with me.
"SNOW WHITE, UNIT E. CAN YOU READ ME?" My comm unit cracks and squawks, and the children jump, screaming again, pressing even closer. I pull my hand from one child's death grip, afraid to lower the arm with the gas pellet, and pull the comm unit from my belt.
"Unit E, Snow White here. I read you. Over."
"WE'RE COMING IN." I hold my breath, thumb still poised over the gas release in the blackness, still ready to die, before the comm squawks again. "AUTHENTICATE LIMA BRAVO ZERO ZERO SIX NINER." It's the code that lets me know it's our guys. I remember to breathe.
"I authenticate Foxtrot Romeo." The comm chirps once and then is silent.
"What did I tell you?" I ask into the damp, uncanny quiet. "That's our guys coming to get us." The E-lights blink on to give credence to my words.
I am surrounded with shouts of "can I see the mirror?" and colorful bouncing mayhem but what grabs my attention as the drill is coming through the door is the two-year-old. She is pulling at my pants, repeatedly saying, "hey, hey, hey." When I finally look down she points to her nose, her head thrown back to show me.
"Nose," she says.
"That's right," I tell her. I don't need to know her name. It's enough to know that she might grow up to be the fairest one of all.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Author Comments

Davyne lives in Colorado with her husband and five children. Her stories have been published in, or will soon be appearing in Tomorrow, Penumbra, MindFlights, Tales of the Talisman, Foliate Oak and Nth Degree.

- Davyne DeSye
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