by Saro and Merellia
When the boy was three, Odin gave him some bullets to amuse
himself with. They clinked together
appealingly whenever he dropped them on the floor, and Odin showed him how they
could be stood upright like little soldiers.
Their narrowed tips were heads, and the tallest of them all, which Odin
explained was a three-fifty-seven magnum, acted as their general. Then he made another game out of it by naming
the bullet calibers -- a forty-five, a forty, thirty-two, three-eighty ACP, twenty-two
LR, nine millimeter, and a handful more -- and played with the boy until he could
recognize them by feel and weight alone, Odin's hands over his eyes. The first time the boy identified them all
perfectly, Odin allowed him to sleep with the small frame Beretta under his
When the boy was four, Odin showed him how to field strip his
gun, the lightweight, subcompact pistol which now resided more-or-less
permanently under the pillow of wherever the boy spent the night. It took
longer for him to finish the job according to Odin's standards; small fingers
needed more time to build the muscle necessary to manipulate the parts. Retracting the slide was particularly
difficult. But by the time he could, the
boy's fingers were also strong enough to pull the trigger smoothly.
When the boy was five, Odin took him to a funeral. They were on L3 for a contract -- Odin had explained
"contract" to him when the boy had stopped playing with the bullets and had
started loading them into magazine clips instead. This contract involved a sniper rifle, the
top of a climate control station, a rather dissolute politician making
under-the-table deals with the Alliance, and a hefty pay-off. Very hefty.
He'd be able to take the boy into one of the few remaining Earth
wilderness areas for some more survival training, and spend months there, not just
a few weeks.
At the boy's request, Odin had allowed him to accompany Odin
for the first time, if the boy would promise to be silent and hand everything
to Odin just as asked. "That's our own
contract," he said to the solemn face which watched him from a perch on the
edge of the hotel bed. "If you agree to
what I want, then I'll do something for you in return. Contracts are special things, and it's not
good to break them." He reached out and
ruffled the boy's hair with the reminder, not hiding his grin as the boy ducked
out from under the gesture in distaste.
"We're people who keep our contracts, aren't we?"
"Yessir!" the boy said promptly,
sitting up straight.
"Then we have a contract," Odin said. "We'll shake on it since we don't have it in
writing. But," he said, crouching down
to put his knees on the floor and his eyes at the boy's level, "before we do, I
have an addendum. That's an extra part
to a contract. It gets thought of
afterwards. You get to listen and decide
if you want to accept it or not. If you
do, then we still have a contract. If
you don't like it, there's no contract at all. Understand that?"
The boy nodded, kicking the side of the mattress with his
heels before he stopped and held himself still like Odin had taught him. "Yessir."
"Here's my addendum, then.
When we are around other people, you pretend that I'm your father. I'll pretend that you're my son. People won't notice us so much then, which is
good. If people pay too much attention
to you, you can't keep your contracts. Alright?"
The boy hunched his shoulders even as he nodded. "Yessir."
"Hey they," Odin said, reaching out to tap one thin
shoulder. "What have I told you about
standing up straight?" Shoulders
straightened obediently, but the troubled look lingered in the set of the boy's
knitted brows and lower lip.
Odin asked carefully, "You bothered because I'm not your
real father?" A ducked chin that might
or might not be a nod was his only response.
He smoothed the boy's disheveled hair with one hand. "That's fine.
I'm not. But... " Odin's hand
slipped down, pulling the boy's chin up until uncertain blue eyes met his own,
"we have a contract, and that's better.
Because you can choose your contracts. You can't choose a father. A father can't choose a son. Of all the people in the world and colonies,
you're the only person I would choose for this kind of contract."
He rocked back on his heels, resting his hands loosely on
his knees while the boy considered this.
A little stiffness seemed to ease
from the boy's frame. "Yessir."
Odin smiled, holding out his right hand. "Then we can shake on it." The small hand was dwarfed by his own, but
already he could feel the muscle and roughened skin that would develop into calluses. He could feel, too, the knowledge conveyed by
the touch that the boy would fulfill his end of the contract. It was regretful that the trait wasn't
something he could teach the boy, but it might be better for him in the long
run not to have to endure the intolerance that such abilities engendered.
He held no illusions about himself: he was an assassin and
had been a fool more than once, and would never be what society would term an
appropriate father figure. But he would
teach the boy to live as best he knew how.
The rest would be up to the boy himself.
Contracts were safer and better than promises or pretending. They could still be broken, but you could
prepare for that beforehand with penalty clauses. He'd teach that to the boy later. "This is our first contract."
"I'm big enough for a contract." The boy's eyes squinched
shut as his mouth curved happily, one forgetful heel banging against the side
of the mattress in his enthusiasm.
"Big enough to help me with a contract, too, not just
watch. I'll be using the violin case
this time. Why don't you bring it to me?"
Jumping off the bed and eagerly running the few steps to the
dresser, the boy fetched the scratched and beaten black plastic case, wrapping
his arms around it to carry the weight.
Odin stood, practice allowing him to lift it as if all it
contained were the wooden instrument alone.
"Get your jacket." That attended
to, Odin handed the boy the small backpack that contained changes of clothes
for both of them, and held the door open for the boy to exit first, watching
with approval the cautious assessment of the hallway the child gave before
stepping fully out of the doorway alcove.
When the contract that had brought them to the colony had
been filled, Odin took the boy out for a meal, a casual restaurant in a
nondescript neighborhood where he could read the newspaper and be
inconspicuous. Paper in hand while the
boy ate, Odin turned directly to the obituaries.
During the assignment itself, the boy had watched
attentively as Odin set the stage for the shot, had peered over the short wall
at the building's edge to see the politician fall to the ground on his way out
of a special interest group meeting.
"He's dead now?" the boy had asked, returning to Odin's
"Yes," Odin had replied, making quick work of removing the
scope from his rifle and breaking it back down into the parts that would store
neatly between the shell and lining of the violin case.
The boy hunkered down beside him, chin resting on his bare
knees. The left one had the pale slash of a scar across it, from when the boy
had taken a fall the previous summer while scrambling across an obstacle course
they'd made out of an old creek bed in northwest America. "When will he get better?"
Odin paused, then flipped the clasps of the case, locking it
securely. The late morning light turned
its shadow into slightly elongated blob.
"It doesn't work that way. When
someone dies, it's all over. He won't get better." He held out his hands to the boy. "You did a good job with our contract, so you
get to choose. Walk or ride?"
"Ride." The boy
sprang readily to his feet and took hold of the proffered hands. Odin swung him
up onto his own shoulders.
"Remember, no choking," he said as small arms wrapped
strongly about his neck. He lowered his right
hand to grasp one of the ankles dangling down his chest.
"Uh-huh." Arms moved,
tightened around Odin's forehead as the man stood and picked up the violin case in the same the move. "What happens then?"
"When someone dies?" Odin asked resignedly. He'd hoped the earlier answer would have
settled the discussion.
"Nothing happens after.
They don't breathe or walk or move or eat. It's an end.
It lasts forever."
The remainder of their conversation, as he walked down the
stairs into the climate control building and slipped into a tour group being
shown around the facilities, stuck with him for the rest of the afternoon. The boy seemed to have taken the explanation positively;
he'd stopped asking questions, but as that had been when they joined the group,
it might not have been because he was satisfied. Odin wanted the boy to understand it well. He was trying to teach the boy to live, but
his trade involved death. No sense in not making sure the boy understood it
He gave a look around the restaurant to make sure no-one was
paying them any attention, then asked over the top of his paper, "When you stop
using a gun, what do you do?"
The boy swallowed his mouthful of rice and looked up
attentively, probably anticipating a series of quizzes like Odin gave him
periodically to test his retention of their lessons. "You push the safety on."
"And then what?"
Lifting his glass of juice with both hands, the boy paused.
"You put it away 'cause you don't leave guns lying
around?" he recited, then peered up through his bangs for approval.
"Right." Odin smiled,
and the boy took a satisfied swallow of juice.
"So when a person dies, what do you think happens?"
The boy took a minute to grapple with that, fork in
hand. "People don't have safety
buttons," he said, but doubtfully.
"No, they don't. People
can die at any time. But they get put
away just like guns do. Would you like
to see that?"
Marinated tuna was mashed into the rice with methodical care
as the boy gave the question his consideration.
After a few additional mouthfuls, he nodded. Satisfied, Odin folded the paper and set it
aside to eat his own meal.
The funeral went as well as anything of that nature could be
thought to go, Odin supposed afterwards.
They'd spent the time between lunch and the service at the colony's
park, a welcome but meager island of slender birches and maples only a few
acres in scope. Odin thought that it might
be adequate for the colony-born, and its meandering paths were carefully
screened by bushes to provide the illusion of solitude, but it was a far cry
from the acacia and camphor groves of Mt. Kenya, or the cedar forests of
The boy came promptly when called away from his project of
building something with twigs, and they caught the subway to the outer district
where the colony's crematorium complex was.
A couple blocks away, Odin stopped briefly to buy some cherry flowers
from a sidewalk market stall. He handed
them to the boy. "When we go in,
there'll be an old man lying inside a box. Just like a gun in a case. You can leave these for him."
The boy waited, as always, until they were once again in
private before asking any questions.
Odin had tucked him into the single bunk in their small cabin, and
leaned against the bulkhead at the other end himself so that he could read some
papers. He'd printed out brochures from
several different South American forest preserves before they boarded the
shuttle and wanted to know about their various offerings.
"Why were they crying?"
The boy was mostly a lump under the thin blanket emblazoned with the
shipping line's logo, only a little longer than the length from Odin's foot to
his knee. It made him think of a brown-haired
caterpillar partway out of a cocoon.
"Death upsets some people," Odin said, setting the sheaf of
papers down in his lap. "Sometimes it's
because they miss the dead person. Sometimes it's because they know they will
die, too, and that scares them."
The boy said, "We didn't cry this morning."
"No, we didn't. That
was a death we made, so we don't need to cry.
We remember it, and that's enough."
"We made it?" It was
hard to read the boy's expressions; occasionally, like now, Odin could only
guess what thoughts the steady eyes and mouth concealed, even when drowsy and
on the edge of sleep. Part of what made
him an interesting companion was trying to figure that out.
Sometimes death happens. Sometimes people make it happen. That's what we
The boy was silent for a while. "Will you die?" Odin felt a fleeting pleasure at how
imperturbably he'd accepted the description of Odin's profession. With an attitude like that, the boy wouldn't
be half bad at it himself. Not that Odin
envied him the experiences it had taken to leave the boy with such a mindset.
"One day," Odin said lightly, responding to the
question. The papers in his lap called
to him. "When I'm an old man." Maybe he'd teach the boy some arithmetic,
this trip. The normality might be
refreshing, and the boy would need to know how to calculate ballistic
trajectory some day. Assassin or not,
with the way the Alliance was dealing with the colonies, it wouldn't be a lost