The Games
Author:Ted Kosmatka

Chapter FOUR



Silas’s breath hung in a smoky pall on the thin mountain air. He rubbed his hands together as he gazed out over the precipice at the sun boiling up between two jags in the distant range to the east. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” his nephew answered. His voice still came raw from the thousand-meter climb over rock and scrub.

The terrain was steep, and Silas had pushed hard to beat the sunrise to the top of the ridge. He had almost decided not to bring Eric today, but the boy had size beyond his years and a serious, thoughtful demeanor. For a boy Eric’s age, something like this could leave a mark.

When Eric’s breathing slowed, Silas had him stand and then tightened the straps on his pack with two firm tugs. He pulled the small curved bow from the carry strap and held it out for the boy. “Keep it in your hand now.”

Silas played his fingers along the slow arc of his own bow, feeling for splits in the raw-hewn wood. There were none. His finger hooked the sinewy string and pulled back just an inch. The deep thwump of the release was hardly melodic, but it was music to his ears nonetheless. He’d been too long away from places like this, where there were no roads or concrete, and nature didn’t have to ask permission.

Back in California, the project would be at a standstill until after the second Brannin run. Baskov had pulled a few strings, and now it looked as if they were finally going to get some answers straight from the source. Silas had never been good at sitting around and waiting, so he’d decided to take drastic measures to retain his sanity: a three-day jaunt in the mountains near his sister’s home. The bow felt damned good in his hand.

“Ready?” Silas asked.

“Yeah.”

They started down the other side of the ridge and into the broad valley below, the sun on their faces. The valley was really nothing more than a shallow depression between two mountains, a couple miles wide, a dozen or so long. But it held a cacophonous ecosystem of shrub, pine, and unspoiled wildlife. A small lake pooled in the southernmost rim. To Silas, it was a little piece of paradise.

He kept the boy behind him in the steepest parts of the descent and let him move alongside when the terrain began to level out. There was no trail. They had to pick their way carefully between the rocky outcroppings and the stands of thorny brambles. The temperature rose with the sun, and soon Silas was shocked to realize he was perspiring, despite the altitude and the season.

Eventually, here and there, tufts of buffalo grass began to accumulate in the pockets of soil that gathered in the broken scatter of limestone. Dogtooth violets and wild irises splashed color haphazardly across the slope. When finally they stepped down onto the lush green basin, Silas stopped. “Keep an eye out. This is where we’ll find them.”

Eric nodded. Silas took his pack off and removed both arrows. He handed one to Eric.

“Now, remember what I told you,” Silas said. “This is heavier. It’ll drop more quickly than a target arrow, so aim high.” He’d taken the boy shooting several times last year, and the little guy was actually a pretty good shot. But targets were an altogether different species of game than what they were hunting today.

They moved out. There was no wind in the valley, and their eyes stretched for any twitch in the vegetation as they walked. Above them, Silas noticed an eagle doing slow circles in the sky, looking for its next meal. A hunter, like them.

Silas glanced over at the boy. He certainly looked as if he was enjoying himself. Silas recognized the expression of total engagement peering out from beneath the eight-year-old’s shaggy bowl cut. His nephew’s hair was the same thick mass of curls that Silas shared with his sister, though the boy’s hair was pale instead of dark, a sandy blond like his father’s. He was a beautiful child. Looking at him now, small and earnest, it was painful to fill in the blanks and imagine him older. Childhoods were short. Blink and you miss everything.

“I think I see something,” the boy whispered.

“Where?” Silas followed the boy’s gaze but couldn’t make out anything unusual.

“To the side of the pine. The one with the brown patch.”

Silas saw it then. Movement, low down in the thicket. They advanced, but Silas knew it was no deer. When they were finally close enough for him to identify the species, he held his arm out and stopped the boy.

“That’s far enough.”

“What is it?”

“That, my boy, is what’s at the very top of the list of animals you don’t want an introduction to here in the Rockies.”

“Wolverine,” the boy said.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s get a little closer; I want to see.”

“Not a chance. Your mother would kill me.”

“C’mon, just a little closer.” Silas looked at him.

“All right,” the boy said, slinking backward through the underbrush.

When they were a safe distance away, Silas pointed toward the stand of trees near the edge of the lake. “That looks as likely a direction as any,” he said. They pushed deeper into the valley. When the sun approached what Silas took for middle high, they stopped and broke down their packs for lunch. Two thick sandwiches of beefalo apiece, and a warm beer for Silas. Eric chugged his first Coke down in less than a minute. Silas had him put the crushed can back into his pack. A while later, as they were lounging in the warm grass, Eric sat up suddenly, his posture telling Silas something was on his mind.

“What?” Silas asked.

“Mom told me not to ask you about your work,” he said.

Silas laughed out loud. “But you just couldn’t help it, could you?”

The boy pursed his lips against a sly, involuntary grin. “I figured I’d just ask polite. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.”

“I don’t mind. This place has helped.”

There was silence between them for a moment, then, “What does it look like?”

Silas tried to think of a way to describe it so the boy would understand. “Do you know what a gargoyle is?”

“Yeah, one of those things that hangs off the side of old buildings in old movies.”

“Well, it looks a little like a baby gargoyle.”

“Must be pretty ugly, then.”

“No,” Silas said. “That’s part of the problem. It’s not ugly at all.”

“And that’s the part you don’t want to talk about? Mom says you’re under a lot of stress.”

“She must think I’m emotionally fragile.”

“No, she just says you work too hard, and this was supposed to be your vacation.”

“Well, she’d be right about that.” Silas tousled the boy’s hair and stood. “C’mon, we only have about three hours left. We’d better get a move on if we’re going to get a shot off.”

They repacked and set off toward the lake, hoping to find better luck. Forty minutes later, they found it. It was sixty yards ahead, grazing in the overhang of a tree. Silas paused, letting Eric think he saw the deer first.

“I see one,” Eric whispered.

“Good eyes. You take the left flank. I’ll take the right. One of us should get a shot.”

They moved forward in what Silas wanted to think of as a two-man V formation, if that was possible. Silas kept the deer just within sight, then slowly moved back in on it. Across the clearing, he saw Eric come to a stop about twenty-five yards short. The deer stopped browsing and lifted its head to sniff at the air. It was a magnificent animal, over five feet tall at the shoulder, with a wide, elaborate rack. It looked like it owned the mountainside. Silas was grateful for the lack of wind. He crept forward, carrying the bow low to the ground in his right hand. He stopped.

The deer sniffed at the air again; then, apparently satisfied, it lowered its head for a meal of grass. Silas couldn’t see the boy.

The arrow came free from his pack in one slow, fluid movement from over his shoulder. His eyes stayed with the deer as he notched the arrow. Arm muscles bunched as he pulled the bowstring back. He paused. As his eye found the deer at the tip of his arrow, Silas remembered what it was like to be on a first hunt. He waited for Eric. His right arm began to complain. Soft annoyance at first but growing louder. The deer took a step, lifting its head. Silas closed one eye, and the deer’s shoulder disappeared from his vision, blotted out completely by the arrow’s tip. His arm was screaming now. His grip began to tremble. He took his eye off the deer and scanned the bushes to the side of the clearing. What is the boy waiting for? He focused on the deer again and had to concentrate to keep the bow steady. Finally, he heard it, a soft twang from off to his left. But the shot went high, a blur over the deer’s back. It startled into a long, reflexive leap.

Silas’s release followed in the next heartbeat. The string whirred.

He knew the shot was true as it left his bow. A good archer always knows.

The arrow lanced through the air, a momentary streak of aluminum. It connected solidly on the upper part of the deer’s shoulder—

—and then bounced off.

The arrow fell harmlessly to the grass.

Silas’s cry of triumph chased the white tail deeper into the valley.

“Great shot,” Eric said when he materialized across the opening.

Silas jogged toward the place where the arrow had landed and smiled as he bent to pick it from the grass. Its round plastic tip had changed from clear white to a deep blue. He held it up for the grinning boy to see.

It was a two-hour walk back to the lodge, and they made their way lazily up the side of the valley, enjoying the scenery now that the pressure of the hunt was finally over. At the top of the rise, they paused for one final look before hiking down the other side.

The lodge was enormous and built of raw timber in the old pioneer style, but the inside was state of the art. The structure was as ironic as the system it preserved. The man behind the counter smiled when Silas handed him the blue-tipped arrow.

“A buck,” he observed. The man scanned the arrow into a computer, and the printer buzzed softly for a second. He handed Silas the sheet. “Suitable for framing. Apollo is one of our finest bucks.”

Silas lowered the sheet so that he and the boy could look it over at the same time. It was a large color picture of the deer he’d shot, photographed at some previous time standing near a brook with the mountain in the background. The deer’s vital statistics were recorded in the lower-right corner of the sheet: age, estimated weight, number of points. A microchip planted under the deer’s skin had communicated with the arrow to approximate the arrow’s strike point. A red dot now appeared on the deer’s shoulder in the photograph.

“A good shot,” the man said. “Just a bit high.”

“We’ll take a frame with it,” Silas said.

Preservation safaris were expensive, but when Silas handed the picture to Eric, the boy’s face made it all worthwhile.


IT WAS nearly nine-thirty when Silas finally walked his nephew up the sidewalk to his front step. Nights tended to get cold in Colorado, even at this time of year, and the air carried a chill in it.

Ashley answered the door and hugged her son inside. She had a hug for Silas in the foyer, clapping his back.

“Did you boys have a good time?” she asked.

“Yeah, we got one.” Eric handed his mother the framed photo, and she considered it critically for a moment. “And whose little red dot is this?”

“His,” the boy admitted, jamming a thumb in Silas’s direction.

“It was a joint effort. Eric flanked him.” Silas tousled the boy’s hair again while he tried to pull away.

Eric snatched the picture back from his mother, kicked off his shoes, and bounded up the stairs by twos. “Hey, Dad. Dad!” He disappeared down the hall.

Silas followed his sister up the stairs of the split-level house and into the kitchen. The kitchen was the visiting area of the home. It was a familial trait; Silas knew she’d got that social peculiarity from their mother.

“Coffee?”

“No, thanks, my stomach,” he explained.

“Still bothering you?”

“Only when I eat or drink. And sometimes when I breathe.”

“Oh, is that all?”

Silas smiled. “I’ll take some milk, if you’ve got it.” He pulled a chair out from the table and sat.

She poured him a glass just as her husband, Jeff, appeared from down the hall. “High and to the right,” Silas’s brother-in-law said, holding the picture out in front of him with both hands and shaking his head sadly. “Same old Silas, never could hit something that didn’t have concentric red circles on it.”

Silas shook hands with his brother-in-law. Jeff had been out of town on business when Silas picked the boy up late last night, so it’d been almost two months since they had last seen each other.

Jeff was blond to an extent usually reserved for Scandinavian children, but it seemed to fit him—the overlying sense of the man was one of youthfulness. Silas knew him to be in his late thirties, but Jeff could easily have passed for ten or twelve years younger. Put a ball cap on the guy, shave the chin fuzz, and he’d probably get carded at a bar. He was fine-boned and slender, but that description belied his true nature. Jeff liked his sports and held a second-degree black belt.

It was somewhat disconcerting for Silas to look at a man more than half a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter and know that the guy could probably knock his butt through a wall if he wanted to. Silas couldn’t have picked a better guy for his sister. They were a perfect match—both tough as nails in their own way.

Jeff had a tendency to talk fast, and some people took that for a kind of slickness, but Silas had known him long enough to realize that it was just the speed at which the man functioned. The guy thought fast. A moving target Silas could never quite hit dead-on.

“So what’s been going on?” Jeff asked.

“They’re keeping me busy.”

“I’d guess they are. I saw your picture in the paper the other day. Wasn’t your best side.”

“That’s my secret; I don’t have a best side.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“What was the article about?”

“Just a status article, nothing new,” Jeff said. “Letting the world know how the program is advancing. You should really think about changing up your quotes a little, though. Seems like every time I read about you, you’re saying the same catchphrases: ‘right on schedule,’ ‘good progress,’ ‘healthy,’ and such.”

“They make us say that; it’s in the contract.”

Jeff chuckled.

“I’m serious.”

“Really?” Jeff looked genuinely surprised.

“Yeah, but I haven’t talked to a newspaper in months. They’re recycling the same old dead interviews.”

Ashley set a steaming plate of food in front of Silas.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Dinner,” she said, without turning, as she walked back to the stove. “Don’t act like you’re not hungry. Eat. That is, unless your stomach hurts too bad.”

“Well,” Silas said, picking up a fork, “I can always eat.” He dug into the mashed potatoes, turning his eyes back to Jeff. “So how about you? How are things in the world of high technology?”

“The newest games are kicking our butts in retail. But we’re making progress in the catalogs. Different demographic.” Jeff was a game programmer for an indy company that made VR games. They were small but growing.

“So when are you and I going hunting again? I haven’t been replaced by a younger partner, have I?” Jeff asked.

“I got to be honest with you. Part of the reason I took the time to come up here now is because I know things are going to get nuts at the lab soon. I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to get away.”

“How long?”

“Might be after the Olympics.”

Jeff looked properly sympathetic. “That’s ten months. Are things going that bad?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Problems,” Silas stressed. “It would be easier to tell you all the things that are right. With any luck, you can see it for yourself at the Olympics.”

Jeff smiled. “I can, huh? You wouldn’t mean in person, would you?”

“I would, indeed.” He pulled an envelope from his shirt pocket. “Three tickets. Second row.”

Eric howled in the background. Another steaming plate of food was lowered to the table. “Eat,” Ashley said to the boy. His father pulled a chair out for him.

“Have you told Silas about your shrine?”

“It’s not a shrine,” Eric said emphatically.

Jeff turned to Silas. “He’s keeping a scrapbook of every article that’s written about the gladiator event. If your name’s in it, he cuts it out and puts it in a folder. And you’ve seen his collection of action figures, right?”

“Daaaaad.”

Silas had known, of course, that past gladiators had been turned into a line of toys, but he hadn’t realized his nephew collected them.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Jeff said.

The boy shot his father a withering look.

At that moment, a plate of food was finally placed in front of Jeff. “About time, woman. I can see where the priorities are around this place.”

“Have they set your track yet?” Silas asked the boy, changing the subject.

“Not yet,” Ashley answered for him. “He’s still scoring too high in too many areas for them to narrow it down. By about this time next year they’ll have to decide, even if it means playing eenie, meenie, minie, moe.”

The tension on Ashley’s face showed what she thought of the tracking system. The kitchen went silent. After finishing the meal, the adults floated into the living room to catch the news.


EVAN TRIED to concentrate, tried to focus on anything but the rush in his head. The world was fuzz he couldn’t think through yet. A blur. Pain. So he focused on the pain, trusting it to lead him back. Then came the suicide thoughts, and that, too, was familiar, something to hang on to. How much better it would be to just end it all than to endure this confusion. Fingers touched his face. Fat fingers that fumbled at the sensors. His fingers, he supposed. The sensors came loose in two soft pops. Two more burns at the skin of his temples. Burns on the outside of his head. But what’s it doing to the inside?

He’d been too deep too long. But the mechs were set; the protocols were humming in V-space bass. Everything was ready for the computer to come online tomorrow. That, at least, was some consolation as he slowly came back to himself. He couldn’t remember it ever being this bad before. His head was wood, and he couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed. This new booth was good. Not for the first time, he wondered if he wasn’t leaving just a little of himself behind in the quickness. Not for the first time, he realized he didn’t care.

His vision came back gradually, and when he could see well enough not to trip over the clutter, he stepped out of the plug booth. His legs trembled slightly under his weight. Around him, the room was dark and blank and empty. He’d sent the techs home hours ago. He didn’t like the idea of them hanging around, staring at his body while he was inside. He could imagine them pointing and prodding at him, playing with his private parts while they all laughed.

He looked toward the door and saw it was still locked. He was still alone. Good.

He sat and peeled the suit like a snake molting its skin. It came off in huge gauzy strips that left a sticky residue behind. He hated the suit, but he loved the connection it gave him.

Tomorrow, inside the computer, he would see his baby again.


SILAS’S PLANE touched down at Ontario Airport just after three. Such an unexpected name for an airport in Southern California. When you thought of Ontario, you thought of geese and trees and moose. Not traffic and heat and pollution.

He was back at the lab by four-thirty. He tried to hold on to Colorado in his head, but as the paperwork mounted, he felt the quiet contentment slipping away. He finally decided to take a break sometime after midnight.

At the crib unit, Silas watched the steady rise and fall of the small animal’s chest. His head hurt. His eyes hurt. He toyed vaguely with the idea of going home for the night. A real bed, a real night’s sleep—it felt so good to think of it—but such things were a luxury he couldn’t afford now. Tomorrow night, perhaps, but not tonight. There was nothing to do but wait.

He glanced at the row of monitors to his right. Heart rate, respiration, oxygen saturation, temperature, brain waves, and intestinal peristalsis; every possible bodily function was being recorded. The irony didn’t escape him. They knew so much about the little creature they knew so little about.

From somewhere deep in his mind a decision that had been percolating finally bubbled up. This would be his last competition. He felt nothing, and it surprised him. He’d been doing this for too long, then.

Looking down, he took no pride in this creation. There was only apprehension. He would see the project through this last contest, but after that, he would find an island somewhere and retire. He’d find a place in the sun where he’d let his skin go dark brown, breed border collies the old-fashioned way—no petri dishes—and then give the puppies away to the neighbor children. This practice would probably make him less than popular with the local parents, but he wouldn’t care. It was a nice fantasy. He glanced over at the message on the vid-screen:

Brannin Computer

Online 1300 hours

Questions presented via code 34-trb

Evan Chandler’s office

Tomorrow’s the big day

Yup—yup—yup

Benjamin

He’d already read Ben’s interoffice memo three times. Most of the questions had been formulated and coded within twelve hours of the organism’s birth. So many questions.

Maybe we’ll get some answers, Silas thought. Maybe we’ll know for sure.

The old, well-worn fear resurfaced. He took out a small notebook and glanced at the list of things to check into, look up, double-check, order, verify, replace, and beg the commission to provide. Then he sighed. He wrote a new entry, a single word, and circled it.

All those long years of study. All the discovery. For what? He closed the notebook and slipped it inside the pocket of his lab coat. He supposed his interest in genetics had begun as a way to feel connected to a man whom he’d never really had a chance to know. But now, standing in a lab and looking down at the strange creation before him with no past and no future, his father never felt further away.