Dink in the Dark

"Everybody's OK now," said Dink. "Nothing was wrong with any of us that five days of cowering in blacked-out rooms in the middle of a war couldn't cure." -Ender's Game (Revised paperback mass market edition, 1994, p. 303)

Dink didn't know why he grabbed Petra's hand when he heard the gunshots. Maybe he thought she needed someone to steady her. Maybe he needed someone to steady him. But he didn't let go of her hand even when the soldiers came with their guns (he didn't even know the exact names of their weapons, he just knew they were guns, what kind of soldier was he?) and herded them, along with the other dazed members of Ender's jeesh, down the twisty corridors of Eros.

Her hand was sweaty.

They came to the barracks. Soldiers gestured, and half the kids went through door number one, and the other half went through door number two. Dink and Petra held on for dear life and somehow managed to stay together. The door shut behind them with a finality he didn't like, but he liked the sounds of guns firing in the distance even less.

"This is crazy," said Crazy Tom. Everyone was thinking the same thing, but they stared at Tom, like it was his fault.

"I feel like we're insects in here." said Shen. He gestured at the lone desk in the room, their only source of light, and then he tapped at his ear twice. Ah, not insects, bugs. Bugging.

Petra seemed to pick up on it faster than Dink did, because she didn't even look where Shen gestured. "They're probably listening, but that would be for our own good." She said our own good in an over-enunciated way. "No point in pretending we don't know about it. It'll let us communicate, one-way."

"Yeah, they'll hear gunshots and us screaming," said Dink.

Petra elbowed him; he was supposed to be a responsible senior student here. Old Man Dink, and Old Lady Petra, the grandpappy and grandmammy of Ender's jeesh, yeesh.

They were still holding hands.

The gunshots suddenly started up again, closer now. No one spoke, or moved, they just froze. Animal reactions, Dink would later think with disgust. Right now he just felt the sweat under his armpits and the way Petra's grip tightened, and couldn't think of anything to make her or him or anyone feel better.

He wished Bean were here, and not in the other room, or wherever he was. Even if he was the biggest (smallest?) smart-ass Dink had ever met, Bean would know what to do.

(Actually. What Dink really wished was for Ender to be here, but even Dink knew better than to wish for things he couldn't have.)

"We need to calm everyone down," Petra whispered to him. Her voice was stronger than he expected.

She gestured with a nudge of her head at the two silent, wide-eyed children (yes, children) before them. Their faces were a sickly greenish tinge, half lit and half shadowed by the small circle of light emitted by the desk. They were staring at each other, at him, at Petra.

Wait and do nothing, he didn't say. That was the best advice Dink could come up with. No one would like that. He had to think of something better.

"Well, we can at least turn on the room light," he told them.

"Don't," said a voice, and it took Dink a moment to realize it was Vlad's voice because Vlad hadn't come in with them. Hadn't been around much at all, actually, after he conked out a week ago. Yet there he was, his face underlit dramatically by the green light.

A Russian vampire! Dink decided not to give voice to his half-hysterical thought. Besides, Vlad was from Belarus.

"What the hell are you doing here?" demanded Tom.

Vlad shrugged. "I sleep here. You didn't notice me as you came in." As he spoke, there came a sound and a slight trembling, like an explosion from somewhere far away. The desk powered down with a quiet pop of dying electricity. They couldn't even see the green vampire glow anymore. Petra gasped and dropped Dink's hand. Funny that she would do that when no one could see them anymore.

"Now we can all cower in the dark together," Vlad said in his new, creepy way.

Dink wondered what Vlad was doing before they got there.

- 0 - 0 -

Dink had thought being terrified was bad. By day two, he realized being terrified and bored was worse.

"Can we do something?" Tom complained, but at a whisper. "I already crazy, you don't want me more crazy."

Shen cocked his head and gestured at the door. "Go ask the guard to move over. He just one guy."

"Just one?" asked Tom. "That all we worth?"


None of them said it, but they all knew. That guard outside their door wasn't really a guard. He was their warden, and potential executioner. If they lost Eros, and the Polemarch's men came to collect their prizes-because surely the brilliant, idiot children from the Battle School were the main prize here-well, would the guards on door number one and door number two hand over their charges, or shoot them? It would only take a few bullets to ensure that the Earth's most talented and above all malleable military minds never worked for the Polemarch, or any other enemy of the IF. Cost effectively speaking, Ender's jeesh were goners.

But no, think it through. The political hoopla that would ensue after killing the Battle School kids (oh no, the children! the children!) would be a PR disaster. But then again, if the IF got desperate, and it looked like the Polemarch was about to become the IF...well, what better way to sabotage his reign than to leave him with a bunch of dead children? They could just blame the deaths on the Polemarch himself, after all (oh no, the children! the children!). And hey, maybe the IF never intended to let all their socially-inept Alexanders out into the world, maybe they'd hoped and planned for this, a neat little cleanup after the mess of the war.

("We can take 'im," Tom was saying. "We bad little soldiers, beat him up five on one.")

("You go first." Shen got sarcastic when he was scared. "You go die first.")

No no no. That was just paranoid. Have a little faith, Dink. They wouldn't kill us, they wouldn't kill Ender. They wouldn't let us be taken either.

But how can I know that? This is the real world now. People betray each other all the time. People die all the time. Lots of people died under my command. I just didn't know.

He was thinking too much. But that was always Dink's problem, except this time Dink was thinking he wasn't as good a thinker as he thought, if that made any sense.

He could feel himself getting angry. His right fist was clenching and unclenching the clean starched cotton of the bedsheets, uselessly. He'd been tricked. Lied to. The teachers were the enemy. The old mantras were coming back.

("Dink?" Petra's voice asked from a million miles away. It was so dark in here. When would the lights come back on?)

No, he'd already decided the buggers were the real enemy. And they'd beaten them, hadn't they? The teachers' strategy had worked. He should look at the big picture, he was almost an adult now. Almost one of them. This was the outcome he'd always wanted, wasn't it? To actually make a difference in the war.

I didn't want to be tricked into it. I wanted to know I was being a hero.

Dink laughed aloud, in the dark.

(He ignored the stares, he ignored the thought that he was becoming like Vlad, crazy useless Vlad)

- 0 - 0 -

"How many days do you think it's been?" Tom asked. No one answered him.

(Dink, personally, thought it was about day three, based on how many times he'd gone to sleep, but there was no way to tell in this blacked out room.)

He had a sudden horrible thought. What if this was all part of the training? There were no guns out there, just actors in uniform and really good sound effects. The teachers wanted to see what the students would do, weed out the crazies. Vlad was there to lead them down to the nuthouse.

An even more horrible thought: what if Dink was right all along, about the entire war being a sham? The buggers were gone and not coming back, they'd always been like that. What if we never attacked them, and those simulations were just simulations after all? The IF's big gambit to stay in power.

This is a game too, said a voice in Dink's head. War games and games of war, what's the difference.

I could leave this room, stand up and open the door. Prove the truth of their lies. He could picture it: the last stupid rebellion of Dink Meeker, who refused to sit meekly in the dark waiting for the bullet to find him, and went out to meet it instead. He felt his heart jumping around in his chest. He could do it. He would do it.

Except Petra's hand was suddenly in his again. Her nails were digging into his palm, and he thought he could see the white flash of her teeth even with the lights killed.

"You be crazy?" she whispered.

"I be crazy," he answered truthfully.

"Then we be crazy together."

The horrible clenching in his gut didn't go away, but it got better, just a little.

He smiled gratefully at her, trusting that even though she couldn't see it, she'd know.

- 0 - 0 -

Except Dink didn't deserve her.

(It's maybe day four now.)

Remember that day when she fell asleep during battle? What did you do to help her? Did you try to go see her? Did you tell everyone Ender had pushed her harder than the rest of us, that it wasn't weakness but strength that did her in? Did you tell her that?

No, of course not. You only managed pity, not compassion. Only fear that the others would think you were weak too, by association.

And Petra was somehow making it worse by being right there, always beside him. And even though they both stunk of fear-and just plain stunk because the showers weren't working-she still smelled like her, and it was maddening being so close to her yet completely unprepared to do anything about it.

Dink didn't know what to do with girls except play war games with them, but he knew enough about puberty to understand he was going through it. His older brother would know what to do with a girl, he was six years older than Dink. He's probably kissed lots of girls by now. I hardly know what girls are. I only know Petra, I can hardly tell if what I feel for her is romantic. There's no control group for this experiment.

Stupid. Why the hell am I busting my balls over this now when it's life and death, and the enemy has guns, real honest-to-goodness guns that'll splatter our expensive little brains all over the walls of this prison if we don't comply. Bullets, not flash guns. And here I am thinking of kissing Petra and all those vids I saw as a kid with the pretty Dutch girl marrying the English spy and planting cameras in their bedroom. (Even then he'd been into conspiracy stuff.)

If only Petra weren't here, maybe he could ask one of the other guys whether they thought about the kissing thing.

Then he thought about who he was with, and decided he wasn't that crazy after all.

- 0 - 0 -

"What is sane anyway?" Crazy Tom asked in a lofty voice. "Maybe we're the sane ones. Look at what they consider normal down there. People sitting on their fat patookas all day plunking away at their desks. Hardly a creative brain cell between the lot of them. Like buggers. Is that what we're headed for when we got off this rock? Boring obscurity?"

"Is that what you grew up with?" Shen asked.

"I dunno, I just remember having a lot of toy guns."

"Me too."

"I played buggers and aliens. With my brother."

"Me too. My sister." Shen sounded wistful.

They waited, but Dink and Petra didn't join in.

Funny, he thought, how he'd always hated how no one talked about their families, back in Battle School...and now that they were allowed, Dink was afraid to even think about home. About his family, those strangers whose faces filled up all the empty places in his memories, waiting for him to come back and ruin their normal, sane lives.

Hey, it's your son who tried not to get sucked into the game but didn't even realize when he stopped playing one. I went through military brainwashing, but I might not be totally bonkos. I'm not sure, I got no basis of comparison.

"Is it more normal to play with toy guns knowing you'll never fire a real one, or is it more normal to play with toy guns thinking you will?" Tom asked rhetorically. "Is it better to live a happy lie, or an unhappy truth?"

"You sure are in the mood for spouting kuso today," Petra said.

Shen shifted around-Dink could tell from the sound-and asked, "Petra, how about you? You sane?"

"More than you mejoons," she said.

"Whatever," said Tom. "You still holding Dink's hand? That's a sure sign of insanity if I ever seen one."

Petra's hand, instead of drawing away like he expected, tightened around his.

"I'm not the one with crazy in my name," she retorted, more sharply than anyone expected.

The subject was dropped. Tom went back to his philosophizing. Shen ignored him and said he was looking forward to eating non-re-constituted food again.

But Dink felt a little lighter inside. Felt the fear abate long enough to whisper to her, "Better to live an unhappy truth, I think. I'm sorry I haven't been a better friend."

Petra didn't say anything, but he knew she knew what he was referring to.

So Dink held on tighter, and waited.

("Do you remember that restaurant with the golden arches? The fried potatoes and the chicken burgers? Like paradise.")

("Shen, you can't rag on reconstituted food and then go and call that place paradise.")

Eventually, Petra said, "I am so tired of sitting around talking. We should do something."

Dink understood. "Do what? We're mashed into this room and the toilet doesn't even flush anymore. We don't even have any light for goodness sake."

"Exercise." She poked him in the arm. "Tag, you're it."

"So it's games again, is it?"

"That's all you can do in the dark," Petra said. "It'll be like battle school, but without the murderous hate."

Dink laughed. At himself, at his fears. Petra was his friend, and would always be his friend, no matter how weird he got, no matter his hormones and insecurity and failure to be the hero she didn't need. Maybe he wasn't that screwed up by the teachers' games after all. Maybe humans weren't supposed to be quite rational, maybe they were supposed to sit in dark rooms sometimes and think stupid paranoid things, then come out of it and be okay, or what passed for okay.

He was less afraid of leaving this room, if she was there to hold his hand.

"Hey, what are you two lovebirds doing over there?" Shen asked, and they heard him shuffle closer.

Tom followed suit. "No patty cake among the elderly."

"Says the cradle robber," Dink said mildly.

"Hey! Shen is only a year younger than me, maybe two."

Suddenly the desk blinked on, and Dink saw four green faces staring back at him.

"Lights on," said Vlad.

- End -

Author's note:

On the subject of Vlad, and what happened to him during the final set of battles with the buggers, there are some inconsistencies in the Shadow books. In Ender's Shadow, Bean notes that during the Vlad went catatonic for three days, after which he "was out for the duration" (Hardcover first edition, 1999, p. 360). So presumably he wasn't involved in the final battle, right? But during the final battle, in both Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, he's there; he laughs along with the rest of the Dragon Army toon leaders when Bean says, "the enemy's gate is down" (p. 293 and p. 366 respectively).

The question of Vlad gets even more confusing if you add in Shadow of the Hegemon, where Petra says that "Vlad was the only other kid in Ender's jeesh who broke the way Petra did, had to be pulled out of the battles for a day" (Hardcover first edition, 2001, p. 109). Only one day? The only kid other than Petra? In both Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, it's said that there are two kids who collapse after Petra does (p. 287 and p. 360 respectively).

Yes, I actually checked all this to write this story. What is wrong with me.

Anyway, I decided Vlad was definitely there at the final battle, but who knows about the other details. So I left the whole subject pretty vague in my story and turned him into a weird spooky guy, which is what the Shadow books kind of did to him anyway.