I wrote this in grad school, when I was trying too hard to be very, very deep with genre. I used it to get into one of the audition only creative writing classes and still wonder why I got in, since the teacher was no friend of genre writing. About 1992.
Escha Maar, Thane’s heir, lay on the elaborate antique, Victorian bed in her living chambers and dreamt sleepily of someday, somehow, and somewhere. Her long, straw blonde hair had tangled itself up in a frothy concoction of draped lace, but she was content with the restriction. The exhausted expression on her smooth, boyish eight year-old face was shadowed by the array of translucent canopies above her.
She had just finished a long game of pretend. She had been Guinevere to the computer’s Lancelot, then Siegfried to the computer’s Brunnhilde. As a finale, Escha had played Aphrodite rising from the computer’s sea. Now, in the middle of the enormous plush lavender and pink caprte that covered the floor of her room lay a stack of discarded, multi-colored costumes.
At the sound of the computer’s soft tinkle, announcing the presence of a servant outside her room, however, Escha moved off hurriedly, extricating her hair only after leaving bunches of it still attached to the bed’s lace. She smoothed down her rumpled clothes, and sighing, called to the computer to restore the room’s true appearance.
The lace bed became black flannel and the canopies disappeared altogether. The costumes vanished as well, while the soft, feminine hues of her walls darkened into more somber maroon and navy versions of the same. As for Escha herself, her hair grew suddenly short, her purple dress grew into a plain, gray robe.
Escha didn’t really mind the sudden transformation she was forced to go through. It was part of another game she had realized she was meant to play. The rules were simple. Whenever she was not alone, Escha was to pretend that she was a boy. The rest of the time, she was free to use the computer to the best of her ability to create whatever she wished.
When there were no more signs that the frivolous playthings of a young girl had once occupied her room, Escha called for the computer to open her door.
A page stepped inside her room and she noticed enviously the soft satin blue ruffles that adorned his uniform. He knelt before her, and waited for her to acknowledge him.
“Yes?” Escah inquired politely, not noticing the flicker of resentment in the raised eyes of the page. At twice her age, he was still shorter and slighter than she, his body boyish in comparison to hers.
“The Thane requires the presence of his heir in his chambers,” the page responded, lowering his eyes finally, in a combination of respect for the Thane’s heir and shame at his own envy.
“My father,” she whispered excitedly, more to herself than to the servant.
“I thank you for your message and for your service,” Escha dismissed the inferior with the ritual words and stiff nod of her head that she had learned from her father.
“It is I who am thankful to serve the Thane and his heir,” the page said as he bowed again. Eyes still lowered, he exited the room as quickly as he had entered it.
Escha restrained herself from bouncing all the way to her father’s quarters, down the dimly lit underground corridor and to the left. It had been more than a week since their last visit and she was always happy to see her playful father. Her made the game seem ever so much more real than the computer could.
At the familiar black door, Escha stopped and waited. Normally, it simply slid open. But this time, something was wrong. Nothing had happened.
Puzzled because her father’s door had always been open to her before, she searched for the manual bell. Eventually she found the small red light and flashed her hand across it.
“The Thane requires the presence of his heir in his chambers,” the computer intoned, then displayed a map of the underground palace complex before her eyes. A bright green light marked the path from where she stood to the other side of the complex. It was nearly a kilometer’s distance.
Hoping that she had misunderstood the message, Escha tried to open the door to her father’s chambers once more—with no luck. She flashed her hand again over the red light. No message this time. If her father meant her to follow the path the computer had displayed, he would not repeat his orders.
She shrugged and turned around to begin the trek to her father’s new chambers, pretending as she went to make the time pass more quickly. She had just finished staging Napoleon’s last battle in her mind when she reached the new door to her father’s chambers. Pausing a moment to look at it, Escha noticed the door’s new appearance. Rather than plain black synthetic steel, this new door was a darkly staned wood, nearly black, carved with scenes of death from history.
A better door, Escha thought, then stepped forward over the sensor. Again, the door did not open to her. Again, she flashed her hand over the red light that had been affixed, chest-high to the natural stone wall to the right side of the door.
“Wait,” the computer commanded her. Escha waited.
When the door finally opened, Escha could not contain herself. She rushed into her father—and found tha the was not there. The room was entirely empty, at least as far as she could see. It was nearly pitch black inside as well, except for a small dais several yards away that was lit.
Seeing no other option, Escha moved towards the dais. The moment she crossed the outer line of the circle, a figure appeared inside the circle. The computer-generated image was about Escha’s height, though he crouched closer to the ground. He was weightier than Escha, each ounce in added muscle rather than fat. In each hand, the image held a battle ax.
Intrigued by this new game of her father’s, Escha moved cautiously forward to get a better look at the figure.
A slash at Escha’s head with the left battle ax was the figure’s response. Escha ducked, then turned to see the ax crash against an imaginary wall that had arisen around the perimeter of the dais. She inched a hand out towards the lit edges of the circle, trying not to arouse the sleeping monster, and felt that the wall existed for her, too.
It was a fight, then. Another part of the game that her father had arranged. Escha had never been in a fight before, but her father had told her about his battles often enough and the computer had generated sequence after sequence for her to practice. Of course, when she programmed the computer, she had always provided herself with a weapon, something her father seemed to have forgotten in this case.
Her mind would have to be her weapon. Escha’s father had always told her that the computer could never compete with the human mind in combat.
Taking her advantage while she had it, Escha’s left swung out at the figure’s unprotected abdomen. He took a step back and winced in pain. His left arm, and battle ax, moved down to protect the area from a second attack.
Escha attacked again while the figure was still recovering. Swinging in the opposite direction, she let her legs go directly at his left arm. The grip on the axe loosened just enough for Escha to grab it as she grab it as she stepped back and allowed both competitors to relax.
She was pleased with herself. In only two moves, she had evened the odds. Now holding the same weapon as her opponent, she would easily beat him.
But she did not even have time to slow her breathing to normal. Suddenly vastly more vicious than before, the computer-generated image threw himself at her again. Escha did not move quickly enough to completely evade the headward blow. She felt blood trickling down into her eyes from her forehead and something else, something she had never felt in a simulated battle. Pain.
Angry, Escha tried the same maneuver on her opponent. He quickly countered, then brought his ax down on her arm as she passed. Blood welled again, and pain with it, but Escha stubbornly refused to look down at the wound. She focused her mind completely on the battle, on her next move, and on his next move.
Anticipating an attack on her weak side, Escha turned sideways to protect herself. She guessed wrong. The figure had moved to the far side of the circle as she had been busy thinking. He ran towards her, battle ax held high, and fell fully into her. He knocked her down with his weight and broke open her skull with his ax. Then he disappeared.
But Escha remembered nothing for a while. When she awoke, her father stood before her. The dais had disappeared, the lights had come on brightly, and she could see the expression of disappointment on her father’s face without a problem. She also saw clearly the scars his face bore, scars of honor against honorable enemies, unlike hers. She saw his mountainous grandeur in comparison to her slight child’s body. And she wondered consciously for the first time how this man, this Thane, could have fathered her.
Ignoring the pain in her arm and head, she stood up and came to attention. He did not return her salute.
“The computer was programmed for level one. You failed,” he told her instead.
Escha swallowed and said nothing.
“Computer, called the Thane. “Replay seconds ten to fifteen.”
The dais and Escha’s opponent reappeared, as well as an image of Escha herself. Escha watched her embarrassingly sluggish movements with her father.
“Play again,” the Thane said coldly. “Erase the second image.” Escha watched as her father stepped into the ring and without a weapon, easily defeated the opponent who had nearly killed her.
“Again,” he said, then demonstrated a second method that would have beaten the computer’s program. His fluid movements needed no thought. They came instinctively to him.
“Again,” a third method.
A fourth, a fifth.
Ten methods later, Escha was desperately trying not to sway on her feet with the loss of blood and pride. But still she watched as her father did everything right that she had done wrong.
When he was finished, the Thane turned away from his heir. He said nothing more to her, though Escha wished fervently that he would forigve her, that he would tell her she could try again and do better. He did neither.
Escha waited then for dismissal, but he gave none. Emboldened by her disgrace—surely she could do no more wrong—she stepped towards him and asked him formally, “My father, my Thane.”
He gave no response to sanction continuing her question. Escha continued anyway. “My father, my Thane, why are we apart?” she asked, though there were a hundred more important questions to her.
Still, the Thane did not answer her. Back still towards her, he moved further away, towards the view screen in his chambers. He communicated with the computer instead, pretending to be occupied with the state’s business.
But Escha knew that it was a pretense. Her father had not forgotten that she was there. She could tell by his silent, averted eyes. When her father was deep in thought, he was transported to another world. His regal, pale blue eyes roamed his chambers freely, staring and devouring the imaginary scenery. He spoke softly to himself in contemplation, only slowly coming back to the real world after he had found the elusive answer and shouted it rock the skies.
She asked the question agian, wondering as she spoke if this was her father and her Thane. He seemed suddenly to have become a man she did not know.
Only silence answered her.
Finally, Escha crossed the distance between them to reach the stern, black field of her father’s back. She touched him lightly and felt a strange trembling beneath her fingertips. And she asked the question for the third and last time.
For long moments, Escha was certain that her father would ignore her yet again—perhaps forever now that hse had failed him. She was frightened of him, not because he had never been angry with her before, but because she had never seen him show his anger with this silent shaking. He was the Thane and did not need to hide his emotions.
In the end, the Thane answered her, though his answer came not from his beloved, scarred face, but from his cold, black back. “Because my son, my heir,” he said, his voice hoarse, broken, and infused with a pain hidden so deeply that Escha had never caught a glimpse of it before. “Because I cannot risk you, as well.”
He said no more than that, but Escha knew that she was to leave. For the first time, she was glad to go. Despite her wounds, she practically ran the entire distance to the safety of her own warm, soft chambers.
Looking around her at the girlish chambers, she suddenly hated them. She hated the softness of the purple, the happiness of the blue, and the lightness of the pink because she knew that they were false. They were not colors that existed in the real world.
Escha instructed the computer to activate the view screen in her room, to fill it with a picture of the outside world she had never glimpsed. She gazed on both sides of the forbidding planet’s surface. The side facing the sun was swollen with its gravitational attraction, a parched desert, sun-bleached of color and life. The other side, the dark twin, was a punctured balloon of frozen blackness, as sterile as its brother, and as forbidding. She knew then, as she had always known, that the misshapen, unmoving asteroid planet called Exile was her prison. It was also her only home, for the ship that had been made to bring the exiles from Earth had crash-landed and long since been cannibalized for parts. She could as easily leave the artificial air that kept her alive far beneath its surface as she could leave her body, or her father’s presence.
The room that had once been her playhouse was an anathema to her now. There was no place for her pretense in her world anymore.
Rampaging, Escha incinerated the bright, vibrant colors of her walls. She ripped and tore at the plush carpet beneath her feet until it was little more than a ball of ragged threads. She erased the computer’s program for her stuffed toys and the imaginary friends she had made of them. Finally, she destroyed all the stories she had once told herself through the computer.
Then at last, Escha allowed herself to cry a storm of bitter tears. She knew it was for the last time, for tears also would have no place in her new world. Tears were for those who had a hope of something better. Tears were for those who could still pretend.
Escha cried and for the last time, allowed herself to fantasize. She wished that she might have been different, that her father might have been different, that her world might have been different. For the last time, she allowed herself to think that life was not fair. And then she accepted it. And then she grew up.