"As far as I know," said Graff, "there is no religious ritual associated with Santa Claus, and Santa Claus has not been sighted here in Battle School."
"Double standard!" shouted Ahmed, and several others echoed him.
Graff ignored him and left the mess hall.
The door had not closed when two dozen Marines came through the door and stationed themselves around the room.
When the time for prayer came, Ahmed and several others immediately prostrated themselves. Marines came to them, forced them to their feet, and handcuffed them. The Marine lieutenant looked around the room. "Anyone else?"
One more soldier lay down to pray; he was also handcuffed. No one else defied them. Five Muslims were taken from the room. Not roughly, but not all that gently, either.
Zeck turned his attention back to his food.
"This makes you happy, doesn't it?" whispered Dink.
Zeck turned a blank face toward him.
"You did this," said Dink softly.
"I'm a Christian. I don't tell Muslims when to pray." Zeck regretted speaking as soon as he finished. He should have remained silent.
"You're not a good liar, Zeck," said Dink. And now he was talking loud enough that the rest of the table could hear. "Don't get me wrong, I think it's one of your best points--you're used to telling the truth, so you never learned the skill of telling lies."
"I don't lie," said Zeck.
"Your words were literally true, I'm sure. Our Muslim friends did not consult you on the timetable. But as an answer to my accusation that you did this, it was such a pathetically obvious lie. A dodge. If you really had nothing to do with it, you wouldn't have needed a dodge. You answered like someone with something to hide."
This time Zeck said nothing.
"You think this will help your chances of getting out of Battle School. Maybe you even think it will disrupt Battle School and hurt the war effort--which makes you a traitor, from one point of view, or a hero of Christianity, from another. But you won't stop this war, and you won't hurt Battle School in the long run. You want to know what you really accomplished? Someday this war will end. If we win, then we'll all go home. The kids in this school are the brightest military minds of our generation. They'll be running things in country after country. Ahmed--someday he'll be Pakistan. And you just guaranteed that he will hate the idea of trying to live with non-Muslims in peace. In other words, you just started a war thirty or forty years from now."
"Or ten," said Wiggin.
"Ahmed will still be pretty young in ten years," said Flip, chuckling a little.
Zeck hadn't thought of what this might lead to back on Earth. But what did Dink know? He couldn't predict the future. "I didn't start promoting Santa Claus," said Zeck, meeting Dink's gaze.
"No, you just reported a little private joke between two Dutch kids and made a big deal out of it," said Dink.
"You made a big deal out of it," said Zeck. "You made it into a cause. You."
Dink sighed. "E. I did." He got up from the table.
So did everyone else.
Zeck started to get up too.
Two hands on his shoulders pushed him back down. Hands from two different kids from Rat Army. They weren't rough. They were just firm. Stay here for a while. You're not one of us. Don't come with us.
The Santa Claus thing was over. Dink didn't imagine that he controlled it anymore--it had grown way past him now. But when the Muslim kids were arrested in the mess hall, it stopped being a game. It stopped being just a way to tweak the nose of authority. There were real consequences, and as Zeck had pointed out, they were more Dink'
s fault than anyone else's.