“All right you three, get ready,” Aaron shouted over his shoulder, running toward the barricade just visible in front of us, “We’re coming up on our target.” I focused in on our target, listening to the sound of my breaths resounding in my ears. My breaths were short, tight, and constant. My heart ran in concert with my breaths, beating sharply against my chest. Each of these resounding thumps was followed by an equally forceful pulse in the hollow of my throat. My worn, tattered training shoes pounded against the arid earth, my pace resolute. Each of these rhythms ran in contrast to each other. Years before, I had thought the dischord between these different beats was chaotic. After ten years of hard training, I had come to recognize it as the intricate, everchanging rhythm of battle.
My training rifle made faint metallic clicks as I ran, its cartridge rattling lightly against the body of metal encasing it. The thuds from my shoes were interspersed with frantic rustling as I ran through clumps of sagebrush, causing their branches to shudder and occasionally breaking them off entirely. Shouts sounded off from both sides as people gave orders, cried warnings, and vented their frustrations. Bullets whirred and whistled through the air, adding to the din. Through it all, the constant hissing of the noxious, white gas could still be heard. Carefully capsulated in each of our training rifle bullets, the gas would sing out like a sea of venomous snakes whenever it was released. The spitting sounds it made were a reminder that the right dose was enough to incapacitate us, leaving us sick and weary for hours. I could still distinctly remember feeling utterly overwhelmed by this cacophony of mismatching sounds the first time I had heard them. Now, those sounds were nothing more than the music of battle.
With the Barricade drawing closer, Aaron turned to me and said, “Will, you ready to go wide with me?”
“Always,” I said, ignoring the knot in my stomach.
“Jenny, Amy, You two have support?” Aaron asked, trusting his voice to carry as he continued to charge toward our target.
“Yes,” Amy said, her eye roll practically audible.
“We all know the plan Aaron,” Jenny said, her tone as polite as it could be, given the circumstances, “We listened to Bert give the same briefing you did.”
“It’s hardly our first training either, is it?” Amy huffed, her tone much less patient than Jenny’s. After all our years of training, I could hardly blame her.
Though I couldn’t see his face, I knew Aaron’s cheeks must be burning, complimenting that sheepish look he got whenever Amy gave him any sort of cheek he wasn’t expecting. Aaron stumbled over his words, confirming my suspicion, as he said, “Yes, very true, Amy.” Still sounding slightly sheepish, Aaron said, “Will, on my mark, we’ll flank this barricade and pick them off from the other side.”
“Right,” I shouted back as I sprinted through the hail of fire, doing my best to drown out the visual noise that surrounded me. Stray bullets and the clouds of white gas that marred the sky and field became secondary to me. Instead, I focused on the band of camouflaged unofficials in front of me. Even with their faces smeared with paints to make them less distinguishable from their surroundings, I still recognized the caregivers’ wizened features.
“Amy, Jenny,” Aaron shouted as he fired back at the caregivers, “Will and I are going to need you to keep them pinned down as we circle round.”
“We’ve got your back, Aaron,” Amy called back from somewhere behind us, “We’ll keep those old hasbeens completely immobilized.”
“All right let’s take this point,” Aaron shouted, turning his jog into a dead sprint, “Go!”
I leveled my training rifle at one of our caregivers, preparing to fire. Even as I did, I met the eyes of my target and felt the weight of Amy’s words sink in. Although I knew that it had been meant as a throwaway insult, hearing our caregivers called hasbeens had a sobering weight of truth behind it. In many ways, our caregivers were in a position almost identical to our own. They still relied on the Brutarian Empire’s Housing programs, just the same as we did. The government’s support came at the cost of their citizenship, just as it did for us. They still experienced the same kinds of prejudice from Favorers, just the same as we did.
In the split second I held my target’s gaze, I was reminded once more that the there was one key distinction between the caregiver I was about to incapacitate and a fourteen-year-old like me. Everyone in my age group still had the opportunity of becoming official citizens. The caregivers did not. They were living testament to the idea that many unofficials never became official citizens. If the caregivers’ stories were to be believed, only the best unofficials had the self-mastery and determination to save enough money for property and their subsequent status as officials. In a way, it was fitting that we’d been forced to train against the caregivers all these years. After all, we were trying to surpass them in the hopes that we would one day become officials.
I squeezed the trigger of my rifle, I watched as several small bullets pelted the caregiver’s midriff. White gas burst from the bullets as they shattered against the caregiver. The moment they were free fog-like clouds began expanding. It wasn’t long before the caregiver was little more than an obscure figure, having been completely swallowed by the chemical compound. As the fumes enveloped the caregiver, I turned my rifle towards my next target, only half hoping I would be able to shoot them before they landed a hit on me. Sure enough, even before I had a chance to look down my sights, I could see that this caregiver was lining up a shot. Just as I readied myself for the inevitable loss of consciousness that was about to come speeding my way, I saw a bullet tag the caregiver’s shoulder. Turning to look at where he’d been shot, the caregiver inhaled a large amount of the compound and collapsed.
Still running, I glanced over at where I thought the bullet had been fired. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Aaron looking every bit like the soldier everyone thought he’d become. He charged ahead, his tall frame and cast-iron build cutting an imperious image. He was already shifting his aim to his next target, his blond hair contrasting with the black of his training rifle. Following close behind, I could just make Amy and Jenny providing cover fire. Knowing these three had my back was no small comfort. I knew that as long as I had them by my side, I had nothing to fear, not even our care center’s Brutarian Guards. I also knew it was too good to last, though.
Focus, I thought, mentally shaking myself as I ran, Don’t think about that. Focus on the practice session.
Aaron and I both brought our training rifles back to eye level as we drew near the pile of sandbags and scrap metal the remaining caregivers were hunkering behind. Seeing that one of the caregiver’s heads was not completely concealed behind their cover, I took my mark and fired. Mere moments later, the man’s body went limp, his cover becoming his support. A second caregiver chanced a blind shot. The bullets flew wide, revealing just how desperate a shot it was. Aaron and I pressed on, undeterred.
Drawing level with the shoddy fortification, we shared a look and nodded. Without a second thought, the two of us spit up. We both started circling the sandbags, preparing to flank the mark just as Bert had told us to in the Briefing room. Just as I came round to the back of the caregivers’ cover, I felt something massive come crashing into me. I hit the ground with a dull thud, feeling all the air in my body escape my lips in a painful gaspe. With my world still spinning as a sense of dread pooled in my chest, I desperately grabbed onto my training rifle, which my attacker was painfully pushing into my rib cage.
Before I could even properly catch my breath, I felt the caregiver begin to move the muzzle of my training rifle towards my face, his other hand fighting mine for control over the grip. Immediately, I began to fight back, trying to force the muzzle back down. I could feel the muscles in my arms straining for all they were worth, just managing to keep the muzzle pointed to my side instead. Still, I knew that it was a fruitless victory. Close quarter combat had never been my strong suite. In fact, apart from my fellow fourteen year old Jimmy, I was the worst hand-to-hand fighter in my age group. The caregivers knew it too. Even as he wrestled with me, I could see the caregiver the caregiver smiling through gritted teeth, knowing it was only a matter of time before I wore myself out. I began to thrash more violently, trying fruitlessly to throw the caregiver off of me. Once my movements became more subdued, I felt the caregiver start to force the muzzle upward once more.
“Aaron!” I cried, my voice still feeble from the initial crash, “Aaron, help!”
Just when it seemed like the caregiver was going to get a clear shot at my face, I heard three dull thumps and felt the caregiver’s weight come down on me in earnest. Worming my way out from the now unconscious caregiver, I got to my feet and retrieved my training rifle out from under the older man. I brought the butt of the rifle back to my shoulder as quickly as I could before eagerly scanning for the next target. To my chagrin, all of the other caregivers lay in unconscious slumps at the foot of their shelter, with Aaron standing a few feet away looking as casual as if he were simply out for a stroll. I felt myself flush in embarrassment as I lowered my training rifle.
“Thanks for the save,” I said, walking over to stand next to Aaron, trying my best not to look as humiliated as I felt.
“Don’t mention it,” He said with a shrug, making it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. To Aaron, needing a bit of help in a practice might not have big deal. Then again, everyone was so certain that he was going to be assigned to be a soldier that I doubted he really had any guesses as to what his future might hold. To me, getting that bit of help reminded me that I hadn’t come as far as some of the other members of my age group. It was a reminder of how much more I was going to have to work if I was going to prove to the Judges that I was worth their notice.
“You check to make sure they’re all out?” I asked, gesturing to the limp forms of the caregivers. It had been years since the caregivers had tricked us by feigning altered mentla states. I didn’t want to give them a chance to think we were forgetting their training, especially now that they were preparing us to leave the care center.
Aaron nodded, saying, “Already done.”
Of course he’d done it. It’s not the kind of detail the care center’s prodigy would overlook.
Raising his training rifle over his shoulders as he stretched, Aaron yawned, “Well that was almost exciting. Bit old hat for us at this point, though.”
“Just be grateful we weren’t gassed,” I said, still shaken from my grapple with the caregiver, “That’s more than some of our age group can say.”
“Who’d you see get hit, Will?”
“I know both Jimmy and Martin are down,” I said, watching as another group of fourteen-year-olds took the mark closest to ours, “I’m not sure if Garret made it to cover or not.”
Aaron grunted before saying, “Chester and some of his buddies seemed like they were struggling. Hopefully they were able to pull through.”
“It looks like they were,” I said, nodding to the position I had just watched them secure, “Hope this means we’re almost done. The sooner we get back to care center, the better.”
Aaron nodded. He knew all too well that I hated this part of the practice session. I knew there were some members of our age group who relished this part of the practice, seeing it as a moment of triumph. For me, the lull in action and adrenaline left me thinking of what was still to come. This train of thought would inevitably take me to the transporter and the squad of Brutarian Guards waiting for us there. Even thinking about them filled me with an insatiable hatred. It was hard not to feel anything else after all the years of torment they had subjected us to. Though we rarely spoke of it, I knew full well that no one in our age group had forgotten what they had done to us the day of our first training session.
Fortunately, before I could truly begin to brood over our center’s guards and all the misery they’d caused, a siren sounded across the plain. Looking towards where the alarm originated, I saw two men making their way towards the now silent battleground. Bert and Cliff were quick to call out orders, telling us to begin prepping to leave the outpost. All too familiar with the process, Aaron and I picked up two of the unconscious caregivers and made our way towards the outpost’s infirmary without a second’s hesitation.
It took less than half an hour to return all the training gear to the armory and begin treating the gas victims with counteragent. All of the still conscious caregivers and fourteen-year-olds went about their business with militant efficiency. Our speed was more than merely a sign of proficiency, however. Now that the practice was over, none of us wanted to stay at the outpost any longer than we had to. We all wanted to board the transporter before the Brutarian Guards grew too restless and began making their own fun.
Emerging from the armory, I could see that most of my age group was already making their way to the transporter. I began following after their retreating figures, only to stop short when I caught a glimpse of what lay to my left. Standing in the shadows that pooled between two Barracks were two people who were clearly trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Even from a distance, I recognized both of them. Amy’s distressed expression stained her otherwise fair features. The man towering over her I knew could only be Trey. Having only joined our care center’s guards at the beginning of this year, he had quickly inspired a sense of hatred greater than the one I held for the rest of our center’s wardens. More than any of his comrades, he sought to degrade and demean any unofficial he encountered, and Amy had gotten the worst of it.
Even as I watched, I saw Trey leaning in towards Amy. He reached his gloved fingers towards her cheeks, the fine spacing between the protective plates allowing him to delicately caress her cheek. She recoiled slightly at his touch, but she did not openly withdraw. She was acutely aware that she was a captive to his authority.
The sight made my hatred burn hot like tar set alight. Before I realized what I was doing, I had taken several steps towards Trey and Amy. Instincts that had been bored into me over my time at the care center had me scoop up a stone the size of my palm as I drew nearer my friend and the Guard.
I was only steps away from the two Barracks when the crushing weight of reality started to cool the inferno flaring within my veins. What was I thinking? I couldn’t actually attack an official, let alone one of our center’s guards. I was just asking for trouble, even thinking about it. The guards were ruthless whenever they thought we were slacking off. I couldn’t even begin imagine what they’d do if I attacked one of them.
As indecision slowed me to a halt, I looked over my shoulder towards the transporter before glancing back towards Amy. Though she would have looked stoic to most, I knew her well enough to see the cracks starting to show through her resolve. It was her eyes that gave her away. Even at a distance, I could see desperation reflected in them as she scanned her surroundings frantically, searching out a source of salvation. I silently cursed Trey’s name a thousand ways before hiding myself behind one of the barrack’s walls, biding time as I tried to think of how to help my friend. Trey’s voice was now loud enough for me to hear. What he clearly thought was meant to be a soft, alluring tone wore at me like coarse sand in the wind.
My teeth were bared in a snarl as I hear him say, “The Captain has been having us get ready for your BEDL exams. They can’t be more that a week or two away now. Are you nervous?”
Amy shook her head vigorously.
“Of course you’d never admit to being scared for what’s to come,” Trey said, his smile uncomfortably close to Amy’s tightly sealed lips, “It’s what makes you so mature for you age. More mature than most of your age group.” Trey’s hand moved to Amy’s side as he pulled her closer to him. Though he no doubt intended for the gesture to be reassuring, I saw it for the controlling manipulation it was.
“It’s perfectly normal to be nervous,” Trey said, lightly massaging Amy’s lower back as he spoke, “You have a lot of big changes heading your way, and at such a tender age too.” With his other hand, he reach a finger under Amy’s chin and tilted her face towards his. Trey’s eyes locked with Amy’s, he said, “You’re too young and innocent for your own good. If you’re assigned to a labor house, I doubt it will take more than a month for you to be hired out to one of the call houses.”
Nuzzling his cheek against Amy’s, I just managed to catch him say, “I hear that most girls have a hard couple of months after being hired out. Still, the girls that learn to embrace their new lives do well for themselves. Some of them even start to enjoy it. The girls I know have told me several times that they wouldn’t trade their positions away, even to become official citizens. Of course, it helps that they’ve had so much experience.”
Pulling away from Amy to stare her into submission once more, Trey said, “You know, I could give you some of that same experience if you want. It might just help to make things easier a few months from now.”
Amy was having a hard time keeping her composure now. Her eyes were wide, her mouth a firm line that she dared not open for fear of what she would say. I could see she clearly didn’t want anything to do with Trey or his suggestion. Still, she knew she was just as likely to be beaten bloody for refusing him as she was likely to be taken advantage of if she said yes. Trey was an official citizen, and one who used his status to take whatever he wanted. Trying to deny him anything was as useful as shouting at the wind to stop blowing.
My fingers tightened around the stone still clutched in my hand, the thought of smashing it against the back of Trey’s head becoming all too tempting. It was only the thought of the pistol strapped to Trey’s hip that kept me from hurling my makeshift weapon at his head then and there. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep me sitting there any longer. I knew I couldn’t leave Amy alone with that monster.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, I whirled round the corner and started walking towards Trey and Amy. My knuckles were white against the stone that I was clutching more for courage than anything. Each step left me more hollow as I waited for Trey to notice me, half expecting that I was seconds away from taking several bullets to the chest. When Trey did finally turned around, I felt my heart stop. His eyes narrowed as he met mine, looking at me the way he would a cockroach. Drawing himself up to his full height, he took a step away from Amy. He positioned himself between me and Amy, practically concealing her in his long cast shadow. His right hand rested casually on the handle of the pistol by his side, his eyes daring me to try and take his prize from him.
“You are supposed to be on the transporter with the rest of your age group,” Trey said, not bothering to hide his displeasure, “You’d better have a good reason for being here, kid.”
I had my lie at the ready. I had spent the past several minutes concocting it as I listened to Trey’s forked tongue do its best to coerce Amy into surrendering herself to this degenerate of an official. It was a simple lie, one that I knew he would swallow without question. I would tell him his captain was tired of all the delays. He’d sent me to find the last few members of my age group so that we could start the journey back to the care center. I was just a simple unofficial obeying his betters, just as I had learned to ten years ago. Yet even as I opened my mouth to say all of this, I felt the words die on my tongue. I tried breathing life into them, begging them to live long enough to move past my lips, but to no avail. Instead, I stood frozen with fear as Trey’s patience waned.
Giving up any hope that I would find my tongue, Trey let out a long, exaggerated sigh. He began walking towards me, his plated boots crunching as they crushed the mixture of sand and dust further into the ground. I felt my pulse start to rise with each step he took, blood draining from my face as he came to stand before me. My heart threatened to escape my rib cage as Trey reached a hand out towards me. He placed it on my shoulder, his grip uncomfortably tight.
“Listen,” Trey said, his tone conversational as he continued to tighten his grip on me, “I know you never had a mommy or daddy around to teach you manners, but you should know better than to annoy an official. You know that right?”
I knew I needed to answer him. I fought to open my mouth, but my jaw was locked tight with fury and panic. It might not have mattered, though. Even if I had been able to wrench my molars apart, I doubted I would have been able to reply. I could feel that my tongue was still as stone, more than likely to fumble the most feeble of phrases.
“Answer me, houser!” Trey growled. Even as he spat the last word into my ear, I felt my throat tighten. My mouth went dry as a fowl taste flooded my mouth. In that moment, I felt infinitesimally small and defenseless besides the armored guard, like I always had.
“Can’t even answer a simple question,” Trey said as another hint of impatience flickered in his eyes, “I can’t see the judges having much use for you if you can’t even follow simple orders.” Trey sneered at me as he buried the tips of his fingers into pressure points all along my shoulder. I let out a gasp as pain radiated out from each one of these points. I heard a faint thud and only vaguely realized that I must have inadvertently dropped the stone I had been clutching. The thought had hardly crossed my mind before my world blurred as my eyes began to water. I clenched my fists and bared my teeth to keep from showing how much pain was in. Not daring to meet his eye, I gave him a single curt nod, acknowledging that I knew better. I had hoped doing so would finally get him to release his grip on me. It had been a foolish hope. His hand stayed rooted to my shoulder, cutting off feeling to my hand, as he said, “Now what are we going to–
“–There you are,” A voice cried out from the other side of the barracks, cutting Trey off mid sentence, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you two.”
Trey’s mouth had contorted into a razor thin line. Feeling came rushing back to my fingers as Trey relinquished his grasp, turning to see who dared to interrupt him. I didn’t have to look to know who had spoken. For years, he had been a guiding voice of reason in our care center. Sure enough, as I stared down towards the mouth of the alley we stood in, I saw Cliff strolling down to meet us. Though age had left its marks on him as it had most of the caregivers, Cliff still maintained a semblance of his youth. Chiseled muscle still shone through his weathered skin. Grizzled grey hair and beard framed his gruff features that only the gentleness in his eyes seemed to soften.
“We need to get to the transporter,” Cliff said, his gravelly voice cutting through the tension, “As soon as you two have boarded, we can be off.”
“Don’t overstep yourself, unofficial,” Trey snapped at Cliff, his face red with indignation, “I have business with these two. They are not to go anywhere without my leave.”
Cliff’s figure tensed. His eyes narrowed as he met Trey’s biting gaze, the gentleness that they had previously held completely gone. Looking away, he caught Amy’s eye and gestured her over to him. She promptly fled to the safety of his side, relieved to finally be free of Trey. Cliff looked over at me and waved for me to follow. I took a step towards him, but was stopped short when Trey grabbed me once more, his grip a vice.
He looked as if he were about to spit venom as he said, “Insubordinate. I just told you they weren’t to leave.”
Cliff drew himself to up to his fullest height, his face a grim mask of cold fury. In that moment, I saw Cliff not as the caregiver I had known him as, but as the former Brutarian Legionnaire he was. Trey bristled ever so slightly under the glower Cliff gave him, betraying a hint of uncertainty. Cliff pounced on Trey’s moment of weakness, telling the official, “It was by your captains order that I came to collect these children. If you have an issue, take it up with him.”
Before Trey could say anything else, Cliff jerked his head at me one last time. He then turned around and walked away, his arm wrapped protectively around Amy’s shoulder as she followed him to the transporter. The implication obvious. I tore myself away from Trey, rushing to catch up with Cliff and Amy. When I fell into stride with my fellow unofficials, I turned around to take a final glance at Trey. The official’s face was a stark white rage ready to be released in all its fury. His reaction to Cliff’s breach in propriety was hardly surprising. Cliff was his subordinate and his charge. By right, Cliff should have followed Trey’s orders to the letter. Instead, the aged caregiver had not only defied Trey, but kept his hands clean of any blame. It was defiance masterfully executed in the way that only Cliff ever dared try.
Over the past decade, I had had several opportunities to see Cliff stand his own against our center’s guards in this same way. The first time I had seen him antagonize one of our guards, I had been perplexed by his veiled hostility, particularly since he had just finished explaining to us that we were to show them the utmost respect. Now I knew the truth of the matter. Our care center’s guards weren’t just official citizens. They were favorers. As long as they saw us as unofficials, they would never see us as equals. Not unless we ever bought property and the right of citizenship that comes with it.
One day, I will be free of their disdain. One Day, I will stand equal to officials who don’t discriminate against unofficials. Officials worthy of my respect. With this remembered promise resting on the surface of my thoughts, I turned my back one last time on the still seething official as I followed my fellow unofficials to the transporter.