Chapter 8

The hunger woke him.  It was starting to get dark and his head was fuzzy with hard sleep and left-over pressure.  His eyes were irritated, puffy, throat dry and raw.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had cried.  He’d heard sobbing like that could be healthy, cathartic, but it had done little to ease the emptiness that ached in him and had only made him feel physically drained.  He wouldn’t give in to the emotion again.  Couldn’t afford it.  He would bury the feelings of defeat, loss and regret, bury them beneath his anger and determination.

He focused his blurry gaze on the gun, still lying a few paces from him.  Then, past the gun, on the small rabbit that was hopping lazily about, sniffing and nibbling the grass.  His stomach clenched.  He knew if he moved fast enough he would be able to get the gun, draw a bead on the animal and shoot it.  But the bullets in the gun were not for Ry: not to take his life and not to sustain it by killing for food.

And so, he would have to be patient.  He knew how to hunt, to catch and kill with his hands.  It took time.  It took tolerance.  His stomach gurgled, filling him with desperation.  Most of all, it took control.

*************

Ry tried to control his emotions, to tamp down the panic that made him want to turn around and run back towards Thomas.  How could he be so dependent on this one boy after knowing him less than a day?  He had never been that dependent before.  On anyone.   Well, there was Nova, but that was different: they were dependent on each other.  He shook the name from his mind, the image that had flooded in with it.  He had promised himself!

He took a breath, focused on the people around him.  Eight people from their tent, him and seven others.   None of them paid any attention to him, none of them even seemed to know he was there.  All things considered, that was probably a good thing.  Invisibility would serve him better right now than the conspicuousness of being a Priv.  His gaze wandered across Evey and he nearly stumbled.  He’d been so preoccupied with being separated from Thomas he hadn’t realized Evey was in the same group.  For a second, he allowed himself a surge of relief, almost happiness.  Maybe she would be on his side, at least enough to shield him from the others’ harshness.  If not for his sake, as she loathed him as much as the rest, perhaps, at least, for her cousin’s.  When he caught her gaze a moment later, though, she glanced away quickly and resolutely avoided meeting it again.  Apparently her loyalty to Thomas did not extend to being champion for his friend in his absence.  Friend?  More like pet.  Ry didn’t know much about friendship, had not had many friends, but he was pretty sure the word implied a reciprocity in the relationship.  What had Ry done for Thomas?  What could he do?  He didn’t blame Evey for shunning him; it was no less than he deserved.  Still, he could wish she would show charity; was it not, by definition, bestowed on the unworthy?

They came to a stop where three other groups were already gathered, standing in formal-looking stances and trying not to look bored.  Tents 1, 4 and 8, Ry assumed.  Apparently, Tent 9 was the latecomer.  Another strike against him, but at least he wasn’t alone in this.   As they hustled to form themselves into what seemed to be the appropriate two lines, Ry thought about positioning himself next to Evey; maybe proximity would help her sense his desperation.  But he couldn’t do that to her.  Thomas had chosen, spirits only knew why, to link himself to Ry, to accept whatever shunning or battery that meant.  But Evey hadn’t chosen.  It was bad enough that she would be associated by her bond with Thomas.  She should not bear the burden of a connection to a Priv just because of loyalty to her cousin.  And so he couldn’t draw attention to the fact, couldn’t remind people by insinuating himself into her space, asking for her help or acknowledgement.  Besides, if he was going to survive this war, he had to learn to stand on his own feet, be his own man, fight his own battles.  How could he hope to defend against the enemy if he could not even hold his own with his fellow Drovers?

“Alright, my little flower blossoms!”  Ry nearly flinched at the voice and immediately tried to straighten his stance to match those of the others around him.  He searched for the speaker, found him quickly.  He was short and stocky, somewhere between Ry’s age and his parents’.  Hair in the normal, buzzed cut, but obviously thinning on top.  His eyes looked tired with the exasperated exhaustion of being asked to conduct the same frustrating, pointless task again and again.  Training Drovers must be even less glamorous than being one.  As the man strode past, Ry tried to catch a glance of name or title on his uniform.  The insignia on the collar was similar to the Strikers who had escorted them to this location, but with a few additional lines.  He wondered if it was a higher or lower rank.   The name on the front read Ota.

“We’re working on one-to-one close combat today.  No weapons.  No restrictions.  You lose your gun, your enemy is not going to go easy on you.  You defend yourself.  You stay alive.  That’s your only task. Now…”  Something seemed catch his eye and he turned.  Ry shifted his gaze, careful not to let his body follow.  One of the men, not one he knew, had his hand in the air.

“This is not school, Guverman,”Ota snapped.  “You stand still and listen to instructions.  We don’t have Q and A time.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Guverman yelled.  Ota gave a snort and started to turn.  “It’s just the Priv, sir!”  For a second, Ry was astounded by the man’s gall in pursuing his conversation.  Then what he said registered and Ry felt his blood freeze.  The Priv?  He hadn’t done anything!  He clamped down on the words trying to form in his mouth and glanced back and forth between Ota and Guverman, suddenly very invested in how it played out.

“Excuse me?”

“We have a new man here today, sir, a Priv.”

“I know that, Guverman.  It’s my business to know.   What does Astro’s presence have to with your ability to shut up and take orders?”

“I was just concerned , sir.  Privs have no training upon arrival and this is his first day.”

“Are you suggesting we let the Priv sit this one out?”  The sarcasm in Ota’s voice was more nerve-wracking than the fact that they were talking about him like he wasn’t there.   Ry bit his tongue and flicked a glance towards Evey, still desperately hoping for an ally.  Her gaze was straight ahead, jaw set.  He couldn’t read anything in her expression…or, lack of one.

“Sir,” Guverman was speaking again.  “I only meant to offer to partner with Drover Astro myself for today’s practice.”

“Oh?”

“Sir, I am top of my Tent in hand to hand combat.  I thought I would be a beneficial partner for Astro.”  A new sensation tugged at him, now.  He couldn’t place it, but it was warmer, less disconcerting than the others.

“Sir!” A new voice popped up.  Feminine.  Unknown.  “Drover Lauffburn, Tent 4.  I am not only top of my Tent in hand-to-hand combat, but second best in our camp.  I am the logical choice to partner with the Priv.”  The sensation grew.  Happiness.  That’s what it was.  Or something close.  Honor, maybe?  These people were volunteering to work with him.  They wanted to help him.  What had he been so worried about?  They didn’t hate him.  They were actually showing they cared.  He almost felt dizzy with the thought, and he must have been smiling when he looked towards Evey again.

She was looking back.  Her gaze locked with his and all warmth fled.  Her eyes were as stony as ever, and she only held his for a moment.  Then, she gave a nearly imperceptible shake of her head.  Ry wasn’t sure if it was a warning, or merely a gesture of exasperation at his idiocy, but either way, it did not bode well for him.  Maybe he was being naïve; what was the motivation for Guverman and Lauffburn’s volunteering?

“Sir!”  That voice he knew and he held very still.  “Sir, Astro is my tent-mate.  I may not have all the high-ranking credentials when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but if anyone can help him, the way he needs to be helped, I think it’s me.”   Ry knew he should feel something, but he couldn’t dredge up emotion.  No, there was something.  Relief.  That was it.  Relief at knowing things were back on familiar ground.   The world had tilted there, for just a moment, topsy-turvied and, while it had felt good, it had been scary at the same time.  Foreign.  But now, he knew where he stood.  Because if Obermire was offering to help him, he knew it was all a cruel joke.

Others were calling out now, talking, volunteering, arguing in a way Ry was sure must be unacceptable for Drovers in any camp, but he was too numb and tired and relieved to process any of it.  They all wanted to hurt him.  That was it.  They wanted to pound him, to get their chance to wail on him within acceptable bounds.  Involuntarily, his gaze shifted to Evey one more time.  She stared straight ahead, but he knew she could see him.  Finally, she looked, impatience the only emotion in her expression.  Abandoning any feeling of self-pride, Ry mouthed the word “Help!”.  She turned away again, shaking her head, though in denial or frustration, he couldn’t tell.

“Enough!” Ota’s voice cracked out above the melee and Ry flinched.  “I don’t know what kind of Tents your Strikers are running, but I don’t put up with this kind of insubordination.  Now shut up, stand down and get into formation before I charge each one of you.  I will decide who is paired with who and I will not tolerate any discussion or contention on the matter!”  Ry felt like he could breathe again.  At least the leaders here were competent and unbiased.  At least he could expect a bit of protection from them.  A warning buzzed at the base of his brain, suggesting his own ignorance once more.  At least…he resisted the urge to look at Evey again, afraid of what he’d see.

~ S.D. Bullard

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

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~ by sdbullard on December 29, 2012.

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