When Lambs Become Wolves
"What exactly happens when the MP's take you away?"
Chyler ducks under my punch, and she circles around me with her hands held out in front of her. "What do you mean?" She asks as she tucks a stray strand of raven-black hair out of her face and behind her ear. My heart beats a little faster, our fight is taking a bit more out of me than I realized.
"I mean… most of the recruits who wash out of training… The ones who are dragged away by the MP's. What happens to them?" I ask hesitantly. "I thought they were killed off or something… but then you come back from the dead. What's up with that?"
The skin between Chyler's eyebrows crinkles as she frowns. "They aren't executed. Recruits who wash out haven't outlived their usefulness for the Empire," she says slowly. "You know about the Imperial Prison Brigade?"
I lunge forward and we exchange a combination of blows. I duck my head into my elbow to wipe away some sweat. "I've heard of them. I still don't know exactly what they do, though."
Chyler pauses, and she bites her lower lip as if debating what to say. Finally she answers, "My father used to call the soldiers in the prison brigades the 'sacrificial pawns'… Being put in the Imperial Prison Brigade is a death sentence, except that the soldiers have one last chance to serve their Empire…" Her eyes stare into mine, and her eyebrows form slight black arcs, as if trying to imply something to me.
My stomach drops as I realize what Chyler is trying to tell me. There is no way that I am going to see Kris again. He was now a sacrificial pawn. Expendable. The words of Doctor Sullivan echo numbly in my head, If found unfit for military service, you shall be placed in the prison brigade to be used as the Empire sees fit.
I know I should feel terrible; after all, I had reassured him that we would be going home. For some reason though, all I felt was acceptance, as if a part of me was saying, So be it.
"What about you?" I inquire, "Why didn't the MP's send you off to the prison brigades like the rest of them?"
She hesitates, looking down towards the black padded floor before answering, "I'd like to think that the Military Police saw how skilled I was and decided to make an exception. But honestly?... I don't know. I just don't know."
Her words surprise me. I have come to expect Chyler to know everything there is to know about the military. Her lack of knowledge about the MP's troubles me, and reminds me that there are things at work in the government kept secret even from its own military.
We continue sparring until curfew creeps up on us, and I wave good bye to Chyler as we proceed to our respective barracks. I climb into my bunk, body aching from the day's exertions. I think on what Chyler said. What could have possibly prompted the MP's to spare Chyler? The Military Police have always been one of those shadowy entities in the Empire. No one knows anything about them, in fact no one even knew an MP personally. James and I had even joked that under their reflective black visors, the MP's were nothing more than robots. There was one thing that I am sure of however; I'm glad that the MP's didn't take Chyler away.
A sort of change comes over us recruits over time. Every day we run further and faster, finding it easier to keep up with the relentless drill sergeants. In hand to hand combat, Guera teaches us new techniques, training us with electric knives and rubber rifles. I quickly rise to the top of my class in hand to hand combat, though Chyler continues to defeat me in our sparring sessions in the evenings. The drill sergeants seem to shout less frequently and each one of us moves with a confidence previously unknown. Conversation comes more easily in the chow halls and barracks. We are no longer the scared, timid, frightened lambs being led to slaughter from Decimation. We have been transformed into wolves. Warriors every last one of us.
One night, in our sleeping bay after dinner, Drill Sergeant Gaetz makes an announcement in his usual booming voice: We are to vacate our barracks to make room for the next wave of incoming recruits. We will receive dormitory assignments tonight and commence the next phase of our training tomorrow morning. "You will share your dormitories with a roommate of the same gender, called your 'battle buddy'," Gaetz growls at us. "This battle buddy will stick to you like gum to a table! You will train together, you will fight together, you will probably die together!" He smirks, and I can't tell if he's serious about the last part.
"I'll leave the paper work to Drill Sergeant Simonoff. I expect every one of your rooms to be inspection ready by tomorrow morning! Consequences will result in your failure to do so!" He glowers at us leaving the threat hanging in the air, and then nods to Simonoff as he leaves to visit the next sleeping bay.
Simonoff scowls at us, a plexi clutched in his left hand. "Alright you little shits! Gather up your stuff and form a line in front of me!"
We do as he says, chatting quietly amongst ourselves, excited at the opportunity to rid ourselves of the hard uncomfortable bunks. As I approach Simonoff, he glances down at his plexi. "Massey! 221 B," he says.
I nod and move towards the door. I follow the other recruits to a three story building rising up next to the barracks. It circles around a central courtyard, forming a sort of hollow square. Inside a long hallway with rooms on either side fill my vision and I move up a flight of stairs and past the shower facilities onto the second floor. I quickly locate my dormitory, 221 B.
The interior is Spartan, modern, and pristine after the fashion of the rest of the fort. A recess in the wall on either side contains our beds, and grey sheets cover the surface. A sleek black desk occupies the wall opposite to the entrance; it has a single wire mesh chair on wheels, and a plexiglass computer sits on top. There is no door, and the room offers no privacy whatsoever other than the walls surrounding the room.
I set my bag of belongings on my bed and look around for a place to put them. My hand fumbles around and I find a metal drawer that slides out from the wall underneath my bed.
I move the things from my belongings bag to the drawer. There isn't much. Only the things issued to me by the military: My grey uniform that I had received after Decimation, a dark olive green shirt that I wear during physical training, spare socks made out of cotton, undergarments, an army military manual, and a toiletries kit. I'm careful to arrange my belongings exactly as the drill sergeants had taught me the first week, remembering the sharp consequences of morning inspection.
"Is this 221 B?"
I turn to find a recruit with his belongings bag slung over his shoulders. His face is round, his nose is narrow, and he has high cheek bones that give him an almost regal look. However, his dark brown eyes are friendly as he gives me a once over. His hair is cropped close to his skull like mine, and is so brown that it almost seems black. His skin is a toasted olive, as if he has spent a lot of time in the sun.
"Yeah," I say, standing up.
He grins and reaches out with his hand. "Auggie Pantaleo, nice to meet you."
"Mathis Massey," I reply as I grasp his hand firmly, "Auggie… short for Augustus?"
He gives me a strange smile, "Yeah… how did you know that?"
I shrug. "Lucky guess?" Truth is that I had read about the Roman Emperor of the same name in history class. I don't want to sound weird however, so I keep that part to myself.
He laughs and begins to unpack his bag. "Battle buddies huh?" He says.
I smile. "Did Gaetz give you guys the whole speech as well?"
"Yeah, but I assure you… I don't plan on dying anytime soon."
I chuckle. Mocking the drill sergeants when they aren't around has become a bit of a favorite pastime among the surviving recruits.
Simonoff's voices bellows from down the hall, getting louder as he reaches us before finally reaching its deafening zenith as he passes our room, "Each recruit will have exactly two minutes to call family on the plexi! This is a privilege offered only once per week! Don't lose it!" His voice fades away as he continues his route, repeating the message to all recruits on the floor.
Auggie groans. "Great. Simonoff is in charge of this floor?"
"At least we didn't get Drill Sergeant Doan. I swear, that woman scares me more than a gun pointed at my face!"
Auggie laughs in agreement. I hesitate and gesture towards the plexi on the desk. "Umm… do you want the plexi first? Or?..."
He shakes his head. "Nah, you can use it first. I'll go to the washroom to give you some privacy."
I nod my thanks as Auggie leaves with his toiletries kit. I seat myself nervously in front of the desk. It has been so long since I have seen my loved ones. The prospect of seeing my mom, Keara, and James almost seems too good to be true.
I wipe the sweat from my palms on my pants and touch to plexiglass screen. It lights up, showing a yellow interface. I touch the icon with a representation of two figures with a dotted line connecting them. Keara is the only one out of my extended family that can afford a plexi, so I dial her number, hoping that she'll pick up.
The dotted line between the two figures begins to blink, signaling that the plexi is trying to establish a connection. I sigh in frustration. Trying to go through an imaginary conversation in my head. My fingers drum rhythmically on the desk.
Finally a large window pops up showing the inside of Keara's apartment, and more importantly, Keara.
Her face instantly lights up when she sees me. Her breath comes out in fast bursts, and her golden blonde hair is tousled, as if she had just rushed in from somewhere. She's leaning over the screen, only half sitting on the chair in front of her desk, and her hand is reaching towards the screen, still caught in the process of answering the plexi.
"Mathis!" She squeals, "Oh my gosh! Wait here, let me get James!"
Before I can protest, she rushes out of the room, and returns seconds later with James in tow.
"Mathis!" James crows, "Damn bro, what happened to your hair?" The relief is clearly evident in their voices. It is clear just how much they feared for me, though they disguise the relief in their jubilation.
I laugh. "It's the military, James, what did you expect?"
I notice a timer in the corner of the screen that is quickly approaching the one minute and a half mark. "Listen," I say hurriedly, "they don't allow us a lot of time to talk. How are things over there?"
"Things have returned back to normal… it just doesn't feel right without you, Mathis," Keara says softly.
"How's my mom? She holding up alright?"
"Yeah, bro. She was pretty upset when you were taken away, but she figured that she wouldn't be doing you any good if she just stopped functioning. Don't worry, we're looking after her."
I nod, that sounds like my mom, always able to soldier on no matter the circumstances. "Hey when you see her can you tell her that I love her?"
Keara nods without hesitation. "Of course, Mathis." She presses her lips together as she quietly asks, "How are things over there, Mathis? We never heard from Kaylie when she was conscripted. I honestly thought we would never see you again…"
I hesitate, reluctant to share the brutal training that I have been through in the time I was here. "It's… complicated. I mean I literally thought I was going to die the first week. Umm… It's rough. The training's rough…" I finish pathetically.
The timer in the corner is reaching thirty seconds, and I move quickly away from the unpleasant subject. "Listen, I'll be able to talk to you guys again next week, around the same time. Can you bring my mom along with you guys? I really want to see her again."
James nods, "Yeah, sure thing, don't even worry about it."
The timer is reaching fifteen seconds.
"I'll miss you guys!" I say with haste, desperate to get a few precious last words in.
"See ya' Mathis!"
"We'll think of you every day! Stay safe, alright?"
"I will," I say. But the connection has been cut off, leaving me to stare at my reflection. The corners of mouth twitch in a ghost of a smile. I realize that despite my conversation with Keara and James, I feel depressed. Something tugs at the back of my throat as I recall the bittersweet words exchanged in the conversation.
"Is that your girlfriend?"
Heat floods to my face as I recognize Chyler's voice and I whirl around in my chair. "W-who? Keara?"
Chyler is leaning on the frame of the entrance to my room, her arms crossed, and a mischievous smile on her face.
"N-no. Keara is just a friend…" I stammer feebly.
Chyler laughs quietly. "Sure she is."
"I'm serious! We've been friends since we were like eleven! Besides she's dating James!"
Chyler just shakes her head, clearly pleased that she has found a chink in my already shaky armor, and seats herself on my bed.
"What are you doing here anyways?" I ask.
She smiles nonchalantly. "My room is actually three doors down, across the hall."
My eyebrows jump up. "That's great!" I exclaim. "Guess we'll be seeing a lot more of each other, huh?"
"Not a chance."
She laughs and I grin. I like it when Chyler laughs; it makes her seem less intimidating and more approachable. Certainly a lot less intimidating than when I first met her… How the heck did she manage to forgive me for beating her up, anyways?
"Well I mean I beat you first, so it was sort of justified in a way."
I look up at Chyler, surprised. Her eyes are angled at me in that knowing look she always has as if she had just stated an obvious fact. I stare at her stupefied.
"You realize you said that out loud right?" Her mouth twitches and she seems to be biting back laughter.
"Huh? Oh. I guess so."
This time she doesn't try to fight it. She laughs, her teeth flashing white. "Well said, Massey." She breathes in and composes herself, placing her hands in her lap. "In response to your inquiry, I'm not exactly one to hold a grudge, not to mention the fact that you apologized like a million times already… My father believes that if all of mankind held grudges, we would have been extinct by now. It's better to just live in the present and to accept the situation that benefits you the most."
It makes sense. Though I can't help but wonder what Chyler is benefiting from our relationship. What was I but a human punching bag?
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by Auggie appearing in the doorway, a towel draped around his neck. He stops as his eyes flit between Chyler and I. "Am I interrupting something?" He says.
"No, come in," Chyler quickly replies. She turns back to me, smiling slightly. "I should probably get going, Massey. We'll all be training together for phase two so I'll see you guys tomorrow."
I nod in response. "See you, Chyler," I say, and she leaves with barely a backwards glance.
Auggie sets himself down on his bed, and moves his eyebrows up knowingly. "Was I interrupting something?"
My brow furrows in confusion. "No, why do you ask?"
He chuckles and shakes his head in something akin to disbelief, only adding to my confusion. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing," Auggie says unconvincingly. "You mind if I use the plexi now?"
I shrug. "Go for it."
Auggie says a quick thank you and moves to take my seat. I grab my toiletries kit and make my way to the showers to allow Auggie some privacy. The shower facility is on the bottom level, separated by gender. The tiles on the floor are a glossy obsidian-black, and the walls have a dark ash-grey texture. I move past a row of stalls and sinks and go to take a shower, not wasting any time as I quickly rub down my body in soap. I finish before the two minute timer is up and get dressed, pulling on my olive green shirt as I make my way to the sinks to brush my teeth. I'm not alone tonight, and I have to wait my turn as the other male recruits take turns in front of the sinks.
When I return to my dorm, Auggie is laying on his bed, reading out of the army manual. We chat for a while, but agree that we should recover our strength for tomorrow. As I rest my head on the pillow I glance up and am surprised to find the Imperial insignia etched into the ceiling of my nook. The now familiar eagle grasping a globe of stars is a welcome sight. Below the globe, the words "Strength and Order" are carved into the surface, and I trace them with my finger.
"Strength and Order," I repeat to myself under my breath, it is surprising how easily the words roll off my tongue, and a revelation suddenly strikes me like thunder.
I like it here. This is where I belong.
I am a part of the Imperial Army.
This was a bit of a filler chapter, though it does introduce some new elements to the plot as well as new characters. Unlike chapter four, the dialogue in this chapter switches quickly from one speaker to another. It starts with chyler, then goes to auggie, then "Jeara" (See what I did there?), then back to chyler, and then finally Auggie. Was this constant change in speakers confusing? How was the dialogue?
How about the transition from conscript to soldier? Was Mathis's sense of belonging understandable? What about his friendship with Chyler, progressing nicely? Or too fast?
Tell me in the comments below!