RECRUIT

Laurel

May 24, 2236, Woods Outside Waller

She couldn’t do this, what Brody was asking her to do. There was no way she could do this. He was standing in front of her, not three meters away, and telling her to shoot him with the stun gun. He had taken his shirt off, and he had Loren draw a target on his chest for where she was supposed to aim. He was looking directly into her eyes, telling her to just walk up to him and pull the trigger, but she couldn’t do it. Trelix and Loren watched them at this for a while now, and she felt bad, felt like she was failing some kind of test. She tried telling him that it would be different for her if she were shooting at people she didn’t know, people she hated, that he shouldn’t expect her to be able to shoot him, of all people, but for some stupid reason, he did.

She saw Riley come into the clearing, looking at her, a smirk on his face. He pulled his shirt off and walked over to her, reaching for her gun with his bandaged hand, “You don’t need me to draw you a target, Brody, do you?” Brody shook his head, took the gun from him, aimed it at his chest, and pulled the trigger, as if it was no big deal. Riley was on the ground, not moving, and she ran over to him, shaking him, but he wouldn’t get up, wouldn’t move at all. Brody finally pulled her away, “You have to give him a few minutes, Laurel. It knocked him out cold. He’ll be up and whole in five, I promise. Now please, just point the damn thing at me and shoot, so I know you can, so I know you won’t freeze if you have to.”

And she did then, only she kept doing it, kept squeezing the trigger, without meaning to, and Trelix and Loren ran to her, taking the gun away, and then ran to Brody, looking frantic, shaking him, and then whispering into their comms. She didn’t know why she didn’t let go, but she could tell she really hurt him. He was barely breathing… Somebody must have gone to get Ella, because she saw her running to Brody with the med kit after a short while, Drake following behind her, looking paler than she ever saw him. She was crying hysterically, trying to get to Brody, only there were hands on her and they wouldn’t let her move.

She heard Riley saying something to her, but she couldn’t make sense of it. She was watching Ella doing something to Brody, but he still wouldn’t move, wouldn’t wake up. She felt Riley’s arm around her, and she could tell he was still talking to her, because his lips kept moving, and finally she couldn’t take it anymore and she broke away from him and ran to where Brody, her Brody, was lying like a corpse in the grass. She screamed at him to bloody wake up, over and over to please just wake up, telling him that she would never use any of these damn things again, would never touch them, but to please, just wake up. Her voice was hoarse from all the screaming, but she couldn’t make herself stop, not until he moved, not until he woke up….

His eyes finally flew open, and he looked at her, surprise and concern written all over his face. Ella told him then that his heart stopped, and they weren’t sure they could get it going again. That what he got was as close to lethal as it gets, with him still being alive, and that she would be eternally grateful if they didn’t practice on live subjects again. And she and Drake left after that.

Brody got up and hugged her, wiping the tears off her face for a while, and then handed her the gun again. He took a few steps back from her and told her to pull the trigger, but there was no way in hell she was ever doing that again.

“Laurel, forget what just happened. Point and shoot. One pull on the trigger. All you have to do is let go. Now shoot.”

She was shaking her head at him, “No. I am not doing this to you again. I’ll shoot anybody else, but I am not shooting you again.”

He walked back towards her, looking uncomfortable, “I can’t ask anyone else, Laurel. It, being shot with these things, it kind of hurts. So it’ll have to be me, I am sorry. You have to get comfortable with shooting at people.”

Riley walked up to Brody and handed him his shirt and a marking pen, looking at him without any smiles now, eyes serious, “I got this, Brody. You can’t take anymore. Your heart might just stop. It’s not safe for you, and you know that. Draw the target. I got this.” Brody nodded and drew a target around Riley’s heart, the dot she had to point at in the middle, and then Riley was standing just a few steps away from her, telling her to do it, that it was okay, telling her that she wasn’t going to kill him, to just pull the damn trigger, but she couldn’t do it, and then he was screaming at her to just bloody shoot, over and over again, and finally, she did, because she couldn’t take him screaming at her like that anymore, and he was on the ground, a burn mark on his chest. She knelt next to him, checking his pulse, making sure he was breathing. He was, and she reached over and hugged him, and let herself cry on his chest, rising evenly under her.

She heard Brody and his boys laughing behind her, but she didn’t care that they found any of this funny, not when she almost accidentally stunned Brody to death. Trelix and Loren volunteered to let her shoot them after that, and she let go both times just as soon as she pulled the trigger and they didn’t even fall down, just stood there smiling at her, and Brody made her do it again, until she got it right, until they were on the ground, not moving.

She walked away from them after that, needed to be alone for a while, to process all of it. She needed to talk to Ams, tell her about what these things can do, and that she really had to let go or she’d hurt somebody. She didn’t think Ams would have to do this part for a few days yet, as she just started with the targets on the trees, but she wanted her to know anyway, so she could prepare herself.

Ams was in the flier with Drake. He was making her load and reload the old school weapon, and she seemed good at it, her small hands moving quickly, clicking things into place. She watched her for a long time, and then caught Drake looking at her and shaking his head. He didn’t want Laurel to tell her about Brody, she got that, only she couldn’t figure out why. She had to know she could kill Riley or somebody, whoever they’d make her shoot at, because she didn’t want her to go through what she just went through out there. Nobody should ever go through that. She’d talk to Drake then, she’d have to.

He put his arm around her and walked her down to the clearing, leaving Ams with the old guns and a timer.

“Do you love him? Brody, do you love him?”

She did, even if she hasn’t said as much to anybody yet, not even him, so she nodded.

“Then you will let him do this his way. He is good at it, really good. And he is trying to teach you in a week what should take years. You have to let him. And it will hurt, and you will feel like you are screwing up all the time, but you have to trust him and you have to let him. What you saw, him lying there like that, not moving, you needed to see that. You needed to know that’s what happens when you actually shoot somebody. It’s the hardest thing to do, Laurel. But no matter how many holes you can put into your targets on the trees, if you can’t do that to a person, it won’t mean anything. So let him do his job, and you can’t tell Ams anything. She needs to learn this, the way you did. I am sorry,” and he walked away from her then, back into the flier.

She went to her own little target range and stayed there until it was too dark to shoot, until she couldn’t see the targets clearly anymore. Everybody was at the fire when she got back, chatting comfortably, laughing, as if what happened today was entirely normal. She took a bowl from Ella and sat by herself, not talking to anybody, watching the flames move.

“Mind if I sit?” Brody asked, leaning over her with a cup of that stuff nobody liked in his hands. She could smell the bitterness in it. She nodded. She was still mad at him for making her shoot at him today, and for making her shoot at Riley like that. She knew she could kill anybody else, anybody she actually had to, felt it somehow, and they didn’t need to risk her hurting them to make her know that for sure. They could have just asked.

He watched her, not saying anything, and as soon as she was done with her food, he got up and pulled her up with him, “We are going for a walk,” and that was that.

He took her to the stream, the moon making light tracks on it, enough to see each other by, and they hiked for a while alongside it, climbing the bank, not talking. She raced ahead of him for a bit and then couldn’t hear him behind her, and when she turned around, he was sitting against a rock down below, holding his chest in his hands. She ran to him, but he just looked at her, stopping her with that look. She could see sweat on his face, his jaw clenched. He was in pain, no matter what she knew he’d say when it was all over, if it was ever going to be over.

And then it was, and he seemed like himself again, only embarrassed now when he looked at her, “I am sorry, I didn’t think that would happen. I am okay, Laurel. I promise I am okay.”

She put her arms around him and held him, playing with his hair, running her fingers down his back, feeling his breathing return to normal and then suddenly not normal again, and she stopped, staring at his face.

He smiled at her, “Good idea. I don’t think my heart can take anything more today. Sit. We need to talk. Instructor, not boyfriend talk.” She didn’t want to have one of those. Didn’t like it, the whole instructor thing from him. It made her feel like a little girl who kept doing things wrong. Not that he was ever mean to her, or to anybody, he wasn’t. It’s just that he was so disgustingly good at all of the stuff he wanted them to learn now, there was no way he was still human. She watched him shoot, and throw knives, and go hand to hand with Riley and Loren, and she hated him for how easy it was for him. She remembered that morning at the cave, when she came out and he had all those bruises on him, and it didn’t make any sense to her now. There is no way Riley could have landed a single punch on him, unless Brody really wanted him to, and that didn’t make any kind of sense. That he’d just let him beat him like that.

“Can I ask you something before you go into full on instructor mode?”

He nodded, looking at her.

“I’ve seen you fight, seen you and Riley fight, and it doesn’t add up for me. I get why you wouldn’t hit him back, but I’ve watched you, the way you move, and you wouldn’t have needed to. It’s like you wanted every punch to land on you.”

He shook his head, looking embarrassed for some reason, like this was some big secret between Riley and him. She kept staring at him. She wasn’t going to let him dodge everything that made him uncomfortable.

“I owed him, Laurel. The way Anders pummeled him, I let it happen. I couldn’t do it myself, not to him. I would have never hurt him like Anders did, and I knew it, knew it even then. So I owed him. I’ve been asking him to beat me up ever since. He needed to do it, whatever the reason in his head for when he finally did. I just knew he needed to,” he said in a quiet voice, and put his head down again for a little while, and she let him be.

“Instructor mode, Laurel. I am sorry, but we have to. What happened with you when you shot me? I need to know if the gun locked up or your froze, stopped thinking. Need to know what it was, so I can help you.”

She thought back on it for a long time, and knew that it was her, not the gun, “I think I was angry at you for shooting Riley like that, for scaring me. It wasn’t the gun. I didn’t know what would happen, or that I would hurt you, but I know I was angry at you when I shot you. I am sorry, Brody.”

“Just the facts, Laurel. Not boyfriend,” he snapped at her. She nodded, hating how cold his voice was.

“We are going to need to work on that. You can’t be shooting at anyone out of anger, not even at people who are trying to kill you. You need to learn to shoot to kill, but only if you absolutely have to, and you only have to if they can kill you or one of us first, not if they make you angry. Do you understand?”

 

She did, but she felt awful enough for what she did to him today already that he really didn’t need to lecture her. She nodded and stood up, turning to the trail to the flier. She was done with this conversation for the night. She felt his hands grab her shoulders roughly and turn her around. He looked angry now, angry like she’d never seen him before, and she didn’t know what she did, other than shoot him like that, to make him look at her that way.

“You insisted on coming with us, Laurel. Nobody asked you to do that. I sure as hell didn’t ask you to do that, but I am not going to throw you into a situation I can’t control or one where you can’t control yourself, because that would put everybody else in danger. I have to know I can trust you to do what I tell you to do and how I tell you to do it at all times, if I have any hope of keeping you and the rest of us alive. We are not done here until I say we are done, and that means you don’t get to walk away when you think you’ve had enough. Not boyfriend, Laurel,” he said in his clipped soldier voice, as if she were one of his boys.

She was angry now, really angry, “You can stop saying that, Brody. You haven’t been a boyfriend in days, just the bloody instructor. I get it. What will you have me do now, sir?”

He was watching her, eyes softer, “I want you to hit me, as hard as you can. That’s an order.”

She shook her head at him. Whatever game this was, she was done playing it. Not after today.

“Hit me, Laurel. You need to let that anger out, so I need you to hit me,” he ordered, glaring at her, hands behind his back, waiting.

“Will you threaten to shoot me if I don’t, like you did your boys for refusing your stupid order? Because unless you are willing to do that, I am not touching you, Brody. Not shooting at you and not hitting you. I am just not.”

And he suddenly lunged for her, laughing, but she squirmed away, and then he was panting, not in a good way either. She really bloody hurt him today. Brody never got like that before.

She threw her arms around him, holding him, letting him catch his breath, “Girlfriend, not recruit. You are an idiot. I don’t know what I did to your heart, but we need to get you some help, Brody. What you are doing, this not being able to breathe thing, it’s not okay. I know you know that. You can’t go anywhere like this, until we know what it is and can fix it. You just can’t. We have to tell Ella and Riley. We have to.”

He was shaking his head at her, all serious again, “We can’t, Laurel. I’ll be all right, I promise, but you can’t tell them. It’ll go away on its own. I just need a little bit of time,” and the way he said it, she knew that whatever she did to him wasn’t going to go away on its own, that it was serious, bad kind of serious, bad enough to where he didn’t want anyone to know, bad enough to where she knew she’d tell them, even if he never talked to her again after that. They would have to go to Reston anyway to get the right clothes for them and supplies, and to talk to Stan. Ella could fix him there. They had places where he could be fixed, like the place she took the tag out of Drake. He needed that, and he seemed to know that he did, but she knew him well enough to know that he’d risk dying before he told anybody he was in pain, and she knew he’ll be doing his best to hide it from everybody. She didn’t owe him that, didn’t owe him watching him be in pain or watching him die. That wasn’t part of any deal she made.

They walked back, slowly. She didn’t want to rush him and he seemed okay while they walked, not panting.

“I know what you are thinking, Laurel, and you need to promise me that you won’t do that to me. I am asking you to please not do that.”

He put his arm around her, turning her around, making her look at him.

“I can’t, Brody. I can’t promise you that,” and she ran from him, ran to the flier as fast as she could, knowing he couldn’t chase her the way he was, the way she made him, and knowing that he’ll probably never be boyfriend again, just the instructor, but hopefully, he’d be alive.

 


 

AWAKE

Riley

May 25, 2236, Reston

He had just fallen asleep when she was shaking him awake, and not in her normal gentle way. She was panting, eyes full of tears and far too awake for however late it was. He jumped up, waiting for her to catch her breath and just say it.

“Brody, whatever I did to him with that stupid gun, he is not okay, Riley, only he doesn’t want anyone to know, but I promise you he is not. And he is going to be all kinds of mad at me for telling you when he gets here, but I couldn’t help it. He can’t breathe like he used to, and he pretty much collapsed in on himself in pain when we were just walking before, couldn’t move kind of pain… I am sorry, but we have to help him, help fix it before we go anywhere, we just have to. Maybe Ella can do it in one of those big med floor places in Reston, like she did with Drake, but he can’t go to Crylo like this…”

He saw him before she was done, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it then, so Brody heard most of it. He was leaning on the wall of the flier by the door, face flushed. And he could tell by the way his chest was moving that he wasn’t breathing okay. Laurel must have figured out he was behind her now, because she wasn’t saying anything anymore, not looking at Brody either. He got up and walked over to his friend, only Brody was still staring at Laurel as if he wanted to hit her. He took him to the clearing, away from her and sat him down on a log, looking at him, reading his face. He didn’t see any pain in it, but his hands were in fists, only it could have been anger, not pain.

“If you tell me that you are okay, I’ll take your word for it, and I won’t tell Ella or anybody else, but I need to know for sure,” he asked softly.

Brody shook his head. Not okay then.

He walked over to him, and put his hands on his shoulders, “Go easy on her, Brody. She wasn’t wrong. I would have done the same thing, as would you, and you know that. We’ll figure it out. I am sorry this happened, Brody. I truly am,” and he left him alone after that, not knowing what else to say to him.

Ams was already at her target when he woke up, Drake teaching her today. He was good at this, almost as good as Brody, but Ams was a terrible shot. She didn’t seem to have any patience for it. Just kept unloading the weapon into the tree, not hitting the target, and then putting more bullets in it and doing the same thing again. Drake watched, patiently. He hoped they didn’t run out of ammo, the way she was doing it. He watched her lock her hand around the gun, holding it so tightly, he thought she’d break it. That’s what was throwing off her aim, but Drake wasn’t saying anything, just letting her do it.

He walked over to him, whispering, so Ams wouldn’t hear them, “Please tell me you know why she is all over the place like that.”

Drake nodded.

“What am I missing here, Drake?”

Drake leaned over to him, smiling his crooked smile, “What you are missing, Riley, is that this isn’t target practice, it’s anger management. She is shooting at that tree as if it really pissed her off. I want her to let it all out, and when she is calm, I’m going to adjust her grip on the gun and she’ll hit the target every single time.”

He let them be after that. He had to find Ella, and when he did, it seemed she already knew. Laurel must have told her, because she looked at him as if he kicked a puppy.

“It was a stupid thing to do, Riley. I know it wasn’t you who did it, not quite, but you were all too cavalier with them stunners, so something like that was bound to happen, and it was bloody stupid of you that you let it. I don’t know if I can fix it, is what I’m saying. I am not a surgeon, and if you recall, they don’t have anything to knock him out with, and I’m not cutting that kid open like that, I am just not. So you and the rest of your soldier boys need to find something we can use to at least make it bearable for him, or I’m not touching him, not after I had to with Drake. And this kid isn’t Drake. I don’t know if he can take it, not with what I’d have to do to him. The rest of your training for now will have to happen in Reston, because we are leaving in an hour. We have to fix it before there is permanent damage. Somebody should have woken me up with this last night.”

He ran to the clearing to get Drake and Ams, but they were gone, and then to where Brody and Laurel were supposed to be training, only they weren’t where they were supposed to be either, so he ran to the flier, and it seemed everybody already knew. They were all strapped in and ready to go, nobody saying a word.

He went into the cabin and watched Trelix maneuver the flier into the air and then told him to shield it until they’ve landed wherever somebody must have already decided they were going to be landing.

“Do you know if anyone got in touch with Stan?” he asked.

Loren nodded, “We did. He’ll meet us at the tall building you had him in with the drawing, whatever that means. And he knows about Brody, sir.

“Thank you, Loren, and please stop calling me sir.”

The trip only took an hour. He saw the dead city in the distance through the little window he was staring out of, and turned away from it. He knew where the field was, and didn’t ever want to see that again, didn’t really want to see anything here, less Stan. Stan he was okay with seeing again.

They put down just on the edge, sufficiently covered by trees and brush, but much closer to the center of the city than where they camped out the last time. Nothing has changed here, not even the smell. It’s as if none of the trees bloomed yet, only he knew of course that they had. He really hated being in this place. He could hear the rest of his group following him, Brody’s boys walking next to him, guns drawn, their faces serious.

“There isn’t a soul left in this whole place, boys, but that man Loren spoke to. You won’t need your guns.” They nodded, but kept the weapons pointing as they were.

He saw Stan running to them, waving his arms, and smiling. Poor bastard missed them. Only he stopped waving and smiling when he saw the Alliance soldiers with their guns drawn like that.

He got in front of them, holding his hands up, “I need you to put those away and go to the back, please, and whatever you do, don’t pull the guns out again. I’ll explain later if I have to.” And they did, no questions asked.

He ran up to Stan and hugged him, smiling at him, “Don’t mind those boys, Stan, they are with us, and they are good kids. They are actually with Brody, whom you haven’t met, and he looks like them, but he isn’t. I am making very little sense now.” Stan grinned at him, and they went into the building they camped out at when they were here last. Brody was standing next to him in the elevator, and he saw his face go hard, and then he turned away from everybody, panting. He grabbed him, but Brody just shook his head, and then the doors opened and they were out, and he sent everyone to the large room with the drawing in it, and stayed with his friend.

“It’s not what you think, Riley. I am okay. I just wasn’t expecting it to feel like that. It was… I don’t know how to explain it. I’ll get used to it,” he whispered. He didn’t want to press further. Maybe he was afraid of heights, or small, fast moving boxes. Whichever it was, he would tell him if it became important enough for him to know.

The room hasn’t changed at all since they were here last, and he wished he was smart enough to file them all into the room on the other side, the one without the bloody thing Stan drew on the wall. He turned away from it, had to turn away from it, and caught Brody staring at the damn wall, his eyes large, and then looking at Laurel, a question in his eyes. Laurel just nodded softly and turned away.

“I put a few things together for you for the broken kid. I don’t know if it’ll be enough, but that’s all I could find. We should go whenever you are all ready. Maybe not all of us. Ella and two people to hold him down, and if he’s got somebody else he wants to take, just in case. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that. I just say whatever pops into my head.”

He was looking at Brody, apologetically.

“I am not an idiot, Stan. It’s okay. I am glad you just say what comes to mind. It makes this easier. I’ll take Riley and Drake, if they are okay with it. I’m good with that. I am ready if everyone else is.”

Laurel was watching him, tears in her eyes, but she didn’t move towards him, just stood there, looking at the back of his head. He couldn’t do that to her, what he was doing, she didn’t deserve this.

“Brody, can I have a minute,” he snapped at him and walked out into the hallway, and leaned on the wall, just far enough away to where the others couldn’t hear them through the door.

Brody stopped a few steps away from him, looking too calm, given what was about to happen.

“You have to let her come, Brody, and I know you know that. You can’t do this to her now,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound angry.

“It’s between me and Laurel, Riley. You need to leave it alone.”

And he couldn’t help himself after that.

“No, Brody, it isn’t. She is your girlfriend or whatever you are now, but she is my friend, and right now you are hurting my friend. So no, I can’t leave it alone. And, more importantly, I don’t understand why you are punishing her for trying to save your bloody life. That’s all she did.”

Brody was looking at him in his angry way now, “Are we done, Riley? I’ll take Trelix and Drake. I don’t want you there,” and he turned away.

He ran out in front of him, putting his hands up, stopping him, “We are not done, Brody. I don’t know where that switch is between Brody I know and love and this soldier Brody I don’t know and don’t understand, but please find it and switch it back, because you are not being you now, not to any of us, and I can’t stand to watch you do what you are doing. Not to Laurel. You can punish me all you want, but she doesn’t deserve this from you. Let me make it simple for you. She shot you, Brody, so if you die from this, she will spend the rest of her life with that. You can’t leave her with that. You just can’t. Now we are done,” and he walked back to the room, not hearing Brody’s footsteps behind him, but he didn’t care. He was too angry at him to want to turn around.

 

Brody finally walked in, and he watched him walk over to Laurel and whisper something to her. She took his hand, and he knew he made it okay for her to go with him. And when they were filing out of the room, Brody stopped and looked at him, old-Brody-like, “I’d rather it was you, Riley, if you still want to do it, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”

Stan did that magic thing with all the lights again, flipping them on before they got through all the dark places in this huge building. They were in the room he remembered, Ella doing whatever she had to do with all the metal things. Brody was leaning against the wall, still holding Laurel’s hand, watching. Stan pulled some kind of a scanner out of his bag and walked over to Ella, explaining to her what it was and how to use it. He didn’t know what half of it meant. He trusted the crazy scientist not to kill his best friend, at least not on purpose. Ella nodded after a while and went back to whatever she was doing.

Stan walked over to Brody and handed him a bunch of little pills. Brody shook his head at him.

“You need to take these, kid. They’ll put you to sleep. That’s all we have here, and even that might not be enough, but that’s all we can do.”

Brody dropped the pills on his palm, looking at Stan, “For how long? How long will they knock me out for?”

“A day, maybe two.”

Brody counted out half the pills and handed the rest to Stan. He knew he was going to argue with him, like he did with Drake that time, so he gently pulled him away from Brody, whispering, “It’s okay, Stan. I promise you won’t get anywhere with him. Just get him some water for those. He’ll be all right.”

Ella seemed ready. Brody leaned in and kissed Laurel quickly on the lips. She looked like she was going to cry at any moment, and he hoped she’d wait until Brody was asleep. He watched him take his shirt off, not saying anything to anybody, and lie down, letting Ella strap him in. She had him take the pills and they waited until it looked like he was asleep and then Ella was running the scanner thing over his chest, making marks on him with something that looked like a pen, but probably wasn’t, drawing lines on his chest.

She called him and Drake over then, and they pressed their hands on Brody’s shoulders, holding him down in case he moved, in case he woke up. He saw Laurel turn away when Ella cut into one of the lines she drew, and there was blood everywhere, not like it was with Drake, and he was worried something was wrong, so he watched Ella’s face, but she seemed calm enough. She was running the scanner Stan gave her over him again, and it made a noise of some kind, and then she was putting something into him, under all the cuts she made in his chest, a glowing skinny metal rod, and moving it around, watching  the scanner, Stan standing next to her, pointing, and they were at it for a long time, long enough for his hands to feel numb. And suddenly Ella’s face didn’t look so calm anymore.

He looked at Brody, and almost jumped. His eyes were wide open. He was bloody awake, and nobody seemed to know what to do now.

“I am guessing not done yet,” Brody whispered, his voice strained, “unless you have a better idea, you should probably finish it. I’ll close my eyes again,” and he did.

Ella and Stan went back to it, and he saw Laurel huddling in the corner, crying into her hands. He wished more than anything he didn’t make Brody bring her now. Brody looked asleep, just breathing too fast for it, and his jaw was clenched, but he didn’t move and didn’t open his eyes again, until Ella was done stitching him up. He tried to sit up then, only he and Drake pushed him back down on the bed.

Brody ignored them, looking at Ella, “Did it work?”

Her face was drawn, tension around her eyes.

“I won’t know for a little while, Brody. I’ll have to run some tests, and then we’ll know, but you should probably rest first. And maybe take the rest of those pills.”

Brody shook his head, “I’m okay, Ella. Please, run your tests. I need to know.” And she did then, and it seemed he would be all right after all. Laurel came up to him, and tentatively put her hand in his hair. He didn’t move, letting her. And after a little while, he closed his eyes, and he could see his face relax a little bit. They filed out of the room, all but Laurel, and sat in the hallway, not talking, not knowing what to say.

“I am going to get us something to drink,” Stan, that, and he was gone, and he wished that he’d thought of it earlier, instead of the bloody pills. Maybe he wouldn’t have been completely awake like that.

He caught Ella watching him, “It’s not what you think, Riley. It happens sometimes. People just wake up. It wasn’t Stan’s fault, is what I am saying. And at least when he was asleep, it was easier for him than Drake, I promise you, and he was asleep for the worst of it.”

Drake was leaning on the wall away from everybody, his eyes closed. Maybe Ella was right, and it wasn’t as bad as it looked for Brody after all. He nodded to her, and went back in.

Laurel was still crying softly over Brody, “I don’t think he is asleep, Riley, if you want to talk to him,” and she ran out of the room. He crouched by his head, watching his face, noting a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead.

“Anything I can do, Brody?”

Head shaking. Not asleep then. Brody looked at him, and he could see the pain in his eyes, all dark, no color in them at all. And he knew he was holding it all in because of Laurel. That it would have been easier for him if he didn’t make him bring her here. He would have let himself scream if he needed to, and he looked like he needed to even now.

“Stan is getting us a bottle of something that’ll make it easier. It’ll knock you out or at least take the edge off,” he whispered.

Brody nodded to him softly, and reached for his hand, squeezing it hard, making his scars hurt.

“Make sure she gets some of that, Riley, enough to not feel so bad. That’s why I didn’t want her here, not because I was angry at her. I wasn’t. I just didn’t want her here if something went wrong. Didn’t want her to feel worse that she does already. I am sorry I didn’t just tell you that. Frankly, I don’t know why the hell I didn’t,” and he let go of him.

And when he got up, everybody was in the room again, Stan carrying a bottle of something over to Brody, but he shook his head at him, telling him to give it to Laurel first, and he did. Afterwards, everybody passed out on the floor, Drake hugging Ella, Laurel by Brody, Stan snoring softly in the corner.

He slid against the back wall and wrapped his arms around his knees, watching them, hoping this doesn’t become a habit for them. Hoping that he never had to see the inside of this room again.

 


 

HISTORY LESSON

Drake

May 28, 2236, Reston

 

It only took Stan a few days to pull up everything he asked him for. He was really liking this strange man more and more. He hovered over him at the holo screens in the giant tower while the kids were shooting their guns or throwing knives, or whatever Brody was making them do. Brody was supposed to stay put for a week, or so Ella told him, but short of keeping him strapped in, there was no way he was doing that, and nobody had the heart to tie that boy down anymore.

He remembered the pain he felt when Ella was cutting into him to get the tag out, and how it took everything he had for him not to scream then, and he knew it was worse for Brody after he woke up like that, but the kid just bloody took it somehow, not making a sound. There was something in both of these kids, Riley and him, that made them hide whatever pain they were in from everybody, even their friends, and he felt a danger in it.

Stan was explaining what he was looking at now, speaking far too fast, as if he had a finite amount of time to get through it before he forgot what he was saying. He didn’t know when he decided that it was important for them to know enough about all the Zoriner – Alliance history, but he just knew that it was, especially for the girls. Knew they would need something more than just trying to save a few Zoriner kids from what Trina went through to be able to shoot at these people, people who looked like them.

Stan was finally done. He smiled at him thinly, apologetically, as if any part of what he walked him through was his fault, and handed him the screen with the hollo embedded into it, so he could explain to the rest of the group what he just learned. He’ll have to do it tonight after supper, so they’d all have enough time to process it. They all seemed in a rush to go now, and it worried him. Ams and Laurel were nowhere near trained enough, but he could tell they were becoming restless. Maybe it was being in this city that was doing it to them. He hoped that’s all it was.

Brody demanded that somebody take him to that field with all the bones in it, but nobody wanted to go there again, not even Riley, so he finally took him, hoping the kid could take it, and Riley and Laurel both screamed at him for doing it afterwards. But he felt Brody had his reasons for asking, so he walked with him, slowly, not wanting to take the flier, and they didn’t say anything to each other the whole walk there. Brody stopped when he saw the first patch of black grass ahead of him and just stood there staring at it, panting.

He put his arm around him then, telling him that it was all like that, so he could turn around now and they could go back, but Brody shook his head at him and after a while kept going farther and farther in, off the path, walking right into the field where all the bones were, and then knelt there in the charred grass looking at it for the longest time, not saying anything, not making a sound. He turned away from him, letting him be, and after a while, he heard his footsteps on the road behind him, Brody not saying a word until they were back in the city again.

He stopped when the houses just started to get taller and looked at him, face serious, “I know how they did it, Drake, what happened to all these people… I think I know how they made them do this. It’s how Hassinger took control of my crew, only with my crew she used their implants because they have them, so it was easier to just connect through those. What I’m saying is, I think they found a way of basically making everybody have an implant, if they need to. They just had to find a way of disbursing a bunch of microscopic transmitters, the same kind they use for the soldier implants, or what Ams and Laurel have in them, and they can control anything then. I talked to Trelix and Loren and they didn’t even remember what they were doing when Hassinger had them like that… It’s like it wasn’t them doing it at all. Only if they have the ability to do this, it doesn’t make any sense for them to still be stealing people or torturing them like they did with Trina. If they could do anything they wanted to any of us with a push of a button, why would they need to do any of the other stuff, Drake? It just doesn’t make sense…”

They picked up the pace some after that, and then Brody stopped abruptly, and leaned on the fence outside of a house they were passing, looking at him strangely, “I’ll catch up, Drake. I know where I am now. I’ll be right behind you,” and he put his head down. He could see he was breathing hard, his hands digging into the wood of the fence behind him. He ran over to him, Brody shaking his head, not wanting him to touch him for some reason. He seemed okay after a few minutes of this, looking up at him, eyes angry, “Why doesn’t anybody ever listen to me anymore? I said I’d catch up, Drake. I would have,” and he wouldn’t talk to him after that.

He told Ella about it, Brody looking in pain like that, but she just smiled at him softly, “That’s why I wanted him to stay put for a week. It’ll take a bit of time for him to heal, and hiking for however long you did today wasn’t part of the recovery plan. But he’ll be all right. I’m surprised he made it all that way and back at all. I fully expected you to end up carrying him.”

That was yesterday, and he remembered now why he thought of all of this, and what Brody said to him, why it suddenly seemed important. There was a lab in the holo they were looking at earlier with Stan that had something to do with these transmitter things, Neuro-Tech or something written on the door, but the people running it weren’t scientists, they looked military, only not like Brody’s boys, older, and their clothes were different. But they were definitely soldiers. He remembered it now. They would have to try to figure that out with Stan.

Ella made sandwiches for supper and brewed some tea and coffee. Riley must have asked her for some. He was getting addicted to that stuff. They ate in silence at the huge table, less the occasional giggle from the girls. He liked that they could still do that.

He connected the holo, got up, and went through it as quickly and calmly as he could, starting with the wars in 2106, and the economic mess that followed. He told them, showing old footage on the holo how everybody, even the city folk were suddenly poor, too poor to feed their kids, and everybody was getting desperate. And how there was this man who couldn’t take it anymore, and he collected a small group of people from outside Carthage, farmers mostly, people who were all desperate because for some reason nobody in Carthage would trade with them anymore, and they couldn’t keep their loved ones alive now. Anyway, they were pissed off, so they set the council building in Carthage on fire. Blew themselves up in it too. And after that, they pushed all the cities to stop trading and started making their food differently somehow.

And over the next decades, they made it so that nobody who looked like those men could get work anywhere in any of the cities or trade anything… They were all pushed out and pretty much forgotten for a while after that. He told them about Dr. Groning and how she tried to make it so people couldn’t get pregnant the way they were, not unless they really wanted to, and they made every girl in the cities like that, infertile until she was ready, and then they’d give her a different shot to make it okay for her to have a kid, only something went wrong, and after a few generations fewer and fewer of them could have kids at all. And when that happened, the Alliance council made it illegal for any Zoriner to be with one of their people, because they were scared they were losing their populations already. Only human nature doesn’t work that way….”


…end of preview

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