Hugo, you have been nominated by the E2 council to fill Saunders’ position at Euro2 Phasing Station. This is a preliminary position that will see you rise from general trainer to squadron leader. I am aware of your reservations, and I urge you to put them to the side. Reluctance will not be rewarded.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Miller has been let go. He was found interacting with the feeders, sympathising with them at the farm. Some began to ask questions. We need a new surveyor just as much as we need a new scout instructor.
Leave today, you’re already late. Eliza.
Hugo folded the note and put it away, annoyed at the short notice. Saunders’ body had been brought back three days prior. Eliza had stood next to Hugo at the funeral, she could have conveyed her plans to him then. Perhaps she had felt guilty. After all, she had been in charge of ordering the squadron’s evacuation. But he doubted it, he doubted her ability to feel compassion.
Eliza’s threat hadn’t surprised him, either. He glanced out the window. The fat farm was north, beyond the quaint stone houses of the settlement, and past the surrounding fields of crops that rose from the valley. He’d been to the farm once, and once had been enough. Miller had been the reason for Hugo’s visit, and his recent discharge came as no surprise. Miller had once been a stern trainer, but he’d become soft during his time at the farm. Hugo presumed old age had caused the change in him.
There was nothing that appealed to Hugo less than working at the fat farm. Though the thought of instructing Skinnies filled him with dismay as well; four months confined to a radius of ten miles, a tedious routine of basic drills and access to only the lowest tech weaponry – but that wasn’t the worst of it. He’d have human kids to deal with, and human kids weren’t like guard kids. Guard kids were easy. They were reasonable from birth. Throughout their childhood they were trained to deal with complex situations, trained to control their moods and weaknesses. Hugo had only been training Guards for a year. He hardly felt qualified to train an alien species, and humans were notoriously difficult, weak and moody.
In spite of his frustration, Hugo remained expressionless as he packed his rucksack. He glanced at the clock, it was past midday. Lunch was off the menu, he’d have to eat on the road. A three day hike to be made in one? Impossible. But Hugo had gone longer than a few days without sleep, and in harsher lands than Earth. He could make good time if he left right away.
“Nettie?” He spoke to the empty room.
A moment later, a woman appeared out of thin air. She was not a Guard like Hugo, nor was she human. She was of the Veil race and her physical make-up allowed her to come and go as she pleased. Her skin was as pale as Earth’s moon and, in the light, she appeared almost translucent.
“You called, Hugo?” she asked with a wry smile.
“I have to babysit for a few months.”
Her eyes widened in astonishment. “Saunders’ placement? You?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s unfortunate for us all,”
“When do you leave?”
“Now. Rebecca has already left and I need to catch up. Do you mind sorting out things on this end?”
She glanced at the stack of unfiled paperwork on his desk.
“I don’t mind,” Nettie said, her wry smile returning.
“Thanks.” Hugo swung his rucksack onto his broad and capable shoulders.
Nettie nodded. “And shall I meet you at the station?”
Hugo paused, he’d not thought that far ahead. “I don’t know, Net.”
“I do work for you, Hugo,” she reminded him.
He thought about the concept of having someone working for him. He didn’t need or particularly want anyone, but Nettie came with the promotion that he was to be laden with the following year. Maybe she would prove useful after all.
Hugo shrugged. “How are you with overemotional teenagers?”
She grimaced. “I’ll meet you there.”
He nodded and she disappeared.
Ten Skinnies straggled behind Rebecca in single file. Like a sulky snake, they slugged along the natural pathways of the open land, adding grunts and whines to the sounds of the wilderness. The ten couldn’t be expected to appreciate the scenic beauty. To them the outside world was alien and hostile. They’d spent the best part of their eighteen years cocooned in a glass box, behind the safety of high stone walls. They’d been brought up to fear the outside, to fear the fate that they were now inexorably moving towards.
But there was no stopping. Not one of them would have been foolish enough to lag behind and lose sight of their leader. Rebecca was the only one who could see them safely over the rugged heath and on through the approaching woodlands. The Skinnies breathed heavily and grumbled in malcontent, unused to the physical exertion. But the grumbles and grievances were not signs of weakness, they were the result of fear and uncertainty.
Their education at Euro2 Campus had instilled in them certain understandings. They all knew, for instance, that physical strength belonged only to the most destructive of creatures. They’d studied Earth’s history extensively at the campus. From the pre-historic to the pre-apocalyptic, Earth was overrun with violence and war. This, they were told, had led to the demise of the human race. At Euro2 Campus, students were taught that corpulence brought on peace and comfort, and this is what they strove for.
However, each year the graduating cohort would produce a number of students incapable of gaining the required fat. These students, the Skinnies, knew their fate. It was known by all that the skinny graduates would be utilised for the good of the people. They would perform hard, manual labour until their frail bones crumbled inside their thin, insubstantial flesh. The Skinnies, therefore, could be forgiven for their grumbles.
Only Lamb kept her mouth shut and her breathing under control, but in truth, she was just as scared and suspicious as the others. Rebecca looked threatening. Lean muscles defined her capable limbs. Her skin was dark with tan and her brown hair had bleached tips, like she was used to spending time in the sun. Her wide smile exposed a row of perfect teeth that could cut through flesh – the grin did not entice the Skinnies to ask questions.
Rebecca had met them outside the Campus grounds. She hadn’t said where they were going, only that they were to follow her. They had donned their rucksacks in silence and accepted their fates.
Like the others, Lamb fixed her eyes on the ground in front of her, but not because she was too tired to raise her head. She was not too miserable to be astounded by the sheer vastness of the world beyond the boundaries of the campus. It was a world that she’d never seen or even known existed. Lamb kept her eyes down and dragged her capable feet so as not to draw attention to herself. She couldn’t risk Rebecca noticing that she was different, that she was fit and alert. Lamb’s plans would be ruined if Rebecca became suspicious. Lamb would have no hope of escaping the fate of Skinnies, and no hope of finding Maz.
The sun was hanging low in the sky when the procession of Skinnies finally reached a small clearing in the woodlands and Rebecca announced that it was time to make camp. Camp was a new concept entirely to the Skinnies. However, under Rebecca’s directions, they managed to put the tent up and roll out their sleeping bags.
Next, the Skinnies were instructed to go into the trees in groups of three to collect firewood. Lamb joined Fena and Pia, both were quiet girls who had spent the majority of their time at Campus in solitude. Tek, Ren and Dale grouped together quickly, and Gem, Sali and Sas went off together without a word. Aary stayed with Rebecca to dig the pit and find kindling.
The sun had well and truly set before the large fire was blazing. The Skinnies rolled stones and logs into a circle and collapsed around the warm blaze. Their muscles were aching and their stomachs were grumbling from the day’s excursion.
Rebecca unpacked a parcel from her rucksack. The Skinnies leaned in eagerly, hungry for warm food, but dinner turned out to be a meagre spread of crackers, dried fruit and nuts – snacks at the best of times. Despite their disappointment, they ate hungrily and were surprised at how full, if not satisfied, they became after the small meal.
The temperature had dropped markedly since the sun had set and there was a quiet murmur about hot drinks. Each of them something to warm them from the inside, to comfort them and remind them of home… but all were too exhausted to make the effort. Soon the ten Skinnies crawled into the tent and enveloped themselves in their sleeping bags.
“Up! Wake up!”
Lamb groaned and pulled her sleeping bag up to her ears. She felt something on her shoulder. From the corner of her eye she saw a spider-like hand there. She opened her eyes wide and was met with Rebecca’s skeletal cranium and protruding eyes. Her teeth seemed to gnash as she called for them to wake up. Lamb recoiled with revulsion before she could stop herself.
Rebecca stepped back and Lamb muttered an apology, but Rebecca took no notice of Lamb’s horror. She’d already moved to her next victim. The Skinny next to her, Tek, didn’t feel the same initial fear. He didn’t even open his eyes, instead he rolled over and grumbled something rude.
Eventually, the Skinnies dressed and slowly began to pack away their bedding. No one was eager to venture into the cold morning, but the smell of cooking oats wafted into the tent, enticing them to leave the warmth. Lamb rolled up her sleeping bag, clipped it onto her pack and climbed out of the tent’s flappy door. The moment she emerged from the tent, the damp chill of late winter smacked her in the face. She shivered, yawned and looked around her, taking in her surroundings.
There was something dream-like about the wispy clouds, they floated just out of reach of the tallest trees in the forest, lingering there and softening the glow of the morning. The peachy lustre of the early sky was surreal. It belonged to a screen-show, not reality.
“Here,” Rebecca’s voice snapped Lamb out of her day-dream.
Lamb took her breakfast wordlessly and found a seat by the re-kindled fire.
“Anyone else for tea?” asked Fena, peering into the pot on the fire.
“Yes, please,” said Sali and Sas at the same time. The friends turned to each other and grinned. They’d been friends for as long as Lamb could remember, inseparable since they could walk and talk. They even looked the same with their honey coloured hair and olive skin.
She felt a pang of jealousy. What she would give to be by her best friend’s side.
Fena smiled as she poured out four cups. She passed one to each of the girls before she glanced at Lamb and held out the third.
“Thanks,” said Lamb, taking it gratefully. The tea was pale and a few loose leaves floated at the top. Lamb tasted it and recognised the flavour of bram, sweetened. “Where did you get the leaves?” Lamb asked Fena who had just sat down beside her. “And the sugar?”
“We passed the bush yesterday, just before we got to the woodlands,” she said. “It’s a shame the berries weren’t in season.” She patted her backpack. “And I came prepared.”
“Oh.” Lamb wondered why she hadn’t thought to stash food, and how Fena knew so much about plants. The campus hadn’t taught them about the world beyond its boundaries.
After breakfast, Rebecca stood, stretched and volunteered Tek, Ren and Aary to fill the canteens from the stream. The remaining Skinnies wiped out the bowls and cups, and began to pack away the tent. When Rebecca was satisfied that all was under control, she followed the three boys into the trees.
Lamb, Dale and Pia were the only ones still working on the tent when the three boys returned – Sali, Sas and Gem had given up once the poles had been pulled out, and Fena had wondered to the edge of the clearing where she was crouching down, inspecting the leaves of a little bush.
“Where’s Rebecca?” asked Sas, looking around for their leader.
“We haven’t seen her since we left,” said Ren.
“Which way did she go?” Dale asked anxiously.
“She went after you guys,” replied Fena, nodding to Ren.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Lamb, Dale and Pia left the half-collapsed tent and went to huddle with the other Skinnies by the fire.
“Should we go look?” whispered Pia. “Do you think she’s okay?”
“I’m fine!” came Rebecca’s voice from behind them.
They turned to see her emerge from the trees. Again, she was wearing that wide, unearthly smile and it had never looked more foreboding than it did at that moment. The Skinnies held their breath and huddled even closer together – for behind Rebecca, a new shadowy figure was emerging from the trees.
Rebecca came to a halt and the man stopped beside her. “This is my colleague, Hugo,” Rebecca said in response to the skinnies’ gawking.
He was at least as tall as Tek, the tallest Skinny in their group, but his strong, developed muscles made him appear much larger. His arms were crossed over his broad chest as he surveyed the Skinnies with cold, black eyes and an impassive expression. Lamb averted her eyes as his passed over her.
Rebecca had started to speak, but her words were lost on Lamb. Her eyes kept flicking back to the man involuntarily, as if her subconscious feared losing sight of him. She noticed that his hair was long for a man’s, and it was falling out of the band that held it behind his head. His skin looked pale under its sun-tan, and clammy. Lamb realised that he must have travelled through the cold night to reach them out in the middle of no-where – though his expression gave away no sign of fatigue.
Rebecca and Hugo were speaking now, and Lamb snapped herself out of her silent contemplation to listen.
“We may as well split now,” Hugo was saying, and Lamb was surprised to hear that his voice was low and pleasant. It would have been calming, reassuring even, had it not belonged to such a fearsome figure.
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t want you holding me up.” Hugo glanced at Rebecca.
Her smile twisted into a smirk. “Do you want the pick of the pack too?”
The ghost of a grin crossed Hugo’s face but he didn’t answer.
“Okay.” Rebecca turned back to the Skinnies who were gawking at the two leaders silently. She pointed to the five Skinnies to the left of Lamb. “You lot will come with me,” she said. “The rest of you are to go with Hugo.”
“We’re splitting up?” Dale blurted.
“Yes,” was Rebecca’s helpful reply.
Lamb glanced to her right. Beside her was Fena, and beside Fena was Tek, Ren and Aary.
“Well, Bec,” Hugo said dryly, looking down at the five of them with the same unimpressed expression. “You’ve still got that tent to pack. We won’t get in your way.”
Lamb counted her one blessing.
“Come on,” he said, gesturing to his group to move. “Let’s go.”
Hugo set a good pace for his group. In fact, it was such a good pace that after an hour of lumbering through the woodlands, the boys were demanding a rest and more breakfast. Lamb’s legs were aching from the previous day’s walk and the uncomfortable night sleep. She could imagine how the boys felt, and she didn’t envy them.
Hugo glanced back at his group. “You’re already hungry?”
“We’ve been walking for hours!” Tek exclaimed indignantly. He was very thin, Lamb realised, thinner than the other skinnies who seemed to have at least tried to get fat before graduation.
“We’ve been dawdling for an hour at most,” Hugo replied dryly. “A bit more won’t kill you.”
“This isn’t dawdling,” Tek grumbled.
Hugo shrugged and kept going.
Tek muttered something to the boys but he didn’t complain again. The six of them trudged on in silence until they reached a steep hill. A collective sigh sounded from the boys. Fena groaned and even Lamb was not particularly enthusiastic about the long, steep gradient. As she scanned the ascent, however, she saw that the thick woodlands grew thinner toward the top. The forest was finally giving way to open land.
Lamb’s curiosity overcame her weariness, but she forced herself to walk at the others’ pace. It took the Skinnies the better part of ten minutes to climb the three hundred yard hill. Finally, they neared the top and Lamb thought it safe to skip ahead.
Hugo was already waiting for them at the top and she passed him at a safe distance without giving him so much as a glance. She fixed her eyes on the spectacular view. Green hills rolled as far as the eye could see, little streams glimmered in the sunlight as they wound their way down through the rugged gullies into deeper rivers. An eagle circled overhead, gliding on the warm air currents. She watched in awe as it rose so high in the arching sky that it disappeared from sight.