Alex Reynard's Online Books
Cody St. John had not seen the sun in two weeks and four days.
The young chipmunk sat on his bed with the lights out. Kenny was out somewhere, so he wouldn't be bothering his roommate by shielding himself in shadow. The light in this place was constant. Inescapable. Fake like plastic. Like fiberglass being ground into his eyes day and night. Simple darkness was one of the few comforts here in The Box.
Cody stared absently at the clock. It told him it was mid-afternoon. But it could have been lying for all he knew. The sun could be shining outside. The clouds could be pouring down rain. There could be goddamn tornadoes. There was no possible way to know. Like everyone else, he was sealed in an airtight, soundproofed cube. At least, that's what it felt like.
When his father left to fight the Preds, he had, with great unease, signed his son up for the government's VIP child protection program. Sons and daughters of the country's remaining bigwigs would be taken to a place referred to officially as Farron's Keep. It was an emergency bunker, designed decades ago in case of full societal collapse (and if that wasn't what was happening now, it was as close as anyone had ever seen). After the Great Predator Army's attacks had begun, the place had been quickly updated into the most high-security daycare ever imagined. While the remaining scraps of the government worked to prevent the end of civilization, their children would be protected 24-7 from all possible threats.
Parker St. John was a tall, agile man whose eyes reflected an unmatched alertness. His every mannerism was keen with years of skill. On the day before Cody had been transported to The Box, his father was dressed in his best blue uniform.
He had knelt and hugged his son. "I don't want this," he said softly. "But you know I can't take you with me."
Cody had merely nodded. His father already knew how much he wanted to fight the Preds at his side. Damned age limits.
"They say this place is as secure as anything's ever been, but you know as well as I do how much faith their idea of security deserves. Locking you in a box isn't right. And I'm only doing it because it's better than leaving you out in the streets."
Cody nodded. "Yes, sir. I understand."
General St. John gave his son one final squeeze. Neither cried, but their hearts wanted to. Cody felt Dad's medals pressing into his shoulder.
Finally, Dad spoke the words again. They were almost a family motto. Cody knew them by heart, and they comforted him.
"Because we are prey, there will always be people who want to harm us. Our safety is our own responsibility. We must always, always be alert."
Cody nodded. "I will, Dad."
His father stood, then kissed the boy on the forehead. "Of course you will. If I have faith in anything in this world, it's you."
Cody felt a pang of love and pride in his heart so strongly it was agonizing.
Then his father had disappeared out of his life. Gone, as if snatched up like all those stupid Preys who'd gotten themselves captured. Cody took in a deep breath and kneaded the bed's sheets in his paws. There was no communication in this place. No emails, no calls. He knew the only way they'd ever give him news of his father was if he were killed in combat.
This place... The chipmunk felt familiar fire pulsing underneath his skin. These cowards that ran this place... Putting him in a cage when he should be out there, fighting and taking lives for what those fucking Preds had done. Instead they had all gone to ground. Just like frightened nonevs; holed up in their dens and hoping the danger would pass by itself. Fucking cowards.
He hated the Preds. There was no hate that could compare to that. It was a white-hot wire inside him at all times. But did he hate the administrators of this goddamned Box nearly as much? Nearly, yes.
The chime for Second Class rang, reminding the young chipmunk of how much he hated his classmates too.
Cody grunted like an old man as he stood up, despite being only fifteen and in good physical shape. His species was cursed with chubbiness and cuteness, so the best he could do was to keep himself lean, wiry and ready. In the dark, the only light he could see was the clock's display and the crack under the door. He could hear feet shuffling past outside. Not needing to see, he checked his uniform to make sure everything was in place. (Not that he cared what anyone thought of his appearance. Dad would want him to look his best out of simple pride.)
After two weeks in this hellbox, it was easy to keep the tears back when he thought of Dad.
He opened the door and snarled as the bright light ripped at his eyes. 'Stupid!' he thought. He should have given himself time to adjust.
He stood there blinking for a few moments as other kids passed him. Sons of senators and congressmen. Secretaries, diplomats and generals. The Vice President's daughter was even in his class. Cody didn't care how many guards patrolled this place. He didn't care if they wrapped chains around the building top to bottom. He knew that putting the offspring of so many powerful fursons in one place had created a big, fat juicy target for the Preds.
Not for the first time, Cody wondered if he and his classmates were bait. His father had told him many stories about the sociopathic incompetence of the men who commanded him. Cody could not rule out the possibility that they'd use their own children as a lure.
His vision returned. Preykids of all ages passed him by. Boys in smart blue uniforms, girls in forest green. The youngest ones, the ones who didn't know anything about the war, still had expressions of joy or sadness. Like this was an adventure away from their parents, or they wanted nothing more than to be at home again. Kids Cody's age had blown through all that already. They were bored, restless and fed up.
Though of course Kenny was still smiling. That magnificent bastard could grin during the apocalypse. Cody's handsome, athletic roommate spotted him further down the hall and waved him over.
Kenny was nonchalance incarnate. In normal life, a golden boy like him wouldn't be caught dead speaking with a prickly 'conspiracy theorist' like Cody St. John. But random chance had made them roommates, and they bonded over the one thing they did have in common. They both knew the only way to peace was a world without Preds. (The irony was exquisite; Kenny was the son of a top diplomat.)
"Well, you certainly look like shit," Kenny remarked. He strutted down the hallway, hands in pockets.
"Sittin' in the dark, hating the world again?" the bunny asked with that damned grin.
Cody smiled slightly. "Yeah. Like the lights don't get to you, too."
Kenny smiled up at the everpresent fluorescents. "I honestly don't notice them anymore."
"You're a freak," said Cody. Kenny chuckled.
The Box's walls were white. The floor was white. The ceiling was fucking white. The everything was white, except for the colored doorways that indicated classrooms or restricted areas. It was so easy to get lost in here. This place was designed as a military bunker; efficiency trumped every other consideration. Anyone housed here was meant to survive, period. Too bad no one realized that anyone who did would be crackbrained crazy by the time they got out.
The sameness of Cody's days was numbing. Time ceased to exist sometimes. No night or day; only boredom. Wake up; breakfast; First Class; morning break; Second Class; lunch; athletic break; dinner; freetime; bedtime. Every day. Every day. Every day. Every day. Weekends were a myth, holidays a legend. There was no communication in or out. For students addicted to online games and social sites, the withdrawal was not pretty. There were offline games aplenty though. More than enough to keep the kids stationary and docile. Cody swore he could hear some of them getting fatter. (That could have been planned too, he'd considered.)
In the hallway near their classroom, Mason and Scott were at it again. Cody held back bile.
The deer and the mouse were handing out printed flyers. Mason was a pureblooded revolutionary. The buck had a constant twinkle in his eye, like he was gonna save the world tomorrow. On the other hand, Scott Quint was a fucking pipsqueak. The mouse was barely there.
Kenny smiled ingratiatingly at the pair. "What's this? What do mine eyes perceive?"
Mason snorted. "I know you're not interested, Loughtner."
"Oh, but I am!" the bunny insisted, snatching a flyer away.
Cody simply stared at Scott. The mouse backed up behind Mason, trying to melt out of sight. Cody mouthed one word: 'Faggot.'
"A sit-in?" Kenny asked. "In the cafeteria? And this is supposed to do what, exactly? Tell me, Mason. Educate me."
The buck took a steadying breath. He kept his voice calm, but barely. "We're all going to stay in our seats after lunch tomorrow. We'll stay for as long as it takes to get them to realize we want this unjust war ended."
Kenny's smile was the zenith of condescension. "That'll certainly work, won't it Cody? I can just see the guards and the teachers all holding hands and shouting, 'Hallelujah! Mason Kellway, the prophet, has shown us the way!' Then we'll all march out to the Fences, cut them down, embrace our Pred brothers and sisters ...and find out what being eaten alive feels like!"
"Shut up," Scott spat.
Kenny took a moment to admire the tiny bit of spine this chewtoy was showing. "Oh, look! It thinks it has the right to speak to me! Isn't that cute, Cody?"
"It thinks it's people," Cody replied, unsmiling.
The mouseboy rolled his eyes. He was used to this kind of treatment by now.
Mason sneered at Kenny. "You could never understand. The outcome isn't nearly as important as making sure our voices get heard." He snatched the flyer back. "I'll give this to someone who cares."
"You'll be standing there waiting an awful long time," the rabbit replied without missing a beat. He and Cody walked past the two hippies into the classroom.
Everything was as expected. The little square room seared with the same light as the hallways (Cody was quite sure Satan must have invented the fluorescent lightbulb). The desks and chairs screeched spine-grindingly against the floor. Mrs. Buchanon sat behind her desk like a frog waiting for flies to come circling. Yola and Tycho were already in their seats, reading. Typical.
Cody heard Hydra Kensington approaching, trailing along her little army of disciples. The bunnybitch always had at least three other girls circling her like asteroids. Always eager to drink in her wisdom. Which usually delved into such topics as hating everything, and hating everything else.
Of the classmates Cody could stand, Frank Tanondo was the only one he wished he knew better. The zebragirl had a body like a marine and didn't show respect to anyone she didn't think deserved it. Cody thought that was admirable.
Nobody disliked Trudy. The poor little piggy was overweight, had glasses and spoke softer than a falling leaf. She was such a perfect trainwreck that no one had the heart to bully her. And Jayden was such a mouth he was usually good for a laugh, even if his family was mixed. Cody still didn't know how to feel about having a classmate who was a quarter-Pred.
The recipe for Mrs. Buchanon included only three ingredients: Old, Fat and I-Don't-Give-A-Damn-If-You-Little-Bastards-End-Up-Stewed-Tomorrow. Cody wasn't sure if she had been a teacher before the war started or an aircraft carrier.
The chime rang again. The room filled with about thirty assorted Preykids. Everyone was on time as usual. Where else were you gonna be? As bad as class was, it broke the monotony.
Mrs. Buchanon nevertheless called the roll. Cody wondered how it was possible she couldn't just look and see that everyone was there. Maybe she did it to simply eat time.
When the P.A. beeped, Cody's class of 13-to-15 year old P.O.W.s all rose. Hands over their hearts, they chanted with all the enthusiasm of an empty cemetery. The Pledge was a relic from the days of humanity, and a few decades ago, some patriotic senator had decided it needed an upgrade to fit the spirit of the times.
"I pledge allegiance to all Preykind,
To my nation, and to my leaders who keep me safe.
Our fences are strong, and we are stronger.
We are a wall;
Allied in strife, we will prevail.
Our enemies can never take our hearts, our spirit, or our unity.
Until the day when all wars end,
Cody actually didn't mind the Pledge too much. He had to admit, he liked the imagery: all of Preykind standing with linked arms, forming a wall against the Preds. But that part about trusting the glorious leaders always made him feel like someone had rubbed shit over his lips. Dad worked with the 'leaders'. He took orders from them. They were men ruled by money and narcissism. Content to talk all day about how their administration would keep Preykind safer, while the number of deaths and abductions always stayed the same.
The other kids all thought Cody was crazy for believing what he did. But his Dad had told him, and his Dad knew. There was a reason the stats never changed. There was a reason why the Prey territories' greatest defense was simply a series of Fences and guards, and not a thirty-foot-thick wall encrusted with guns and electric traps. It all came down to money. It was cheaper for companies to keep their factories in Predzones, where they could charge Pred workers half normal wages. To transport those goods, the borders needed holes. And holes meant Preds could come in and do what Preds did. Nothing would ever change, because there was too much money to be made by keeping everything just the way it was forever. Cody had learned to stop trying to convince people of the truth. The looks he got from his classmates disgusted him.
"Attention please!" Mrs. Bullfrog shouted. The beaverfemme waddled out from behind her desk and began passing back worksheets. "Your performance is still a disappointment. I can't flunk you out because there's nowhere to flunk you to. So as much as it pains me, we're going to keep going over this material until all of you can at least pull Cs."
The class groaned. Hydra looked like she was about to grab the flagpole and harpoon the woman.
"Once again, Miss Denton, you have the highest grade in class. I only wish that whatever it is you have would spread out to the others."
The vice president's daughter looked up as if she hadn't heard a word. The tall otter took back her worksheet. "Oh. Thank you."
"And look, class! Once again, just like usual, Mr. Winters has scored the lowest. It's almost as if we're in a time warp!"
Mrs. Buchanon handed Jayden's paper back. The rattish mouse let it fall to the floor. "It's almost as if you think I care," he drawled. "I couldn't give less of a fuck if you stuck me with a syringe full of fucks to give."
The whole class stifled laughter.
Mrs. Buchanon was used to this kind of response from Jayden. "Two hour's detention for your filthy mouth, Mr. Winters."
"C'est la vie," the mouse tossed off.
The fat beaver returned to her desk and turned on the TV screen behind her. As always, class started with a news broadcast. Cody had the unpleasant feeling that it was a specially censored program made just for The Box. It was never anything except propaganda. 'Oh look, we're winning the war again. How nice. Oh, look, those Grand Predator Army assholes released another video and abducted another nonspecific number of citizens. Eek, so scary!' Cody couldn't help noticing there was always a lack of specifics. The cops or soldiers would raid Preds and label it a victory over the enemy. But those Preds could be anyone. None of them ever had the same insane outfit the guy on Broadcast Day was wearing. Cody, and a lot other kids, suspected that the government was striking blindly.
One day Cody had seen his Dad on the news. Just briefly. They were interviewing him about possible overseas operations. Cody didn't even remember what his dad had said; he'd been stunned by the gift of seeing his face again for a few seconds.
That had been probably the best moment of Cody's whole time in The Box. Even hanging out with Kenny and flicking away sympathizers like Scott didn't compare.
The news was blessedly short at fifteen minutes. Then 'learning' began. Mrs. Buchanon stood at the blackboard and listed some names from recent Prey history. She asked the class to identify them and list their accomplishments. Cody's hand wasn't going up for anything. Not that he didn't know the answers, he just didn't have anything to prove to Mrs. Bullshit. He got high scores on his worksheets and she left him alone. Fine by him.
As usual, Yolanda answered most often. Cody liked hearing her talk. Her voice was calm and clear, with a slight musical quality to it. Meanwhile her father was off running the country in the President's absence, and doing a bad job of looking like he had any idea of what the words constantly coming out of his mouth meant. How that loudmouth had helped give birth to Yola, no one knew. When she talked, it was always with as few words as needed to effectively convey meaning. She was a know-it-all, but not a suckup. She just happened to actually know it all.
Kenny answered sometimes too, but was wrong as often as he was right. Neither outcome phased him. The world around him was just a mildly diverting television show. Sometimes that drove Cody crazy, and sometimes he actually envied his roommate. Sometimes worrying so hard about the war and caring so hard about his dad hurt. Like his heart was shot through with cancer. Being able to turn that off would be nice sometimes.
Hydra Kensington threw up her hand and announced to all that she knew who Pierce Ludlow was. Well lah-dee-dah. As if knowing who one of the presidents was deserved a medal. But of course, Chloe-Sophia was giving Hydra a look like she was basking in the glow of a goddess. Chloe had the fur of a squirrel but the heart of a lamprey.
What else was there to do in class but pick apart the details of his fellow students' lives? Listening to Mrs. Buchanon's mooing was out; this was stuff they'd already gone over for seemingly the fourth time. 'How hard is it to remember history?' Cody thought. He knew he put in a minimum of effort and got decent-to-good grades. Was it possible that everyone else just cared less? Or was Cody somehow exceptional without realizing it? He didn't like that idea for some reason. He wanted to just be average, at least in terms of schoolwork. He didn't want to excel at something he considered not worth excelling at. There were more important things in life to put his effort into.
If he spent his classes scoping out his classmates, he knew a lot of them did the same. What did they think of him? Not much, apparently. Frank never acknowledged him. Tycho looked at him like a dirty spot on a tablecloth. Cody and Jayden hung out sometimes, but the mouse usually had a dozen scams going and not much time to spend on any one furson. And Kenny still got incredulous looks when he was spotted talking to Cody. Like, 'Why's he dignifying that thing with his presence?'. They didn't know that Kenny understood.
Cody had always understood. All their problems in here? Just petty shit. Nothing mattered as much as the war. Not just the one they were fighting now, but the one they had always been fighting. Cody looked around the room and, even among the kids he almost respected, saw nothing but a bunch of furs only concerned with their own problems. Their grades, their sleep schedules, the food. Yes, Cody complained about the lights and never really knowing if it was night or day outside. But he understood that those concerns were secondary and temporary. Nothing could be more important than the war until the war was over. The Pledge had gotten that right at least.
He lived in a patchwork country. It was carved up into Preyzones and Predzones, all separated by miles and miles of Fences. And everybody thought it could just stay that way forever. Cody hated zombie movies because they felt too plausible. He was living in a country where nothing but chainlink and distance separated him from entire cities' worth of bloodthirsty killers. If the Fences fell, it would all be over. Sometimes he'd spend the night thinking about it so much he wouldn't be able to sleep. Everything he knew could be taken away if the Fences ever fell.
Everyone talked about solutions. 'Give the Preds more food aid and then they won't need to come over here and hunt.' 'Give the military more money'. 'We need bigger Fences.' 'Why can't we all just get along?' Squawk, squawk, squawk. Cody knew there was only one real solution.
Them or us.
If it came down to exterminating them all, oh well. He wasn't about to cry over the idea that a bunch of murderers got murdered. But Cody wasn't like them. If the government could simply cut the country in half down the middle and relocate the Preds to where they wouldn't be a threat anymore, he was fine with that. As long as they kept to their side. If that ever happened, he was sure their hunter's instincts would go berserk with no Prey around to hunt, and they'd probably start turning on each other. But again: oh well. So long as Prey citizens didn't have to lock themselves inside in fear anymore.
Mrs. Buchanon moved onto math. Tycho Max perked up, unsurprisingly. The guy was kind of a weirdo. He was an albino gerbil, which was odd enough, but he just loved doing him some math and science classwork. He didn't rub anyone's faces in his academic prowess; he just got oblivious to everything else when certain subjects came up. Cody was content with letting Tycho live on his own little nerd planet.
He watched Frank struggling to keep up though. The cute zebra was obviously frustrated. Cody was decent at math, and had been trying for a while to get up the courage to ask Frank if she maybe wanted him to tutor her sometime. He didn't exactly have a crush on her. He just thought she seemed... like she understood personal honor. For that reason alone Cody wanted to get to know her better.
Then the P.A. beeped again. An announcement? Had something, anything, actually happened? Gasp of disbelief!
The kids looked up at the speaker, but the voice that came out wasn't Principal Kern's.
"Please remain seated," a woman's voice said.
And that was it.
Cody tilted his head. What the hell did that mean? He was already seated. He didn't have any reason not to remain seat-
He realized suddenly that he couldn't move out of his chair.
He looked around the room. Everyone else was noticing it too. They were struggling in their seats, twisting back and forth, pulling at their pants. Nothing. Even Mrs. Buchanon was frozen to the spot.
What the fuck was this!?
Frank was struggling harder than anyone. Cody could see the zebra's muscles straining as hard as they could to pry herself off of her chair. She had her eyes closed and was groaning from the effort. The veins in her neck stood out.
Trudy was looking in every direction like the end of the world was about to come flying at her. Jayden looked slightly concerned, which was the most amount of fucks Cody'd ever seen the rodentboy give. Tycho's lip was curled in a pout, his expression showing that he was frantically trying to reason this out. Yolanda was doing the same, but far more calmly. Behind her large wireframe glasses, her eyes scanned all around the room.
Kenny reached across the aisle and tapped Cody. "Any idea what the hell's going on, bro?"
Cody didn't know and didn't answer. He only gave his friend a look that said, 'Nothing good'.
Chloe-Sophia started crying hysterically.
"Please, class! Calm down!!" Mrs. Buchanon bellowed. "I don't know what this is, but I'm certain someone is about to get everything under control!"
The P.A. beeped again. Same woman's voice.
"Please be quiet. Relax if you can. You will understand soon."
Chloe-Sophia's cries ended as abruptly as if she'd been shot.
Cody opened his mouth and tried to say something. Anything. Any words! Any fucking words, for fuck's sake! Nothing!! It was like his larynx had been stolen. He looked around and everyone else was moving their mouths soundlessly like goldfish gasping for water. It creeped him the hell out.
This was bad, worse than anything else imaginable. Cody didn't know exactly what this was, but his senses were on their highest alert. He hated himself for daring to curse the monotony of this goddamn place. Whatever was happening, he knew in his gut it would end in death, and he was sitting here powerless to defend himself. Whoever had done this had stolen that from him, had rendered him helpless as a baby with just WORDS. Cody tried to keep his breathing calm. He felt violated down to his soul. This wasn't fucking FAIR! What kind of enemy didn't even give you the slightest chance to fight back!?
Then the door opened, and Cody saw his enemy.
A statuesque lioness strode grandly into the room, dressed in the same cartoonish crap the canine from Broadcast Day had been wearing. She wore thigh-high boots, a leather military jacket with a fishnet undershirt (her shoulder epaulets rose up like skyscrapers), a tall hat and a belt with a silver buckle. And a red armband. Inside was a symbol Cody knew from TV. It was a white 'happy face', but the smile was a predator's open jaws. A stupid, cruel joke.
The Great Predator Army had caught them, and now they were all going to disappear forever.
This was the end of his life, Cody knew. No one who had ever been kidnapped by the GPA was ever recovered. The most likely explanation was that none of the missing could be recovered. They had been turned into rations to feed this new army.
Cody thought of his corpse stuffed in a meat locker. Frozen at the bottom of a pile, with all his classmates' bodies lying on top of him. Motionless forever. Until some Pred cooked his flesh and ate it.
For a moment, he had a flash of heartsick terror. But no. His father's training kicked in just like it always had. That was just panic he'd been feeling. Feel it and let it go. Panic is useless. He was still alive. That made all the difference in the world. Until the moment a bullet, a blade or a set of fangs tore through his flesh, he could still think. And that meant he could still fight back.
All this had gone through Cody's mind in the few moments it took the lioness to walk to the center of the room. She positioned herself before the teacher's desk. Then two prey soldiers entered the room.
For an instant, Cody felt hope. 'Yes! Arrest her! Beat her face in!'
Then the two soldiers flanked the lioness and it was clear whose side they were on. Cody couldn't believe it. He felt like his heart had been shot out. 'YOU TRAITORS! YOU GODDAMNED WORTHLESS TRAITOROUS SONS OF BITCHES!!! WHY!?'
The lioness took a moment to let the young ones' terror pass. She gave them a smile. Then she addressed the room in a booming baritone voice, rich with undefinable accent. "This is a day of celebration for you! You have been captured by the Great Predator Army! Isn't that wonderful? Hooray!!"
Now all the kids were looking at her like she was insane.
A third Prey soldier came in, carrying a cardboard box. He didn't look brainwashed. He wasn't walking like a zombie with blank, dead eyes. He looked eerily normal.
"I am sure you are afraid right now and have many questions," the lioness said. She gestured towards the box, her regalia jingling. "I will explain as I have you put on these collars. They come in a variety of nice colors. You will be wearing them for a while, so pick whichever one you like best."
The soldier with the box, a squirrel, went over to the first row and Cody was astonished to see his classmates calmly reaching inside and selecting collars. Why were they agreeing to this? But of course; the only explanation was that they had to. It was the same as the commands to keep seated and keep quiet.
Oh god, that meant that soon his hand was going to dip into that box and choose a collar. Which he would then put around his neck with his own two hands. He wondered if there was a way to kill himself first.
"You remember the gas we used when we snatched up the president and parliament members?" the lioness asked everyone. She paced back and forth, her lucite heels clopping loudly. "That time, we added some smoke for show. The real gas is colorless, is odorless, and you've all been breathing it in for the last half hour or so. It creates a state of hyper-suggestibility. I see some of you are struggling to resist. This is perfectly understandable. Do not feel as though you have failed if you can't. The effect is purely chemical and is no reflection on your individual will."
Frank looked somewhat relieved to hear that. Cody could see she was near tears. The zebragirl was a gracious loser when the fight was fair, but he could tell a situation like this was torture to her. He empathized.
Of course, the lion bitch could be full of shit. It could be a lie to keep them from trying to resist hard enough to break through the chemical's control. Cody was determined to try. Subtly, so it wouldn't be noticed, he tried to whisper a single word. He couldn't. So he tried again. He would keep on trying for as long as he could.
The students continued to choose their collars. They were simple plastic, like what nonev pets wore (or at least they seemed to be). Chloe unconsciously chose the same color as Hydra. Cody kept track of which kids looked resigned to their fate and which ones glared with defiance at the lioness and her traitor puppet soldiers.
"When all of you have your collars on, we will ask you to link them together by cords we will provide. We want all of you to make one big line; all of your class connected, so nobody gets lost."
Yolanda realized she could ask a question without speaking. She looked directly at the lioness, then cocked her head towards Mrs. Buchanon.
"Your teacher? We don't need her. We will leave her here, unharmed. Your concern for her is commendable."
Yolanda didn't seem to know how to react to that.
The box of collars was coming closer. Cody was still trying his damnedest to whisper something. One word! His name! His Dad's name! The word 'kill'! Any fucking thing!!!
The squirrel soldier stopped right in front of his desk. Cody willed his arm to stay where it was, but already it was lifting up and reaching inside the box. Without conscious thought, he picked out a black one. The soldier moved on. Cody's hands slipped the plastic around his neck, and their touch filled him with sick hatred. His fingers felt like centipedes.
"This building is under our complete control," the lioness said triumphantly. "Right now we have soldiers in every classroom. They are all passing out collars. Every child is putting one on. When we are ready, you will be led up to the roof where we have a helicopter waiting. You will not be able to resist our commands, so do not cause yourself undue stress trying. You cannot resist, so do not worry."
Cody couldn't say it, but at least he could mouth the words 'go to hell' at her.
Soon enough the entire class was collared. By this time, one of the other soldiers had begun unspooling lengths of plastic cord. The students in the front rows each clipped one end to the back of their collar, then fastened it to the front of a classmate's.
The lioness practically beamed with delight. "It is wonderful to see things going so smoothly! All your colorful collars! Don't be sad, little ones. Don't be afraid. This is a great day for you!"
Tycho couldn't speak either, but he pounded his desk with his fist. Cody had to give the nerdboy credit for that little act of wordless protest. He wished he'd thought of it.
"What? Do you think we are taking you away to butcher you?" the lioness laughed. "Understandable, considering the terrible lies your news tells about us. But lies they are! We have no desire to hurt you. You will be kept safe and comfortable. You are all useful to us, and you will help us change the world." She smiled and repeated the canine's words from Broadcast Day: "Only we can win the war!"
Trudy reached across the aisle to connect her collar to Cody's. Her cheeks were completely soaked with tears. Cody grimaced. He didn't have anything against her personally, but walking behind the squat piggirl was going to be annoying as hell, trying not to bump into her. His hands betrayed him again by accepting his own leash from the soldier and connecting it to Kenny's.
The rabbit reached across and started tickling Cody's shoulder. The chipmunk thought his friend had lost his mind at first, until he realized Kenny was spelling a message:
'at least were together'.
Cody was surprisingly touched by that. He turned and gave his friend a solemn nod of solidarity.
When all the children were connected, the lioness asked them to please stand up. Without hesitation, every single one of them did.
The lioness walked over to the door. "Please line up. And I apologize if you are still afraid. I can see some of you crying. Try to relax. Things are not as bad as you imagine."
At the words 'try to relax', Cody felt a slight wave of sleepiness hit him. The voice on the P.A. had told them to relax before. He supposed that was the reason no one was flailing around in hysterical panic. Everyone in the room looked scared to death, but were facing it calmly. Cody wondered how much of that was their own will, or the command.
"Say goodbye to your teacher."
With a single voice, every student said, "Goodbye, Mrs. Buchanon."
As the lioness led them one by one out of the classroom, they each took their final look at their teacher. Cody did not believe the obvious lie that she would be left behind unharmed. He knew he was seeing the woman for the last time. The last time. He remembered with shame all the cruel things he'd thought about her. She was a rude, uninspiring teacher, but she was still Prey. Cody had forgotten that. And now, as soon as the children were out of sight, Cody knew the last thing she would see would be a bullet, a blade or a fang.
Each time the lioness said, "Try to relax," it became harder and harder to think.
Cody and his classmates were led along like a trained snake. Their chain curved through the hallways of Farron's Keep. They passed other classes full of children who had the same half-dreamy, half-shellshocked expressions.
Cody's heart broke. 'All of them. Every last one. They will never see their parents ever again.' He pictured the frozen bodies in the meat locker. That was his fate, and no rosy bullshit from that lioness was going to fool him.
If he had to die, he promised himself he would go in defiance. If they held him down on a chopping block, he would stare into the eyes of his murderer until his last second of life.
Up the stairs now. The classroom snake wound around and around the stairwells. Thirty or so children moving in lockstep.
"We are next to go up to the roof," the lioness called down to everyone. "Be careful of the rotor wash! If you have anything that could blow away in strong winds, hold it down now!" With that she opened the door, and everyone was suddenly deafened.
The Box was soundproofed, but no one realized just how much so until they were suddenly less than a hundred feet away from a twin-rotor military behemoth, bearing a great big Prey army logo. Its motors were a constant scream in their ears. The lioness and the soldiers seemed used to it. They led the children along towards the gaping back hatch of the copter. Cody's blood ran cold when he saw what was inside.
He thought at first it was skinned bodies. But that image lasted only a second. Inside the helicopter were racks upon racks of Preykids. All of them tucked into cocoon-like sleeping bags. Only their heads poked out.
The lioness had to shout at the top of her lungs to be heard. "One by one, you will disconnect the cords from your collars, enter the helicopter, and be directed to an empty sleeping bag! A soldier will help you climb inside! Once we are in the air, you may go to sleep! When you wake up, you will be in your new temporary home!"
Cody thought he knew why it would be temporary.
He watched his classmates walking one by one into the helicopter, like willing sacrifices into a whale's massive mouth. There was a huge pile of discarded leashes lying on the concrete roof. It occurred to Cody that he'd gotten his wish: he was seeing the sunlight again, finally. Maybe for the last time, but at least he was out of that goddamn fluorescent light. At least the breeze on his fur was real and not air conditioning. He clung to that small bit of comfort to keep despair away. Despair led to depression, and depression killed alertness.
Cody readied himself when it was his turn to remove his leash. He dropped it in the pile with the others, wishing he could get rid of his goddamn collar too. As he walked up the ramp into the belly of the copter, he glanced behind to see Kenny repeating the same actions.
Inside, the helicopter bay was bathed in red light. More children than he could count hung from the racks in their sacks. They looked like ripe fruit. A stocked pantry. Some were already asleep. He wondered how that was possible with all the noise.
More prey soldiers directed him to where the unoccupied bags were. A deer lifted him up gently so that a skunk could slip him feetfirst into one of them.
It wasn't too bad. It was cushioned inside so at least he wouldn't be slamming around back and forth while they were in flight. Cody felt a strong desire to just relax and drift off. But he knew he couldn't. He knew that he was going through a traumatic experience and his body was trying to shut down to protect itself. But he couldn't let that happen. There were windows in the helicopter. There were windows. If he kept awake, he could see where they were going. That might mean the difference between rescue or death.
Kenny was tucked in beside him. The boys didn't know if the no talking command was still in effect or if they just couldn't think of anything to say to each other. They were fucked. What else was there to tell?
Cody drifted in and out of dozing as more and more children were led into the helicopter and pouched. He'd had no idea this many children were kept in The Box. He felt sorry for the first ones who'd been put in sacks; they had to wait through all the other classes' worth of kids. It seemed like ages before they took off.
Cody watched through the windows as the ground lifted away. He half-heartedly expected to see fighter jets on the horizon, coming to intercept them. Being shot down would be better than whatever the Preds had in store for them. But nothing of the sort happened. It was smooth sailing all the way. Cody wasn't terribly surprised. He had to give his enemy credit; they had prepared this beyond what anyone could imagine. They probably had all the right codes and words to say to make everyone on the ground think this was a perfectly normal flight away from a massively-guarded military safehouse. 'Then again, maybe it is normal. Maybe this is how the food and supplies come in and they took advantage of that.'
Cody knew that he must not underestimate his enemy. They were not stupid. He could not count on them making mistakes. He would have to carve out his own path to freedom; they would not show him an easy route. He would have to observe and be patient. A chance would present itself, and he would seize it.
He remembered being a little cub, sitting on Daddy's lap. Daddy would teach him all about Preds. What to do if he ever saw one. What to do if he was ever kidnapped by one. Cody learned his lessons and made Daddy proud.
Cody was so sleepy...
He watched through the window for as long as he could. Longer than almost anyone else who was trying the same thing.
But every time he thought of that word, 'relax', he sank a little bit deeper... and a little bit deeper...