Alex Reynard's Online Books
Cody dreamed of summer. He and his father camping. Cody's heart was at peace.
Then he was waking up surrounded by the ungodly roar of helicopter blades.
Class by class, the children were being unloaded. Cody looked around, instantly alert again, cursing himself with every rancid word he knew for failing to keep awake. It was dark outside, not long after sunset. That meant they'd been flying for hours. Cody had no idea if they were in a Predzone, a Preyzone, or even another country.
Through the copter hatch, Cody could see sand and wooden fences. Maybe a military base? Prey soldiers in Prey uniforms lifted kids out of sacks, handing them over to Preds. It was too surreal to believe. What had been done to these soldiers? What kind of mad scientist brainwash horseshit was going on? What if they used it on him too? What if he found himself joining up with these murderers without any chance to resist?
'I'll kill myself first. I'll will my heart to stop beating,' Cody thought. It gave him a small measure of solace. 'Dad will understand.'
Soon enough, the soldiers were lifting him up by his armpits and setting him on the vibrating metal floor of the helicopter's belly. Preds shouted out orders, and Cody felt his skin crawl as he obeyed them. "Keep with your class! We don't want anyone getting lost! Stand together outside the aircraft and you will be directed where to go next! Don't be afraid! Try to relax!"
That relaxation line again. Cody fought it. He forced his imagination to churn out the most horrific images it could. He had to keep his adrenaline flowing. Keep alert no matter what.
Outside the helicopter, most of the clustered kids were crying, looking to each other for comfort, staring off into space, or smiling sickly like none of this was really happening. But Cody's eyes were wide open. He looked all around him, drinking in every detail. This might be his only chance to gather info on this place before they locked him in a cell.
It was a military base disguised to look like a summer camp. Evil but clever, he had to admit. The base seemed circular, judging by the enormous pine trees that bordered the perimeter. So some kind of coniferous forest. Not too helpful, but it might help rescuers determine the general area if he could get a call out.
Some kind of massive wireframe dome covered the entire base like a transparent turtle shell. Maybe electrified. Cody didn't know what purpose it served, but he guessed it might somehow shield the place from being seen from the air. He wondered what it was made of and if there was a way to find out.
Little low buildings were everywhere. Mostly made of wood. They looked like they'd been assembled in a moderate hurry. This was not a permanent installation. Good. Might mean sloppy work; cracks he could exploit. Pred soldiers were all over the place. Most of them didn't have on the ridiculous, ornate black vinyl stuff. Some wore simple brown or white or red uniforms. Color might indicate rank or classification. A few Prey wore the same uniforms.
No flags or insignias anywhere. Made sense; they wouldn't want to advertise this place's location. There were trucks and jeeps and... Holy jackpot. That bigass dome might've covered the entire camp, but there was a gate in it. A big damn gate! They probably brought in supplies through there. If there was one hole in their cage, there'd be others.
Cody stood with the rest of his classmates, watching as other groups of children were led away to different buildings. Each by another one of those GPA Preds in black. Cody noticed there were as many women as men, and they all looked like magazine models. 'Maybe it's a cult. Maybe they've got stolen hardware but no real military training.' It was a theory worth covertly testing.
He knew there was an angle here; he just had to find it. His father had taught him well. 'When you're in a crisis, hold back the urge to fight or flight. Get yourself calm. Think. Be patient and the solution will present itself. When the moment comes, you'll know it. Make your move without hesitation.'
When all of Cody's classmates had disembarked, the lioness took a head count. "Please follow me, little ones! Everything will be revealed shortly!"
She took off walking in a campy mockery of a military march. The Preykids followed behind, unconsciously mirroring her gait. They hoped they weren't about to be led into a kitchen or a meat locker. The lioness directed them to one of the many semi-identical wooden buildings in the base. She stood by the door and watched them all enter.
As he got to the door, Cody gathered up his courage. He turned to the Pred woman and gave her a look of purest hatred. Quietly but clearly he said, "I'm going to kill every Pred here for what you've done."
The lioness looked startled, but only for a second. Then she regained her cocky smile. "Oh really? That seems like quite a large task."
Cody didn't reply back. If they underestimated him, good. He followed along with the other Prey.
He had expected a lot of things in here, but not nothing. It was simply a plain, unfurnished room. The lioness bade the children bunch up against the back wall. The same two Prey soldiers entered and flanked her. She struck a pose at the front and announced, "Welcome to Camp Carnivore!"
"Well that's cheery..." someone muttered sarcastically.
"You are hereby designated K Group!" the lioness boomed. "Try to stay with your group whenever possible. We don't want anyone getting lost, certainly! You will be given three meals a day, a bunk to sleep, two instructional periods per day and your own uniform. You are all intelligent young furs and we expect your full cooperation. If not, there will be DISCIPLINE!!" Several kids flinched when she bellowed that word.
"W-what kind of discipline?" some idiot just had to say.
The lioness' muzzle curled into an overflowing smile. "I'm so glad you asked that question!" She turned to the door. "GILDA!!!"
Who the fuck was Gilda!?
The knob turned. Cody felt part of his brain melt when he saw an arm as thick as a telephone pole open the door.
Gilda was easily eight feet tall. She was a snow-white malamute with tidy raven hair. Her Great Predator Army uniform was stretched clingfilm-tight across her impossibly muscled body. Her biceps were the size of skulls. Her legs looked like they could kick tractors in half. Her veins bulged like sausages.
She gave the kids a dainty wave and a friendly, "Hello!"
"Gilda! Show these children what happens if they do not obey!" the lioness shouted with delight.
The monolithic dogfemme scanned the terrified crowd of Prey. As scared as they were, they all felt a wave of unreality. This wasn't happening, right? People like this didn't exist in real life, right!?
Gilda extended her pointer finger and traced it through the air. Several kids ducked out of its deadly path. "Hmmmm..." Gilda settled on a small grey mouse nearly hidden in the middle of the crowd. "Oh yes, him!"
"You heard her, mouse!" the lioness exploded, grinning madly. "Step forward!!"
The crowd of kids parted around Scott Quint like he was riddled with leprosy. He stood there quaking. But his expression was not wholly one of fear. Was there a trace of an excited smile on his muzzle as he approached the herculean husky?
He stood before her, his head barely taller than her crotch. Gilda effortlessly lifted him up in the air by his shirt collar. The mouse wriggled, but didn't struggle. He was sweating like crazy.
"Have you been a bad little Prey?" Gilda asked in a singsong voice. "Do you need to be punished?"
Scott gulped. His cheeks were red hot. "I th-think I do. Please."
She knew she'd chosen well. She nodded, then tipped back her head and stuffed him in.
The rest of the kids freaked out. Cody knew he wasn't dreaming, but this shit had to be a hallucination. He wasn't at all surprised to find out how much of a mealie Scott was. Give him the chance to be eaten and he hopped right to it. He knew some Prey were like that. Clearly a mental disorder. But what he was seeing now was literally impossible. The big bitch's throat had opened up like a snake's. Scott's head had already disappeared. Now she was stuffing his shoulders in. He wasn't resisting a bit. He even seemed to be helping. Freak.
The lioness stood to the side and watched with glee.
The other kids' jaws were all on the floor. Like Cody, they weren't exactly terrified. To be scared of something, you have to believe that it's real. This was too... cartoony to be true. Yet Cody couldn't see any way they could be faking it. Gilda obviously wasn't an animatronic. He didn't see any seams where she could have been stuffing Scott into a fake pouch.
The canine finished pushing the mouseboy's shoes into her mouth. All that was left was a tailtip. She slurped it up like a spaghetti noodle, then smiled with satisfaction. "Ahh, so filling!" She patted her huge, wiggling belly in gratitude.
"Now you see what can happen if you defy the will of the Great Predator Army!" the lioness cackled. "Please go on into the next room and choose a seat. Your instructor will be along shortly. Gilda needs to go lie down now and have a nice nap while she digests your classmate."
None of the kids moved. They just stared in utter bafflement.
"You heard me! Into the other room with you! Shoo, shoo!"
Tycho was closest to the door and he held it open for everyone. The rest of the kids filed through, most of them unable to resist glancing back at Gilda's Scott-filled gut.
Jayden hung back while everyone else went through. Eyes bulging, he tentatively crept closer to the towering malamute. She had her hands on her hips, regarding him bemusedly.
The mouse reached out a hand to touch her stomach. It wiggled.
"Ffffffffffuck!" said Jayden, as he ran out of the room to join everyone else.
They were in what looked like a typical college classroom. Typical, if a little small. There was a desk and a digital chalkboard at the front of the room. Several dozen smaller desks were arranged on the opposite side in a stadium seating style; each row slightly higher than the one before it.
The kids of K Group crowded to the side of the room, talking about what had just happened. Many had their cell phones out and were frantically clicking buttons, but no one could get a signal.
"None of this makes sense! She just took out Scott in one gulp!!" Kenny said.
"She couldn't have," Tycho insisted. "Even if that woman could dislocate her jaw, no one's mouth is that elastic. Her lips should have split down the sides. And if nothing else, she should have suffocated trying to get him down!"
Trudy had her hands over her mouth in horror. "Listen to yourself! You're talking like you're criticizing a bad movie! Scott just DIED! Our classmate just died!!" One of the other girls hugged her.
"He didn't seem too unhappy about it," Cody interjected.
"Oh shut UP, St. John!" Tycho spat back immediately.
Cody was rather stunned. The gerbil was showing a surprising amount of backbone in this situation. 'He might make a useful ally at some point,' he noted.
"It wasn't no illusion!" Jayden said. "I felt it! I actually touched her stomach! Totally him in there. Fuck this! This is crazyshit!"
Yolanda pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "We're going to have to think of a way out of here as soon as possible," she spoke up.
Hydra rolled her eyes. "No shit. And of course, you're going to lead us? Chip off Daddy's block?"
Yolanda fidgeted a bit. "I didn't say that. Whoever's got any ideas should, um..."
"Are there any weapons in here!?" someone near the back shouted.
That got everyone's heads swiveling to and fro. The room was pretty spartan. Desks; chairs; blackboard. Not even a flagpole or some books to throw.
"Could we take big doglady down if we all jumped her at once?" Jayden asked.
"She would crush your head to a pulp like making orange juice, dumbass," Kenny pointed out.
Cody noticed that Frank had been quiet this whole time, silently observing events and looking around the room for possible escape routes. He liked her even more now.
Chloe-Sophia tugged on Hydra's sleeve. "You've got some ideas, right?" the squirrel pleaded. Britney and Michelle, the bunnygirl's two other acolytes, nodded expectantly.
Hydra pushed them aside. "Bitches, back off! Gimme some room to think!"
Trudy was sobbing. "What happened to Scott... That's what's gonna happen to all of us..."
Cody saw Mason Kellway standing in the corner, looking lost and conflicted. The chipmunk walked over with a reaper's smile. "This is what you wanted to make peace with," Cody said. "This is what happens when you try to make nice with the enemy."
The buck looked up and his eyes were fierce with tears. "I just watched my best friend die. Back off."
Cody didn't. "Oh, I'm sorry. Did I misremember you handing out flyers earlier? Wanting to have a sit-in to protest the war? Excuse me: the unjust war!"
"Leave. Me. Alone," Mason said, quietly and dangerously.
The chipmunk backed up only one step. "It hurts because you just saw the consequences of your idiot beliefs. You don't like how it feels to be proven wrong, do you?"
Mason shoved Cody in the chest with both hands.
Cody did not topple. He braced himself on the teacher's desk and just grinned. "Thought not." He walked away, leaving Mason to his well-deserved misery.
Yolanda was waving her hands in the air to get everyone's attention. "Does anyone want to try helping me break that window over there? It's got bars, but we might be able to smash through them with a chair."
Jayden joined her. "Fuck this place, I'm up for it!"
Cody chuckled. It was definitely the first time he'd seen those two working together on a school project.
He felt strangely calm right now. Maybe it was just smugness from seeing everyone else running around panicking. Maybe it was an odd kind of relief. The thing he'd feared for so long, his worst nightmare, was finally happening to him for real. He'd prepared for it and dreaded it for so long. Now it was here. In a way he was glad. This was his chance to test the skills he'd worked on for so long. This would be, in an odd way, his graduation from his father's teachings.
The door opened.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked.
Scott Quint was standing there, soaking wet, with a shit-eating grin bigger than his whole face.
"SCOTT!!" Mason screamed, running to his friend.
"What the hell!?" someone shouted.
"How in the world did you get out of there!?" Frank cried.
Scott found himself for the first time the center of attention among his classmates. He was hugged by a hysterically-relieved deerboy. "Don't worry, Mason. I'm fine."
"HOW are you fine!?" Mason sputtered.
Scott addressed everyone. "She spat me up! Right after you guys left! She apologized, and she and the lion lady hosed me down and said I did a great job helping them out. They said it was just a prank, really."
"WHAT!?" several people shouted.
"Just to freak everyone out," the mouse said. His clothes were dripping on the hardwood floor. "Catch you guys off guard."
Jayden's mind boggled. "Well yippity-dip! First we get kidnapped, then they wanna pull haunted house bullshit on us! I should'na even woke up today!"
"What sadistic monsters are these people!?" Michelle yelped.
"They were pretty nice to me, after I got upchucked," Scott said, shrugging.
"What was it like in there!?" someone asked.
At that, Scott smiled. "I don't care what any of you think of me; that was the awesomest thing that's ever happened to me in my life."
Chloe-Sophia winced hard. "Ewwww! Pervert!!"
Scott brushed it off. "Warm and wet, squeezing me all over. I've never felt anything like it. I was scared out of my mind, but man, once I was inside, I never wanted out!"
Kenny looked disgusted. "You are fucked up beyond belief."
Scott was unfazed. "Nothing any of you guys say can make me stop grinning. Gilda's the best."
Then someone knock-knocked lightly on the open door. A vixen stepped into the room clutching an armful of papers. "Didn't someone tell you all to choose your seats?"
She was nothing like the other Preds they'd encountered so far. The woman was in her mid-twenties with a petite build and dark, short hair. A grey fox; salt-and-pepper fur streaked with copper. Her uniform was olive green and looked soft and comfortable. Nothing like the monstrous, campy nightmares the others had worn (though her tiny pleated skirt was a little risque). She sat her papers on the desk along with her officer's cap and walked over to the blackboard.
Some of the kids started drifting over to the rows of desks, and soon all of them were headed that way. Years of schooling had conditioned them to find seats as soon as a teacher entered the room.
One kid summed up everyone's emotions, whispering to his friend: "I'm still scared to death, but maybe she'll finally tell us what's going on."
The vixen switched on the blackboard and drew her name with a fingertip. "Good evening, K Group! My name is Lieutenant Vera Delamoor. Though you can call me Miss Vera or just plain Vera if you like. We don't take our titles very seriously here."
She turned around and faced her new students. She smiled happily at seeing them all seated. "Thank you very much for cooperating. I'm sure you're all confused right now, so I appreciate you being orderly." Her voice was cheerful, friendly and surprisingly guileless.
Hydra decided to take control. The bunny stood up furiously. "ExCUSE me. Do you have any idea who my father is? If you don't let me go, your pelt's gonna be our bathmat by tomorrow!"
Vera smirked. "Do I know who your father is? Would that be Patrick Brookstone Kensington, of 221 West Strathmore Boulevard? Where you, Heidi, previously lived with your mother Judy and your brother Grant, until you were relocated to Farron's Keep? Do I have all that right?"
Hydra looked unpleasantly surprised. "How in Satan's ass do you know all that stuff!?"
Vera tapped her pile of papers. "We have good intelligence, and I have a good memory."
Yola turned in her seat. "Also, Heidi, I think it's pretty obvious that we were all taken precisely because of who our parents are." She spoke calmly, but there was a tiny trace of one-upsmanship for that minor embarrassment earlier.
The bunnygirl fumed. "You want a slit throat? You call me my real name."
"Miss Yolanda is correct," Vera spoke up, defusing the ire between the class' two queen bees. "I'm sure it's crossed all your minds by now, and you're right. You were chosen because you're the sons and daughters of some of the most powerful people in Prey society. Just like we've also taken a roughly equal number of Pred politicos' children. I'll get to the full explanations in a second, but for now, how about a nice round of applause for Mrs. Tina McNeil, from the Stony Heights community theater group!"
At that, the regalia-clad lioness entered the room, giving the kids a bow. Her mannerisms had changed almost completely. "Was I evil enough, you think?" she asked in a perfectly normal voice; no more accent.
Vera explained to the group of bewildered Preykids. "A big part of this whole Great Predator Army thing is satire. Plain clowning. If we took ourselves seriously, we could never hope to accomplish our goals. If we acted like normal soldiers, the only reactions we'd get would be fear or hatred.
"We knew we'd never be seen as anything but villains, so we went with it." The vixen smiled playfully. "We gave you your most exaggerated nightmare of what we'd be like, to confront you with how ridiculous it'd be. We hoped to get past most of your fear by being too outlandish to be frightening. I'm sure some of you were frightened though, and from all of us, we apologize. But the fact that we're having a conversation right now, and none of you are screaming your lungs raw and scrambling to escape, suggests we succeeded as well as we needed to."
Several kids exchanged glances, forced to admit that she might be right. Trudy had stopped crying by now and was looking almost hopeful.
Cody, of course, didn't buy it. This was where the con job started. This was where they spoke nice and made everyone feel relieved. Maybe the Preds weren't planning to butcher him and his classmates just yet, but they damn well would after they got what they wanted.
Tina took off her hat and brushed her hair back. "Jeeze, this outfit gets hot!"
"Go change then, hon," Vera said. "You did a great job. Get some dinner and relax."
The lioness nodded. "Will do. See you later. Bye kids!" She waved and walked out the door.
Jayden put his hand up and didn't wait to be called on. "Two questions: where's that dog lady and is she gonna eat any more of us?"
Vera chuckled. "Oh, don't worry about Gilda. As I'm sure you can tell by the fact that your friend Scott is still alive and kicking, she's not mean. I'll explain exactly how she's able to do that neat trick of hers later on."
Jayden still seemed wary. "He ain't my friend, lady..." he muttered under his breath.
"I'm sure all of you have questions and I'll let you ask them in a little bit," Vera said. She walked over to her desk and sat on it, facing everyone. "But first there's something I'd like to say to all of you."
She paused a moment, composing herself.
"First off, I'm compelled to apologize. We kidnapped you. We used hypnotic gas on you. Our only excuse for this is that we believe it serves a greater good.
"My purpose here is to explain that greater good to you. The Great Predator Army might wear silly costumes, but at our core we have some very serious beliefs. The fox you saw on Broadcast Day was telling the truth: we believe that both Pred and Prey societies have reached a point of catastrophic failure. We believe that, if things stay the same, our future will lead to nothing but misery. We want to change things." She smiled bashfully. "Corny as it sounds, we want to save the world."
"Bullshit," someone near the back loudly whispered.
From her frown of disapproval, everyone could see that Vera had heard. But her irritation turned to sadness. "No. I expected that. That's... what this is all about. We know it's going to take an almost-impossible effort to get people to listen."
Vera stood up. She gestured with her hands as she spoke. "I want you all to humor me and take a second to imagine what it would be like if you had been born blind. I'm quite serious; try as hard as you can to imagine your life if you had never been able to see."
A few kids closed their eyes. Vera was overjoyed at such a good sign so early.
"But you weren't blinded by nature," she continued. "When you were born, someone wrapped a cloth around your head, and as you grew, you were told again and again that if you ever took that blindfold off, the worst things you could possibly imagine would all happen to you. The people who put the blindfold on didn't do this because they were evil. They did it because they were blindfolded too. And they were also told that if they ever took theirs off, horrible things would follow. And it's been going on like this for generations.
"Now, imagine that one day someone tries to take your blindfold off. You would resist them, of course. You would fight to keep it on, because everyone you love and trust has told you more times than you can count that you must always keep it on.
"But that other furson has taken theirs off. And nothing bad has happened to them. In fact, they can see now. They can see the sky and the grass and other people, and it's so beautiful and so much better than living in darkness, they want to share this wonderful new sight with everyone."
She paused. Her classroom was dead quiet.
"I know," she continued, "that you might not like being told you're blindfolded. I know it might seem like I'm insulting everything you believe in. That's why I'm only asking you to trust me long enough to take a small peek. That's all.
"You're going to be staying here for exactly one week."
Several incredulous, "WHAT!?"s
"One week," Vera repeated. "After that, you're free to go. We will reunite you directly with your parents and what you do from then on is totally up to you. In the meantime, we will try to make your stay here at least more enjoyable than it was in that Box they've kept you cooped up in so far."
Cody's eyebrow raised. How did she know their nickname for the place?
"During the next week, I'll be talking with you twice a day. Once after breakfast, once after lunch. We're going to examine what you believe about Preds and Prey. I'll try my best to persuade you that things aren't anywhere near as awful as you've always been told. I'll outline the GPA's plan to fix things, and I'll be showing you some of the tech we've developed to help make our ideas realistically possible. You are all free to agree or disagree. If you choose to join us, you'll be welcomed with open arms. If you choose not to, then you get to enjoy a week's worth of our hospitality and then go home."
Cody couldn't take it anymore. "That's real nice, you talking about us being free to agree or disagree, when you've got that gas that can make us all dance when you tell us to!"
Vera nodded. "I understand your concern. But I promise you, we will not use it on you again. It's an unfortunate, necessary evil. I'm guessing by the way you're glaring at me Mr. St. John..."
His spine went cold to be so suddenly addressed by name.
"...that my promise doesn't mean much to you. Well, for starters there's the fact that if we used the gas here, all of us in the GPA would be affected too and it would become quite a clusterfump. Secondly, in case any of you were wondering, the gas' effects wore off hours ago."
Many of the students didn't believe her. "But in the helicopter... When they told us to go, we went! We didn't have any choice!" someone said.
The vixen smirked. "That was simply an aftereffect, similar to hypnosis. If you assumed the commands still worked, your mind made them work. I'll be getting into that later. But for now..." Here she stood straight as an arrow and pointed to all of them at once. "...I want you all to hop on one foot and pick your noses!!"
None of them did.
Vera chuckled. "See? Your free will's intact again. I know some people get the heebie-jeebies at the idea of being mind-controlled, and that is perfectly understandable. You can test it anytime you feel a need to. Just ask one of us to give you a command you can disobey. Oh, and now that I remember it, you can all take your collars off too."
Many sighs of relief. The room filled with sounds of fur rustling as the kids removed their collars. Cody noticed some of his classmates kept theirs. Scott left his on, unsurprisingly. Though so did a beaver girl in the back of the room.
"Those collars didn't... mess with our minds too, did they?" Chloe-Sophia asked.
"Oh, no," Vera reassured. "They're just ordinary pet collars. You can keep them or throw them away, whatever you like. Their purpose was more for psychological reinforcement than anything else. Now that you're here, we won't restrict your actions any more than necessary."
"So... could we just walk out of here right now if we wanted to?" Kenny asked.
"Well, the door's locked," Vera admitted. "For now, at least. We'll let you move around the camp more later on."
Frank raised her hand. Vera pointed to her. "What if we try to escape?" the zebragirl asked. Her tone added a defiant subtext: '...because I will.'
Vera shrugged. "Good question. You're welcome to try. But for several reasons, it's a bad idea. Did you all see that big dome thingy we've got set up outside?"
The kids nodded.
"Yes, what exactly does it do?" Tycho asked, badly concealing his eager interest.
"It serves two purposes," Vera explained. "Firstly, it provides camouflage if anyone flies overhead. From inside, you can look up and see the sky. From above, you'd look down and see only a big bunch of trees. It's not quite a mirror and not quite a hologram. There's other GPA members here who can explain it better than I can, and you can ask them if you like. But the second thing about it is, if you try to squeeze through one of the holes, you're in for a surprise."
"Forty thousand volts?" someone guessed.
"Not at all!" Vera reassured. "We don't want to accidentally fricassee anyone! But it will cause some interruptions in your little nervous systems. Simply put, if you touch it, it'll be like when your foot falls asleep, but all over. It's painless and temporary, I promise. You'll go limp and numb until someone pulls you away. You're free to test it if you like, but even if you get through somehow, the effect extends out quite a ways. You won't be running away afterwards, I can guarantee that."
Vera looked back at Frank. "Also, Miss Tanondo, I will try to be as open as I can and answer all questions honestly. But I will not tell you, or anyone else, this camp's location. This place must be kept a secret. If either side knew of it they'd bomb us to cinders. So if you're planning on leaving early, you have to factor in that you don't know whether we're in Prey or Pred-controlled territory. If you manage to get out, you're taking a 50/50 risk that the first people you run into will kill you on the spot and eat you. And that's if you don't starve in the forest first. If your heart is dead set on escape, I suppose there's nothing I can do to change that, and I sincerely hope you survive if you try. But I also hope you'll choose to stay a while and listen first. Does that answer your question?"
Frank nodded, and smiled slightly. The zebra had a very deep sense of honor. She believed in testing people she met. She would oppose them just enough to gauge their reaction. If they flew into a rage, they lost. If they respected the challenge, they won. Frank was willing to give this Pred the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.
"Anyone else?" Vera asked.
Yolanda raised her hand.
"What exactly will we be doing here over the week? I gather that this is basically a reeducation camp, but you said we'll be free to move around when we're not in 'class' with you."
Vera seemed pleased at the ottergirl's respectful skepticism. "It's not 'basically' a reeducation camp, Miss Denton, it is one. But in this rare case, it's not a blood-curdling euphemism for some kind of gulag. We literally intend to reeducate you, nothing more. We see ourselves as similar to cult deprogrammers." She winced at her word choice. "...Not to imply that you're stupid or 'wrong'. There's a world of difference between that and being taught a bad idea."
"You didn't answer my question," Yolanda challenged.
"I'm getting to it," Vera said apologetically. She turned and addressed the whole group. "We know none of you asked to be here, so we want to make your stay as not-miserable as possible. This place has pretty much all the amenities and activities of a regular summer camp. There's no lake, but we do have a swimming pool. There's sports, arts 'n crafts, movies every night. There's a creative thinking workshop. There's archery."
Cody perked up a bit. A chance to get a weapon in his hands? Definitely worth looking into.
"Each bunkhouse has a bookshelf for you to make use of. There's also a game room. Several consoles, plus billiards, air hockey, ping pong... I know The Box didn't allow incoming or outgoing communication, but we have internet here."
Several students became VERY interested.
She smiled at their eagerness. "Hold your horses, class. Lest you think we'd risk you sending messages to the outside world, we've got a specially-developed read-only connection here. You can look, but not post. The only thing the keyboards here are good for is typing in search bars."
A few groans of disappointment or frustration.
"No emails, no social media. You can try to get around it, but we've had the sneakiest people we could find put it through every test and cheat they could think of, and we're satisfied with the results.
"We'll also have special activities from time to time. Team sports and competitions. Nature walks. There's a bulletin board outside your bunkhouse where you'll be able to see the week's schedule. Oh, and that brings me to your uniforms. There should be one right..." She trailed off as she walked around the desk and checked its drawers. "Ah! Here we go." She pulled out a pair of shorts and laid them across the front of the desk, then held up a T-shirt. Both were a vibrant pumpkin orange.
'Well, the color's not terrible,' Cody found himself thinking.
"I am NOT wearing that," Hydra said immediately.
Vera looked over at the bunny and, noticing the few alterations she'd managed to make to her Farron's Keep outfit, deduced that her refusal was not simple defiance. "We knew clothes can be a source of pride or competition for fursons your age. We tried to pick something simple enough to not be embarrassing to anyone. But if you think it's too plain, you're allowed to customize yours. Cut them, sew them, draw on them; it's all okay so long as you keep the color."
Hydra went "Hm." She gave the fox an 'I will begrudgingly consider that idea' pout.
"Wait, um... do we only get one? Won't it start stinkin'?" someone asked.
Vera laughed. "No, we wouldn't do that to you. I can just imagine all of you by day seven, walking around making the flowers wilt." A few kids laughed mildly at that. Vera was glad to see that the icy distrust in the room was beginning to thaw a bit. "You'll each get three. They're one-size-fits-all, so you don't have to worry about keeping track of yours specifically unless you want to personalize them. There's a laundry room just beside your bunkhouse. It's up to you whenever you want to do washing."
At the mention of manual labor, several kids grimaced. These were the offspring of senators and congressmen; other people were meant to do stuff like that.
Vera put the shirt down and reached into the desk drawer again. This time she held up two armbands, one in each hand, and her tail wagged a little. "That brings me to these."
'I knew it,' Cody thought. The recruitment pitch. It wasn't bad enough the Preds wanted their flesh, they wanted it given freely too.
"You might recognize this one from Broadcast Day," Vera said, indicating the red armband with the Great Predator Army's logo. She patted her left arm. "I've got one, and so do all my other colleagues. If you choose to join us, we'll give you one too. But-" she hastily added, "-I'm not expecting any of you to sign up right away. I know a lot of you have plenty of reason to think of us as the enemy, and it's our burden to prove we aren't. If you're not quite ready to switch sides, you can kind of 'dip a toe in' and take one of these plain red Pred Helper armbands. Scott, you've already earned one if you want it."
The mouse was out of his seat with a grin on his lips almost immediately. He walked up to the desk and claimed his prize. He slipped the smooth fabric up his arm and admired it. His classmates were giving him hateful looks for defecting, but he flipped them all the double bird as he returned to his chair.
Kenny held up his hand. "Okay, so that's great for mealies like Scott, but what about the rest of us who don't have a deathwish? You really think we want to help you!?"
Vera nodded. "Despite your tone, that's a perfectly valid thing to ask. For starters, I want you all to know that we don't believe in negative reinforcement here. We know we can't force you to join us. Even if we just used the gas on you, all we'd have then would be a group of furs who'd rebel at the first chance they got, and rightly so. For this to work, it has to be voluntary."
The fox started slowly pacing. "To that end, we promise not to punish you if you decline our offer. But that doesn't mean we can't make it the more appealing choice. I hope that at least some of you will choose to come to our side because, when I present our case, you'll agree with us that it's the best path to a better future for everyone. But we want some positive reinforcement too, so there's incentives to helping us."
"That's just blatant manipulation," Yolanda pointed out.
"Yes," Vera said simply. She shrugged. "We want greater numbers, and our lack of time is too important for us to care how. So if you join because you believe we're right, or just because you want the perks, we're happy either way."
"Well what ARE the perks!?" Hydra blurted.
Vera chuckled at her impatience. "If you agree to be a Pred Helper, you can volunteer to help us out with simple tasks and chores, but it's not mandatory. In return, you get access to a second food line in the cafeteria; more choices if you don't like what's on the main menu. You'll also get an extra hour in the games or computer rooms, and there will be special helper-only events.
"For those of you who want to fully join the GPA, you'll get all of that and more. There will be some responsibilities, but nothing major. A third lunch line will open up for you with even more choices. You'll get an extra hour in the games AND computer rooms if you wish. Best of all, you get to move up to a new bunkhouse where you'll have a private room. Plus you'll get your very own custom-tailored Great Predator Army uniform."
"That ain't much of a reason to betray my genus," Kenny said.
"You don't have to agree to any of it if you see it as a betrayal," Vera replied. "We didn't want to stack the choice too much anyway. It's possible to have a perfectly nice little vacation here even if you completely decline our offer. We just wanted to sweeten the pot a bit and reward anyone brave enough to choose to join."
Cody was paying careful attention to the words Vera used. The chipmunk had noticed a lot of very subtle manipulation at work. Always doing everything she could to make becoming a traitor sound as enticing as possible. He imagined a trap greased with honey. It'd be so easy to just slide down inside and get caught. He had to keep his mental walls up. Everything any Pred said to him here was a lie; he knew this with 100% conviction.
Jayden put his hand up and was called on. "You mentioned a cafeteria? What kinda shit they got there?"
"We do not serve fecal matter in our cafeteria, Mr. Winters," Vera replied without missing a beat. At this, quite a few kids laughed. Vera's tail wagged. Laughter was one of the GPA's greatest tools. It was the natural enemy of fear, and was very good at slipping new ideas past people's natural defenses. "We've got about the same menu as The Box did. Pizza, burgers, salads, desserts. I know some of you aren't vegetarians, and I assure you that all of the meat we'll serve you came only from nonevs." She bit her lip, knowing this was tricky territory. "I'll be honest, some of us Preds do eat meals prepared from volunteer Prey, but with heavy emphasis on volunteer. Choice is one of the Great Predator Army's most fundamental principles."
The mention of Preds eating Preys quieted the class. As a group they'd been starting to relax a bit. Not entirely; the kidnapping was still fresh in their minds. But now they were remembering where they were and who had taken them.
Yolanda's hand went up again. "Will any of us be eaten?" she asked apprehensively.
Vera looked at her, then around the room at her captive audience. "That is entirely up to you."
The fox paused to compose her thoughts. "For starters, let me reassure you that NO ONE will be eaten here unless that is their 100% freely-made choice. You are all safe here. This was bound to come up eventually, and it's better to talk about it now than let the worry linger in your minds. If we're going to save the world, we have to address the fundamental divide between Predator and Prey. Our kind eats your kind."
"Do you want to eat any of us?" Trudy asked fearfully.
Vera bit her lip, looking around the room at all the cute, plump Preykids. Her tail twitched. "Yes. A little."
Myriad gasps, gulps and sounds of fidgeting in seats.
She was quick to reassure them. "It's not like it's a compulsion, I promise you! Just my instincts acting up. Every now and then I'll notice a small movement in my peripheral vision, usually one of your ears twitching, and I'll have a momentary desire to just... chase something." She tapped her fingertips together. "But it's not difficult to ignore. It's quite easy. I'm sure all of you have the self control, whenever you walk into a candy store, to not just start gobbling down handfuls of everything in sight," she weakly joked.
And it got a very weak response.
"Ahem..." Vera looked back up at them, getting serious again, unafraid of being judged. "I'll tell you now, while my job here is to ease your fears, some of them are perfectly rational ones. In truth, you're not likely to meet many adult Preds who wouldn't brag about taking a life, even though sometimes it's just bragging. It's... too big a topic right now to explain the 'why' and 'how' of how we got to this point. For now, I'll just say that it's shameful, it's cruel, and it's unchangeable."
That last word got several puzzled reactions from the class, as they assumed she was going to condemn the idea entirely.
'Here come the excuses,' thought Cody.
Vera tried to detach herself from her emotions. "Throughout history, people have tried to regulate behavior through laws. This can never fully solve the problem, because punishment is often the least-effective part of a total solution. Without trying to understand the root causes of a behavior, and accepting when something is so entrenched that we can never eliminate it entirely, the most we can hope to accomplish is getting vengeance for the victims. But if we're smarter, we can find ways to prevent suffering, instead of just avenging it.
"I am a Pred. You are all Prey. We are natural enemies, and all the words and laws in the world can't change that. What we can do, however, is work around it."
Vera smiled. "Right now, both of our societies exist in a state of, 'You're different, and that's scary'. That keeps us paranoid and prone to violence. But what if we could tweak our natural instincts? What if instead, we could change it to, 'You're different, and that's interesting'?
"...'You're different, and that's kinda fun'?
"...'You're different, and that's beautiful'?"
Tycho angrily raised his hand. "You're saying 'why can't we all just get along', but you also say it'll never change that Preds like you kill us! That can't work!"
"As things are right now, you're absolutely right," she replied. "That's why it's going to take more than just philosophy. I'm glad you, Tycho, raised that point, because I read in my report that you are very interested in science. The GPA has developed some new technologies that we believe can change everything. Everything. Technologies that will allow all of us to be who we are without causing any more suffering. You'll see tomorrow, when I show you all the Rejuvenators."
That word sparked everyone's imaginations into overdrive. There was heavy skepticism, but if the thing was in any way worthy of its name...
Vera was glad to see the fascination in their eyes. "I think, on that rather tantalizing note, I'll let you go for the night. I have so much more to tell you, but it's all interconnected and if I let myself get started we'll be here till one o' clock in the morning. There'll be more time tomorrow, but for right now there's still boring old camp business to get to. Another GPA member's waiting outside to take you to the bunkhouse. After that it's dinnertime. I'm sure you're all getting hungry by now."
Mason hesitated a bit, then put his hand up.
"Yes, Mr. Kellway?"
"You mentioned the armbands," the deer said softly, looking down at his desk. "You said we could join the GPA. Does that... does that mean anytime?"
Vera was proud of the bravery it took to defy the rest of the group so openly. "Yes. Anytime."
The young buck stood up. He stared straight ahead, doing his best to ignore the stares from his classmates. Some looked repulsed. Some looked terrified for him, or simply baffled by his choice. It didn't matter. Peace, to him, was more important than his own life. And he didn't believe Lieutenant Vera could speak so eloquently about it and not be sincere.
He passed by Cody St. John's seat and could not resist whispering, "This is what happens when you try to make nice with the enemy. It works."
Cody was caught off guard and only managed to reply with a mumbled, "Your funeral."
Mason approached Vera's desk and she gestured for him to pick up the red GPA armband. He slipped it on carefully, giving this moment the dignity it deserved. He was defying his genus, his government and his classmates. Even his own parents. This was the most important moment of his life. It meant there was no turning back from his cause.
"Welcome, Mr Kellway," Vera said softly, patting him on the shoulder.
"Just tell me what I can do to help," he replied.
Scott's hand went up. "Um, can I upgrade my membership?"
This surprised no one.
Vera waved him over. "I'm sure I have another armband here somewhere."
Jayden called out, "Man, you motherfuckers must really want to get in that extra lunchline!"
The class broke up laughing. Mason winced, but Scott took it in stride. It was far from the worst thing he'd expected someone to shout at him for his decision. In truth, nothing mattered to him more than getting to know Gilda better. She was, quite literally, his dream come true.
Vera also let it slide. A joke was better than an accusation of being a race traitor. She addressed the whole class again, "I'll see you all tomorrow at ten A.M.! Or earlier if we happen to meet at dinner. I'm really hoping that you'll all enjoy your stay here. If you're curious or confused about anything at all, please ask someone. We want to be as open and honest as we can!"
As Cody and the others left their seats and headed for the door, he thought to himself, 'If you're lying, it's easy enough to test. And if you really do believe the bullshit you just fed us, then all that openness just means it'll be easier for me to find a way out of here.' He'd been thinking about what she said before, about not knowing if this was Pred or Prey territory. It made sense it'd be Pred. That meant he'd be escaping into enemy country. It was sobering to realize that he very likely wasn't going to get out of this alive. He might not ever see his father again. But it'd be worth it if he could reach a phone or a computer and tell someone about this place. He'd die happy if he knew the bomber jets would be on their way.
He might have simply left then, if not for the dumb-as-shit grin on Mason Kellway's face. He was standing beside that Pred bitch, looking like his birthday had come early. Cody headed for the desk, bumping classmates out of his way.
Vera saw him coming. This one was dangerous. The group as a whole seemed promising. Two joiners already was a good number, and many of the others seemed willing to listen. But this one...
The chipmunk looked directly into the vixen's eyes. "I know that everything you told us is a lie. I just want to know when we can expect to feel the knife slide in. While we're asleep? Or are you going to try to use us to get to our parents somehow?"
She didn't let him intimidate her. "I'm a bit too tired to slaughter you all tonight. How's tomorrow sound?"
Scott and Mason chuckled. Cody was not amused. "That's the first thing you've said so far that I've believed."
Well, humor didn't work. Vera addressed the chipmunk as professionally as she could. "Fine. You want to know our plans? You were right about us wanting to get to your parents. Minus the part about the knives, of course. Any of them would be a prime strategic target, and we're not hiding the fact that we hope to recruit as many of them as we can."
"You'll never have my father and you'll never have me," Cody said. He could feel the fire in his lungs. Her smugness was like a slap in the face. She didn't take him seriously, but she would.
She regarded him for a moment. It was clear this one was not to be underestimated. "That's your choice," she said simply.
Mason gave the chipmunk a dirty glare. "Poor Cody. Can't stand the thought that some of us don't want to solve the world's problems through genocide."
Cody looked at him coldly. "I don't want to wipe out the Preds. I just want them to stay in their place. You're welcome to join them. Nothing I could do to you will be worse than what they will. You really believe her about the special private bunk for joiners? That'll be her explanation for when none of us ever see you or Scott again. What do you want to bet that your private room has a meat grinder in it, and your custom-tailored uniform is made out of butcher paper?"
"Don't listen to him," Vera told Mason calmly.
Cody grinned at her. A grin of infinite contempt. "Aw, you don't like me warning them?" He turned back to his former classmates. "You really willing to trust her that much?"
"Please go," Vera asked, as politely as she could.
"Of course," Cody said as he took a step back. "Bon appetit."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Peace is worth the risk!" Mason called out firmly.
Cody turned away. "You keep telling yourself that," he said as he followed the last of the other kids out the classroom door.
Some of them were bunched up at the doorway in the nothing room. Cody pushed forward to see what was causing the bottleneck.
Standing just outside, chatting casually with the group, was the white fox. The leader of the Great Predator Army himself.