Lisa KS, one of my fellow PABs, would also like to put her story up to the cold, calculating stare of the internet. So, without further ado: The Wall.
Look, said one of Joni's squadmates, elbowing her sharply in the ribs. Look at him! Joni looked, past the pointing finger to the object of its focus. At first she saw nothing out of the ordinary: a recruit, a noob by the looks of his half-mown skull and skeletal frame, standing just inside the mess hall entrance. He did look even sicker than usual—her attention sharpened as she realized what it was about him that gave that impression, and her squadmate hissed into her ear again—Ain't never seen anybody that white!
He was white. He was white as a bleached sheet, white as the moon—Joni watched him sidle over to the food line; he was elbowed aside and stepped back after a moment, then tried again. He was allowed to stay that time, but now that she was paying attention, Joni noticed that he was standing in line with vets. Not noobs. She didn't have to try to remember if she ever did that, fresh out of training; she hadn't. Like everyone else, she had stuck with her own cycle. That first group that had shoved him back out of line—her eyes tracked them farther up and found them—noobs. Probably his noobs.
It happened that way sometimes, that everybody in a cycle took a dislike to one in particular. It wasn't often—it hadn't happened in Joni's cycle, two years ago—and she had only heard of it happening once since, though it might've happened more; she didn't pay much attention to the noob cycles. The one she'd heard of hadn't made it out of training. Accidents happened.
He looked like a corpse shuffling along in a line with the living. Joni tried to concentrate on her food—she had a shift outside coming up—but her attention kept wandering back to him. He didn't sit with any noobs, either—which meant he couldn't sit with anybody, and he ate standing up, next to the disposals. A few other people did too; somebody was always running late or in a hurry for some other reason. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he finished up, dumped his tray and walked quickly out the door. Then she forgot about him.
* * * * *
Joni stood in formation with the rest of the squad, idly wondering what the day would bring—she was reasonably sure they wouldn't have to go outside again til next week at the earliest, and therefore didn't really care what assignment the squad pulled—when the platoon sergeant came striding into the briefing bay, the white noob of the day before trailing at his heels. Joni stared. The platoon sergeant rarely came to squad briefings. He certainly didn't escort noobs around the barracks. But there he was, and so was the noob.
He didn't leave them in suspense long. "Shut up," he advised, though the entire squad already had as soon as he'd entered, in unison as if slapped in its collective face. "This is Barkley. He's new. Treat him right." The platoon sergeant glanced down at his clipboard. "Johnson. He's yours. You're on garbage patrol. Take him with you, then get him settled down for the night."
He left. The noob walked over and stood gingerly at Joni's left shoulder. An explosive snort of laughter from in front of her woke her up sufficiently to wipe the horrified expression off her face and roughly settle the noob—Barkley—into proper position beside her. She didn't look at his face, but he was compliant enough; his uniform shirt, rough under her palms, felt like anyone else's. She stared straight ahead through the squad sergeant's arrival and assignments and token lecture on behavior, then motioned him to follow her with a jerk of her head. She was aware of the stares directed at her back and hated them, though she made a conscious effort not to hate the noob. It might not be his fault, the way his cycle obviously was about him, even his presence here. She preferred to reserve judgement.
Even if it killed her. She grimly ignored the catcalls and snickers as she marched the noob to her room; she'd known she was going to get a new roommate sooner than later, nobody ever got to keep a single for long.
His gear was strewn across her bed. She took a deep breath, turned, and met the noob's stare head-on. He was staring. She managed not to glare back. "That's the open bed," she said, civilly, and nodded at the unoccupied bunk a few feet away. He gathered up his belongings, neatly enough, and carried them over and began stowing them away. Joni gave up any pretense of doing anything else and just sat cross-legged on her mattress and watched.
He didn't look particularly weak, and at least he wasn't so hesitant now as he tucked his gear in the wall locker beside the bed. His bed. She swallowed a sigh. Best to get everything out in the open up front—"Barkley," she said. He turned, a little too quickly. His eyes were large and hazel-brown. His hair was hazel-brown too; lots of people had that color hair, that color eyes. It was just his skin, that dead white-on-white that drew the eye, that unsettled. "What's your problem?"
"What?" he said. The word was toneless, his face expressionless—not like a deliberate mask, just a shocked-numb one.
"Why are you here?"
He paused, inhaled. "I was assigned here—"
"Don't," said Joni conversationally. "I saw you in the mess hall yesterday." He flinched. "Why are you here?"
Something went out of him, maybe fight, maybe just fear; his shoulders sagged and he sat down heavily on his new bed. His eyes never left her face but the tension around them, and in his mouth, relaxed. "I guess it doesn't matter," he said. "I'm stuck here now. You can do what you want to me."
She didn't want to—it would probably scare him all over again—but she couldn't help quirking her mouth up at him. He was noob-skinny and noob-ignorant; she'd been out on the perimeter for over two years; there was no question who'd come out on top if they got into it—but still—"You're a foot taller than me," she remarked. "It'd look funny."
He clearly couldn't believe she was joking, even a little, so she stopped. He was still a very unknown quantity anyway; it'd be sick if she let her sense of humor get her hurt. "Talk," she said. "Why…are…you…here?"
"They were probably going to kill me," he said. He took a deep breath. "They—figured out I'm different. Not exactly how, but they hate it." Another deep breath. "I don't blame them."
I would, Joni thought. Her eyes narrowed. "Why not?"
Now he did look a little scared, though she thought he was trying not to show it. "I'm not from the inner city," he said finally.
Joni felt stupid. Of course he wasn't. A piece fell into place, one of the ways he had—
that careful way he had of speaking—they all had to speak properly, of course, around sergeants and officers, and Joni had adopted some of it as a matter of course because she didn't care enough to maintain the speech patterns of her birth. But he was being careful not to sound more proper than he had to.
"It isn't just that," Joni said—involuntarily; she had spoken her thoughts more aloud than she'd intended. He was very tense now, and still. "What else?"
"Nobody knows anything else."
Normally, she'd have dropped whatever line of questioning she was engaging in right there. People's business was their own past a certain point. But her self-preservation instincts were fully engaged now; he was her roomie and more, had been assigned to her specifically; they were going to be associated together now in the minds of everyone else, and damned if she was going to end up dead without knowing why. Or, more likely, find herself having to arrange an accident for someone else without knowing why. Instead, she shook her head, and forced her face into a hard, dangerous mask. It wasn't natural to her, but it was effective, she knew. "No," she said. "You'd best tell me." She took a chance. "This is your last stop, isn't it? On the one-way train to hell. This doesn't work out for you, nobody's going to care why."
She'd hit home; that was obvious. He stood up; so did she. He really was unusually tall, but so fine-boned it wasn't obvious without standing right next to him. She was only a few feet away from him now, but she didn't feel threatened. She felt like she could break him in half instead, and the feeling made her nauseous. "Maybe you'll kill me instead," he said.
She jerked back; she couldn't help it. "No," she said. "I won't. Not if whatever it is won't hurt or kill me first." What was wrong with him? A disease? They wouldn't have let him in the militia if he had something communicable—
"I'm not from the inner city," he said again, and then, "I'm not from the outer neighborhoods, either."
Joni stared at him. There was nowhere else to be from and be here.
"—I'm from the towers," he said. His tone was weirdly conversational.
"You're crazy!" It was horrible though, how the idea made sense, how it fit in with everything about him—
"No," he said. "Or yes, for coming here."
* * * * *
They pulled garbage patrol for the next two days, she and Barkley; he was docile and uncomplaining, although she was careful not to give him an unfair share of the work in either direction. Two or three times she had been tempted to push him into doing something really crappy—it was when she believed his astonishing assertion the most that she was seized with those sudden desires to order him to do something she knew he shouldn't be doing. Garbage patrol was one of the easiest jobs there was inside, but there were still a few parts that weren't really safe. Nobody gave noobs those parts; it was pointless cruelty, and for those who weren't adverse to pointless cruelty, it was a waste of future resources that might someday save their own hides. Still, a few times, she had felt like doing it. It took her a long way towards understanding why his cycle hadn't wanted him around. They obviously hadn't figured out his real secret—he really would have been dead already—but they'd sensed enough, smelled enough of it to hate him anyway.
Off-day rolled around and Joni dragged him out of the barracks and into the perimeter town for a break. He hadn't wanted to go, though he never came out and said so; it was just like tugging and cajoling at a reluctant rock. However, Joni had perfected the art of uncomprehending denseness herself years before and wasn't about to be outdone by an amateur. After kicking him into the changing closet with a set of civ clothes that were more boring than the most boring civ clothes she'd ever seen in her life, she changed herself and waited until he tentatively emerged and walked over to stand in front of her.
He looked like a sickly noob in boring civ clothes, and even whiter than usual. She sighed. "C'mon," she said. "Let's go."
"Joni," he said. She stopped moving toward the door, startled. He hadn't addressed her even as Johnson since the day they'd met. He must have overheard somebody else calling her that. "Joni, I don't want to go."
"Yeah, I figured that out." They stared at each other in silence. Finally, she said, "I do want to go out. I need to. I hate this room, sometimes."
Whatever else he was, he wasn't stupid. He had to know she couldn't just leave him there alone, not when they'd just been assigned together. Not if he didn't want to be a target all over again. She tried to read his face, his eyes, but still couldn't. It was enough, though, that he relaxed his stance and when she stepped toward the door again, he followed.
She didn't take him to where the squad usually hung out; she wasn't quite ready for that. There were a lot of places in the perimeter town to go, to drink, to just forget life for a little while—she took him to one of those, barely more than a hole with three walls and only half a roof; fairly packed already but she found an unoccupied corner and dialed up two beers from the tiny table dispenser. The music wasn't much more than a heavy beat with a periodic wail like a feral cat's. Joni liked it; it was ugly and mindless and soothing. Like the beer. She finished her first and ordered a second.
Barkley took small sips of his, steadily. She wasn't sure exactly when they started talking, except that it was sometime into her third beer. She thought he was on number two, though it was hard to tell at the rate he drank. She was a little high; maybe he was too. He was smiling occasionally now, and it made his face entirely different. Beautiful—if he'd been a girl, and not so eerily pale, he really would have been beautiful, with his fine and perfectly symmetrical features, full lips and big hazel eyes. She firmly pushed that observation away. That was trouble of the absolute last kind she needed.
Hours later it was his turn to steer her, back to the barracks. The corridors were mostly deserted, and the few people still in them were far too drunk to care what they looked like. Still, it struck her as extremely funny that their usual roles were reversed; she tried to explain that to him, in-between fits of the giggles, but he either didn't understand her or didn't find it as funny as she did.
Back in the room and sitting on their beds, cross-legged and facing each other—like two Buddhas she had seen once at a bazaar in the inner city. She smiled.
"How old are you?" he asked suddenly. She blinked hard at him, trying to steady her focus. He was blurred at the edges; it made him glow a little, like her initial fancy of him in the mess hall line, the first time she'd seen him.
"What?" she said, then focused on the question. "Oh. I don't know. They give you a birthday after your medical exam. You know." She peered at him across the few feet separating them, then remembered. It sobered her up a little. "I guess you do know yours, huh? They didn't have to give you one?"