Zoe's Tale (Chapter Fifteen)
Early mornings: physical conditioning.
"You are soft," Hickory said to me and Gretchen the first day.
"Despicable lies," I said.
"Very well," Hickory said, and pointed to the tree line of the forest, at least a klick away. "Please run to the forest as quickly as you can. Then run back. Do not stop until you return."
We ran. By the time I got back, it felt like my lungs were trying to force themselves up my trachea, the better to smack me around for abusing them. Both Gretchen and I collapsed into the grass gasping.
"You are soft," Hickory repeated. I didn't argue, and not just because at the moment I was totally incapable of speaking. "We are done for today. Tomorrow we will truly begin with your physical conditioning. We will start slowly." It and Dickory walked away, leaving Gretchen and me to imagine ways we were going to murder Hickory and Dickory, once we could actually force oxygen back into our bodies.
Mornings: school, like every other kid and teen not actively working in a field. Limited books and supplies meant sharing with others. I shared my textbooks with Gretchen, Enzo, and Magdy. This worked fine when we were all speaking to each other, less so when some of us were not.
"Will you two please focus?" Magdy said, waving his hands in front of the two of us. We were supposed to be doing calculus.
"Stop it," Gretchen said. She had her head down on our table. It had been a hard workout that morning. "God, I miss coffee," she said, looking up at me.
"It would be nice to get to this problem sometime today," Magdy said.
"Oh, what do you care," Gretchen said. "It's not like any of us are going to college anyway."
"We still have to do it," Enzo said.
"You do it, then," Gretchen said. She leaned over and pushed the book toward the two of them. "It's not me or Zoe who has to learn this stuff. We already know it. You two are always waiting for us to do the work, and then just nodding like you actually know what we're doing."
"That's not true," Magdy said.
"Really? Fine," Gretchen said. "Prove it. Impress me."
"I think someone's morning exertions are making her a little grumpy," Magdy said, mockingly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.
"It means that since the two of you started whatever it is you're doing, you've been pretty useless here," Magdy said. "Despite what Gretchen the Grump is hinting at, it's the two of us who have been carrying the two of you lately, and you know it."
"You're carrying us in math?" Gretchen said. "I don't think so."
"Everything else, sweetness," Magdy said. "Unless you think Enzo pulling together that report on the early Colonial Union days last week doesn't count."
"That's not 'we,' that's Enzo," Gretchen said. "And thank you, Enzo. Happy, Magdy? Good. Now let's all shut up about this." Gretchen put her head back down on the table. Enzo and Magdy looked at each other.
"Here, give me the book," I said, reaching for it. "I'll do this problem." Enzo slid the book over to me, not quite meeting my gaze.
"So, how is the training going?" Enzo asked me one early evening, catching me as I limped home from the day's workout.
"Do you mean, can I kill you yet?" I asked.
"Well, no," Enzo said. "Although now that you mention it I'm curious. Can you?"
"It depends," I said, "on what it is you're asking me to kill you with." There was an uncomfortable silence after that. "That was a joke," I said.
"Are you sure?" Enzo said.
"We didn't even get around to how to kill things today," I said, changing the subject. "We spent the day learning how to move quietly. You know. To avoid capture."
"Or to sneak up on something," Enzo said.
I sighed. "Yes, okay, Enzo. To sneak up on things. To kill them. Because I like to kill. Kill and kill again, that's me. Little Zoe Stab Stab." I sped up my walking speed.
Enzo caught up with me. "Sorry," he said. "That wasn't fair of me."
"Really," I said.
"It's just a topic of conversation, you know," Enzo said. "What you and Gretchen are doing."
I stopped walking. "What kind of conversation?" I asked.
"Well, think about it," Enzo said. "You and Gretchen are spending your afternoons preparing for the apocalypse. What do you think people are talking about?"
"It's not like that," I said.
"I know," Enzo said, reaching out and touching my arm, which reminded me we spent less time touching each other lately. "I've told people that, too. Doesn't keep people from talking, though. That and the fact that it's you and Gretchen."
"So?" I said.
"You're the daughter of the colony leaders, she's the daughter of the guy everyone knows is next in line on the colony council," Enzo said. "It looks like you're getting special treatment. If it was just you, people would get it. People know you've got that weird thing you have with the Obin – "
"It's not weird," I said.
Enzo looked at me blankly.
"Yeah, okay," I said.
"People know you've got that thing with the Obin, so they wouldn't think about it if it was just you," Enzo said. "But the two of you is making people nervous. People wonder if you guys know something we don't."
"That's ridiculous," I said. "Gretchen is my best friend. That's why I asked her. Should I have asked someone else?"
"You could have," Enzo said.
"Like who?" I said.
"Like me," Enzo said. "You know, your boyfriend."
"Yeah, because people wouldn't talk about that," I said.
"Maybe they would and maybe they wouldn't," Enzo said. "But at least I'd get to see you every once in a while."
I didn't have any good answer to that. So I just gave Enzo a kiss.
"Look, I'm not trying to make you feel bad or guilty or whatever," Enzo said, when I was done. "But I would like to see more of you."
"That statement can be interpreted in many different ways," I said.
"Let's start with the innocent ones," Enzo said. "But we can go from there if you want."
"And anyway, you see me every day," rewinding the conversation just a little. "And we always spend time together at the hootenannies."
"I don't count doing schoolwork together as time together," Enzo said. "And as much fun as it is to admire how you trained Hickory to imitate a sitar solo – "
"That's Dickory," I said. "Hickory does the drum sounds."
Enzo gently put a finger to my lips. "As much fun as it is," he repeated. "I'd rather have some time for just you and me." He kissed me, which was pretty effective punctuation.
"How about now?" I said, after the kiss.
"Can't," Enzo said. "On my way home to babysit Maria and Katherina so my parents can have dinner with friends."
"Waaah," I said. "Kiss me, tell me you want to spend time together, leave me hanging. Nice."
"But I have tomorrow afternoon free," Enzo said. "Maybe then. After you're done with your stabbing practice."
"We already did stabbing," I said. "Now we're on to strangulation."
"Joke," I said.
"I only have your word for that," Enzo said.
"Cute." I kissed him again. "See you tomorrow."
The next day training went long. I skipped dinner to head to Enzo's parents' homestead. His mother said he'd waited around, and then headed over to Magdy's. We didn't talk to each other much the next day during school.
"We have reached an agreement with Jerry Bennett to allow you to use the information center in the evenings twice a week," Hickory said.
I suddenly felt sorry for Jerry Bennett, who I had heard was more than a little terrified of Hickory and Dickory, and probably would have agreed to anything they asked just so long as they left him alone. I made a mental note to invite Bennett to the next hootenanny. There's nothing to make an Obin look less threatening than to see one in front of a crowd, bobbing its neck back and forth and making like a tabla drum.
Hickory continued. "While you are there, you will study the Colonial Union files of other sentient species."
"Why do you want us to learn about them?" Gretchen asked.
"To know how to fight them," Hickory said. "And how to kill them."
"There are hundreds of species in the Conclave," I said. "Are we supposed to learn about each of them? That's going to take more than two nights a week."
"We will be focusing on species who are not members of the Conclave," Hickory said.
Gretchen and I looked at each other. "But they're not the ones planning to kill us," Gretchen said.
"There are many trying to kill you," Hickory said. "And some may be more motivated than others. For example, the Rraey. They recently lost a war with the Enesha, who took control of most of their colonies before they were themselves defeated by the Obin. The Rraey are no longer a direct threat to any established race or colony. But if they were to find you here, there is no doubt what they would do."
I shuddered. Gretchen noticed. "You okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine," I said, too quickly. "I've met the Rraey before." Gretchen looked at me strangely but didn't say anything after that.
"We have a list for you," Hickory said. "Jerry Bennett has already prepared the files you have access to for each species. Take special note of the physiology of each race. This will be important in our instruction."
"To learn how to fight them," I said.
"Yes," Hickory said. "And to learn how to kill them."
Three weeks into our studies I pulled up a race who were not on our list.
"Wow, they're scary-looking," Gretchen said, looking over my shoulder after she noticed I had been reading for a while.
"They're Consu," I said. "They're scary, period." I handed my PDA over to Gretchen. "They're the most advanced race we know about. They make us look like we're banging rocks together. And they're the ones who made the Obin what they are today."
"Genetically engineered them?" Gretchen asked. I nodded. "Well, maybe next time they can code for personality. What are you looking at them for?"
"I'm just curious," I said. "Hickory and Dickory have talked to me about them before. They're the closet thing the Obin have to a higher power."
"Their gods," Gretchen said.
I shrugged. "More like a kid with an ant farm," I said. "An ant farm and a magnifying glass."
"Sounds lovely," Gretchen said, and handed back the PDA. "Hope I never get to meet them. Unless they're on my side."
"They're not on a side," I said. "They're above."
"Above is a side," Gretchen said.
"Not our side," I said, and switched the PDA back to what I was supposed to be reading.
Late evening: everything else.
"Well, this is a surprise," I said to Enzo, who was sitting on my doorstep as I came back from another thrilling night at the information center. "I haven't seen you too much recently."
"You haven't seen much of anybody recently," Enzo said, standing up to greet me. "It's just you and Gretchen. And you've been avoiding me since we broke up the study group."
"I'm not avoiding you," I said.
"You haven't been going out of your way to look for me," Enzo said.
Well, he had me there.
"I don't blame you for it," I said, changing the subject a little. "It's not your fault Magdy threw that fit of his." After several weeks of increased sniping, things between Magdy and Gretchen finally reached toxic levels; the two of them had a shouting match in class and Magdy ended up saying some fairly not forgivable things and then stomping off, Enzo trailing behind. And that was the end of our little band.
"Yeah, it's all Magdy's fault," Enzo said. "Gretchen's poking at him until he snapped didn't have anything to do with it at all."
Already this conversation had gone twice to places I didn't want it to go, and the rational part of my brain was just telling me to let it go and change the subject. But then there was the not quite rational part, which was suddenly getting really annoyed. "So are you hanging out on my doorstep just to dump on my best friend, or is there some other reason you dropped by?"
Enzo opened his mouth to say something, and then just shook his head. "Forget it," he said, and started to walk off.
I blocked his path. "No," I said. "You came here for a reason. Tell me what it is."
"Why don't I see you anymore?" Enzo said.
"Is that what you came here to ask me?" I said.
"No," Enzo said. "It's not what I came here to say. But it's what I'm asking you now. It's been two weeks since Magdy and Gretchen did their thing, Zoe. It was between the two of them, but I've hardly seen you since then. If you're not actually avoiding me, you're faking it really well."
"If it was between Gretchen and Magdy, why did you leave when he did?" I said.
"He's my friend," Enzo said. "Someone had to calm him down. You know how he gets. You know I'm his heat sink. What kind of question is that?"
"I'm just saying it's not just between Magdy and Gretchen," I said. "It's between all of us. You and me and Gretchen and Magdy. When was the last time you did anything without Magdy?"
"I don't remember him being there when we spend time together," Enzo said.
"You know what I mean," I said. "You're always following him, keeping him from getting hit by someone or breaking his neck or doing something stupid."
"I'm not his puppy," Enzo said, and for that minute he actually got a little angry. Which was new.
I ignored it. "You're his friend," I said. "His best friend. And Gretchen is mine. And right now our best friends can't stand the sight of each other. And that leaks into us, Enzo. Let me ask you, right now, how do you feel about Gretchen? You don't like her very much, do you?"
"We've had better days," Enzo said.
"Right. Because she and your best friend are at it. I feel the same way about Magdy. I guarantee you he feels the same way about me. And Gretchen isn't feeling very friendly to you. I want to spend time with you, Enzo, but most of the time, both of us are a package deal. We come with our best friends attached. And I don't want the drama right now."
"Because it's easier just not to bother," Enzo said.
"Because I'm tired, Enzo," I said, spitting out the words. "Okay? I'm tired. Every morning I wake up and I have to run or do strength exercises or something that tires me out right after I've gotten out of bed. I'm tired before the rest of you are even awake. Then school. Then an entire afternoon of getting physically beat up in order to learn how to defend myself, on the chance some aliens want to come down here and kill us all. Then I spend my evenings reading up on every single race out there, not because it's interesting, but just in case I need to murder one of them, I'll know where its soft spots are. I hardly have time to think about anything else, Enzo. I am tired.
"Do you think all of this is fun for me? Do you think it's fun for me not to see you? To spend all my time learning to hurt and kill things? Do you think it's fun for me that every single day I get my nose rubbed in the fact there's a whole universe out there just waiting to murder us? When was the last time you thought about it? When was the last time Magdy thought about it? I think about it every day, Enzo. My time is spent doing nothing but. So don't tell me that it's just easier for me not to bother with the drama. You have no idea. I'm sorry. But you don't."
Enzo stared at me for a minute, and then reached over to wipe my cheeks. "You could tell me, you know," he said.
I laughed a small laugh. "I don't have time," I said. That got a smile from Enzo. "And anyway, I don't want you to worry."
"It's a little late for that," Enzo said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's all right," he said.
"I miss it, you know," I said, wiping my own face. "Spending time with you. Even when it meant spending time with Magdy. I miss having the time to really talk to you. I miss watching you fail at dodgeball. I miss you sending me poems. I miss all of it. I'm sorry that we've gotten mad at each other lately, and that we didn't do something to fix it. I'm sorry and I miss you, Enzo."
"Thank you," Enzo said.
"You're welcome," I said.
We stood there for a minute, looking at each other.
"You came here to break up with me, didn't you," I said, finally.
"Yeah," said Enzo. "Yeah, I did. Sorry."
"Don't be," I said. "I haven't been a very good girlfriend."
"Yes you have," Enzo said. "When you've had the time."
Another shaky laugh from me. "Well, that's the problem, isn't it," I said.
"Yes," Enzo said, and I know he was sorry he felt he had to say it.
And just like that my first relationship was over, and I went to bed, and I didn't sleep.
And then I got up when the sun came up and walked out to our exercise area, and started everything again. Exercise. School. Training. Study.
A very tiring time.
And this is how my days went, most days, for months, until we had been at Roanoke for almost an entire year.
And then things started happening. Fast.