Hooky

By A. Taylor

            “Jack, this is stupid.” Ben, just under five-feet-four inches, swept his head to the left and right. His stringy red bangs swished in front of his eyes as he kept a lookout for any cadets late for class, or officers on duty, sweeping the grounds for stragglers. Bringing up one hand, he combed the bangs back, to keep a clear view. “We could get in so much trouble for skipping class. And if we get caught by the General, we’re dead.”

            “Relax, Ben.” Jack jumped, pushing off the gritty ground, reaching for the lowest branch of the biggest sycamore tree that demarcated the Sixteen training yards, known as the Jungle, from the rot yards. “It’s not like anyone will even notice we’re gone.”

            Jack had a point. No one mentioned anything the last time they’d ditched school, missing weapons maintenance. But something about spying on the Sixteens on the day they were supposed to practice with real live Rotters was riskier than any hooky Ben and Jack had done before. But, since Ben wasn’t very good at standing up to his best friend, he’d whine and complain as much as he could along the way to show his uneasiness. And in the end, Jack would prevail. He was very persuasive.

            “Anyway,” Jack continued with a heave, finally clasping onto the low branch and pulling himself up, “we’re almost sixteen. If anyone finds us we’ll just say the General wanted you to get a head start on your training, and he asked me to supervise.”

            Yeah, whatever. The General, the head Gov personnel at Fort Bliss, was also Ben’s disapproving and distant father, always too busy training Sixteens and older, in military combat and extinction against the Rotters to reveal any real interest in Ben. And despite what Jack said, the General would just as quickly whip Ben and Jack to the bone for skipping school if he thought they, or anyone else, were breaking rules that put the base and its operations at risk.

            “But this isn’t like we’re skipping class to skinny dip in the base’s water tank,” Ben said with a grunt, leaping up to grab Jack’s outstretched arms reaching down to help him up into the tree. “We could be court martialed for witnessing the Sixteens’ training before we’re supposed to.”

            “But don’t you want to see how they take a Rotter down?” Jack let out an exasperated breath at Ben’s skittishness, then released Ben’s hand once Ben stood firmly on the branch. “This could put us ahead of the rest of our class.” Jack then pulled himself up to the next branch, looking back over his shoulder and said, “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

            At the moment Ben’s sense of adventure was trying to not fall fifteen, now twenty, now twenty-five plus feet to the sandy hard ground below as he mirrored Jack’s every step and hold. He hoped sooner than later that Jack would stop climbing, saying they’d reached high enough to look over the cement retainer walls of both the training yards and the rot yards. Because the higher thy climbed the worse Ben’s stomach felt, and he realized as the nausea increased that he was afraid of heights.

            But not knowing how to voice his thoughts, Ben kept his silence noticing how the trunk narrowed in size the further up they went. Yet, putting all of his concentration into each step and grab, rather than the squeamishness of his insides, he realized he couldn’t argue with Jack’s reasoning. If today’s hooky gave them an edge to their future Rotter training, then maybe it wasn’t so bad, especially if it made the General take notice of Ben in a good way, and not in an “I’m-going-to-throw-you-to-the-Rotters” way.

            “This is as high as we go,” Jack finally said, stopping when he’d reached a branch that reached about twenty-five feet, right above where the cement walls of the training and rot yards met. “Let’s crawl out and discover what’s below.” Kneeling down he began creeping on his hands and knees, grabbing onto side limbs and green leaves to keep his balance. “Come on,” he said, swiveling his head back over his shoulder motioning with a nodded wave for Ben to follow.

            Ben looked at the branch uncertainly, irked at Jack’s confidence. The branch’s width didn’t look strong enough to hold both of their weight.

            “Are you sure this thing won’t break?” Ben leaned against the trunk, with his hands pressed flat against the rough bark near his thighs. “Why don’t you look first and then I’ll take a turn?”

            “Oh, seriously, Ben! We’ll be fine.” As if to prove his point Jack began rocking his body up and down, shaking some of the limbs gripped in his hands, causing the branch to sway up and down like small swells on a body of water.

            “Stop it!” Ben sat down abruptly, straddling and hugging the thick branch, praying it wouldn’t break from his added weight and Jack’s up and down motions.

            “See?” Jack’s voice oozed assurance and a bit of impatience. “We’re totally safe. Now hurry the rot up or we’ll miss something important.”

            Still scared to death, but not wanting his fear to rule him, or for Jack to think he was a total baby, Ben raised his head a smidge, his eyes zeroing in on the peeling bark in front of his eyes and began scooting forward timidly one inch at a time. He swung one leg and then the other over any side limb that got in his way, and each movement made the large branch sway even more, causing Ben to pause. He was sure the branch was going to break any moment, making them fall to their death, or worse, to have to face the wrath of the General for rotting up his perfect system.

            But then Jack’s awed voice, reaching back to Ben through the whispering leaves, tamped down Ben’s fears, poking his curiosity. “The General’s in the Jungle with a bunch of Sixteens all rotted up for action.” Jack gazed through the branches they sat on.

            Ben inched forward even more, not realizing he muttered, “Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall,” as he scooted right up next to Jack’s back.

            “Shhh!” Jack hissed, unwilling to turn his head from the scene of discipline and armored Sixteens beneath him, “or we won’t be able to hear what the General’s saying.”

            Looking over Jack’s shoulders and down through the pushed aside leaves and limbs, Ben saw the General pacing back and forth, kicking up plumes of dust with each step, around the middle of a circle of Sixteens, who were covered from head to foot in combat gear.

            “In just a few clicks the retainer door will unlock and open, and we’ll be engaging in real combat with Rotters.” The General pointed to the south end of the training yard.

            A soft murmur ran around the circle, and the Sixteens began to shift from one foot to the other as they looked in the direction the General motioned.

            Simultaneously Ben and Jack leaned forward to see if they could catch sight of the retaining lock, but the branch they sat on was directly above the cement walls of both the training yard and the rot yard, blocking their view of the steel encased sliding panel. Imagining what the door looked like though, and where it led, Ben scanned the cement wall, dragging his eyes even further to the right, where, after pushing aside some more branches, he poked Jack in the ribs, drawing his attention to the opposite side of the retaining wall below them.

            “Holy. Mother. Rotters!” Jack cursed, as they took in the rot yard for the first time, which held about one-hundred or so Rotters of all different heights and sizes, standing motionless in large clumps, looking for all the world like sleeping upright corpses.

            Seeing the Rotters seemed to heighten their other senses, and Ben and Jack put a hand to their noses as a sudden onslaught of reek and ruin rising from the rot yard reached them.

            “Well, besides possible dying from the stench,” Jack said with a muffled laugh, “at least we know that roof will save us if this branch breaks and falls toward the rot yards.” Jack pointed with his free hand to a metal chain-linked fence roof that attached all the way around the top of the cement retainer walls of the rot yard, creating a circular flat roof.

            “Why would you even say that, Jack?” Ben spat with disgust, as his heartbeat spiked in fear from the image in his mind of them falling through the leaves onto the fence roof. Then he released the limbs that gave them a view of the rot yard, as though to hide the Rotters from his eyes. “That’s not even funny to think about.”

            But Jack seemed to dismiss Ben’s fear as he smiled a wicked grin and pointed back to the training yard where the General said to the Sixteens, “This is no time to rot yourselves,” while he walked around the perimeter of the circle of Sixteens, looking each in the face as though trying to command their calm. “You’ve trained for this, and you gear is impossible to penetrate. So, even if a Rotter gets its hands on you, nothing will happen.” The General let his words sink in, as though reminding the Sixteens that fear was their true enemy.

            “However,” the General continued, pointing at the assault rifle slung over his shoulder and then at a circular stand that reached around the perimeter of the yard, raised off the ground by ten feet where a scattered group of advanced soldiers stood every five feet, each with a similar weapon slung over their shoulders, “if anything gets out of hand, we’ll take care of the Rotters.”

            “This is so cool!” Jack said, twisting the top half of his body around to shake Ben’s shoulders. The movement rocked the branch, and Ben bent forward, clinging to the tree.

            “Would you stop that?” Ben hissed, but Jack shook his head and mumbled something like, “such a Rotter” before turning back and focusing on the training yard, anxious to see what would happen next in the primed arena below

            “Remember what you’ve learned.” The General’s words pinged off the cement walls, echoing up to Ben and Jack while the General exited the circle of Sixteens, heading for the stairs that led to the raised stand, to join his other officers.

            Reaching the top of the stand the General gave a few last commands. “Don’t engage unless attacked. But if you are attacked aim for the head. It’s the fastest way to take a Rotter down.”

Then he nodded to one of the men next to him who held a black device, shaped like palm-sized rectangle. At a push of a button a high-pitched noise, of metal on metal grating against the cement floor and metal tracks, screeched all around the training yard and up into the tree.

            “What the rot is that?” Jack strained his neck down closer to the branches in below him, trying to locate the source of the metal screams.

            “I think it’s the metal lock opening between the training yard and the rot yard,” Ben said, remembering a conversation he’d once overheard late one night when he was supposed to be asleep but instead was kept awake from the voice of the General explaining to a visiting military official in the study of their home on base the steel mechanism that kept the Rotters separated from the Sixteen training yard.

“Are you kidding?” Jack’s high-pitched question oozed awe, his eyes popping wide, as he stared down in heightened excited at the Sixteens in the middle of the training yard, waiting in fear and pumped anticipation for the Rotters to make an attack.

But Ben turned his head away from the training yard, back to the Rotter yard to see how the metal screeches of the affected the Rotters.

            They no longer stood in silent clumps but faced the direction of the training yard, rocking back and forth in hurried motions, as though primed as one massive body to race into the Sixteen training yard and take the Sixteens down. And as the grating noise began to peek, as though the lock was almost completely open, Ben heard a deep rumbling accompany the Rotters’ rocking.

            Then, as the screeching metal stopped, the Rotters swayed forward like a wave, faster than Ben would have believed, compelled forward as one, even though not all of them would fit through the opening of the tunnel, probably bottlenecking at some point.

            Ben swiveled his head back to look down with Jack upon the Sixteens in the training yard, expecting to see a pack of Rotters running full speed at the Sixteens. But the Sixteens stood still as killing stones, aiming their weapons at blank space, waiting for an enemy to appear, though fear which seemed frightened to appear.

            Anticipatory stillness settled on the Sixteens, reaching on up into the tree. And as if to make something happen, Jack and Ben stood up, holding on to higher limbs and leaves for balance. Ben knew the branch might not be able to hold their standing weight, but his curiosity to get a better view at the possible action below dismissed his misgivings.

            Then, before Ben could even identify what had occurred, a single blur of movement rushed toward the Sixteens. One of the Sixteens fell backward onto the ground from the weight of the Rotter now straddling the Sixteen’s chest, its head buried in the space between the Sixteen’s should and head, as though trying to find purchase for its teeth to clamp down.

            The rest of the Sixteens jumped away from their fallen Sixteen, staring in immobile fear. Then one of them raised his gun and shot the Rotter in the side of the head, barely missing the Sixteen below. The Rotter’s body thumped forward and then rolled to the side, it’s mouth still clamped upon the folds of impenetrable material bunched at the Sixteen’s next.

            Ten more Rotters came barreling out of the tunnel, but this time the Sixteens were ready and took aim, dropping the Rotters to the ground before they could even get close.

            The noise from the guns rocked Ben’s and Jack’s ears, and Ben wondered why he hadn’t heard the Sixteen’s training before today. Surely, he would have heard these gun shots when he was inside his weapon’s maintenance class.

            More Rotters came toward the Sixteens, and as the sound of shots began cracking and plowing into Rotter flesh and Rotter bone, and one Rotter and then the other thumped to the gritty ground, Jack began jumping on the branch, chanting, “Rot those Rotters! Rot those Rotters!”

            Ben wanted to shush Jack, afraid that the General, the other soldiers, or one of the Sixteens would hear him and look up in the tree, or at least see the tree moving. But the reverberating ring of gun shots masked Jack’s chants. And Ben couldn’t deny that he himself was filled with the same sense of destructive lust, wanting to destroy the Rotters, witnessing them trying to infect or eat one of their own. And he found himself joining Jack, chanting along, “Rot those Rotters! Rot those Rotter!” while pushing his weight down upon the branch on which they stood, causing it to rise and fall.

            A screeching noise again reached up to the tree, signaling that the retaining lock was closing. And Ben wondered if any of the Rotter’s would be cut in half or crushed as the metal closed upon their bottlenecked rotted bodies, to prevent any more Rotters from entering the training yard.

            For the yard was now filled with Rotters, some running forward quickly, some creeping out of tunnel slowly, as though calculating what would be the best way to get its mouth filled with some fresh flesh. But the Sixteens were prepared now, with their backs pressed together in a circle, picking off one Rotter at a time that came too close.

            A sudden crack, as loud as any gunshot, and drop in the branch’s height caused Ben to lurch forward into Jack. And before Ben could grab onto more than the leaves in front of him Jack went crashing through the leaves and branches, falling down through the air in the direction of the hard ground of the training yard.

            As if in slow motion, Ben watched as Jack fell twenty-five feet toward the hard ground, screaming as he fell, drawing the attention of the Rotters and soldiers alike. More shots rang out, and Jack’s body jerked once then twice as fear-induced-trigger-happy bullets hit his body, where it had dropped on the hard ground with a thunk, buckling with arms and legs at odd angles.

            And as Ben clung to leaves and branches, trying to pull himself back up into the tree, while twisting his head backward to see if the Sixteens could protect his best friend, the Rotters converged in rapid succession upon Jack, as though realizing their need to feed and infect would be assuaged from this unexpected manna from above.

            As more shots and shouting rang out all around Ben, and the General’s voice bellowed loudest of all, screaming, “Civilians down. Terminate Rotters! Terminate Rotters!” the leaves and limbs began to slip from Ben’s hands.

            As the strength in his fingers and forearms gave out, and his body slipped, falling backward to the ground, Ben realized today’s hooky had made the General notice him. But he had to throw himself to the Rotters to do so.