“Hey Legs,” Rodney greets me for our morning run. I have prepared for this moment but my knees are still shaking a little.
“My name is Rio, Rodney. Don’t call me Legs.”
He stares at me, then shrugs. “Rio. Okay. I don’t really give a shit.”
What a mentor, right? But I’m thrilled because I suddenly do give a shit. The words people say to me and use against me matter, and I’m done pretending otherwise.
We break into our typical tortured run but today, I don’t care how slow we are, I don’t care that Rodney always leads, I don’t care that the streets turn into living cemeteries with people playing dead while we pass through, I don’t even care that we’ve run this same route so often I could do it blindfolded and in my sleep. I’m a Mexican gimp with two strong legs on which I’m learning to stand up for myself. Nothing can ruin this feeling, I think.
I’m daydreaming scenarios in which I confront FL Stewart with my new opinions on words and labels, when I spot them: A swarm of kids – teenagers? – sitting on the front porch of a gutted house up ahead. The kids are street skinny but the rotting porch bows under their combined weight. They’re staring at us. They begin moving down the steps as if to intercept us, which can’t be the case because that would be supremely stupid. It would be asking for trouble.
Rodney finally looks up and sees them. He stops and reaches for the taser at his hip while I bite my lip to keep from calling out but this time, my sympathy is misplaced. Within a heartbeat they charge us, grabbing, jerking, restraining us both.
I’m on the ground. My arms are pinned to the road, a kid on each bicep. But they’re not looking at me. I realize no one is looking at me, so I stop struggling.
A few feet away lies Rodney. Like me, two kids sit on his arms, another two on his legs, and three crowd around his head, staring. He’s screaming nonsense at them, spitting and cursing and arching his back as if he had the strength of seven underfed kids. The kids all are unmoved. Silent.
One kid kicks Rodney in the ribs, a quick jab that leaves him stunned, gasping for breath. Then the three get to work stripping him of his taser, gun, rubber bullets, zip-tie handcuffs, shoes, pants, even his comms bracelet. One of the kids – a girl with short hair – stands over his chest. I realize with a jolt that she is the girl Rodney tased. As I watch, she points the taser directly at his chest and pulls the trigger. The kids jump back. His screams cut off abruptly. His body is taut, fingers curled like claws, eyes wide and unseeing. After a few long heartbeats, her finger leaves the trigger. He moans and curls into the fetal position.
It takes me a few seconds to realize I’ve also been released. The kids busily gather Rodney’s things and within seconds, they disappear behind the blue house. But the girl with the taser, she doesn’t run. Still gripping the gun, she stands over Rodney, studying him for a moment, nudging him with her foot until he’s on his back again. Then she unhooks the nodes from his chest, and walks away. When she gets to the porch she turns back, looks me in the eye, and waves.
I call for non-emergency backup on my comms bracelet because I feel like I should but really, there’s nothing to back up. The streets around us are totally deserted – there’s not even one person playing dead in the street. It would be peaceful if it wasn’t so eerie.
“Do me a favor – let me do the talking.” Rodney hisses through clenched teeth when the retrieval team approaches us. His muscles are still spasming. Highers surround us, tear guns drawn, as a group of second- and third years lifts Rodney on a gurney and escort us the half mile back to base. FL Stewart is part of the rescue operation. I can tell we have become their “teaching moment.”
“What happened?” FL Stewart asks me. I can feel Rodney’s hard stare. slow my stride.
“We – ”
“We were attacked out of nowhere,” Rodney interrupts from the gurney.
“Did they approach from behind?”
“Yes. There must have been 20 of them,” he says.
There were nine of them.
“Any distinguishing characteristics?”
“All male, I’d say mid-20s.”
At least two were female. I doubt the kids who sat on me were even teenagers.
“They were waiting for us. This was a coordinated attack. They took me down first, incapacitated me, then tased me and took my weapons, shoes, everything.”
“How did they know you’d be here? Protocol dictates you randomize everything. Patterns are predictable.”
“I know that,” Rodney says. “Of course I know that. They must’ve been tracking us.”
“Did you attempt to outrun them?”
“No. I mean, I could outrun them but Legs – I mean Cadet Gonzales –”
“I’m faster than you. I could’ve outrun them,” I interrupt before I can stop myself.
“Did they tase you as well, Cadet Gonzales?” FL Stewart asks.
“No.” Maybe I should’ve lied but I can hardly keep up with Rodney’s lies.
“Why is that, do you think?”
Because they were children retaliating for an attack on one of their own.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I think you do,” he responds so quietly only I can hear.
Our party reaches the military gate and in the excited hubbub I ignore him. The base is on high alert because of my S-O-S; armed Peacekeepers crowd the parapets, the scopes of real rifles trained on the empty streets beyond us. It gives me a sick feeling inside, a dread that takes root and blooms deep in my guts, a suspicion that those children and I – nevermind Rodney, who is a total dip shit – can’t begin to understand the ramifications of what we’ve started.