It was a relief to finally leave Mr Treene’s house.
Wilom had expected to go to the barracks within a day or two of being conscripted, but it turned out not to be that simple. He had had to organise some basic equipment, a uniform, a backpack that matched the regulation size and make.
Mr Treene had organised it all for him. He’d even supplied Wilom with a packed lunch made by his chef. It came with a little note of sympathy and encouragement from the chef inside it.
Wilom wasn’t sure how much he liked applying the concept of “kindness” to Mr Treene right then, but he had prevented Wilom from worrying about whether he’d need to buy his uniform from Cathlin, and he had provided somewhere to stay and asked no questions. Wilom supposed that might have been kind.
He did wish, though, that he could have seen Vanda before he left.
At the barracks, Wilom waited on the bench with his hands folded in his lap and his bag tucked under the bench behind his legs while he waited his turn. People passed, all in uniform, and looked over at him. The Ferryman’s Knowledge supplied him with their thoughts. There was the pity he had expected, but some feelings were more mixed than others. Among some of the career soldiers, there was something much more like resentment. It took him a moment to figure out why, and not much longer than that to decide he was done using the Ferryman’s Knowledge for a while.
He filled out another six or seven forms, including one that declared he had no other affiliation with Rytel or her company, and that he had thought his contract to do no work for a handsome salary was completely normal at the time. He signed a statement that he had only not reported the company because he was under duress to keep his salary, which was of course entirely from Rytel and the company, and none of it from the government and their completely fair conscription policies. It occurred to him that he probably ought to be more concerned about his role in what was very likely to happen to Rytel very soon. It also occurred to him that it likely didn’t matter whether he signed the piece of paper or not. He was only the last in a series of boxes to be checked, and had at not stage of the process been instrumental. Not even important.
He signed the papers, and was sent to a particular room with six beds. Four of them were freshly made, but the other two still had their pillows uncovered and sheets and blankets folded at the bottom of the bed. Wilom threw his bag onto the nearest one and sat down on the bed after it. He hadn’t been given any instructions for how he was to spend the rest of his day other than “No real point going to training now”.
He ate his lunch slowly, careful not to get any crumbs on the mattress or the floor. Mr Treene’s chef hadn’t done anything nearly so fancy as usual, but the bread had been fresh that morning, the meat was cut thick and the condiments were rustic and well-matched. It was a good, hearty sandwich and very tasty. Wilom crumpled up the bag it had come in and looked around, finding the trash bin, and throwing it in from the bed. It bounced on the rim and out onto the floor, and he stood up with a groan.
Outside, minds floated past, thinking of their training, aching muscles, the future, the past … Wilom at first tried to shut them out, but after a moment, he gave in and let them wash over him. What had shutting the Ferryman’s Knowledge out gotten him before? Peggy had been killed, their little village hadn’t just been destroyed, it had put a lot of people in danger and gotten Rytel killed — perhaps not yet, but it soon would have. The ferryman had said it pretty plainly when he’d been there last. What was the point in choosing to choose wrong?
Maybe it was time to just give in and try and get used to it. At the very least, the worst case scenario for using the Knowledge and not using it were approximately the same.
Wilom waited another moment on the bed, then decided that there might not be much point in him going to training, but there might be something to be gained from going to watch. He’d already gleaned that the rest of his assigned squad were supposed to be at the shooting range, so at least he didn’t go looking for them.
The uniform was uncomfortable and oddly mismatched. The trousers were stiff and felt like new fabric, as did the jacket. The shirt, however, was definitely second-hand, as judged by the neat patch and the little bit of dried blood still trapped in the seam of the cuff. He could feel it on the skin of his wrist as he pulled the shirt on. None of the clothes fit well — the trousers were the right width but made for someone several inches taller, and the jacket was a little tight across the shoulders. Mr Treene had asked for his measurements when he went to get the uniform, but obviously they’d been used as a guideline for the clothes that were already available and not completely ruined.
The shooting gallery was on the other end of the grounds from the dormitory halls, so Wilom got a nice long walk, past other squads training.
It was interesting — on the River, when things had first started, Wilom had gotten used to groups of fifteen, twenty, more. And they were just the ones who had died in the conflicts. All the squads he could see, with a few exceptions, were groups of six or fewer.
The contrast was stark. The small groups were cautious-looking, concentrating on what they were doing. They came in a range of ages and universally had a sort of nervousness around them, the feeling of someone who doesn’t know what they’re about to do but know it is dangerous. The groups of ten to fifteen had uniforms that fit, they did things in an unconscious unison. They fell into step without appearing to concentrate. When they stopped, they passed around plain, identical towels and bottles of water with a surety that indicated they knew exactly who owned each through little tells Wilom couldn’t see from this distance.
He tried not to draw too many parallels.
The shooting range only had one door. The man behind the desk looked confused as Wilom approached.
“They’re nearly done,” he said.
“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Wilom said.
The man behind the desk gave him a sympathetic look. Apparently not the first restless new arrival. He had Wilom sign in but didn’t let him sign for a gun, only instructing him to take a pair of the large, fabric-covered ear protectors and put them on before he entered the room.
He understood why as soon as he walked through. He’d never heard gunfire so close. It hurt even through the headphones.
There were four standing in place, one per booth, and the gates were padlocked, blocking any access to the end of the range where the targets were placed. Wilom got the picture, and made sure to keep well back from the booths.
The oldest man there, in a uniform that looked both well-worn and pristine, and had a series of symbols and shapes on the shoulder that Wilom didn’t recognise walked over with a long, precise stride and folded his arms.
Wilom assumed that this was Colonel Briar, that he was told would be in charge of his squad and a few others. He had been told that Colonel Briar was in charge of firearms training, but that he was also in charge of the disciplinary training of several squads, Wilom’s included. The Ferryman’s Knowledge supplied the Colonel’s weariness, resignation, and even a little frustration underneath his stern and impassive face.
Wilom saluted as best he could, and he saw Colonel Briar’s expression harden a little, and heard the wry joke about ‘rookies trying so hard’ float through his mind. Then Briar jerked his head towards a bench, indicating without needing to take his ear protection off or shout above the noise that Wilom should sit down there.
Wilom spent a moment scanning the backs of the four in the booths. It was hard to see the two on the ends without leaning, but he could see that one was a large man with skin so pale he had to be from the North. He stood braced, but Wilom could see in the stiffness of his body that he was not comfortable with the gun in his hand, despite his comparatively good technique.
The next man along in line was smaller, and his uniform fit even worse than Wilom’s, but it was pressed at crisp angles, as though he’d tried to make the best of it anyway. He stood in a textbook-perfect stance, but it was unpractised compared to the man next to him, who was nearly as tall as the Northerner, and who stood both upright and relaxed at the same time. The Ferryman’s Knowledge showed Wilom only a sense of focus, as though his mind was totally blank except for the gun in his hand and the target in front of him. The woman on the end was less tense then either the short man or the Northerner, at least in stance, but her mind was racing through checklists of the tiniest motions between each shot. For every shot she took, the practised man next to her took at least two.
In the booths next to the practised man and the Northerner were rifles, but the other two seemed only to have handguns.
In a moment, they were done firing, and Colonel Briar waited a moment, then took off his ear protectors. “One more! Harie, load!”
The practiced man picked up a magazine from the bench and reloaded the handgun in three or four quick movements.
“Javrinnen! Load!” the Colonel ordered, short and abrupt.
Wilom saw Javrinnen take a breath and reload her gun, too, slower, but precisely.
The Northerner, Firin, fumbled the gun in his haste a little, but the shorter man, Yolin, loaded the gun overconfidently, but capably enough. Wilom got the impression that Yolin had been practising out of hours so as not to make a mistake in front of the Colonel.
The Colonel watched them empty their guns again, impassive. Wilom watched him and the Ferryman’s Knowledge informed him that the Colonel was refraining from passing judgement on the gunwork.
They finished, the ear protectors came off again. The Colonel distributed a few terse instructions and dismissed them back to the training tracks for a last session before dinner. He pushed Wilom out after them with a terse, “Introduce yourself on the way. And try to keep up.”
Wilom appreciated the discreetness — he wasn’t sure being asked to recite his name, age and one interesting fact about himself was really his speed on that particular day.