Wilom didn’t introduce himself to the rest of the squad until after they’d left the training field, although most of his attention was taken up with trying not to wobble too much. He was sort of impressed by his ability to keep up — given that in the last almost-century he could count the number of times he’d moved faster than a walk on one hand. But he’d managed not to embarrass himself — he could at least keep up with Javrinnen and Yolin, even if he didn’t have a hope of matching Firin, who had the advantage of long legs, and Harie, who seemed to be able to turn off the parts of her brain that interacted with the outside word at will, if the Ferryman’s Knowledge had anything to go by.
As they did leave the field, Yolin clapped him on the shoulder. “Good job! That’s better than I did on my first day!”
Wilom’s conscious mind forgot to respond, as he felt Harie, without making any sign, turn her attention to the conversation happening behind her. He heard himself respond, “Thanks. I wasn’t expecting to do that well myself.”
Javrinnen dropped into step beside them. “Javrinnen,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Wilom,” Wilom responded, taking it. Her hands were about as shaky as his, and her grip seemed like it was trying to be a lot firmer than it ended up. She gave him an embarrassed smile.
He chuckled. “My hands feel like that, too, don’t worry.”
“They really don’t,” Javrinnen said. “Can I just tell myself you missed the morning training?”
“Sounds reasonable,” Wilom said.
“Truth is I’ve only been here three days longer than you,” Javrinnen said.
“I got here the day before that,” Yolin said.
“It sounds like there’s a lot of people coming through,” Wilom said.
Yolin shrugged. “Harie says it comes and goes. Seems like they cracked down on someone.”
“It happens sometimes,” Javrinnen said.
“You’ve been talking to people around here?” Wilom asked.
Javrinnen shrugged. “Wasn’t till I got here that they put us together as a squad. Yolin and I were both at a bit of a loose end for the first day.”
“Ah,” Wilom said.
“Hey, do you know who it was?” Yolin asked. “I was conscripted before any of it hit the news.”
Wilom took the opportunity to look uncomfortable. “It was … complicated. Something about a company that was a front.” He shrugged apologetically. “Sorry.”
Yolin looked like he was about to open his mouth to ask more questions, but Javrinnen cut in quickly. “We’ll find out soon,” she said. “You arrived this morning?”
Wilom nodded. “Closer to noon, really.”
Firin looked over his shoulder and gestured with his head. Javrinnen slapped Wilom on the shoulder. “Better catch up. The Colonel likes us to stick together.”
Wilom sped up nearly a full half-second behind Yolin, who was already hurrying to catch up before Javrinnen had finished the sentence. The conversation ended, and Wilom made no effort to start it again.
As Wilom and the others entered the mess hall to get dinner, Wilom found his head turning towards where the Colonel was sitting, just finishing his own meal and talking to three other officers. He couldn’t listen in from this distance, but he could feel the Ferryman’s Knowledge filling him in on a few of the details.
Colonel Briar was finding this the most interesting thing he’d been involved in for a while. One of the others was tired, willing to leave it to him. The third was engaged, but not invested. An undercurrent of something — dissatisfaction? But that was present for most everybody around here at the moment.
As the Ferryman’s Knowledge continued to rattle off details, Wilom put together that the group was planning something together involving Wilom’s squad and one of the others. The other was likely far more experienced.
Then Wilom was broken out of that train of thought by Javrinnen thrusting a tray at him. He took it and mumbled a thank you. She followed his eyes and frowned at him. “Everything alright?”
“Fine,” Wilom said. “Just lost in thought.”
The line moved up and as she was being served a gigantic plate of pasta without nearly enough sauce, Javrinnen felt for a moment like she was about to say something, but she didn’t turn to him and she didn’t open her mouth, so Wilom didn’t say anything either. He just received his plate of questionable pasta and moved along to get his requisite portion of a carrot dish and his chunk of chocolate. He filled up the largest cup of water available before going to sit with the rest of the group.
Wilom let his mouth talk for him at first, while he tried to listen in to the conversation behind him, fruitlessly. There were just too many other people in the room.
He did, however, notice the squad chatting at the table behind them. They were concentrating only on the conversation. Cups passed between them wordlessly. There was a sense of relief among them, not enough to entirely dispel the underlying tension. But as they talked, Wilom heard them falling into their roles in the conversation. Joke-maker, tension-breaker, peace-keeper. It was unconscious and practised.
He turned back to the conversation to catch the tail end of a joke that he was telling the others. They were shaking their heads at him. He hadn’t even come in early enough to tell exactly which story he was recounting to them.
He tried not to let the sudden realisation show on his face. Even though his attention returned to his own squad, he let the Ferryman’s Knowledge operate his mouth. Talking himself would have meant thinking, and he wasn’t sure he was up to much more of that just then.
2 thoughts on “The Other Squad”