Chapter 4: Powder Rocks

            It was another two hours of practice fighting—and a single loss—before the group went in for lunch. It was a relatively early time, but the level of physical exertion practiced by the Auxiliaries warranted four meals a day. To make way for a supper before dinner, lunch was at ten in the morning.

            Thoroughly exhausted, Simin and Alekos decided to delay heading to the lunch room and instead went to the bath house. They arrived in the sterile building, where only a few other soldiers were present. One tall blonde, however, stood far above the other two, and swiveled to meet the intruders.

            “Simin!” Andries’s voice was as booming as ever. “This girl beat the crap outta me today, boys. Watch out for her!” The two boys—they couldn’t have been older than Achilles—slowly trembled around. As they did, however, Simin quickly recognized that one was a girl. Cy’s terror was only matched by the boy’s next to her, who Simin only vaguely recognized, but her flat frame and still-childish complexion made Cy easy to mistake.

            “First day?” Alekos casually asked of the two as he walked into a stall. Simin simply started to scrub the dirt off her hands and arms, making sure to not meet the eyes of the jumpy squirrels.

            “That obvious?” Andries chuckled as he playfully slapped the boy’s shoulder. The black-stubbled boy let out a tiny shriek and jumped a foot in the air before returning to stock stillness. “I’m not gonna hurt you, little guy. You got Grigorios for that.”

            “Best of luck with him!” Simin let out a chuckle herself. “I knew an Auxiliary who came from Bronze who got him. He transferred to the Gold library, it got so bad.”

            “That was Leandra, right?” The toilet flushing, Alekos paced to the sinks and started washing his hands.

            “That’s right.” Said Andries, who grabbed onto the shoulders of the two junior soldiers in front of him. They immediately went tense. “Earth, that girl was bad!”

            Alekos and Simin waved their goodbye to Andries, whose hands were still grasping onto Cy’s and the boy’s shoulders. “That was a funny addition—with the name.” he chuckled.

            “Listen, of course Andries would be the one to haze the new kids. But I wanted to get into it somehow!” Simin could barely keep in her bellowing laughter, knowing that releasing it would allow for the characters in the bath house to hear her. It was long standing tradition and necessity to introduce the new additions to the silver class who grew up in other sectors. Simin could still remember a brown-haired Andries doing a similar thing to her and another girl whose name she had long forgotten. He had told them that sitting while an officer of a higher rank was in the room was an egregious offense and would often result in their whole troop’s punishment. A week later, the man advanced in rank and Simin could still feel her legs ache when he would enter the bath house and shout for anyone present, then stay for hours at a time.

            “I feel kinda bad, to be honest. I never had that type of experience.” Alekos frowned. For as long as he could remember, he had been in the silver class. His earliest memories were of the hall, great and imposing as it was back then, approaching him as his little legs waddled beneath him.

            It was the same sight that approached the two soldiers now. Their long strides and tall frames, however, made the building a cowered remembrance of the grandiose metal edifice it once was. The grass that was around the current building had similarly lost its morning glitter, the sun having traveled through the sky and beginning to flatten reality.

            Simin and Alekos paced into the building, retrieved their food from the same area as they had in the morning, and looked for their friends in the swarm of exhausted soldiers. The most prevalent sound was that of chewing; conversation was nearly reserved to requests to pass napkins, with just a few mouths truly cooperating with others. Simin was the first to spot Sandra, to whom she walked over with Alekos behind her. The same familiar faces were around the table, with one notable exception.

            “Where’s Achilles?” Alekos collapsed in the seat next to Sandra, whose gun was leaned against her metal chair like a purse in the restaurants of the Iron sector. Simin plopped herself down between Alexio and Kalan, the latter of whom had his gaze transfixed at the door.

            “He’s part of the welcoming committee.” Alexio, back straight as ever, used his fork to gently bring the chicken from the white plate in front of him to his mouth.

            “I forgot about that.” Sandra commented as she consumed her kale salad. “It feels like just yesterday that the last Gold left.”

            “Chrysos was part of that group.” Simin gulped down the meat, her breath having caught in her throat. Military training was part of the Gold curriculum, and Simin’s friend had just finished her mandatory two years a month ago. They had not been allowed to speak, but their eyes had met more than once across the food hall—and the battlefield—as Chrysos went to sit with the rest of her Gold class.

            Sandra ignored Simin’s comment as she continued. “I do not understand why the Generals use a welcoming committee to greet the Gold classes. They are not supposed to interact with the Silver at all.” There was the thinnest trace of sarcasm in Sandra’s voice, barely glinting on her words. But its presence cause all of the table to look at her, and Sandra read the looks on their eyes with a quickly panicked expression of her own. “For the justice of Kallipolis, the classes must be separated.”

            The latter statement was not much better, but it was the one piece of philosophy that was ingrained in the minds of every child in Kallipolis. The table deemed it permissible and settled back into their food.

            “Jodha is coming.” Kalan’s voice was garbled by the food he was stuffing into his mouth, but the gruff words were clearly discernable. Sandra, Alexio, Simin, and the quiet and pale Enyo exchanged confused looks. But when Simin went to glance at Alekos, his face had been drained of all blood, his usually-brown cheeks having turned a sickly grey.

            “I thought we had a year.” Alekos’s posture, which had been so relaxed a moment before, had straightened to rival Alexios’s. His shoulders tensed, he turned to look at the same point where Kalan had been staring. “I thought—he can’t be here!”

            “Alekos!” Sandra was the one to let out the gasped surprise at Alekos’s blatant disregard. “You cannot lie—not like this!”

            “I—sorry.” Alekos’s shoulders slumped slightly, but his eyes remained at the door. Sandra and Simin exchanged a final look of confusion before returning with the rest of the table to their food. They ate in silence while Alekos and Kalan, whose dark hair and broad shoulders were complimented by a unibrow that sat with aplomb above his hawk-like eyes, maintained their stare at the wooden doors.

            “I have to change. See everyone sometime today.” Having finished her meal in its entirety, Simin muttered her goodbye to the table. She stood up from her chair, her knives swinging at her sides, and grabbed the leather bag she had been carrying with her. She also grabbed a napkin, making sure that the others were occupied with either their meals or the doors. She pocketed the paper and made her way to the doors, twisting through the mouths that were increasingly beginning conversations. She pushed open the doors, and stepped onto the sun-warmed pavement. A quick glance to her right showed her that for which Alekos and Kalan had been sitting in anticipation, three hundred feet down the road.

            General Fanis, with more grace than any junior soldier could hope to achieve, was walking backwards down the pavement, gesturing with his hands to the wall in the distance and the hall behind him. Achilles and three other Auxilaries held guns painted golden and marched, four points in a square, in perfect unison. Simin could just make out three bobbing heads, still covered in hair, from behind Fanis. One was connected to a tall, lean boy, whose proportions were such that it looked like he had been stretched out. Another was shorter—though still tall—and was clearly a woman. Her blonde hair reminder Simin of Sandra—though there was no way her face rivaled the beauty of Simin’s friend. The third head was connected to a body hidden by General Fanis’s form, but Simin took no particular care in staring any longer. She instead turned left and walked with confident strides back to the bath house.

            Though a few soldiers lagged behind and in front of her, Simin felt entirely alone. This was, after all, the closest she could get to aloneness. She took the mental clarity to do something risky—think, again, about the declaration. To speak only when one knew of what one was speaking. On the surface, it made sense—to maximize separation, relating the one piece of philosophy Simin had been given. But she could not help but remember a conversation she had overheard ten years ago, when she was still living with the Gold class. The power of discovery—it is beautiful, it is everything! It is the creation of lightness for Kallipolis. She had been standing behind the desk of the library when a tall man with nearly-white grey robes and a giant smile had commented to the woman next to her, whose robes were already white and starched and her hair braided in perfect cornrows. It was the only thing she had heard before turning to the shelves to grab a copy of whatever book had been requested, and the comment had invaded her mind ever since. How is one to discover, when one’s speech and discourse is limited to a singular branch of existence? How can one discover that which is true in realms outside of their own? What about inside their own? Anything is related to everything else—math to physics to chemistry to metallurgy to weaponry to battle! If I cannot speak or learn of math, then how am I—or my fellow Auxilaries—to fully understand the nature of our attacks?

            Simin’s thoughts carried her to the bath house, where she entered a stall and changed from her tunic to the civilian robes with which she began the day. As the clothing rustled on and off her lean body, she came to the conclusion she had been anticipating since she had grasped the napkin from the table. After exiting the stall, she exited from the door back to the outside. Instead of walking toward the center of the courtyard, however, where an increasing number of bobbling soldiers were beginning to gather, she glanced left and right, checking for any eyes that were looking at her. In the clear, she darted around the large bath house until she was on the wall opposite to the courtyard, where she was barely visible. After taking another glance, she pulled the napkin from her bag and her battle-shirt. Carefully, she reached into a pocket on the inside of the shirt where a pen was hidden. It was not illegal for Auxillaries to own pens, but she knew if anyone saw it with her, she would be asked why she had it. With careful strokes, she used the ballpoint to spell out the words on the page:

 

EOG, nine.

 

She capped the pen and replaced it in her place, and put the paper in her bra. The lack of pockets on the civilian robes was annoying. Checking around the building before rounding the corner, Simin saw only a few transient soldiers who spoke with mumbled words. She made her way around the corner, joining the fray of soldiers in the courtyard.

            “Simin!” Sandra gestured to her friend to where she and Thaddia stood uneasily. Simin walked towards the pair, but was interrupted by a soldiers who were splitting conversations down the middle. A pathway from the paved path was emptied, and Simin and Sandra were on opposite sides of the Red Sea. It didn’t take a Guardian to guess why the air had opened up.

            Fanis, still walking backwards as naturally as he walked forwards, entered the courtyard with the seven young adults in front of him. The four Auxiliaries stood with pursed mouths and held the guns with practice zealousness; two of the Golds were more slack-jawed and less attentive to their posture. The notable exception was the head with the body Simin had not seen behind General Fanis. His black curly hair was complimented with eyes somehow darker, that were staring with intensity at Fanis’s icy blues. His robes, a dusty yellow, matched those of his counterparts; but his seemed particularly authoritative, the fabric flowy and confident with every swift movement of the legs underneath. Each student carried three books.

            Simin took her eyes of the group to look for Alekos and Kalan, but if the two were in the crowd, they were nowhere to be seen.

            “And this,” Fanis’s voice boomed with his usual confidence, “is the courtyard. The bath house and sleeping quarters are here. I will show you to your beds so you may set down your books.”

            As Fanis turned his back to the sleeping quarters, the soldiers in the way shoved their way to the center of the pack, the result filling in the old airspace to make way for the new one. Simin’s view of the group was clouded by the additional warriors, and the full figures turned once again to heads.

            “Behind me is the wall of Kallipolis, an integral part of our security from other city-states. The wall stretches around the entire city; I am sure you have caught view of it from the Gold quarters.”

            The words were the last spoken before Achilles and the other Auxiliary closest to the front broke formation to open the wooden door, where Fanis finally turned around and led the Golds with his back. When the door was closed by the back Auxilaries, a collective breath was let out by the entire populace of soldiers in the courtyard. Simin took the opportunity to shove her way to Thaddia and Sandra, who were still silenced.

            “Hey.” Simin caught the girls’ attentions.

            “I wonder what weapon they’ll choose.” If she could, Simin had no doubt that Thaddia would send the daggers strapped around her chest through her eyes to the door where the eight had entered.

            “I’ll guess sword for curly black, longbow for stretchy, and double knife for blondie.” Sandra kept the sneer out of her voice with great purpose—and great effort.

            “You can’t—” Simin paused for a second, then resumed: “It is irrational to assume all tall people will choose longbow. I will guess double knives for him, and longbow for her.”

            “How many male double knives do you know? He has the longbow look.” Sandra retorted. As the conversation continued between Sandra and Simin, Thaddia’s eyes remained fixed on the door. It took a few minutes of conversation before she removed her dagger-eyes from the wooden portal.

            “She’ll be a Brewer—it’s new and takes more chemistry than physics.” With Thaddia’s comment, the conversation lapsed into other subjects and the soldiers’ attention began to stray from the obvious topic of discussion. There was something markedly different, however, as the trio spoke. It took a second for any response to be crafted, and the words even spoken were often stilted. The rhythm was so off that Simin left the conversation ten minutes early, thinking it was five minutes later than it was and needing to get to the gate before the end of the lunch hour.

            The gate was deserted when Simin arrived, and she decided to use the extra time to run a couple of dashes from edge to edge—about twenty feet. Xena approached without comment to the running soldier, using her voice only to correct her pivoting technique. Simin stopped, having not broken a sweat despite the twenty or two laps she had done, when two other Auxilaries approached. Simin recognized neither one, though the two were obviously friends, chatting under their breaths. Just a few minutes after, the rumbling of a large Silver truck—marked with the emblem of their city in silver on the side—approached the four warriors. It barely slowed down, and all four simply grabbed onto a side of it and threw themselves into it. The bed of the truck was mostly empty save for a few folded tarps. The black plastic was burning to Simin’s hands, but her insulated gear kept her folded legs and bottom from a similar uncomfortable fate. The truck picked up speed as it left the wooden gates, embarking on the same route Simin had taken earlier that same day.

            Ten minutes after the group had left the enclosure of the Silver complex, the truck stuttered to a stop at a familiar site. The Golden Ruins sat in their undisturbed state, the rocks glinting red and yellow as ever. The four dropped from the bed and the driver exited as well. The five spaced themselves evenly apart, lining themselves up horizontally to face the Ruins. Once everyone had ascertained their equidistance from each other, Simin and the four others drew in simultaneous breaths and turned to look out to the mountains in the distance.

            In unison, they dropped to their knees and each began yelling. The screams filled the chamber of the Ruins, bouncing from rock to rock and pillar to pillar. The reverberation was exquisite. The noise provided enough cover for Simin to take out her note and quickly bury it beneath a rock and some dirt.

            For thirty seconds, the five shrieked in unison and I felt myself shaking. It was relief and dread when they stopped screaming. Without a word, they returned to their spots in the Silver truck, rumbling the vehicle away to the metal skyscrapers and smokestacks in the distance.