Alex Drake wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be here. The heavy hand on his shoulder wasn't asking if he wanted to go home, though, and he wouldn't be a Drake if he tried (as if he would ever consider it, bah) so since forward was the only option, Alex took a hold of the door and opened it with conviction. He was going to do this as if it was his idea. As if it's what he wanted to do all along. He was going to enlist with the Zodiac and damned if he didn't get a little thrill of excitement with the thought.
The recruiting office was bland and uninteresting. The walls were a boring forgettable color. The temperature was a mediated unremarkable level. The woman behind the desk typed delicately at a computer and ignored him. Alex was sweating bullets and the hand on his shoulder was a weight of expectation as much as the muscle and bone of his father's arm. He felt cold and hot at the same time. He refused to let his breath hitch, though, and stepped forward. He pushed his application onto the counter. One corner was wrinkled from the vice-grip of his hand. He tried to smooth it out.
The lady at the desk took it from him without comment and flicked through the pages rapidly. She hit a button on her computer. Another one. Started typing without taking her eyes off of his papers. She made him stand there for another minute. Finally her eyes flicked up at him, ignored his father entirely. "Have a seat." She smacked her gum.
Emptiness. The hand on his shoulder vanished. The heat of it dissipated suddenly. Alex spun about. He caught a glimpse of his father's broad shoulders as the door closed behind him. Heartbeats later the predatory growl of his car purred past the building. This was it. He turned back to the lady at the desk. She was typing intently and paid him no mind. Alex found chairs lined up in perfect intervals along one wall. He sat, disrupting the straight lines. The opposite wall sported a huge crest of Zodiac Forces in imposing steel and black.
They were putting twenty men in a room smaller than his walk-in closet at home. It was mortifying.
The shirt in his hands didn't look like it would fit. It probably wasn't even double stitched on the seams. Alex suspected they never contacted his tailor for measurements despite having the phone number conveniently listed on the back of his application. "I'm wearing this?"
A sharply-dressed Aries soldier dropped a stack of booklets at the door with a bang. "Just like every other recruit. Here's are your schedules, don't miss anything. You've got twenty minutes to settle in then you've got a base tour. Don't get comfortable."
Alex repressed a snort. As if he'd ever be late. The boys around him raced to claim beds. They had duffels with them. Backpacks. Trinkets and days worth of clothing. They were loud. Alex had the clothes on his back. He picked up a schedule and thumbed through the days. They meant nothing to him. He dropped his chosen schedule on the closest bed.
"Hey! Get lost squirt!" A guy arguably Alex's young adult age but certainly out of his weight class stomped straight into his personal space and shoved him back. Alex went sprawling into the pile of papers. He slid to his feet and dusted the grime off of his slacks. The recruit clothing was rumpled now, not that the cheap cotton was much of a loss anyway. The bully had already moved on, flopping out on the bed and pushing his ball cap down over his eyes to sleep. Alex claimed another schedule and looked around for another bed. The only one left was the second bunk over the bully. With an internal sigh he assessed the bed from where he stood and decided there was no compelling reason to climb up just yet. He snapped his new shirt back into shape and folded it over his arm. None of the others seemed to care. They yelled among each other like disorderly dogs.
"So why'd you showing somewhat fancy?"
Alex jumped. Curious blue eyes stared at him from the top bunk of the bed across from his. "I beg your pardon?"
"The threads, Diner. Why the nicey-nice?"
Nicey-nice? Diner? "I don't believe I follow." Could we speak English?
"Yer damn suit, Rock. What's with the suit?"
"These things?" Alex sneered at his most worn slacks. A thread had loosened in the hem of the right leg just this morning. "They're not a suit."
"Well they sure ain't scrap. You'd hop on changing I should bet."
The barracks door slammed open. Alex jumped again, dropping his assigned shirt and pants. A woman dressed in all black with the subtle Scorpio logo on her breast glared at them from on high until the talking weakly petered out "I see most of you opted to remain in your civvies. Fine. Fall in. Keep up." She turned on her toe and marched out. After a breath the nineteen other boys scrambled to chase her. They kicked and trampled Alex's clothes. He was over it. They probably didn't fit anyway.
Clutching his schedule, he followed the morass. The first sense of dread crept into his throat.
"This is a track. In the middle is a mud pit. Across the pit is electrified barbed wire. Touch it and it will hurt. Are we clear?"
A few scattered 'yes ma'ams' ping-ponged through the group. Alex frowned at his schedule. They were supposed to be taking a tour.
The Scorpio woman leading them along offered a mildly disappointed expression in their general direction. "The proper response is 'HUA'" It stands for Heard, Understood, Acknowledged. Now, are we clear?"
A more energetic HUA echoed between a few recruits. Alex shared a skeptical look with the blue-eyed kid from the second bunk.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was in the company of mutes. I won't be asking again. Are. We. Clear?"
"Hua!" From the collective. Out of sync and terribly young, but there wasn't much you could expect. Alex frowned and raised his hand for attention. "What if we don't understand?"
"Did I ask you to talk, smartass? Four times around the track and once through the pit is a set. I was going to ask for four sets, but thanks to Smartass I'm asking for six. Any time anyone fails to count their set, everyone gets to do an additional one. Clear?"
There were several glares in Alex's direction.
"Why the fuck are you still here?" she asked them all.
The twenty jumped into movement. The dark bully with the baseball cap checked a recruit toward the mud pit. He didn't fall in, but it was close. Everyone gave taller kid a wide berth after that.
They circled the track once. Those with some fitness quickly outstripped those without and Alex found himself jogging somewhat leisurely beside Blue-Eyes while they both let Baseball Cap lead the pack. Alex was certain he could beat them both, but six miles wasn't a distance to sneeze at. He jogged.
Nobody spoke. Ms. Scorpio set up a folding chair at the end of the mud pit- an entire football field worth of muck and low-strung wire- and produced a clipboard and pen. She seemed content to wait there all day and night for this to finish. That didn't bode well.
By the third lap the three of them were catching up to the slowest members of the twenty. He was in shape, if round was a shape, enough to still be jogging, but forward movement was a crawl. Baseball Cap swerved in for the kill.
His victim crashed into the low berm holding wire and muck, fell over, and began to scream. He thrashed on top of the wire, jolts of electricity arcing visibly from strand to strand. Alex swerved from the track and dragged Blue-Eyes with him. Together they hauled the poor sop out of the mud and wire. Alex managed not to get zapped Blue-Eyes yelped a few times but doggedly stuck with it. Mud-covered and twitchy, the kid collapsed against the berm.
Ms. Scorpio barked, "Get a move on!"
Blue-Eyes jumped back to the track. Alex followed him reluctantly. As they circled past Ms. Scorpio he heard her say, "Mr. D'Angelo, that'll be eight sets for you." Baseball Cap twisted to give her the bird. She mildly replied, "That's ten." And made a note on her clipboard.
Then it was there. The mud pit and it's wires. Right up until this moment Alex hadn't actually realized what it meant. He needed to crawl this and the space between the top of the mud and the bottom of the wires had to be less than two feet. Alex stopped at the edge. He had to get in the mud. This was ridiculous. He tucked the crumpled schedule under his shirt.
Ahead of him, Blue-Eyes hadn't even hesitated, his crawl was efficient and effective. Like he'd done this sort of thing before. Alex took a second to memorize the movements, got down on his knees (oh it was cold, too!) and slid forward with significant trepidation. It glopped around his elbows. The whole process sounded like a spoon through macaroni and cheese.
Alex couldn't believe he was doing this.
Elbow, Knee. Elbow. Knee. If the pants hadn't been ruined before, they were a lost cause now. Elbow. Knee. Somehow he managed to get full across without hitting a wire. There was mud up to his nose. He climbed out, chilly, and realized with disbelief that he had another five sets to go.
"Name?" Ms. Scorpio barked from her chair slightly to the left.
"Last name, Smartass."
"Are you not sure?"
"No I'm sure, one."
"Why are you still here?"
Alex splattered back onto the track. Oh my God. Five sets to go.
The track was nearly as muddy as the pit and Alex found himself jogging (if this shuffling controlled fall could be called jogging) in wider and wider circles to avoid the worst of it. He was on set twelve of sixteen because people were loosing count. Last he cared to pay attention, the tall black kid, D'Angelo, had to hit twenty-three and the bastard was still running like a fresh Daisy.
Was this what it was like to hate a person?
Alex stumbled to his knees and dug in for another mud trip. His forehead crossed a wire and shocked him but he barely cared to flinch. He was colder than anything he'd ever felt before. His arms and back were scratched raw from wire. He'd been shocked more times than he cared to count and it just didn't surprise him anymore. He didn't know which was worse, running the mile around or crawling the one hundred yards across. The mud was tough to crawl through and still fluid enough that no discernable trench had been carved out by their twenty bodies moving through over and over again. The run made him colder, dried some of the mud in his clothes and shoes, he was carrying half again his body weight at least around the track. He'd stopped caring about mud in his hair.
Blue-Eyes came up from behind him, still doggedly crawling like he'd been born in the muck. Alex watched him pass by without comment. He'd been given an extra set for talking already and he wasn't sure Ms. Scorpio couldn't hear him. She seemed to have ears and eyes all around the track. He climbed up out of the pit and said as he passed her, "Drake. Twelve," and kept going.
Four more sets.
Nineteen of twenty were done. Somehow they'd managed it in the end, though Alex wasn't entirely sure all their counts had been correct. Ms. Scorpio had let some slide. Only D'Angelo was left, set thirty one of thirty three. He'd managed to contain himself for the past few and made some progress instead. It helped that he had no more recruits to check on his run around the mile.
The nineteen had to wait for him. They all stood to one end of the track, uniform in their mud coating and exhaustion. No one was allowed to sit, so they leaned subtly against one another and didn't speak.
D'Angelo crawled out of the mud for the thirty second time. He made it half way around one circle of the track. He stopped in front of the nineteen and stared at his feet. He didn't move.
Alex looked up at him. Like everyone else, D'Angelo was mud-infused. Unlike everyone else, he was more angry than tired. Alex couldn't understand such depth of emotion at this point, he just wanted to sleep.
And still D'Angelo didn't move.
More of the nineteen had noticed now, they started looking up, blinking owlishly like someone had given them instructions they didn't understand. Alex realized with a jolt that D'Angelo wasn't going to finish. He would stand there all day and night if he needed to. He wasn't going to let the system win.
Alex tore himself off of Blue-Eyes, the mud between them something like day-old pudding. He stepped onto the track. D'Angelo looked up at him, dark eyes furious at too many things to be focused. Somehow he'd managed to keep his baseball cap. Alex reached forward and lifted it, sucking, off of D'Angelo's head. He started walking backward around the track.
D'Angelo stepped forward. The steps broke into a jog, then a full run. Alex turned and fled. He lead D'Angelo around the last laps of his mile and dove into the mud. Hands scrambled at his shoes. He abandoned one to the fight and swam through the muck with all he had, headless of wire and electricity. D'Angelo caught his leg but the mud didn't give him any grip. Alex hauled himself out of the pit. "Drake, seventeen!" he yelped and dropped the baseball hat at Ms. Scorpio's feet.
D'Angelo surged out of the mud like an unholy bear and snatched his hat. He fumed in Alex's direction but the chase was done.
"Name?" Ms. Scorpio asked.
He sneered down at her, "D'Angelo. Thirty-three."
She tapped her clipboard. "You're done boys. Find a shower."