Alex Reynard

The Library

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--Chapter Three--

'This is my chance. I can end it all right now.'

The fox was wearing a different, much more subdued uniform, but there was no mistaking that face. That mocking, sneering face that had been smeared all over television for the past few weeks.

Cody willed his body to dump adrenaline into his veins. He shoved a few more classmates out of the way, not even hearing their insults. The air felt calmingly cool on his fur. Night had fallen. The white fox's fur stood out like the moon.

'If I get to him, it won't matter what they do to me in return. I can end this.' He looked down at his claws. They were small; evolved for climbing trees, not eviscerating. But they'd do. 'I'll go for the throat,' he decided.

He watched the Pred talking to the others. He felt a bone-chilling fear oozing through his body, but that was okay. Dad had taught him that courage wasn't the absence of fear; it was doing what you need to do despite the fear. And he had every reason to be scared. They'd execute him for this. They'd barbecue him alive. Cody had to focus on how many lives he could save by losing his own.

He waited until the fox's head was turned. Distracted.

He could feel his heartbeat pulsing throughout his body. He readied his legs to run. He readied his claws to slash and his jaws to clamp down on anything soft.

The moment came. The perfect moment. Cody took off.

And someone grabbed him by the back of his shirt.

"Plenty have tried," Tina the lioness snarled. "I guess you didn't hear the part where he explained to the others he's just an actor like me."

A bolt of confusion shattered Cody's adrenaline high. "What!?"

Tina did not let go of him. "They were all as shocked as you were to find the leader of the GPA right here in camp. He's not our leader. Our real leaders are far away, and keeping them unknown keeps them safe. Guy over there took this job knowing there'd be people like you who'd try to take him out. So I went with him to keep that from happening."

With easy strength, the feline lifted Cody up to meet him eye-to-eye. She whispered words as firm as concrete. "I remember what you said about wanting to kill us. I believe you meant that. But I'm not going to let you hurt my friend, or anyone else here. You marked yourself. I'll make sure everyone watches you, got it?"

She let him back down. Cody was breathing hard, trying to rein in his fury. His cheeks burned with humiliation. For starters, he now realized how stupid his defiant threat had been. He'd given up the element of surprise. He could have kept his fucking mouth shut and made all his plans in secret. That was blown. He felt doubly stupid for being fooled about that fox. Of course, the lioness might've been planting disinformation: tell everyone he's not the leader so they can hide him in plain sight.

"Go with the others," Tina said. "If you hurt him, or anyone else, I'll punish you. I don't want to have to do that. Let it go, kid."

Cody kept his eyes on her a moment longer, not quite ready to turn his back until she moved away. Yeah, he really believed that she had no desire to hurt him.

Tina took a few steps back and crossed her arms.

Huffing, brain dizzy with anger, Cody turned and joined his classmates so he could hear what the fox was actually saying.

It seemed they were mobbing him with questions like he was an actual celebrity. "Yes, this is my real voice!" he said, sounding nowhere near as suave as before. "Put a script in front of me and I'm a chameleon. Without one I'm a duck on land."

"What'd that metal crotch-thing feel like?" someone asked.

"The codpiece? Heavy," he replied with a laugh. "Heavy and tight! Couldn't wait to get it off!" Several chuckles. "Now can we please get going over to the bunkhouses? I'm sorry I fascinate you guys so much." He pointed in the direction they needed to go and they followed.

Cody took the time to observe more of the camp. He was still seething about how easily the lioness had stopped his assassination plot. Now that he was thinking clearer, he was almost glad for it. If this guy really was just a nobody, killing him wouldn't have meant anything. Cody would have given up his own life for nothing.

The moon was strong overhead. Trees looked like black, jagged shadows. The sandy gravel crunched under his feet. Now that the adrenaline was going away, Cody felt his energy going with it. He'd been on high-alert since the kidnapping and for the first time he was starting to feel like a drained battery.

Guy the fox led them to a series of long, log-cabin-like buildings. "Here we are. There's four bunkhouses and you guys in K Group will be in number three. THREE. Remember that; it's the one with the green stripe along the side. One's yellow, two's blue, four is red. You guys are in green. Sorry if I'm beating you over the head with this, but you have no idea how many kids I have to redirect who forget it."

"Wait, there's not a separate girls' bunk!?" Hydra piped up.

"We assumed you guys were mature enough to handle a coed sleeping space," Guy replied. At the front of the building were three stone steps. He walked up and opened the wide wooden door. "Come on in."

Cody had to admit, at least the Preds were committed to keeping up their act. He'd expected some dusty cabin in the woods. This place was bright and nicely furnished. The bunkhouse stretched for seemingly a block-length. One whole enormous wall was nothing but bunkbeds. There was a curtain between each of them that could be pulled around for privacy, like in a hospital. The other wall had more beds, but also a large bookcase, plus entrances for boys and girls' bathrooms, a water cooler and two snack machines. The floors were polished wood. Near each bed was a small table with a little lamp. Several other Preykids were already here, having already chosen their beds at the far end of the room. There looked to be enough space for another full group.

"Not the Taj Mahal, but hopefully not too shabby, huh?" Guy said. "As you can see, there's drinks and snacks if you get hungry. Plenty to read. Through those doors are the toilets and showers. Inside each one of those little beddyside tables is a bunch of pajamas. Laundry machines are just out back."

"We don't really... do laundry, buddy," Kenny said.

Jayden lit up grinning. "Not a problem, bitches! My mom always makes me do chores to make sure I don't grow up like you pampered little princes and princettes. You don't wanna wash your shit? That's fine, I'll do it. Cost you five bucks a pop though."

Plenty of kids expressed disgust towards him, but the mouse's grin never wavered. They'd come crawling to him eventually. Even if The Box had provided staff to do the laundry, he'd already made plenty of money doing the little cleanup chores the other kids couldn't be bothered with. Though he did worry he might have screwed the pooch by announcing his plan in front of the Pred.

Guy shrugged at Jayden. "Far be it for me to stifle entrepreneurial capitalism."

"Allright!" said Jayden. This guy wasn't a douchebag. Nice.

"What's that little box over there on the wall by the water cooler?" someone else asked.

At this, Guy blushed visibly through his white fur. "Um... Not my decision, but the camp planners figured some of you guys might be at, uh, 'that age' and they just wanted everyone to be safe if th-"

"That's a condom dispenser!" Jayden burst out. "You sick motherfuckers!" he giggled.

Almost everyone else went 'Ewwww!!' or looked at Guy like he was a pervert.

"I didn't install it!!" he defended, waving his hands frantically. "And you don't have to use it! It's just there... You know. In case. They told me they knew they couldn't stop anyone from... 'experimentation', but they wanted you to be cautious if you did. There's, uh, also a tampon machine in the girl's shower room. If anyone needs that sort of thing."

"That's thoughtful," Yolanda said.

Some of the kids were already starting to wander towards the machines, and soon the whole group drifted in that direction. "There aren't prices on the snacks," someone pointed out.

"Oh, right. That's actually pretty nifty." Guy went over to one of the vending machines and pulled off one of his gloves, stuffing it into his pocket. He touched his thumb to a red plastic square. It lit up and squealed electronically. "It doesn't take money. Everything in it's free, but it can recognize your print. You can only get one item every three hours, but that should be enough for anyone."

"What about the water?" Kenny asked.

"Oh, that's always free. No worries."

While everyone else had been looking at the machines, Cody had been looking at the other furs at the far end of the room. He recognized a few of them, but then... "What in the fuck is he doing here?"

Every head turned.

The boy Cody was pointing at hung his head, but did not flinch. He was clearly used to this kind of reaction.

He was wearing a Prey uniform, but he species was Pred.

Guy sighed, knowing this would come up eventually. "That's Walter. He's transgenus."

Cody looked at him like he was speaking nonsense. "You don't expect me to buy that crap, do you?"

The white fox was a pretty easygoing guy, but he liked the young bobcat a lot and hated the endless stream of prejudiced garbage the boy had to put up with. "It's a real medical condition! He was born a Pred but in his heart he knows he's Prey. It happens sometimes. He chose to stay in here, knowing full well it meant he'd have to deal with attitudes like yours."

Cody sneered at him. "Don't insult my intelligence. I know what transgenus means. Personally, I don't know if they're faking it, or if they really believe it, and I don't give a shit. What I meant is, do you really expect me to sleep in here with him? Even if he really does think he's a bunny rabbit, how the hell do I know he's not a spy for you guys?"

Many of the Preykids were rather grateful towards Cody in that moment. He was rude but useful. He'd said what a lot of them felt as soon as they saw the Pred among them.

The bobcat boy had started walking over. His face was calm, but his eyes were deep as the sea. He had been through plenty. "You're right, actually," he said to Cody. "I do think I'm a bunny rabbit."

Cody turned to him. "Seriously?"

Walter nodded. "But I'm not a spy. Believe me or don't. I don't care what any of you do, or what any of you think of me, so long as you let me alone." He looked around the crowd of Prey. There was almost universal distrust towards him. Being around a Pred adult was somehow different, more easier to accept, than having someone their own age sleeping in the same room as them. The bobcat had been alone when J Group came in, and was not surprised when they had made him take the bed farthest away from them.

Frank eyed the Pred kid cautiously. She would test him later on. Not letting on what she was doing, she would commit some sort of transgression in front of him. Badmouth the GPA or trash something in the room. See if she got in trouble for it later. If she did, the little spy was dead meat.

Trudy didn't say anything, but she looked down at herself, and then at Walter, and felt some empathy for him.

Guy spoke up. "I get that you kids probably don't want him here. But all you have to do is leave him alone and there'll be no problems. I've known him a while, he has never caused trouble with anyone. He is not a danger to you. I am not a danger to you. The whole point of this camp is to teach you that we Preds aren't mindless zombies who'll eat you the second we lay eyes on you. Just be cool. If I find out any of you has given Walter a hard time for no reason, I will come up with the most humiliating punishment I can think of."

Walter shook his head. "Mr. Swansea, you don't need to. I can handle myself."

Guy turned away from the Preykids and patted Walter on the shoulder. "I know. But you're my friend, and I don't like seeing you getting messed with."

The feline nodded. "Thank you."

"Um, does this mean he thinks he's a girl too?" Hydra suddenly asked.

Walter winced with his entire body. "No! I'm fully a guy! I'm not transgendered too!" It was quite clear he got that a lot.

"But you think you're a bunny," said the bunny.

"I know I am," Walter replied, defiant but polite. "I look in the mirror and I see the wrong skin. That's the only way we're different."

Hydra did not look convinced. She sneered at him and crossed her arms.

"What do your parents think?" Yolanda asked. She'd heard about cases like this before but had never actually met one. It was a fascinating condition.

At the mention of his parents, Walter got very still and quiet. "They... disowned me," he said simply. It was not hard to guess that he'd just made a considerable understatement.

Some of the suspicion among the Preys melted, replaced by sympathy. Some. Though not all.

"You gay?" Jayden piped up.

Walter grit his teeth. "NO!! Geeze! Why does everyone assume I've got everything all at once!? I am completely normal! I like girls. I don't wanna be one. I just have this stupid bobcat pelt on me instead of the one I'm supposed to have, that's all!" He tugged at his skin as if hoping one day it'd finally rip off.

Jayden put up his hands. "Whoa, no biggie! Just curious, bro. I don't wanna offend anyone more than I offend everyone else," he chuckled.

Walter gave him a 'thanks for that' look.

Guy tried to steer the conversation back to where it was supposed to be. "Hopefully, that's settled. I'm supposed to be telling you guys about the bunkhouse and camp rules and things of that nature. Do we have any questions not about Walter?"

"Okay, what ARE the camp rules?" someone asked.

"Good. That's on topic. Good." Guy nodded. "There's not too many, just basic common sense and decency. For starters, don't go into any other group's bunkhouse."

"What if we're invited?" Frank challenged.

"That's acceptable," Guy said. "We're fine with anyone making new friends, or visiting a friend you met in The Box who's not in the same group as you. Just don't go around unasked. We don't want people worrying about their stuff getting stolen, or prank wars, or any of that horseplay. The second rule is, don't fight."

'I'll be breaking that one,' Cody thought.

"That means other campers; staff; anybody. If someone pisses you off, tell me or one of the other staff members. If you feel like you have to settle it yourself, we've got a gym. Go blow off some steam there. We'd much rather you beat someone's ass at basketball than beat their ass literally."

A few laughs here and there.

"Is there anyplace in camp that's off-limits?" Cody asked carefully.

"Not really, aside from what you'd expect. The staff's bunkhouse is locked, fr'instance. So's the cafeteria when we're not using it, and the medical clinic. There's an administrative building, but it's not off-limits, it's just, why would you wanna go there? Um... anything else..." He tried to remember. "There's a few storage areas where we keep the supplies. If what I think you're asking is, 'is there anywhere spooky and dangerous you don't want us to see', then the answer is no. We tried to make the camp as open as we could, specifically so you won't be worried we've got some secret torture chambers hidden somewhere. If you're that worried, you can even just ask a GPA to show you one of the locked areas."

Cody hadn't expected that.

"Other than that, you guys can go wandering about as much as you like. I'm sure Miss Vera told you about the wiredome and what it does, but I'm guessing a lot of you will have to test it before you'll believe in it. If you do, all I ask is that you please bring a buddy with you. You'll find out why for yourself."

"There's Predkids here too, right?" Chloe-Sophia asked. "W-where are they?"

"On the opposite end of the camp," Guy replied.

The squirrelgirl looked a bit relieved.

"Their bunkhouses and their cafeteria are way over in that direction," he pointed, "near the athletic field. We knew both groups would be a bit spooked to have anything to do with each other for a while."

Kenny snorted. "What the hell do they have to fear from us?"

Guy looked at the rabbitboy and gave him a quietly cryptic smile. "You didn't grow up Predside, kid. Vera will teach you about it tomorrow, and you'll understand."

Kenny looked dismissive. Their kind killed and ate his kind. That by definition made them the bad guys. Nothing was going to change that.

The white fox checked his watch. "Almost time for dinner. Does anyone else have any questions?"

"Miss Vera mentioned a pool. Where is it?" Yolanda asked. The Box hadn't had one. The ottergirl had been going slightly insane without one, and had been taking frequent showers to compensate. She knew she was an evolved, civilized furson, but nonev instincts still sometimes nagged at her.

"It's pretty close; that circular building we passed."

"Oh, good!"

There were a few more questions after that, then Guy let everyone wander around a bit. He said they didn't have to choose a bed now, there'd be plenty of free time before lights out. But the room was divided into sections big enough for each lettered group (he pointed out a subtle line made by differently-colored strips of the floor) and there'd be another thirty kids coming in soon once they got done with their class.

Guy called over J Group and had all the kids stand together. Only a few kids recognized anyone else. The Box hadn't made it a priority to let their internees get to know one another outside assigned classes. Guy laid out their route to the cafeteria first, pointing out which landmarks they needed to remember, then checked his watch again and led the way.

He marveled to himself how easy this was going overall. Vera was amazing at calming the kids down. When he'd signed up for this, he'd assumed he'd be dealing with bunches of squalling, crying kids, terrified out of their minds and begging every second to be set free. And yes, some of the younger ones were like that. It would take more coaxing with them. But the older ones were often like this group. A bit rude and restless, but far from panicking. He supposed they were used to being shuffled around by now. Whether Pred or Prey, being herded by adults was routine for them.

Cody was looking forward to dinner. He was still feeling out of energy and half-wondered if it was another kind of gas they were using. 'No. Don't get paranoid,' he scolded himself. A few other kids looked tired, but plenty more didn't. He knew in a place like this there was a danger of second-guessing absolutely everything to the point of madness. He had to be smart about what risks were likely and which were farfetched. True, anything was possible here, but he knew he couldn't prepare for every possible threat his brain could imagine. He had to stay sensible.

He kept an eye on the bobcat. Cody still wasn't sure if he was a spy. Maybe not. It'd be easier and simpler to just put hidden cameras in the bunkhouses. (He made a mental note to make damn sure he had the curtains drawn when he got undressed tonight.)

Kenny caught up to him. They walked side by side. "We bunking together?"

Cody nodded immediately. "You're the only one in this place I trust completely."

The rabbit nodded. "Watch each other's backs. Ten-four. If we live through this freakin' place, I'm going to find someone who'll buy me some whiskey and get shitfaced."

That led Cody to a thought he was surprised, and a little ashamed, to not have considered before. "I've only been thinking about getting myself out so far, but... What about everyone else?"

"Fuck 'em," Kenny replied offhandedly.

"No, seriously," Cody insisted. "If possible, we have to think about rescuing the others too. If the only way I can escape is on my own, so be it. I'll even leave you behind if I have to. And promise me you'll do the same if you see a chance at escape! None of us is as important as getting word to the outside about this place. The more of us that live, the better. That's great. But we have to be realistic. This is a war, and ending it is top priority."

Kenny looked stunned and sobered by the coldness of his friend's reasoning. "I... That's more than I think I can handle, pal. I just want to go home."

Cody nodded. "I understand. That's okay. But my Dad's been teaching me almost from birth to be a soldier, so I think like one. And Kenny," he patted his friend's arm, "if you want to see home again, you're going to have to think like one too."

The rabbitboy stared at the ground as he walked. This was some serious shit. He was not used to taking anything seriously. But Cody was right. One of the big reasons Kenny stayed friends with him, as much of a grating prick as he could be sometimes, was because Cody could think differently. Kenny wasn't wired for this kind of situation. The chipmunk was wired for nothing but. If he was going to survive, Cody was his best bet.


Food was a problem.

The cafeteria was a huge single-room building, shaped like a D lying flat on its side. The noise was tremendous. As Vera had said, there was one main line where most of the Preykids had gathered. Separated by ropes and poles was a second line. Everyone in it had red armbands. There was a third line too. Everyone there was marked with the Great Predator Army logo. Some of the Preys were even wearing the GPA's uniforms. It nearly killed Cody's appetite.

As he got in line and took a tray, it occurred to him that the food here might be drugged. It made sense from a tactical standpoint: if the Preds wanted compliance, dumping chemicals in the food was a great way to ensure it. That fox lady's promises were for shit.

Then again, it seemed like the adults were eating the exact same food as the kids. They were standing in the same lines and held the same trays. Hm. They might be immune to whatever it was, or it might be chemically calibrated to affect only Prey.

Cody rubbed his stomach. He was hungry as hell. But for his own safety, he knew that tonight he had to observe instead of eat. He would watch everyone else. Try to remember what they ate. Pay close attention to their behavior and see if it changed.

Another idea came to him. The snacks in the bunkhouse. Everything there had looked like the normal, individually-wrapped crap he saw in other vending machines. Unless the GPA were so OCD they'd inject every single candy bar and bag of chips, it was a food source with a far higher probability of safe consumption. He didn't want to eat nothing but junk food while he was here though. Maybe they'd have granola bars or something?

All this was made worse by the fact that the cafeteria food did smell good. Cody craned his neck to see what they were serving. It looked like a caesar salad with chicken strips, plus deep dish onion and black olive pizza. Over in the second line, they seemed to have fish 'n chips and grilled cheese. He bit his lip. It was all tempting. Looking behind him, he could see kids sitting and eating. Some of them had surprised looks, nudging their friends and complimenting the food. Cody cursed his training. It'd be so easy to just ask for a nice big freakin' salad and chow down on it. But he couldn't. He couldn't.

'Think of it this way,' he told himself, 'you don't know for sure that's chicken in those chicken strips.' It could have been dissidents. Eeugh. That suppressed his appetite nicely.

When he was closer to the front of the line, a compromise showed itself. Along with the main courses there were several side dishes, as well as little extra tidbits the kids could add to their trays. Among these was a big pile of fresh fruit. Cody couldn't resist. If the Preds would go so far as to chemically treat the produce, he was screwed no matter what.

The lunchladies were a Pred and a Prey, interestingly. A bat and a cow. Cody wondered how the bat lady could hold a spatula in those weird wing-hand-whatever things she had. He shook his head at both of them when they asked what he wanted. He passed right by and put an orange, a plum, a carton of milk and a bunch of grapes on his tray.

Leaving the line, he looked all over for... Ah, the bathrooms. He didn't care if anyone wondered what in the hell he was doing. A little embarrassment was the price of being smart.

In the restrooms, he rested his tray by the sink and washed all his food carefully. He inspected the skins, checking for needle marks or any other signs of tampering. For a moment he thought he'd found something on the plum, but it was just a natural dark spot. He sighed in relief. Part of him felt like a buffoon. Part of him insisted he was taking this too far. He knew he had to ignore that little voice. No matter how silly some of his actions might feel, he had to hold onto cold rationality. This was necessary.

Cody returned to the lunchroom with his tray, doing his best to ignore the 'what a weirdo' stares he was getting from some people. He looked for Kenny. The rabbit's sandy ears weren't too hard to spot.

Kenny had two huge, hot, steaming slices of pizza on his plate. Cody wanted to kick him in the shins for that.

The bunnyboy looked at his friend's tray and cocked his head. "You feeling particularly herbivorous today?"

"I was worried the food here might be drugged, so I just took what looked the least likely to be tampered with."

Kenny looked down at his pizza with sudden suspicion. "Well gee, thanks for warning me."

Cody blinked; he hadn't even thought of that. "I'm sorry," he said, feeling guilty. "I should've. I'm sorry. I was just thinking of myself. It... comes naturally."

The rabbit shrugged and, eyeing his pizza for a moment, took a bite. "Tastes normal. Pretty decent, actually." He took another chomp while Cody started popping grapes in his mouth. "Well, if it is drugged, I guess you can observe what happens to me."

Cody nodded. "That's what I was thinking. I was going to keep an eye on you and some of the others. See if your personalities change any. Frank, definitely. Tycho's been pretty defiant also."

"Jayden," Kenny pointed out.

"Yes, him too."

"No, Jayden."

The rattish mouse slid his tray into Cody's and startled the chipmunk. "Yo yo yo, douchebags! How's it going? Looks like you got the fruit going on, St. John."

Cody just looked at him while taking a bite of plum.

Jayden reached across to poke Kenny. "I've been going around, trying to see who might be interested in my laundry idea," he said. He crammed a breadstick in his mouth and kept talking. "You get in early; I give you a discount. Whadayasay?"

Kenny was used to dealing with the little chiseler. "How much of a discount?"

"For you? Fifty cents."

"Make it a dollar, you asshole."

"Done!!" Jayden reached across Cody's plate to shake Kenny's hand.

"Your sleeve is touching my grapes," Cody snarled.

"That's what she said," the mouse tossed off. "You want in on this laundry action?"

"I'm fine with washing my own clothes," Cody said pointedly. He swatted Kenny's shoulder. "Why are you paying him for this?"

"I hate doing laundry," Kenny said simply. "Hate it. Did it once. Hated it. Not doing it again." He reached in his pocket for his wallet. "This covers the whole week, right?" he asked Jayden.

The mouse grinned. "Nope. Each time."

"Oh fuck you."

"Hey, I'm gonna be up to my armpits in you guyses' sweaty ball funk every day while you're out enjoying the sunshine. That's gonna suck. I wanna get handsomely compensated, what's wrong with that?"

Jayden had his wallet out too. Kenny grumbled, but got out his Talkcard and touched it back-to-back with the mouse's. "Four dollars and zero cents," the rabbit over-enunciated.

The little plastic rectangle chirped, then spoke in its tinny voice, "You are transferring... four dollars and zero cents... into the account of Jayden G. Winters. If this is correct, please say 'yes'."

"Yes," groaned Kenny.

"Transaction complete," said the card.

Both boys put their cards back in their wallets. "I want to set my clothes out, go to class, and when I come back, have them be clean and folded neatly exactly where I left them," Kenny demanded.

"You know me. I blow off everything unless there's money involved. You'll think the Good Fairy herself is personally washing your shit with her fuckin' tongue."

"Go stiff someone else," Kenny said.

"My pleasure!" The grinning rodent took his tray and was off looking for more customers.

Cody had acted annoyed, but in truth he'd kind of enjoyed the diversion.

"He's a complete dickhead, but you gotta admit, he's smart," Kenny said. He nudged his chipmunk friend. "Kind of like you!"

"Thanks a lot."


The fruit was quite filling and Cody was feeling considerably better once he'd finished his meal. He waited for Kenny to drain the last of his soda, then suggested they go pay someone a visit.

Cody had been scanning the room the whole time he ate, looking for anything of interest. Apparently there was another of those transgenus kids here; probably from another bunkhouse. A mutt-type dog was chatting rather easily with some Preygirls her age. It was kind of unsettling, but not his concern at the moment.

Walter Bennect was sitting by himself, polishing off a grilled cheese sandwich. From his distant expression, he seemed to consider himself the only fur in the entire cafeteria.

Cody dropped his tray an inch away from him. The clatter made the bobcat jump nearly out of his seat. Kenny did the same, but it only produced a flinch.

Walter looked up at Cody, fuming, looking ready to swing at him.

"Let's make this clear," Cody said calmly, as if discussing a business deal. "I don't feel safe with you sleeping near me."

"What a coincidence. I don't feel safe knowing you'll be sleeping near me."

Kenny sat down a little too close to Walter. He said nothing, but he smiled.

"Then why don't you make everything easier for everyone?" Cody said with mock concern. "Leave. Ask one of the staff to reassign you. Go over to the Pred side where you'll be happier."

Something changed in Walter's eyes; became colder. "I shouldn't have to," he said simply.

Cody blinked. He'd underestimated this Pred. He could see years of stress in the kid's glare. He would not be intimidated. The cat's eyes said, 'I can take this as far as you force me to.'

"You stay on your side," Cody whispered. "I don't like you or trust you. You say you want to be left alone? Fine; do the same for me. It'll be like we can't even see each other."

Walter very slightly nodded. "That was my plan anyway."

Cody gave him a 'that's settled then' look. "Let's go, Kenny."

The rabbit stood up, gave Walter a last appraising look, then left at his friend's side.

As they exited the cafeteria, he could tell by Cody's expression the chipmunk was thinking hard. "What do we do about him?"

It took Cody a moment to snap out of his thoughts and respond. "Nothing. Like I said."

Kenny scoffed. "You were serious? You, the Pred-hatingest bastard I know, are actually going to let him stay in the bunkhouse with us?"

Cody looked insulted that Kenny would think he'd break his word. "He said he'd keep out of our way. Unless he goes back on that, he's nothing but a low priority target for now. I'm not happy he's here. But you gotta pick your battles. Fighting with him, or bitching to the staff to get him thrown out, would be a wasted effort." He tried to think of a way to illustrate it. "Picture you're in a room with two open chemical containers. One is a deadly poison and the other just smells bad. Which one are you going to take care of first?"

Kenny considered that. "Okay, I see your point."

They chatted about nothing of importance as they walked slowly back to the bunkhouse. The forest surrounding them was actually very beautiful, and the night air smelled good. It was a shame they had to be here under these conditions. If this had been a place Cody's dad had taken him for a vacation, he would have loved it.

Back in bunkhouse three, Cody went over to the vending machines and examined their contents. Mostly junk. Candy, cookies, chips, pretzels. The pretzels didn't actually look too bad. He swiped his thumb over the red pad, then realized Guy hadn't said what to do afterwards. The problem solved itself though. The pad lit up with numbers and Cody made his selection. The little bag dropped down to the bottom. "Kenny! You gonna be hungry for the next three hours?"

"Highly doubtful," the satisfied rabbit said, patting his stomach. "Even if it was drugged, that pizza was excellent."

"If you're not a zombie by tomorrow I might try it myself. For now though, swipe your thumb and get me that granola bar."

While he did so, Kenny asked why Cody trusted the food in here. Cody laid out his analysis about the contamination risk of various edibles. Kenny was impressed and slightly unnerved by how much thought his friend had put into it.

The bunkhouse was mostly empty, but kids trickled in as they finished up eating. Kenny said he felt all wired up and was going out for a run. He asked if Cody wanted to come along, but the chipmunk declined. He was feeling stressed and just wanted to relax for a while.

"You? Relax?" Kenny joked.

Cody smiled genuinely for what might have been the first time that day.

He looked over at the bookshelf. "I think I'll just grab something and read it until I fall asleep."

"I'm kinda surprised you don't want to get out and enjoy the fresh air more. We haven't breathed any for a while. And I figured you'd want to be in training all the time."

Cody smirked. "I've got a plan. If I sleep early, hopefully I can wake up in the middle of the night when things'll be quiet. I'm going to check out that dome. If I can get through tonight, hey great."

Kenny patted him on the shoulder. "If anyone can, it's you," he said sincerely.

"Thanks," Cody said. It helped to know someone else had confidence in him. "Have a good run. Let me know if you see anything interesting."

"I will." The rabbitboy turned to walk away.

Then he glanced back briefly. In a place like this, they both knew, people might disappear without warning.

When Kenny trotted off, Cody grabbed a drink from the bathroom sink (avoiding the possibly tampered-with water cooler), then walked over to the shelves of obviously-used paperbacks. A lot of girl stuff, he noticed. Lots of part twos and fives of incomplete series. These were all probably donations. Cody scanned the titles for a while, then settled on one about a boy surviving in the snowy woods. 'Fitting. I might get some ideas for if I make it out of here and have to go dicking around in the forest until I find something to make a call with.'

The bunks were all pretty much the same. Cody picked one and flopped down on the bottom bed. He found himself pleasantly surprised. 'These Preds are going all-out with the honey trap,' he thought. He'd expected a limp noodle mattress, or one as flat as a board. This was actually very comfortable. Pillows were fluffy. Blankets were soft. At least he wouldn't have trouble getting to sleep later.

He sipped his water, not allowing himself to worry it might also be drugged because there was no way to avoid it even if it was. He munched some pretzels. For a while, he stared into the open pages of his book while keeping his ears open to the other kids talking. He couldn't make out much, but he could guess the tone of the conversations. Some furs sounded scared, or annoyed. Surprisingly, a few seemed to think this was an adventure.

Cody couldn't fathom it. They were all cows in a slaughterhouse, plain and simple. Did everyone else not notice? Or did they just not care? He knew that virtually everyone here was the spawn of a VIP. Maybe they'd lived such privileged lives they honestly couldn't imagine something truly bad ever happening to them.

Dad was an important man in the military, but he'd brought Cody up with the understanding that each man makes his own future. Their house didn't have servants. Cody did his own chores and earned an allowance. Dad had taught him responsibility.

Cody was glad he had the book, because if he held it close, no one would see that his eyes were starting to tear up.

Fuck this war. Fuck this stupid goddamned war for taking his father away from him. 'I miss you so much, Dad,' he thought. He missed his father's smile. Dad had a way of smiling sometimes like he could look off into the distance and see the future, and everything was going to be fine.

Dad was fair and strict but also loving. Dad had never hit him, never. Not unless they were sparring or boxing, and then it was only a game. Dad challenged Cody constantly. Always with that smile that said, 'I know you can do better than last time. Make me proud.' And Cody did. Often. Whenever he did, his Dad's hugs were the most amazing thing in the world.

One time, Dad had invited over some of his military friends to the house to watch some sports and unwind. Without being asked, just because he thought it'd be a nice thing to do, Cody had gone in the kitchen and made up a tray of snacks for them. When he brought it out, Dad's eyes had lit up with a spark of, 'I have an amazing son.' He'd hugged Cody right in front of his buddies.

And one of them said, "Jesus, St. John... You treat him like that? Over something so little? Aren't you afraid he's gonna grow up a fag?"

He'd said it half-jokingly, but then Dad turned around and looked at him with that intensity in his eyes that Cody had never seen anyone else possess.

"Get out," his father had said.

"Oh come on, I was just-"

"Get out," Dad repeated.

It seemed like all the sound and air had been sucked out of the room. The two guys on the couch went silent as their friend got up and grabbed his coat from the hall table.

Just before he left, Dad shouted out quite clearly, "I pity your son!"

The man gave him a look that could melt steel and slammed the door.

The other two men, suddenly quite uncomfortable, made weak excuses and left too.

Cody had felt like it was his fault for driving away his father's friends. But Dad had gotten him in a loving headlock and pulled him down on the couch with him. He put his arm around the boy and reassured him he'd done nothing wrong. He kissed his son between the ears and said, "I couldn't be more proud of you. You're more of a man than he could ever hope to be, and he'll never understand that."

Cody was crying for real now. The tears were hot and stinging and he scrubbed them away with his sleeve. This was not the place for it.

He looked down at his book but the words were all blurs. He loved his father so much. If Dad had ever asked him to run off the edge of a thousand-foot cliff, Cody would have. He would have leapt into the air without worry, confident that there was either a net below, or a greater purpose to fulfill. His Dad had never let him down.

But life kept on pulling them apart. His damn career. Cody could never get too upset about it, because his Dad's work was so important. But it tore at him inside whenever Dad left him with Aunt Cherise for another five or seven or twelve months. Aunt Cherise was fun and sweet and they got along great. But she wasn't Dad. She tried her best and he did love her a lot, but he loved Dad more, and she knew, and she understood.

'I've gotta get my mind off of this...' Cody thought to himself.

Wiping his eyes again, he forced himself to concentrate on the words 'Chapter One'.

By chapter five, the book was splayed open beside him and he was fast asleep.


Like an alarm clock, Cody's bladder woke him in the dark of the night. He had planned this. The last time he'd peed was back in The Box.

He blinked away strange dreams and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was frighteningly quiet. No sounds but snores and crickets. He looked up and saw Kenny's arm dangling from the top bunk, swaying in time with his breath. He smiled. He was glad his friend had made it back from his run safely.

The rustling of his blankets sounded loud as thunder as Cody slipped out of bed. Thankfully, the floorboards were quiet. He crept across the gauntlet of sleeping classmates to where the bathrooms were. His plan had worked a little too well, and he felt like an overfull water balloon.

He made use of the urinals but didn't flush. Might make too much noise.

He could still feel his uneaten granola bar in his pocket and, as he passed the snack machine, tried to decide whether to gamble on another one. They were pretty low in the machine so it wouldn't thump too loudly when one fell to the bottom. If he made it out of here he'd probably starve regardless, but with two food sources he'd starve a little less quickly.

'Fine then.' He rubbed his thumb on the red pad and it lit. He entered his selection. The machine's whirr fried his nerves. He looked all around to see if anyone's ears were twitching. The granola bar made a tiny 'wump' as it landed. Cody reached in and took it, then touched his thumb to the pad again. It had been over six hours since he'd first used this thing. Maybe Guy had meant 'every three hours' literally? Nope. He keyed in another bar and the panel simply went dark.

"Well suck my dick," Cody whispered.

This was it. If he got through the wiredome tonight, he wouldn't be seeing any of his classmates again for possibly forever. But he was doing this to save them, and maybe all Preykind.

He chuckled. 'Don't get full of yourself.'

He crept towards the bunkhouse entrance, praying it wouldn't be wired with an alarm. He heard a strange squeaking sound. 'The heck...?' He listened closer and realized it was Yolanda's snoring. The ottergirl sounded like she was blowing on a tiny party horn. Cody smiled. 'I hope you make it out of here,' he thought.

He turned and looked back to Kenny. Sound asleep. 'Goodbye.'

He scanned around for Frank and didn't see her. Too bad.

Cody took a deep breath when he put his paw on the door handle. He opened it in one quick motion, wincing in anticipation of horns blaring and lights flashing. Nothing. One good sign so far. He hopped down the stone steps and thought about the book he'd been reading. If he had a single regret about leaving this place, it was not being able to finish it. It had been a good story.

The chilly night, and his nervousness, made him shiver. Cody kept his ears up. He tried his best to stay in the shadows and away from the larger buildings as he snuck towards the perimeter of the wiredome. It loomed above him, looking impossibly big. And the hexagonal holes looked far too small to squeeze through.

The moon was enormous above him. It shone coldly, turning everything below blue.

He briefly debated eating one of the granola bars. 'No. Better to wait until I'm so hungry I can't stand it any longer.'

Behind the cafeteria was a woodsy patch. The wiredome cut through and it looked like a secluded place where Cody could examine it. He pushed through the weeds and bushes. He found the edge of the dome digging into the dirt like it had grown up out of the ground. He wondered how deep down it went. He looked up and up and couldn't believe something this huge didn't collapse under its own weight.

The first thing was to test it. He kicked at the grass until he found a decent-sized stick. Getting as close as he dared, he reached out and smacked the wire with it, wincing.

No flash. No sizzle. He poked it again.

"Not electric apparently."

The crickets were a lot louder out here. Cody felt his heart speed up as he prepared to touch the wire. He held his hand out. He moved it closer.

He couldn't bring himself to touch it.

Up close, the holes were clearly large enough for a kid to wiggle through. There had to be something else in place to keep everyone in. The fox woman had been vague about what it might be.

Cody suddenly darted his finger out before his brain had time to stop him.


Well, he was still alive.

And nothing had happened to his finger. He'd just touched the metal for an instant. It felt the same as any metal. He waved his hand around near it, and this time something did happen.

His palm and fingertips tingled. Subtly. Now that he thought back, the fox woman had said something about it being like that 'foot fallen asleep' feeling.

But it apparently took a short time to take effect.

Cody realized what he had to do. First he'd tuck as much of his shirt as he could over his exposed fur. Then he'd make a run at it. With skill and luck, if he got his head and arms through, he'd have enough momentum to drop through to the other side. It would not be easy. The holes were big enough to crawl through, but jumping through would be like threading a needle. While running.

Cody took a moment to imagine his father standing beside him. He made himself feel an imaginary hand on his shoulder. 'You can do this.'

"I will, Dad."

Cody pulled his sleeves down and tucked his collar up over his mouth. He backed up as far as he could, kicking around the grass to knock away any rocks or sticks he might trip on.

He stood with his back to a tree in the moonlight, staring at the wiredome. All those holes blurred. He had to focus on one. Make it the only thing that existed. He took in the deepest breaths he could, letting them out nice and easy.

'Get calm. Get focused,' he told himself. 'You're doing this for more people than just you.'

Cody waited until everything felt right. Until the world faded away, and all that mattered was his feet, the ground, and a single hexagonal hole.

He took a last breath and held it.

Then he ran.

His feet pounded the grass. Momentum. He needed as much of it as possible. Kinetic energy. Enough to push him through.

He put his arms out in front of himself. He was a needle.

He jumped for the hole.

Before he was even halfway through, he knew he had failed. The tingling which had been barely there before suddenly clenched around his entire upper body.

He'd never had a chance. From his stomach up, he was paralyzed. Completely numb. He hung half-in and half-out of the hole like a limp washrag. The most he could manage from his arms and torso was a sluggish, helpless wobble.

He couldn't even open his eyelids.


He tried to push himself back out with his legs, but every time he pressed against the metal the numbness would spread to whatever was touching. He had zero leverage. He was stuck here.

He was stuck here and nobody knew where he was.

He might be here for days.

His skin was numb, but he could feel a growing pressure in his gut from where he was draped over the metal bar. It was pushing up into his stomach. Paralyzed like this, he knew if he vomited he might choke to death on it. That was probably the most humiliating death he could imagine. They'd find him dead, covered in his own sick. Dangling like a doll. And they'd drag him to their kitchens, hose him down and carve him up for supper. 'One less we have to do ourselves!' they'd say.

For just a moment, he imagined his father screaming at him for his stupidity. But no, that was his own reaction. Dad wouldn't do that. Dad would have patted him on the arm and said, 'We all fail sometimes. If you play, you sometimes lose. Don't dwell on it. Just don't lose next time.'

That was assuming there'd be a next time. He had to get himself out of this. If he could get himself down somehow, he might be able to slip back to the bunkhouse and no one would ever know. He could try again tomorrow. Something else. He'd prepare better. 'I'm still alive. I'm still thinking. That's all that matters. Until I'm dead, there's always a second chance.'

He struggled to find some way to kick against the metal without it paralyzing his leg. When he'd touched it the first time he hadn't felt it's effects. Maybe speed was the key. Or maybe the wiredome's effects were multiplied by how much mass passed through it. That made sense. He'd felt nothing on his fingertip; a tingling on his hand; and an almost instant reaction when his arms and head passed through.

The metal bar was sinking deeper into his gut. He could feel it with every breath. He was glad the paralyzing effect only applied to the surface of his body, otherwise he'd have died the instant his brain passed through.

He tried bunching his foot as far back into his shoe as he could get it. Try to push off against the fence with just the toe. It didn't work. He tried seven times. Still not enough leverage.

With every moment, Cody's panic rose. The sun would come up in another few hours. When would they start looking for him? Dammit, he couldn't even scream for help...

He heard footsteps.

'Oh shit.'

Someone was coming this way. Of course. Of course they'd have guards patrolling this place. Just because he hadn't seen any when he ran from the bunkhouse didn't mean they weren't there.

So now he was in a dilemma. Should he stay silent and avoid capture, or make noise and try to alert whoever it was? It might not even be a guard. It might be another Preykid who'd had the same idea bout escaping. Each breath Cody took seemed more difficult.

If he kept quiet, he might end up hanging here all night. His weight would push him down more and more onto that bar. He might really suffocate to death.

But would that be worse than the consequences of getting caught?

Cody would have to make his choice quickly. Those footsteps were coming closer, and soon they'd pass right by.

'Decision time,' he told himself. His face and ears felt like they were filling up with blood. 'If you stay here you might die. If you try to alert the guard, you are going to get punished, but you'll be alive a little bit longer. Certain death or half a chance. Fine. Choice is made.'

He hated doing this, but the logic was clear. He kicked his legs back and forth, making hollow clunks against the wiredome. The dull noise wasn't very loud. His choice might not have made any difference.

Or maybe it did. Those footsteps were definitely coming closer.

Cody couldn't see behind him. He'd been blind this entire time. It could be anyone there. Maybe that dog lady with the freakish mouth. She'd slide him in, and unlike Scott, she wouldn't let him out. He'd digest alive and no one would ever know.

The footsteps changed. They got louder as the furson stepped off grass and into the rustling brush of the clearing. They were zeroing in.

Cody had no idea how long it would take for the paralysis to wear off. He might have a very, very small window of attack if he needed to fight whoever this was.

The footsteps were passing the trees and pushing past the bushes.

'Don't focus on your fear. Focus on what you need to do.'

From directly behind him, there was a grunt of annoyance. "Thought so."

Suddenly gloved hands were around his waist.

In his mind, Cody screamed. A Predator's hands were on him! A Pred was holding him! This was his ultimate nightmare, and it was happening to him Right Now!

The hands lifted him up and out. Cody readied himself to kick out as hard as he could and run, and hope his top half wouldn't stay so numb it'd unbalance him.

"See, this is why I told you kids, if you're going to try this, take a buddy with you! Honestly!"

That voice... The tingling feeling was fading. When Cody could open his eyes again, he saw white fur.

Him. The actor from Broadcast Day. The voice of the Great Predator Army. The face that had made Cody spit at his TV in sheer hatred. This man had just possibly saved his life. The irony made Cody nauseous.

Guy put his hands on his hips. "Do you have any idea how bad you had it just then? I don't even know how you managed to get yourself into that position! If you'd stayed there much longer, that bar would have pressed up into your lungs and suffocated you!"

Cody barely looked at him. He felt humiliation oozing across the surface of his fur like tar. "I know."

The white fox sighed and shook his head. He gently took Cody's arm in his hand. "Well, come with me."

Cody let himself be led. Rarely had he ever felt like such a complete failure. He walked along beside the Pred. The moonlight lit up the fox's white fur like a glowworm. Cody looked up at his expression. He didn't even seem annoyed now. He looked like, 'just part of the job'. Cody didn't know if it was better or worse to have been captured by someone with such a professional attitude. The fox might be reasonable. Or he might simply snap his neck while humming a tune, then go about the rest of his business.

"How'd you find me?" Cody asked.

The fox patted a lump on his belt. "I got a beep. The wiredome sends out a signal when it activates. Then I just track it down like Marco Polo."


Cody considered running. The Pred wasn't holding him very tightly. But he still felt disoriented from the wiredome effect and his constricted breathing. If he took off, he'd be easily caught. There'd be no point in it. If he cooperated for now, he might feel better by the time they got within sight of where the prisoners were taken. He could try to bolt then.

Guy led him past the cafeteria, past the laundry room, then stopped at the door to the bunkhouse.

Cody looked up at him. "What now?"

"Now? What do you think? Now you go back to sleep."

Cody was dumbfounded. "What!? You just caught me red-handed trying to escape! You're not going to punish me? What kind of passive-aggressive mindfuck is this!?"

The white fox chortled and crossed his arms. "Do you want me to punish you? Maybe a spanking? Would that make you feel better?"

"No. Obviously," Cody snorted.

Guy leaned on the steps' railing, getting closer to eye level with the chipmunk. "For the most part, we don't 'do' punishment here, unless you've really done something to deserve it. You tried to escape. Fine. That's a perfectly natural response to being stuck someplace you don't want to be. We'd have to be jerks to punish you on top of that."

Cody's head was swimming. He had no idea what to believe. "You're kidding..."

"Why would I kid? Listen: we get it. You don't want to be here. But if you can just be patient, we will let you go in a week. We'll take you straight to your mom or dad or whoever. It's too dangerous for us to let you go any sooner. If you hate it here, I'm sorry, but just wait it out and it'll be over."

The fox smiled. "Tell you what; you go back to bed and I won't tell anyone about this. I mean, I do have to report that someone tried to breach security, but I can just say that as soon as I got there, they ran off. I know getting stuck must have been embarrassing."

Cody arched an eyebrow. His natural instinct was to be skeptical of this Pred. Preds did not do nice things for Prey without a hidden reason. Maybe this was to try to build trust among the captives. Lure them into a false sense of security.

'Or,' a nearly-foreign voice in his head spoke up, 'he's just a guy doing his job and he actually means what he says.'

Cody wasn't quite ready to believe that, but he supposed, purely from the law of probability, that some Preds could have normal emotions.

He tentatively put his hand out. "Thank you."

Guy shook it promptly. "You're welcome. And like I said; if you're going to try that again, I can't blame you, but at least take someone with you next time so I don't have to pull you out again."

"I will," Cody lied. If this experience had taught him anything, it was that the wiredome was a dead end. If the Preds were this cavalier about it, it meant the thing really was as escape-proof as it could possibly be, so they had nothing to worry about from Preys testing it. From now on, Cody would ignore it and look for other options.

Guy opened the bunkhouse door. "Goodnight, kid. Try not to wake anyone else up."

Cody nodded and walked past him.

The Pred shut the door, leaving Cody in darkness and snores again.

He couldn't believe he was back here. When he had left, of all the places he'd imagined ending up, this was not one of them. He'd thought if he got free he'd have to spend the rest of the night running through the forest, sleeping under trees when daylight came. He'd thought if he'd been caught they would have taken him to a kitchen or a jail cell or an interrogation room. But no, he was right back where he started. Like what he'd done had never even happened. Like it hadn't mattered at all.

'That's not true,' he reassured himself. 'Failure is useful if you can learn from it. I know about the wiredome now. I know not to mess with it again. Remember that gate you saw? Focus on that next. Maybe you can find out when it opens.'

Yolanda was still snoring her squeaky little snore as he passed her bunk. It put a brief smile on his lips. Kenny made snoozing sounds too.

Cody took off his shoes and socks and slipped under the covers. He didn't think he'd be able to get to sleep for a while.

Thankfully, the moon was just barely bright enough to read by.

Cody opened his book, then thought 'what the hell' and unwrapped one of the granola bars too.


Chapter 4