Genre: YA/ Dystopic
Imp reached back and slid the suits probe into her spinal port. Grabbing her long dark hair she twisted it into a ponytail, pulled the stealth suit hood over it and tucked her hair inside. She slid her gloves on and activated the suit. Her body hummed with excitement as the sensors embedded in the fabric gathered data from her surroundings and sent it snaking through her nervous system. Black and charcoal colored patches bloomed across the surface of the suit, resembling a long dead field of poppies. They bled into one another until they covered every inch of the suit making it impossible to distinguish Imp from her surroundings. She held her hand out and wriggled her fingers, straining to see them against the backdrop of the forest.
Defying orders to take it slow, she sprinted through the forest. The suit shifted colors rapidly to match the passing scenery, forcing an extreme amount of data through her body. The exhilaration of the tingling gave way to the unnerving sensation of a thousand tiny rats gnawing on her nerves. Imp pushed harder until the world began to dim at the edges of her vision and her stomach felt like it might divorce itself from breakfast.
She stopped and lurched over, palms resting against her thighs and gulped in air. It tasted stale and stung her nose but it was a cool. The air displaced the burning in her lungs and after a moment the lightheaded feeling slipped away. Confident she wasn’t going to pass out; she began negotiations with her stomach about the fate of her breakfast. This was not at all how she had envisioned starting her stealth suit training.
A few moments later Imp and her stomach had reached an agreement and she stood up slowly. She stepped forward gingerly as if checking to make sure the ground was still solid and finding it sound took another step. She had barely gone a foot when a horrible thought dawned on her. She whipped her head around and surveyed her surroundings. Had anybody seen her? The area appeared to be clear but with a zone full of camouflaged trainees she couldn’t be sure. She sighed, the last thing she needed today was to catch a load of flack from her fellow trainees. She swore that some of them – O.K. most of them – took great pleasure in looking for and pointing out the tiniest mistake in her performance. Not that that happened often, but she didn’t plan on handing them any opportunities. She began slowly through the woods again, this time taking her time getting used to the data transfer.
As she walked she tried to imagine what the transfer would’ve felt like when the forest had been alive. She had seen pictures of the world before, lush and green with all the colors of the spectrum represented. She shuddered at the thought of that running through her body. But the world she lived in was dark, forest nothing more than a negative of itself. The Great Wars had seen to that and the only time the forest ever looked green to her was in the dark, through her night vision contacts.
Lightning lacerated the sky overhead, followed by the rumble of thunder. The storms came more often these days, but they never brought rain. Even if they had, Imp wasn’t sure the ground was capable of being fruitful anymore. There wasn’t much that thrived outside the base nestled inside the mountain. Except those she had been trained her entire life to hunt.
Imp reached up and flicked her headset on. A series of numbers and letters streamed across the heads-up display embedded in the hood.“Janip, you there?” Imp asked.
“Yep, where you been?” came Janip’s voice from her headset. “The other teams have their stats coming in already. We’re falling down the ranking girl.”
“Yeah, because the other teams are slackers and doing merges with these little trees down low.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’m going up hill to the big trees.”
“We were told to stay low and take it slow” Janip asked.
“No, we were told not to go high. I’m not going high, just midway,” Imp snickered and then added, “and I promise to walk there slowly.”
Imp picked a rock up and rubbed it on the fabric next to her mic, “What I can’t hear you there’s a lot of static today.”
“Very funny,” Janip sighed.
Imp jogged up the hill and ticking through combat stances in her head, a trick she had learned in survival training for externalizing pain. That seemed to help keep her mind off the data flow and the queasiness stayed at bay. Several feet up the hill she made a quick right and headed toward a small grove of trees she had noticed on the map. As she neared it, she caught a fleeting glimpse of something from the corner of her eye. She stopped and turned toward the direction of the movement. The backdrop of the forest rippled slightly. Her hand fluttered to the empty holster on her belt.“Jan, did you see that on your display?” Imp whispered.
“I saw a…” she stopped mid sentence and frowned. She hadn’t really seen anything. “Like a ripple.”
“A ripple?” Janip questioned.
“Yeah. Like when you look at your reflection in water and then poke the surface and it ripples.”
Shifting her weight from one foot to the other to change her perspective, Imp continued towards the space where she had seen movement. While she had a great respect for her commanding officers who had assured the trainees that the zone had been swept and locked down for training and there would be no need for weapons, she had an even greater respect for her intuition. And right now hers was screaming that she wasn't alone.“Probably someone having trouble with their stealth suit. The system’s been kind of glitchy today and there are a couple of suits that aren’t reliably tracking. I don’t see anything near you on the map,” Janip said.
Some of the tension relaxed from Imp’s body but her hand still firmly gripped the empty holster. Over the past year five Slayers had disappeared while on duty, the most recent being Larkin. Imp had no plans for being number six. She continued to the grove, pausing a few times to check behind her. Whatever had had seen seemed to be gone. Perhaps Janip was right; it was just someone in a glitchy suit that had passed by.Imp stopped just short of the grove as if she had hit an invisible wall. Brow furrowed she stared at the grove trying to resolve what she was seeing. She had assumed the large dark spots on the map indicated trees that were larger than those on the forest floor. But now, standing before them she could see that wasn’t the case. These trees, though much smaller, were positioned so closely together that it was difficult to distinguish one from the next. Their branches entwined, twisted by the ancient winds and froze in time by petrifaction. They reminded Imp of a group of survivors, clinging to one another for safety. She supposed in some ways they were. While the trees below had begun to crack and break, losing branches as the stone got too heavy for the trunk to support, these had managed to defy the years and remain as they were in life. Stone monuments unto themselves.
“Are you seeing these?” Imp asked Janip.
“There’s no way you can do a merge to that. I mean maybe by the end of the week we can give it a try when we’ve gotten more practice in…”
“I was fine on the way up here,” Imp lied, thankful she had waited to turn her headset on, “We’re doing it now.”
“No way. Anything happens to you and it’s my ass that’s in trouble. Well, yours and mine but yours will be dead, so I’m more concerned about mine.”
“Why would you even want to try that?”
“There has to be eight to nine trees in that formation, the data stream is going to be gigantic. This one merge will give us at least double the points the other teams get. You were the one bitching about rankings earlier. Are you in or not?”
Imp crossed her arms and looked further up the hill as she waited for her Navigator’s response. Her headset remained silent. She noticed a smaller grouping of three trees a few yards away and crossed the short distance to get a better look. The branches of this group were also entwined but, unlike the larger group their trunks were spaced further apart, allowing just enough room for Imp to wriggle between them. A grin spread across her full lips. Being the smallest of the Slayers had its advantages.