Monday, July 9, 2012
Author: Shelley Koon
Imp twisted her long dark hair into a ponytail, pulled on the hood of the stealth suit and tucked her hair inside. She activated the suit’s monitor initiating the camouflage data transfer. The white fabric of the suit phased to a mottled pattern of charcoal and black, a perfect match to the charred, petrified forest that surrounded her. A tingling began at the base of her neck where the suit’s probe was plugged into the port wired into her spine. The sensation snaked through her nervous system and exploded across her skin turning it a deep grey to match the suit. Imp held her hand out and wriggled her fingers, straining to see them against the backdrop of the forest.
She wound through the dead trees, her skin and suit shifting colors to match the changing scenery. The sensation was unnerving, like a million tiny spiders marching across her flesh. Imp couldn’t imagine what the data transfer would have felt like when the forest had been alive, lush with countless shades of green, yellow and blue. But the Great Wars had come and left the forest nothing more than a negative of itself. The only time it ever looked green to her was in the dark, through her night vision contacts.
The trees that made up the forest were long divorced from their bark and had turned to stone. They more closely resembled skeletal arms than trees. Their upper spindly branches disappeared into the low hanging clouds of the darkened sky. They reminded Imp of fingers searching in vain for the sun that might make them whole again.
Lightning lacerated the sky, 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. The only thing that thrived outside of the mountain colony were Variants, creatures that had once been human. Descendants of those at ground zero of the bio-chemical warheads, the Variants were one more causality of the War. Many Variants had long ago come to the mountain and pledged their allegiance in exchange for shelter and safety, but not all had. Those that stayed in the poisoned fields continued to mutate into more volatile species. It was these Variants that Imp, and her fellow Slayer candidates were being trained to eradicate.
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 direct stealth test stats coming in already. We’re falling down the ranking girl.”
“Yeah, because the other teams are slackers and staying down low where the easier trees are.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I’m going to head up hill. The trees there are worth three time the points to tap into.”
“Falcor said to stay low,” Janip said.
“No, he said don’t go high. Technically I am only going midway up the hill.”
“No, I just hate to lose.”
Imp jogged up the hill toward a small grove of trees she had noticed on the map for Zone 00. Used primarily for non-combat and peripheral training, the Zone was locked down and swept twice a day for stray Variants. Still, Imp had been uneasy when the trainers had told them they would not need their weapons for the day’s training. Over the past year five Slayers had disappeared while on duty, the most recent being Larkin. Imp had no plans for being number six.
As she neared the grove, she caught a fleeting glimpse of something from the corner of her eye. She whipped her head in the direction of the movement and 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.”
“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.”
“Gotcha,” Imp said, her hand still gripped firmly on the empty holster.
She reached the grove and walked around the perimeter. The trees were smaller than those on the forest floor and 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 the petrification. They reminded Imp of a group of survivors, clinging to one another for safety. She supposed in some ways they were survivors. While the trees below had begun to crack and break, many of them losing their 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 direct stealth merge to that. I mean maybe by the end of the week we can give it a try when you’ve practiced a few directs…”
“I was fine on the way up here. We’re doing it now.”
“No way. All you’ve done before is indirect phasing – direct phasing is completely different. Anything happens to you and it’s my ass 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?”
“Because the stats are based on my ability to create a successful camouflage with a tree and the amount of image data I can match. 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 three times the points the other teams are racking up and get top ranking again this week.”
“Winning’s not everything, you know.”
“Actually, it is,” Imp said.
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. Being the smallest of the Slayers had its advantages.
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