Authors: Annelie Wendeberg
Tags: #Dystopian, #Romance, #civil war, #child soldiers, #pandemic, #strong female character
Copyright 2015 by Annelie Wendeberg
This is a work of fiction. Characters, places, and names in this book are products of the author’s imagination. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the copyright owner.
Cover and interior design by Annelie Wendeberg.
Books by this author:
Mickaela Capra Series:
Anna Kronberg Series:
The Devil’s Grin
The Lion’s Courtship
Find out more at:
— to the girls from workshop 106 —
Part One - Itbayat
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence the world
Rainer Maria Rilke
My breathing is calm; my lungs know what to do before my finger pulls the trigger. Long breath out. Long breath in. Hold, release. Fire.
But not yet. Not quite.
My cheek brushes the stock of my rifle; the crisscross patterns carved into it feel rough against my skin. My index finger rests against the trigger guard, ready to squeeze off a round at Runner’s chest.
The hunt began three days ago and I’ve spent much of that time in trees. He prefers to dig himself a hole in the ground, disappear and wait for his targets to walk past. I have a hunch he’s expecting me to do the same. But maybe he’s expecting me to do the exact opposite, in which case, I’ll be screwed.
The circular view of my finder shows the forest in crisp shades of grey and green, with crosshairs and mil-dots stamped on it. The night-eye fastened to my scope works perfectly, but my vision doesn't. Until last night, my brain compensated for the monocular vision — my one eye receiving the combined signals of image intensification and active shortwave infrared through the scope, my other eye seeing nothing but pitch black, and both combined to a neat picture in my head.
Now, it’s all jumbled. No matter how hard I stare, the world is drifting in and out of focus, the circular view flickers this way and that. If I shut my eyes for a few seconds, I would fall asleep and out of the tree. The muck a few metres below wouldn’t soften the drop much.
My limbs tremble. Whether from being cold or exhausted, I’m not sure. Probably both. I’m not even sure if my soaked clothes help at all. My skin temperature is about 32°C, the outside temperature is 19°C. That’s 13°C difference; enough to show up in Runner’s night-eye, even with the ghillie — a sniper’s fuzzy camouflage suit — blurring my outline. Every now and then, I climb down, shed my ghillie, roll in water or muck to lower my skin temperature by unknown degrees, and then pull the ghillie back on to blur whatever thermal signature is left. I have no way of knowing how well this works, since I can’t look through my own night-eye and check how much I glow in the infrared channel.
I think I slept for a total of four hours, a few minutes each time I couldn’t hold myself upright any longer. Four hours in a total of seventy. It’s stupid to sleep, but it’s even stupider to aim a highly accurized rifle when the one aiming has lost her sense of what’s up and what’s down. I could just as well be drunk. Same difference.
The food problem hasn’t been a problem, really. There is enough to forage, although mostly low-calorie stuff like fruits and small nuts. I don’t dare eat the mushrooms since I don’t know them all yet and a poisonous one might slip my notice. If I lit a fire, Runner would find me in a flash. That’d be awkward.
Hey dude, hold your fire, I have this extra delicious…
No wild goat or crab meat for me, although they are all over the island. I don’t dare kill a goat. It’s too large an animal to cleanly get rid of blood and guts and excess meat I wouldn’t be able fit into my stomach. The carcass would attract attention and that’s the opposite of what I want. Raw crab tastes like snot. I tried it and almost puked. I had raw lizard, though. It’s tolerable as long as one doesn’t think about taste and consistency. But the thing was tiny and not one of its buddies was willing to cross my path after they’d seen what I did to lizard number one.
I’m lucky, though. Runner hasn’t gotten a glimpse of me in three days and nights, and I’m uninjured, healthy, and strong enough to go for another six to twelve hours without toppling over. My rifle feels like a third arm, third eye, and second heartbeat to me. My trap is set. Despite the rain earlier tonight, my footprints are laid out clearly — from my far left all the way to my far right, before elaborately snaking back to the tree I chose as my hideout.
I shift my weight and flex my fingers.
The hairs on the back of my neck begin to prickle. Cicadas are clicking. Birds are hooting. All is as it should be. And yet…
I’m not cold anymore. I move my head a fraction and scan the perimeter. The waning moon cuts leafy shadows across the forest floor. Fog begins to rise in silvery tendrils. And there! A movement to my right, subtle and easy to miss.
Shit, he’s good. His thermal signature is nonexistent; his movements are exceedingly slow and most of his body is hidden behind a thick tree. I can’t get a clean shot. I’ll have to wait until he steps away from the trunk. From the little I can see, he seems to be wearing a mask under the hood of his ghillie.
He doesn’t look up. I’ll be the first to know when he does. He moves forward a fraction. The barrel is pointed to the ground. He doesn’t seem to know I’m here.
I inhale slowly, exhale, and hold. My index finger increases the pressure on the trigger. Just a little bit more. Come, Runner. Just one step farther. Put your centre mass in my kill zone.
He takes that step and, in a move too fast for me to comprehend, he lifts his rifle and points the muzzle in my direction.
I hear the
at the same moment the pain spreads through my ribcage, slamming all air from my lungs. Shocked, I jerk, slide, and lose my grip. My hands flail, trying to catch the branch that now quickly evades my reach. Pieces of moss shred off the bark and fall with me.
The shortest moment of wind in my hair.
Then, the forest floor hits me hard on my back. I gulp. My lungs are a frozen clump of agony. My eyes burn. The singing in my ears drones out the soft noise of approaching footfalls. But I can see him, his weapon at the ready, eyes glittering in the moonlight.
He slips off his mask. ‘What did you put on your face?’ He bends down and dips a finger at my cheek. ‘Mud. Hmm. The thermal imager picked it up. Good hiding spot, though. Why did you wait? You could have shot me.’
‘Hhhhh,’ is all I can answer.
‘Are you all right?’
The asshole hasn’t asked me how I am since we arrived here. He has his toughen-up-Micka project going. As if I needed any of that. On my second day of training — after he was done chasing me through the surf for twenty-four hours and sand had rubbed my skin raw, especially the private places — I decided that whatever pain he dishes out, I’ll take it and ask for more.
As usual, I show him my middle finger.
‘Excellent. Debriefing at sunrise, land-navigation training at oh nine hundred. You have two hours. Get patched up.’
Yeah, sure. As if I have the habit of asking anyone to bandage my ouchies. I touch my side where the marker hit. My fingers find the slimy paint. I bring my hand to my face, but can’t identify the colour. Last time he used a purple so intense and sticky, I couldn’t get it off me for hours.
I blink and turn my head to watch him leave. Slowly, the world drifts into focus. Runner’s gone.
It took me twenty minutes to reach our camp. Kat was already up and about. She saw me limping past, raised an eyebrow and told me to follow her into the comm tent. Knowing that a physical would entail getting undressed, I shook my head. Besides, I don’t trust her. There’s something off with Kat. She’s tough as nails, efficient, and rarely expresses any emotions. But that’s just the obvious. It’s as though she has this space around her, a bubble of harshness that keeps people away. When you dare to step into this bubble, her pupils contract and her eyes grow cold. She’s a communications specialist — not someone you’d find in the first line of defence, but I could swear she knows from experience how to kill. And something tells me there’s no soft core underneath all her rough layers.
So when she grabbed me by my arm and stopped me half-way to my tent to examine me for injuries, I automatically switched to counter-attack mode. It’s as if someone has flicked a switch in my brain. There’s never fear. My skin heats and the flavours of cold brass and iron spread at the back of my tongue. Time slows and I know where precisely I have to hit and kick to cause a shitload of damage.
But when her fingers pushed and probed through my shirt, I wasn’t so sure anymore what to do first: pass out from the stabbing pain, or punch her throat. She told me that fractures of the ribs are unlikely — seeing that it doesn’t seem to be hurting much — but should I experience breathing difficulties, I’m to let her know at once and Ben will fly me to a physician on the mainland. A pneumothorax isn’t fun.
As if flying with Ben is any more fun. He would probably pull one of his loops while I’m trying to hold on to dear life, puking all over his airplane.
I wasted another thirty minutes on peeling my body out of mud and clothes (splattered with lovely pale-green marker slime), wiping the sweat and dirt off my skin, and replacing a few items in my rucksack. There’ll be no sleeping until we are finished with debriefing and land navigation training and whatever else Runner comes up with today. But I’ll not worry about it until I topple over. He can either leave me snoring wherever I plop down, or ask Ben to carry me to my bunk. Ben would be delighted, I’m sure.