Variant, p.18
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       Variant, p.18

         Part #1 of Variant series by Robison Wells
Page 18


  There were groans from the crowd, and players immediately began taunting each other.

  “This one’s good,” Lily whispered to me. “They’ll have one of our people, and one of us has to get up there and touch them. And the hostage can’t get shot. ”

  “Why would they make us starve? What are we supposed to learn from that?”

  “You tell me. They do this a lot. ”

  I looked at Mason but he just rolled his eyes.

  Lily’s mouth formed back into a bitter smile. “But we don’t have to worry about it, because we’re going to win. ”

  After a moment’s deliberation with the V’s, Curtis shouted, “Rosa will be the hostage. ” One of the older girls nodded, looking a little disappointed but not surprised. She was decked out from head to toe in dark, heavy camouflage that had hundreds of cloth leaves individually stitched onto it. She looked like a cross between a ninja and a swamp monster.

  “Rosa’s got asthma,” Lily whispered to me. “She has the best equipment and gun out of all of us, but she just doesn’t last long on the field. ”

  Mason leaned in. “And this frickin’ school won’t give her any medicine. ”

  Isaiah ushered Rosa up to the front. She handed her expensive gun to another girl.

  Isaiah waved his arms to get everyone’s attention. “And each team gets a medic,” he announced, reading from the minicomputer again. Jane immediately volunteered.

  “What does the medic do?” I asked Lily.

  “When there’s a medic in the game,” she said, “if you get hit you just stay where you are and she’ll touch you to heal you. But if she gets hit then she’s out. And a medic can’t heal a head shot. If you’re hit in the head, you just leave the field. ”

  Isaiah handed out a white armband with a red cross on it to Jane and the other medic, and then sent Havoc up into the woods, with Rosa in tow. Several of the Society refs started fanning out into the woods.

  Curtis sent our squad to the far left, and we waited outside the ribbon for the refs to blow the whistle. Even though it had been so cold during the night, the midday sun, even under the trees, was warm. Lily, her mask up on top of her head as she waited for the game to start, had sweat dripping down her temples.

  I looked out past the ribbon at the forest beyond. Several of the pines and rocks were spotted with paint from old games.

  “How big is the field?”

  “I once heard twenty or thirty acres,” Mason answered. “But I have no idea where that number came from. It’s not like we measured it. Just make sure you stay inside the ribbons—those are the boundaries. ”

  “I’m going to run,” Lily said, her eyes focused on the uneven terrain. “Stay about fifty feet behind me; when I stop, you stop. ”

  I nodded, but I wasn’t thinking about paintball. My mind had gone back to the night before, climbing that tree. Was there a chance I could sneak off the field now? How close did the paintball field get to the wall? How vigilant were the refs? What if our team was reffing?

  No, I thought. There are only as many paintball players as the smallest team, and since the Society was the biggest, they’d always have players off the field. Even if we were the refs, the Society would be around, maybe patrolling the wall on their four-wheelers.

  I glanced back at Lily. I couldn’t believe we could buy that stuff with points. It was like they were trying to get us to escape.

  The whistle sounded and Lily darted under the tape and sprinted forward. I ran after her, but despite her heavy poncho, she was still faster. We ran farther and faster than I thought we would. I had no idea how big twenty acres was, but we ran for a couple minutes before Lily began to slow and watch for Havoc defenses.

  The forest was silent except for the crunching under my feet. Lily was walking like soldiers in the movies—crouched low, gun ready. I tried to imitate her.

  Somewhere off to the right I heard a girl’s voice shout, “Medic!” and then a moment later a boy shouted the same thing. I didn’t recognize the voices and turned back to look at Mason to see if he knew who it was. It took me a second to see him, leaning against a tree. He motioned for me to keep my eyes front.

  Lily froze, watching something, and she gestured for me to get low. I knelt next to a dry spiky bush, and watched as Lily slowly crouched down. With her legs against the ground, the shaggy ghillie suit obscured her almost completely.

  I heard rapid firing from behind me and spun to see Mason spraying paintballs into the woods. I looked for his target, but couldn’t see anything. A moment later he stopped.

  I lifted up slightly, trying to see the enemy, and my bush erupted in splashes of paint. I fell down on my belly and heard Mason returning fire.

  When the shooting stopped, a whistle blew, and a ref jogged over to me and asked me to stand. He inspected my clothes, had me turn around, and then declared, “You’re not hit. ” The balls had exploded on the other side of the bush, and apparently not enough paint got me to count.

  I dropped back down and looked forward to Lily. She was on the move again, heading to the right, but motioned for me to stay where I was.

  Had I not known her before, I’d have never guessed the professional, commando-like player ahead of me was a short seventeen-year-old girl. Everything about her was different now: the way she moved, the constant level of alertness. Through the smudged paint on her legs I could see well-defined lines of muscle tone. I was glad she was on our team. Hopefully we wouldn’t be the ones without food for two days.

  I kept low and lost sight of her as she moved over a rise and into a thicket of juniper. Shots suddenly hissed out, and I heard a male voice swear and shout for a medic.

  Grinning, I looked at Mason, and he gave me a thumbs-up.

  Lily came charging back over the rise and urgently gestured for Mason and me to follow her. I jumped from the bush and ran. My bruise was throbbing, reminding me of the last time I’d been in the forest, but I ignored it.

  I almost ran past Lily before I saw her at the last minute, hiding behind a log. I dropped down beside her. Thirty feet ahead was the boy she’d shot—probably the same one who’d shot at me.

  “We’ll ambush the medic,” she said, out of breath. She kept her eyes forward but pointed at a boulder several yards to our left. “You get behind that. When they get here, wait till they get close, and start shooting. Then get down. Mason, get over in that thicket. We want them to think that Benson’s alone and doesn’t know what he’s doing. ”

  “That won’t be hard,” I joked, but Lily ignored it.

  “Go,” she whispered.

  The injured kid shouted again for a medic. Lily had told me earlier that injured players aren’t allowed to say anything else—he wouldn’t be able to warn them.

  I waited, leaning on the rock high enough that someone would be able to see me. I watched the forest ahead—there was plenty of cover. A tiny stream dribbled down on the far side of the thicket, and tall brush—five feet tall in some places—grew at its bank.

  The injured guy rolled and pulled a pinecone out from under his back. I wondered which of the Havoc kids he was. He looked too short to be Oakland.

  I heard the shot—the sharp hiss of compressed air—but I didn’t see the shooter before a paintball smacked into my shoulder. A second hit me in the ribs, just above my bruise. I gasped in pain at the sting and then raised my arms in defeat. I was dead.

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