Renegades – Bella Forrest

I braced myself against the hard floor, feeling the friction of the rubble and rock beneath my boots, my eyes facing forward. Sweat dripped down my forehead, with rivulets meandering beneath the collar of my military vest, winding their way between my tensed shoulder blades. Everything ached, though I had learned to ignore the constant, dull pain that pulsed through my body. It was part of me now. Up ahead, appearing from behind crumbling buildings, a swarm of holographic enemy soldiers were gearing up to retaliate. I kept my eyes on them, trying to count how many were approaching, but there were too many. They moved slowly at first, blending into formation, clutching their weapons to their sides. I took a deep breath and waited for the moment we could strike. To my left and right stood a line of Queen Brisha’s coldblood trainees, their focus never leaving the oncoming enemy, each one holding their weapon of choice. Some carried enormous pikes that crackled, while others gripped the leather handles of deadly blades. Guns were too easy for the trainees, since anyone could shoot one and the enemy could disable firearms with a jammer on the battlefield. Close combat was a more revered skill within the coldblood army. The masked holograms broke into a slow jog, charging at us from over the hills of rubble, the crunch of their boots providing a terrifying percussion to the already-intense boom of the overhead explosion sound effects. My pulse was racing, my hands shaking, even as I reminded myself that this was only a simulation. Still, I didn’t want to let anyone down, not when I had come so far.

I refused to be the weak link. More than that, I refused to let Pandora be right about me. I needed to prove that I could be as good as the coldbloods on either side of me. I was just different. “You ready for this?” Navan shouted from beside me. He was clutching a katana-like sword, the blade glinting as he took a half-step forward, holding the blade horizontal in front of his face. “Ready!” I adjusted the gear I’d been given. The heavy vest was made of a strange, almost rubbery material that made me feel like I was wearing half a wetsuit, with glowing green piping that ran through every seam, making it blaze with light. Everyone on the trainee side wore one to help monitor performance during the battle, and to indicate when a person was “out.” Around my waist and across my chest was a bandolier of knives, small but perfectly formed, designed to fit my fingers and my skillset.

I pulled the straps tighter just to be sure I wouldn’t lose any of them in the fight. I’d already been reprimanded for doing that, two days before, and it wasn’t an experience I was eager to repeat. My arms still throbbed from the Vysanthean version of five hundred push-ups. Looking toward the enemy army, which was now mere yards away from where I stood, I refastened the fingerless gloves I was wearing, which were forged from the same rubbery material as the vest, and flexed my fingers, plucking a knife from the side of my waist and preparing to make my first strike. It had only been a week since we’d started our military training, and this was our first chance to try out the skills we’d learned. There had been a few test runs that hadn’t exactly been successful, especially where my knife-throwing was concerned, but this was the first full-fledged battle scenario we’d been allowed to participate in. I could feel the rush of adrenaline in my veins, making me faster, stronger, sharper, but there was no telling how this would play out. All I knew was I had to show I was worthy. “Not long now!” Navan said, turning in my direction. I managed a teasing smile.

“Then keep your eyes on the enemy!” The world shifted as the holographic soldiers burst into action. Some sprinted at us, while others extended their mighty wings and took to the skies before plummeting to the ground in death-defying stunts of aerial warfare, launching various forms of artillery. Holographic arrowheads and darts shot from beneath their wings. Other soldiers crashed down in a spiraling movement, the flash of a sword whirling around them, striking at trainees left, right, and center. I leapt out of the way of a stray dart, watching with regret as the vest of the trainee behind me turned red, signifying he was now out of the game. The coldblood scowled in my direction, clearly blaming me for the blow he hadn’t been quick enough to dodge. I’d had to deal with a lot of that over the last week—endless blame for things I hadn’t done, because I was the puny Kryptonian, not fit to fight beside these superior Vysantheans. Navan had told me to just ignore it and prove to them I was capable in my own right by getting through the scenarios, but it was hard to push away their endless negativity. I flung the knife in my hand at the nearest hologram—a giant coldblood with wings twice my size—and watched with satisfaction as the blade struck its heart. A moment later, the figure flickered and sparked before disappearing from the game, the hologram taken down.

Sprinting for cover behind the remnants of a cracked wall, I released four more knives, each one sailing clean through my chosen assailant, prompting them to flicker and disappear, just as the first had done. I felt a whoosh of air behind me and turned in time to send a knife through the neck of an enemy soldier who had sought to take me by surprise. As it disappeared, I let loose another blade, taking out an identical figure just behind where the first had stood. I didn’t know if it was a glitch in the game or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Realizing I had used most of the knives strapped across my chest, I pressed the buttons attached to the wrists of my fingerless gloves, prompting them to light up with a silvery glow. There was a magnetic connection between the gloves and the handles of the knives I had thrown, meaning they could be brought back to me at will, but to do that, I had to have a clear path, to avoid accidentally injuring one of my teammates. I had already had close calls with at least three other coldblood trainees, who refused to let me live it down, even though the cuts to their faces and arms had faded away to nothing thanks to the vials they all took. They had it easy. I was still covered in bruises and scrapes, unable to ingest the medicines they were using to rapidly heal themselves. Navan had tried to dilute one of the potions so that I could take it, but so far it had only succeeded in giving me cramps.

Focusing on the blades that glinted on the ground, I drew my fingers inward, feeling the vibration of the magnetic force as the knives came hurtling back to me. I moved my hands to the left and right, trying to navigate them through the clusters of coldbloods, and ended up taking out two more holograms in the process. “Navan, get out of the way!” I yelled, suddenly realizing he had shifted position. One of my knives was heading his way. I tried to stall it, but it was too late—it was moving too fast. Navan looked puzzled for a moment, then spotted the deadly projectile racing toward him. He ducked just in time, the edge of the knife catching him on the apple of his cheek before shooting past him on its way back to my hands. “Maybe warn me sooner next time!” Navan panted, returning to his full height. “Sorry!” I flushed, grasping each knife as it returned to me and placing it back in its slot on the bandolier. All around me, the sky had darkened with Brisha’s coldbloods, their wings flapping majestically as they clashed with the holograms.

Although my knives could fly an impressive distance, I couldn’t, giving me a clear disadvantage when it came to pointscoring. I watched one of the coldbloods, a female named Vizeria, slashing away with a curved saber, taking out hologram after hologram as she rocketed through the air, twisting like a whirling dervish, unrelenting and terrifying. Navan jogged up beside me, distracting my attention from the formidable air force. He turned his samurai blade with a flourish, taking off the head of an attacker who had sprinted up behind him before settling behind a fallen spire with me. “How’s it going?” he asked, his eyes peering over the lip of the makeshift shield. “Okay,” I replied, flinging two knives through the abdomens of two enemies. They flickered and fell, and Navan whistled, raising an impressed eyebrow. “Your knife skills are getting better and better. You just need a bit more practice with those gloves,” he said, nodding to the offending articles, which had left the deep cut on the side of his face. “I’m getting there,” I promised, taking out another two enemies.

“Come on, we need to take out more of these tools. Otherwise, this game is never going to end!” We picked our way over the rubble, firing at any holograms that crossed our path, though most of them were distracted by the aerial forces above us. I grimaced, realizing I was probably holding Navan back from his full potential, since he seemed eager to stick by me instead of taking to the skies. If I had a set of wings, I knew with practice I could be as formidable as the rest of them. I felt it in my bones. Just then, my boot caught on a piece of twisted metal, and I stumbled forward, my knees crashing to the ground. As I doubled over, I felt the bite of the blade edges from the bandolier nipping at the vest, though it kept them from piercing my skin. A split second later, Navan gripped my arm and hauled me up, narrowly avoiding a stray arrowhead that shot past, just above his shoulder. “You okay?” he shouted over the noise. “Yeah, don’t worry.

” I laughed tightly, not wanting him to see how frustrated I was. Hearing the telltale flurry of air behind me, I dove to one side, twisting in midair before landing heavily on my back. I grasped at two of my throwing knives, sending them hurtling through the body of an enemy, only to catch the arm of one of my own teammates, who had been trying to creep up behind the enemy to take him out. With a sinking feeling, I watched as the coldblood’s vest turned red, his eyes growing stony as he looked down and saw that he was out. Whether you got hit by a holographic or a real weapon, the result was the same: game over. “Sorry!” I shouted as he angrily grasped at his cut, then turned and stalked away toward the base square, where all “dead” soldiers had to return. I hurried to my feet, knowing there would be more holograms coming for us, especially as the trainee numbers seemed to be dwindling. To my surprise, all around us trainees were landing, their faces angry, their vests glowing a vibrant red. I stood there, frozen, trying to take stock of what was going on. A moment later, Navan shoved me roughly to the ground as he took out a team of three spiraling enemies, who were shooting down from the skies.

I hadn’t even heard them coming or seen them in my periphery. All I could think about was the coldblood I’d accidentally taken out and the rookie mistakes I was making. Focus, Riley. Get your head back in the game , I told myself furiously as I jumped back up, sending out the rest of my throwing knives in quick succession. The little pep talk seemed to have worked, as my weapons splayed out across the battlefield, taking out enemies, the holograms flickering and sparking before disappearing from the simulation. Realizing I had no more knives on my bandolier, I pushed the buttons on my gloves once more, feeling the powerful vibration of the magnetic force as it struggled to reach out to the blades I had thrown. To my horror, I realized nothing was happening. A few of the knives wriggled a little, but none of them seemed to want to return. “They’re not coming back!” I shouted, panicking. “You’ve thrown them too far,” Navan said as he hauled a huge block of stone in front of us, ducking down beside me.

“You’re going to have to fight hand-to-hand,” he added, with a grimace that didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. How was I supposed to take on coldbloods in hand-to-hand combat? A holographic arm suddenly slipped around my throat. I made a small sound of shock that caused Navan to turn sharply, wielding his sword, but there was no way he could slash the attacker away without risking hurting me. Thinking fast, I remembered what I knew of Aksavdo, the Vysanthean martial art. I placed one hand over the enemy’s arm and pulled, putting some space between us, before dropping to the ground, causing my assailant to roll to the floor. Navan plunged his sword straight through the figure, forcing it to disappear with a dull fizz. As I caught my breath and looked around, I realized that Navan and I were now the only two left on the battlefield, with a limited number of enemies still coming at us in waves. For the most part, Navan was doing the grunt work, slashing this way and that with his katana, but I raised my fists and struck at anyone who came too close. I knew I was holding him back, but there was nothing else I could do. We were still too far away from where my knives had fallen, and per the rules, Navan wasn’t allowed to fetch them for me, which left nothing but my limited knowledge of Aksavdo to get me through.

I was just glad I couldn’t see the rest of the trainees watching us. I didn’t need the distraction of their hostile faces, waiting for me to fail. A circle of enemy soldiers came at us, hemming us in. Navan zigzagged between them, focusing on protecting me from their weapons, but one broke through his defenses and hurtled toward me. I dropped to the ground, managing to duck under the soldier hologram’s sword stroke and trip it over its own feet. It reached out for my arm as it fell, but I managed to dodge it. Before I could go another round with the hologram, Navan swooped in behind me, gripping my arm and pulling me away. I opened my mouth to tell him it was okay, that I had this hologram under control, then watched in horror as a soldier emerged from behind him and plunged a knife into his back. A look of shock rippled across Navan’s face as his vest lit up red. In a flicker, the enemy and the knife vanished, the scenery shifting back to black screens, the rubble and texture disappearing beneath my boots.

The sky faded away to a plain white ceiling. At the far side of the training room, my teammates were watching through the glass of the observation chamber. They couldn’t have looked more unimpressed if they tried. Navan had fallen, while the puny Kryptonian was the last one left standing—though they’d all seen she didn’t deserve to be. I sighed. The simulation was over.

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