We were loaded into a truck before dawn, wearing hastily-donned digital camouflage, forest pattern. Normally I’d have been complaining about that, but with the new schedule, it was actually a three-hour lie-in. I still enjoyed eight hours, and when I got it woke feeling more than usually rested and cheerful, but a couple of hours a night was enough. James did grumble a little, but only for the look of the thing.
In the truck with us was one of the less-than-orderly orderlies, and he taught us one more thing: how to reload a paint-ball gun. Then we were left on the side of a forestry road and told we had ten minutes before a squad of SAS soldiers were going to hunt us down with similar weapons. James was grinning like a hyena as the truck drove away.
“Oh, this is going to be fun,” he snarled.
“Really? I’ve heard about the SAS…” Alex told him.
“I think we can beat them, though,” I replied, not to her words but to the way she’d said them, “If we’re smart. Do you think you can walk like three people, James?” His grin didn’t change much, but there was a light in his eyes as he nodded at me.
“Fast enough to look like three people walking into the forest for a good two or three hundred metres if I start now.”
The details took about a minute to hash out, then James set off. Alex and I shared a quick grin not too dissimilar to his, then each shinned up a pine tree near the edge of the forest, and started moving along the path James had laid out. Even in the grey light just before the sun rose, I could see it clearly, but I knew that for SAS men told they were hunting three teenagers, it would look like we were trying to be as stealthy as we could. When James is good, he’s very, very good. And when he’s bad… well, none of his ex-girlfriends ever complained about that part of the relationship.
Clambering through the treetops was… an experience. I spent nearly ten seconds gazing at the texture of the pine bark, amazed by the patterns I saw there. We’d been surrounded by artificial things since the change, and this was my first contact with nature through my new senses. The complexity stunned me, almost literally. When I scraped a growing part of the tree, getting sticky pine sap on the heels of my hands, the scent of it almost filled my world. I kept moving, though.
Eight minutes later, another truck arrived. It was obvious the men inside hadn’t been told the full story, because I could clearly hear them joking about the task they’d been given. They moved like ghosts down either side of the path James had laid for them, and if they’d been hunting humans they might even have been considered to have been moving stealthily. As it was… it was shocking how quickly it was over.
James fired first, with a harsh little phut followed by a sudden flash of colour to match the pink and orange rising to the east. One of our opponents suddenly couldn’t see through his mask, and was a good enough sport to play dead immediately. Alex and I opened up then, a rain of rainbow munitions out of the forest canopy. They were well hidden, but in infrared they glowed against the cool air, and it was easy to fire the pellets through ferns and past tree trunks. In five seconds it was over, and every one of our opponents was spattered with at least one of the three colours we’d been firing. The sun was rising on us for the first time in three weeks, and we’d proven that we could use the skills we’d been taught to look after ourselves, even against the best.
Our victory breakfast contained no poison whatsoever.