Gasoline

"We are at war. We need only the best. And sometimes the best come from the worst of us."

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4. Chapter Three

Damp leaves swatted at my cheek. I brushed a branch gingerly away from my face, watching from my perch as the white holograms paced the forest floor underneath. The rain had ceased slightly, making the air heavy and humid.
Usually, to distract the holograms, I used illusions and trickery, allowing me to stab them from afar or even behind. I’d never given any thought to using mind control on them—why would it work? They weren’t real people; they were projections with no conscience.


But now, as I perched precariously on a branch probably too feeble to hold my weight much longer, I wondered if it was worth a shot.


One hologram stepped through the bushes directly below me. It bore a long spear in one ghostly hand, very real compared to its owner. Gently letting go of the branch, I pressed my clammy palms together before pulling them apart slowly. A crackling ball of green energy appeared, spinning viciously and spitting emerald embers.


“Slowly...” I whispered, peering down through the bushes. I seriously hoped holograms wouldn’t pick up on the heat coming from the energy.


Waiting patiently for it to creep forward, I rolled my palms slowly over the ball. The brightness of the energy kept me entertained for a little while—I liked that part of my enhancement. For once, I created something beautiful and interesting, even if I didn’t get to use it very often.


Snap.


Bingo.


The hologram stepped straight into my line of fire. Grinning, I brought the ball up to my face and blew softly. The ball exploded silently into a cloud of green colour, the exact same colour of the few remaining leaves on the ground. The shimmering cloud drifted down toward the hologram, surrounding it, encasing the white figure in an explosion of glittering green.


It dropped to the ground like a fly.


Yes." So it did work on holograms.


A noise made me look up.


Like the cracking of a twig under a heavy foot, the snap sounded again. Pushing back, I crept silently down the trunk of the enormous oak tree. Inky sky dark above me and littered with thousands of stars, I shifted toward the clearing. At my feet the white hologram juddered once more, outline shaking, before fading into the soil below.


Good to know.


Another snap. I conjured a blade into my fist, the illusion solidifying into reality. My heartbeat didn’t pick up and my breathing stayed regular. We trained for situations like this every week, and Trials came more than four times a month. This was no different—although you’d have to be blind not to have seen the cameras shielded within the trees.


A tiny giggle sounded.


My throat tightened, teeth grinding against one another. She was here.

 

“Amora,” I sang quietly. “Come out, come out wherever you are.”


A sudden heat flared against the back of my neck. I yelped, spinning round.


Flames lapped at the base of the oak’s trunk, fingers climbing higher. They reached for where I’d been sitting only minutes ago. With a snap, the flames spread round in a circle, encasing me in the small clearing. The mess of orange and yellow was too bright against the blackness surrounding me. I squinted, trying to force my contacts to adjust, but the smoke clouded at them.


“I didn’t ask him to vote for me.”


A hole flared in the centre of the raging fire. Dressed in the clinging jumpsuit, Amora stepped through. Her blonde curls were tied up neatly into a swinging ponytail. Ashes clung to her face like eyeliner, jagged and harsh.


Her eyebrows rose innocently and she laughed, “Really, Levison. I didn’t make anybody bet on me.”


“But he still did,” I spat. Smoke forced its way down my throat, choking my lungs. “He still chose you over me.”


“And how,” she asked, pacing. “Is that surprising in any way? You killed someone.” Another laugh, bitterer this time. “You should be in prison.”


Eyes streaming, I swallowed against the squeezing of my throat.


The way she moved...it was like a cat. Limbs sure and confident, padding silently. Her bright eyes didn’t leave me as she said, “But because of who your daddy is, you get to live out your life in a comfy little city built all for you.”


“You think I wanted to?” I rasped. “He made me kill him. He couldn’t be king unless his brother was dead, so he got his disabled son to do the dirty work.”


There it was. Thrown out there, left to the wind like rubbish. Amora’s eyes glittered, and she stopped in front of me. My stomach plummeted and—when had I started shaking?


Her hand rose to gently stroke at my face. Something like sanity crossed her expression, and she pressed her icy thumb into my sharp cheekbone. When she pulled it away, a droplet of clear liquid dangled from the slender digit.


A tear.


“I can’t change my reputation, kid,” she whispered. Her head shook slightly. “And neither can you. But there’s no way I’m letting you win tonight.”


I frowned. “Win?”


Mock surprise flooded her face and she danced away from me, crying out with delight. “You didn’t hear? Seriously? They want a victor.” Waving a hand, the flames burned higher. “I mean sure, they’re still going to take all of us out, but they all want somebody they can sink their teeth into. Someone they can chant for. A leader.


I had no idea what she was on about. My fingers tightened around the blade.


She noticed, and grinned. “Whoever impresses Reid the most tonight? Wins. Becomes a fan favourite. Gets shoved into the public eye and declared the boss of our sad little team.”


“Why?”


“Why? Because they need us. We’re facing a very new and unique problem, kid.” She winked. “And us with all our freakish powers are just the answer.”


Sweat trickled down my brow. My contacts blurred, threatening to give out, and I groaned, trying to focus on Amora.
“That’s why only one of us is walking out of here,” she finished. “You’re my biggest competition. Wipe you off the board and its full steam ahead.”


With my contacts malfunctioning from the smoke, I had no hope in hell of winning against Amora. I coughed, choking harder as the air thinned. She watched me drop to the ground, the blade bouncing away from me.


Sighing, she bent elegantly and picked it up. “Such a same. You really do deserve a much more sophisticated death than this.”


Lungs seizing inside my chest, I shakily forced myself to look up at her. She was blurred against the background of screaming flames, a black smudge in existence. I was out of options. I had nowhere to run.


Raising the blade, she delicately sang, “I won’t miss you, kiddo.”


From where I lounged in the tree, I chewed on a berry and waved my hand. The cowering illusion of my choked up self disappeared into the night, and the blade in Amora’s hand passed straight through thin air.


I smirked. Levi, one, Amora, zero.


Her shrieks of anger echoed through the woods. The urge to laugh almost overcame me, but I couldn’t give away my position. I settled instead for another ball of energy sent in her direction. The sight of her collapsing to the ground in a sudden state of unconsciousness brought me immense pleasure. The heat of the flames steadily climbing the tree started to lick at me—my cue to move, then. Silently, I stole a few more berries and shifted from the oak to the sturdy branch of the neighbouring tree. Twigs caught in my hair. Popping the rest of the fruit into my mouth, I eased down the trunk of the smaller tree and vanished into the deeper undergrowth.


When I got far enough away, I heard the sound of water flushing through the forest. The steady swing of a red light notified a fire crew had arrived. The fire dimmed lower and lower until it was extinguished completely. Now that was something I was jealous of Amora for; even unconscious, the results of her enhancement could still burn on.


The rest of the Trial was surprisingly uneventful. I slashed my way through countless holograms, barely even thinking about my targets. That came naturally to me. That was what I was good at. But no matter how many white silhouettes I sent back to their technological origins, I couldn’t ignore the pounding in the back of my skull.


Why did I let the illusion tell her?


Generally, I allowed my illusions to say and do as they please. They come across more believable that way, more substantial as a creation. And, I can’t lie; I enjoyed seeing Amora thinking she was actually winning for once. But when it had regurgitated the story of me killing my uncle, I hadn’t made any move to stop it. Something about that confused me; I’d never told any of the others why I’d been shoved into the compound. The story had even been kept out of the media. My uncle’s death had been declared a ‘tragic and unexpected failure of the heart.’ Which, actually, was kind of true, but his ‘heart failure’ had been because of the knife sticking through it.


So why had I been completely fine with my second self telling a psychopath about it?


All of a sudden I felt extremely unsteady. On my feet and in my head. Telling Amora that could ruin me, and my family’s image. Shaking my head, I fought back the bile in my throat. I didn’t care about ruining their image—it was me I had to think about. A small part of me still hoped our confrontation hadn’t been filmed. I didn’t need ‘LEVISON FLETCHER VS KING GEORGE: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?’ showing up in tomorrow’s headlines.


I steadily jogged back toward the football pitch when the bell sounded again. I’d ended up further away than I thought; my legs started burning before I was even halfway there. I really wasn’t a runner, although my body type screamed it. Calves aching, I hurdled over a fallen trunk and collided into someone.


They shrieked as we both fell to the ground. I narrowly missed falling onto a jagged branch and tossed myself sideways, landing heavily on my side. All the air in my lungs whooshed out. Gasping, I pressed my temple against the mossy ground. The gentle scent of dirt and grass filled my head as my ribs heaved.


A flash blurred in my peripheral vision and a hand jabbed down to pull me up. I staggered to my feet, breathlessly massaging the blossoming bruise on my ribcage.


Wide-eyed, Sophia brushed herself down. “Sorry, Levi, I didn’t see you.” Her voice shook—when I looked down, I noticed her hands vibrating, too.


“What’s wrong?”


Her eyes flickered and she said, “What, you don’t know?”


“Know—ah,” I winced. “Know what?”


“We’re getting out,” she breathed. “All of us. Amora found out and told Ivor. He got it to everybody before halftime was up.”


Amora’s words rang in my ears, I mean, sure, they’re still going to take all of us out. She’d been useful for one thing.

 

Nodding, I said, “She told me that much. She also said something about a leader?”

 

Sophia opened her mouth, but was cut off by, “Recruits, please make your way back to the pitch, I repeat, please make your way back to the pitch.”


Trying to ease her nerves, I winked at her and said, “Race ya.”


That familiar grin, albeit weak, reappeared on her dark-skinned face, and she laughed, “Bring it.”


Ignoring the jabbing pain in my side, I pushed off a nearby tree and bolted toward the glow of the football pitch. Sophia was undistinguishable against the mess of black and green around me, but she never sped ahead. Instead, frustratingly, she kept just a tiny bit ahead of me. Her laughter bounced round the trees.


She fell back to match my speed as we hurtled back onto the pitch. My ears popped as the crowd exploded, noise drowning out all other senses. All of them cheering for me, for Sophia, for all of us. We entertained them. We were a source of profit, like a carnival freak-show.


The adrenaline from the Trial burned off fast. My side screamed louder than the audiences, and no amount of pressing at the ache helped any.


“Crap, crap, crap,” I hissed when the stands started to spin. What the hell had I done to myself?


Seconds later, the crowd erupted again. Amora and Ivor trotted through the gates; I caught Amora’s glare as she came to stand beside us. A trickle of blood leaked from her hairline and I didn’t regret the satisfaction in my gut.
Brooke hobbled into the pitch moments later to the same raucous applause. Sophia dashed to the side of her twin and I heard Brooke grumble, “I didn’t see a hologram and tripped over a damn branch. It’s not a big deal.”


Junior was the last to return. In his hand, he clutched a bloody rag and a part of his jumpsuit’s leg had been ripped away. Blood gushed from the wound. His brow looked sweaty, and he tugged insistently at Ivor’s hand until his brother picked him up.


Black spots danced across my vision. Don’t pass out, don’t pass out, I begged myself.


“They’re going to score you,” a voice muttered.


Myles stood behind us, his eyes focused on Reid’s box. Gaze falling back to us, he said, “The crowd watched your Trial, but the people who matter watched you hunt. To them, you are predators of the next generation.”


“They want to decide who the best is,” Amora sneered. Her nose had started to bleed, and she hastily wiped the blood with her hand. It was the first time in my entire life I’d seen her do something unladylike.

 

Myles cast her an irritated glance, but he nodded. “I’m aware someone gave you information about why this is all happening.”


“Not all of it,” Ivor snapped. His meaty hands looked oddly gentle as he cradled his brother’s sleepy body. “We know we’re being used as guinea pigs, but we don’t know why.”


“You’ll be told after the scoring,” Myles answered, and stormed away toward the stands before we could ask any more. Ivor’s face clouded.


Junior tiredly poked at his cheek and signed, “Help me clean my leg?


The noise swelled again. My entire body felt shaky, clammy. I needed to sit down, or at the very least take a really cold shower. Bracing my hands on my thighs, I closed my eyes and tried to breathe slowly through my nose. Nothing helped—nausea still rolled in my stomach, and my head spun faster and faster.


“You need to put your head further down,” a breathless voice advised. “It needs to be more between your legs.”


I’d never been more grateful to hear Thomas’ voice. I followed his words, pushing my head down further.


“Ladies and gentlemen, now that the Trial has come to a close, we shall now display our chosen scores,” Reid announced from where he stood in the box. I tilted my face up enough to look at him, my chest still heaving.
A screen fitted above the box glowed to life. Reid swiped his finger across his tablet and a scoreboard appeared on the screen.


“At the bottom of the leader board, we have Junior!”


The air filled with boos. I cringed at the noise—for once, I was grateful Junior was deaf. It was strange, though; the crowd weren’t booing in dislike for the boy. It was more a collective irritation toward his positioning on the scoreboard. He must’ve done a pretty poor performance to be the lowest.


“Next,” Reid called. “The twins, Brooke and Sophia!”


This time, the response was slightly warmer. The crowd applauded politely, seeming happy with this placement. The twins, however, didn’t look impressed; both flushed and simultaneously lowered their gazes.


My gut twisted.


Reid wearily paused. He looked out over the crowds before saying, “In third place...Ivor!”


Explosion. A chant rose from the crowds—“Ivor! Ivor! Ivor!”—and Ivor waved with his free hand, grinning goofily. Always a crowd-pleaser. Reid watched steadily, his eyes fixed on the brutish adult. His face tightened, just slightly.
“Now, there are only two remaining candidates to claim the position of team leader,” he said, focus not leaving us. “Amora and Levison.”


I shivered at the sound of my full name. Or maybe it was because of the icy sweat covering my body, I couldn’t quite tell. Things were really starting to blur. Around me, the swell of my name rose and crashed like waves. From whispers to screams, up and down. I forced myself to keep swallowing back the bile in my throat. The pain pulsed harder in my side and I had to shove my hand against my ribs to make it stop.


A hand pressed to my shoulder, forcing me up. “Levi? Levi, seriously, you don’t look good.”


I shook my head, waving Thomas away. He didn’t move and I heard him worriedly mutter, “No, there’s something wro—Jesus, is his side bleeding? Levi?”


My heartbeat throbbed in my ears. I gasped, squeezing my eyes shut.


“The team leader, as we have chosen, is...Levison Fletcher.”


My knees buckled and I crashed to the ground. Vaguely, I registered my cheek scraping along the Astroturf and then—


Darkness.

 

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