Read Vanished Online

Authors: John Shepard,Danielle Cloakey

Tags: #Romance, #Short Stories, #Science Fiction, #Literature & Fiction, #Fantasy & Futuristic, #Single Author

Vanished

BOOK: Vanished
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Vanished

***

Papria placed the hair-thin, flexible screen on the desk and stared at the sent message. Her heart fluttered like the wing beats of a hummingbird. A covert glance around warned her she’d finished first, and fear slicked over her skin in a soft sheen of perspiration.

Daddy would be so proud!

Several sets of masculine eyes met hers, most with an echo of anger. Sharp, handsome faces with some shared features: powerful bone structures, vivid irises, stark and dark hair colors. These men were intended to melt hearts while sweeping any hazardous situation and clearing out anything that might stand in their way.

Her snowy
-colored hands trembled as her attention darted back to her own work. The white material of her undersuit stretched tight across her chest and hips, reminding her just how out of place she was in this male environment. The assigned garments only came in a male fit. Despite that, and being the only female in class, she couldn’t help the sensation she
belonged
here, answering these questions, knowing this protocol.

A message popped up on her screen, flashing blue on the clear surface. With a fingertip, she opened the file, and gasped.

Papria,

We are pleased to inform you you’ve passed
. Please proceed to the physical testing grounds.

The tightening of her belly as she rose to her feet, a spasm left over from her last physical trial she was sure, threatened to purge the salad she’d enjoyed at lunch. With
lead-heavy feet, she made her way to the trial grounds.

The plastic hall that connected the two sections arched
around her - the bubbled viewing material offered a view of azure skies and showcased the moons Merci and Shalee. The orbs glowed bright, their proximity lending a dramatic sense of doom. In mind’s eye, she watched them crash into the water of her world. The ensuing wave that would swallow her people followed, but she kicked off her imaginings. Now was not the time to daydream like a child.

Outside the clear, rounded hallway,
an endless expanse of clear electric blue water housed submerged bubble offices. The few above water platforms, like this one, were owned by the very wealthy. Although, this set was owned by the council and used only for the mental and physical trials. Hesitating at the portal that led into the physical grounds, she took a deep breath, attempting to slow her pulse.

A shimmer warned her the doorway was scanning, and would set into motion the events
of her trial once she crossed. No matter how hard she prepared be for this, it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t know what the run contained until she knee-deep in the horror.

Her father’s voice whispered in her ear, as real as it had been the day he died. She closed her eyes, allowing his advice to sink in.
“The physical trials are never the same twice. One could fail millions of tests and never see a duplicate. You’d die long before a trial repeated itself. Now get your guns, girl.”
The bittersweet memory dissolved and she glanced around, searching for the firepower.

To her right, a tall cabinet encroached into the space of the hall. She
yanked open the doors, glaring at the options. She lifted a sniper rifle to her shoulder and peered through white lashes into the scope. Letting it down, she adjusted the spacers to fit her arm length. Lifting it again, her tongue thrust between her teeth as the weight of the weapon forced her arm to shake, waving the barrel.

With a moment of concentration, she steadied the gun.
The crosshairs revealed a random office worker, hand on a wall, the other cupping a paper cup of water. His askew shoulders and easy grin warned her he was comfortable talking to whoever was lucky enough to have gossip.

Dropping the barrel of the gun
, she gauged the distance and pressed the stock to her shoulder. The cool finish of the gun rested against her cheek as she closed her right eye to peer through the scope. She glared at the worker’s cup, released a breath and squeezed the trigger.

The bolt of energy popped through the plastic wall
without damage, shot through the water and into the office, puncturing the bottom of the worker’s cup. Water trickled to the floor and he jumped back. With a smile, she lowered the barrel. The safety rounds couldn’t hurt people. They were designed for the trials, and she enjoyed the chance to gauge accuracy without starting her test.

Tur
ning to the cabinet, she snagged a curved knife the length of her hand and tucked it into a slot in her belt. She knew, from experience, that it was stupid to go without a short-range weapon. As it was, a sniper rifle required a tactical effort that put her behind the curve. The expected discourse was a shotgun and pistol, the rest were intended to muddy the waters. She just wasn’t one to do the expected. Playing to her strengths only made sense, and her strengths were tactics, fleet feet and quick thinking. A whole childhood with the trials for a playground taught her that.

The two-
item limit didn’t faze her. Fear of the doorway shimmer did. It froze every muscle in her body and memories of her father flashed back. Wishing they’d allow a minor restoration tool, she sighed. Wishful thinking wouldn’t help. Shaking her head to clear painful recollections of her last run, only a week before she’d lost her father, she stepped into the trial.

The sting of the scanners forced a
shiver that radiated through her ribs. Her stomach lurched – a normal side effect of the changeover – but she threw a glance around and dove into the nearest cover. The impression of the grounds she’d captured thrilled her. It was as if it had been built just for her.

T
he moderately-treed landscape and waving grasses were perfect for long range weapons. The wind crashed over her, the warm scent of apples and sweet summer blooms lending a false calm. With a glance up the conifer to make sure there were no overhead threats, she rested her elbows on the needle-covered ground. The grasses were thin under the tree, but thickened the farther away her glance wandered. A few barren patches offered tawny sands and far away, the deep blue sky met rippling amber grasses.

The weight of the rifle, even braced on the ground, reminded her that the ground wasn’t her best vantage point. The sharp needle
s digging into her skin made her want to scratch the itching spots, but she stayed still. She’d never forgive herself if a rookie mistake ended her before she’d really begun. Dust danced in the rays of the sun breaking through the branches overhead, glittering golden against honey grasses.

The wind died down and the
grasses halted, the silence hit her like a physical blow to the gut. Unable to see because the grass stuck up like out-of-control hair, she got to her knees, careful to keep the scope to her eye. She didn’t see any danger, but she didn’t trust the calm, it only foreshadowed a storm.

With a slow motion, she
eased the rifle sling over her shoulder letting it hang across her back. With a stolen breath, she leaped and grabbed a low-hanging branch. The rough bark stung her hands, but she scaled the tree with deft motions.

She came to a halt about a quarter of the way
from a limb that shot up and out in a y-shape. Without thought, she mounted the junction, straddling it. Feet braced back on the trunk, she tried not to notice how far away the ground appeared. Her quick hands freed the rifle from her back, holding steady as the distance to the ground twisted her gut. She lay forward over the bough, placing the upside-down v-shaped rail on the branch to steady the gun. The wood pressed into her belly, the tacky snag of sap adhered to her suit, leaving sweet mint-scented stains.

Scanning the plains, she wondered what her challenge could be. Without a clue, she’d be stuck for an undeterminable amount of time.
With thousands of possible scenarios programmed and techs ready to throw curveballs, anything could happen.

She found her
self wishing for something as simple as clearing fauna or a natural disaster, while praying she didn’t get a “survive as long as possible” situation. Her last round was against a zombie horde. She’d lasted a total of thirteen hours, but the snap of a crossbolt cable she’d been tiptoeing across resulted in her plummeting to the ground.

She forced her
thoughts back to the present. It wouldn’t do to let her guard down. She scanned the grounds again, seeing nothing more than a stretch of waving golden grasses and patches of dark green trees.

What is my objective?

She needed a clue, anything. The waiting gnawed at her. She could handle almost anything. But waiting for death, a fight, or some sign of danger threatened her sanity. Nothing rattled her more than the unknown.

The
scope jolted as fear pulsed through her. Her eyes picked up a familiar shape in the field before her. A man, on his back. The odd scatter of gear around him. She recognized that peaceful face.

“Zoltan?” The name whispered
over her lips. Hanging the rifle off the branch beside her, she lifted her leg up and over the bough. Her arms protested as she lowered herself, her left toes seeking a lower limb as she hung over the expanse of wood and air.

Her toe found its target, and she placed her other foot on the branch and caught her balance, scraping her hand as she let go of the y-junction. Snagging her rifle, she slung it across her back again and eased down, branch by branch, to the ground.

The instant her feet touched the dirt she remembered the danger and her body tensed. Already sore, abused muscles protested as she checked her behavior.

Don’t charge. Slow, steady.

Scanning the open grassland, she debated taking her rifle out and holding it ready to shoot from the hip. She’d move faster with it on her back, and she always had her knife for close range danger, provided she wasn’t fighting something insane. With bent knees, she decided it would be a better idea to zigzag and take cover at the small groves of trees than to cut straight across the open land.

The chest-tall grasses put her on edge, and she made sure her movements were small, slow, edging away from the tree with tiny steps.
Every foot that separated her from the lifeline added a bit more fright, but the need to reach Zoltan nagged at her thoughts. Who knew how much time he had out there on his back. He could be wounded, or captive, or a trap luring her close.

He’s likely a trap of some kind.
The forced thought ached. She didn’t want to believe he’d be a danger. Not to her, at least.

The hot, dry
wind swept across the rippling field, reminding her of the waves that covered the surface of her world. Unlike the water, the wind offered the sweet scent of fruit and flowers.

Though I think I’ve spent more of my life practicing trials than in my world.
Lost in thought, she almost didn’t notice the grass part before her, revealing a large, tawny creature. Her legs stiffened, begging her to flee as she recognized the animal.

“No!”
she yanked her gun from her back as the cat-like animal charged. The weight almost pulled her off-balance, and she pulled the trigger with a shaking finger. The animal fell, but Papria knew more would follow, if they weren’t already flanking her.

She spun around and
sprinted the few feet back to the tree. Throwing her gun over her shoulder, she grabbed a branch, throwing her weight forward. Her body flipped around, and she stood on her hands. Crossing her hands and rotating, she fell back and hooked her knees over another branch. Her stomach muscles clenched, pulling her up. With a quick bounce, she sat on the branch, grabbing one up a bit further and continued her climb.

She wrapped her legs around the trunk, leaning back until her spine pressed to
it. The rifle slipped and she snatched it, aiming at the large cat that leaped at her. The creature fell, a hole appearing between its eyes. Two more bound up the lower branches, coming for her. Taking aim, she fired at the one on the left. It plummeted, hitting branches on the way down as she swung her gun to the other, squeezing the trigger before aiming. The animal yowled and fell.

H
eart thumping in her throat, she waited, knowing there had to be more. It couldn’t be that easy, it never was. And now that the techs knew she was agile, they’d make sure to adjust their ideas accordingly. 

The sound of something jumping to the other side caught her attention, and she realized one was climbing the backside. It circled into her line of sight, pausing to swipe at her face with great, dark claws.

A sharp scream stung her throat and she jerked herself away before the cat’s talons could slash her face. Her gun slipped between her fingers, smashing branches before hitting the ground. Praying it wasn’t busted, she grabbed a limb above her head. Using her arms to heft herself up, she got her feet under her. Deft hands grabbed another. She clenched her muscles and curled her body to flip up on it, the bark rough under her belly. Her heart slammed as the lioness climbed toward her with lithe steps.

Unsure what to do, she considered her knife. She
knew she didn’t stand a chance at close range. With small steps backward, she watched the animal edge closer. Leaning back, she threw her weight to her hands. Flipping her legs over to gain momentum, she took a deep breath and launched herself backward out of the tree, hoping her memory held.

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