I crouched against the black tree, clutching my paint gun to my chest and panting heavily, all the while mentally cursing myself for being out of breath after a mere thirty second run.
This was my 3650th training exercise, one for each day of the ten years I’d spent here, yet my body refused to become as strong as those around me. Part of it was my fault, of course, since I spent half the day cowering as I was doing now, but I still felt jealousy as I watched the others like Congo or Graec go about their exercises. They were so much taller and tougher, their bodies square and jagged while my cheeks were round and my arms flimsy.
The three other members in my team ran past my hiding spot, dressed in identical black uniforms and bearing the same white paint gun as me. However, Congo broke off from the group despite being our unofficial leader. He was headed for me. I tried to slow my breaths as he knelt beside me, crouching just long enough to say a few words and ensure I wasn’t hurt.
“You okay, Indi?” Congo asked, his dark skin slick with sweat. He wasn’t panting like me.
I nodded, afraid to look weak in front of him. My official given name was India, but it sounded like a girl’s name so I changed it to Indi when I was seven and most everyone used it from that day on. “I’m okay. Just catching my breath.”
Congo looked ready to lecture me like he often did years ago. We can’t take out Sarmatia’s team if we don’t stick together, he would always say. But our training was so close to completion that there was no point saying it now, so he just nodded and patted me on the back. “Alright, bud. You’ll give us cover fire, right?”
“Right.” I held up the gun, like that would prove it. We both knew I would continue hiding behind these trees or bushes as I always did. Ten years and I still hadn’t lost this stupid racing in my chest that warned me to flee. “Good luck against Sarmatia.” She was the muscular girl with pretty blonde hair and blue eyes who always went toe-to-toe with Congo. It was a friendly rivalry, since there was no real gain from winning besides satisfaction, but he looked appreciative nonetheless.
Congo patted me on the shoulder again, his large hand reassuring against my shaking back. “Who knows. Maybe we’ll take each other out and you’ll be the last one standing.”
I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
As Congo got up and ran after the others, disappearing among the artificial black trees on his way to take out the opposing team, I saw Scotia join him, her pale skin and curly red hair bright against the greys and blacks of the setting. She was the worst at stealth because of her hair. If she weren’t so against the uncomfortable headgear the Occisio offered, she would have been the best at hiding, since she was so quick and quiet.
I gulped as Congo leaned close to her ear, likely discussing some strategy of his. Congo didn’t mean anything by it—they all knew his only focus was winning and bringing out the best in his teammates, not to make a move on pretty girls—but it still rubbed me the wrong way when he came so close to her. I’d never had the guts to do such a thing, yet Congo could do it so naturally.
Don’t think about it, I thought, turning back to stare at the other artificial trees that made up the training ground. The forest was a kilometer long and wide, blocked by tall black walls on every side.
The trees and bushes were the same colorless material as the walls and floors, though they were soft to the touch to imitate the greenery of Earth where I and my friends would one day emigrate. The Occisio did their best to give me and my other human companions the best imitation of our natural world they could, though due to the colorblind nature of our protectors, they failed when it came to mimicking the colors of Earth correctly. I only knew this because I’d seen pictures of Earth’s habitat before. It was the only flash of color I’d ever seen, other than the eye and hair colors of my companions.
My hair and eyes were similar to that of our alien saviors, the Occisio. My black hair didn’t stand out like Scotia’s did, nor did my dark eyes. Congo was the same way, though his skin was darker than mine. In fact, most of us who still remained didn’t have the bright red or yellow hair of those who had been dismissed, nor the blue or green eyes that reminded me of Earth.
Years ago, when there were a hundred of us, we all looked different. Twenty-six of us had yellow hair, six had red, thirty-four had brown, and the rest had black. Sixteen of us had blue eyes, twelve had green, two had grey, and the rest of us had variations of brown.
That was ten years ago, though.
Now only eight of us remained and everyone’s faces were so familiar to me that I barely acknowledged how any of us looked, other than Scotia because she was…special. She always had been.
If only I had the ability to open my mouth around her and actually say something coherent. Maybe then she would actually acknowledge my existence.