Starlight shone down through the canopy, casting the trees into overlapping shadows.  I climbed up one, careful not to aggravate my still injured wrist, pushing my way through a thick patch of foliage to where Celeste waited on the branches we’d claimed for ourselves.

            As I settled onto my branch, carefully rearranging the leaves so anyone below wouldn’t be able to see us, Celeste handed me a strip of dried meat.

            “How’s it looking out there?”

            “It’s us and one other team left,” I replied around a bite.  “They’re staying in a cave not too far from here.”

            “Then it’s just the best left.  Iweoidmkjhuheajwfdmkslgheiwapjoidnweuthjieldsmfwmp.”

            “I just can’t wait to go back to bed after we’re done with this training,” I grumbled.

            Celeste scoffed.  “Like we’ll get a chance.  As soon as – ”

            A rustling sounded from the ground below.  We peered down through our screen of leaves to see one of the remaining team members wandering below.  It was difficult to tell which one them it was, but they appeared to be frantic.

            “Doewdsujfekdishtifndkslgjh?” Celeste whispered.

            “Shh,” I replied.

            We watched the person desperately search the ground, glance at the stars, then continue wandering in circles.  Yet they didn’t leave our area once.  Did this person really think we’d fall for it?

            Celeste tapped me on the shoulder, then pointed at two shadows hidden figures on the rim of the searcher’s zone.  They were the final team members hiding in the underbrush.…and this was clearly supposed to be an ambush.

            I glanced at Celeste with a smirk.  The ambushers really should have split up.  Quickly, Celeste signaled to me her plan: she would surprise the two hiding while I took out the decoy team member.  I nodded in agreement

            Celeste climbed down first, carefully avoiding making any kind of noise.  I waited to give her time to position herself, then climbed down myself, keeping hidden the whole way.

            A couple shouts of surprise signaled that Celeste had done her part.  The decoy stopped the pretend search to look toward the sound in confusion.  The perfect opportunity.

            I charged with a battle cry, running at full speed, barreling in to the final opponent.  I knocked him to the ground, moving to elbow him in the throat before he had a chance to catch his breath.  Then stopped just short of actually hitting him.

            Beaming, I looked down at my defeated opponent and said, “I win.”

            “Gods damn it,” he replied.  “We were so close.”

            Applause erupted from the trees as we untangled ourselves.  Drill Sergeant Gil and our various instructors emerged.

            “Congratulations, Recruits Dax and Celeste,” said the drill sergeant.  I caught a glimpse of Celeste unraveling ropes she’d made to capture the other two.

            “Illagu weidslkghewdjsklmkcjhwoijdns,” continued the drill sergeant.  “Now, go test mop.  Tomorrow, you start preparing for graduation.”

            I walked alongside Celeste as we made our way out of the forest.  “What about mop testing?”

            She blinked, glancing at me with a raised eyebrow.  “Is…that supposed to be mean something?  ‘Cause I don’t get it.”

            “Oh,” I responded with a nervous chuckle.  That was the worst part of my condition – when the garbled nonsense I usually heard became actual words, it was a lot harder to hide.  “Guess that joke only makes sense in the System.”

            “You bytes have jokes?!”

            “Hey!”

            Celeste laughed.  “I’m kidding!  But wehufjsmekthfsmkreijnkwehfsnnewhtdnmsfings we know about the System come from people who’ve been kicked out?”

            I stopped abruptly as Celeste continued on.  Only after she’d said that did it hit me that Outcasts knew as much about the System as I had about them.

            No wonder they were so afraid.

            To be continued…

Episode 16