West of Paradise, Galatia
“I’m serious, I think we lost the hybrids,” Gideon declares as he digs his heels into the soft earth underfoot.
Sylvia had led Gideon through the forest at a full sprint for what must have been fifteen minutes and they had only just slowed down about five minutes ago. Since they had slowed down, Gideon had done his best to slow down his heartrate and be as quiet as possible in order to listen for any signs—or more accurately sounds—of danger.
“Shush,” Sylvia repeats the same order that she had given Gideon easily a dozen times now.
“I’m not moving until you say what’s really going on,” Gideon shakes his head as he crosses his arms. He is not about to follow Sylvia any further because he can tell that Sylvia is hiding something again.
“Come on, just a little bit further,” Sylvia begs.
Frowning, Gideon shakes his head again, “No, just tell me where we’re going!”
“Just trust me on this,” Sylvia pleads, “We have to do this!”
Worried, Gideon quietly asks, “Are you taking me to the place on your map?”
“Yes! Now please, let’s go!”
“Aren’t we supposed to stick with the rest of our team?”
“Maverick wasn’t about to let us go there any time soon, so I had to take matters into my own hands.”
“And you just had to drag me along?”
“You’re in this just as deep as I am,”
“Yeah, because you tricked me into coming with you.”
“I didn’t trick you, I just said you should follow me.”
“And then you led me all the way out here. I’m heading back to camp and I think you should come with me. The others might need us!”
“They’ll be fine without us. What they do need is for us to find out what was so important that my mom slipped us a secret map.”
“I don’t know if it’s wise for use to go out on our own like this, you saw the hybrids.”
“We have to do this,” Sylvia maintains as she approaches Gideon.
Turning slightly, Gideon warns, “I’m serious, I’m heading back.”
“We’re basically halfway there, let’s go!” Sylvia implores Gideon as she takes his hand and tries pulling him along.
“There’s no way we’re halfway,” Gideon points out as he gives Sylvia a skeptical look. It was one thing to lead him astray, it was entirely another to lie outright.
“Half of the battle was getting away from Maverick,” Sylvia shrugs without actually admitting how much further they had to walk.
“I don’t care how hard you think that was, what matters is that we get back with the team. I won’t tell Maverick your plan and we can try it again later when we know that everyone is safe.”
“Or we could just go now and be back before anyone misses us. Just in and out really quick, no one has to know that we weren’t being chased the whole time!”
“How about this: We go just a little bit further and find a high point to see just how easy this trip of yours will be. Once we do that, we double back and meet up with the others.”
“Well if we do that then we might as well go the whole way!”
“I’m not about to abandon our team just because of some secret message! I know it sounds promising and all, but did you think that it might take a long time for whatever your mom marked it for to happen? What if she’s planning on meeting us there or dropping supplies? There’s no knowing how long we’ll have to wait!”
“It could be a secret abandoned base that we could take over too.”
“Well if we found a good vantage point then we might be able to better judge that.”
“Is there any way I could convince you to come with me if it was something really cool?”
“No! We really need to find the rest of the team. Besides, I am sure that it isn’t safe to just have the two of us out here, not with the hybrids out and about.”
“Whatever,” Sylvia scowls as she spits out the word. Spinning around and marching off the way she had been going before, Sylvia’s shoulders slouch slightly and she gives in to Gideon’s compromise, “Let’s go find a lookout point.”
Not wanting to let Sylvia down too much, Gideon tries to reason with her, “Hey, I’m sorry we can’t do this, but you know it’s the right thing to do.”
Sighing, Sylvia shakes her head and says, “I’m done talking about it.”
“Sorry,” Gideon squeaks, worried that he already lost one of the few friends that he had out here.
Sylvia grumbles something that Gideon doesn’t catch, and he decides to follow her in complete silence now. As he saw it, the only thing worse than the awkward silence that is so thick that he could cut it with a knife was breaking the silence. Trying to break the silence before Sylvia did was destined to end badly.
“Did you hear that?” Sylvia asks after several minutes of hiking. By now, she and Gideon are nearly halfway up a steep hill that they hoped would give them the vantage point that they needed.
“No,” Gideon answers, happy that Sylvia finally spoke up. He always hated when things were left on a bad note.
“There’s something following us,” Sylvia whispers as she drops to a crouch.
“What is it?” Gideon whispers back. Looking around, he hopes to catch a glimpse of whatever was tracking them. Before he has a chance to look around as much as he wanted, Sylvia gives his arm a sharp tug and he falls on top of her. Clumsily trying to pull himself off of Sylvia, Gideon sheepishly says, “Sorry, you caught me by—”
“Quiet!” Sylvia urges as her head snaps back to the direction that she had been looking at when she asked if Gideon heard anything. When Gideon continues trying to get away, Sylvia takes a hold of his hand and stops him. When he gives her a quizzical and concerned face, she simply says, “Hold still.”
Gideon rolls his eyes and he pulls away from Sylvia’s grasp long enough to begin pulling himself off her when someone shouts from behind, “I knew it!”
“Really Meghan?” Sylvia demands as she shoots up to her feet, “I was about ready to shoot you!”
Looking like she is ready to start screaming, Meghan fires back, “Well I couldn’t just let you take Gideon out to who knows where without following you, now could I?”
“You could just mind your own business for a change!”
“Mind my business? I had dibs!”
“I don’t care who you have dibs on, Gideon and I are checking something out!”
“Not without me you aren’t.”
“Hey, hey, let’s quiet down a bit,” Gideon butts in, “We don’t want the hybrids on our trail.”
Without turning to Gideon, Meghan snaps, “You can’t shut up, this is between us.”
Surprised by Meghan’s bluntness, Gideon can’t help but counter, “No, you can shut up. Sylvia and I are getting to the top of this hill and then we’re heading back. Nothing you say will change that and I don’t care what you think about it either!”
Meghan’s eyes grow wide for a moment before a smirk tugs at her lips. Raising an eyebrow, she starts, “Woah, I think—”
“Zip it,” Gideon cuts Meghan off. Turning to Sylvia, he instructs, “Let’s go.”
“With pleasure,” Sylvia nods as she gives Meghan a mocking grin and then starts back up the hill.
Knowing that he couldn’t just leave her and knowing that there was power in numbers, Gideon invites Meghan, “You can follow us if you’d like. If not, you can wait for us down here.”
“Oh, I’m coming with,” Meghan responds quickly, and she closes the distance between her and Gideon.
Meghan tries to grab Gideon’s hand, but he quickly pulls it away from her. Shaking his head, he tells her, “I don’t think so. I’m not your boyfriend and, if you keep acting like this, I never will be.”
“Keep acting like that and no one will want you,” Sylvia chimes in.
“Not helpful,” Gideon grunts as he follows Sylvia. For one reason or another, the two ladies seemed to have some bad blood between them, and Gideon didn’t want to dig any further into that open sore.
Looking around, Gideon can’t help but take in a deep slow breath. Seemingly the entire world seems to stretch out on all sides of him. Endless rolling hills, gullies, and valleys of emerald remind Gideon of the pictures of the open waters of the ocean. Above the emerald ocean the blue skies above stand as a reminder to Gideon that he isn’t living under a dome of concrete and steel anymore. Instead, there’s just about nothing standing between him and the infinite skies above.
Gideon’s two companions are still not speaking to each other. Not only that, they aren’t talking to him either. He had initially thought that the silence would eventually lead to a sort of peace, but now he isn’t so sure.
“Well, Sylvia, we got you your high point,” Gideon announces, finally breaking the silence.
“I don’t see anything,” Sylvia frowns as a slight scowl crosses her face. She looks around for several moments before she points to an area further along and says, “I think “I’ll be able to see better over there.”
“Be careful,” Gideon warns, “The hill’s pretty steep.”
“I know,” Sylvia snaps.
Gideon feels offended by Sylvia’s shortness at first, but he quickly realizes that she is deep in thought. She breezes past him and makes for the small bluff that she had pointed out without another word.
“I thought you said that you were heading right back after we got up here?” Meghan whispers to Gideon as she watches Sylvia march away.
“We’re trying to see if we can see something from up here,” Matthew tells her.
Drawing even closer, Meghan asks, “What are we trying to see?”
“We don’t know for sure,” Gideon shrugs as he sidesteps away from Meghan. Looking back over the landscape that he can see through the surrounding foliage, he continues, “All we know is that whatever it is, it’s important.”
“So important that we don’t know what it is?” Meghan asks skeptically.
Shrugging once more, Gideon admits, “I have no idea what it is supposed to be. All I know is that Sylvia’s mom slipped me a map and that we should be able to get a fix on what it is from here. If not, then we head back, no matter what Sylvia says.”
“And if we do see something?”
“Then we still head back. Maverick said he wasn’t ready for us to go out here, so we have to respect his wishes.”
“But you’ve already come this far,”
“Yeah, that wasn’t my choice.”
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s forcing you along.”
“Whose side are you on?” Matthew asks with a chuckle as he looks over to where he had left Meghan, “Sylvia’s the one who’s trying to stretch the rules here. I don’t need you doing that too!”
“Well, I’m just saying,” Meghan shrugs, “We’ve come this far, after all. If this is as close as we’re going to ever get, then this is a bit of a waste. Might as well go the whole way!”
Not convinced, Gideon shakes his head and argues, “The others might need us. We can’t just walk away from them.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine without us.”
“We can’t be sure of that,”
“They’ve got Maverick, they’ll be fine.”
“Come over here and check this out!” Sylvia beckons from her spot on the butte. Without skipping a beat, she takes a hold of a tree branch and uses it to lean out over the steep ravine below her.
Curious, Gideon walks over to Sylvia, Meghan in tow, and he scans the wilds around them. There are less trees obstructing his sight, but he still fails to see anything. Frowning, he continues searching as he wonders what Sylvia might be looking at.
A minute passes before Sylvia asks, “Do you see it?”
“Nope,” Gideon shakes his head, “All I see are trees.”
“Trees and trees and trees,” Meghan affirms.
“Well you’re not looking close enough then,” Sylvia says matter of factly as she motions for Gideon to come closer to the edge.
Reluctant, Gideon takes a few baby steps and he eventually is close enough to Sylvia that he can finally follow her gaze and see the smallest chunk of grey in the distance. The grey stands right about where he knew the map directed and he can’t help but feel concerned that Sylvia and Meghan were going to go on ahead whether he liked it or not.
“What is it?” Meghan asks from behind Gideon.
Gideon turns around and sees Meghan approach and then everything seems to slow down.
Overhead, something cracks.
Underfoot, there is a rumble that nearly throws Gideon to the ground. Sylvia loses her grip on the branch and Gideon manages to catch her before she falls out of reach and he pulls her back to safety.
The ground then gives out and the tree that Sylvia had been hanging from begins falling down into the ravine. Its roots pick up the earth that Gideon and the others are standing on and they slide down the suddenly steep ground.
In a moment, Gideon is tumbling down the hill with Sylvia still in his arms. He wraps himself protectively around her and he ventures a glance uphill.
Following closely after him, Gideon sees Meghan is also falling. Not only that, the massive tree is chasing all of them down.
The back of Gideon’s head slams into a tree or rock and lights play along the edges of his vision. He tries to remain conscious, but the effort is seemingly futile. A moment later, his world goes black.
“Ah, my head,” Gideon grunts as he reaches up to his temples and rubs them gently. The action ends up doing more harm than good and he quickly rips his hands away. Looking down at the hands that had just harmed him, Gideon notes that they are smeared with a light coat of blood. Swallowing, he nervously wonders just how bad off he is. Knowing full well that it would hurt, Gideon rubs his bloodied hands off on his shirt and then he gently presses against each hemisphere of his skull. Once that’s done, he realizes that most of the blood and the searing pain is isolated to the base of the back of his skull.
“You’re awake, good,” Sylvia says from somewhere behind him.
Gideon slowly sits up, an effort which causes his blood to pound inside of his tender skull. He winces with every heartbeat for a few seconds before the pain eases off slightly.
Ahead of him he sees a small creek. The creek burbles along happily as if nothing is amiss. Both upstream and downstream the small flow of water disappears under the dense foliage of plants that are too greedy to let even the smallest drip of water past their branches’ reach.
Taking a slow breath, Gideon quietly asks, “Where’s Meghan?”
“She’s behind you, she still hasn’t woken up, but she’s fine,” Sylvia answers.
“And you’re alright too?”
“Yeah, thanks to you.”
“How long was I out?”
“Like thirty seconds,” Sylvia chuckles, “Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything.”
“My head hurts, how bad is it?”
“It doesn’t look too bad… your hair’s matted with blood though. Want me to take a closer look?”
Nodding ever so slightly, Gideon hesitantly answers, “Yeah, but please be gentle.”
“Gentle is my middle name,” Sylvia announces jokingly before she shuffles over beside him.
Gideon holds his breath and he clamps his eyes shut as Sylvia’s fingers slowly begin exploring the tangles of Gideon’s hair. He can tell that his hair is wet with blood thanks to how much of it is sticking to his head. With even the gentlest of touches, Gideon can’t help but flinch and try to jerk his head away from Sylvia.
After two minutes of trying, Gideon pulls away and stands. The pain was too much to continue suffering through. Shaking his head, he announces, “Alright, that’s not working.”
“Sorry,” Sylvia frowns as she offers him a remorseful half-frown. She looks down to her hands and then wipes Gideon’s blood off on her pants before she tells him, “It looks like you didn’t get it too bad. You got a big old gash on the back of your head and then a few smaller ones but your skull’s fine.”
“Will I need stiches?”
“You probably need them,” Sylvia answers. Looking around, she shrugs and points out, “But that’s probably not going to happen out here. We’ll have to settle with just bandaging you up.”
“Alright, can you help me with that?”
“If you stay still this time, sure.”
Gideon complies to Sylvia’s wishes and she quickly bandages up his head. Thanks to where his injury was, Sylvia’s bandages end up wrapping around most of Gideon’s head in order to keep the gauze firmly against the back of his head. She makes sure to leave gaps in the wrappings so he can breathe, drink, and see though.
“No one’s going to check on me?” Meghan groans as Sylvia finishes up with Gideon’s bindings.
“Nice try, but I already did,” Sylvia says without taking her attention off the fabric that she is repositioning out of Gideon’s mouth.
“I was hoping Gideon would,” Meghan grumbles to herself.
Chuckling, Gideon can’t help but wish that he hadn’t heard Meghan’s hopes. Sylvia’s eyes seemingly twinkle as she lets out her own suppressed and strained giggle and then flashes a toothy smile for the briefest moment.
“So… what’s the plan then?” Gideon asks once Sylvia finishes. He glances over his shoulder and sees that Meghan is busy poking around at the root ball that had nearly landed on top of them.
“Well…” Sylvia starts as she casts a longing glance over her shoulder at a denser part of the foliage. She looks back at Gideon and purses her lips before she says, “You won’t like what I’m thinking.”
“You’re planning on heading to the structure?” Gideon asks forebodingly. He knew that Sylvia’s resolve had only been strengthened by the fall, she was going to see what the grey thing that they had seen was.
“Yep,” Sylvia nods, “And I don’t think we’ll be finding a way back to the others any time soon.”
Frowning, Gideon looks up the steep embankment that they had fallen down. If they really tried, Gideon is confident they could make it up, but the effort seemed a tad reckless as well. As he watches the hillside, more dirt slides down. Sighing, he reasons that trying to climb back up was likely just as reckless as continuing along with Sylvia’s plan.
“Well, we lost some of our gear,” Meghan points out. She tugs on a strap that is sticking out from under the largest portion of the root ball, “My pack’s buried. Without it, I’m down to just two mags and whatever’s left in my gun.”
“If we wait, the others might come for us,” Sylvia announces after a sigh. Gideon can tell that she doesn’t like the idea but that she’s willing to go along with it if she was told to do so.
“I think we should check the structure out,” Gideon declares, “We’ve come this far. Besides, I don’t think we should risk heading back in case we come across one of the hybrids. If we’re lucky, we might find some extra gear in there too.”