West of Paradise, Galatia
“Just let him help us!” Sylvia begs as a few more bullets tear through the foliage that they are still hiding under.
Maverick scowls at Sylvia for a moment before he shakes his head. He didn’t like it, but he really didn’t have any other option right now. He would have to enlist the help of some strangers that may or may not turn on him once Jason and his group were out of sight. Maverick takes a long, slow breath before he calls out to the one who called himself Roland Dixon, “And you won’t shoot to hit any of them?”
“Thank you,” Sylvia nods to Maverick before they both turn to watch the tree that Roland is currently behind.
“If you don’t want us to then we won’t” Roland sounds in reply with his own pledge. Roland then calls out to somewhere behind Maverick and those remaining in his team, “You heard it, light them up!”
A moment later, dozens of bullets are whizzing through the air back toward Jason and the other turncoats. Maverick rolls over onto his back and he looks toward the little knoll that the shooting seems to be coming from and he can’t help but nod in appreciation. Even with the muzzle flashes from all the weapons fire, Maverick still can’t pinpoint exactly where the shooters are. Nearly ten seconds pass before the gunfire dies down markedly and that is when Maverick realizes that Jason’s team had stopped shooting at him.
“Come on, you’re clear!” a girl’s voice calls from the little lookout that all the shooting had come from.
“It’s now or never!” Roland calls from behind his tree. Maverick looks over in time to see Roland’s form slip away from his hiding spot and then tear his way back up the little hill he had come from before he disappears into the foliage. A moment passes before he sticks his head back out of the dense greenery to look at Maverick and the others and asks, “Are you coming or not?”
“If they were going to shoot us, they would have done it by now,” Sylvia announces before she abruptly rises to a crouch. Still crouching, she then pulls Maverick up and presses, “They know the lay of the land better than we ever will. Maybe they can teach us a thing or two that the Sims couldn’t.”
Maverick is about to warn her about the need for caution when Sylvia spins around and makes for where Roland and his team are. Sighing, Maverick offers up a quick prayer that things wouldn’t go south, and he orders, “Fall back, team.”
“You heard the man, move it!” Jake quickly calls out. At that, everyone starts following Sylvia and after a few seconds, Jake gets Maverick’s attention and he points toward Tyson who is clutching a growing red spot on his shoulder.
“Tyson!” Maverick quickly yells as he races over to his friend. As he approaches, Maverick sees that Tyson also has a bandage tied around his thigh and blood is seeping through that as well.
“I’m fine,” Tyson grunts as he limps after the others as fast as he can go.
Maverick is about to say something when his voice catches in his throat. Instead of forming a sentence, all that rises from his throat is a whimper. Maverick wasn’t ready to see one of his people get hurt, not like this. The fact that the injury came at the hand of someone that was on his team a few minutes earlier made it that much harder for him to deal with.
“If you need anything, just tell me,” Maverick requests after several more moments pass. He has a sinking feeling in his gut that Tyson was a lot worse off than he let on.
“I told you, I’m fine,” Tyson snaps. He grimaces slightly, as if the effort of responding pained him and he then clenches his eyes shut. His frown deepens as he opens his eyes and seemingly realizes that this isn’t all part of a bad dream.
Still worried, Maverick keeps an eye on Tyson as they close the distance between them and the small hill that everyone had disappeared over. Before too long, both Maverick and Tyson slip through the dense foliage and are greeted by the sight of Roland’s team and everyone from Maverick’s team that hadn’t left with Jason. Maverick can’t see everyone, thanks to the thick brush, but he can see a good portion of those around him.
Sylvia emerges out of seemingly nowhere and she teasingly whispers to Maverick, “Took you long enough to get here.”
“Is this everyone?” Maverick asks as he peers through the greenery at those around him. He still can’t make out every face, so he turns his attention back to Sylvia.
Frowning, Sylvia nods and says, “Yeah, it looks like Jason took eight of our people with him. Besides them, everyone is accounted for.”
“Is anyone else hurt?” Maverick inquires as he looks back to Tyson who is currently getting his arm attended to by the ever-resourceful Anne. Maverick chuckles when he sees that Anne is using a sock as a bandage.
Shaking her head, Sylvia answers, “Nope, just Tyson, by the looks of it.”
“We need to get moving,” Roland announces, interrupting all the various conversations that are going on between Maverick’s people. Maverick looks over to where Roland is, and he sees several of Roland’s people standing behind them with their weapons in hand. For a group of ragtag group of guerrillas, they seemed to be very competent. All eyes shift to Roland and he continues when he sees that he has everyone’s attention, “We’ll lead the way to one of our campsites and you all can decide what you would like to do from there.”
All eyes then shift to Maverick and he can tell that they are silently asking him what to do. In response, Maverick scans Roland and his people for a beat before he says, “Sound like a plan.”
“Good,” Roland nods as he starts to turn.
“And thanks for the save,” Maverick quickly adds. Having finally met one of the savages, his feelings toward them have changed. They clearly were not the monsters that he had been told they were. In fact, if anyone was a monster, it was Jason and his people.
Roland pauses and then turns to face Maverick. Shaking his head, he admits, “You’ll have to thank my team for that, it was their idea.”
“Oh?” Maverick asks, his interest piqued. He is about to thank the rest of Roland’s team when Roland starts talking again.
“Yep, I was wanting to start heading home. They convinced me that we needed to follow you and your people.”
“Well, I’m thankful for that,”
“Yeah, it definitely worked out for the best. Saving lives beats resting at home most any day.”
“So, you have a home out here?” Maverick asks, letting his curiosity get the best of him. He had only heard bad things about the savages of the wilds before now and after hearing Roland talk, he had so many questions rising to the surface.
“Of course, I have a home,” Roland laughs, “We’re not savages—oh wait, I get it. Umm…”
Roland trails off as he chuckles to himself and then one of the girls beside him picks up where he stopped, “We all live in a good-sized village not too far from here. Our society isn’t too unlike your own, except we don’t send our people out into the wilds to die.”
“Haley!” Roland snaps warningly as he gives her a look that could cut stone.
“I said what I did,” Haley shrugs dismissively as she shifts her attention to the woods around them. When Roland fails to say anything else to her, she distances herself a short way from Roland and the others. She then takes the reins of two of the horses that some of Roland’s people had been leading along.
“What did she mean by that?” Maverick asks after several awkward moments. To validate his question, he goes on to explain, “We were trained by the best of the best, so we definitely were not sent out here to die. Our mission is to tame the wilderness for our people.”
Roland looks over to face Maverick and he frowns. He weighs what he is about to say next when he waves for Maverick to come closer to him. Once Maverick is a lot closer, Roland replies in a quiet voice that no one else can hear, “You may have training, but not everyone that the Coalition sends out is that lucky. There are many groups of your people that have been sent out here without the training or the means to defend themselves. Many of these groups are families.”
“What?” Maverick asks, confused, “What do you mean they are sending out families?”
“We don’t know why they are sending out families for sure,” Roland admits, “But we do know that the Coalition attacks those that they exile. Haley”
“We were told that it was you that attacked our people,” Maverick snaps.
Roland shakes his head before he resumes what he was saying, “Haley is one of the exiles. Her family was killed when a Coalition ship bombed them. She’s the sole survivor.”
“What?” Maverick asks once again. He stops dead in his tracks and Roland pauses a brief moment before he leaves Maverick there in the middle of the path.
The Coalition is killing its own people? Maverick asks himself as he weighs the plausibility of the accusation. Under normal circumstances, he would have shrugged off the possibility of such a statement, but he couldn’t this time. He had had his own doubts in the integrity of the Coalition for some time now. Those doubts had first come up when he heard about how so many members of his team had been ripped away from their parents without any notice. Those doubts were strengthened when someone pointed out the absurdity of sending children out to take on monsters that career soldiers feared to face.
“What do you mean you have something for me?” Maverick hears Sylvia’s voice ask from behind him.
“Your mother gave me something when she dropped me off at Paradise,” the newcomer, Gideon, replies.
“My mother?” Sylvia asks taken aback, “Is everything alright?’
“Yeah,” Gideon replies, “She says that she’s coming for you.”
“But she can’t do that!” Sylvia whispers harshly.
“She knows what doing so would mean, but she seems to have a plan in place.”
“But how does she think she is going to find me?”
“She gave me this… she told me that you would be able to figure out what needs to be done from there.”
“What?” Sylvia says aloud. She is about to say more when she literally runs into Maverick who had yet to move. Sylvia and Maverick both fall to the ground in a tangle of limbs and laughter. After a short effort, Sylvia jumps to her feet an apologizes, “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
“No, it’s my fault,” Maverick shakes his head as he rises to his own feet. Brushing off some dirt, Maverick finally pulls himself out of his head and he starts walking after Roland and the others. When Gideon and Sylvia begin following him, he asks, “So, what did Gideon give you?”
Gideon looks over to Sylvia with a face the pleaded with her to not say anything, but Sylvia ignores it. Picking up a red flashlight from off the ground, Sylvia replies, “This.”
“A flashlight…” Maverick remarks as Sylvia hands it to him. He examines it thoughtfully for several moments before he unscrews a few parts. Looking at the compact battery pack and a few other odds and ends he frowns. Nothing seemed important enough to smuggle it into Sylvia and risk being exposed. Feeling quite discouraged, Maverick puts the flashlight back together and muses, “I wonder what’s so important about it.”
“To be honest, I expected there to be a map inside it,” Sylvia admits as she opens it up and takes a look for herself.
Laughing, Maverick agrees, “Me too!”
“Wait, but why did your mom have me bring it in then?” Gideon asks, his confusion evident, “She said that you would know what to do with it.”
“I don’t know…” Sylvia admits as she plays with the small device.
“Maybe it’s a transceiver?” Gideon offers, “Maybe she’ll use it to track you down?”
“I didn’t think of that,” Sylvia nods, “Maybe.”
Maverick, Gideon, and Sylvia chitchat for some time after giving up one their pursuit to figure out what the flashlight was for. The truth of the matter was that they had no idea why Commander Hayes made such a big deal about it. As far as any of them could tell, it was just a flashlight. Even Gideon’s transmitter idea failed to hold water since they all knew electronics well enough to see that the flashlight was just that.
As the three of them spoke they exchanged countless stories. Maverick found himself laughing far too many times as he noted just how much he and Gideon had in common. Sure, they had quite a few differences too, but no one was just like another person. Even twins had their differences.
After a very long hike, Maverick checks his maps and he compares them to his surroundings. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get his bearing, he does his best to peer through the tree canopy at some nearby mountains and he gets a rough bearing off of the mountains’ peaks. After several minutes of struggling, Maverick has a few bearings to go off of and he plots them out on his map. Smiling, Maverick realizes that he and the others are now well over twenty kilometers from Paradise, which meant they were safe.
“Alright, our campsite is just up ahead,” Roland announces after what felt like an eternity. After such a long hike, Maverick was thankful for the extensive training that he and the other Stalwarts went through.
“How are you doing, Tyson?” Maverick asks as he examines his friend. He had made sure to keep Tyson in front of him the whole time in order to ensure that he didn’t get left behind.
Tyson huffs before he replies, “Going good, can’t wait for dinner.”
“Are you sure?” Maverick presses. Tyson had kept up with everyone pretty well, likely thanks to the crutch that Anne made him, but that seemed like it just gave him the means to put on a strong front for everyone else.
“Yep,” Tyson responds shortly.
Maverick frowns as Tyson waddles a little faster to get away from him. He can tell that Tyson was hiding something, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Frowning, Maverick decides to let it go and he shrugs. There was nothing he could do for Tyson if Tyson didn’t tell him anything. Shrugging, Maverick turns to Gideon and he asks, “And how are you doing? I know you haven’t been on a hike like this before.”
“I should be fine,” Gideon assures him, “I was in track, so my legs can take quite a lot of punishment. It’ll take more than a long hike to take me down.”
“Hiking and running are two very different things,” Sylvia warns.
Gideon lets out a loud laugh before he declares, “You’re telling me!”
Sylvia gives Gideon a weird look and she asks, “What?”
“My legs are on fire right now,” Gideon admits. Still laughing, Gideon rubs his shins for a moment before he reaches down to his ankle. Wincing slightly, he admits, “I think I rolled my ankle a hundred times today.”
Sylvia lets out a laugh at Gideon’s joke. Shaking her head, she warns, “You’re definitely going to be hurting in the morning.”
“Yeah,” Gideon lets out a pained chuckle. He and the others take a few more steps and they emerge into a good-sized clearing where Roland and his team are preparing the campsite for the night.
Spirits seem to be high and everyone is happily chatting with one another. Anne is currently engaged in conversation with Haley whom she seems to have befriended over the long trek. The rest of Maverick’s team is also engaging with Roland’s team as they join in on the setup efforts.
“They actually did it,” Meghan whispers to herself as Maverick, Sylvia, and Gideon draw near. She is sitting near the edge of the group where she is rocking slightly in a fetal position. Her eyes are wide, and her face is pale as she stares blankly ahead of her.
The group grows quiet as they take in what Meghan had reminded them of. Jason, Danni, and seven others, had all left them. Not only that, but they also shot at them as they left. Not only had they shot at them, but they actually hit Tyson. Despite Tyson’s assurances, Maverick isn’t sure if his friend will actually pull through this one. They didn’t have a med ward where Tyson could heal up, they were out on their own.
“We all knew they wanted to leave us,” Maverick offers, “We just didn’t expect them to do it like they did.”
Frowning, Sylvia offers, “Well, they’re gone now, so we’re safe.”