Gideon chuckles awkwardly as he searches for the best response to Meghan’s forwardness. He makes a face before he hesitantly replies, “No, I haven’t even kissed a girl before.”
“So, you’re single then.” Meghan hypothesizes as she looks Gideon up and down once more.
Gideon had never been one to feel shy, but something about Meghan’s relentlessness is making him quite uncomfortable. He chuckles awkwardly before he replies, “Well, there’s this girl back home—”
“They probably told her you’re dead by now,” Meghan interrupts, “So that means you’re all mine!”
“Either that or they told her that you moved,” Jake adds with a sigh.
“Or they brainwashed her and removed her memories of you,” Tyson offers as he makes some vague motions around his head with his hands.
Danni scowls before she snaps, “Tyson, we already told you, they can’t do that!”
“And what’s stopping them?” Tyson shoots back casually, “They already admitted that they are the ones who made all the hybrids.”
“Gene splicing is one thing, controlling memories is entirely another,” Jake informs Tyson in a tone that tells Gideon that they had in fact told Tyson this several times now.
“That’s just what they want you to think!” Tyson loudly declares. He glances over to a nearby guard before turning and continuing to Gideon and the others in a whisper, “Besides, I’m pretty sure they already brainwashed Danni.”
The girl by the name of Anne joins the group that is crowded around Gideon and she agrees to Tyson’s theory with a laugh, “That would explain why she’s such a jerk!”
“I’m not brainwashed you idiot!” Danni growls at Tyson before she storms off.
“Umm, what just happened?” Gideon asks after several silent moments. Between his being brand new here and the fact that he was still getting used to the idea that everything he knew was a lie, he was very confused.
With a shrug, Tyson is the first to reply, “Danni has just about all of us on her hate list.”
“I think it’s more of a kill list,” Anne amends. Her words get the group laughing and Gideon can’t help but chuckle. Despite Meghan’s creepiness and Danni’s bad attitude, the Stalwarts he found himself among were very personable. He could definitely see himself enjoying himself as he spent the foreseeable le future with them.
Jake then adds, “And she’s done just about everything she can to get all of us to put her on our hate lists.”
“Alright, then what’s the story with those two?” Gideon asks as he points toward Maverick and Jason. Jason has several large bruises on his face and Gideon was told that Maverick had just beat him up within the last hour.
Anne quickly answers his question as she points to the two people in question, “Maverick is the one the Warden put in charge. Jason, on the other hand, thinks he is the one that should be calling the shots.”
“He’s mine,” Gideon hears Meghan mutter threateningly to Anne who promptly rolls her eyes in response.
“Will that be a problem when we’re on the outside?” Gideon asks as he does his best to not react to Meghan’s claim on him.
“It shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” Jake replies, “Most of us are going to stick with Maverick when we’re out, but I’ve heard that Jason is planning on going out on his own with a few of our people.”
“But isn’t it better to stick together?” Gideon asks with a worried expression. He hated the idea of someone’s ego getting anyone else killed. He is about to say something else when Meghan suddenly fishes her arm around his. He looks down to her in a state of shock and is greeted with her cute blue-eyed puppy dog expression that silently begs him to love her. He somehow keeps himself from acting too worried and he looks back to the rest of the group who all appear amused by Meghan’s actions.
Without mentioning Meghan’s move, Jake quickly responds, “Usually I’d say yes, but that isn’t the case with Jason. The guy is a bit of a tyrant, so we’ll be better off without him. Besides, the best of us are all sticking with Maverick.”
Tyson laughs openly before he explains, “More accurately, those of us who are like Danni are going to split off and stay with Jason.”
“Oh, I get it,” Gideon nods as he gently moves his arm in an effort to get away from Meghan. Much to his disappointment, Meghan is squeezing his arm too tightly and he casually pretends that he hadn’t tried to escape.
“Anything else?” Anne asks in a chipper tone.
“Yeah, what’s her story?” Gideon asks as he points with his free arm at Sylvia who is still speaking with Maverick.
“She’s none of your concern,” Meghan assures Gideon as she tenses up noticeably.
“Well, that doesn’t mean I can’t hear her story,” Gideon argues as Meghan’s arm tightens around his to the point that he starts worrying about his blood flow.
“Meghan, calm down, I don’t think Maverick is going to let anything happen between the two of them,” Anne cuts in as she chuckles and shakes her head. She glances over toward Maverick and Sylvia as Meghan loosens her grip. After a short beat, Anne turns back to Gideon and tells him, “Her mom is with the Coalition, she flies one of their gunships. She doesn’t talk to the rest of us much and she sticks around Maverick for some reason. We don’t know too much else about her besides that, so you’ll either have to ask Maverick or talk to her yourself.”
Meghan’s arm tightens once more at Anne’s closing statement and Gideon can’t help but sigh in irritation. It was one thing to have a girl like you, it was entirely another to have her clinging to your arm like her life depended on it. Gideon had opted to stay out of the dating scene for most of his life in an effort to keep himself focused on building a life for himself, he’d date when he had a stable job. When he was good and ready, he’d marry the girl and have a secret wedding with his underground church and have his father officiate it.
Gideon suppresses the urge to frown as he thinks, Or at least that had been the plan.
“Or you can just forget about it,” Meghan offers in a firm tone that somehow also had a hint of desperation to it.
Gideon and the others continue making small talk for quite some time as the soldiers and Director Stone make their final preparations to send them off. After a while, the questions directed toward Gideon become more probing and he finds himself telling more than he had done for quite some time. One thing led to another and the others ask why he had been pulled aside earlier and he explains how the guards were ordered to search his gear for any contraband items. Much to Gideon’s relief, they never went as far as to thoroughly search everything, so they failed to find the red flashlight that Commanded Hayes wanted him to pass on to her daughter when they were on the outside.
“Stalwarts, it was my honor to train you up after all of this time,” Director Stone starts her speech after several eternal hours of Gideon and the other Stalwarts’ anxious waiting. She looks at Gideon and the other
“Lot of training she did,” Danni mutters angrily from somewhere behind Gideon.
“Shut up!” Anne whispers back. Gideon glances over to Anne who is standing on his right and he nods to her in support. It was oddly amusing how much everyone disliked Danni and her seemingly endless list of complaints.
Danni scoffs at Anne before she grumbles, “Just you wait until we’re on the outside…”
Gideon is about to butt into Danni and Anne’s arguments when Director Stone continues her speech, “You are some of the most promising individuals that I have had the pleasure to raise up, and for that I thank you. I am sure that many of you have so many questions still that you never got the chance to ask, and I am sorry for that. That being said, I have personally ensured that you learned everything you needed to know before you went out that you might have your best chance at survival.”
“It is unlikely that you will come across any of the prior Stalwart teams that have been sent out,” a man announces from beside Director Stone. He nods for a few seconds as he examines the Stalwarts.
“Think that’s because they’re all dead?” someone asks in a hushed whisper from behind Gideon.
“I’m sure at least a few of them are still kicking,” Anne assures the group, “I met a few of them before they were sent out and they seemed perfectly capable of staying alive.”
“The other Stalwart teams have likely ventured many kilometers from Paradise since they were first sent out,” the man next to Director Stone eventually continues, “We have found evidence that many of them are doing very well in their taming the wilds.”
“Note that he said many and not all,” Danni grumbles.
Director Stone sees that the man is done speaking and she takes the opportunity to finish her speech, “I’ve spent countless hours pouring over records of the wilds and I am sure that you will all flourish with the training you have received—even you, Mister Lennox. I’ve looked over all of your records and I’ve personally shaped much of your training to ensure that you will all fare very well on your own.”
“The suspense is killing me, are they gonna let us out or not?” Jake jokes from his spot on the other side of Anne.
Gideon lets his mind wander as Director Stone continues her speech. He was sure that the speech would have been a lot more meaningful if he had actually trained under her, but he hadn’t. Instead, here he was, perfectly unprepared for what laid ahead of him. All he had to draw on was his brief time with Commander Hayes and all of the dreams he had had over the years. Provided, Hayes had slipped a helpful little field guide, but he is beginning to wonder if he was going to be able to live long enough to read it.
“—and with that, it is my honor to send you off.” Director Stone finishes her speech as Gideon pushes down his concerns and tunes back in.
“Well, this is it then.” Jake gulps as he and the others watch the massive garage doors open in front of them.
Gideon stares expectantly through the ever-widening door in front of him. This was his second time seeing the outside world and his first time seeing it without a window between him and it. By all accounts this would be a day he wouldn’t forget as long as he lived. After staring for a few moments, Gideon’s eyes fall on the tall wall that is surrounding Paradise—it stands as a monolith between him and what seems to be his destiny. His eyes follow the massive wall to a large gate where he and the others would soon pass through and leave everything they once knew.
“First time?” Maverick asks with a chuckle on Gideon’s left.
Gideon involuntarily swallows a lump in his throat that he had been trying to ignore before he replies in a hallow voice, “You could say that.”
“Stick by me and I’ll keep you safe,” Maverick says with a smile and a reassuring nod.
“Will do,” Gideon nods as he stares through the open gate ahead of them into the dense forest beyond.
“We salute you,” Director Stone declares once the garage doors are completely open. Gideon looks over to where she is standing and sees that the Director, her soldiers, and all of the Stalwarts in training are all saluting him and those in his team.
“That’s our cue,” Maverick sounds, pulling Gideon away from the sight.
Gideon looks over to Maverick who promptly jerks his chin toward the open gate and starts walking. Unwilling to break rank—at least this early on—Gideon takes a deep breath and marches on in between Maverick and Anne. He isn’t sure if he is more excited or terrified, but he did know that he had quite the adventure in front of him.
“Wait, shouldn’t we have guns before we go out there?” Gideon asks as he steps out of the garage and onto the soft grass between the complex and the exterior wall.
“We’ll get our guns at the gate, don’t worry babe,” Meghan assures Gideon as she peeks around Maverick who is standing between them.
Gideon nods to Meghan who smiles at his acknowledgment before she faces forward once more. For the time being, he would ignore her odd advances. With time, Gideon hoped that Meghan might lose interest in him. Then again… Gideon thinks as he casts a sideways glance past Maverick to Meghan, Maybe this isn’t a bad thing after all. She is cute, and she does seem rather nice.
“Alright guys,” Maverick starts once they are several paces away from the garage. He is looking straight ahead, and he is doing his best to not move his mouth as he speaks, “I have some maps of the area surrounding Paradise and I’ve picked out a few places that I think might make for a good camp.”
“Right to business then, nice,” Anne nods slightly without turning to face Maverick.
Maverick continues after a few more steps, “I’ve also picked out what should be our best route there, but I’ll need Sylvia to look over things once we’re out of sight.”
“You got it,” Sylvia affirms from behind Maverick. Gideon fights the urge to look back to her and he tells himself that he would get to share his little secret soon enough.
“That’s all if we don’t get killed first,” Danni reminds the group of their impending peril.
“That’s not helping anyone,” Maverick shoots back.
Danni scoffs at Maverick’s response and she starts spitting out her angered rebuttal, “I’m just—”
“Shut up or I will shoot you myself,” Maverick silences her with a voice so stern that it sent goosebumps down Gideon’s spine. Startled, Gideon glances over to Maverick and he scans his face for several beats in search of any evil that may be hiding within his soul. Oddly enough, Maverick’s face remains nondescript, which Gideon finds just as reassuring as he found it unnerving.
“Damn you,” Danni seethes but otherwise remains silent.
“Alright, quiet down, we don’t want the guards overhearing anything,” Maverick stealthily instructs as they near the large gateway.
The massive gate’s doors are opened inwards toward the prison and several dozen lines of soldiers and guards stand at the ready in the event that any hostiles made a break for the only entrance into the complex. Gideon takes a sharp breath and he holds it as he steps through the gate into the outside world feeling like he could get shot just for doing so.
Gideon takes several more steps and he closes his eyes, knowing that he was about to get killed. One step follows another and there isn’t so much as a crack. Confused, but admittedly relieved, Gideon eases his eyes open and he slowly exhales. He is alive as are all of his friends. So far, none of this looked like a complex trap to cull kids like him.
“Pick your poison,” a guard sounds from a small table that is set up in the midst of the clearing immediately before the gate. Behind him the trees of the forest tower higher than every building from Gideon’s hometown.
Gideon winces slightly at the man’s choice of words but he lets his eyes fall to the table that the man is at. Laying before him is the widest array of weapons he had ever seen, and he nods approvingly at them. Gideon cracks a smile as he approaches the table and he is happy to know that he would have something to defend himself with if this did all end up being a trap.
“What’ll it be?” another man asks from behind the table once Gideon is close enough to take a hold of one of the weapons.
“You’ll want a sidearm in case things get nasty and your primary weapon gives out on you,” Anne advises as she takes a hold of a few odd weapons and some munitions.
“What do you think I should get?” Gideon asks her as he stares at the assortment in front of him. His initial pleasure had been replaced with trepidation as the thought that these weapons would remain with him forever started to set in.
Anne starts affixing her weapon to her belt as she looks Gideon over. Nodding, she inquires, “How good is your vision?”
“It’s alright,” Gideon shrugs, he knew his eyes weren’t perfect, but he could get by well enough.
“Well then I think you’ll be better off with this combo,” Anne tells him as she hands him a large, awkward rifle and a handgun. She tosses quite a bit of ammo into a few small pouches and then she grabs a string of grenades. Nodding at the selection, Anne then shoves everything into Gideon’s arms.
“All of this?” Gideon asks in alarm as he looks down to the cache of weapons in his arms.
“Yes, all of that,” Anne affirms with a chuckle. Stepping away, she directs, “Now follow me.”
“I don’t even know how to use most of this,” Gideon whimpers helplessly as he drops a few of his newest belongings in his struggle to find a good spot for everything.
“Don’t worry, we’ll teach you everything you need to know,” Anne assures Gideon with a warm smile as she helps him pick up what he had dropped. She then drapes the rifle’s sling over him and hooks one of the ammo pouches to his left hip. She takes several more items out of his hands and plops them into his pack as he slowly affixes his sidearm to his right hip. Once everything is situated, Anne points at Gideon’s rifle and explains, “Your rifle is just like any other rifle out there except the barrel on the bottom is your shotgun. The trigger nearest your shoulder works the shotgun, the other one works the rifle. I gave you a lot of extra ammo so you can do some target practice too. We don’t know if we’ll be getting any more ammo out there.”
“Mine,” Meghan snaps from behind Gideon before she slips an arm around him. She scowls at Anne who rolls her eyes once more as Gideon looks helplessly at her.
“You know, I am a person,” Gideon announces as he tries to pry himself out of Meghan’s possessive grip.
“I do,” Meghan nods as she tightens her hold on him, “You’re my person.”
“I don’t think this is how people normally get together,” Gideon maintains as Anne watches the exchange with an amused grin.
Meghan does a little half-shrug as she says, “I don’t care,”
“Well I do,” Gideon maintains as he pushes her away, “Now please stop! I’m sure you’re great and all, but this is all a bit much!”
“Fine,” Meghan pouts before she stalks away. Gideon isn’t sure, but part of him is convinced that Meghan is just putting on a show in an attempt to garner some sympathy out of him.
“Well done,” Anne laughs once Meghan had retreated out of earshot. Turning once more, Anne makes her way to another table in the clearing, Gideon in tow. Once they are at this table, Anne picks up a black vest and she explains, “Bulletproof vests. Most of these are a lot lighter than the military issue ones, but that’s because we aren’t going to get shot at very much. They’ll provide some protection from the hybrids, but I like them because of all the pockets.”
“Sure are a lot of color options,” Gideon jokes as he looks at the sea of black cloth. He pokes around for a few beats before he selects a vest and he sheds his backpack in order to put it on. He tightens a few straps on it and eventually sighs as the vest hugs him tight enough to provide him a sense of security while also being loose enough that he can breathe.
“And you’ll want one or two of these too,” Anne adds from the far side of the table. Gideon wanders over to her and is greeted with an array of blades.
“Any suggestions here?” Gideon asks as he picks up a machete and its sheath. He pulls the blade out a few centimeters and admires the cutting edge for a moment before he sheathes it and secures it to the side of his pack.
“You’ll want this for chopping wood and this for everything else,” Anne answers as he hands him a mid-sized fixed-blade knife and a small hatchet.
“That’s sure a lot of gear,” Gideon points out as he considers all of the extra weight he is now carrying.
“I’m sure you’ll manage,” Anne chuckles as she looks Gideon over once more.
“Oh great, now you too?” Gideon moans. Back at home he would have eaten up all the attention from the ladies, out here everything was so different.
“Oh, get over yourself,” Anne winks before she slips a few small knives into some of the pockets on her vest.
Gideon and Anne work their way over to an empty place in the clearing and they go through their supplies one last time before they would head out. Once they finish the two of them idly watch as the rest of the Stalwarts gear up and eventually join them. After a good hour or so, everyone had wrapped up and the soldiers begin retreating back into Paradise.
“This is it then,” Gideon says as he watches the gate close behind the last guard. It wasn’t that he had doubted what was happening, but the closing of the large gate really sent the fact home that his life was changed for good.
“This is it,” Maverick affirms as he turns toward the woods. He glances back to his team and orders, “Let’s get a move on, we don’t have time to just sit around.
Gideon and the rest of the Stalwarts form up behind Maverick and they start marching toward the forest before long. Gideon is doing the best to control his nerves, but he is still quivering in excitement. This was truly the end of one chapter in his life and the beginning of another. As soon as the thought passed through his head, Gideon steps through the first bit of the forest’s underbrush and he whispers mostly to himself, “We’re on our own now…”
“Welcome to the jungle boys,” Anne announces happily and so confidently that Gideon is sure that she rehearsed the line beforehand.