West of Paradise, Galatian
The ground underfoot crunches slightly and Gideon freezes. After trudging over soft earth and moss for so long the feeling of gravel felt almost foreign. Looking down, Gideon examines the ground. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary at first glance. He pushes aside a few layers of small plants and soil and soon finds a treasure trove of small stones. Dropping to his haunches, Gideon pokes around at the gravel and notes that it appears to have been concrete in some distant past.
“What is it?” Sylvia inquires from behind him. She and Meghan had allowed Gideon to take point. Gideon reasoned that this was because they didn’t trust his shooting just yet and they didn’t want him to hit them.
“Gravel,” Gideon answers simply as he digs a little deeper into the bed of pebbles.
“And?” Sylvia presses, her confusion very evident in her voice.
“It’s the first gravel we’ve found since we left Paradise,” Gideon answers, “It looks like it might be some rubble from the old town that was here.
“So what?” Meghan asks.
Standing from his small hole, Gideon sighs and examines his surroundings. There are several heaps that appear to be the remains of buildings all around him, but the forest had done a great job at concealing said evidences of society. The resiliency of the plant life and how it could retake land that had been swept away from so thoroughly was as thrilling as it was terrifying.
“Gideon?” Sylvia prompts.
Sighing once more, Gideon replies, “I don’t know… It just seemed weird is all. But I can confidently say that we’re in the old city now.”
“That’s a relief, I guess,” Meghan breathes.
Nodding, Gideon stands and begins moving ahead once again. He allows a moment of thought to pass before he agrees, “Yeah, it means our little excursion is finally about done.”
“Depending on what we find, at least,” Sylvia cuts in, “If we find something worthwhile, then I think it’s just beginning.”
“I thought we agreed that we’d check it out and then get right back to the others?” Gideon groans. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of finding something interesting, he just hated the idea of doing all of this behind Maverick’s back. Exploring was one thing, disobeying direct orders by doing so was another entirely.
Gideon pauses once more as he realizes how strange his worries were. He was no soldier. He was never told of any actual chain of command when he was sent out.
And yet here he was.
“What is it?” Sylvia asks with a hint of worry in her tone.
“I don’t like this,” Gideon shrugs as he looks around once more. The trees that had taken hold atop of the ruined foundations of the smaller buildings in this town provide a nearly endless number of hiding places for threats. The trees’ roots that straddle the overgrown foundations with hundreds of tendrils have countless gaps in which Gideon feared smaller hybrids could be hiding. If the roots weren’t an issue, then the sheer volume of the trees were. Thanks to the many decades that had passed since the Inundation, the trees had been allowed to grow unchecked. Now the mature and maturing trees crowded every chunk of dirt that was deep enough to let them take root. Such a dense forest granted Gideon only about fifteen meters of visibility into the overgrown areas.
“We’ll be out of the trees soon enough,” Sylvia pledges, “All we have to do is find our building.”
Shaking his head, Gideon says, “I don’t like how we’re doing this behind Maverick’s back either. That’s what’s really bothering me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sylvia chuckles as she pulls up beside Gideon, “He’s used to stuff like this from me. He might be in charge of our team, but he knows full well that he isn’t in charge of me.”
“Besides,” Meghan cuts in, “After Danni and Jason’s stunt, I doubt he’s too worried about our taking a little detour.”
“I’d be more worried about it if I were him,” Gideon frowns. Pursing his lips, he scans the trees even more intently, “I’d be more worried because Jason and the others were willing to shoot at us. They even shot Tyson. What’s stopping them from hunting us down if they’ve already crossed that line?”
Sylvia shudders and answers, “Nothing. Now let’s get to somewhere more defendable if you want to keep talking.”
“I don’t think I have much of a choice,” Gideon replies as he begins marching ahead once more.
A few minutes pass and the trees in front of Gideon suddenly thin out. Gideon pauses at the edge of the denser forest and he scans the thinner area before him. The trees here are much younger and the patch of smaller trees continues on in two directions. Gideon briefly rakes his brain for why this could be when he realizes that he is looking at an old road that seemed to be holding its own better than all the other roads.
“Would you look at that,” Sylvia sounds on Gideon’s left, “There’s our building at the end of the road.”
Gideon throws all his weight against the old steel door at the front of the building and it finally breaks free. Swinging inward five centimeters or so, Gideon looks in and asks the ladies, “Alright, how much looking around are you thinking?”
“A lot more than just that,” Sylvia laughs when Gideon pulls away from the narrow opening.
“Obviously,” Gideon grunts as he looks the rusted door up and down. He was surprised that he made it move as much as he did, as such, he wasn’t convinced that he could force it any further open.
“Maybe we’ll have to find another way in though,” Sylvia says when she sees Gideon’s expression.
Gideon nods once at Sylvia who frowns and then looks for any other potential entry points into the building. She was a lot more observant than Gideon originally thought and he chuckles when he thinks about how much she impressed him at this point. For being so standoffish, Sylvia seemed very in tune with what was going on.
“Or Gideon can force the door the rest of the way,” Meghan points out as she lightly kicks the base of the door.
“It’s pretty stuck,” Gideon shakes his head.
“We can blow it up,” Meghan offers, “You should have some explosives in your pack.”
“That’s probably not the best idea,” Sylvia cuts in, “We don’t want to make too much noise, just in case there are hybrids around. On top of that, we don’t know if we might need those grenades and whatnot later.”
“It was just an idea,” Meghan pouts.
Not wanting to let Meghan sound too oblivious, Gideon volunteers, “I guess I could give the door another shot.”
“I’ll help,” Sylvia sighs.
Gideon takes his place furthest from the hinges where his strength would be most impactful, and Sylvia wedges her rifle in the chasm to use it as a crowbar of sorts. After several minutes of seemingly pointless shoves and strained grunts, the door squeals, moves a bit, and then falls flat onto the ground.
Carried onward with his own momentum, Gideon follows the door down and Sylvia isn’t much luckier.
“Well, that makes two times today,” Sylvia laughs once she and Gideon come to a halt. She begins untangling herself and her gun from Gideon as she adds in a whisper, “You know, there are better ways to get close to a girl.”
“I heard that,” Meghan hisses, “And I still have dibs.”
“I wasn’t—” Gideons starts before he stops himself and shakes his head. Knowing that he was beginning to blush, he slides further into the building and away from the light outside to make sure the girls didn’t see. Rising to his feet as casually as he can, he clears his throat and announces, “Let’s get this over with. I don’t want to be stuck in here any longer than we need to be.”
“Yes, sir,” Sylvia sounds in a tone that dripped with sass.
Gideon glances back to the girls and sees that Sylvia is offering him a mocking salute. Shaking his head slightly, he opts to ignore her. Great, now I got two girls who think I’m supposed to be into them, he thinks with a sigh.
“You going to use a flashlight?” Meghan asks hesitantly.
Gideon glances back once more and he sees that Meghan is now standing all by herself at the doorway.
Sylvia closes the remaining distance between her and Gideon before she turns back and teases, “Awe, you still scared of the dark?”
Meghan gives Sylvia a dirty look before she stammers, “No… it’s—it’s not smart to walk into places where you can be ambushed like this. There are… too many shadows for hybrids to hide in.”
“She doesn’t like the dark,” Sylvia fills Gideon in, “It’s a thing for her.”
“No one should like the dark,” Meghan snaps, “Especially after last night. They got Tyson!”
Sylvia stiffens beside Gideon, “They? They who?”
“The hybrids!” Meghan exclaims before she breaks down and begins crying softly. She leans back against the doorframe and slides down to the ground. Rocking back and forth slightly, she reaches up to cradle the back of her head as she continues crying.
Seemingly oblivious to Meghan’s current status, Sylvia demands, “You saw them? Why didn’t you do anything?”
“I—I was… scared,” Meghan manages between sobs. Her crying had escalated and Gideon can’t help but wonder if she was making enough noise to draw in any hybrids.
“You watched them kill him!?” Sylvia demands incredulously, “How could you do that? He trusted you! We were supposed to watch out for each other!”
“Sylvia, hey,” Gideon stops her from verbally assaulting Meghan any more. Lightly touching her shoulder, he softly offers, “Let’s give her a second to calm down.”
“I—she—ah!!!” Sylvia screams at no one in particular before she rips herself out of Gideon’s reach and storms off deeper into the building.
“Well, I don’t know if I played that one right,” Gideon breathes before he lets a soft chuckle rise from his gut. Sometimes there was no winning.
Looking over his shoulder, Gideon sees Sylvia kicking through some rotting furniture on the far end of the massive room that they are in. At the center of the room is a large circular desk and a dozen or so doors provide them easy access to the rest of the building.
Gideon turns back to Meghan who is now crying softly once more. Her rocking has stopped, replaced by silent sobs that make her whole body shake. Glancing back to Sylvia, Gideon reasons that she was probably going to be able to cool off by herself. Turning his attention back to Meghan, he sighs and approaches her.
“Stay away,” Meghan whimpers, “I’ll just get you killed too.”
“I don’t know about that,” Gideon chuckles, “I like to think that I’m pretty hard to kill.”
Meghan stops crying long enough to look up at Gideon with puffy eyes. There was normal crying and then there was ugly crying and he had just interrupted Meghan in the middle of an ugly cry.
“I’m going to take a seat by you, and I won’t be going anywhere until you’re feeling better,” Gideon pledges before he closes the distance between him and Meghan. Sliding to the ground beside her, he adds, “Take your time, I’m in no rush.”
At that, Meghan resumes her mourning, but it’s a lot softer now. A few minutes pass and she grows silent. Before Gideon can check to see what’s wrong, there is a flash out of the corner of his eye. Whatever it is, it smacks into his chin and, with a bright flash, his world suddenly goes dark.