West of Paradise, Galatia
“Look’s like I’m on the right track,” Maverick mutters to himself as he slowly works his way through the dense foliage of the forest. For one reason or another, the forest seems to be resisting his advance. The trees stand as monoliths between him and his objective and the ferns and other ground cover try to tear at his legs in an attempt to stop him entirely.
There is a brief crack overhead and Maverick looks up in time to see one of the Ki’etz twins flash out of sight.
Sighing, Maverick can’t help but feel useless and helpless. His inability to make it out here in the wild was obvious enough that Roland sent the twins along to babysit him. Sure, their presence was helpful, but it also felt quite demeaning.
It made Maverick feel a little bit scared too.
The thought that travelling alone was a near-certain death sentence didn’t sit well. His training had made it seem like the hybrids would be a lot more confrontational than they were turning out to be. He knew he was being hunted by them, even right now. Every so often, the hairs on the back of his neck would stand up on end as he felt the stare of one of the predators.
For the first time in his life, Maverick was the prey.
Maverick chuckles at the thought. The absurdity of being on the bottom of the food chain seemed nearly impossible. Man was supposed to be at the top—feared by all creatures.
And yet, here he was at the bottom.
“We’re coming up on one of the old towns!” Astrid calls down from the trees.
Maverick looks around and tries to spot her, but he fails to do so. Shaking his head slightly, he drops his head and resumes his constant scanning of the surrounding forest for threats and for survivors from his team.
“The tracks lead to the old town, I’m willing to be there’s only one person though,” Warren reports from another treetop.
This time, Maverick manages to pick out the twin in the trees and he feels like it’s quite the accomplishment. The twins had a way of being nearly invisible while they were in the dense canopies, so being able to notice them at all was impressive.
Still trudging ahead, Maverick asks, “Think they stopped here, or do you think they moved on?”
“No idea,” Warren answers.
“I don’t see any tracks, but I can’t be sure,” Astrid chimes in after a few seconds.
“You can’t be sure?” Maverick queries. Something about Astrid’s delay and her choice in words worried him.
Astrid lets out a few short sounds before she finally says, “There was a lot of hybrid activity.”
At that, the blood in Maverick’s veins runs cold and his fingers and toes feel as clammy as they did in one of the sims back at Paradise where he and his team were left in sub-zero temperatures for over a week. The thought of hybrids tracking down and killing someone on his team made him bone-cold—colder than he had even gotten in that frigid ice sim.
Looking down, Maverick stares at the small drops of blood on the leaves of the underbrush. The blood, Maverick had reasoned, belonged to Tyson. He was the only person who was injured and bleeding.
That blood probably lured the hybrids right to him… Maverick thinks, But… why would Tyson go out here all on his own? There was that other set of tracks that split off from him a kilometer or so behind me, but that’s a long way for Tyson to go on by himself. He knew better than that. Was he luring them away to save the other person? How? Why?
Closing his eyes, Maverick offers up a quick prayer and asks that Tyson is the only person that he finds dead. Maverick knew he couldn’t handle finding anyone else.
“I see blood,” Astrid calls down in as soft of a voice as she can, “I’m sorry, Maverick.”
“I need to see it for myself,” Maverick shakes his head as he tries his best to strengthen his resolve. Swallowing a few times, Maverick tries to clear all the spit out of his mouth in an attempt to keep from vomiting. He had no idea what he was going to see and, for some reason, having a dry mouth seemed like the proper thing to go in with.
“It’s not pretty,” Warren warns.
Shuddering with every step, Maverick weakly continues forward. Each step feels like it’s jarring his bone while the ground underfoot suddenly feels like nothing at all. Taking a shaky breath, Maverick whispers, “I have to see it.”
Maverick sits by the campfire alone, exactly where the twins had left him probably two hours ago. The heat of the fire warms his flesh, but its heat seems unable to penetrate any deeper than his skin.
In front of him, Tyson O’Connell’s face stares back blankly.
If it weren’t for the Stalwart Program, Maverick knew that he wouldn’t have ever met Tyson. The Domes weren’t something that the average civilian could pass between since the Coalition government didn’t want to commit the resources to escorting everyone between the walled cities. As such, Maverick grew up on what was essentially an island. Nothing changed in his Dome and no one new came along or left, discluding those who were born and those who died.
Smiling slightly, Maverick thinks about all the friends that he had made just because of the Stalwart Program. He had been able to see more of the world and meet more new people than just about everyone back at home. For the first time in his life, he was able to live under the sun and stars and not under a thick dome of concrete with small glass ports to taunt you by reminding you that there was an outside world. That there was an entire land to be rediscovered. That you were a prisoner because you were told it was safer inside.
Thanks to the Stalwart Program, Maverick got to meet some amazing kids. Kids like Tyson.
Looking back at Tyson, Maverick’s smile vanishes.
The Stalwart Program was the reason why Tyson was dead now.
The Stalwart Program was what kept Tyson from his dreams of being an inventor, and chef, and so many other wonderful things that interested him. Chuckling softly, Maverick realizes that he had likely forgotten half of the things that Tyson had said he would do when he grew up.
But the Stalwart Program stole away the promise of growing up from Tyson too.
“Why?” Maverick croaks. His voice had long since failed him. Something about the scene before him stole away his voice in a way he didn’t know was possible and he had begun to wonder if he could ever speak again.
Still laying before him, Tyson stares back.
Tyson’s eyes are glazed over and have taken on a milky sheen. His cheeks no longer resemble plump peaches. Instead, bruises cover his entire body. Nasty black bruises and massive black blood blisters.
The twins told Maverick that this was evidence of the venom that had killed Tyson. They said this venom came from one of the hybrids—one that they had thought they killed off years ago.
Blinking once, Maverick takes another shaky breath. He was alone. Somewhere not too far away, the twins were sleeping. Odds were one of them was keeping watch, keeping an eye out for hybrids and probably watching him too.
Beyond the reaches of the small clearing, howls from the hybrids rise up into the heavens like some horrible pagan ritual. These creatures of the night were hunting for anything and everything that they could eat and Maverick kept praying short prayers with every spurt of feverous celebratory howls from the monsters that the prey that they had killed wasn’t one of his people.
Swallowing once more, Maverick slowly rises to his feet and looks around. Seeing that he is still alone, he stretches out and his stiff limbs happily receive the release of movement after being forced into such an uncomfortable position for so long.
“So, this is what it’s like out here,” Maverick whispers, “Why didn’t they just kill me when they had the chance?
“Why didn’t who just kill you?” Astrid’s voice rises from the bushes behind Maverick.
“The Coalition,” Maverick grunts as he lowers his head into his cupped hands and lets out a muffled moan. Taking in a seething breath through his gritted teeth, he thinks, Why Tyson? The kid didn’t do anything to deserve something like this!
“So, they’re the ones who run the Domes, right?” Astrid asks, “Sorry, I’ve never been able to really ask these questions.
Maverick looks up from his cupped hands at Astrid, who is now sitting beside him, opposite of the side that Tyson’s body is on. He is about to answer when he notices the blood on his hands.
Swallowing, Maverick realizes that the blood was likely all over his face now, and he quickly tries wiping it off with his sleeve.
Astrid offers Maverick a worried look and she reaches over and pulls his arms away from his face. Shaking her head slowly, she gently says, “It’s okay, you got everything.”
Maverick’s eyes feel like they’re bleeding from all the crying he had already done. Worse yet, the feeling had grown worse since he had run out of tears. He had failed his team, he had failed those who put him in charge of his team, and now he had failed Tyson.
It was his failing Tyson that left him feeling the most empty.
“Come on, let’s get somewhere a little more protected,” Astrid urges as she stands and gives Maverick a playful shove, “Warren and I found a spot nearby, he’s already snoozing, you should be too.”
Maverick doesn’t budge and his eyes fall back to Tyson’s stiff body.
“I’ll keep watch to make sure nothing happens to him,” Astrid pledges, “I doubt you’d be of much help as it is anyways.”
Frowning, Maverick can’t help but realize the truth in Astrid’s words. Despite this, he can’t help but feel like he shouldn’t move. That he couldn’t move. That by leaving now, he was giving in to an easy out and was letting Tyson down one more time.
Astrid sighs and then drops to her haunches beside Maverick. She waits for him to cast a sidelong glance toward her before she offers, “I can either wait here the rest of the night beside you, or we can bury him now. What will it be? I’m done watching you do nothing.”
Maverick grunts in response. Astrid made things sound so simple, and it was, but it wasn’t at the same time. Thanks to his crying, thanks to sitting here so long, thanks to the guilt, doing anything seemed impossible.
“I’m serious,” Astrid warns.
“I don’t know,” Maverick sighs.
Maverick watches as Astrid shakes her head and looks to the skies. She mouths out a few words before she turns her back to him and leans on his shoulder. She sighs quietly once more before she cedes, “Then I guess I’m stuck here until you do know.”