West of Paradise, Galatia
Rolland and Haley sit a few paces away from the nearest cliff face with a small fire to their backs for warmth and to keep the hybrids away. Ahead of them, they watch as the sun slowly begins peeking over the hills to the east. The sky above is glowing orange as if the sun were igniting the atmosphere as it shone on their humble planet. The hills and forests are painted a breathtaking green as the trees are awakened to yet another sunny day. As far as Rolland is concerned, life is good.
The duo sit in silence as the sun tentatively creeps upward, almost like it had forgotten how to rise and was relearning the skill. Once it is nearly a third of the way above the horizon, Haley quietly asks, “I don’t know if your dad would approve of bringing the Domers to the village.”
“And why’s that?” Rolland asks without taking his eyes off of the sunrise. He and Haley always liked to watch as the sky became a work of art every morning. Rolland had always reasoned that he liked it more than Haley, but she seemed content to wake up early and enjoy the view with him.
“Their leader, Maverick, clearly doesn’t have their respect,” Haley quickly points out, “I mean, several of his own people tried to kill him yesterday!
“From what I heard, it sounded like a longstanding rivalry,” Rolland points out. He takes a long, gentle breath as he watches the sun emerge the rest of the way from the hills that had hidden it. He didn’t know how, but the sun always seemed to speed up for the final moments of its rising.
“And how are we supposed to know that more of his people won’t try to do the same?” Haley presses. She sighs as she looks away from Rolland and toward the sunrise and she stares at it in silence. Rolland can tell that she is choosing her words carefully, so he opts to keep silent and let her think. After a minute or so, Haley finally says, “You know how much I like to help people. There’s just something about these people that seems off. They’re hiding something big, and I know you can sense that too.”
“Yeah, they’re hiding things, but Maverick says it’s nothing we should worry about.”
“And you took him at his word?”
“We don’t have a lot of other options.”
“No, we have plenty of options. They are the ones who are limited. We can leave whenever we please.”
“Can we though? You and I both know that leaving Maverick and his team out there would eat at us. It’d kill the twins too.”
“Well, have you talked to them about it? I’m sure they’d see things our way.”
“Julius and Nick talked to the two of them…”
“Well, Astrid seems to have taken a liking to one of them.”
“Well, he likes another one of them. He says she’s the one for him.”
“What does Astrid say about her guy?”
“I actually didn’t hear that one. I don’t even know who it is.”
“Well, I guess our hands are tied then.”
“Well, it doesn’t help that Nick and Julius both have crushes on the same Domer.”
“Yeah, they don’t know that they’re vying for the same girl though. I think it’d be best if we let them find that out on their own too. You and I have bigger things to worry about.”
“True, true,” Haley slowly nods.
Haley and Rolland remain silent for several minutes when Rolland suddenly gets and idea, “You know what?”
Haley jumps slightly at Rolland’s suddenness, but she recovers and asks, “What?”
“I think we—” Rolland is about to say that he thought that it couldn’t hurt to bring Maverick and the others back to their village when he is cut off by the sound of an explosion and some gunfire.
Rolland and Haley’s heads both snap back as they look to the source of the blast. When they see that the explosion had been in the direction of the camp, they both leap to their feet. Haley quickly tumbles to the ground and Rolland quickly helps her back to before he leads the way back toward the camp.
As they make for the camp, Rolland can hear the sounds of multiple weapons firing. As far as he can tell, seemingly everyone over there is shooting.
“Do you think Maverick’s friends came back to finish him off?” Haley questions as she and Rolland tear through the brush in a race for their companions.
“There’s no way they could have gotten that close without our noticing them…” Rolland answers, mostly in an effort to reassure himself. He had absolute faith in his team, there was no way they would suddenly be so bad at standing guard. At least if they were still alive… Rolland shudders at the thought of losing one of his teammates. They were his closest of friends. He grew up with them. To lose one of them, any one of them, would be the same as losing part of himself.
“There’s too much shooting for it to be Maverick and his team turning on us,” Haley notes, “They’re clearly fighting something.”
“I know,” Rolland agrees with a nod.
Before either of them can say another word, another massive explosion sounds, followed by several smaller blasts. Rolland suddenly fears that the Coalition might have sent in one of their gunships after them. But how could they have found us? There’s no way they would have tracked us. Unless one of Maverick’s people betrayed us to them… Rolland begins to get angry at the last thought when he suddenly realizes the improbability of it. If Maverick or one of his teammates betrayed them, then they wouldn’t be there to be shooting right now, and there were far too many weapons firing for it to just be the remainder of Rolland’s team.
“We got one!” Rolland hears a voice shout out triumphantly from somewhere in the firefight ahead.
“There are plenty more to be worried about!” another voice snaps before another blast sounds.
“What are they fighting?” Haley wonders aloud as she and Rolland slow down considerably. There was no use in charging into the middle of a fight if you didn’t know what was going on.
“I don’t—” Rolland’s voice catches in his throat when he sees a dead hybrid laying on the ground a short way ahead of them. Much of the creature had been blown away, leaving quite a few burns on its shredded flesh.
“Why would a hybrid of come after us now?” Haley wonders aloud, “After all this time?”
“Get out of the way, Gideon!” Astrid’s voice cries. A moment later, the sound of Astrid’s favorite gun sounds amidst the sound of the battle.
“Think you can climb on of these trees?” Rolland asks Haley as his heart lurches. Haley happened to be quite averse to combat like this. Not because she didn’t believe in fighting, but because she physically couldn’t fight. Thanks to her injuries, firing a gun was immensely difficult. If it were anyone else, it would be impossible, but Haley had found a way to shoot, despite all her shortcomings. But the problem remained that she couldn’t fight well in a heated scene like the one they would be heading into.
“You and I both know I can’t” Haley shakes her head, “Besides, I can’t just hide while you and the others fight for your lives.”
“I’m going. Don’t worry, I won’t leave your side!”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Rolland bemoans as he passes his well-used sidearm to Haley. If Haley were to follow him, then he wouldn’t be able to move around as quickly as he would have liked. Not only that, but he also wouldn’t be able to run into the heat of the fight since he didn’t want to risk Haley’s life. He knew he could make it out fine, Haley he wasn’t so sure about. The hybrids would likely target her if they took notice of her thanks to her frailties.
Seemingly sensing his thoughts, Haley quips, “This way I’ll keep you out of the worst of it.”
“Don’t make me regret this,” Rolland says as he purses his lips. Raising his rifle, he mentally prepares himself for anything. He takes a slow breath to steady himself and, breathing it out, he continues toward the fight.
Rolland coughs as a thick smoke hits him the moment that he bursts through the final bush into the clearing that he had been camping in the night before. Ahead of him, fires are burning wildly and the forms of quite a few hybrids lie dead. Several of the hybrids look like they had been caught in explosions while others were mowed down with bullets. The ground underfoot is thick with bloodied mud from the slain creatures.
Just a few paces away, one of the hybrids is gorging itself on the flesh of another hybrid. Without hesitating, Rolland dispatches the beast with three well-aimed shots to its back. The hybrid crumbles to the ground without much of a struggle and Rolland nods approvingly at his work. He knew how to kill hybrids, it was one of the few things that he had had to teach himself, his father had shown him just about everything else that he knew.
“Rolls!” Astrid calls from her perch in a nearby tree.
Rolland waits a moment as Astrid shoots at an unseen target before he asks, “What happened?”
“Hybrids came out at first light,” Astrid answers as she scans her surroundings for any additional hostiles that hadn’t been cut down. She frowns when she doesn’t see anything and she then continues, “One of Maverick’s people sounded the alarm. Everyone split up from there.”
“Why’d they split up?” Rolland asks, concerned. Smaller groups were a lot easier for the hybrids to pick off.
Astrid quickly shimmies down her tree and she replies as she works her way down, “Some of Maverick’s people made a run for it when the hybrids blitzed the camp. Maverick then sent some of his people after them while the rest of his people stuck around to put down the remaining hybrids.”
“Oh,” Rolland breathes. Splitting into small groups was one thing, they could actually defend themselves from hybrids, albeit not as well as one large one. Single people making a run for it on the other hand was as good as a death sentence. Being as capable of hunters as they were, hybrids could make quick work of lone targets.
“Rolland?” Haley asks, drawing Rolland away from his worries.
Looking over to Haley, Rolland sees the concern in her eyes. Her emotions quickly become his and he hesitantly asks, “What?”
“What about Flin?”
“He probably made it home by now,”
“It’s a long trip though.”
“These hybrids didn’t come from the northwest though,” Astrid offers, “So they couldn’t have gotten him.”
“But he’s never been good with directions,” Rolland maintains as his heart sinks. If he had just kept his cool, then he wouldn’t have sent Flin off on his own all those hours ago.
“We stuck markers on the paths, only an idiot could have gotten lost,” Astrid shakes her head, “Now, we’ve got more urgent matters to attend to right now, so snap out of it. We gotta worry about the here and now, that’s what we can change. We can’t change the past.”
“Fine,” Rolland gives in. He didn’t like the idea of forgetting about Flin, but Astrid was right. Right now, everyone depended on him and he couldn’t let them down.
“We need to find everyone,” Haley adds with a nod as she slowly looks around their clearing.
Rolland joins Haley in the survey and he can’t help but feel discouraged. A knot forms in his gut and he catches his breath when he realizes that the sounds of fighting are coming from seemingly every direction. There was no knowing where he should start.
Likely seeing that Rolland is unsure of where to start, Astrid announces, “Maverick and a few others took off to the north, Nick and Julius went east with a small group, and a lot of the other guys went south.”
“And where’s Warren?” Rolland asks.
“I don’t know,” Astrid shrugs, “He’s probably around here somewhere though. You know how he is.”
“There one second, gone the next,” Haley nods knowingly. Warren had a history of stealthily sneaking around and disappearing all the time.
“So, what’s the plan, Rolls?” Astrid finally asks.
“I don’t know Ash,” Rolland admits, “Maybe we should go after the Domers that went south. Warren, Nick, and Julius know how to handle themselves, and I bet Maverick does too.”
Nodding, Haley picks up her pack after finding it nearby and she urges, “Alright, let’s get moving then!”
Astrid glances over to Rolland and gives him a look that says how they shouldn’t bring Haley along since she would only slow them down. Noting the logic in her thinking, Rolland inquires, “Shouldn’t someone stay behind in case anyone comes back to the camp?”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Haley shakes her head. She had clearly seen through Rolland’s ruse. Adjusting her pack, Haley continues, “Let’s go, time is of the essence.”
“You heard her,” Astrid nods, giving in a lot faster than Rolland would have liked her to. She starts off after Haley who is already blazing a new trail to the south.
“I guess we’re moving then,” Rolland whispers to himself as he quickly finds his own gear and then closes the distance between him and the girls. He stops at the edge of camp and looks back to it wistfully. Sighing, Rolland asks himself, “Why couldn’t this just be an easy day?”
“Where are our horses?” Rolland asks worriedly as he follows the two girls away from their camp.
“The hybrids got them,” Astrid answers flatly, “They were the first thing that were targeted.”
“Oh,” Haley sounds, her sadness evident. Since she had spent so much time tending to the horses over the years, she had really taken to them.
Rolland’s heart breaks momentarily at the hollowness in Haley’s voice as her sadness momentarily becomes his own. Out of all people to lose something in this attack, Haley should have been the last in line. She had already gone through so much. Frowning, Rolland moans before he offers a weakhearted joke, “Well, my dad is definitely going to ground me for this one!”
Astrid looks back to Rolland and shakes his head, signaling that now wasn’t the best time to joke around and he returns the look with one that said that he was just trying to make Haley smile. Shaking her head, Astrid turns back around and continues following Haley who is still dead silent.
Several minutes pass by at a snail’s pace as Rolland resists the urge to speak up. As much as he wanted to say something, he couldn’t bring himself to after Astrid’s correction. It just wasn’t a good time right now, he could tell that now.
“Astrid?” Haley says suddenly, making Rolland jump slightly.
Stopping behind Haley who is now standing still, Astrid asks, “What?”
“These tracks don’t look very promising,” Haley answers as she points at some tracks that Rolland can’t quite see.
Craning his neck around the girls, Rolland is greeted with the sight of several sets of footprints which are spaced far enough out and depressed deep enough that he can tell that those who left them behind were running for all they were worth. However, what was most worrying was the large webbed prints that followed the same trail. A hybrid was tracking the group of kids who ran this way. Broken branches on either side of the path show Rolland and the others some even more frightening news—the hybrid was massive. The largest he had ever seen, without a doubt. Judging by the broken foliage, the creature was at least four meters tall and two meters wide. Up until then, the biggest creature he had ever seen was only about half that size.
As Haley and the others continue staring, Haley quietly breathes, “I sure hope Maverick’s people are alright…”