West of Paradise, Galatia
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.
Gideon groans as he comes back to the land of the living. As he groans, the pain in his jaw becomes quite evident and he moans loudly.
“Gideon, get up!” Sylvia’s voice urges.
“Just a second,” Gideon grunts, doing his best to not move his jaw as he spoke.
Rolling onto his back, Gideon groans again. Opening his eyes slowly, he can’t help but feel both groggy and oddly refreshed and ready to go at the same time. Reaching up to his jaw, he gingerly feels around it. Pulling his hand away, he can see that he’s bleeding. Again. Opening his jaw slightly, he runs his tongue over his teeth to make sure none of them were broken. Satisfied that he was more or less fine, he gingerly sits up.
“Come on, we have to go,” Sylvia says. She peeks around the doorway that they had all come through moments before and adds, “Now!”
“What happened?” Gideon grumbles as he slowly rises to his feet. Despite the adrenaline that is coursing through his veins, he can’t help but feel woozy still.
“Meghan knocked you out with her rifle,” Sylvia explains as she holds up the weapon, “Then she dropped it and ran. I knew we shouldn’t have trusted her. You should have let me get to the bottom of things!”
“Any idea where she went?” Gideon asks tiredly as he shuffles over to the door.
“Her prints go that way,” Sylvia reposts as she points to some freshly disturbed soil and foliage.
“Lead the way,” Gideon mumbles, “I’ll be right behind you.”
“Keep up, I don’t want her to get away,” Sylvia sounds as she starts jogging after Meghan’s tracks.
Gideon starts jogging after Sylvia, but the searing pain of his blood pumping so hard causes him to get woozy again. Blinking rapidly, Gideon briefly wonders if he is about to pass out as his vision gets blurry and his pain begins deadening. Gideon is about to call out to Sylvia, but all he can let out is a wordless whimper of sorts.
Despite being at least a dozen meters ahead, Sylvia stops and looks back, “Gideon!”
Dropping to his knees, Gideon’s body spasms and he then drops onto his side.
“Gideon!” Sylvia repeats as she starts running toward him.
Gideon blinks slowly as he watches Sylvia run and a pained smile crosses his lips. As he weakly smiles, he thinks, Here I am, bleeding out who knows how far from home. Bleeding out as a girl who’s twelve times cuter than any other back home is and she’s a Christian, just like me. What are the odds? Gideon can’t help but chuckle, Ironic that it took all this for me to find someone like her.
Sylvia slides to the ground beside him and cradles his head, “Gideon,”
Looking up into Sylvia’s eyes, Gideon allows himself to finally drift off with one final thought, I can’t think of a better way to go than this.
“Where’s Meghan?” Gideon grunts as he slowly wakes back up.
“I don’t know,” Sylvia whispers, Gideon can tell that she didn’t like being unable to hunt her down.
Rolling onto his side, Gideon looks at Sylvia and he lets his mind wander a bit. As he does so, he momentarily wonders if he ever would have met Sylvia if none of this had happened. If he had, would they have even spoken as much as they had now?
“I’m worried about her,” Sylvia sighs.
Gideon scans Sylvia’s face for a moment and he notes the sorrow in her eyes. Before he can have the change to think or say anything, he becomes fixated on Sylvia’s eyes. In the flickering firelight her eyes looked fierce. She looked like a predator ready to kill.
Realizing that he was drifting off again, Gideon clamps his eyes shut and he takes an unsteady breath. Groaning, he rolls back onto his back and stares up.
Looking up, Gideon finally realizes that he is inside the complex once more. Admittedly, it took him several moments to realize that the reason he couldn’t see the stars was because he was inside.
“Gideon?” Sylvia beckons.
“Yeah,” Gideon answers. He pauses a moment before he realizes that his jaw wasn’t nearly as tender anymore, which he took as a good sign.
“Yeah,” Gideon nods softly. He resists the initial urge to say that they wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for Sylvia’s running off. It was anything but the right time to say something like that—not with Meghan still MIA.
“What should we do?”
“I think I have a flare in my pack,”
“We could signal for help from the others. If we’re lucky, they’ll come for us.”
“I can’t go any further like this,” Gideon admits as he gently stretches. He winces as his limbs spasm in protest and begin throbbing.
“What if we wait until tomorrow morning?”
“I can’t make any promises. I don’t know if it would be smart to head out on our own either.”
“I… I guess you’re right.”
“We should rest up for tomorrow morning,” Gideon breathes, “Thanks for dragging me in here, I owe you one.”
“Yeah,” Sylvia whispers. She lays down on her side and Gideon can see her watching him out of the corner of his eye. A moment passes before Sylvia says, “Thanks for everything.”
Before Gideon can ask her what she was thanking him for, he hears Sylvia’s slow breathing and he reasons that she had fallen asleep. A few moments pass before he succumbs to the same fate.