It wasn't being hung up in a tree that was so bad. As long as it didn't rain and you could ignore the rope burning into your hands you were fine. In fact, Derek thought he had gained quite a good stretching from being suspended. However, there was the point that he couldn't get down. The only food and water given to him by the wretched savages came sparsely. He only got water every two days. Food came even less, every four days.
So, when the girl who clearly wasn't a savage came to the tree, he was overjoyed. Less so when he found out she didn't have water.
“Who are you?” he asked with the raspy voice he gotten from the lack of water.
“Zoey,” the girl answered, staring up at him. “Why did you get hung up in a tree Derek?”
Derek was in no mood for answering questions, but he did take the fact that this girl was his only way down. “Because the savages took me prisoner, and have decided to torment me before I die, I don't know. They killed all the other survivors, but left me. Don't ask why, I don't know.”
Zoey looked at him, sizing him up. “Well I have a knife here. Shall I cut you down?”
The thought would have brought tears of joy to Derek's eyes if he had any spare water in his body. “Yes, cut me down!” he pleaded, immediately cursing himself for sounding so desperate. Now Zoey could demand anything from him in return for getting him down.
“Ok,” Zoey responded. Apparently she hadn't picked up on it. “How would I do that exactly?”
Derek looked up at the rope keeping him prisoner. His hands were tired together, and a single strand of rope was tied around one of the trees branches. “Cut the rope,” he said plainly.
Zoey looked exasperated. “I know that, but you're really high up. I've never climbed a tree before.”
“What?” Derek exclaimed. “How have you not climbed a tree?” After speaking he realized he had never climbed a tree either. Not that Zoey needed to know that.
“I'm sorry,” Zoey said, making Derek feel guilty. “I'll try.” She clumsily grasped a handhold and started up the tree. She got two feet before she feel off. She got a little father the second time, an amazing four feet. She continued to try, not showing any significant improvements.
“Try putting the knife in your mouth so you have two hands,” Derek asked encouragingly. It was clear that her getting to him were low, but he didn't have anything else to try.
Zoey put her knife between her teeth. It helped a bit, but not nearly close to enough. Finally, she flung the knife aside and flopped down under the tree. “I give up,” she said flatly. “You're just going to have to stay up there.”
Derek broke into a swearing secession that could have won awards. He finally calmed down and said, “You seem not to know much about survival for someone living on islands.”
Zoey laughed. “I don't live on an island. Until a day ago I was a member of the People's Fleet.”
Every muscle in Derek's body stiffened when she said that. “Do you mean the White Fleet?” he asked tentatively.
“People out here have called it that, so I guess,” Zoey answered.
A grimness rose from within Derek's gut. This girl was one of the sworn enemies of The Defender, The Sphere, and civilization itself. One girl alone wouldn't be much of a threat, but then again he wasn't much of a threat to anyone stuck up in a tree, and who knew how many of her friends were around?
Then she asked the worst possible question. “So were are you from?”
Say anything but The Sphere! Derek shouted at himself. “A... village,” he said, trying to think quickly.
“Really?” Zoey asked, digging into her pack and getting some bread. It was cheap black stuff. “What's it called?”
“The-” Derek started and stopped himself. “...anda,” he finished. “Theanda is it's name. Theanda.”
“What's it like?”
Derek's mind worked quickly, trying to combine what he knew about villages in the islands with life in The Sphere. They couldn't be too different, could they? “Well... we... have a chief. He's really... pleasant. He kinda leads the village and makes sure everything gets done. You know, the... stuff that should get done. ”
“What kind of stuff?”
Derek cursed silently. It only took her a second to ask a question that was so hard to answer. He tried to remember what savages did aside from killing people. “We... hunt. A lot. For food. It's how we get food. We gather fruit and stuff too. Yea, we do that a lot.”
“You ever hunt people?”
“Sometimes,” Derek said quickly, vehemently cursing himself afterwords. Hunting people? Where did she pull that question from? Derek had just made his fictional village human hunters. “You know, when they intrude on our land. And of course, no meat ever goes to waste so...” He silently cursed himself again. Now the people of his village were cannibals. He supposed it had already been implied, but now it was certain.
Zoey turned to look up at him. “Are you lying?”
“No!” Derek said instantly. He had expected the question. Then again, maybe she was asking not about the story itself, but the cannibal part.
“So you've actually eaten a person?”
She had been. If he could have gotten the right angle, Derek would've kicked himself. “Yea,” he said reluctantly. “It tastes sort of like... chicken.”
“Really?” Zoey asked, astonished.
“Yea,” Derek said. He was starting to wish that Zoey never came along. “It's creepy. I don't really eat that mu-” He was interrupted when a gunshot echoed through the woods.
“What was that?” Zoey exclaimed. Another two gunshots followed.
“Maybe the savages have ambushed somebody else,” Derek wondered.
Zoey winkled her brow and looked back up at him. “Why do you call them savages? You're a cannibal! If anybodies a savage it's you!”
The gunshots continued. “Oh just shut up!” Derek ordered. The same instant he finished a bullet flew through the air and neatly severed the rope that kept him suspended. “Crap!” he yelled as the earth rose up to meet him. He could feel his spine compressing as he hit the ground. He screamed in agony as he ended up on his back.
“You're down!” Zoey exclaimed with surprise.
“Untie me!” Derek ordered. “Use your knife!”
“Oh no!” Zoey exclaimed, looking not at Derek, but into the woods.
Derek sat up to see what she was looking at. The movement sent pain up his spine, but he got a good look at the three men charging towards them. One was a blond haired priest, like the one at The Sphere's church, with a pack slung over his shoulder. Another was a thin man completely covered in grime and with a strange green eye. He held a rifle in his hands, and Derek thought he probably fired the shot that freed him. The last was more of a giant then a man, with a hideous and out of proportion head on his enormous shoulders. They didn't seem like savages, although they clearly weren't from The Sphere or The White Fleet either.
Zoey turned to run, but the giant covered the distance between them in a few seconds and plucked her off the ground with ease. She kicked for a few moments, but then stopped, perhaps realizing it was pointless.
“We have to go! White Fleet soldiers are right behind us!” the priest exclaimed, not even stopping. He looked over at Derek, who was struggling to get up. “You're coming with us! Get up!”
The mention of White Fleet soldiers was enough to give Derek the fear he needed to get up and run. But his body was still readjusting to the ground and he feel behind quickly. His legs were wobbly and he tripped. When the priest saw this he turned around and helped him up.
The others were now about a hundred feet ahead. But the priest wouldn't give up and kept Derek moving. “Come on!” he said over and over again. “Come on as fast as you can!”
They were moving significantly slower then the others, but they were moving. Derek thought they had good chance of getting away before a bullet slammed into the tree next to him. A glance over his shoulder told him that several men wearing armor and carrying rifles were after them. The soldiers of The White Fleet.
“Faster!” the priest cried, and Derek started running without his help. Bullets popped around them, each one coming closer then the last.
“Joshua!” the priest yelled, and the man with the strange eye glanced at them as he ran.
“I ain't stopping!” he yelled back before vaulting over a log.
Derek muttered a few swears. “We need to break their line of sight,” the priest told him. “Then we can hide.”
Derek nodded and they took nighty-degree turn into a thick bramble. They made plenty of noise crashing through the branches, but they did break the soldier's line of sight.”Now hide,” the priest ordered, whispering.
A fallen log had a small gap in the earth underneath it. Derek and the priest dove under the log and burrowed as far as they could into the earth. It was very cramped, but it would be hard to see them unless you dropped to your knees. They both panted for a moment after the run.
“I'm Father Jack Clooney, very pleased to meet you,” the priest said in a hushed, breathless, voice.
“Derek Wheeler. Thanks for saving me,” Derek replied in the same kind of voice. They both went rigid when they heard someone breaking through the brambles.
“Where did they go?” a gruff male voice asked.
“Don't know, but the captain will have our heads unless we find that priest,” a female voice responded. Derek was rather surprised. Women fought in the White Fleet's army?
The crunch of fallen leafs sounded unnervingly close to their hiding place. “Come on,” the female voice said. “Where did ya go?” The voice sounded like she was right on top of them.
Derek turned his head ever so slightly, and saw the white armored boots of the trooper staring him in the face. All she had to do was kneel and they would be face to face! His heart rate skyrocketed. He tried to control his breathing, taking in silent breaths nice and slowly. The soldier was right in front of them! She had to hear them! But he just stood there, not moving a muscle. What was she waiting for? Derek's heartbeat was in his ears.
After an eternity, the soldier turned and walked away. Derek let out a sigh of relief once she was out of earshot, and he felt Clooney do the same. They sat there for a few moments to make sure she didn't come back. Gunshots echoed through the woods. They could still hear the soldiers moving about in the trees, hunting them.
“You have any water?” Derek asked quietly.
“Yes, a little,” Clooney said, and produced a small flask from his pack.
Derek drank greedily, and he could feel the water run down his esophagus and into his stomach. He was instantly cooler, and the water tasted sweet in his dry mouth. He quickly drank the rest of it. “Any more?” he asked, handing the flask back.
Clooney shook his head.
“Why are these guys after you anyway?” Derek asked after a few moments of silence.
“The short story is that they think I stole something from them. I was hiding in the village with the girl, Zoey, but they found me and her rather quickly. I hired Joshua to get us off the island, he's a smuggler you see, but they found us before we set sail. I'd heard about you, and I wanted to take you with us. I got the natives to give me your possessions and was authorized to cut you down, but Joshua was overcharging me and then the soldiers came into the village and started asking questions, and I rather forgot. You're lucky Zoey found you or we could've passed right by.”
“Thanks,” Derek said sarcasticly.
“Speaking of your possessions, I believe this is yours?” Clooney reached into his pack and pulled out Cornwell's handgun, along with the belt of ammunition. He handed both to Derek. “I despise the use of violence, but I understand why one needs to defend himself.”
“Thanks,” Derek said again, but without sarcasm this time. Clooney helped him fasten the belt around his waist, and put fresh ammunition in. Derek's hands were still tied, making it difficult. “You got a knife in that bag?”
“No,” Clooney began. “I think the soldiers have moved on. I'm offering quite the sum for transport, so Joshua will give us some time, but he can and will leave without us, so we need to get moving.”
“Right,” Derek said, crawling out from under the log and taking a swift look around as Clooney followed him.
“Hopefully my sense of direction hasn't failed me. I believe Joshua's ship is this way,” Clooney said, pointing in a direction out of the bramble.
They started running. Unlike the hurried, desperate run of before, they were silent. Or at least tried to be. Derek broke dozens of twigs and shuffled enough leaves to create a path that a blind man could have followed. Clooney however, was eerily quiet, so much so that Derek kept glancing behind him to make sure he was still there.
They were still going quite fast, and Derek tried to get a feel for how far they were from the ship. Gunshots kept sounding, getting closer and closer, and they could here the soldiers calling out to one another. They were running a lucky and deadly gauntlet through a net of men. A net that only got more constricted the closer they got to the ship.
Finally they heard waves as well as gunfire. They were close. Derek saw the edge of the trees and made a mad dash for the sand. But Clooney grabbed his jacket and yanked him back just before he got there.
“What did you do that for-” Derek started, but was interrupted when a hail of bullets tore up where he'd been standing. “Oh... thanks.”
“You can't expose yourself on the beach or we'll be dead in seconds,” Clooney said as he hid and stared at the situation on the beach. Derek followed his lead.
Anchored about a hundred yards down the beach was a rusty, beat up tub of a ship. It was half-hazardously constructed of what seemed to be the remains of a dozen smaller ships. It was quite large, but looked about as fast or maneuverable as a dairy cow. A narrow plank extended from the deck to the sand. Scrawled along it's side were the words “Bright Side.” Large armor plates covered much of the deck, providing cover for the ship's crew, who looked about as scrapped together as the ship. They were a mixed group of a dozen different ethnicities, many were mutated with scared faces or unnaturally long arms. They were poorly armed, mostly with pistols and even bows and arrows, although three people stood out. The man named Joshua was perched in what amounted to a crows nest placed high above the deck, taking careful aim with his green eye before firing his rifle. The massive mutant carried a enormous machine gun clearly meant to stationary, but it looked almost small in his arms. The third was a woman who looked hard as nails, carrying a pump action shotgun that sprayed fire into the enemy.
The White Fleet's troops were spread out along the tree line, pouring fire onto the ship. However, the bloody bodies of their comrades that were spread out on the sand made them careful not to leave the safety of the trees.
“We need to get to the ship,” Clooney said grimly.
“Are you crazy?” Derek exclaimed. “Once we leave the trees we'll be dead in seconds!”
“Have faith,” Clooney said with a small smile. “Besides, Joshua will cover us. I'm the one paying him.” He turned to start the dash, but then turned back. “How about a quick prayer?” He closed his eyes and bowed his head. Derek got the hint and did the same.
“Dear Lord,” Clooney began, “Please help make our feet fast and let no bullet hit us. If we should be hurt then give us the strength and perseverance to survive, and if we should die then please forgive the sins of our enemy, who has been the victim of manipulation and addiction. In Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”
Clooney opened his eyes and they met Derek's. “Go,” he said.
Derek was first out of the trees. Fear of death gave his feet wings, and he had shot across about fifty feet of sand before the first bullets came at him. He felt the wind of a shot pass in front of him, but forced his body not to hesitate. Hesitation would mean death. More bullets whizzed around him, burying themselves in the sand or splashing into the water.
Only one thought was in his head. Get to the ship. The narrow plank was his hope. The metal armor of the deck was his safety. His legs flew. His mind focused. And then a bullet grazed his leg.
Derek screamed and stumbled. Before he hit the ground however, Clooney's strong hands grabbed the back of his jacket and stabilized him.
They were close now. Only twenty feet to the ramp. Bullets slammed around them. Ten feet. Safety was so close. Five feet. Derek's boots met the metal and he clunked up onto the ship. He got the top of the plank and stood there for a second, not quite sure what way was safest.
He didn't have to make a decision however, as the woman with the shotgun yanked him into cover. He was safe.
He panted for a few moments, trying to catch his breath. “Thanks,” he mumbled. The woman had already gone.
“Cast off!” Joshua ordered. “Get us the hell out of here!” The ship lurched into motion and soon the clang of bullets on the armor became less common, then stopped altogether. The ship was faster then it appeared.
“That was incredible,” Derek said, grinning with the exhilaration of being alive. Then he realized that no one was listening. “Clooney?” he asked, wondering were the priest had gone. He suddenly heard a moan of pain, and turned his head towards it.
He saw Clooney lying face down on the deck in a pool of blood.