He moves cautiously behind the cover of trees in his approach to the fire. He manages to arrive at a tree only a few feet away from the fire unnoticed by the four figures standing in front of the fire, their shadows cast against the fire’s light. He pokes his head from out of the tree’s cover, and he sees the four silhouettes of the four figures. There is a tall figure, a small figure, and two figures with an average height in comparison to the other two. The fire is large enough that he looks above it, wondering whether the tree branches above would catch fire. To his surprise the trees in this area are densely arranged but forms an opening where these four figures have made their fire. “This is the perfect place for a camp fire,” Hector whispers under his breath, so quiet he can’t even hear it himself. The fire blazes on—its continuous purring with sporadic crackling sounds soothes Hector’s racing heart.
“Damn that guy! It’s the second day of camp, and he’s still nowhere to be found!” says a muffled male voice coming from the direction of the four figures, the crackling of the fire making it even harder to hear.
“What a deserter!” a female voice says.
“I ho…. e’s… o…ay....” a very soft voice says, the crackling of the fire overpoweringly interrupting the voice.
Hector approaches the four figures and says “Good job you guys! This place is great!”
The four figures jump backward while turning around. One of the two figures with an average height approaches him. A female form starts to take shape and he eyes her up and down.
“Stop staring at me with those perverted eyes Hector! Argh!” the female growls. “You disappear for two whole days without a word, and the first thing you do is stare at me with creepy perverted eyes!” the female states with frustration.
“It’s nice to see you Nani,” Hector greets the frustrated young woman. Hector turns to the small figure, the tall figure, and the other average height figure, “Wei,” Hector nods, “Lennon,” Hector salutes, “Paige,” Hector beams, “I’m glad I found you guys.”
“Hector!” his four friends shout in unison.
“Hector don’t ignore me! Now, where have you been?” Nani shouts.
“Yeah Hector, tell us where you’ve been!” Wei joins in.
“Guys, I’ve only been gone since yesterday. You’re over exaggerating, don’t you think?” Hector smiles while scratching his head.
“Just answer the question!” Nani and Wei shout together.
“Jeez, you two are so loud…” Hector turns away. He scratches his chin before he says, “I was at Pater.”
His four friends look at him with astonished expressions.
“Hector… You weren’t there during that explosion earlier today, were you?” Lennon speaks up with genuine concern in his voice.
“I was,” Hector says before laughing at the thought Angelus’ grin in his final moments with the man.
Lennon’s eyebrows furl, and Hector continues, “But you don’t have to worry. After all, I’m here in one piece. Anyway, it’s a long story. Why don’t we sit down in front of the fire and you can all have some of this sweet bread I brought back from Pater. It has a funny unnatural taste to it, but it’s still better than the fruits and berries native to this forest.” Hector pulls out the rucksack slung across his back full of packages with the stylized logo labeled, ‘Momma’s Sweet Bread’. He hands the rucksack to Nani, and motions the group sit down in front of the fire. “Although on second thought, I think I’ll have some berries,” he says as he points toward a pile of foraged fruits assembled on top of large leaves on the ground behind his friends.
The five students sit beside each other in front of the fire and its churning and crackling sounds fills the air between them as they eat the sweet bread and fruits. But once Hector finishes his meal, he proceeds in telling his friends about his unexpected journey. He tells them about the sphere that pushed him into going to Pater. He tells them how he met up with Étaín in a strange room that housed the sweet bread they’re eating. He tells them how he met the man named Angelus and that the explosion earlier in the day was an attempt at his life. And he finally tells them about the strange, but extraordinary, suit that was enclosed in the sphere.
“Wow Hector, you had quite and adventure. But I have one question. Are we that unimportant to you that you can just decide to abandon us when you get a message from a mysterious sphere!?”
“Nani, come on. I thought you were finished being angry with me.” Hector says.
“This stale sweet bread is not enough to appease my anger with you!” Nani snaps.
“Well… what if I brought you to Pater?”
Nani stares at him for a moment. “You’re kidding right? You must be joking.” Hector sees a glint in her eyes.
“I’m dead serious. I think we should all go to Pater. It beats camping out in this forest for another couple of days. I mean, how boring would that be, huh? How many times have we done this already? I know it’s the first Survival Camp with this particular group, but after seeing Pater, I want to explore it further. And besides, the buildings over there are much better protection against the chilly summer night, without any basic camping gear.”
“You said Pater is abandoned? Except for the remnants of those Free Cities of Terra Co—Collective guys, and the Lord of Pater’s forces?” Wei asks.
“That’s right. Well that’s how it looked as far as I can tell. There wasn’t anybody on the streets, the vehicles were all abandoned, and in fact it looked as if they just stopped abruptly—the doors of many of the vehicles are opened, as if the drivers and passengers had to leave quickly.” Hector replies.
“Hmm… I see.” Wei says in response.
“Wei,” Nani starts, “are you trying to make a point?”
“Uh…” Wei murmurs.
“I knew it…” Nani says.
“I think what he was trying to get at, is that we don’t have to worry about encountering Free Citizens.” Hector reassures Nani. He looks down at an empty package of sweet bread laying on the ground. “I mean… that strange building where I got this sweet bread must belong to somebody.” Hector pauses before saying, “I stole it…”
“How would that be possible?” Lennon interjects. “If that room you were in had a bunch of these sweet bread on shelves like that, then the person that managed that place must have been a distributor right? Meaning it’s that person’s job to ensure people are well fed!”
Hector shakes his head. “The Free Cities don’t operate like the Eco-Cities, Lennon. The Free Cities may not have distributors. I mean, what would this packaging mean? ‘Momma’s Sweet Bread,’ sounds to me like Momma owned the sweet bread. I’ve read in the history books that the Free Cities once operated using something called money. I don’t know whether this Momma exchanged her sweet bread for money, but I sure didn’t trade anything with her.”
“Hector, you’re right. You are a Class-A scumbag!” Wei says playfully.
“Whatever Wei!” Hector recovers. “Let’s just take a vote. Raise your hand if you think we should go to Pater.” Hector raises his hand.
Lennon looks around before raising his. Paige eyes Lennon’s gesture and mimics him.
“Well that’s majority, but we have to be unanimous.” Hector looks at Wei then over to Nani.
Wei raises his hand, and they all turn their attention to Nani. She stares into the fire, pondering over the decision. However a cool breeze wanders pass her sleeve, and caresses her back. Her back becomes taut, and she raises her hand.
“Well that does it.” Hector says. “We leave for Pater at the break of dawn. Trust me you guys, it is way better over there, than it is in the wilds of this forest. We’ll just stick to the outskirts of the city where there is less of a chance to run into any of the fighting forces on either side.”
Several hours pass, and the five students are curled up on the ground beside the fire. Hector is half asleep when he hears movement coming from the brush. He lifts his head and with half opened eyes, he scans the area for any visual indication of movement. A moment passes, and several crackles are heard from the still strong camp fire. Just about the time Hector is sure the area is secure, he hears another sound of movement, except this time it’s much closer and on the other side of the fire. He quickly gets to his feet and screams at the sky, “GET UP!”
Immediately, his four friends are on their feet. Paige is at the far end of their formation beside Lennon, and she fumbles to get her glasses on. Out of the corner of Hector’s eye, he sees a large four legged creature jump out of a bush behind Paige. “Lennon! Pull Paige right now! It’s a Gulo attack!”
Lennon, who is already looking at Paige, immediately grabs her arm and pulls her into an embrace. Hector, Wei and Nani swiftly position their bodies in a semicircle around Lennon and Paige, and they all scream in unison at the forest’s shadows. “GO AWAY! LEAVE! GET OUT OF HERE!”
After a few moments, they hear shuffling, but this time in the treetops. “It’s either retreating or positioning for another attack from atop the trees.” Hector says to the others.
“It has to be retreating. It looked like an average sized gulo, so I don’t think it has the audacity to challenge us five.” Nani says.
“Should we stay here and find out? Or should we move?” Wei asks.
“If we move we might be in a more vulnerable position.” Hector replies.
“It can easily severely harm one of us if it does attack from above.” Nani says.
“I got it. We just have to make a lot of noise to deter it.” Hector says.
“But what if that attracts other predators?” Wei asks.
“We can’t just sit here though.” Nani answers.
“Hmm.” Hector looks over his shoulder and asks, “Hey Paige, would you be able to run if we decide to run away?”
“I can keep up.” Paige says, “I kept up with you during your race remember?”
Hector blushes and turns to Lennon. “How about you Lennon? You think you can keep up with us?”
“If Paige is running, I’ll be right by her side to protect her!” Lennon replies with resolve.
“Great! Okay, I think we should just leave for Pater right now. All in favor, scream aye!” Hector says.
“AYE!” the five students say in unison.
“Okay! Follow my lead!” Hector shouts.
He unwraps the two remaining sweetbread packages and rips each sweet bread in half. He scatters the four sweet bread halves in four corners of the fire, and then he points in the direction toward the forest’s tree line, toward Pater. “This way!” he shouts while occasionally scanning the treetops for movement, before starting into a mad dash into the shadows of the forest. Wei heads into the shadows after him, with Lennon and Paige following closely behind. Nani sighs as this happens while she picks up the remaining foraged fruits and berries from earlier in the night, before she starts sprinting after the her four friends. The seventy-five centimeter tall gulo that observes the loud Survival Camp group from the safety of the treetops, jumps down beside the campfire to gobble up the four halves of sweet bread, looking longingly in the direction of Hector’s group’s direction while sniffing in their remaining scent. It breathes out as if it sighs, shakes its whole body as if drying off from getting wet, and then shuffles back into the shadows of the forest in the opposite direction it originally jumped out of the bush from.