Chapter Thirty Four: the red tide
Word Count: 1,831
She was crouched on a fat branch of the tree, midway up, just far enough to peek through the canopy to catch sight of the stars. The video flickered out and she choked back a roll of nausea. She’d only eaten an hour before, keeping it to fruit and nuts she could scavenge for, and she didn’t want to waste the meal. It had been sparse enough to begin with. She was tired, but her mind was too noisy to sleep. Every creak, whisper, and flutter had her attention. Flashes of the video repeated in her mind like a broken video stream. She wasn’t certain what strange emotion tingled its way up her spine; she wanted it to be fear, to be terror, so she could feel human, but the words didn’t seem to fit the sensation, and she tried not to find the one that did. She heard a twig snap a few meters to her right and she froze, straining her hearing for any follow up sounds. A rustle and crunch of leaves. That was all she needed to hear.
Her movements swift and quiet, she lifted her already assembled crossbow from what remained of a nearby branch, where she’d left it for safe keeping, and loaded an arrow. She leveled it and peered down the sight, her breath held tightly in her lungs, her heartbeat loud and rhythmic in her ears. Her hands were steady.
A woman stepped into her view; dirty and frightened, her eyes wide as she scanned the forest floor for any other gamers. She never thought to look up. Rory wanted to hesitate, she wanted the finger pressing against the trigger to waiver in its steadfast motion, but neither of these things happened. She pulled the trigger and the arrow tore through the air with a hiss; it punctured the girl’s forehead and she went down as if someone had let all the air out of her legs.
What was strange was that no curl of sickness in her stomach ever came. No burst of insanity broke free in her brain. She felt nothing as she dropped from her branch to the floor of the forest, pre-emptively loaded crossbow in hand, and stared at the woman’s corpse as the canon sounded. For a long moment, she simply stood there and observed her fellow Gamer’s body, head slightly tilted, eyes empty of human emotion.
Then, she crouched down and closed the girl’s eyelids with the tips of her fingers.
The body would remain until there was no one to observe the Cleaners, and it would do her no good to have a body warning everyone of her location, so she left. Rory moved in silence through the forest without needing to be cautious – it came naturally to her, maneuvering in terrain such as the woods. She was but a ghost between the branches. She ignored the gradually increasing quiver of the fingertips of her left hand. She closed her fist and continued to move ahead.
She walked for at least a few kilometers before she decided to find another tree and take shelter. It seemed she needed to do nothing until Gamers came to her. If she could remain overhead, she would have the advantage. Especially if she could keep quiet, she thought to herself, consciously re-closing her fist. She climbed a tree with branches that started too high for less skilled climbers to make use of, and settled in midway up on a thick branch; she had to hold her shaking palm against her right shoulder, squeezing the pain out from the strain of using it to lift all of her body weight. Her left hand shook too much for her to properly grip the branches. For a while, she did nothing except watch the stars through the gaps in the leaves.
The longer she looked up, the more suspicious she became of certain lumps of darkness in the higher branches of nearby trees. Too large to be birds’ nests, they tugged on her curiosity. If they were birds’ nests, they were birds of prey, and she should probably find another place to nest herself. It would be wise to check, she decided, and began to search for a way to the next tree without climbing down. She didn’t want to have to strain her shoulder just to get to a safe nesting place, again. Most of the trees were big enough that their branches reached out for each other, so finding some that were wide enough to support her wasn’t nearly as difficult as she had expected it to be. In some places, she practically had a bridge.
Stopping a few branches beneath one of the suspicious formations, she had to climb a little higher until she could see it, but the branches were close enough together that she could push herself up with her boots.
It was not a nest, at all, she realized, as her finger tips touched rough fabric. It was a supply pack, and from her higher perch, she could see at least two others atop nearby trees. She smiled to herself and shrugged the first pack onto her shoulders before moving to gather the others.
By the time she finished, she’d gathered two supply packs and a complete med kit with two health shards nestled in the small, white box. In the first supply pack, she found a full water canteen, an insulated blanket, a pair of gloves, a water purifying kit, and some rolls wrapped in cloth. At the bottom were a baggie of jerky and a box of matches. In the second pack, she found a sharpening stone, another canteen of water, a pair of goggles, a poncho, a hunting knife with a sheath, and a small set of three throwing knives.
Not too shabby for the first day, she mused to herself, and hung her treasures on the broken branches above hers. She drank down more than half of the first canteen at once. Pleased with her luck and finally tired enough to sleep, she settled down onto the wide branch and used the strap from her arrow bundle to tie herself to the tree by the waist.
She dreamed she went swimming in an ocean of blood.
It began with her standing on a beach, stained burgundy with the sanguine fluid of a thousand bodies. The crimson waves rushed the shore and frothed over her ankles. Every time the waves receded, they grew stronger; until they pulled her feet from beneath her and carried her out to sea. She fought to swim to shore, fought with all the strength in her body, but she had an anchor tied around her waist and it was dragging her beneath the surface.
With each stroke, her fingers slid against dismembered body parts. She could smell copper all around her. The bloodwater clung to her skin and soaked through her suit. It tangled her hair and stained her very soul. All she could see in any direction were cerise waves, interrupted only by digits and protruding bones bobbing up here and there.
She woke up with a scream still hot in her throat. Her breath came in uneven, rattling gasps. She had to move, she thought, as her quaking fingers found the knot around her stomach and she freed herself. Her hands seemed to follow commands she wasn’t giving – perhaps it was instinct, or survival. She re-fashioned her satchel quickly, even with one hand trembling madly, and took an extra second to load the crossbow. She paid careful attention to the sounds around her; if anyone had heard, they were not close enough to reach her just yet, she realized, and dropped down her supply packs and med kit before she followed them.
Each pack was almost fifteen pounds, the med kit was almost six or seven, and she slung one pack over each shoulder, with her satchel in the middle, the strap crossing over her chest at an angle. In her left hand, she carried the med kit, and in her right she held the loaded crossbow at the ready. She didn’t know if her hand would continue to shake when she aimed, and she prepared herself to only use one hand. Her aim would be off-kilter, but she could compensate for that.
She considered walking, but she had no way to tell how close anyone else might have been, or who might have heard her scream, and so she decided to jog. The packs slammed against her back with every step, the bruises developing slowly, but she ignored it and continued on. She ran until her knees wobbled; she was starving, and tired, and her ever-shuddering hand was beginning to worry her. It had to be the stress, she told herself, and forcibly stuffed the concern into the darkest corner of her mind.
She’d come to a halt in a small clearing, the woods like a dense wall surrounding her. She found another tree and stared up through the branches, her heart racing in her chest from her run, and her confidence in her ability to climb slowly dwindling. Her right shoulder was still sore from the strain she’d put on it the night before.
She only had two health shards, and she wondered if she was actually going to have to waste one of them on a sore shoulder. With her right hand, she rubbed her fingers against the sides of her nose, frustration seeping into her thoughts and contaminating them. It didn’t matter, she concluded – she didn’t need shelter that instant anyway; she needed food, and fresh water. The water canteens in her supply packs would only last so long, and if she wanted to keep her strength up, she knew better than to drink sparingly. She dropped her supplies to the ground beside the tree and searched for a dense section of bushes she could use as a hideaway.
When she found a safe place, she dumped everything out of both packs and re-packed them herself. She would bring one with her, and leave the other in her hiding spot. She stuffed the hunting knife and sheath, the throwing knives, and the empty canteen of water into the pack she planned to bring along. After a small bout of paranoia, she added the matches, the blanket, and the sharpening stone. She lifted it and estimated the weight at roughly fifteen pounds. Not too much, but she knew better than to put much more in it. The heavier it was, the slower she would be. She stuffed in the health shards and the med kit. Everything else went into the spare pack and was stuffed into the darkest, thickest patch she could find.
She slung the twenty-something pound pack over her shoulder and settled the satchel of arrows on the other side. With her left hand still shaking violently, she tightened her grip on the crossbow and made her way into the woods again.