“You know, if we’d skipped the sailing trip, we’d be home by now,” said George. “Last night would have been the last Royal Season event.” The four Singleton were sitting on the bank of the stream, eating stolen bread. The day before, they’d given up on the idea of heading down to the coast when they got too hungry.
They were sitting on a pile of branches they’d collected the night before.
“Are you sure?” Wynefrede asked. Her subpoena was scheduled for the morning after the season ended.
“Yes, are you sure?” Benedicta looked disappointed as well. “I had a new dress made for the ball. It was spectacular.” She sighed. “Now I guess I’ll never get a chance to wear it.”
“I would have liked to see it,” said Margarett.
“You were there for the fitting,” said Benedicta.
“Yes, and it looked beautiful. I mean, I would have liked to see you dancing in it.”
“We certainly spent enough time in dance lessons,” said Benedicta. “Shame that it all went to waste.”
“I would have liked to see you dancing,” George told Margarett.
“Are you absolutely sure about the date?” Wynefrede asked. “I don’t think you’re right.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Benedicta. “I mean, I think George is right. But even if he was off and the ball is today, or tomorrow, we still wouldn’t be back in time. Unless you want us to try to kill ourselves.” She turned to George. “Remember that cliff yesterday?”
Wynefrede remembered the cliff. They’d followed the tiny stream until it turned into a waterfall, dropping what seemed like hundreds of feet down a steep cliffside onto jagged rocks far below. They had turned back at that point. It was too dark to try to find their way around it, but there was a sheltered area in the bank of the stream that they’d passed a quarter mile back.
“If we jump, we’ll probably die fast,” said Benedicta.
“Or die slowly from massive internal injuries,” said Margarett. She rubbed at her leg. “I’m suffering enough just with scratches. I don’t want to die.”
Wynefrede sympathized. Sleeping on the edge of the stream had been one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her life. The branches they’d gathered provided little cushioning, or warmth.
“What’s the cult like?” Wynefrede asked George. She nodded back up towards the top of the mountain, barely visible through the dense tree cover of the jungle. “How bad are those guys?”
“From what I can see, they mostly just garden and do laundry,” said George. “The trick is to wait until the bell is ringing. Then everyone gathers for songs and prayers and stuff.” He held up the bread. “You can go in and steal food.” He looked down at her dress, now ripped and stained. “But I think we need to get you new clothes first. We should all get new clothes.”
“How?” asked Benedicta.
“On the other side of the compound, there’s another stream. A little bigger than this one. They wash their clothes there, and then hang them up to dry.”
“We should steal some,” said Benedicta. “And also steal as much food as we can carry.”
“I think the other side of the mountain is less steep, too,” said George. “We can head down to the coast there.”
“I think we should try going through the gate,” said Wynefrede.
“But we don’t know where it leads.” Margarett twisted off a piece from the bread she held in her hands. “What if it’s somewhere even worse?”
“Did you ever see how they control the gate?” Benedicta asked George.
“No,” he said. “The only time I even got close to it is when I rescued you guys. Maybe the controls are on the other side, in the main part of the temple.”
“Or maybe it’s a device that the head guy carries with him,” said Benedicta.
“Or it could be a virtual interface,” said George.
“There aren’t any virtual interfaces on Krim,” said Benedicta.
“Maybe the controls pop up for them once they’re on the other side of the gate,” he said.
“Okay, I’ve got a plan,” said Benedicta.
The other three looked at her.
“We have three main objectives,” she said. “First, we need to make sure that we don’t all get captured and memory wiped all at once. If they capture one of us, the rest of us could save them and explain what’s happening. But if they capture all four of us, they could keep us for ever. And we don’t want that.”
“No, we don’t,” said Wynefrede.
“I’ve got stuff I need to do back home,” said George.
“We all do,” said Margarett.
“Second, we need to find a way off the island,” said Benedicta. “Unless one of us has the skills to build a boat…?” She looked around at the rest of them. They shook their heads. “Right. Then the gate is our best chance, if we can figure out how it works.”
“So what’s the third thing?” asked Margarett.
“We need a way to stay alive until we either figure out a way out, or get rescued,” said Benedicta.
“Or get up the nerve to die,” added George.
“What about that other woman? The one who was trying to escape?” asked Margarett. “Maybe she can help us.”
“She might have already escaped,” said Wynefrede.
“If we’re lucky, she’ll send help,” said Benedicta. “If not, she probably had her memory wiped and is back with the cult.”
“That’s the one who walked up the mountain with you, right?” asked George.
Benedicta nodded. “Did you see her when you went up there for the bread?”
“No, but I wasn’t really looking,” said George. “I was more worried about not being caught.”
“Let’s make finding her another goal,” said Margarett. “Maybe she can help.”
“I’ll add it to the list,” said Benedicta.
“So what now?” asked Wynefreded.
“First, we find shelter,” said Benedicta. “Last night was miserable. I’ve never been that cold in my life. We need to find a place to hide, a place that’s safe from the cult.”
“But where we can see if someone is coming to rescue us,” said Margarett.
“So, let’s split up,” said Benedicta. “Two of us can find a say down to the shore and look for a place to build a camp. And two of us can go up to the cult’s compound and spy on them, and steal more clothes and food.”
“They have an afternoon prayer,” said George. “We can probably steal some stuff then.”
“Then we’ll meet back up here,” said Benedicta. “The waterfall is a good landmark. This place should be easy to find again.” She looked around at the spot where they’d decided to camp for the night. The bank of the stream rose up behind them, and heavy undergrowth in front shielded them from view.
“We can make this place a backup camp,” said George. “Maybe keep some supplies here.” He looked at the wall of the bank behind him. “We can probably dig in here, make a little shelter.”
“Whoever comes back here first tonight can start working on it,” said Benedicta. She paused for a second. “Why don’t I try to find a path down to the coast?” she suggested. “I’ve gone camping before. I can find a good spot, start building camp.”
“I’ll go back up to the compound,” said George. “I already know my way around.”
“I’ll join you,” said Margarett. “I’m the smallest. I can hide and spy on them. And I want to try to rescue that other woman. I mean, she tried to escape before. Maybe she still does.”
“I guess I’m with you then,” Wynefrede told Benedicta.
“Take the rest of the bread with you,” said George. “You’ll probably need it more than we do.”
“If we get caught, the two of you will rescue us, right?” Margarett asked Benedicta and Wynefrede.
“Here, this might help,” said George, and passed his crowbar to Benedicta. “I’ll try to steal another one when we’re up at the compound.”
“Thanks,” said Benedicta. “It might come in handy.” She hefted it in her hand. “Not as good as a machete, but it’s something.” She looked around at the others. “Sure you guys don’t want me to bash your heads in?”
But before they could answer, she held up a finger to her lips and leaned forward. Then she turned and whispered, “I hear something.”
Wynefrede scooted back between the roots behind her. Margarett pressed against her.
Benedicta slowly pulled up a couple of the leafier branches that they’d been sitting on and George quickly joined her. There was shrubbery in front of them, but it would be good to have some extra camouflage to hide behind.
Then Wynefrede heard the voices, too.
“How much longer are we going to do this?” she heard one voice say. “It would take us weeks to cover this whole island. They could be anywhere by now.”
“I just want to check the waterfall,” said the other. “If we see bodies at the bottom, we can tell Avery they’re dead.”
“Avourel. Remember to call him Avourel. You don’t know who might be listening. And you better hope they’re not dead.”
“I still don’t see why we should care. All these prisoners are just causing trouble, and we’re not getting any money from them.”
“They’re the reason we get to be on this grid. If we lose them, we’ll have to start over on some other world. We don’t have enough money to create our own yet.”
Wynefrede held her breath as the voices got closer. Soon, she caught glimpses through the foliage. They were the two guards who had marched them up the mountain.
“We should really be getting all the angels off their asses and search the whole island then,” said one of the guards.
“That would mean Avourel would have to admit he’s not all knowing and all seeing,” said his partner. “Like that’s ever going to happen.”
The two men continued downstream. Wynefrede didn’t think they had even cast a glimpse in their direction as they passed.
They disappeared around a bend and she breathed out again. The four of them continued to sit silently for several more minutes, until it became clear that the guards weren’t coming back.
“They must have circled back another way,” George whispered.
“This was a good spot,” said Benedicta. “When we come back tonight, let’s dig in a little further, put some more branches up for camouflage.”
“You want us to stay here another night?” asked Margarett.
“Just one,” said Benedicta. “Maybe you can steal some blankets for us.”
“And something to start a fire with,” added Wynefrede.
“It sound like you think we might be here a while,” said Margarett.
“We could be,” said Benedicta.
Wynefrede agreed with her. She should have been gone by now. Was her hearing rescheduled? Did they cancel it? Was she trapped on Krim forever? “Let’s wait a little longer to make sure those guys are gone,” she said. “And then let’s get going. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get in an accident and die a quick death.”